Steve Vai Interview: Where the Wild Things Are

by Rick Landers

Steve Vai

Steve Vai

In November 2009, the masterful guitarist and showman extraordinaire Steve Vai released his Live in Minneapolis: Where the Wild Things Are DVD that is a dazzling display of musical pyrotechnics by Steve and String Theories, an incredible array of talented musicians that include: Alex DePue (violin), Ann Marie Calhoun(violin), Bryan Beller (bass), Jeremy Colson (drums), Dave Weiner (guitar and sitar) and Zack Wiesinger (lap steel).

Filmed at The State Theater in Minneapolis in high-definition, Where the Wild Things Are is a two-hour and forty minutes treasure trove of searing and soaring guitar riffs by Vai, with virtuoso performances by his band mates. The DVD package includes an additional 1-hour of “bonus” video and a 20-page booklet.

“When I put a band and a show together I try to create an entertainment experience that I would like to have if I was sitting in the audience,” explains Vai. “I like to witness great musicianship but nothing too cerebral or overindulgent, I like to be stimulated by a large dynamic range of emotional intensities and melodic richness, I enjoy when people love their instrument and it shows by their oneness with it, I like to feel as though I’m part of a family with the audience and the band, and I like to walk away feeling uplifted and not beat up by somebody’s ego or the things they hate about themselves and the world. And of course I want a cool t-shirt.”  – Steve Vai

A musician of legendary proportion, the New York native and multiple Grammy winner has shaped and honed a purposeful path that tightly wound his remarkable talent with ambition.  It probably didn’t hurt that Joe Satriani was once his guitar instructor or that he spent a few years at and graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

He had the spunk or maybe the audacity to send a transcription of one of Frank Zappa’s tunes to him, along with some of his own audio tracks, to see if he could gain entry to Zappa’s world.  Zappa was impressed and gave Steve a coveted spot in his entourage as a music transcriber and later as a performer, milestones that have helped lead Vai to become an almost unprecedented success as a performer, producer, and proprietor of his own highly respected label, Favored Nations.

Steve started Favored Nations in 1999, a label that has featured the works of a bevy of the most formidable guitarists on the planet, who include:  Eric Johnson, Steve Lukather, Tommy Emmanuel, Neal Schon, Yngwie Malmsteen, Jordan Rudess, John Petrucci, Johnny A, Tak Matsumoto, Johnny Hiland, The Yardbirds, Vernon Reid, Larry Coryell, Mimi Fox, Eric Sardinas, Dweezil Zappa, Dave Weiner and James Robinson.

When Guitar International caught up with Mr. Vai, he was preparing to release his Where the Wild Things Are DVD-CD (Blu-ray). Steve took the time to not only talk to us about his new video, but was game to venture into a conversation about other “wild things”, like roses and infinity.  And since we had our conversation, “Now We Run”, a cut from Where the Wild Things Are has been nominated for a Grammy in 2010.


Rick Landers: Your DVD, Where the Wild Things Are was filmed at The State Theater in Minneapolis. Did the acoustics of the place come into play in the decision of the film or is this just a place where the wild things really are?

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Larry DiMarzio

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Larry DiMarzio

Steve: Vai: [Laughs] Well, they were there that night, both the acoustics and the wild things! Yes, the theater,  it’s a gorgeous place. It was great to sell.  It’s large, so you get pretty ambient sound and there’s not a lot of standing waves and bad spots, and the stage is wood. Wood is a very warm kind of a sound and when frequencies at that volume are bouncing all over the place and you’ve got microphones all over the place, you’ve really got to be careful.

This is perhaps one of the best sounding records I’ve ever down. It sounds unbelievable. I worked very very hard and I’m really glad I chose that theater. Plus there’s something really cool about Minneapolis that I just have always adored, so now I’ve captured a little piece of it.

Rick: I guess the stage is a little bit like the top of a guitar then, being wood.

Steve: Vai: Yeah.

Rick: Watching the video, it’s obvious that the other musicians are all pretty phenomenal, virtuosos in their own rights, but what did each bring to the table as far as their personalities, because that’s really important as well, not just their playing style.

Steve: Vai: Quite frankly, for me, the personality is first and foremost because when you go out on tour and you’re living with somebody for a chunk of your life, there’s no secrets at sea. If you go on tour with a person that’s a miserable asshole, when you get out on tour they’re really miserable and they’re big assholes. [Rick laughing]

And if you’re touring with somebody that’s really fun-loving and considerate and has a good disposition, then when they get on tour they’re really fun and they’re very considerate and there’s a lot of love, you know?

And when you look back on your life, what we have is our memories, and when you go to a particular memory, it sparks an emotion and a feeling and if you have a bad tour with people who were not happy, that whole chunk of your life is like a dark cloud. And I’ve had those. I’ve been on tours that were extremely successful and they were miserable experiences.

So,  first and foremost what I look for is a person that’s a happy, fun person basically, or somebody that’s not gonna be a bad egg. I’ve been very fortunate because my last few bands have been just great and this band especially, there’s been so much appreciation for what we’re doing and there’s humility in this band even though they’re just phenomenal musicians and a lot of love.

My job as a band leader is to create an atmosphere of happiness really. What else do you got? Before we go on stage every night, we have like a huddle where we all get together and each night a person says something and they just speak their heart and it’s so uplifting and it’s such a bonding experience. Being on tour, it’s like a different world. It’s different than anything else that you do.

And when you come back home it’s like all of a sudden you’re back into reality. But touring is like a big fantasy. Oh, yes, I meet really cool people, and this band was unbelievably cool people.

Rick: Yeah, it looked like everybody’s really joyful on stage and I think a joyful experience is something that…it does bring you a memory that you can look back on as a part of your life. That’s a good way to look at it.

Steve: Vai: Yeah, when I look at this DVD, I get that feeling and that’s important. Of course, they have to be able to play their ass off, do something really special on their instrument.

Rick: Well, I’ll tell you, that guy who had the Flying V violin, just amazing.

Steve: Vai: You have to see the whole…if you get a chance, you’ve got to watch the whole DVD. Yeah, him and Ann Marie. That’s Alex [DePue] and Ann Marie Calhoun. They are both phenomenal and there’s this one section of the show where I actually leave the stage and they go for it and it’s just crazy beautiful.

Rick: One of my questions kind of ties into what you just said, as well as what you said about humility. One of my favorite things about Wild Things is that with the way you and the other players not only worked off each other and it didn’t come off as, “Hey, look, I’m Steve Vai!” but it’s like, “Hey, dig this music and everybody on stage,” who are really all amazing in their own rights and it looked like a big fun fest. How would you rate the fun level on that?

Steve: Vai: My primary goal is to create something that people can come and witness and enjoy. My goal is to thoroughly fulfill them and to have them leave the concert feeling uplifted. The shows are long and it behooves me and my intentions to have a band of musicians that all have something to offer that’s interesting and fulfilling. And I don’t beat people up with our musical intellect. That’s boring.

I try to create an atmosphere where everybody in the audience is in on the secret. Like I say, it behooves me to have musicians who can be really entertaining or else you’re just sitting and watching a guitar player all night.

Rick: That’s interesting because it’s not like you’re really trying to show off technique. You’re really trying to be melodic and you’re trying to entertain and I think that’s really the key to what you’ve done here.

Steve: Vai: Well, thank you. I’ve read a lot of things about me that are true [Both laughing] and some that I think where they missed the mark. For my whole career, I’ve always felt that it was important to have…it’s been always my desire to be technically proficient, but to also charge the music with emotional investment, you know?

Rick: Yes,  sir.

Steve: Vai: And it’s my feeling, that I’ve always wanted it all and those two things walk hand in hand. To make a very powerful musical statement, the two elements you need is one, the technical side. How are you gonna express your ideas unless you have a command over your instrument?

Rick: True.

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Michael Mesker

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Michael Mesker

Steve: Vai: And the other is, you have to have an emotional investment. You have to make what you’re playing sound like a piece of music that is attractive and seductive.

Rick: Yeah, yeah. Seductive’s a great word.

Steve: Vai: Seductive in any realm of emotion that you’re choosing to fire it with.

Rick: Were there any special moments of spontaneity that occurred while you were playing at The State that stand out for you?

Steve: Vai: There are several parts of the show where I set the parameters up to push ourselves into doing interesting, spontaneous things. Now you can’t do it all the time. The show isn’t a jazz concert where it’s all about improvising, but there are improvisational moments and sometimes things just happen that are unexpected. There’s a song called “The Murder”.

In the trailer, it’s the piece where I’m doing the dances with guitars. There’s a solo section in there, an improvise section where we push each other to really try to play as outside as we can. That particular moment of the show is pretty bizarre, as far as performance, but that’s it. I don’t want to do a whole show like that because it just gets to be boring.

Rick: I’ve got a couple of more questions. We’re kind of losing a little bit of time, but one is not about Wild Things. I read about you building a fence and your wife was growing roses and you transcribed the visual notations of the roses into some tune. Do you think there’s some relationship to the mathematics of music and the mathematics of the growth of roses in kind of…Fibonacci comes to mind for me. [Both laughing]

Steve: Vai: I’m sure if somebody sat down and analyzed it enough, you can create all sorts of scenarios that amalgamate numbers and the position of roses. I don’t think about any of that. [Both laughing]

Rick: I just thought that was a funny story when I read it.

Steve: Vai: That’s a nice little interesting experiment.

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Michael Mesker

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Michael Mesker

Rick: Hey, do you have any extra video left over for Wild Things?

Steve: Vai: No, not from that show. I drained that puppy. I squeezed every note out of it. But, I have video stuff in the archives that date back many years. The whole Real Illusions tour was filmed with one camera. [Both laughing] Really funny bus episodes.

I have a Sex and Religion concert that I’d like to eventually get out. I’ve got a Fire Garden concert to get out. It’s just one of those ongoing things.

Rick: Have you found that your involvement in the production side of the videos has really increased over time?

Steve: Vai: No, it’s always been the same. I do everything.

Rick: Oh really? I didn’t know that.  Do you ever get jitters before going onstage and, if so, how long do they last before you leave those behind you and sort of get into the zone onstage?

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Sergey Tynku

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Sergey Tynku

Steve: Vai: Well, in my earlier days I used to get jitters. When I was in high school and when I was with Frank [Zappa], but then after awhile, it turns into more than excitement. Jitters is caused by lack of confidence and it’s when the ego is afraid of being embarrassed or whatever. You know what I mean?  So I just built my confidence up where I’m so fiercely confident in everything I do.  I don’t get jitters, I just get excited. When I go to step out on the stage…and a lot of it is, through the years is a conscious, mental visualization process because I did suffer terribly from jitters when I was younger. It’s just like a mental, kind of like a self-induced kind of state of mind. Here’s the thing: you prepare as best you can and that’s always been my first criteria.

Rick: Yeah, your mantra.

Steve: Vai: You rehearse. You practice. You go through everything. You make sure all the equipment is working the best you can. You get the strings changed. Whatever it takes, if I step on stage feeling as though I’ve prepared the best I can, then I feel confident. And if anything goes wrong, so be it. If I break a string or if I play a bad riff or if I just black out, forget a riff or something like that, so be it. You know, whatever. You do your best and then you just go for it.

Rick: I noticed, and I’m not familiar with it and maybe I should be, that on the drum kit and a few other places, there was a symbol that kind of reminded me of the old Led Zeppelin “Zoso” symbol. What’s that all about?

Steve: Vai: Well, that’s my logo. It says Vai.

Rick: Oh, it does?

Steve: Vai: Like a V and an A and it’s like a circle with a dot in it which is like an I. It was a trademark.

Rick: Yeah, I should have known that, I guess.

Steve: Vai: Well, how would you have known it? [Both laughing]

Grammy Nominated track “Now We Run” from “Where the Wild Things Are” YouTube Preview Image

Rick: Hey, something that you said earlier about looking back on your life when looking at the videos and seeing that you’ve had some great memories, do you find the same thing…I assume you do, but do you find the same thing happens as far as the integrity of not only what you do in your music, but your daily life in looking back over the years that you’ve tried to make the right decisions with integrity in mind?

Steve: Vai: Well, we all do that. Every moment of every day is…we have to make a decision and our decisions, frankly, are based on previous decisions that we’ve made.

Rick: Sure.

Steve: Vai: So when I look back, I see decisions that I’ve made that bore fruit, sometimes good and sometimes not good. So people ask me, “If you look back on your career or your life, are there things that you wouldn’t have done or that you would have done differently?” and, you know, and a lot of people feel, “Nope. I would do it all the same exactly again.”

Frankly, I see a lot of things that I did that I would change and I am going through it again and I am changing them. But, in the future I’ll look back at the decisions I’m making now and I’ll think, “Maybe I should have done this,” and then I’ll do that just like everybody else. I’m no different. That’s what life is.

Rick: Yeah, you know, the chain of decisions that you make, I think, end up building your character over time, don’t you?

Steve: Vai: Absolutely. That’s what life is. It’s about trying to make ourselves stronger inside by learning from the decisions that we’ve made. We all have different levels of tolerance in various areas and weaknesses. That’s why you can’t really criticize or compete or finger-point because we’re all struggling here.

We’re all struggling. Life is a series of problems with little rest spots in between and at the end of the day our success is gauged by how well we navigated through the problems.

Rick: Interesting. Something that kind of ties into that is, I’m just setting up this magazine, “Guitar International” out of a little bit of chaos from another magazine I had, and I’m selecting a board of advisor, and this guy is a medical doctor out of Santa Monica and he teaches success, but he also teaches a course on fear and anger, and he says that anger is really a manifestation of fear so when you’re angry, there’s some fear involved as to why you’re angry and it sort of ties into happiness and the whole psychology of life and moving forward.

Steve: Vai: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I’m not a psychologist or a prophet or anything like that, but it was mentioned to me by somebody that fear is at the base of all of our negative, lower actions. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but when I think about it, elements of that resonate with me. And the way I look at things, I actually take a very scientific approach in that I can only understand things that make sense to me.

It has to make practical sense and then in order for me to believe it wholeheartedly, I have to experience it in my being.  So having said that, I remember when I was a little boy, I was probably six years old and I looked up at the sky and I was contemplating the infinite because I thought, “Well, how far out does it go?” and then I’m thinking time, “How far back does it go and how far in the future?” and I realized right then and there that my intellect was incapable of understanding these things.

Rick: Yeah.

Steve: Vai: The concept of God transcended my intellect. Having said that, I realize that all science is based on man’s discoveries with his intellect so all science was flawed for me for my entire life. It was never going to reveal truth.

For me , my whole life, that’s been the prime focus is trying to understand truth and through that journey, through the journey of life we have certain experiences we go through that give us clear understanding and whatnot, so I don’t…basically what I’m saying is, yes, I agree with you.

All of our fears and our outlook on life and the things that are our reality are based on previous decisions we’ve made that led us to the point where we have to make another decision.

Steve Vai

Steve Vai - Photo credit: Sergey Tynku

Rick: Something similar to that,  I just read something about infinity, that infinity can be looking out into space and thinking it goes on forever, but infinity is also between two fingers, because you can cut that space in half and you can cut that space in half, keep cutting that in half to infinity because you never reach the other side.

Steve: Vai: That’s…the physical creation is the creator’s way of introducing the infinite into the finite and we can witness that just by the acknowledgment of what you just said. You’re witnessing the infinite. But you see, we can’t…our intellect cannot grasp it. How could it be that it’s finite, but it’s infinite? The distance between our fingers, you know what I mean?

Rick: Yeah, well maybe that’s why we need roses to help us understand it better. [Both laughing]

Steve: Vai: I think what we need is to transcend the flawed tools which are our physical senses. I believe that within the consciousness, this is one of the discoveries that I made that makes sense to me, that I’m exploring is that within the core of human consciousness are the tools to understand, grasp and actually experience the infinite. But, it’s not gonna happen in the physical world.

Rick: Thank you. Do you have any new projects coming up besides this DVD?

Steve: Vai: Yes, I’m gonna discover the infinite. [Laughing]

Rick: [Laughing] Well that’s a good way to end this interview.

Steve: Vai: All right, thanks a lot.

Rick: Thanks, bye Steve: Vai: Practice your guitar!


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