Steve Vai – Illuminating The Story of Light

By: Robert Cavuoto

“Every song has something in it that pushed my buttons!” said guitarist Steve, and it’s clearly evident on each song on his latest CD release, The Story of Light.

This CD is the second installment in the pending trilogy, where we follow the cosmic journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment, and redemption. It continues a narrative arc begun on his 2005 album Real Illusions: Reflections.

Largely instrumental, The Story of Light spotlights guest vocalists, Aimee Mann, of Til Tuesday as a duet on “No More Amsterdam,” and Beverly McClellan, a season one finalist on The Voice, singing on “John the Revelator.”

Throughout the CD, Steve’s guitar bends sounds as well as listeners’ minds in equal measure.

Looking ahead, he envisions a third set of songs that will further unravel the mysteries and reveal truths woven through The Story of Light and its predecessor. The completed trilogy, envisioned as cinematic or operatic in scope, will include lyrics, narration, and visuals.

I had a chance to sit with Steve as he guides me on this cosmic journey and provides his insight on how the songs were created, as well as what inspired them.


Robert Cavuoto: Tell us about the thinking behind the creation of The Story of Light?

Steve Vai: First and foremost, I want the music to have a particular dynamic and offer variety, so there are a lot of different styles on the record. I try not to make it sound stylistic. Within this format I’m always looking for something interesting to provide another different dimension.

Telling a story is always interesting to some people. I had this story and I started sketch it out before my last studio CD, Real Illusion. I came up with doing a concept record, but not in a conventional way. To release three records and within those records, have songs that depicts characters and events in the story, but not an in-your-face kind of way and then mix them up a bit.

Allowing fans to get into the story with the help of some lyrics and liner notes so they can start putting pieces of it together; ultimately , to start with the Real Illusion followed by The Story of Light, which is like the second installment. At sometime in the future I will come up with a third installment, another record’s worth of material in the form of songs and narrative then take all three records and put the songs in proper order. Maybe add or replace some of the melody parts with vocals, and to form a cohesive story that’s very linear and comfortable to follow.

Robert: Is there a way fans can follow the story if they’re not reading the liner notes or watching to the accompany DVD?

Steve Vai: There’s not much of a way. Then they just have to enjoy the music and put the whole story to the side. It’s a lot of instrumental music. You can’t really tell stories with instrumental music.

Robert: What do you want your fans to take away from The Story of Light?

Steve Vai: My fans are a pretty diverse group. A lot of them just want to hear me play guitar. They don’t want anything else. They’re not interested in the dense compositional stuff.

Some fans don’t want to hear me sing and some people really like the vocal ballad that I do. I don’t try to impose on them what they should take away. I just offer the best I can and it helps that they find something that they want to take away. Some of the things I like to offer are really great musicianship; challenging, exotic rhythmic things; beautiful, lofty melodies that are uplifting; funny comedy stuff that makes them chuckle. My records are very diverse.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an artist who would take a song like “John the Revelator” and put it on the same record as “Creamsicle Sunset” or “No More Amsterdam” with “Velorum”.

For the most part I look at my music as an opportunity to create something that some people will find fulfilling, and that’s it. For the people who are attracted to it, my goal is to just be the best entertainer that I can be. I’m not out to change the world or make any big, profound statements, but even a simple statement can be profound to some people if they have the perception for it.

Robert: Was there any song that you are particularly proud of on this CD?

Steve Vai: I’m happy with a song when I feel like I’ve achieved something in it that lights me up. It could be one riff. It could be the atmosphere of the whole song. When you go to create something, you go into the creative aspect of your personality and you kind of pull from things that are interesting and exciting.

When I think of an idea, I start getting excited about it. When it reaches a feverish pitch, I become passionately enthralled with it to the point that I become myopic. Nothing else in life matters except to get this song done and to have it makes me feel that feeling of excitement when I listen to it. If I don’t feel that, it doesn’t make it to the record.

So, every song on the record has something in it that pushed my buttons. To say if I was proud of a particular thing, it’s hard to say.

The first song, “The Story of Light”, and I don’t mean to sound pretentious or arrogant, but I wanted to create a wall of seven-string guitar chords that were lush and filled with tons of distortion, but you could hear every note and feel like you’re getting taste in this wall of sound. I feel like I achieved that when I listen to it.

I wanted to have a melody that was not a solo, but a composed melody that had the band following along with me like they have ESP, but very musical. I wanted every phrase to be something that has some kind of a unique touch to it that I’ve never done before. I feel like I achieved that.

I wanted to have an overtone of something worldly cultural and powerful and that’s when the Russian translation came to mind. I’m really proud of it, but I could go through every song and tell you why I feel that way about every song.

Robert: Did you challenge yourself in any other way on this CD that you have never done before?

Steve Vai: You want to try to expand as an artist. That’s a fun thing about creating. You want to fulfill yourself and in the process hopefully find other people that find it fulfilling. There are a lot of techniques I use to push myself, to expand my emotional investment in a piece, my connection with the notes, and also a different level of technical expertise that I haven’t touched before.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to play faster. I don’t really play that fast on this record, actually.

Robert: I really enjoyed the accompany DVD and hearing how the songs were created as well as your thought process. That was really interesting.

Steve Vai: Thank you. It was done on a shoestring budget. There was not a lot of production to it, but it can get the point across.

Robert: One of my favorite songs is “Gravity Storm”. Could you share with us some of the effects that you used on that song as well as your insight on playing it?

Steve Vai: On a technical level, I used an Ibanez Strat directly into a Legacy head with a Digitech wah-wah and Gemini distortion pedal. Very simple. The sound on that record is really the sound of the room at the Harmony Hut  [Steve’s Studio]. I used a lot of room mics to create the ambience.

The emotional dynamic of the track is to create a sense of heaviness and gravity in the notes. One way to do that is take a seven string and tune it down, go chugga chugga chugga. But I wanted to create an illusion of gravity. I had this riff and it was a basic, simple riff. It was living on my iPhone for years.

Every time I listened to it, it started to form its own legs in my mind. I came up with the idea of why not create a whole track based on this attitude, this heavy attitude. It required a lot of string bends.

I didn’t use a whammy bar on this song except for one note that I had to punch it in on a different guitar because the guitar I was using didn’t even have a whammy bar.

Robert: The pull downs were amazing on that song.

Steve Vai: Yeah, it was challenging to play yet very rewarding.

Robert: I heard a little bit of Hendrix influence on it, was that intentional?

Steve Vai: You can’t escape it. You grow up as a teenager in the ‘70s and you listen to Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Brian May and you’re taught by Joe Satriani, all of those and many more can be heard in my playing to some degree. Hendrix leveled the playing field.

Robert: Was Joe Satriani an influence on “Racing the World”.

Steve Vai: Yeah, it’s virtually impossible, for me at least, to write an instrumental guitar track with rhythm guitars and a melody on top that isn’t somewhat reminiscent of Joe, because he really rules in that world.

Robert: There is an Eddie Van Halen vibe to “Sunshine Electric Raindrops”.

Steve Vai: Yeah, I would say that too, because Edward was a big influence too. In my book, he reinvented the guitar at a point. Those old Van Halen records, the guitar is so present. It’s the main instrument.

The ambience of those early, or any, Van Halen songs, the guitar is presented as an orchestra in a sense. I love that. You can definitely hear it.

Robert: The song “The Moon and I” was based on a reoccurring dream from your twenties. Were any of the songs a reflection of you or people you know?

Steve Vai:  When creating a story, the most powerful element – and any scriptwriter will tell you this – it’s the development of the characters. That’s what gives you the emotional investment in a movie or a play.

When a writer goes to create a character, a really great writer pulls from their own inner idea of what that character is. You have to somehow relate to that character. Sometimes you relate to that character by relating to somebody in your life that’s a real character and has a real personality. That’s what I tried to do.

There are people in the story that reflect frames of mind and identities that aren’t necessarily my identity. There’s a connection because I understand some of their mentality, just by going through those things myself or by people I know who go through them.

Robert: Your practice regimen is quite well known. How has that changed over the years? Are you still going at it 12 hours a day?

Steve Vai: No. In the days when you have that kind of time and there’s no Internet or business or family or anything like that, you can dedicate that kind of time.

I’m a good time delegator. I have a very balanced life, even though it might not seem so.

When I’m working on a guitar part, I can work more than 12 hours a day. Like “Gravity Storm” and “Mullach a’ tSí”, forget it, man. The work I put into that song was overwhelming. Then there are times when I’ve got to record drums and keyboards and all that stuff and I may not be able to touch the guitar at all for a week. I don’t practice scales and exercises and stuff anymore.

What I do is I look for threads of unique ideas and then I try to expand upon them. I always try to find an hour at the end of the day, even if I’m playing guitar all day or if I’m not playing, to pick up the guitar without any preconceived ideas, lock the door, shut off the Internet, shut off the phone and just play and see what comes out. That’s really fulfilling.

Robert: What do you want to be remembered for?

Steve Vai: I’m not really concerned about that stuff. It’s not gonna mean anything to me when I’m dead. I think for the most part, I feel like we all have the ability to be creative in various aspects.

To me, I feel like we all have creative tools and they can be expressed in different ways around the world or with what we do.

I feel like I have a particular strength and gift. It’s my obligation and responsibility to do my best to try to find my potential as a creative person, so that other people who may listen to the music or watch me perform will find some kind of satisfaction in it and some kind of ‘upliftment’. As far as wanting to be remembered, I don’t see the point in it really.

It’s nice to feel that when you leave the world, maybe you left something behind that might go into the future and might be discovered by somebody. That’s all nice and good, but I don’t think it’s gonna matter to me at the time.

What matters right now and doing your best. That’s all I can do. Creating music is not a chore for me. It’s not a challenge. My whole career has been really easy. I have other challenges in life that I feel are really important and they’re personal and we all have them.

Those are things that I’ll look back at the end of my life and decide whether I really made any great achievements or not.