Interview with Steve Vai

Loud Hailer had the privilege of talking to guitar virtuoso, Steve Vai, about the current Generation Axe tour and life on the road.

The Generation Axe tour is back in the US and includes a dream lineup of guitar virtuosos – Steve Vai, Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Tosin Abasi and Yngwie Malmsteen. The tour is the brainchild of Steve Vai, maybe one of the only men who could bring such an esteemed group of guitar heavy- hitters together on one stage. Vai took time out of the tour to discuss how the original idea for Generation Axe came about, the making of the live album and how he practices mindfulness/presence while he’s on the road. 

LH: Well thanks very much for taking the time, Steve, especially when you’re on tour. I know it’ll be at a premium, so I really appreciate it.
Steve: Oh thank you. My pleasure.

LH: When I’m interviewing people I do like when there is some information online that I can research. But with you, you’re so generous with your interviews and your time that I think you’ve done so many interviews and answered many questions, it’s hard to come up with anything different.
Steve: Oh, no worries. I could make up stuff like a pro, too.

LH: As a starter, on the genesis of Generation Axe – going back to when the idea came into your mind. Was it something that sort of gestated over a while or was it a light bulb moment that this was something you wanted to do?
Steve: Well, it was kinda like a fantasy, creative type of thing. We all do it. If an idea comes to you, if it’s compelling enough, you just find yourself bringing all the cooperative components together. So it’s not like it’s a brilliant idea. Pulling it together was, you know, was the thing that was really difficult. Not even difficult. There was nothing difficult about it, you know. And so the idea was to create a show where there was one backing band and a seamless flow of these outstanding guitar players taking to the stage and doing their thing. Both on their own and with each other in a very organized way. Because you get when you have a lot of guitar players on the stage if the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing it’s going to be a disaster, a mess. But this created an opportunity to actually organize them to arrange parts for certain songs, so you know, certain songs like we opened the show with “Hocus Pocus” and you hear these five guitars going in harmony, and it’s just beautiful, it’s just really unique because you don’t really get to hear that. I don’t ever remember seeing a show that had five guitars playing in this wicked harmony, you know, and we recorded a live record when we were in Asia and it’s probably going to come out in February and you’ll hear it. It’ll sound like nothing you’ve heard. We do “Frankenstein” and we get all the horn parts and everything on guitar, it’s just fabulous. And we do “Highway Star” and like that solo that Ritchie (Blackmore) does, imagine that in five-part guitar harmony. It’s just fantastic. And this tour we’re doing “Burn” and same thing. So it’s a really different kind of a show than I think a lot of people might be expecting. And there’s vocal songs too that are just fabulous.

LH: We saw you in Illinois when you brought it here last time round, and I love the way that it worked with, you know, exactly what you said, all five of you at certain points on stage, then individuals doing their own thing. One of the things that actually came into my mind when you were talking about how difficult it was to put together – obviously, you had your line up of guitarists, which is hard to get together, but I would imagine as well that, given the styles of you all, finding a backline that could accommodate every guitarist would be a challenge. You know, I’m thinking of someone like Tosin who plays stuff that’s so rhythmically challenging and all of you really with totally distinct styles.
Steve: Well, my friend, you just nailed the real challenge of this tour. I mean getting these five giants together was easy. Creating the music and the parts was easy. Booking the tour was easy. Getting the right drummer was? It was just so difficult. We went through so many drummers because, I mean, you nailed it – Tosin’s music is unique. Rhythmically, it’s new stuff, you know. It’s very contemporary stuff. It’s cutting edge and it takes a particular kind of brain muscles for a drummer to be able to negotiate that stuff. And also to be able to play rock and roll, to be able to sound like a rock drummer. And there wasn’t anybody. We had one drummer, Matt Garstka, in the beginning, and he could do Tosin’s stuff really well and he could rock out okay. But it was a grueling, grueling position because you’ve got five guys that are each doing sound checks every day and then you’ve got a three to three and a half hour show of, you know, this brutal pounding. So, you know, poor Matt started to get injured. So we were so lucky that we found JP Bouvet, this young kid. He showed up with a big smile and unbelievable chops. I mean, he makes Tosin’s music sound like, you know, like real music. Not that it’s not real music, but he makes it speak and he knows how to rock out. He understands rock and roll. And the other guys, you know, like Pete Griffin. I mean, I mixed the Generation Axe Live record from Asia, so I get very forensic with all the tracks, and I listened to his bass tracks and they’re just as solid as the day is long, you know. Those two guys create a rhythm section that’s just unbelievable.

LH: That was the thing that stood out to me. When we saw you in Illinois, I started following JP afterward, because I hadn’t come across him before, on Youtube and just watching some of his stuff he puts up there and he’s an unbelievable musician. On the topic of touring musicians, one of my favorite documentaries from recent times is Hired Gun, and one of the things that jumped out at me from there was a lot of the artists in it, like Alice Cooper and I remember Rob Zombie, making a point about sometimes when they were looking for musicians for the band, really, they might not always pick the best musician because sometimes what trumps that sometimes was “can I live with this guy on the road or is he going to be an a**hole?” But you seem to have struck it lucky given that, I mean naturally lead guitarists can have a bit of an ego, but you’ve got five guys there all right at the forefront of what they do and you guys seem to get along great.
Steve: Well, you know, the kind of ego that people expect these guys have, is actually a weakness because it shows a lack of confidence and none of these guys lack confidence. You know what I mean? Like you’re never going to get Yngwie to feel like he has to compete with anyone. You know, nobody needs to compete with each other because everybody is so specialized. Like you’re not going to be able to sweep pick like Tosin. You know, you’re not going to be able to machine gun, rapid-fire, clean pick like Nuno. You’re never going to be able to have the incredible intonation and vibrato that Yngwie has. You’re never going to have the absolute unbelievable ferocity that Zakk has. He has stamina in his fingers that I’ve never seen before. I can’t compete, I wouldn’t compete and nobody can compete with my quirkiness, my weirdness. So everybody’s very comfortable in their shoes.

LH: That’s a good point! I watched a Guitar Center interview with you from a few years ago and I remember at the time when I watched it, you said something in there that really stuck with me and it was about strengths and weaknesses. I’m probably paraphrasing what you said, but you were talking about making it in the music business and I think you said something like you ignore your weaknesses and you cultivate your strengths. And I never knew in the interview whether you were talking about generally in life or on the guitar, but I would imagine maybe a little bit of both. Playing with these guys has it taken you to any areas that you maybe felt were a weakness for you and made you work on those? In terms of your playing.
Steve: Oh yeah, yeah. When I said I don’t focus on my weaknesses, only my strength, you have to understand that within my strengths, there are weaknesses that I work on, you know. My weakness would be like showing up at a gig and trying to disguise myself as a great jazz guitar player or being an authentic blues guitar player. Those, in some people’s eyes, are weaknesses, but I have absolutely no interest to be an accomplished jazz blues fusion guitar player because there’s so many people that do it so well, you know. My interest is in being more of myself and within that exploration there are weaknesses and the guys on this tour are very good at pointing those out without saying a word, you know what I mean! That’s very inspirational. I mean, a Generation Axe tour sticks with me all year.

LH: So in terms of the live album, you’ve done it via PledgeMusic, right? Was the live album something that you planned to do from the outset or was it something that you decided during the US tour, like “Man, we’ve got to catch this.”
Steve: No, we’ve been planning this for a long time. One of the other real challenges of this tour is a getting everybody’s schedules to line up because everybody’s, you know like I said, they’re busy, they have solo careers, they have bands. But this has become something that they really gravitate to because of the amount of fun we have out here. So while we were putting the American tour together, I didn’t want to tour America again without having a record out. But the getting the deals together with the labels and getting the record edited, mixed and completed, just took so much longer than I expected. So unfortunately, the record won’t be coming out until February, we don’t have it for the tour, but the Pledge campaign is vital in situations like this because we’re very independent and marketing is everything. And manufacturing things like LPs and the vinyl and just getting the tour on the road is very expensive. So the Pledge campaign is very helpful. I can tell you this, it’s not like we’re taking that money, putting it in our pocket. So it’s going right to the tour and the record.

LH: It’s interesting because I’ve heard you talk as well, I think it was in a Rick Beato interview and you were talking about how the music industry has developed and saying that how people feel about that is dependent upon how they choose to look at it. You know, people said when CDs and then, in particular, streaming came along it could be the death of the music industry. You were saying that you can either choose to look at it as a challenge and say, well, it’s not going to be the same and it’s not going to work anymore or you can choose to see the opportunity it presents. So it’s nice, that you can see you using that perspective in practice using a platform like Pledge to make the record a reality. 
Steve: Yeah, that’s like that with anything. Your experience in anything you do is going to be directly joined at the hip with your perspective of it. So if you had a crappy attitude about something, chances are you’re gonna have pretty crappy results and experience. So the music industry is a tool for you. Actually, for you and me and anybody that’s in it, it’s a tool. It’s a wonderful tool if you know how to use it. Everything you need is there. It’s just your attitude about those tools have determined whether they are going to be helpful to you or not. I love the music business, it’s a great business, and I use it to get to the fans. I use it to make my music. I use it for everything, for artwork or everything. Touring, you know, it’s vast, but, you see, that’s perspective.

LH: Absolutely.
Steve: The quality of your perspective is the most important thing in your life.

LH: And there are great examples of it in terms of the modern music industry like with someone like Lorde. I was watching an interview with her, and she basically said that they made that first album which blew up to be huge and she didn’t even own the copy of ProTools they were using. They were effectively using a hacked copy, I think, and all of the virtual instruments on there, and that’s how they made the album and then got it out themselves. That’s a great example of doing that. I actually always find it interesting in your interviews that you talk a lot about mindfulness and the power of your perspective. When you are on tour, on a tour like this, which I would imagine is pretty grueling, do you make time every day to have a quiet period or to meditate? Do you do manage to do that each day?
Steve: Yes, that’s the priority for me. But, the tour is not grueling. Grueling is in the mind, you know what I mean? If you see it as grueling, then you’re going to be tired, everything is going to be an issue. Everything’s going to be a problem. You start complaining about stuff and then you’re gone. But I don’t. I’ve learned that the quality of my experience on tours is based on my perspective of it. And as far as meditating, yes, I always find quiet moments just to be present and just stop the noise in the head. But the most important thing about meditating is bringing it into your daily life and practicing it while you’re functioning in the world. That’s really the evolution of humanity really. Being able to do that, because then real quality arises in everything you do and it’s the only place that unique, fresh, insights, inspirations and quality of your actions comes from is when you’re in a state of grace, so to speak, which is just in that meditative state of being present.

LH: And I would imagine, in a sense, you can find that state through music as well, right? I know watching you play, or many musicians play, there are those moments, where you’re totally lost in it. I sometimes think that maybe it’s not possible to be more present than that – when you’re just effectively in the music.
Steve: Well, everybody has access, everybody is creative somehow. And when you enter that state of presence, the quality of your creativity will be supreme and you can see this in all fields. I mean, when you watch tiger woods hit that golf ball, it’s like poetry or you know, Michael Jordan flying through the air or, you know, a successful businessman. Anybody that’s able to focus their attention in a way to allow inspired thoughts to arrive in them, it will reflect in their actions and the quality of what they do will be supreme. And playing music is a great example. You know like that’s what I strive for when I’m performing to get out of the way, for Steve Vai to get out of the way and to be as present as I can with what’s flowing from me. And that’s when good stuff happens. It’s a practice though because the mind is always working – there’s a momentum of thinking that can be crippling to your ability to find peace, you know? 

LH: My final question is after the tour do you have plans for a new album? Is that on the horizon?
Steve: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to be in the studio for probably a year, creating what I hope to be my greatest guitar record.

LH: Excellent. That’s good news. That will just involve you being locked away from the world, I would imagine for some time.
Steve: Yeah, I’m going off the grid, brother!

The North American leg of the Generation Axe tour continues on until December 18, where it will wrap up in Los Angeles. With a line-up of such titans on display, you seriously do not want to miss this one.

Photos By: Kirstine Walton

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About Phil Walton 49 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.

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