You're So Vai

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By Gary Steel
T'Mershi Duween, #59, July 1997


Three quick squirts from an interview with Steve Vai conducted by Gary Steel, our lone New Zealand rainbow warrior, from whenever Steve was down that way recently (March, apparently).

Exactly what were your years with FZ? The press release says you were in the 'mid-80s' band!
In 1977, I made contact with Frank. I was seventeen. In 1978 I started writing for him, transcribing music. I was still at Berklee College. In 1980, I moved to California and I started hanging out with Frank, recording with him at the house. That year I also did my first tour with him, and I transcribed through to 1982. And then in 1983, I transcribed and all that time, I would record up at the house too. In 1984, Frank quit touring and started with the Synclavier, so I went and did other things. But Frank always kept releasing stuff that I had been on, that I recorded in that period. And there will still be stuff coming out (we hope -Ed). You could go to Frank's house one night and record for nine days, and the stuff will be coming out for years.

That must have been an intense time for you.
Well it was. You see, if you were going to join Frank's band for a paycheck or because you had the talent and it was a stepping stone or something, you were going to find it very challenging and very hard, maybe depressing at times. But I adored the man and his music, and my whole focus was centered around impressing him with the way I played his music and transcribed it. I worked morning, noon and night for him, and I enjoyed every minute. I was totally absorbed and when you're absorbed, what do you miss? He challenged me, but I rose to the challenge, and I got a kick out of it, so it wasn't like a chore. The only thing that was a chore was being on tour and learning how to tour. I was just totally out of shape. I sat like this for years and years and played guitar and ate whatever was there. I never really focussed on my health.

I read something once where you said that Zappa's cynicism got to you and you found it hard to deal with.
No, not at all. What I was saying was that I was so close to Frank that I wanted to be like him, but my wit and mentality doesn't even come close to Frank's. Frank was absolutely brilliant; I'm just very different. He had a cynical edge to him, but lie knew how to round it off with a very comical edge too. He would say something, but he would be really funny. Now if you don't have all that stuff and you're hanging around with that, it's easy to get into the cynicism, but if you can't round it off with the comedy, you can become pretty unhappy. So I was having a sort of identity crisis.

(mumbles something about the book of transcriptions ('The Frank Zappa Guitar Book:'))
Oh yeah, I grew some grey hairs with those songs! You know how thick that book is? I have stacks of transcriptions the size of a dwarf. Anything he didn't have a lead sheet for, I did; anything he needed. You know the side of the 'Roxy' album with 'Echidna's Arf' and 'Don't You Ever Wash That Thing'? He didn't have a score for that so I transcribed every instrument. And 'Greggery Peccary'? He had pieces of score here and there with parts and stuff, but there was some he didn't have and he wanted one big thing – it killed me!

The book doesn't have 'Canarsie'. Do you remember the time signatures?
I don't remember it. I didn't transcribe that one. He gave me a cassette and just checked off he list. There's a lot that hasn't even been released yet that I have transcriptions of. 'He Used To Cut The Grass' has more notational experimentation in it than you can find in any Cage or Stravinsky (shurely Stockhausen? -Ed) score. I'm not trying to blow my own horn, but the divisions of rhythmic notation in that book I've never seen anywhere, not in any book or score, nothing. That's a textbook of rhythmic notation.

How did the orchestral thing go?
It was really great. I love orchestral music but on my own terms. I wrote my first orchestra score in high school and I've always been fascinated by little black dots. So when I got together with Joel Thome and we won a Grammy for the Zappa Tribute, I thought let's do a concert with my own music. The first concert was in Rochester, with a sixty piece orchestra and rock band. It's really different to what you might think. It's not boring classical stuff, it had muscle. It's exquisite to experience an orchestra playing what you were hearing in your head. It's totally different, organic. It's not coming from metal strings through electric devices, and it's been going really well. We have two shows booked for June 12 and 13 in Jerusalem with the Israeli Orchestra. At times, it's totally orchestral, but it's subsidised by the rock band. It's just a rock trio with the sixty piece. When we go to Jerusalem, we'll use a hundred piece. Right now, I only have orchestrated music for pieces of the past. I'm constructing a new piece that's forty-five minutes long, but it will take six months of ten hour a day undisturbed time to compose it and orchestrate it. Then I'd have to give it to somebody else and spend $25,000 having them copy the parts. So it's a big undertaking when you're a dad and all that stuff...

Do you still make videos?
No, no fucking way. If I were to make a video, it would be with my own money, for my own entertainment. I made a video of the whole of Alien Love Secrets and it's good for fans that like that kind of stuff; but as far as servicing MTV with a video, ha!

They wouldn't play it?
Not if I was on fire! As a matter of fact, my bus burnt down on the last tour; we had to flee for our lives. We made videos of the bus burning down with all our stuff in it. My record company thought 'We'll get some press out of this'. They sent a copy of the video to MTV for the news report. MTV rang to say they weren't going to air it because they thought it was a promotional stunt, because the name of the record was 'Firegarden'. They thought I'd burnt my four hundred and fifty thousand dollar bus and risked my life and those of the band and crew to get on their station. I'm not bitter; it's just the way things go.