STEVE VAI! Another big one for Korea Guitar. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Vai two days before he headed to Asia with Generation Axe (featuring Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt and Tosin Abasi). I’m not sure what can be said about this man that hasn’t already been said, so, I’ll just let him say everything. One of the all-time greats and definitely guitar royalty. Enjoy! I sure did!
How are things going?
Great. Really good. I’m getting ready to go out Friday (March 31). We leave Friday for Asia for Generation Axe tour. Very excited about that. And when I get home, I’ve got about a week, a couple weeks, and then I’m off to South America, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Wow, you’re a busy guy.
Yep, that’s the life of a musician.
Haha, I guess it could be worse. You’re heading out to Korea on April 9th. You’ve been there before?
Oh yeah, many times. Well not many but enough.
What do you remember and like about Korea? Give some details about the last time you were there.
Well, I can give you details about the various times I was there. I remember that better (laughs).
One of the crazy, amazing things about Korea is the way fans react at concerts. They’re very engaged with what the artists are doing. For instance, if I’m touring in the states or Europe, people will sit and they’ll watch the songs and then at the end they’ll clap. If they see something during the song that they like, they might give a shout or something. But in Korea, they just follow every note and if it’s a cool riff, they just go crazy, you know. It’s really fun. It’s just so much fun to play to a Korean audience.
And, I’ve always been a fan of Asian food and I always look forward to visiting restaurants in Korea. Usually when I’m there, I don’t have so much time to go exploring into the country or city, but I do get a chance to go out around the areas that I’m at. It’s a completely different culture than Western culture, but the people…there’s more similarities in the actual people themselves, you know what I mean?
This is something that I’ve noticed, traveling for many years, 37 years I’ve been touring. For many years, I didn’t pay attention to anything. I just thought, ‘OK, now I’m in Europe, now I’m in Japan, now I’m in Australia.’ I didn’t really put my attention into the culture and the people until later. It was a slow process where I started to identify the different cultural diversities, like the food, the clothing, the architecture. I love architecture but never really focused on the energy from the people.
Every city that you go (to), there’s a collective energy field, so to speak. The same thing happens when you’re sitting in your home. If you’re sitting in your room by yourself, it’s one thing. If another person comes in, there’s a different kind of energy in the room, and then if you’ve got five people, and everyone’s thinking a particular way, it creates a different kind of collective. If you’ve got a whole city like that, and this collective translates into a country, into parts of the world, you can feel what a civilization is like just by being very perceptive of the atmosphere. And I never really focused on any of that for years. But when I started to, it really gave me a completely different experience whenever I would travel. Certain things became familiar to me from various cultures. One of the things that I’m able to do, and I don’t know how, and I never thought I’d be able to do something like this, but I can almost look at somebody, just by their bone structure in their face and their skin shades and I can pretty much know where they’re from. I can actually sometimes see photos of various places around the world that don’t necessarily have identifiable elements in them and I know where the picture was taken, well I shouldn’t say that, I know which country it was. And this all just from being very perceptive.
And then one of the things I really started to do, pretty intensely about ten or so years ago…I would just look at people, and I would just watch them very carefully without creating any kind of thought in my head about them, cuz many times when you travel away from your comfort zone, meaning away from the city you know and the people you know, and you meet people who are completely different or look very different, there’s an immediate tendency to kind of create an identity for that person in your own head. Whatever their political situation is, the kind of clothes they’re wearing, the way that they laugh, you know, the color of their skin, their height, their hair…all of these things we look at and we create an identity. But in reality, what I’ve discovered just staring at people very carefully; it’s just the outer identity. (laughs) It’s not really the person, you know?
So, when you start actually meeting people from around the world and talking to them without thinking you know who they are, you find out that they’re all the same…and they’re all amazing, you know and incredible. I really learned to love people by touring all these years. I really love people (laughs). I just so much enjoy going out into the world and seeing them, just watching them. I don’t necessarily have to interact all the time.
And Korea is a wonderful opportunity because there’s such a diversity. There’s such a unique kind of footprint in the collective energy of Korea. It’s kind of dense, it’s very energetic. It moves kind of quick. There’s also a very spiritual side to it…and that’s what I remember.
I know that might not be a very satisfying answer. A of people will want to hear, ‘Oh, one time I was visiting…’
Actually, that was much more than I was expecting. That was fantastic. I’m the same way…watching people is my favorite thing to do.
Absolutely. Let’s talk about this tour. Everyone knows you’ve been doing this for a while with Generation Axe, and I wanted to try and ask some questions that maybe you haven’t had before, so here I go: the four guys you picked, what surprised you the most when you got to jamming with them? We all know they’re great players, but what kind of struck you when you first started getting together with these guys?
How intent they were on making the big picture something extraordinary.
And what was the big picture?
Five guys coming together and doing their thing individually but then playing together as a cohesive group and playing parts that are organised, that sound amazing together and transcending the cache of the individual player, and creating a powerful statement with all five of us. I mean, they say the wisdom of what we were doing, and it became very important to them. They got it. And they were really supportive. Everybody was very supportive of each other.
It was kind of a miracle, because you know, on a tour like that…you write that down on paper and you look at it and people start running to the hills, you know? (laughs) They’re like ‘you’re not gonna be able to pull this off, Vai. You cannot get these guys, who are crazy, they’re all crazy. You know, crazy musicians, everybody knows it. You know, who have reputations for being intense…to travel on a tour bus together, to play music together, to play the parts that you want them to play and that’s exactly what happened.
And at first, sure, there were some rough spots, you know?
Well, of course.
But I don’t think I’ve ever been on a tour, no, no, I’ve never been on a tour where I felt a tighter and more balanced, amazingly beautiful camaraderie amongst the people by the end of the tour. There’s mutual respect…like, on my tours, we love each other. We’re like a family. My band, for the most part, have been together for almost 20 years. So we’re just naturally happy. But I think the thing that made the Generation Axe tour so special, was because we got over our differences and really rose to the occasion of accepting each individual for exactly who they are, and what they do, without criticizing it, but actually supporting it, knowing full-well that that uniqueness in them is gonna add to the diversity of the show in a way that is gonna make this show something that you just won’t see any place else. And that’s what we’re doing.
Yeah, I’ve seen clips and it’s just incredible when the five of you get together at the end of the show…
Yeah, it’s nice. (laughs)
How did you pick these four guys? Why these four?
Well, I got this idea many, many years ago. Originally, I thought how cool would it be to put one backing band and five female guitarists on the road. I thought that’d be great, but I never pulled that together. It was just on the shelf. And then I got a call from Myles Copeland, and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing a, sort of like a guitar festival. I’ve done so many of those. You know, I like to try different things and the G3 thing was and is very nice but it’s very different. You know, with G3, there’s guys that do their set and they leave the stage and another band comes and they leave the stage and we do jams at the end.
That’s great, but this was different. I wanted to have a cohesive kind of a show, where there’s no breaks, you get this diversity, one right after the other. And then you get organised, really cool, intense guitar parts. What was the original question actually?
(laughs) I just asked, how did you pick these four guys?
Oh, OK. So, then I thought, a tour like this, I could be genre specific. So, I wrote a list of various genres…Rock, metal, blues, fusion. And that’s about the extent of my ability to contribute…into those genres. I can work in those genres. If it was jazz or classical I probably wouldn’t fare very well. (laughs)
So, then I wrote my favorite guitar players within these genres. The fusion genre is very different than the metal, and that’s different than the rock, which is different from the blues. Then I looked at this list, with all these names, and I thought, which would I like to do first. And I picked the metal. And the guys that were at the top of my list, were the guys that jumped on board. It was remarkable. Everybody that I wanted, was interested in doing it.
How lucky was I?
So lucky. Another thing that’s kind of interesting to me, is how you can go from doing a two hour set on your own tours, and with Generation Axe, you have to cut it down to four or five songs. How do you choose what’s right for that moment?
Well, it’s easy.
Yeah, you’re given a set of parameters. Originally, I was hoping that everybody could do a thirty to forty-minute set, and then add to the ensemble pieces.
You know, some guys go longer, some guys go shorter. My set is usually like 30 minutes, cuz I know that I wanted to get up there, and I only had time for thirty minutes, say forty minutes. So, I look at all my songs and I think, ‘OK, what is the best slice of Vai that I can offer here that shows the various sides of me?’
So, on the first tour, I opened my show with Building The Church. I thought that was pretty powerful and had some tricks in it and stuff. People get a kick out of it. And then we did Racing The World, Gravity Storm and Tender Surrender, because all those songs together, kind of give you a good idea of what I’m about.
But on this tour, I changed out Building The Church with Bad Horsie.
I played that on my last tour, and my God, I just love playing that song. I feel twenty feet tall playing that. (laughs)
(Laughs) Awesome. Listen, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, I know you’re super busy, but congratulations on the 25th anniversary of Passion and Warfare.
Thank you. It’s almost 28 now. (laughs)
It’s been a long tour, hasn’t it?
Yeah, I was gonna release on the 25th anniversary but then I had this idea to put this record Modern Primitive in there. And this record is my favorite record I ever made, I gotta tell you. It’s music that I started to record or wrote before Passion and Warfare. It’s like the missing link between my first solo record Flex-able and Passion and Warfare. And for Vai fans, they really like it.
Yeah, it’s fantastic.
It’s quirky, it’s experimental, well, it’s not experimental . I don’t experiment.
Ah, it’s just good rock and roll music.
Yeah, well I don’t even know if it’s rock and roll but. If you get a chance to hear, it’s pretty wild.
It is pretty wild. So, that tour’s gonna go for a while and then another CD at some point soon?
Oh yeah, we’ll see what happens. I’ve got the Generation Axe tour and then I’m going to South America with Passion and Warfare in Mexico and Puerto Rico. And I’ve got this really cool event in Norway…Starmus Convention. It’s a four-day convention with some of the greatest scientists in the world. The have like, ten Nobel laureates, three astronauts and it’s the seventy fifth anniversary celebration of Stephen Hawking. He’ll be there and they’ll have a medal ceremony and I’ll be playing with the orchestra.
Then I’m doing one of my shows and then I’ll be speaking. I speak for about half an hour.
Wow, you’ve hit the big time.
(laughs) Yeah, I know right.
Out of this world…literally.
Seriously, yeah. Well, I wish you all the best of success and I hope you have a great time in Korea and Japan and South America and just keep rocking. This was an absolute pleasure.
Alright, I appreciate it. Sorry you’ll miss the gig, but thanks.
I’ll catch you at some point.
Visit vai.com for tour information.