The Enduring Passion of Steve Vai

Stream an unreleased track from the unsinkable guitar god's upcoming 'Modern Primitive' LP.

Photo by Larry DiMarzio

“I’ve been coming to Europe for 35 years,” declared guitar great Steve Vai from Helsinki, Finland, en route from his hotel to the Kulttuuritalo venue he'd be playing that night. “Like any other place it changes and evolves. The first time I played here was with Frank Zappa in ’82. That was my first time in Europe ever, and it was a blast. Well, it was scary. I was so young at 21, and touring with Frank Zappa at that age was terrifying!" he laughed.

Now, four decades later, Mr. Vai has returned to Europe for his latest tour as bandleader. This time he is on the road in support of the 25th anniversary of his 1990 solo masterpiece Passion and Warfare, a deluxe edition of which will be available on June 24. The bonus material to the remastered album, meanwhile, is a collection of compositions Vai had begun recording in between his stints in former Rainbow singer Graham Bonnet’s heavy metal act Alcatrazz and David Lee Roth’s blockbuster solo band alongside bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Greg Bissonette.

Entitled Modern Primitive, this lost LP contains some of the most adventurous music Vai has ever recorded, embellishing upon his stint as Frank Zappa’s one-time protégé more than anything else he’s ever released by taking detours into synth-pop, classical, jazz and even singer-songwriter fare and filtering them through his one-of-a-kind playing. Vai can also be heard this year on the M83 single “Go!” off their latest album, Junk, playing rings around the kinetic sweetness of J-pop star Mai Lan. Meanwhile Ibanez, the guitarist’s longtime axe of choice, will be releasing three limited editions of their Steve Vai Universe line of seven-string guitars featuring swirled finishes coinciding with the color schemes of the Passion and Warfare album cover art.

In this exclusive interview, Noisey caught up with Mr. Vai on the streets of Helsinki to speak with him about his appearance in the 1986 Ralph Macchio guitar film Crossroads, his brief stint in Whitesnake, and that time he played on a Public Image Limited album, among other intriguing tales from this true American original.

Noisey: What else do you remember about your first European tour as Zappa’s “stunt guitarist”?
Steve Vai:
It was a very important tour for me, because before that between the ages of 20 and 21 I was kind of in this funk, a depression of sorts. And I was kind of coming out of it when I was on that European tour with Frank. I was starting to feel an easiness and a lightness, and it was beautiful. It was Europe in the summer, and we went to Italy, which very few bands had done at the time. As a matter of fact, we were the first band to play in Sicily. My family is Italian, so it was really nice to be there for that time and to heal.

It must have been interesting to go from Frank Zappa to David Lee Roth. Eat ‘Em and Smile turns 30 this year.
Strangely enough, I still see Billy Sheehan and Greg Bissonette; we go to dinner like once a year. We play quite often together and communicate all the time. Actually, the last time we got together they had mentioned it was the 30th anniversary of Eat ‘Em and Smile. There is this cool place in Hollywood called the Lucky Strike bowling alley, and they have open mics on Wednesday nights and said I should come down and do a little tribute to the album with them and play just a couple of songs off the record. I’d love to do that, you know, like, “Yankee Rose” and “Shyboy”. And I was like, “Hey, let’s just invite Dave and see if he’s interested”, and he was. And we were all set to play, and all of a sudden the fire marshal closed the place down because there were way too many people in there. We had 1,700 people in a 300 seat venue. It turned into this big fiasco with fire trucks and all this stuff. It was a great band. We even decided it might be in our best interest to do a reunion tour for that record. It’s something that we’re actually kicking around, maybe.

That would be amazing.
It really was such a good band, you know, and we had great success. It was great for all of us. I mean, I was in my mid-20s when I was out on the road with Dave, and I virtually became a rock star overnight so to speak. Touring with Dave Roth in the 80s was one of the coolest things you can imagine. And as a kid who had the dream, we lived it good and hard [laughs].

Did DLR know you from Alcatrazz or Frank Zappa?
Well, there were a lot of things in play that put his radar on me. But the main thing was that he had a relationship with Billy Sheehan, and Billy was the first guy he got for the band. It was Billy who recommended me. And at the time, I had a lot going on. I had Zappa and the thing of being a Zappa musician. I had “The Attitude Song”, which Guitar Player was all over, and then I had Crossroads. So I had all eyeballs on me, so to speak. But when I got together with Dave, I think he was auditioning a couple of other guitar players. But as soon as we got together, there was smoke.

And between your time with Alcatrazz and Roth, you created the music that would become Modern Primitive?
After I had recorded Flex-Able, which was really this fun, bizarre, innocent, naïve record; I had put a band together and thought, “Hey, maybe I can be a real musician here and make records.” [Laughs] So I began writing a lot of material and began to track a bunch of stuff (which was material we performed in the band) which was called The Classified. But then after that I joined Alcatrazz and then Roth, so I had to put all my solo aspirations on the shelf. And when I was making Passion and Warfare, I had a completely different musical sensibility. However, I thought it would be nice to add the Modern Primitive stuff to this 25th anniversary reissue of Passion and Warfare and not only use the tracks I had but finish some of the material that I wrote from back then. And it felt very instinctive to me, because Modern Primitive is this missing link between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare. It’s one of the most favorite records that I ever made, because it’s so adventurous and dense and quirky.

You recorded Passion and Warfare while you were in Whitesnake. At the time, the music on the album was some of your loudest and most visceral to date. Was it a reaction to your experience making and touring behind Slip of the Tongue?
It was a reflection of me breaking away from conventional rock at the time. I’ve always had that music from Passion and Warfare in my blood, and I just turned my back on everything and focused purely on that. I thought my career was over at the time, and then I am making this very uncharacteristic record for the period. But to my surprise, it hit a nerve. I’m very fortunate. But it was cool being in Whitesnake. The thing that attracted me to that band was getting to play with David Coverdale, and the songs for that album. The music on Slip of the Tongue was already written and recorded, all they needed was the guitar parts added in, so it was easy for me to go in and do that.

How did you become involved in the 1986 film Crossroads?
Well, it was an interesting situation. I was working in Alcatrazz at the time, and Ry Cooder was scoring Crossroads, and he called up Guitar Player magazine and asked who the hotshot guitar player of today was. And they played him “The Attitude Song” over the phone, and he sent me the script. And I read it, and saw it required this accompanying guitar duel, not as if I wasn’t already so much of a ham [laughs]. But I knew how to build and construct a guitar duel, and I worked with Ry on that and it turned out very cool. Then I meet the director Walter Hill, who asked me if I’d be interested in being in the movie. At first I was like, “Well, I’m not really an actor.” But after reading the script, I thought I could do something there. And Walter Hill is the kind of director where he lets the actors do what they needed to do and gave just very minimal direction and just let me and Ralph Macchio do our thing. If you get a chance to see this tour I’m on now, you will actually get a big kick out of it, because it opens up with a clip from Crossroads.

Another interesting collaboration you enjoyed in 1986 was your participation on Public Image Limited’s Album. How did that come about?
Bill Laswell was doing the production in addition to playing bass on the record, and they were looking for a guitarist and my friend who was friends with him had recommended me. It was a really easy gig for me; I had just one day to do everything and they gave me a tremendous amount of freedom to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to worry about all the things that come along with being a solo artist, so it was great. It came out really cool.

Did you get to spend any time in the studio with John Lydon?
He didn’t come in until after I finished everything. But he listened to it and he turned and said to me, “This is fucking great, man!” in his classic accent [laughs]. Then he asked me to join PIL. I couldn’t, but that would have been interesting.

How much were some of the great punk guitarists on your radar at the time, like original PIL guitarist Keith Levene or even like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television or Robert Quine and Ivan Julian of The Voidoids?
The only exposure I had to that genre was really my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now [laughs]. She was a punk, and she was always putting me on to all that new wave and punk stuff that was coming out back then. Then when I was going to school at Berklee, there was a strong underground punk movement on campus, and there were a couple of really punky clubs I used to go to.

How did you link up with M83 for “Go!”?
I get offers like that all the time, they come across my desk. But obviously I can’t do them all, and I only choose the ones that are interesting. And for this song, a friend of mine was producing it and asked me to do it, so I was like sure! I didn’t realize how big M83 was, and when the press came out there was a lot of coverage. But I liked the way it turned out, it came out pretty cool.

It really is a great thing to see these younger acts bringing you guys aboard for projects. Another amazing collaboration has been between Rihanna and Nuno Bettencourt.
Nuno is a force to be reckoned with, let me tell you that. He actually wound up being her musical director. He’s a very smart and intuitive person, and incredibly talented really. I’ve always known of him, obviously, but it wasn’t until this Generation Axe tour that we were on earlier this year that we really bonded. I think it was definitely a score for her. Nuno is a very accomplished solo artist in his own right beyond Extreme, and Rihanna to grab him was I think a nice coup.

So if a Frank Ocean or Lorde called you to go on the road with them, would you do it?
No, I don’t think so. It would have to be an extraordinary situation where it felt like my contribution was appropriate.

Catch Steve Vai on his Passion and Warfare 25th Anniversary World Tour:

June 17 - Leuven, Belgium - Het Depot

June 18 - Gutenstetten, Germany - Ibanez Guitar Festival

June 20 - Warsaw, Poland - Progresja

June 21 - Prague, Czech Republic - Lucerna Music Bar

June 23 - Vienna, Austria - Simm City

June 24 - Dornbirn, Austria - Conrad Sohm

June 26 - Paris, France - Le Trianon

June 27 - Solothurn, Switzerland - Kofmehl

June 28 - Schaffhausen, Switzerland - Kammgarn

June 29 - Luxembourg, Luxembourg - den Atelier

June 30 - Lausanne, Switzerland - Les Docks

July 2 - Rome, Italy - Rock In Roma (G3 with Joe Satriani & The Aristocrats)

July 3 - Sogliano Al Rubicone, Italy (G3 with Joe Satriani & The Aristocrats)

July 4 - Ascoli Piceno, Itlay - Piazza del Popolo (G3 with Joe Satriani & The Aristocrats)

July 5 - Grugliasco, Italy - Gru Village (G3 with Joe Satriani & The Aristocrats)

July 6 - Gardone Riviera, Italy - Teatro del Vittoriale

July 7 - Udine, Italy - Castello di Udine

July 10 - Weert, Netherlands - Bospop Festival

July 11 - Munich, Germany - Circus Krone (G3 with Joe Satriani & The Aristocrats)

July 12 - Offenbach A. Main, Germany - Stadthalle (G3 with Joe Satriani & The Aristocrats)

July 13 - Bonn, Germany - Kunst!rasen (G3 with Joe Satriani & The Aristocrats)

July 16 - Cordoba, Spain - Anfiteatro Axerquia

July 17 - San Javier, Spain - Auditrio Parque Almansa

July 18 - Madrid, Spain - Jardines de la Complutense

July 19 - Valencia, Spain - Jardines de los Viveros

July 20 - Palma, Spain - Teatro Trui

July 21 - Barcelona, Spain - BARTS Club Paral.lel 62

July 23 - Lisbon, Portugal - Cultural Centre of Belem

July 24 - Vila, Portugal - Hard Club

July 28 - Budapest, Hungary - Park Budapest

July 30 - Tbilisi, Georgia - Tbilisi Open Air