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Q&A with Steve Vai on ‘The Story of Light,’ David Lee Roth: Part 2 of 2

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Part two of my exclusive interview with Steve Vai. Read part one here.

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Moving on to Skyscraper, that was your first album as a co-producer, right?

Yeah.

What are your memories of working with David Lee Roth doing the main production?

It was hugely different. Ted Templeman is an amazing producer and he has a particular approach and it’s very raw, and that’s why Eat ’Em and Smile is so visceral. But when it came time to do Skyscraper, I was doing demos, and my demos sound really good because I had all of the right equipment and I’ve got a good ear. And when I started working with Dave in building the demos, they were great songs. I mean, they sounded like produced pieces of music. And then it was a surprise to me that he wanted to produce it and have it done with me, because although I enjoy doing it, I overproduce stuff, and my approach is a lot cleaner and a lot more sort of organized than the raw approach of someone like Ted Templeman. So the record definitely has a different slant to it, but I went along with it. I think that elements of that record are really good, but it has a completely different dynamic to it than Eat ’Em and Smile.

Billy Sheehan left the group after the album was finished. He said in interviews that he believes the demos were superior and a lot rawer.

Yeah, I tend to agree.

What kinds of things besides the overall polished sound did he feel was lacking?

Dave’s the kind of artist that wants to evolve a little bit, so he was taking some chances. It’s a much dryer record, you know? And it’s more produced—there’s more layers, there’s more keyboards, there’s more pop kinds of songs, you know. It’s not nearly as raw. And that was a direction that [Dave] consciously wanted to make, because he’s not an artist; he wants to evolve. And I’m capable of doing various things—I would have been very happy to take those tracks and have Ted Templeman produce them; they would have sounded very different. But, you know, we moved forward with what we did.

On “Just Like Paradise,” Dave said in his memoir: “The song had impact, and Steve just hated it. He didn’t want to play it.”

There you have it…that’s exactly how I felt. It was too “pop” for me, it was too Glee, you know? I didn’t resonate with it…“hate” is a strong word. I didn’t hate it; I enjoyed playing anything that I played in that band. It just wouldn’t have been my choice. But I still enjoyed it, and I think I did a great job on it.

You know, it’s funny; I never read the book, so I don’t know how I was represented...I love Dave, he was a mentor for me. You have no idea what I learned from that guy; you can only imagine. I have nothing but respect and he’s still a friend of mine, you know, and I don’t care what anybody says. But yeah, I wasn’t a fan of that song. I didn’t like it when it was written; I tried not to get it on the record. [Dave] liked it and I did my best with it.

Of course you introduced the triple-necked heart shaped guitar to the world in the song’s video.

That was kind of my brain thing: What can I do to this song to make it theatrical on my part and a little more interesting. I don’t think it’s a bad song; it’s funny that I went to see that movie Rock of Ages and then they use that song and I’m like, Oh fine, one of the songs is on the record I didn’t write they’re using (laughs)…it was charming.

The song “Skyscraper” is an instrumental tour de force. Did that one not change too much from the demo?

We used the demo; that’s what we came to master, because that’s a very Vai-esque song, it’s a little esoteric; it flows a certain way, and I remember I wanted it, the solo I put on it was just a one-take kind of thing as a placeholder and I was going to go redo the solo and Dave said, “No, it’s a great solo, leave it.” So that, of any song that I’ve ever contributed to Dave, I think that the song “Skyscraper” is more Vai-esque than the others, although I really love “Hina.” That’s a great track.

The original title for that one was “Tahina,” wasn’t it?

Oh, it might have been. I can’t remember the working titles of tracks, but I love the lyrics and how he wrote that. It was very ethereal and beautiful. Hina is the moon goddess in Hawaii, I believe, or Tahiti, and Dave has a real soft spot for Tahiti. I just love the lyrics in that.

And that technique you had with the microsecond delay in the speakers so you’re playing against yourself. Do you think songs like that and “Skyscraper” set up your solo career to come?

Yeah, more so than most other songs, yeah. It was me being more myself, and you can tell, because they’re not very straight ahead rock songs, and it’s a credit to Dave that he’s open. Even “Damn Good”—when I played that for Dave I said, “Here’s something that I was working on for one of my records,” and he said, “I want that…it’s beautiful,” and he was really moved by it, and I love the way it came out.

But you know, I’m not a commercial guy. You have to have a particular ear to really appreciate the kind of thing I do sometimes, and on Skyscraper there’s more of that than on Eat ’Em and Smile. And Dave accepted those things as part of how he wanted to evolve. And some people really got it, and others said (sarcastic tone), “Oh, this isn’t Eat ’Em and Smile.” And, well, whatever.

Is it true that at the end of “Skyscraper” the backwards message says “listen to your parents”?

(Laughs) “…And use a condom.” (Laughs) It says, “Obey your parents and use a condom.” That’s funny.

Good old Dave.

You’re a big Roth fan, I take it.

Well…I do my research.

I’ve given you more on it than I’ve given anybody else.

Thank you. I don’t want to waste all of this.

I guess I should write a book someday (laughs).

Have you ever thought about that, Steve?

Yeah, but I’m just not one for laundry, you know? I mean, I could write books about all the various acts I’ve played with and whatever. I’m sure there’d be some kind of a market for it, but when you’re working with somebody it’s a private kind of a relationship, and there are trust boundaries and it’s like talking about your family or something. To me, that’s a trust that I don’t want to break—there’s no need for me to discuss that stuff. And I only have great things to say, because I only had great times, you know? But it’s not on my radar, simply because it’s not interesting enough to me. My past is very interesting and I treasure it, but to write about it, it’s just not on my radar.

I’ve been approached many times to write all sorts of books about my past and my personal life. I get interest from people who want to do reality shows, and somebody just offered me a huge amount of money to write my spiritual memoirs. I’m just not interested.

It’s hard to write about music. Billy Joel put the brakes on his memoir even after he’d written it because he just didn’t want to reveal any personal things.

Yeah, because then you have to answer to it in the press for the rest of your life. Things I’ve mentioned in 1982, people still ask me about, you know? And it’s okay, but my life is not unlike a lot of other people’s lives in that I have challenges, I have joys, I have hopes and desires, and I have very seriously intense life situations that were traumatic at times, and I’ve had really, really wonderful experiences. And to write about them—I’m not opposed to somebody else doing it.

As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s very interesting because you can find some common ground with some people that you didn’t even know. And perhaps someday I might do something like that, but first of all, I don’t think there’s enough interest for it in the world about Steve Vai, and also, it’s private; it’s personal.

Getting back to Skyscraper, at the very end of “Damn Good,” Dave says something. Do you know what it is?

I’d have to listen to it (laughs). I recorded Dave through that whole record. Every vocal on there, I hit the record button and then mixed it, but I can’t recall what you’re talking about right now.

There are some things better left as a mystery.

Yeah.

Is it true that when recording the solo on “Hot Dog and a Shake,” you purposely stopped playing in the middle just because you wanted to go see an Alice Cooper concert?

(Pause) Wow, I don’t think anybody has ever asked me such in-depth questions about Skyscraper.

Please don’t judge me.

No, I’m very happy to talk about it. It’s fun because I like that record and it was a great part of my past.

That was a quote of yours from a 1988 Guitar World cover story.

(Laughs) My God, did I say that? That sounds like something that might have happened…it’s quite likely that what I said was true, but I don’t remember any of it. I’ve got a good memory, but it’s short (laughs).

That’s one of the fastest solos that human beings have ever heard.

(Laughs) What I do remember about doing something for Alice Cooper is, when I first moved out to California, he was looking for a guitar player, so I wrote and recorded this song in one night called “The Attitude Song,” and it used to be called “The Night Before,” because I just did it the night before I sent it in. And I don’t know if he ever heard it or not, but that’s the only time I ever did anything like that. I also contributed a guitar solo on one of Alice’s records, but that was way after Dave.

On the song “Stand Up,” that’s the one tune that Billy doesn’t have any involvement on.

[Keyboardist] Brett Tuggle wrote that, and when he came in with that it was pretty much arranged and there was a lot of synth bass, so I think that Dave may have decided just to keep that.

Was there any tension at the time that Billy wouldn’t be having any involvement on that track? Did he let that be known?

No. Billy is incredibly professional and he’s a totally beautiful soldier. You know, he was really restrained on that record because I was producing it with Dave, and my approach at the time was a lot more freeze-dried than the bombastic Eat ’Em and Smile approach. In some respects, it would have been nice to see how the record had came out if Dave had just basically let some of the bass fly like crazy throughout the record, but it was just a different kind of a record, and there’s times where Billy played his ass off, you know? But Billy was totally professional about everything, as always, and he didn’t have any animosity at all [toward] that track. The track was a different kind of a track, and it called for some kind of a thing.

When was the last time the other Eat ’Em and Smile guys got together, excluding Dave? I’ve heard that you guys meet up on occasion.

Yeah, well, it’s funny. We have a little get-together probably once every two years, and the last time we all got together, me, [drummer] Gregg [Bissonette], Billy and Brett, we went to an Indian restaurant and we just had a great, great time. And we tried calling Dave (laughs) but we couldn’t get through to him; we wanted him to come and join us.

When was the last time you had a conversation with Dave?

Not too long ago, actually. I can’t really discuss what it was, but probably a year and a half ago.

Last question about a song from Skyscraper: On “Two Fools a Minute,” you did the horn arrangement. What are your memories of recording that tune?

I just remember I wanted to have a track that had that bounce to it, that up-tempo, fun kind of a bounce, and Dave was experimenting with horns on previous records and he liked the sound, so we discussed doing a horn arrangement, I did it, and it turned out the way it did. It was kind of quirky.

How many horns did you end up playing on that track?

You know what, I can’t remember. I’ve got the arrangement around someplace, but I really don’t remember.

It sounds just like the horns on “That’s Life” from Eat ’Em and Smile.

(Laughs) Yeah, kind of a little bit of a big band vibe.

Is there any unreleased material from the David Lee Roth era that hasn’t seen the light of day? I read that Kim Mitchell’s “Kids in Action” was recorded as a demo for Eat ’Em and Smile.

Yeah, there’s probably a half a dozen tracks were demoed—maybe even more—that didn’t make it, but that’s not an uncommon process when you’re making a record.

Is there any difference in the mix between the Spanish-language version of Eat ’Em and Smile versus the original one as far as the instruments go?

From what I know, no. Not at all. The only thing that was replaced was Dave’s vocals.

What are your favorite tunes from that era?

I really like “Shyboy,” “Hina,” “Skyscraper,” “Elephant Gun.” “Big Trouble”’s a really good one.

There’s a lot of fans who would love to see the Eat ’Em and Smile band get back together.

Well, you never know.

When you finished with Dave, what made you decide to move over to Whitesnake?

Dave was changing and evolving, and I was really feeling the need to start working on the kind of music that was kind of unique to me. I really feel very good about all the contributions I’ve made with all the rock bands I’ve been with, but I have a secret little place that I go in my head when I’m doing my own music, and it couldn’t wait any longer. And I recorded [my solo album] Passion and Warfare and released it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how I could go on tour and front a band playing instrumental music because all the bands I had been in had all these charismatic frontmen.

So when the offer came from Whitesnake, it was a very clean kind of deal, because all the music was written and all the tracks were recorded, and they just needed the guitar parts, and a tour—so I thought, I can’t really tour with Passion and Warfare, and I like being treated like a rock star (laughs), and I like touring with a frontman, and at the time there was nobody better than David Coverdale, so I thought it was a phenomenal opportunity, and I took it.

You ended up recording all the guitar parts on the album Slip of the Tongue.

The songs were written by David and Adrian Vandenberg, who is really a phenomenal guitar player, but he was suffering from a form of tendinitis at the time and he really couldn’t play at his potential, so I did all the guitars.

On The Infinite Steve Vai anthology, that had one tune you did for Whitesnake, “Kittens Got Claws,” but nothing from the David Lee Roth era. Was that because the label couldn’t or wouldn’t license it?

All of it was my choice. All the songs were my choice, and I probably would have liked to included a David Lee Roth track, but I just think there was language in various contracts at the time that didn’t allow it, so I can’t really tell you what the reason was, because I’m not exactly sure.

When Whitesnake completed that tour, was it a surprise to you that David Coverdale folded the band? Did you intend to work with him after that?

The answer to that is in all of my solo music. Whitesnake was a wonderful opportunity to play a particular type of music with a great band and tour the world like a prince, but it’s not who Steve Vai is entirely, and if you know my solo music, you can see very obviously that it was a very fortunate passing fancy. I never expected [Whitesnake] to go any longer.

It wasn’t an objection of mine, but you have to understand that when the Slip of the Tongue record came out, Passion and Warfare came out at the same time, basically, and I thought Passion and Warfare was going to sell ten copies, but it was gold in a week. And there was no way that I was not going to go and make more Steve Vai records, you know? I enjoyed Whitesnake, but my personal musical voice was very different than all that, and nothing has stood in the way since then. I knew that it was fleeting; I knew that when it came to an end, that was going to be it. And, you know, David Coverdale is Whitesnake, and he continued to create other great Whitesnake bands that are still thriving today.

Steve, that’s all I’ve got. Are there any other messages you want to share?

You mean with my fans on Long Island (laughs)?

This is national, of course, but if you want to give a shout-out to everyone on Long Island, this is the forum.

Of course, of course (laughs). I’m happy to still be making music and that there’s an audience that’s interested in it. These shows have been going amazing—I’m really surprised at the audience’s responses. You know, I’ve been away for a while and I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s just phenomenal. If you come to the show, and I will be going all around the world, I think you’ll have a great time. It’s a celebration of music and the guitar. Bring your earplugs (laughs).

The Story of Light is available now. Steve Vai tours the U.S. through Oct. 13. For more information, visit www.vai.com.

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