As one of the most skilled musicians to emerge from the 1980s - and having been named one of the top ten guitarists by Guitar World magazine - Steve Vai has worked with a remarkable roster of artists while carving out a niche uniquely his own.
Having recently released a 25th anniversary edition of Passion & Warfare, one of his most influential recordings, Vai has been touring steadily in support of that release, paying homage to his past while continuing to move forward in his career. His tour brings him to Wabash's Honeywell Center next week, and fans can expect him to perform Passion & Warfare in its entirety. Revisiting the album allowed him to not only improve upon the original but also fill in some missing pieces of his career.
"I did the album for a number of reasons," he says. "First of all, 25 just seems like a good number. A quarter of a century and all that. But it's also the amount of years it takes for something to be considered a classic, if it has withstood the passage of time. And back when Passion & Warfare came out, the technology of converting analog to digital was inferior and continued to be in the 80s and into the 90s. There was a pretty severe loss when the music was transferred, so I wanted to go in and digitally remaster from the original tapes using the newest technology, so now the CD is so much better. Plus I was able to include four bonus tracks."
He also found a way to fill in a musical gap, one between his album Flex-Able and Passion & Warfare, allowing his fans to fully experience his evolution as an artist.
"When I went in to record Flex-Able, I was discovering that I really loved the recording process, the engineering and producing, but I didn't know what I was doing, so I was just doing it to entertain myself and my friends. Then I got the offer to work with Alcatraz, and the music I was doing at that time with my band Classified just got put on a shelf. Flex-Able and Passion & Warfare are such vastly different records, that I thought if I released Modern Primitive it would fill in the missing link between those two albums."
Although Vai is known for his heavy rock guitar virtuosity, it may surprise some to know that one of the first albums that really inspired and influenced him was the film soundtrack to West Side Story. As is the case with many 6-year-olds, Vai was absorbing the music his parents enjoyed, and he said the soundtrack was a musical awakening.
"It had a huge impact," he says. "It encompassed everything I loved about music - the melodies, the orchestration. It really tweaked my interest in the realm of composition because before I was playing the guitar, I was composing, and listening to that record really made me able to see that mysterious language of music."
Continuing his musical journey through high school, where he credits his music theory teacher with expanding his understanding of how music works, Vai eventually decided to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston. It was there that he came in contact with Frank Zappa who he hoped might hire him for his band. When Zappa asked Vai his age and learned the young virtuoso was 18, Zappa said "Well, that won't work."
Instead, Vai became Zappa's transcriptionist, a job he continued until he was 20 and was finally hired to hit the road with Zappa's band.
"I didn't even realize back then the significance of what I was doing," says Vai. "But I got some incredibly powerful tools to be a musician for the rest of my life, and not a day goes by that I don't think about all the things I learned from that experience. He showed intense creative freedom and was constantly doing new things."
A recent inductee in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, Vai is kept busy with his music and touring, but he also enjoys down time at home. For 20 years he has maintained a very unique hobby, one Vai says more people should consider: beekeeping.
"My wife and children were living in Hollywood, and we had just bought a house that had been vacant for 10 years, so everything was dead. I wanted to get some fruit trees and my wife wanted a garden, so I started reading up on things and learned that the best way to pollinate your garden was to keep bees. I started back then, and it's stuck. Stuck like honey!"
He has called the endeavor a Zen experience and encourages people to check it out for themselves.
"It's certainly a great way to contribute to the environment, and it's been a lot of fun. Bees are the most fascinating creatures I've ever encountered. I have two hives, and people ask me all the time how they can do it. There are stores in America that sell beekeeping equipment, and you can just have a beekeeper bring a swarm over and you get your queen to work and you're set. It's fun, but the real work comes when you harvest the honey."
Touring through the end of the year with his Passion & Warfare set, Vai has his Vai Academy Camp in January, taking place in Carmel, California. The annual event allows Vai to share his expertise and invite special guests to allow blossoming guitarists to jam with some of the best rock has to offer. After the camp, Vai may take the tour to South America, Australia and Japan before returning home for some relaxation and to start recording for a new album which may be ready by 2018. He hopes to challenge himself by approaching his music in a different way with his next release.
"Most of my records are pretty dense and can be kind of compositional, maybe even over-produced. So this time I really want to strip it down, maybe do a trio album. It will require a lot of practicing on my part, but once you get comfortable with your own style, you have to get creative and get yourself out of your go-to riffs and the melodies you gravitate toward. You just need to wash out the old and see things from a different point of view."
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