Every now and then someone comes along who changes the rules of the game and raises the bar.Â So when it comes to dropping techniques and fiery guitar phrases, the name Steve Vai is sure to resonate prominently for generations of guitar players to come. One of the reasons might have to do with the fact that Vai started out as a hired gun for none other than one of the most influential musician of 20th century, Frank Zappa. âThe most powerful thing I learned from Frank is free musical thinking,â says Vai over email.
In a way, the Grammy-award winning artistâs latest offering, Modern Primitive, is a homage to Zappa. âMuch of that material was written while I was still working with Frank, and I was being heavily influenced by him,â Vai adds.
Closer home, itâs a 21-year-old bassist who has become his go-to collaborator. Last year, Vai featured Indian bass prodigy Mohini Dey to lay the bass chops for the opening track âBop!â. The two have already shared stage in October during Vaiâs India debut as part of the NH7 Weekender music festival in Meghalaya. This weekend, Dey joins him again to trade more riffs during the Pune leg of the music festival.
Ahead of his Pune concert, the âFor the Lover of Godâ composer chats with Vogue India about the phenomenal Dey, his spiritual inclinations and personal life as a bee keeper and doodler.
How important was Frank Zappaâs influence in your life?
Steve Vai: A day doesnâtÂ pass that I donât think of Frank. There are too many things to mention that IÂ have learned from him that have been vital to my career, but perhaps the most powerful thing I learned from him is free musical thinking and that you are here to do whatever it is you want that brings something creative into the world.
After playing with the likes of Zappa, Whitesnake and Roth, what made you switch to being a solo instrumentalist?
Has your guitar playing routine changed from the â80s to the present?
SV: ItâsÂ constantly changing, sometimes moreÂ obvious than others. Back in the â80s, I was perhaps more focused on speed techniques, but these days I am more interested in exotic, unique, and colourful phrasing.
From the Zappa-ish âFast Note Peopleâ to the complexities of the three part âPink and Blows Overâ, how do you describe your latest albumÂ Modern Primitive? Is it the bridge between your debut Flex-Able and the monumental Passion & Warfare?
SV: Yes, thatâs the perfect way of saying it, thanks.Â Much of that material was written while I was still working with Frank, and I was being heavily influenced by him.Â âFast Note Peopleâ is sort of a homage to him,Â especially the solo sections nod toÂ âInca Roadsâ which is one my absolute favourite Frank tracks. When we are young and are discovering the deliciousness of ourÂ independence, itâs not uncommon to be very personal with what we do.
You have collaborated with a young Indian bass prodigy. What are your thoughts on Mohini Dey?
SV: She is aÂ phenomenon. I saw her YouTube clips and was blown away, so I contacted her and asked if she would beÂ interested in putting bassÂ down on a track onÂ Modern PrimitiveÂ calledÂ âBopâ. She did an excellent job which is obvious if you hear the track.
She also joined us for a jam at our last show in India in October and we are looking forward to having her join us for thisÂ coming show in Pune.
Us, as a species,Â continue to evolve in all areas. Nothing stays the same and when new people come into the world they look around and see where things are at and then they take it from there. I see this in business, technology, art, music, etc.Â When I see people like Mohini, who possesses an extraordinary connection to their instrument, I see it as the evolution of music and itâs very exciting to watch. There is always some kind of amazing surprise in it all.
Between touring and studio sessions, what do you find more fun and challenging? Does it require you to be in two different mind zones?
SV: I donât get much time outside of the studio except when touring. I like to work out and some years ago I trained for aÂ Triathlon (half Iron Man). When I return from India Iâm planning on training again forÂ another triathlon.Â These things areÂ âchallengingâ but very rewarding.
Has spirituality and meditation shaped up your music in anyway?
SV: Whatever we create in the world, including our experiences, events, people we meet, etc. is based on how we feel which is based on the quality of the thoughts we are thinking. Meditation is a powerful way to helpÂ dissolve unnecessary andÂ repetitive thought patterns that keep showing themselves in our experiences. Meditation helps to strengthen your control over your mind and the thoughts you choose to think and that has an effect on everything you do in the world. It shapes your experiences. It also inevitably shapes the way you approach your creativity, so yes, meditation has played a vital role in my life.
When you look back, which was the year that really turned the tide in your favour?
SV: The tide isÂ constantly turning but my favourite band experience was the very first one I ever had when I was about six-seven years old, and I formed a band with my younger sister on guitar (it had one string on it), myself on bongos and record player, and our other little friend just makingÂ noise with whatever we could find. That for me was music at itsÂ purest with no obstructions, expectations orÂ businessâjust friends enjoying the process of creating freely.
An Indian instrument that you love and would like to incorporate in your music?
SV:Â Iâve used samples of aÂ harmonium, but I have not had anÂ opportunity to actually record one. They sound exotic.
Iâve heard you are a beekeeper. What other things keep you busy when youâre not conjuring up complex musical ideas?
SV: Yup, I do have bees and have had them for many years, but they take care of themselves. I just check them now and then and they are kind enough to give me a tremendous amount ofÂ surplus honey!
I also like to spend time with my wife and two boys doing all sorts of adventurous things. I like to paint occasionally, too, although Iâm really just a doodler,Â itâs really quiteÂ fulfilling.
Steve Vai performs at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune between December 8 to 10. For tickets, visit Insider.in