Every now and then someone comes along who changes the rules of the game and raises the bar. 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. The most powerful thing I learned from Frank is free musical thinking, says Vai over email.
In a way, the Grammy-award winning artist s latest offering, Modern Primitive, is a homage to Zappa. Much of that material was written while I was still working with Frank, and I was being heavily influenced by him, Vai adds.
Closer home, it s 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 Bop! . The two have already shared stage in October during Vai s 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 For the Lover of God 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 Zappa s influence in your life?
Steve Vai: A day doesn t pass that I don t think of Frank. There are too many things to mention that I 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 80s to the present?
SV: It s constantly changing, sometimes more obvious than others. Back in the 80s, 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 Fast Note People to the complexities of the three part Pink and Blows Over , how do you describe your latest album Modern Primitive? Is it the bridge between your debut Flex-Able and the monumental Passion & Warfare?
SV: Yes, that s the perfect way of saying it, thanks. Much of that material was written while I was still working with Frank, and I was being heavily influenced by him. Fast Note People is sort of a homage to him, especially the solo sections nod to Inca Roads which is one my absolute favourite Frank tracks. When we are young and are discovering the deliciousness of our independence, it s 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 a phenomenon. I saw her YouTube clips and was blown away, so I contacted her and asked if she would be interested in putting bass down on a track on Modern Primitive called Bop . 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 this coming show in Pune.
Us, as a species, 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. When I see people like Mohini, who possesses an extraordinary connection to their instrument, I see it as the evolution of music and it s 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 don t get much time outside of the studio except when touring. I like to work out and some years ago I trained for a Triathlon (half Iron Man). When I return from India I m planning on training again for another triathlon. These things are challenging 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 help dissolve unnecessary and 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 is 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 making noise with whatever we could find. That for me was music at its purest with no obstructions, expectations or business just friends enjoying the process of creating freely.
An Indian instrument that you love and would like to incorporate in your music?
SV: I ve used samples of a harmonium, but I have not had an opportunity to actually record one. They sound exotic.
I ve heard you are a beekeeper. What other things keep you busy when you re 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 of 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 I m really just a doodler, it s really quite fulfilling.
Steve Vai performs at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune between December 8 to 10. For tickets, visit Insider.inSteveVai:“Mohiniphenomenon”