Steve Vai is truly a guitar icon. He was a protégé of the legendary Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth's answer to Eddie Van Halen after the band and Roth parted ways, and he even battled Ralph Macchio in Crossroads. There hasn't been a guitar magazine printed in the past 30 years that has lacked Vai's likeness published somewhere within its pages.
At a time when guitar athletics were in vogue, Vai managed to rise above the crowd of virtuosic shredders in a way that impacted how people approach the instrument itself. He also manages his own label, Favored Nations, and is, interestingly, an amateur beekeeper.
The guitarist spoke with us about the infinite nature of music, PIL, and Zappa reissues while on the European leg of his tour.
New Times: You're a really busy guy, between writing and recording albums, touring, and your label. Are you a workaholic, or do you ever want to just go back to playing full time?
Steve Vai: Well, you know, in the past, I've dabbled a lot with business, and in all of the things that I do, there's this one thread that runs through all of it. And that thread is that moment of inspiration, when you get an idea to do something and you feel really excited about that idea. That kind of thread of inspiration goes through everything, and that never goes away.
How do you stay inspired this long into your career, especially on the guitar end of it?
I understand the reality that the guitar is an infinite instrument and that music is infinite. We're rarely even scratching the surface of what can be done. And you can see that throughout history, because genres and trends are always changing.
When I think I've tapped something out — that's a very arrogant idea, because you're competing with the universe. What you're saying is, "Oh, you have nothing else to offer me," but what you're really saying is, "I don't have the imagination or the desire to continue." And I've never felt that way.
PIL is back together and touring again. Any shot of you ever working with them again, and do you still feel the same way about your past work with the band?
First of all, I'm really glad to hear that Lydon is going out again. That's one of my favorite side projects, and I just remember feeling really depressed that I couldn't join the band and tour with them back then, because I had so many other obligations. My style of playing is kind of different than the band's, but that would be a phenomenal side project to do again at some point.
You can hear things that people do at times, when they attempt to bring elements together, and it can sound freeze-dried, but I think that PIL records art.
On other artists you've worked with, do you still have a relationship with the Zappa family? Any thoughts on new reissues of Frank's work?
Anything that Gail has ever released from the vault, she has done a spectacular job with. Every single detail is finely tuned. I happen to know she's planning to do it with integrity and respect in a way that no one else can do it, so Zappa fans are really in for a great treat.
You're an amateur beekeeper, right? Do you have any thoughts on the current colony collapse disorder epidemic facing honeybee populations?
I probably know way too much about bees. There's this unbelievable social structure that you identify with that's much more organized than our society. There's only one theory that I think holds any water, and that is that it may have something to do with the poles and the magnetic shifting of the planet. Bees take their directional abilities from the sun and certain magnetic frequencies on the planet, and if those frequencies shift a little bit, it'll throw a honeybee off from finding their home. It's not that they're dying; they're just not returning to their home. Apparently, it happened 100 years ago too.
Make no mistake, if we ever lost the honeybees, it would be a massive tragedy on a global level.
Do you ever see your record label, Favored Nations, branching out into the more mainstream side of things?
No, not at all. I created FN for people that had a unique voice, that create music that they're very confident in. There is an audience. It's not a big commercial audience, but still, that music is very vital to some people. I also saw a way of making it possible for these more artistic musician type of artists to be able to sell the amount of records that they're capable of selling, get paid fairly, and continue their careers.
What can we expect from the show on the 15th?
I think you're in for some surprises. I love to create bands that have some type of esoteric, unique element, and I found this harp player that's considered a hip harpist. When you see the show, you're going to see things that I've put together that I like to see when I go to a show.
My goal is to be the best entertainer that I can be and to give people the opportunity to escape for a minute and just experience something that maybe takes them away from life and lets them feel fulfilled on some level that they're not going to get anyplace else.