Steve Vai was initially employed by Zappa in 1978 to transcribe his recordings – “everything from lead sheets to orchestral scores." Some of these would be published in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book in 1982, by which time Zappa had recruited Vai as his stunt guitarist.
Vai can be seen, inter alia, in the The Torture Never Stops (2008) home video and heard on the albums Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981), You Are What You Is (1981), Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982), The Man From Utopia (1983), Them Or Us (1984), Thing-Fish (1984), Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985) and more.
He released his debut album, Flex-Able, in 1984 after which he toured and recorded with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake – all the while carving out a hugely successful solo career.
Vai’s cover of Zappa's Sofa from the Zappa’s Universe album won a Grammy Award for best rock instrumental performance in 1994.
In 2006, he was of one of the three ‘sternly accomplished special guests’ on Dweezil Zappa's first Zappa Plays Zappa tour. In 2009, ZPZ and Vai won the best rock instrumental performance Grammy for their live rendition of Zappa's Peaches En Regalia.
He regularly performs with his former guitar tutor, Joe Satriani, as part of the G3 concert tours. It was when G3 played London's Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 4th June 1997 that Vai took time out from talking to various muso mags to shoot the breeze with me. At that time, Mike Keneally (MK) was in his band and he too joined us on the fat floating sofa in Vai's dressing room.
While waiting to meet the pair, I got to tell Satriani who Frankie Howerd and Tony Hancock were (their photos hang by the backstage door). Then, midway through the actual interview, Queen guitarist Brian May walked in and had to be ushered away by Vai.
All in all, a surreal experience for this author!
Most of us are aware of how you came to work with Frank, so I’ll by-pass all that. Tell me about the song Solitude, which you performed for Gail at the Zappa’s Universe rehearsals.
How do you know about that?
I... er, have a tape of it.
Jeezus, how did that get out?
Mike Keneally: [laughs] You can’t stop it!
SV: It was a song that we rehearsed in the 1980 band. Frank had written it before then, but we had rehearsed it in an attempt to persuade Frank to play it – which you really can’t do.
It wasn’t a typical Zappa song.
It was the least typical Zappa song I ever heard. When I asked him if it was written for Gail, he said “No.” But I know it was because Gail told me it was.
Obviously it’s written for her!
It wasn’t actually recorded – just rehearsed?
Well I have heard a tape, I believe, of tracks for that song with the David Logeman band – for the You Are What You Is album. We rehearsed it. Frank came in, as he does sometimes if he’s in a certain mood – he just started chopping songs from the list. We learned a hundred songs and that was one that got chopped.
But I remember Arthur Barrow had a cassette of it from rehearsal and years later I wanted to record it. I wanted to do something with it but Gail’s very sensitive about that song. It’s a very special song for her and rightly so.
Did you sing it at that time?
Yeah, I did. I got the tape from Arthur. I believe it was Arthur – it was either Arthur or Scott Thunes. I think it was maybe Scott Thunes. I can't even remember now!
Then I learned it and I did a little version of it for Gail at the sound check for Zappa's Universe. I totally blew it. I remember she just sat there with her hand over her mouth. But I talked to her about that song.
So probably it’ll never see the light of day officially?
Well there were other people that wanted to record it. But I think Gail wants Dweezil to record it first.
Are you still in touch with the family?
Occasionally. I was talking to Gail a few months ago before the G3 tour because we were gonna do My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama and I kind of wanted her blessing and I got it.
MK: Did you ever tell her I was singing on it?
SV: No [laughs] - why, you think she’d say don’t play it? I don’t think so.
[To Mike] I take it from that that you’re not so well in with the family these days?
MK: As far as I know they don’t wish to speak to me. I’ve talked to Ahmet a few times; he’s totally cool with me. But I think it’s Dweezil in particular who doesn’t really want to know about me.
That’s a shame.
[To Steve] You did a concert at the Eastman Concert Hall in New York with Joel Thome and a 60-piece orchestra last year – how did that go?
Well, the thing at Zappa's Universe went kinda good...
. . .you got a Grammy, didn’t you?
We got a Grammy for the performance of Sofa. It was a nice arrangement by Mike and Scott. So Joel and I talked about doing something else together.
Was it your own material that you played?
Yes, what we did then was my material. We did a couple of Frank’s songs and we did a piece by Joel. It was a nice event. It was really hard to get it together. I worked really hard for a couple of years just getting the orchestrations together. The logistics of putting together an orchestra show are pretty staggering.
I understand there’s another one coming up in Israel?
There was, but it turned into a big disaster.[i]
But you’ve actually written a long orchestral piece?
Well the thing is, it’s an avenue that I can walk down one of these days. I have all this material from the past that I’ve orchestrated – just pieces of music like For The Love Of God, a couple of new things – but what I’d like to do is create a new piece for orchestra and rock band and have it performed. But you’re talking five months of undisturbed writing and then $200,000 to record it.
Are you two going to record together – you’ve obviously done the G3 stuff live, but are there plans to work in the studio?
MK: Yeah, I’m sure.
SV: Yeah, I really hope so. We just did a Christmas song for a record that’s coming out on Epic. Mike played piano on that – it’s beautiful.
Is it something you’ve written yourself?
It’s this record I’m trying to put together with Epic. It’s all instrumental guitar. It has different players – Joe Satriani is on a track.
Something like Dweezil’s What The Hell Was I Thinking?
MK: But that’s all one song – this is a collection of different Christmas tunes.
SV: And we did Christmas Time Is Here, which is that Charlie Brown... [to Mike] who wrote that again?
MK: Vince Guaraldi – it’s a beautiful song.
SV: It came out really good.
Do you have any plans to work with Terry Bozzio again?
Well, nothing in the near future. But I have tapes of Terry.
From the Vai band project?
Right before that, when Terry and I started hanging out.
A friend of mine owned a studio he was turning into a video-editing facility and he gutted it so it was like this 20,000 square foot room that had three floors in it. We set up Terry’s drums – he was wired for 48 track SSL – and I recorded three hours of Terry Bozzio improvising.
It’s some of the most wonderful stuff and I hope to take that one of these days and orchestrate around it.
Tommy Mars – still a friend?
Yeah. Mars, he’s an alien [laughs]. There’s few people that are as musical as he is.
He’s appeared on some of your solo stuff.
Yeah, but you can’t get Tommy Mars to come in and do little plinky piano stuff. He’s like a wild cat. You’ve got to put spurs on and ride that bucking bronco!
He of course has been involved with the Banned From Utopia.
MK: I think they actually ended up doing this thing Steve was gonna do in Israel.
Do you know what happened to Scott Thunes after the 1993 tour? I saw him on Top Of The Pops with the Waterboys, then he seems to have disappeared.
MK: If you can find a back issue – from about four months ago – of an American magazine called Bass Player, there’s a fairly lengthy interview with him called ‘Requiem For A Heavyweight’. It’s basically his farewell to the music business.
He has decided it’s caused him enough pain and he’s done now. So he’s just gotten re-married and he just wants to be a househusband.
The last couple of times I’ve seen him he seemed to be happier and more content than I’ve ever known him to be.
[To Steve:] Your time with Whitesnake – is that something you look back on fondly?
Well, when I was doing it I was enjoying it but afterwards it got kind of weird because I just started reading funny things in the press. Some of the guys were saying stuff.
Anyone in particular?
I don’t want to get into that. It was good when I was doing it because touring with a big rock arena band, you get treated like a king, first class everything, I made a ton of dough and I got to go on stage every night and act like a lunatic.
And you also did some of your own songs.
Yeah, my solo section was a good opportunity for me to promote Passion And Warfare.
But afterwards, because the record didn’t sell 14 million like the previous one, some people were a little upset about that. I have nothing bad to say about that. David Coverdale’s a total gentleman; we always got along real well.
I think he’s gone back to the bluesier stuff now.
Well, he’s making a blues record but, contrary to popular belief, that Whitesnake record that I did was the furthest thing from the blues [laughs].
Are you still friendly with Laurel Fishman?
Oh yeah – she’s my best friend. She writes for a lot of magazines. She’s one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with.
Did you record an interview with her – or was it Frank – about the time of Stevie’s Spanking? There was talk of a lengthy tape.
I think Frank talked to her about that.
On Sex & Religion, Ahmet Zappa provided backing vocals – on just one track?
Yeah. There was another called Manic Panic, but it didn’t make it to the record.
But the best stuff I got of Ahmet is where he’s standing in the studio just talking [laughs]. He’s possessed, that guy. He’s really funny - totally out there.
MK: [laughs] He’s actually writing songs and rehearsing with a band apart from Dweezil now. He’ll get into a rehearsal studio every couple of months and work up a new batch of tunes. I’ve heard tapes of them and they’re good. Ahmet has tremendous potential as a front man.
Yes, I was really impressed when I saw him with Dweezil at the Marquee in 1991, the first time he toured.
MK: He just keeps getting better. He’s taking a more serious attitude towards singing and the lyrics. He’s got a lot on his mind. As he gets older he starts to have more serious thoughts and the lyrics have really evolved from there.
[To Steve:] I was surprised to hear Bangkok on the Fire Garden album – I never had you down as an Abba fan. How come you chose that?
Oh, that’s a long story. I have a stack of music: when I was on tour I would just write whenever I had an idea and I threw it in a pile. Then I would get my engineers – when they weren’t doing anything – to type them into the computer so I could hear them.
That’s how I discovered a lot of the songs that I have recorded – from these pieces of scrap paper.
So I listened to one of the tapes and I heard that melody [sings] and I thought “That’s kind of nice, I could make a song out of that”. I saw the manuscript and it had my name on it: it said Taurus Bulba. I remembered writing a song called Taurus Bulba; the melody was so familiar.
So I recorded this whole thing and I sent it to my manager and her boyfriend listened to it and said, “Yeah, that’s Bangkok.” She calls me up and she goes, “Is this Bangkok from Chess?” I said, “I’ve never heard any of that – that’s crazy. No, it’s just like a Russian folk dance.”
So she played it for me over the phone and I almost died. I thought I was in a dream – how did those guys get my music?
Then I realised what had happened: years ago, when I was with David Lee Roth, he gave me this tape – didn’t tell me what it was – and said, “Transcribe this. Let’s learn it and play it in the band between set changes.”
So I transcribed it and we only did it a few times. Then I took the music and threw it in my pile. I didn’t know the name of it or anything. So ten years later when I dug it out and listened to it, I couldn’t remember that was the event so I thought I wrote it. It’s a great melody – I thought it was too good to be mine!
A few years ago you mentioned you were going to remix and add some more ‘leftovers’ to the Flex-Able album.
Yes, that’s my next project. I want to release a box that has: Flex-Able remastered; Flex-Able Leftovers, with some tunes from the Passion And Warfare days; a remastering and licensing of the Alcatraz record; a disc that I want to put together of all the film cues that I’ve done...[ii]
...from Crossroads, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey...?
Yeah and a bonus disc that’s sort of like Frank’s Lumpy Gravy album, all this talking and funny things.
So, do you have a backlog of ‘leftovers’?
I’ve got a real, real lot of stuff. The fact is I just used to record, never thought I’d ever release it or that anyone would ever want to hear it.
Being signed to Epic Records, is that a problem – you can’t release as much as you’d like?
No, it’s not that. I just don’t have the time. The time to record it and finish it. I’m touring so much and I have a family. No, with Epic I can record anything I want.
So, after the band project, the half instrumental/half song oriented Fire Garden, G3, the orchestral collaborations – what direction is Steve Vai heading off into next?
For my next proper studio record I want to really focus on the guitar and make it a guitar record. It’ll have vocals, but I want to try to sit back and think where will the guitar go from here – what’s the next evolutionary stage? I’m not talking about in the mundane pop world of the guitar. You know, a real development of the guitar. I want to try to saturate my consciousness in that frame of mind and see where that takes me and try to make it a reality.
I don’t know if it’ll be the be-all and end-all, but it should be fun to listen to. It’ll be fun to play!
Okay, final question – tell me about the sample at the start of Kill The Guy With The Ball – where did that come from?
That’s not a sample! It’s a guitar going through a DSP 4000, an Eventide piece of gear. It’s a vocal filter that I constructed.
What it does is, you hit a note and it makes it go “Ai-yeh, ai-yeh, ai-yeh.” On top of that I have the whammy pedal, which takes the pitch and throws it around in octaves: “Ai-yeh, ai-yee, ai-yeh, AI-YEE, ai-yeh.”
So that’s with one foot and with the other I’m using the wah-wah.
So then you’ve got “Ai-yaw, wah-yee, ai-yeh, wah-yeh.” And then when I’ve got the whammy bar and I’m foxing with the notes: “Ai-yaw, ah-rai-uh, wuh-yehh-urr-yeh.”
That’s how I did it!
MK: That might be the next evolutionary step of the guitar [laughs]!
Interview conducted on Wednesday 4th June 1997. The complete interview with Steve can be found in Andrew's book Frank Talk: The Inside Stories Of Zappa's Other People (Wymer UK, 2017). Photo of Steve at Tower Records, Piccadilly on 23 November 1993 taken by the Idiot Bastard.
[i] A concert went ahead in Jerusalem on 12th June 1997, but featured the Banned From Utopia performing Zappa material with the Shalom BSAL orchestra conducted by Thome.
[ii] In 2001, Vai produced ‘The Secret Jewel Box’ containing the CDs: The Elusive Light And Sound; Alcatrazz: Disturbing the Peace; and Archives Vol. 2: Original Recordings Of Frank Zappa. The box will house a total of 10 CDs (or eleven, if you count the interview disc hidden in its base): at the time of writing, Vai has yet to issue the final few: Alcatrazz: Panic Jungle (Live In Japan) and Hot Chunks.