While thousands of bands and musicians have been forced to cancel or postpone tours in the face of COVID-19, Steve Vai counts himself as one of the lucky ones – he had no live dates on the books for 2020. However, the global pandemic did throw a rather sizeable wrench into an elaborate recording project he had been planning.
“I was going to be in Europe for four weeks recording my orchestra music with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland and the Aarhus Denmark Radio Symphony,” the guitarist says. “It was supposed to kick off the last week of May and go all the way through June. It’s about four hours of orchestra music that I have that I haven’t released yet. It’s been performed, and some of the compositions are orchestrations of songs like Velorum, Call It Sleep and other selections from my catalogue. Probably about two-thirds of it is pretty intense, complex and dense, contemporary orchestra music. That I had to postpone. It’s fine – it’s just what is.”
Speaking from his Los Angeles home, Vai reports that the ongoing lockdown hasn’t affected his day-to-day life to any great extent. “I’m fortunate. I haven’t gotten sick, at least not that I know of,” he says. “For me, it’s relatively business as usual because I live in my studio anyway. I roll with the punches and I don’t even feel them as punches.
“I know that there’s a lot of challenges for people, both health-wise and economically,” he continues, “but I also see a lot of people are thriving as a result of COVID in various ways. Some have started new businesses, or they’ve found different types of jobs. Some have found different ways of doing their job. And a lot of people have found out things about living with their family that they never realised. There are advantages – you just have to look for them.”
Some musicians can record remotely, but we assume that would have been pretty difficult with an orchestra.
“I would not feel comfortable recording these pieces remotely. These works are very specific and they would require me to be there. But you know, here’s the thing: If you navigate through any challenge when it arises, you’ll have the coping mechanisms to deal with it, and you’ll also have opportunities for very solution-based, move-forward plans. If you’re in a state of panic and fear, you’re going to miss those opportunities because you’ll be looking for other things. You’ll be looking for fearful things.
“That’s the interesting thing about something like COVID-19. The fear that it can elicit in a person is insidious and they don’t even realise it. They can find themselves seeking out bad news. If all you’re reading is bad news, then that’s going to colour your perspective of everything you’re doing. I look for good news and I find it.”
A lot of musicians who can’t tour have really started embracing social media more than they used to.
“Sure. It’s become the new norm. One of the things that was really nice is how the online community of musicians really came together with Zoom meetings. I’ve done a lot of Zoom-type meetings with various friends and people. For many years I wanted to do these two live streams, one of them based on my knowledge and experience as a guitar player – I call that Alien Guitar Secrets. Another one is to discuss more esoteric topics and the kind of spirituality I’ve studied in my life. Those episodes are called Under It All.
“I hadn’t done it in the past because I never felt qualified, or maybe it just didn’t feel right at the time. I wanted to do it, though. Finally, I got a call from my media team, and they said, ‘Steve, we’re in lockdown and people are starting to do live streams. Maybe it’s a good time for you to consider that’.
“That’s when it all came together, and I said, “OK, now’s the time.” I launched these two live streams: Alien Guitar Secrets and Under It All. I did seven weeks of that and then I got clobbered with work that I wanted to get done, so I’ve discontinued them for now. The response was really great, and it all came about as a result of the lockdown. It’s been another way for me to communicate with people who are interested in what I do or what I have to say.”
We saw you participated recently in a live stream with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci recently.
“That was fantastic. I mean, obviously musicians are going to be off the road the rest of this year. I don’t see any way that shows can happen, but artists are finding ways to reach people. The music community is like a family. Yes, there’s squabbling and competition like any family, but there’s a community, especially among the guitar community. We need each other and we want each other to succeed. For a lot of musicians, this is a tough time. Many of them are suffering, the ones that live hand to mouth, gig to gig.
“But like I had said before, if you’re in a situation like that and you decide that you prefer to look for solutions optimistically, then you will find them. They’re on your radar. People don’t realise what they’re looking for with their inner intention. If they’re in a state of confusion, panic, fear, even frustration about their career and about making ends meet and stuff like that, then that’s going to be what they’re looking at, and the solutions are not going to be as readily in their sight.”
Have you shifted your focus to some other recording projects that were maybe on the back burner, things you can do at home?
“Absolutely. I’ve started working on some other things… It’s difficult for me to talk about them because my plans change. Once I let something out that I’m doing, people expect it right away. So I should preface this with, I don’t know what’s going to happen. My original plan was to record three trio-based instrumental guitar records that have no overdubs. One record was going to be all clean guitar tones. The second one was going to be my normal dirty tone. The third one was going to be this tuned-down eight-string stuff, like the heaviest of stuff I could possibly dream of. That was one project and I laid it all out, but then other things got in the way.
“I recorded one track, Candle Power, and that’s for the clean records. It’s on YouTube. It’s got this cool technique I was fooling around with that I call “joint shifting.” It’s where you bend notes in different directions while you’re pulling off and fretting other notes. I discovered the only way to really do it accurately is to use the tip of your finger and then bend the joint at the tip, as opposed to conventional bending. I looked at it and thought, “This is like joint shifting.” There are some pretty bizarre things in that piece. I wanted to challenge myself for my 60th birthday. I used a Strat-style guitar, which is not what I usually play. It’s a clean tone with no whammy – that’s like removing one of my limbs – and no pick.
“I never developed my finger picking, but I thought, “OK, let me try it. Something will come out of it.” It was an idea that I had in the back of my mind for this weird bending thing. It sounds almost like country bending. I did Alien Guitar Secrets Episode Eight, and that’s about an hour and a half where I play the video and I also explain the whole approach to the song.
“I had never seen this technique being used quite this way, but I assumed it was done before by perhaps many players. After the track came out, some people had mentioned that Jerry Donahue did things like this, so I checked him out, and yes, he was doing similar-type things decades ago, although it was new for me.
“There’s also the Real Illusions trilogy – I’ve already released two records, so I decided that I should do the third one. I’ve started to pull that together. On one of my Alien Guitar Secrets, I did an acoustic and vocal version for a song, The Moon And I. The response was so great that I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to make an acoustic record.’ Just solo acoustic guitar and vocals. But as mentioned, who knows how it will all turn out? That’s the surprise and delight.”
Have you talked to any musician friends about how they’ve been handling this whole thing?
“Sure. I check in and see how they are. Some people, like I said, are really thriving and some people were caught right in the middle of a project. Dave Grohl lives up the street from me. The Foo Fighters were working on a record in a house they rented a block away from my house. I know those guys, so I went up there and was hanging out a little bit. I’m not really into paranormal activity or that kind of thing, but I’m convinced this house they’re recording in is haunted. Dave started telling me the story of the house and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, of course, the place feels haunted!’ I was actually going to get together and jam with Taylor Hawkins, but COVID just put a hold to everything.”
Hopefully, some studios can get back up and working again, if everybody is careful and safe and respectful of social distancing.
“Oh yeah. If I wanted to, I can get people to come over and record. You’ve got to take proper protocol.”
We have to ask, do you have a cool mask?
“[Laughs] Yes, I do. A friend of mine made me one. It’s got like eyeballs on the mouth and stuff. It’s kind of weird.”
Have you given any thought as to when you might be able to tour again?
“Right now, I’m just taking it one step at a time. I’m making decisions as I go, as information comes in. That’s all you can do. If you approach that idea without any resistance, and what I mean by that is believing that if it doesn’t go the way you want it to go, then it’s all wrong. If you approach it with interest and positive expectation, then everything works out. You know, if six months from now, my agent calls me and says, ‘Nope. Nobody’s touring in 2021,’ that’s what is, and I just have to figure something else out. I don’t think I could ever be at a loss for things to do.”
Aside from online activity and recording, has this changed your schedule in any other way? Are you catching up on Netflix? Are you reading books that you might never have before?
“Well, one thing that I’ve always wanted to do was create a challenging workout schedule, so I’ve been doing that. What else has changed? On the weekends, my wife and I watch various seasons of interesting shows. I don’t usually watch the heavy, violent shows, although I did watch the entire Game Of Thrones twice. We watch things like Grace And Frankie and The Good Place. One of my favourites is Schitt’s Creek. Oh, you know what we love? The Great British Bake Off. I love it. It’s a great cooking show, and you can really just forget all the bad stuff that’s happening and get caught up in it. But there’s really not too much TV in our daily life. I definitely do not watch the news as I believe the vast majority of it is fear based and is actually the crux of the problem. They teach fear. I’ll have none of it.”
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