The Frank Zappa song Steve Vai still has “recurring nightmares” about

“That was a kind of piece that, when we finally got into rehearsal, he manually orchestrated it.”

Steve Vai and Frank Zappa

Image: Medios y Media / Gary Gershoff / Getty Images

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Steve Vai has spoken about the Frank Zappa song that still gives him ‘recurring nightmares’ decades down the road.

In a new interview with Chanan Hanspal, Vai details Zappa’s process as a composer, saying “I know that he loved composing for his bands and based on the instrumentation of the band he had at a particular time, [it] would dictate the kind of score he wrote for the band.”

As the guitarist explains, “with Frank it was any means necessary. He would sometimes come in with a completed score for the band, and then at times he would, in rehearsals, teach us things, show us things, and create a piece of music that could ostensibly sound as though every note was composed.”

Citing 1985’s Alien Orifice as one of those pieces, Vai says the song first “came as a piece of sheet music.”

“Inevitably, it started out as just Frank sitting and composing, and he composed all the time. He had a little briefcase, he’d open it up, and it’d be a little cassette recorder — the portable ones at the time — manuscript paper, pens, pencils, and cigarettes. Something like that.”

Vai says that he felt “really excited” — as he usually does — when Zappa first handed him the composition for Alien Orifice during a plane ride: “I always got very excited when Frank gave me music because in all of my naïveté, innocence, inexperience, intimidation that I felt just by being around Frank — that always floated my boat when Frank gave me an assignment or gave me a piece of music — I was like, ‘Ah, I just sharpened my knives,’” he says.

“I remember I was looking at it, getting very excited trying to figure out how am I going to finger this and finding the rhythms in my head. I always had questions with articulation because when you write articulation into a piece of guitar music, the articulation means something different than it does for other instruments.”

“When Frank would write it and hand a lead sheet, it wasn’t specific to a guitar, it was just a melody. So I would have questions, ‘Well, how do you want this attacked?’

He continues: “So on one occasion, I went up to the first class and I sat with Frank. We reviewed it a little bit, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about this.’ He looked at it, then he took it, and that’s when he wrote those crazy septuplets. And I thought, ‘I should have stayed in my seat.’ [Laughs]”

As the song eventually found its way into Zappa’s setlist, Vai says that the man would get “such a kick at hearing it, and you always knew it because he would kind of smile if it was being performed properly.”

The track’s complexity, coupled with Zappa’s tendency to “write the setlist five minutes before the show” though, meant that Vai had to practise playing the song all the time — whether or not they were performing it.

“That was one of the ones that you just never know — days could go by, maybe a week before it was put into the setlist again, but I had to play it every day. For me on the guitar, it’s not like, ‘Hey, do you remember ‘Alien Orifice’? Let’s play that!’ Yeah, no, thanks,” says the virtuoso.

“That’s actually a recurring nightmare that I’ve had for decades. It’s one of these funny situations where I find myself walking onto Frank’s stage, and there’s like ‘Alien Orifice’, ‘The Black Page’, ‘Moggio’. And I’m saying, ‘Frank, it was 45 years ago, I don’t remember it.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, you gotta play it’, and then he starts, and then I wake up. [Laughs]

“That’s a recurring nightmare feeling of ‘AAHHH!’ [Laughs] But I had to keep all these things under my fingers. Once it got out there, and we were performing a song like that, he would occasionally tweak it, but he would usually conduct it — ‘So okay, let’s start that segment again.'”

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