Notes From An Artist

A Conversation with Steve Vai - Like Heaven In a Cup!

March 04, 2024 David C Gross and Tom Semioli
Notes From An Artist
A Conversation with Steve Vai - Like Heaven In a Cup!
Show Notes Transcript

Steve Vai:

Virtuoso guitarist, composer, educator, and entrepreneur Steve Vai joins hosts/bassists David C. Gross and Tom Semioli to discuss his career, artistic philosophies, and how he prefers his pasta cooked.

A Conversation with Steve Vai Playlist

Steve Vai: Like Heaven In A Cup!

PREAMBLE:

TS: Full disclosure Steve Vai, I worked for you circa 2001 as a publicist for your record label Favored Nations. I was with Joan Myers, founder of the legendary Myers Media organization, and we promoted Dweezil Zappa’s Automatic album. Joan booked Dweezil and his brother Ahmet on Late Night with Conen O’Brien wherein they rendered an extraordinary version of “You’re A Mean Man Mr. Grinch.” 

SV: I remember that, thanks! It was very Zappa-esque!  

TS: As you would expect from Dweezil and Ahmet! A great moment in television history…

SV: Yes! And that was a great album too. 

OFFICIAL ON AIR INTRODUCTION:

 

TS: Let’s introduce our audience member to Steve Vai….

He is a guitarist, and a composer whose work spans classical music to hard rock and permutations thereof. Steve is a recording and performing artist, instrument designer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, bandleader, band member, collaborator, educator, clinician, author, podcast host, vlogger. 

He is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

SV: With a whammy bar! I’m going to have to write down all these things you said about me to remind myself! 

DCG: Which Steve Vai are we going to interview today! (laughter)

TS:  In addition to his work as a solo artist Steve has collaborated with Frank Zappa; he has been a member of Joe Satriani’s G3 collective since 1996. Steve also took guitar lessons from ‘Satch’ when he was a teenager. 

 

Steve’s high profile rock gigs include tenures and appearances on stage and on record with Whitesnake, Public Image Ltd., Alcatrazz, and David Lee Roth to cite a few. Steve has performed with orchestras featuring his own compositions around the globe.

 

Mr. Vai’s closet is filled with statutes from Guitar Player; he’s been inducted into the Long Island Hall of Fame; he has been cited with 3 Grammy awards; Steve was bequeathed a Les Paul Award, and in 2016, Steve was presented with the keys to the city of Vicopisano, Italy which is in the Tuscany province of Pisa. Steve, do the keys actually open anything?  

 

SV:  I was also awarded the keys to the city of Dorno in Italy, which is where my grandparents are from. The keys are a ceremonial thing – I just wanted the keys to the mozzarella bar! (laughter) 

 

Along with Ruta Sepetys, Steve Vai established the Make a Noise Foundation which provides instruments and music education to young musicians who otherwise could not afford them. 

 

Steve Vai is also founder of a music education camp, aptly titled Vai Academy. He is also a podcaster and webcaster who hosts such programs as Alien Guitar Secrets, and Under It All

 

DCG: And folks that’s all we have time for now, thanks for being our guest Steve – goodnight! 

 

(laughter) 

 

 

 

 

 

INTERVIEW:

 

TS: You and I were born in the same month, same year – June 1960 and we have something else in common, we both grew up in a place known as Nassau County Long Island! You were raised in Carle Place, and I emerged from the mean streets of Valley Stream! 

 

SV: Oh my goodness! 

 

TS: As a young rock musician, you had to have played at such landmark Long Island venues as The Dublin Pub, Rumrunners, The Salty Dog, Right Track In, Hammerheads, Solomon Grundy’s, My Father’s Place, Speaks, and Rum Bottoms – renowned for their wet t-shirt contests! 

 

SV: Oh yeah! Never played The Dublin Pub or Solomon Grundy’s – but I hung out there. I played Right Track Inn! Speaks, yeah that was a great place. I played My Father’s Place… Rum Bottoms, you’re bringing up some memories there! 

 

DCG: Tom I never knew you wore wet t-shirts! (laughter) 

 

SV: So you are obviously familiar with local bands such as Rat Race Choir, the Good Rats, Twisted Sister, and Zebra. Great bands all of them…

 

TS: Yes I am, and I’m sure you purchased gear at Sam Ash in Hempstead and Gracin’s in Freeport.

 

SV: I used to hang out at that Sam Ash all the time, however Matthew’s Music in Roosevelt Field Shopping Mall was a little closer, so I bought most of my stuff there. Gracin’s - I don’t think I was ever there. 

 

TS: Long Island boasted a fertile music scene as well, with the Calderone Concert Hall in Hempstead, C.W. Post and Hofstra Universities hosting several concerts. Of course, we had the Nassau Coliseum, and all the music clubs along the Jericho Turnpike. Mel’s Place in Baldwin was a great jazz club run by the famous trumpeter. 

 

SV: You’re right it was a very fertile music environment. And I didn’t realize that until later in life when I started touring. I used to walk to the Nassau Coliseum all the time and see everybody. 

 

My second or third concert was Kiss at the Calderone. I saw so many acts there… Utopia, Blue Oyster Cult. My very first concert was Return to Forever at the Hofstra University Playhouse. 

 

All those clubs in Long Island, even out in the Hamptons, were monumental in my musical growth. There were so many great musicians on Long Island. 

 

I had what I call the ‘Vai Advantage’ – I grew up in the same town as Joe Satriani – he was my guitar teacher from the ages of about 12 to 17. Living in proximity to New York City was a great experience.  I’d get on the Long Island Railroad and go right into Penn Station and right up to Madison Square Garden and see all the really big bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath… everybody! 

 

TS: Plus, with all the catering halls such as Knights of Columbus, and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) – you could actually make a living as a musician working weddings, Baz Mitzvah’s, anniversary parties, graduation parties, and all sorts of social events

 

SV: Yes, if you were a musician and you were committed, you could have steady work on Long Island. 

 

TS: Getting back to your lessons with Joe Satriani - did he work out of a Mel Bay book – what was his style of teaching?

 

SV: (laughter) He lived in Westbury on the boarder, so he went to Carle Place High School. While I was taking lessons and many years after I was taking lessons – I could never negotiate in my head how somebody that brilliant wasn’t well known. And sure enough, his career took off.

 

The interesting thing was that we both had the same music teacher in high school. And because Joe was older than me, he had taken those music classes before me. I wanted to be a composer. I started very early with that. But I was not applying that information to the guitar. Especially the theory I was learning. 

 

Joe really helped me to integrate music theory into my guitar playing. He was the perfect teacher. Joe shared everything. He was strict. Joe was solid and he was so musical. Even as a teenager. 

 

TS: Joe also taught Kirk Hammett of Metallica and Alex Skolnik. Do you translate any of Joe’s methodology at the Vai Academy?  

 

SV: Music theory is theory, if you’re taught the basics as a guitar player such as scales, and why chords are the way they are – the basic things that you really should know even if you’re not a muso – those are staples at Vai Academy. 

 

And the way those are taught is based on the teacher. And so much of what I do came from Joe, and Frank Zappa, and (David Lee) Roth – my mentors, so to speak.  

 

The things that I got from Joe with regard to teaching – is first, you have to understand where the student is at. Second you have to understand what their goals are. And then induce in them the importance of understanding the basics. And if they are interested in more than that, then you take them there. You can share everything. 

 

The goal of a good teacher is to be useless after a while. 

 

DCG: That makes perfect sense Steve! When you discuss theory, the keyboard emerges as a great instrument because that middle C is aways going to be at the middle C. Whereas on a bass or a guitar, the E can be on the second fret, the seventh fret and so on…

 

Are you familiar with guitarist Dennis Sandole? 

 

SV: No.

 

DCG: John Coltrane was a big disciple of his, and Sandole insisted that all of his students play piano – whether they did or didn’t at that point.  Of course, with horns, you need some sort of a chordal instrument. Did you transfer any of your guitar teachings to keyboard so your students could have another way of looking at a theory lesson?

 

SV: I didn’t however I do understand the importance of having some kind of an overview on a keyboard if you are any kind of a musician. It’s good to place your hands on the keyboard and have an understanding of what is going on. You don’t have to necessarily be a virtuoso. 

 

I started out as a good Italian-American boy on Long Island playing the accordion. I was always fascinated with the piano but… my family never had a piano in the house, and I didn’t really have access to one. For some reason, and I tried when I was going to Berklee, but I just wasn’t interested in the keyboard by then. I knew that I needed to know and play the piano to some extent. I do use the piano for composing – all I have to do is squeak through some harmonic atmospheres, and that’s enough. 

 

The compositional brain muscle is very different than the performing brain muscle. It’s not uncommon for people who are composers to not be able to play a lot of instruments. Maybe none really proficiently. 

 

I can see that in myself at a very early age I wanted to own the orchestra – the language. I understood that having all these musical ideas and having all these players at your disposal that I had to get them to understand what is in my head – I have to understand the language. 

 

I wanted to be a master composer and orchestrator of every instrument. The harp, the piano, everything… I spent a lot of time studying the harp – how to compose for the instrument, the limitations of the instrument. It is a very complicated instrument. Now, I have no desire to play the thing.  I can play it in my mind. And that’s how a composer thinks. 

 

I can write for drums. I’ve transcribed Vinny Colaiuta drum solos. When I write for drums every single thing is notated. And I can see it, if it’s possible. I know exactly what it is going to sound like. There’s really not much experimenting. I’ll know if it’s right or wrong. However, if you put me behind a drum kit I’ll sound like a drunk falling down a flight of stairs! 

 

(laughter) 

 

DCG: When you attended Berklee, did you ever go into the piano room after a drummer? Damn, the keyboard was always out of tune! 

 

SV: The pounding those pianos took! 

 

DCG: What Berklee taught me was how you could compose mathematically. Such as writing four-part harmonies just by using mathematics of chord theory.

 

SV: Yes! Me too…

 

DCG: I remember taking the Boston to New York Eastern Air Shuttle and there was an attractive woman sitting next to me. And, trying to look cool, I took out my music notation book which I thought it would impress her. She didn’t take notice and I never got to meet her.

 

SV: (laughter) You should have slipped her a note with a romantic melody on it! 

 

DCG: That’s it, the theme to Cinema Paradiso! (laughter) Berklee was a great place to ply your craft. 

 

SV: Berklee offers different things to different people. For me, it was a fantastic environment. Looking back, they music theory classes that I took in high school – which was a 12th Grade class, had a teacher who was a savant. His name was Bill Wescott, and he was a brilliant, tormented instructor and player. And I was able to get into that class when I was in 7th Grade because I made a deal with the orchestra. They needed a tuba player and asked me if I would take up the instrument for the orchestra. 

 

So, I agreed to take up the tuba on the condition that they allow me to take this theory class every year of my high school years. They agreed! I had Bill Wescott for five years. It was like being in the military. 

 

He taught me everything, when I got to Berklee there wasn’t much they could really teach me. Again, the environment for me was vital. I was a teenager leaving home and finding my independence. That in and of itself is the education! 

 

I was surrounded by young musicians who had the same dreams and hopes. I was able to knock on somebody’s door and jam with a bassoon player! The greatest asset to me, when I look back at Berklee - were the teachers – especially Wes Hensell.  

 

DCG: Wes was my mentor! I was reading Arnold Schoenberg’s Structural Functions of Harmony and my harmony teacher said to me ‘you can’t really read that, it’s not the Berklee way…so I went to Wes and he advised me ‘I think it’s time for you to go back to New York…’ So I left. I studied with Rick Laird when I returned to New York City and with a couple of composition teachers from the Sounds of Joy jazz studio… Wes was a genius.

 

SV:  Not only was he a genius, but a special teacher too. Wes would give me an assignment such as 40 bars of so-and-so, and I’d return with 120 bars…

 

Another thing that was vital for me at Berklee was the music library. As a kid growing up, you don’t have access to every Stravinsky, Beatles, Maynard Ferguson or Frank Zappa record. Berklee had everything. I would go in there and make cassettes of the albums…and that’s where I woke up!

 

My dynamic moments in the library included my discovery of Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti (avant-garde composers) and Luciano Berio (experimental composer). 

DCG: Gowing up in New York City, I had a whole different set of circumstances… I found most of my music education working at The Record Hunter shop next to Carnagie Hall. I got into Vincent Ludwig Persichetti (composer, educator), and artists like him since those were the new records coming out. 

It wasn’t until later on that I realized that Berklee was a real special moment for me. Especially when I began to use the things I learned at Berklee in the recording studio, almost through osmosis. 

SV: Have you seen Berklee lately? It has transformed tremendously. The have amazing work stations with Pro Tools, the library is totally different, they are expanding with new buildings. There is a Berklee school in Spain, they opened one in Abu Dhabi where I performed a concert at the opening ceremonies. 

I am a big supporter of Berklee because I know its value. The now offer a Steve Vai Course – online, which is kind of nice. I visit whenever I’m in town (Boston), I highly recommend young people looking into it. 

DCG: At the time I was there, 1973-74, the guitar was the most popular instrument. In fact, when I walked in the first day, one instructor informed me that ‘the electric bass is not a valid musical instrument.’ (laughter) 

SV: I had a teacher tell me that when I showed up with a Stratocaster! (laughter) I was there in the late 1970s. At that time the focus was on guitar and jazz. Back then if you played rock music, you had to put something over the door so no one would look in!

Now they have programs for contemporary interests. If you are an artist and you want to get involved in something that is happening now, they have training for it. 

TS: Steve your journey as a composer began when your parents brought home the soundtrack album to West Side Story… then your sister turned you on to Led Zeppelin. 

DCG: Combine West Side Story, Led Zeppelin, and a lot of sharp 11 chords, and you have Steve Vai!

(laughter) 

SV: A lot of sharp 11 chords and flat 7 chords! I don’t know what it is. Everybody comes into the world with different attractions, different interests. I must have been about 4 or 5 years old when I first heard West Side Story… It captivated me. It had incredible orchestrations and melodies, it was open, it was big, it had a story to it…it had theater… it had drama… love interests… gangs…fighting…dancing…

And for some reason, that was like the sun coming out for me.  I knew when I listened to that music that there was just a big mystery. But I loved it! Then finally, one day, I walked up to a piano and I hit a note. I discovered that the sounds went higher to the right, lower to the left. I experienced an immediate epiphany. 

I understood that there was a language behind all of that music. And I understood that if I knew the language, I could make music like that. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do. When I’d hear music, I’d think to myself ‘I get it!’ I started doodling, as all kids do, of musical notes – just little black dots with stems.

When I took up the accordion at 8 or 9 years old, that’s when I made the connection. The compositional aspect in my mind seemed like an absolute infinite potential for creativity. I wanted to know the language so that I would have no barriers because I already knew the moment I understood that I was going to have a field day – even though at the time I did not know what I wanted to write. Like heaven in a cup! 

I wrote my first orchestra score in high school…with Billy Westcott teaching me. From then on it was a secret, because once I start playing the guitar – and my career as a guitarist began to kick in, nobody was interested in my compositions! And I knew that and I didn’t have any expectations. However, I just kept composing. I’d accrued stacks of music which I wrote while I was on tour, in airports, planes, hotel rooms, backstage… I just loved it!

And it all just sat in a pile. Every time I reached out to an American orchestra to play this music – they were not interested in a guitar player’s compositional music. 

Until they realized that if I play – they are going to sell out! Still, it was difficult in America. My real compositional break came when a friend of mine in Holland, Co de Kloet – whom I met in the early 1980s through Frank, started importing my first record Flex-Able. He worked for their national broadcasting system.

Co solicited the government there to put on a concert with my orchestral music back in 2003. And that turned into an avalanche of good stuff. I can compose for most orchestras these days that are interested. And there are a lot of them, I can’t really keep up with all of them. It really worked out great for me.

DCG: You mention Xenakis, Ligeti … I didn’t hear you cite Karlheinz Stockhausen (composer, renowned as “the father of electronic music”).

SV: Stockhausen too! I collect scores. I have all the quartets, and I’ve read them. Yeah, Stockhausen too! 

(laughter) 

Are you familiar with Mangus Lindberg? He is a freak-a-zoid!

[Notes From An Artist Notes: Finnish composer Magnus Gustaf Adolf Lindberg served as the New York Philharmonic composer-in-residence and is currently (as of 2024) the London Philharmonic Orchestra composer-in-residence.]  

His compositional style, the techniques he uses, and the computer programs he uses create these unbelievable tapestries of create unique – and I use that word in its real sense – audio delights. 

DCG: It’s great to hear you talk about things like that because when people see you doing the things you do in the rock world, they simply jump to the conclusion of ‘oh, he’s a rocker!’ But, as we have discussed with Ron Carter, it’s all about the ‘Big M’ – music!

TS: And on the Ron Carter thread, before this show David and I were discussing how many of Miles Davis’ band members went on to become band leaders in their own right – adhering to the ‘directions in music ‘ethos that Davis expounded. Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Joe Zawinul… the list goes on.

You said about Frank Zappa, ‘his music had something that no one else was doing and had everything that I was looking for…’

Do you feel that you are continuing Frank’s work or ideology in some way? 

SV: I don’t think there is anyone who can continue Frank’s legacy. Frank was a force; he was constantly composing. Constantly being creative. I’m different…I kind of have a life! (laughter)

So much attracted me to Frank Zappa. He was a visceral guitar player. Totally free. He had comedy in his music which I loved. He was dead serious. His creative output was an explosion of freedom. 

Frank did what he wanted. He never made excuses. And he never expected anybody to do it for him. He did not respect musical boundaries. He was very irreverent about that. As such, when he composed something, it was all part of him. Frank left no stone unturned, there were no taboos. 

I was so young when I was working for him. And I worked for him for about five or six years. I was very impressionable. 

Frank could write some of the most touching melodies, they are profoundly beautiful. And he could write some of the ugliest stuff you’ve ever heard! But there was never anything nefarious about him. Or anything depressing in the music. Or evil, or really dark. 

He was doing all the stuff that I wanted to do. Not like him. I love Frank’s orchestral composing and I’m a bigger fan of his Synclavier work. 

I don’t play guitar anything like Frank. Almost not at all. In my early compositional years, I did pull a lot of stuff from Frank because I was learning and experimenting. And I’m sure there is still that in there. There’s Led Zeppelin in my orchestral compositions. 

When I use my compositional brain muscle the focus is not on the outside world – it is on what I am hearing. Composing is an infinite creative task – so I don’t need to do what anybody else is doing. 

For me composing was always like my little secret. I didn’t care what anybody thought. I didn’t mind if it became popular or not. You know as a composer, just writing it and hearing it makes every day like Christmas. 

Like athletes, like cooks, like bricklayers… there is something in composers in that when somebody finds what really resonates with them – that becomes the most important thing – the creative process. As opposed to the commercial success. 

When they both come together, that’s nice! But you can never know that. 

TS: To succeed as an artist, you have to embrace the business of music. 

The seeds of your entrepreneurship were planted when you recorded your first album Flex-Able (1984). At the time you had the Zappa credit on your resume, and even though the label that showed interest in releasing the album offered you what was considered a “good deal” - given your genre and relatively unknown status in the music business, you turned it down. Even your lawyer advised you that this was a standard deal in what was then ‘the record industry.’ You started your own label and went directly to the distributors. That’s a pretty bold move for a 22-year-old artist starting out on his own.   

SV: A pretty bold move especially with someone who had Flex-Able in their back pocket!

I strike that up to my complete innocence and naivete at the time! Back then, I didn’t feel that I had anything to lose. I had no expectations for the future other than perhaps be a music teacher in high school. 

I knew I loved composing; I knew I loved the guitar. And I had this music in my head and thanks to the assistance of Frank – he loaned me gear, and I cut my teeth on watching the way he made records, I made Flex-Able for fun. 

Who would expect anybody to release a record like that at the time? I loved it and it represented a transitional period in my life where I was coming out of a mental funk. I was surrounded by such great people and everything was very musical. 

I made that record for me. Then I thought I’d try to release it. I figured since I had the Zappa connection, perhaps they’ll be some of Frank’s fans that would be interested in it. So, I started to look for a record deal.

Imagine shopping a record like Flex-Able! There was a label interested because of my Zappa connection. They offered me a deal that was relatively conventional at the time. I didn’t know anything about deals, so I took it to an attorney. 

I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always had an interest in the business. I learned about the music business back then, and I thought it was a good business. I understood the infrastructure, how it worked. I learned how it could benefit me, and how it could work for me. And how I could work for it.

A lot of people go into the music business with an attitude that ‘it sucks! You’re gonna get ripped off! They don’t care about you!’ And there is some truth to that. But if you have the goods and you know how to protect your intellectual property, the music business is filled with all the people you want and want you. You just have to find the right ones. 

At that time when I read that deal – and I was only 22 – I thought ‘this is ridiculous!... This can’t be real!’ They want to buy this record from me for $10,000 and recoup it from my royalty of .25 per record? How does that work? 

That means I paid for my record, and they made so much more. I took it to my attorney and he told me ‘that is a conventional record deal!’ 

Not for me! I don’t care. That was my naiveté. My innocence. Because if I was a struggling musician that didn’t care about that stuff, and believed that a record company was my holy grail, I would have taken that deal like 99% of other people who were offered the same deal.  

So, I thought to myself – how do record companies work? How they work is; they take the record and market it and then they sell it to distributors. I thought ‘oh that’s interesting, the record companies don’t sell the records, they sell it to distributors.”

 

All I had back then were the yellow pages…. 

 

[Notes From An Artist Notes: Back in the days of landline telephones, the ‘yellow pages’ were print directories of businesses that were organized alphabetically by category. Said directories were printed on yellow paper rather than the white pages used for non-commercial phone listings. Hence the term ‘yellow pages.’] 

 

…there was no internet or computers. So, I went through the yellow pages and started calling distributors. And I found this one guy, Cliff at Important Records. He was a guitar fan. He heard ‘The Attitude Song’ and was sold! 

 

I learned from making numerous calls that distributors do not take records directly from artists, they only distribute from labels. Once again, in my naiveté and innocence – I thought to myself ‘okay, I’ll just start a label!’ I researched how to start a label and it was stupid simple! I went downtown and paid $12.50 and registered – now I had a label! 

 

As such, for the distribution deal; instead of .25 for every record sold, it was $4.10 per record. And I owned the record! I wasn’t selling the rights to anybody. There you go!

 

Luckily for me Cliff took one thousand copies! Wow, I had $4000! Holy mackerel! Then he took another thousand, then another thousand… and then five thousand! Then ‘The Attitude Song’ hit Guitar Player magazine and that was it! 

 

Between then and now I’ve sold about half-a-million copies of Flex-Able. When CDs came out, I was getting about $7.50 per disc. So here I am, this 24-year-old kid selling tens of thousands of CDs and I was like ‘wow, life is good!’ 

 

TS: Then you started Favored Nations later on, which served you quite well. 

 

SV: Yes, I had to change the name a few times as I had used names that other people had claimed. But because I like the business and I understand it, I knew I wanted to be independent. I strove not to be dependent on anybody - except those that you hire! 

 

The idea of Favored Nations was focused on musician-oriented artists that had their act together, knew the music they wanted to make, and they could sell product and continue to make a living and make more records.  I named the label after the legal term for equal pay - Favored Nations. There were profit splits. So at the end of the day, if the artist made a dollar, the artist got .50 cents. And that was nothing like the conventional deals that other record companies offered. 

 

We released something like 100 records – and it was very helpful for artists at that level. Then, the internet came along. Once downloading started, and you had to purchase a download, things were even better. It cut out so much minutia with regard to inventory, dealing with distributors, in shipping, in damages… And we just got that money right away in our account. That was great. But it all ended when streaming came along. 

 

DCG: You don’t like pennies on the dollar?

 

SV: Pennies, on the pennies, on the pennies…

 

But there are still ways to navigate the music business if you are an entrepreneurial type person or musician. My suggestion is to work with people who you enjoy working with that have the skills that you lack and that need the skills that you have. And you create a team. That usually works better. 

 

DCG: That works in any business! 

 

TS: Steve you are also very active on digital media. Your Steve Vai Himself channel has almost one million YouTube subscribers. I also see you hosting or appearing on tutorial and anecdotal videos. How are you leveraging your digital presence. 

 

SV: It evolved with the technology. At first you have to save money to have someone build you a website because it can cost tens of thousands of dollars. As a person who has a career that requires you to let people know what you are doing, I needed a digital outlet. I needed to get information out on any new, emerging technology. 

 

And this is good food for thought for any artist – especially those that feel compelled to be independent - it is necessary to understand what is available to you. Marketing is extraordinarily important. Of vital importance is that you have the music that you love -it’s in the creative process. Once you have that, on one level – you are successful. You have expressed your creative impulses with no excuses. 

 

You’d be surprised how difficult this is for some people. Because they have been bamboozled by society to believe that in order to be successful, you need to do something else than what you really want. 

 

Of course, that’s a myth. You have to ‘understand’ what success is. I know very many people who are ‘successful’ in worldly ways, but they are very unhappy because they have compromised their creative freedom. 

 

So first and foremost, I always suggest that your creative impulses – the ones that you own – are of vital importance. How you get those out, who you work with to do that, is part of that equation. But then, you have something to sell. And if you love the music you’ve created, there is a quality that flows into it, that does not flow into music that you are pantomiming because you believe you need to do it because this will make you a living. 

 

That will attract the appropriate audience for you. But you have to market to it. Marketing can be a lot of fun actually. 

 

I love doing it, there are so many digital assets, as you mentioned. So as time went on and those assets evolved, I did my best to try to pull them in like ‘now we can Tweet – there is this thing called Twitter…’ Then there is Instagram, and all these little platforms – and the ones that came and went and I joined – they are the new marketing tools. 

 

If you do not have the interest as an independent artist to understand them and use them, then I would suggest getting with somebody that does. Because just like you love music, there are people who love social media and can be as equally creative. When social media became too complicated for me, I hired people that do know all the aspects of it and who love doing it. 

 

That’s why I have those numbers. And I keep the content as interesting and entertaining as possible. Stephen and Stephanie Bradley are my team and they brought my numbers from 1 to 100. 

 

TS: Do you find that you are reaching a new audience that does not remember you from your ‘rock star’ days with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake?

 

SV: There is a huge contingent…my core audience these days are those people I believe. There are those that feel the last good thing I did was Crossroads or Eat ‘Em and Smile (David Lee Roth) or Whitesnake, and I don’t mind. My music is very different than all of that. 

 

The only reason I am able to say, of greatest importance is creating the music that you love first, is that I did exactly that with Passion & Warfare (1990). I did it with Flex-Able too. And I was fortunate because it found the right audience. There was a quality in it. I know when I’m off too. I know when I am doing things with an agenda that has a goal in it that is maybe money driven or something – they’re not as enjoyable. 

 

And, there is struggle in them. You guys know, when you do what you love, there is no struggle involved. 

 

DCG: There is no struggle, everything flows. 

 

SV: Absolutely! And that is what I want for the rest of my life. No struggles…

 

DCG: We were discussing the perception of success with British session bassist and recording artist Yolanda Charles, who is also an educator and a mentor, and she said something that really resonated with me, and that was ‘success is an individual concept.’ 

 

As she put it, if you want to play music like Ornette Coleman – don’t expect to get the attention that Sting or Taylor Swift gets! Unless some sort of crazy fluke occurs! Your version of success is going to be different. Put that together with loving what you do, success can be a wonderful thing on many levels. 

 

SV: Success is an idealistic conceptualization in your mind. The feeling of satisfaction is a direct experience – and that is real success.

 

The feeling of satisfaction is another kind of success. Success in the eyes of a musician perhaps is – everybody knows who I am, I’m on the covers of the magazines, I’m winning Grammy Awards, I am wealthy financially… I’ve made it!

 

So I am ‘successful.’ Now, of course everybody has to figure out how to make ends meet. And most people do. Most people are doing fine, though in their mind they are not. 

 

That kind of worldly success, does not necessarily equal happiness. I can tell you that as a fact. Because I know people who have believed that the success I described to you was of paramount importance. And the fought, fought, fought their way to it. 

 

And finally, by some fluke even, they had a hit, or they were able to achieve some modicum of success and they took their miserable self with them! 

 

And when that happens, whatever success they gained is never enough.  You get there, and you look around and realize this is not what I thought success would be like. And that kind of success tends to exacerbate your foibles. Meaning that if you are unhappy before you are successful, it’s not uncommon to be really unhappy when you are successful. Of course, that is not always the case. 

 

Organic worldly success is the best kind. Because it happens in and of itself without you trying. Even that can be a challenge in some cases. But the difference is, you are already happy!

 

The kind of success that I always talk about is the feeling of satisfaction. You know what that feels like. When you or I create something – and when you are in the throes of your beautiful, creative expansion – and impulses, you’re enjoying the ride, and you get to listen to the end of it and find satisfaction. 

 

Ahhhhh, I really like that! Ahhhhh, that came from me and I love it! That’s a different kind of success. That is direct! It is inviolate. It is not dependent on a fantasy of the future. 

 

I agree with Yolanda, the idea of success – it is different in everybody, but it’s an idea until it becomes experiential. True experiential success has to result in the feeling of fulfillment, satisfaction, and joy. 

 

And that can happen when you’re not compromising your creative freedoms.   

 

Steve Vai NOTES FROM AN ARTIST PLAYLIST

 

“You’re A Mean Man, Mr. Grinch” Dweezil Zappa Automatic 

 

“Atmosphères” György Ligeti 

 

“The Black Page” Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4

 

“Heavy Duty Judy” Frank Zappa The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life 

 

“Frogs with Dirty Lips” Frank Zappa Them or Us 

 

“Yankee Rose” David Lee Roth Eat ‘Em and Smile 

 

“Bag” Public Image Ltd. Album

 

“Slip of the Tongue” Whitesnake Whitesnake 

“Feed My Frankenstein” Alice Cooper Hey Stoopid 

 

“Race with the Devil” Al DiMeola Elegant Gypsy 

 

“Little Green Men” Steve Vai Felx-Able 

 

“For The Love of God” Steve Vai Passion and Warfare 

 

“The Lost Chord” Steve Vai Modern Primitive 

 

“Greenish Blues” Steve Vai Inviolate 

 

“Glasgow Kiss” G3 G3 Live