Blog

STEVE VAI: THE ‘MODERN PRIMITIVE’ INTERVIEW

VAI_5-028

Virtuoso guitarist and visionary composer Steve Vai will release Modern Primitive on July 7th, 2017 through Favored Nations Entertainment, the indie label founded by Vai in 1999. Originally included as a companion disk to Vai’s 25th anniversary release of his seminal Passion and Warfare CD, Modern Primitive will be released by itself as the 7th instalment of the Steve Vai Secret Jewel Box, an ambitious 10 CD box set that was originally released in December 2001. This stand alone release of  Modern Primitive will be a limited edition album and has been modified specifically for Vai’s Secret Jewel Box, making this an instant collector’s item for Vai fans around the globe.

Modern Primitive is comprised of material that was written and partially recorded with Vai’s band “The Classified” back in the early 80’s. “The Classified” consisted of Tommy Mars on Keyboards, Chris Frazier on drums, Stu Hamm on bass and Sue Mathis on vocals and keyboards that he formed after his first solo record Flex-Able (1983) and prior to the writing and recording of the music on Vai’s renowned, Passion and Warfare (1990). Vai completed the recording in 2016, 30 years after its inception. The album represents that missing link that exposes the colossal growth period between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare.

Ahead of the Modern Primitive release, Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips was honoured to catch up with Steve to discuss the album.

mpcovAM: Although it had it’s origin in the early 80s but completed more recently, Modern Primitive … like all of your albums, stands up as a contemporary slice of music. I put that down to the unique sounds you create and not using cliche patches and generic synths and sounds of the time. Is that something you are conscious of when writing and recording?
SV: When I’m using keyboard patches I tend to lean more towards samples and conventional orchestral instruments. These never really sound trendy or dated. I do use conventional contemporary patches and loops sometimes but can instinctually know if a particular sound is trendy and then I will usually avoid those.

Once you make up your mind what gear you need for a particular recording session, in general how set in stone is it? Do you often add pedals etc that weren’t in the original plan or do you know exactly what’s going to be right for a track from the get-go?
There’s some experimenting of course and although I will look at a song and let it tell me what it needs, I may create a map of the gear I want to use but it can very easily change when I actually start the process because I allow a lot of psychological flexibility. In the end you end up knowing if the sound you used is the right one for the song and it may take a while to search for it but the song is the boss and you have to obey it or it will be pissed off at you in the future.

How different was your rig for the recent recordings of Modern Primitive as opposed to when you did some initial recording with The Classified in the 80s?
Vastly different. Back in the day I used my original 76 Sticker Strat, usually a Carvin x100b amp or some kind of small Fender combo, and older distortion pedals like the MXR. Some things I retain such as MXR phasers and Dunlop Wha Whas, etc.

jemsIn January Ibanez released 3 beautiful 30th anniversary models of your JEM guitar. How long were they in planning and have you been using those models live this year?
The idea to reflect back on the original aesthetic of the first released Jems was something we started thinking about a year in advance. I have one each of the new 30th anniversary versions but I can’t seem to put down EVO and FLO, my two main Jem’s for the last 26 years.

What brief (if any) did you give to Mohini Dey about playing on the track Bop! on the Modern Primitive album?
She’s so amazing. I sent her the track with just a guide vocal “bop” melody, a guide drum track and a very limited guide bass so she knew the roots of the harmonic situations in the song. She sent me back two versions, one with her slapping and one finger picking. When I constructed her final bass part I used some of each.

The amazing this was that “Bop” is not an easy track to manoeuvre around on the bass. I thought it would perhaps take me 2-3 solid days to get a performance out of any bass player I know that would do something in line with what I was expecting for the track.

Mohini sent me back both her bass tracks in a few days and said, “I had some time after my gig last night so I put these down for you”. Frankly, I was stunned. Her performance, choice of notes, tone, etc. was way beyond anything I could have expected and way beyond anything I perhaps could have gotten if I was sitting with a bass player telling them what to play.  She’s exceptional.

Tell us about the epic 3 part song Pink and Blows Over. What does the title mean and what was the spark which began that song?
Thanks for asking about this song. It’s kind of bizarrely epic and I love love love it, but I guess it’s an acquired taste for most people. I can only assume that for people who may have similar soft spots for this kind of music, if you invest the time in listening to it there is a huge payoff.

The song was a stream of consciousness writing session that I did well over 30 years ago. I just sat with my guitar and some manuscript paper and wrote down the first things that would come to mind. Perhaps that’s why the lyric is so odd. I can tell you what it means to me but it might spoil it for people who like to create their own reality based on a song.

I brought the track to “The Classified” which was the band I had way back in the mid 80’s. It came mostly in manuscript form in 3 movements. The first movement is the quirky lullaby that was composed and shown to the band, and the interlude at the end of it was presented in manuscript form with parts for each musician.

The 2nd movement was given to Tommy Mars, our keyboard player in the Classified as a solo section for him and he would improvise something different every night. It slowly evolved into something that had a sort of form to it, but who ever knew what Mars was going to do! He’s as brilliant as it gets. His ability to be inspired in the moment is the most fascination thing I have ever seen any musician do in my life.

The 3rd movement was a fusionesque track that I had written while at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late 70’s. The Classified used to play “Pink and Blows Over” at most of it’s shows. I never recorded it properly in the studio but had some bad quality live recordings of a few versions. When I was putting Modern Primitive together I strongly felt that this track needed to be represented because it captures the true essence of my creative process during that period. And that process was, and still is at times, the first thing that comes out of your head is a keeper. I’m really happy with the way it turned out on the record, especially since I was able to gather all the original musicians from “The Classified” to record it.

VAI_6-036

In general do you agonise over song titles or is it something you do quickly?
Sometimes a title comes quickly, sometimes the title comes before the song is written. Most of the time the song tells you what it should be called if you can align yourself with the personality of the track. There’s usually no agonising, but instead is a sense of excited anticipation because I know that the title will be perfect when it does come.

Is there a track on Modern Primitive that you are particularly proud of?
I’m deeply grateful for all the tracks but perhaps “And We Are One” because I wrote it for my wife Pia and has in it perhaps the most unique guitar phrasing I have ever caressed from my fingers.

The Secret Jewell Box is a fascinating archive of your recordings. Once completed, do you think you’ll feel a freedom to look totally to the future then and not worry about sifting through old tapes etc?
Well, It’s not quite done yet. I still have 3 CDs to fill it with. One CD, Piano Reductions Vol. II, I’m working on as I’m typing this. There’s this exceptional young Japanese piano player named Miho Arai. She is just amazing and we have been recording a new batch of my tracks for piano over the last 3 years, on and off. It’s complete and I’m mixing it right now. That will probably be one of the additions to “The Secret Jewel Box”

Another addition will be a live Alcatrazz concert from Japan and the last instalment of the Jewel box is a record called “Hot Chunks” which is in it’s conceptual stages. The idea is to go back and take all little samples and things from past solo records and create one long very abstract record out of them. This could change because I also have so so much stuff sitting on the shelf from way back, so we will have to see.

What are you working on now and for rest of year?
Finishing Piano Reductions Vol. II, pulling together a few secret projects that I can’t really talk about yet, and then hibernating with a guitar until I have something fresh, new and unique to release. I’m very excited about this.

When might we see you back in Australia again?
I really can’t say yet. We looked into taking the Passion and Warfare 25th anniversary tour to Australia but we couldn’t quite make it work economically. I’m OK with losing some money to make it to a location that I know the fans are looking forward to seeing us in, but there’s a limit and at the end of the day you have to make some hard economic decisions.  Having said that, at this stage in my career the more space I put between exotic tour locations, the more of a demand there can be in that locations.  So, I’m so sorry to the Australian fans that would have liked to see the PAW show, but I hope to be back to Australia at some point in the future, although there is the potential that I may not get there again if there is not enough of a demand. But I have faith in you!

Vai’s “Secret Jewel Box Set,” a deluxe 10”x6”x6” gloss black box, lined with red velvet, features compartments for a total of 10 CDs, 3 guitar picks, and a 100-page booklet. Hidden in a flap on the underside of the box in an exclusive CD interview with Steve specifically about the project. Much of the recordings contained in “The Secret Jewel Box” are comprised of various material from dozens of different records including guest appearances, film soundtracks, bonus tracks, a piano reduction CD, and a full CD comprised of choice tracks that Vai contributed to while working with Frank Zappa in the early 80’s. All of the rare and essential Vai recordings that do not appear on his solo records are collected here, with many surprises for even the most hardcore collector. A limited run of 7,000 units of the box set was manufactured and sold out.

Favored Nations’ Modern Primitive is available for pre-order on Amazon.com and Vai.com  and released July 7.

Tagged