Steve Vai: Shredding his way down under with the Inviolate tour
Steve Vai is a virtuoso guitarist, composer, and producer, widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. With over 40 years in the industry, Vai has sold over 15 million records, received three Grammy Awards, and collaborated with music legends such as Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, and many more. Fans have been eagerly awaiting the return of Steve Vai and his band to Australia and New Zealand for the first time since their highly successful shows in 2013. The Inviolate tour, which has been captivating audiences around the world, is set to land at Perth Concert Hall on Saturday, November 11. ANDY “ANDO” JONES teamed up with long-time Steve Vai diehard, Voyager’s SIMONE DOW, to talk about the upcoming tour, his previous visits to Australia and more.
ANDO: Hey, Steve! How’s it going man? As well as your-fine-self, we’ve got another special guest with us today in Simone Dow from Voyager, she’s fresh off representing Australia at Eurovision, plus a sold-out homecoming tour across Australia, and the release of an incredible new album!
SIMONE: Steve I’m a huge fan of yours and I’m kind of freaking out a bit!
STEVE: Hello, thank you and congratulations! Oh my goodness, I see you have a JEM too!
SIMONE: I do, this is actually my first amazing guitar that I bought, and you can see all the neckwear on it. It has been an absolute weapon and I record all my guitar solos on it, but I’ve moved to Music Man, sorry!
STEVE: Nice! That’s okay, you’ll probably go through many other companies in the future.
SIMONE: Oh absolutely! I think it’s hard to stick to one guitar really.
ANDO: Simone and I were just talking, and we were wondering if that is ‘The Hydra’ on your hat.
STEVE: Yeah! It’s a little Hydra pin, I put it there because I wanted to put pins on my hat. I thought it might be a little pretentious to wear the Hydra pin, but I don’t care!
SIMONE: We just had some keytar pins made during Eurovision and they kind of took off, so I reckon go for the pins!
STEVE: Yeah the pins are great, they sell like crazy!
SIMONE: Everyone loves like a little memento.
ANDO: It’s been a decade since you’ve toured to Australia and New Zealand. What are you expecting from the tour?
STEVE: We’ve been on tour since we started in May of 2022 and we’ve done hundreds of shows already. I know the Australian audience, I’ve been there a good amount of times and they’re just great! They’re a fantastic audience. I’ve said in many interviews that the Australian people are nicest people in the world that I’ve met. They tolerate crazy Americans, they’re polite and nice and it’s wonderful. They’ve got a great culture and I always try to end my tours in Perth so that I can go to Rottnest Island!
SIMONE: I knew you were gonna say that because I remember you got sunburnt the last time you were here.
STEVE: Oh you remember that? I got sunburnt on my ass!
SIMONE: I worked at Kosmic Sound when you were last playing in Perth, and I met you at the signing session. I remember you saying that at the competition “I’m dying right now, I’m on fire!”
STEVE: I fell asleep on the beach naked!
STEVE: It’s great. I’m so fortunate that I’m an American artist and I can make it all the way to Australia to tour.
ANDO: With Inviolate, how was the writing and recording process any different to the albums of yesteryear?
STEVE: For myself it really hasn’t changed much. It’s any means necessary. As an artist we collect ideas, and everybody does it kind of differently. But I never cut off any incoming inspirations and they can come at any time. You can hear something on the radio or your favourite band, and you think “Oh, I want to write something like that, with that energy!” That’s how a lot of people do it and, we all do it because you can’t escape all the music you’ve heard in your life, you know, it’s in there someplace.
Then you can be inspired to write a song by coming up with a name or something that somebody says, like we were discussing ‘The Hydra.’
But usually the best ideas come as inspirations that arise in you and you’re like “Ahhh!” then you kind of start unpacking it. I think this is pretty common with artists or anybody that finds what they love when they’re young and they throw themselves into it. When I was young I just didn’t know anything else. I never thought of anything else. There was never really a day where I thought “Should I be a musician or should I be something else?” I never made a choice. I just love it, like many musicians, and I just stuck with it.
Many things pulled my interest but nothing uprooted my love for music. So if that happens you’re going to continue to go deeper and deeper. What I might assume has changed, and maybe it’s age. I’m 63 now. It is your courage to make no excuses for the things you like, and trusting your inner voice, because what’s the alternative? It doesn’t work, you won’t be happy unless you do that.
SIMONE: Absolutely, you’re speaking my language right now, Steve. I’ve noticed the difference between my teenage years to now, I’m nearly 40. You’re 100% correct, you’ve just got to do what feels right in here. *points to heart*
STEVE: Yeah, what’s the alternative?
SIMONE: Punching your timecard or something. It shouldn’t be like that and I’m very blessed to be in a band with four other guys who are exactly the same. Our focus is “The song is the goal, we want the song to be great,” and we’re trying to take our egos out of it a little bit more these days, because you know what it’s like when you’re younger, you’re like “Six billion notes! How many parts can I put in this?” Now it’s like “I just want this song to make me feel something when I’m playing it and when I’m listening to it” and I want that to do the same for other people as well.”
STEVE: It will, it will! I went through a similar arc when I discovered that moment “Hey, all I’ve gotta do is practice a lot and I’ll be able to play really fast!” So I practiced a lot and I was able to play pretty fast, and that has its fascination. But if it doesn’t have the inspiration for a good melody or something that transcends the technique, then it doesn’t really have any legs. It might be fascinating but it’s got to have feel.
What’s really nice about what you said, which I don’t have, is a creative group where you’re together with people, and you’re fleshing out ideas and you’re looking for the best ideas. That’s a slippery slope, and some people can start out that way, but for some people it takes time because in the beginning you could have an agenda — publishing — or just the wanting to stake your claim: “This is my idea.”
So this is not uncommon, but it’s really nice when people come together and they realise “I don’t have all the pieces, so let me see if I can get these puzzle pieces to come together with other people.” If a group is successful at creating a mastermind, where you have a good idea, then somebody has an improved idea, and you love the improved idea and then you try to improve upon that even further, as opposed to “No, we can’t improve this because it was my idea.” So that’s nice, I’ve never been in situations like that, but with my solo music, I don’t do that.
ANDO: I like to surround myself with very talented people. People who are better than me. I think a lot can be said for that.
SIMONE: Yeah, that’s what I did when I was younger as well. People ask me that question in interviews and I’m sure you get the same question, Steve. “What advice would you give to an up-and-coming musician?” and that was one of my questions for you, actually.
For me, I always say “Try and get out there, meet other people, go to gigs, talk to people, jam with other people and particularly people who are a bit above your skill level.” I did that when I was younger and it did wonders for my playing because it just drives you to strive to be better. If you’re like “I want to do that! I want to be able to do that! I want to play with this guy! I want to play with people like this!” That’s how you start getting into bands and doing shows. I don’t know if that’s sort of similar advice that you would give for upcoming artists?
STEVE: Yeah, that is really good advice. I might add to it, as you expand your radar, it also is nice to surround yourself with great industry people. A great manager, great attorneys, you need to have great agents and record companies with people in them that have insight. People that could see your talent and see your potential and help your potential.
My usual stock response is find what you love doing and throw yourself into it without any excuses.
ANDO: If you could channel Australia and New Zealand into a song on “The Hydra” what sort of emotions and soundscapes would it evoke?
STEVE: I wonder what Waltzing Matilda would sound like in a minor key?
Imagine figuring out the melody, might sound dark. That’s my cheekiest answer!
ANDO: Good one! If you could create a super group of musicians from Australia and New Zealand who do you think you would include and why?
STEVE: Well the first thing I’d have to do is educate myself on more Australian musicians, I’m not well versed. I’ve got this thing about me where I look past things like where people are from, so I can’t really recall all the greats. I might just have AC/DC as my band. Imagine that!
SIMONE: There’s a lot for you to check out, Steve. I’m not being biased at all, but some of the progressive music, in particular rock music, and indie music here is world class — we’re very lucky. I think we’re creative because we’re so isolated as well. Yeah, you should definitely check some out when you’re when you’re here. We’ve got some great bands!
STEVE: Well maybe you and I could jam, you never know!
SIMONE: I might actually just freak out though and not be able to play!
STEVE: You could have one of the necks on ‘The Hydra!’ (laughs)
I probably do know a lot of great Australian musicians, but I just don’t know that they’re Australian. I understand country music is very popular in Australia, is that right?
SIMONE: Yeah, I work with a young girl who’s an upcoming country music artist named Claudia.
Any genre of music is really popular here, if you put a concert on, the people will come. It’s been particularly elevated since the pandemic because I think everyone realised how much music meant to them and how much they needed it in their lives, when they couldn’t have it for two to three years. So, now more than ever, I’m seeing a real encouragement of people just going out to see any live music, which is fantastic.
STEVE: Yeah, I’m seeing that too. It’s also all the other things that come with being in a celebratory musical environment. Just hearing that music, and feeling, and being with all the other people. When we kicked off this tour in Europe of May 2022, that was the first summer that people were getting out after some years, and boy it was it was crazy. It was just fantastic!
It had challenges because it was hard to find venues, hard to find buses, hard to find a lot of things because everybody wanted to get out on tour.
SIMONE: You’ve got to follow all of the precautions as well don’t you. All of the mandatory things, and make sure everything’s clean, and keep everyone’s safety in in mind as well. I can imagine it must have been absolutely insane.
STEVE: Yeah, I spoke to friends that toured, because in the summer of 2022 a lot of the precautions were lifted. People weren’t that worried about it. But before that, I talked to friends that were trying to tour and it was difficult with the list of regulations. Sometimes we had to employ them based on the venues. Certain venues had laws or requests, you know you have to wear a mask, you have to social distance, you have to have a vax card. So I can’t go against what they demand, you know “If you want to play my club these are the rules.”
ANDO: Yeah, it’s been an interesting landscape over the last few years, and I guess it’s a case of “We don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.” Perhaps that’s why there’s just so much passion in the music industry right now.
STEVE: Yeah, maybe that helped to fuel some new creativity.
SIMONE: I think it did, Steve. For Voyager, we wrote a new album during that period. I know everyone says “Oh, this is the best album we’ve ever written” like every time they release an album, but this one feels particularly special! We feel a lot of motion listening to it and we’re kind of getting that back from people who have been listening to it, and reviewing it as well.
I’m noticing it with other artists, there’s so many “Albums of the Year,” this year, it’s just insane the quality of music coming out. I think it really did spark something in people, and we needed that spark again because I think the music industry was feeling a little bit tired before the pandemic. I think a lot of that is due to streaming, and all the other sorts of things going on in the industry. It reignited passion, particularly with punters. People are excited to go out, and we felt it in the rooms, and I’m sure you did as well, Steve. The energy is something completely different, it’s like electricity, because people were ready to have the time of their lives!
STEVE: Yeah, they were ready to enjoy that thing that they didn’t realise they had that was so good. I feel that now because we’re still pretty close to those times before everything was locked down, so that is nice.
I think it also brings people psychologically closer because they know that the other person probably went through the same field of things. It was a shared experience that lockdown. We don’t know what goes on in other people’s lives and their life stories, but we all know what lockdown is like. It’s a compromising of your freedom, maybe it was necessary. When all of a sudden that compromising is lifted it’s like “Oh!” So that’s nice.
ANDO: Steve, my first exposure to your art form was in 1998 when I was 15 years old. I picked up a copy of KoЯn’s Follow the Leader from my local music store, and the bonus CD was one that you could pop into your computer. There was some fantastic footage of yourself, Munky and Head absolutely slaying it.
STEVE: Oh, I remember that, yeah! They invited me to the studio to jam with them.
ANDO: How have heavy bands influenced your writing over the years?
STEVE: When stuff got really heavy, like when the seven-string guitar became popular, I was getting all that kind of music from my boys. They were bringing home all this incredible heavy music and I could feel the energy in it!
We were talking earlier about how there’s many ways to be inspired. Are you familiar with my song Building the Church from Real Illusions? Well that was inspired by Linkin Park. I heard this wall of guitars, and I’m listening and I’m thinking “Ah! I want a piece of that!” Of course it doesn’t sound anything like Linkin Park, but that’s one way that I’m inspired by heavy music.
ANDO: Awesome! Simone, you can talk to the acquisition of a seven-string when you were growing up.
SIMONE: I remember my dad having to talk me out of getting a seven-string at 15 because we were looking at my first expensive guitar. He wanted to get me a good one because I started to get better. Kosmic Sound had this Ibanez video on every time I walked into the shop, I think it’s called Seventh Heaven, and it was all about all the seven-string guitars.
STEVE: Oh, I remember that, yeah!
SIMONE: It featured you, KoЯn, Fear Factory and all these heavy bands. The video talked about how how the seven-string has evolved the electric guitar and how it’s influenced rock music. I said “I want to get a seven-string” and my dad said “No, you’re getting a Les Paul!”
STEVE: That’s because he wanted to play it too!
SIMONE: Yeah exactly. But as you can see, I have moved to a seven-string now with this Music Man Kaizen – Tosin Abasi. I actually had an Ibanez Universe for a while as well before I moved to Music Man.
You’re correct about the innovation that you get, just from adding in another string, it’s just mind-blowing. At first was very daunting, and I was like “Oh, I don’t know what to do with this extra string.” But then once I got used to it, now I can’t play a six-string!
STEVE: That’s interesting because it was similar for me. When I first got the seven-string, I was asking myself “Hmm, how am I gonna, you know, do this?” But after a couple of hours even, it starts coming together. I played it for a while and then went back to six, and it was difficult. Then I started going back and forth and now it’s fine.
SIMONE: You’ve been smart about it. I’ve been lazy and so has our other guitarist. We just skip the seventh string and play the six-string songs that we wrote years ago on the seven. We shouldn’t have done that because now it’s just like “Oh what am I doing again?”
STEVE: There’s guys that just use the bottom three strings!
SIMONE: Yeah, like Sepultura. I’m pretty sure Max Cavalera plays just four strings on a six-string guitar. I think he said “I don’t solo, I don’t need them, so I’ll take them off.” Whatever works for you, I guess.
STEVE: Yeah, when you’re doing music that heavy, what do you need high notes in a chord for?
ANDO: I’ve got the Dino Cazares Ibanez DCM-100 here, I bought that from Kosmic Sound about six years ago. It’s a work of art!
STEVE: I need my glasses * pulls phone closer * All I could see were my nose hairs.
SIMONE: Have you ever thought about eight strings, Steve?
STEVE: I got as far as a seven-and-a-half.
SIMONE: I’m just not sure my hands can handle an extra string. I’ve got large hands for a female but it’s, like, not quite there!
STEVE: Yeah, those look like pretty sizeable hands. I think it’s like anything else, you get to learn how to navigate it. I have a few eight-string guitars, and I use them for textural things sometimes, but yeah, my fingers end up taking detours they shouldn’t.
ANDO: I know that you’ve read a mountain of books and I’m wondering what sort of advice you would have for anyone looking to live a more fulfilling life.
STEVE: That’s a little bit of a loaded card. What that means to some people is more material things, more success. But really a fulfilling life is a peaceful one. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a high energy person and have peace. But a fulfilling life, I believe, can be had in any field, and any interest, if you have a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart.
That’s my advice, try to find that peaceful mind and peaceful heart, and the only way to find them is, you firstly have to want them. Most people don’t want them, but they are the only things of value to have, because from them, you’re better at everything. You’re a better husband, a better wife, a better boyfriend, a better girlfriend, a better co-worker, a better band member, a better creator, a better solution maker. That’s everything! You’re content in your skin. You don’t need to have a hundred million dollars, you know. So, with a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart, life is good.
As I said, how you find that, is the first step. You have to really, authentically want that. If you can authentically decide within yourself, “Yep, that’s what I want” then you don’t have to do anything else, it starts to happen, because you plant a subconscious seed, and it’ll just start happening. Just like everything else that we think about, and plant, it just starts happening. Sometimes, there are unwanted things, and you can tell by the quality of the thoughts that you’re thinking, and that’s how unwanted things can manifest in your life.
But, yeah, the other thing I would say is, obey your parents and use a condom!
SIMONE: I think we’re past that point now, Andy!
ANDO: Yup, I’ve got one kid, and another on the way!
STEVE: Thanks for this lovely chat!
SIMONE: No, thank you, Steve. Honestly, thank you for the licks over the years. For the Love of God was a religious experience for me, the first time I heard it, and you’ve inspired me for over 20 years. So, thank you for everything!
STEVE: Oh, that’s very kind and touching, thank you! As you know that’s inspiring to hear, so thank you!
SIMONE: You’ve always been a mainstay in my guitar influences and I can’t wait to see you when you come here in November!
STEVE: You’ve gotta come and say hi.
SIMONE: I would love to. I’d love to catch up with you if there’s an opportunity. The same can be said for Scott, my Voyager bandmate and guitarist. He’s a massive fan as well!
SIMONE: Awesome, I look forward to it, and good luck with the rest of your shows.
STEVE: Thank you and good luck with your work, and you too, Andy.
ANDO: Thank you, Steve. It’s been a pleasure, an honour, and a privilege, all the best.
STEVE: Thank you, bye-bye.
Steve Vai’s Inviolate World Tour hits Perth Concert Hall on Saturday, November 11, 2023. Tickets are on sale Thursday, July 20 from livenation.com.au