Calling Steve Vai restlessly creative is an understatement. It’s a personality trait he’s carried with him from when he was hired by the late Frank Zappa to start transcribing for him at the tender age of 18, just as he was matriculating at the Berklee College of Music up in Boston. And it’s something Vai has continued to carry with him during his ascendancy to guitar hero status as both a well-respected solo artist as well as recording and touring with Zappa, David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz, Public Image Ltd. and Whitesnake.
The pandemic only served to inflame the Carle Place native’s creative itch. While he was holed up in Harmony Hut, the self-described “man cave” Vai calls the recording studio he constructed in his southern California home, the 62-year-old fret master busied himself with a number of projects. Not only did he stream a pair of programs, Alien Guitar Secrets (about guitars and music) and Under It All (focusing on esoteric spiritual principles he’s studied throughout his life), but there was plenty of music recorded. Two shoulder surgeries derailed a still-unreleased solo acoustic project that started with a song called “Candle Power.”
Convalescence led to Inviolate, the Long Islander’s tenth studio outing and first since 2016’s Modern Primitive. The decision was arrived at while coming to grips with an unwavering reality.
“I discovered during lockdown that I missed touring,” he said. “I wanted to get back out on tour. We did a European tour over the summer—fantastic. I’m ready to go. I just love touring, so that’s where we’re at now.”
The current record found Vai connecting a number of musicians ranging from former Roth bandmate Billy Sheehan to drummers Vinnie Coliauta and Terry Bozzio. Also joining in the fun are longtime collaborators Dave Weiner and Philip Bynoe. The guitarist also got to connect with Swedish bassist Henrik Linder, who has toured with David Foster and Maroon 5.
“There is a piece on the album called ‘Apollo in Color’ that has Henrik Linder on bass and he’s just this freakazoid that I’ve had my eyes on for years,” Vai said. “I was just waiting for the right song to see if he’d be interested. I sent it to him and he was all over it. He’s got fantastic chops.”
Eager to get back on the road, Vai is especially pleased to be coming back to his old stomping grounds despite calling Los Angeles home for the past four-plus decades.
“It’s always a hoot [coming back],” he said. “It’s a little bit of a push because there are a lot of people to see in a short period of time. But I cut my teeth on Long Island in high school playing all the bar circuits in the ‘70s. It was a fantastic time. Whenever I’m on Long Island, it’s the feeling you get when you’re on what feels like your home turf. I’ve been living in California for 42 years, it feels like home, but it feels like a second home whenever I set foot in New York. And they’re so vastly different that when you’re on your home turf that’s 3,000 miles away, you’re there. You’re in the environment of it and it’s not California.”
As part of his homecoming, Vai was more than happy to share some early influences with Long Island Weekly.
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – West Side Story (1961)
“That had incredible composition, drama and theater. And that lit me up. It was a mystery until I hit that note on the piano in my aunt’s house when I was four. At that point, I immediately got it. That was the first epiphany.”
The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out! (1966)
“I didn’t know Zappa from anything. I was in the music department of a department store and I saw the Freak Out! album cover and I bought it based on that. I listened to it and I was like, ‘What the heck?’ The thing I really liked about it was that it had compositional roots in it and none of the other music of the time had that to a degree.
But Zappa was really merging all that stuff.”
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (1969)
“Then there was the fateful day when my sister came home with Led Zeppelin and that was it. My rock and roll roots were expanding and I was completely stunned an attracted to the energy of rock music. It was the song ‘Heartbreaker’ and the guitar solo. The most bad-ass, amazing thing in existence to me and I just became an intense Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin fan.”
(June 17, 1882 to April 6, 1971)
“Three pivotal pieces of music are Stravinsky’s ballets. ‘The Rite of Spring,’ ‘Petruska’ and ‘The Firebird.’ It was easy to identify that the composer was doing what I was feeling when I was four-years-old and hit the piano for the first time. I would listen to it and I knew exactly what they were doing. I didn’t know how they were coming up with it or getting it. On a purely analytical basis, I kind of understood the language they were using. The music and the way it makes you feel was the heart. When I really listened to classical music, I was more into contemporary composers like [Iannis] Xenakis, [Györgi] Ligeti, [Luciano] Berio or [Igor] Stravinsky, [Edgard] Varèse, Elliott Carter. And some romantic stuff. I didn’t really like [Gustav] Mahler until a little later and then I really got it..”
Queen – Queen II (1974)
“Queen II was big. When I heard that, it was just so epic sounding, theatrical, huge, free, loud and melodic. It was just so great.”
Steve Vai will be appearing on October 30 The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington. Visit www.theparamountny.com or call 631-673-7300 for more information.