Metal Edge, April 1990
“It’s like male PMS – Pre-music Syndrome,” cracks Steve vai, referring to the worrisome weeks of limbo before Whitesnake’s Slip of the Tongue LP hit the streets. But when he cranked up the volume in his home studio and played the record, it was clear that he had nothing to worry about. Afterward, we talked at length about Whitesnake, his solo project, and more.
Steve, the album sounds incredible and your guitar work is amazing.
Steve Vai: Thanks. I worked three months on the guitars on the record. I went in cold. I got demos consisting of finished bass and drums, scratch vocals and rhythm guitars. David [Coverdale] said, “Here, do what you want.” I had total absolute artistic freedom. I was totally willing to take input, and I did research. I know what Whitesnake is all about. I know what the music needs and I know what I can offer. We had an understanding. He didn’t have to say anything. He knew and I knew. We talked about some things, but it wasn’t “Here, I want you to do this.” I sent him tapes, and never heard anything [negative], so I threw some things in as jokes, just to get a reaction. I like funny, strange little noises and in this band that isn’t right all the time. On “Cheap An’ Nasty” the end part of the solo was so out there but I fought for it and it turned out really great. “Slow Poke Music,” there’s some guitar calisthenics on it, and a really retarded solo.
I love the cat sounds on “Kitten’s Got Claws.”
Vai: That was fun to do. There’s different types – the track sheet says Siamese, kitten, calico, panther. I don’t know if it’s the type of thing that’ll translate live. Maybe I’ll use delays, and show Adrian how to do some of them. Adrian is a pretty proficient classical guitar player and I’m not. “Sailing Ships,” which he wrote for his mom, has a lot of picking and I had to work on it for a while. It turned out really nice.
What was Adrian’s reaction when he heard the finished tracks?
Vai: He hated it. No, I’m kidding. I felt for the guy. Can you imagine how he felt? He had his heart set on doing the record. He wrote some spectacular songs and I wouldn’t have joined the band if I didn’t think the music was there. I sent him a tape and he was thrilled. He came over to my house and we sat and talked for hours.
This is the first time you’re playing with another guitarist.
Vai: Yeah. But there’s a good understanding. We’ve talked about how we’re gonna work the parts out. I’ll show him the parts, we’ll learn them together. I never used to do guitar solos with rhythm guitar parts under them. On this record I wrote with another guitar player in mind. We’re going to do some fantastic things together as a two-guitar unit. I never relished the thought of playing with another guitar player. They called me after Adrian was hurt. After I left David Lee Roth I felt, “This is it. I’m never going to compromise, never going to do anything again I don’t want.” If there wasn’t a reason to stay with Roth, I wouldn’t have left for any other situation. A lot of people think I left Dave to join Whitesnake, which wasn’t the case.
Were you wary about joining Whitesnake?
Vai: Absolutely, very cautious. I had some experiences in the past that made me very wary of getting involved with another mega-lead singer. Your David Lee Roths, your Coverdales, your Jaggers, they’re a special type of brew. It takes a lot of energy to work with them. Fortunately, I’ve always been involved with people who respected me from Bonnet and Zappa to Roth. Coverdale has always stuck up for what he believed in. I have to hand it to him for that. I’ve heard a lot of rumors about David but never once has he ever said or done anything that had me question his integrity. He has a vision and he stays with it. The band means a lot to him and that’s what makes it work. David and I have spent a lot of time together, talking about a lot of things. When he first approached me we spent three solid days together, just discussing things and feeling each other out. I was cautious but I felt very comfortable with the man and slowly opened up.
Have you remained on good terms with David Lee Roth?
Vai: Yes. We had a nice long talk and we decided to remain friends. He understands totally. Dave is a unique person, a living legend, and it was a big honor to work with him. All the people who wear his clothes, do his moves, dye their hair to emulate him, they have no clue what Roth is really about. People like him, Coverdale, Zappa, they’re incredibly passionate about what they do. They strive for perfection as they see it, they set a goal and go for it. You’ve got to respect that. I’ve seen bands that are so insecure and paranoid, they compromise and fall away. It takes the right balance of net compromising and showing the right attitude.
You haven’t played together as a band yet.
Vai: The first time we ever got together was for a photo shoot. It was different from most photo shoots I’ve done. It’s a very intense band. Pretty serious. But I was really excited. These are a great bunch of guys. It’s nice to be part of a family. I was really jazzed.
What were your impressions of the guys?
Vai: Rudy [Sarzo] is so loveable, such a sweet guy. Tommy [Aldridge], we started talking about bicycles right away. He’s always got the jokes. Adrian is a genuine guy, no bullshit. I can pick up on vibes, I can shake somebody's hand and I can tell.
“Fool for Your Loving” is the first single and video. Was it a unanimous choice?
Vai: We liked all the songs. Everybody had an opinion. When I first heard the song, I didn’t like it. I thought it was a good song, but it sounded very dated, very ‘70s. But the record company liked it. So I put blinders on and did what I thought was right for the ‘90s. I did it with heavy guitars, gave it the big bottom boost. Turned the bass way up, I did that on “Wings of the Storm” also. There are three versions, the AOR mix, the CHR with the guitars tucked a little bit, the keyboards are up. There’s also a Steve Vai Crunch Mix, which has clean guitars on the first verse, crankin’ rhythms, and fills all over the place.
Does it bother you when they wimp out the guitars for radio?
Vai: It’s disappointing to me that the world at large isn’t ready for massive sounding guitars. But I kind of like top 40. I can’t think of a band that I don’t like. I appreciate everything. My preference is hard rock music, I like the energy, I like the hysteria. But I still appreciate pop music.
Did you use your seven-string guitar throughout the record?
Vai: On every song except for “Cheap An’ Nasty.” I’ve got pickups on it that give you more bottom end. I used tons of amps, a different one on every song. Mike Clink said Metallica gets that raw, heavy guitar sound by pumping the bottom end up. A lot of it is equalization. You have to experiment – it’s not just taking your guitar, getting hot pickups, and plugging into a Marshall. “The Deeper the Love,” I used 23 different guitars for different textures.
What equipment will you take on tour?
Vai: The kitchen sink! I’ll bring a lot of seven strings, a couple of six strings for texture, about 10 total. I don’t like to travel with less.
When do you start rehearsing?
Vai: Jan. 2. We’ll be here [L.A.] for the last two weeks, before that in Lake Tahoe. I just bought a place up there. We go out in February. I’m so excited to get out on tour. If I didn’t join Whitsnake I probably wouldn’t be out on the road for three years or so. I like esoteric music, I do quirky things sometimes. I’m a guitar technician at heart and you’ll hear that on my solo album. But you can’t beat the kind of energy that the music of Whitesnake can deliver. There’s something really special about playing it live.
And getting that crowd reaction.
Vai: Oh yeah. We’re the luckiest people in the world, musicians who get to play in front of people. Music is a very powerful thing, it’s like magic and you’re the sorcerer. According to how powerful a magician you are, that’s the effect you’ll have on people.
Are you aware of the power you have over the audience?
Vai: Yeah. I’m still trying to cultivate it. It’s something I’ve become conscious of. You gotta be careful how you use it. You don’t take advantage of it. It’s dangerous when you get too many guys trying to exert power, that’s when you see the egos. The best thing to do is avoid it somehow. In any relationship you get in, nothing is perfect, you have to make it work. It’s not rosy all the time.
Since finishing Slip of the Tongue, you’ve been working on your own project.
Vai: Yes, I’m 100% involved right now with my solo album. I’ve been in here six days a week. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’m doing every single solitary thing myself. I had a drummer and a bass player and keyboard player do a couple of things but I’m doing some bass, keys, all the guitars. There’s a lot you can learn from doing it all yourself, and there’s a certain freedom you have. I can just go in and do it.
What’s the title?
Vai: Passion and Warfare. There’s no vocals, but there’s some narration, bits of talking here and there. It gives me the opportunity to be a weird scientist musician. It’s indulgent in the way of melodic content but there’s some pretty wild stuff. It’s a completely different ballgame than Whitesnake, but I enjoy it and think anybody that heard it would enjoy it if they’re open minded. It’s the type of thing you’ve got to give a chance. I’m excited about it. I’m extremely excited about the Whitesnake stuff and my own, but I can’t sit here and go, “God, it’s the greatest shit in the world.” That’s not for me to say. If people appreciate this music like I do they’ll be devastated, but they should be the judge.
Do you think you’ll be in Whitesnake permanently?
Vai: When I go into a project I only go one season at a time, that’s as far as I allow myself to see. If I plan that far in advance, things can go wrong and you’re left holding the bag. But in this particular situation, I feel very strongly about the future. Now that I’m getting to know everything, I’m starting to feel that it’s a really good place to be.
If you hadn’t joined Whitesnake, what would you have done after your solo album?
Vai: My original plan was to find unique individuals and put together a mega-rock group. But unique individuals are hard to find and I can’t compromise. You’re dealing with personalities and the more powerful the magician, the stronger the spell and the bigger the ego, that strange brew I was talking about before. This saves me all the trouble. I’ve got an incredible front man who’s got morals and a passion for his music. You never know what’ll happen in the future, but I feel really good about it and I’m ready to stick it out.