Meet Steve Vai, guitar hero and amateur beekeeper.
THE last time Steve Vai was in Malaysia almost 15 years ago, he was at Stadium Bukit Jalil watching on as his mentor and fellow guitar supremo Joe Satriani was told to get off the stage just 10 minutes into his set.
That was during the ambitious RentakAsia music festival in 2000, where the G3 virtuoso guitar collective featuring Vai, Satriani and Eric Johnson were meant to play at the climax of the festival – until poor scheduling (blamed on the preceding artistes’ long soundchecks) meant that police were forced to pull the plug on Satriani’s solo set (and G3’s combined set) at around 4.30am.
Considering Vai and Satriani were widely considered among the greatest solo instrumentalists in the world at the time, it must have been a big slap in the face.
In that sense, it was pretty refreshing to see Vai laugh off the whole incident ahead of his return to Malaysia.
“Oh my god, I remember that!” he said with a laugh. “That big festival at that giant stadium that only had about 2,000 people in it?
“You know I feel bad for Joe on that one, because I played my set, and everything was fine. But when it was time for Joe to come on, there was no time and they shut him down. He was like two songs into the set!
“But besides that, everything else was fine. I had a good time!” he adds during this phone interview from Los Angeles.
This Saturday, Malaysia will have a second chance to experience Vai’s genius, and hopefully not have things end on a bad note again.
The New York-raised Vai, 53, will be here with his band – drummer Jeremy Colson, guitarist Dave Weiner and bassist Philip Bynoe, top musicians who have played with him for almost 15 years – for a show at KL Live. His current An Evening With Steve Vai 2014 tour stops only in two South East Asian cities (Singapore and Kuala Lumpur).
For most musicians, Vai needs no introduction. The man’s albums – Flex-Able (1984), Passion And Warfare (1990), Fire Garden (1996) and Real Illusions: Reflections (2005) – remain key texts in the guitar music scene. His unparalleled technical wizardry and eclectic, sophisticated compositions have made him a cult icon since the mid 1980s. He has sold over 15 million records, bagged three Grammys and clocked up over 85 million views of his jaw-dropping performances on YouTube (and that’s just on his official account).
No surprise then, that when a journalist from another local newspaper asked Vai the typical “who would you like to collaborate with” question, his answer was a terse “no”. That same journalist had earlier asked how Vai “plans to stay relevant in the music industry”.
Having negotiated those awkward questions, Vai was chatty, funny, insightful and self-deprecating throughout the phone interview, talking about everything from his recent obsession with contemporary classical music, to beekeeping.
Yes, Steve Vai is an amateur beekeeper.
When we asked “why beekeeping?”, he laughed and said: “There were two things I had always wanted to do – one of them was to be a beekeeper, and the other was to drive an ice-cream truck. And when I was in high school, I drove an ice-cream truck, so … it’s a very easy hobby.”
But one thing’s for sure – his passion for music, and for pushing the boundaries of his craft, is undiminished.
“The one thing of absolute importance to me is finding exciting, interesting musical ideas in my head – and coming up with something new on the guitar – and not being able to play it. Then I get to work on it until I’m able to play it,” he said.
“For me, that’s the biggest pay-off, the biggest thrill of playing the guitar, from day one until today. Everything else is relative – getting the music out, recording the music, going on tour, figuring out budgets… I enjoy all of that, but it’s secondary.”
The latest challenge for Vai, who admits to losing a bit of his legendary “shredding” (guitar-speak for playing real fast) powers over the last few years, is to further refine every single note he plays.
“I can sort of feel (his shredding speed slowing down) now. I didn’t realise it until I looked back at some of my videos from the past. I’d be like, ‘whoa, I was really shredding!’
“(In 2012) I made a conscious meditative effort to fuse my performance – my playing, my body, my expressions – everything, into the notes. And that requires going deeper and deeper into every note you play. That’s a real exercise. That’s the real exercise. Because you can mindlessly play scales, and there’s a place for that, but to really be an effective player has to do with how close you can get to the note.”
The result of that exercise was even more expressive performances from Vai, who was already known for his sometimes over-dramatic showmanship – something he poked fun at of himself.
“While I was editing (the 2012 concert tour footage), it was almost freakish! I’m like, ‘is that really me?’ I mean, the faces, the body movement … There’s something bizarre, exotic, other-worldly to it, and to some degree it was just weird. To some people, it’s beautiful, and to some, it’s just nuts.
“But that’s where I put my energy now, that’s where I’m still growing. My chops are going to slow down, and I’ve purposely avoided playing in a particular way that sounds fast. I’m not a fan of the way notes sound going up and down a scale really fast. Why do it? It’s been done. Now I develop in other areas that back when I had more chops, I would have never been able to do.”
Steve Vai will be playing at KL Live, Kuala Lumpur on March 22, 8pm. Tickets are priced at RM199, RM299 and RM399. To purchase tickets, visit ticketcharge.com.my.