Steve Vai releases the wrath of the Hydra at Uptown Theater
Steve Vai comes to KC at the Uptown Theater on Nov. 20, baring the teeth of the beastly instrument that helped create his latest album, Inviolate.
Vai is a guitarist, composer, songwriter, and producer who got his start within the music industry transcribing music for Frank Zappa. He began his solo career in 1983 with the release of Flex-Able, and has since released ten studio albums.
The rockstar presents his most recent tour with a multi-headed Ibanez guitar called the Hydra, featuring more specs than any shredder created to date.
Gearing for his latest tour and performance in Kansas City, The Pitch sits down with Steve Vai to discuss his indomitable journey through his surgery, the pandemic, and the album’s creation.
The Pitch: You had surgery in your right shoulder before Inviolate came out. How did that affect your creative journey in making this album?
Steve Vai: It helped to spawn some creative impulses. I got the first surgery about a year and a half ago, and it was just due to a couple of years of abuse. I just wasn’t paying attention when I was working out and I had a tear there but they fixed three tendons. I tried all the alternative approaches but when it tears like that, when your bone is falling out of your arm, you got to do something.
I started to record Inviolate when I returned from the hospital, I was in a sling. The sling was called a knapsack, and I picked up a guitar and I started to play and I instantly thought, “I’m going to make a song with one hand,” because I have that kind of legato style. So I turned lemons into lemonade. And I wrote the song and did a little video clip from my studio called “Knapsack” and you can check it out online. It’s got a nice melody.
But then I started to work on the record and then halfway through the summer I had torn another tendon. It was an accidental kind of a situation but I had to make a choice of getting it fixed right away, or finishing the record. And I decided to finish the record. (With my doctor’s approval). But I had to record the final track, “Teeth of the Hydra,” where I played this pretty exotic looking triple neck guitar that I called the Hydra and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play it after the surgery. So I knew I needed to get it done.
I also knew that the real entertainment value in the song was to see me perform it because I incorporated all of the strings on this thing. I made the video. Two days after the video came out, I had to get the second shoulder surgery. So I had to push one leg of my tour, the American leg, to the fall.
But I was healed enough to kick off our European tour. But I unfortunately couldn’t bring the Hydra with me on that trip because I couldn’t even get my arm over it. So I was hopeful that I could break out the Hydra for this American tour. I started playing it again for the first time since the video just a couple of weeks ago, you know, and so far so good. I’ll have to play it on a stand because it’s so heavy.
What was the process of collaborating with Ibanez to create that monster of an instrument [the Hydra]?
It was really just the evolution of my fascination with multitrack guitars.
So the first thing I did: I created an email to Ivan as and I said, “I would like an instrument that has got a bass neck that’s half fretless a seven string neck. A 12 string neck that’s half fretless on the neck, harp strings, a synthesizer guitar sample and hold features, PI’s, those sustainers.” All these just crazy things that I was hoping to cram into this instrument.
Before I was watching a Mad Max movie and I saw this one scene where this guy is playing a guitar. It’s like this heavily steampunk instrument. He’s on the front of a truck and it’s got flames blowing out of it and everything and he’s out okay, that’s cool. I gotta get a piece of that, you know?
So that was an inspiration for the way the body would look.
I gathered a bunch of sort of steampunk visual material from the internet and I put it in the email. So then I finally had this email five years ago with all the direction in it. And I sent it to Ibanez and their designers went crazy. They got so excited. They’re these young, energetic, and creative people. They just sharpen their knives, man. And they started going forward with the first thing they did was send some illustrations and they were fascinating.
I was like, “Wow, okay, this, this is going to work.”
So the next thing they did was they built a cardboard copy. This is an important phase because then you tweak certain things the way they feel. Then they went back and it took a while to make a prototype. I have [the prototype] at home, I call it the Hyena. It’s not a completed Hydra but it’s also a very important stage.
Then finally the guitar arrived and when I saw it I was just fascinated and terrified because I knew I had to write a piece of music on it. I put it on a guitar stand. Well, a special stand. And I walked past it, you know for about a year and a half just wondering “When am I going to get on it?”
And it would keep hissing at me every time I passed it.
But then, you keep the vision in mind and it was a really glorious project for me to write that song and figure out how to navigate it on the Hydra because there’s a satisfaction when you’re playing with a Rubik’s Cube and you know, everything lines up.
So it was a challenge because I had to break 50 years of conditioning because when you play the guitar, you pluck a note and you fret and you know with the Hydra your hand is doing something totally different than this and in rhythm and attack and everything.
I just started really slow and when you know section by section. Most importantly I knew that the song had to be a good song for an Instrumental Guitar. So I knew it needed a good melody. I just followed the inspiration.
With the album’s namesake meaning ‘free or safe from injury.’ What were some of the driving philosophies involved in the making of this album?
Well, I think when the pandemic hit, we all had to shift gears.
And musicians had to do that too. But it opened the door for a lot of other opportunities. One of them was where I started these live streams and one of them was called Alien Guitar Secrets where I talk a lot about guitars, the other was called under at all where I talk more about my philosophical interests.
Then I had some time to work out some techniques that I hadn’t really had time to work on and I did the song “Candlepower” which had some pickled guitar techniques.
So then I did a little something that I’d never done before. I made a quick little studio video of myself singing and playing an acoustic guitar song called “The Moon and I.”
It was a solo acoustic guitar and vocals from a guy that isn’t known for singing or playing acoustic guitar. But I love doing it and there was a very surprised response, the fans seem to like it.
So I thought, “I’m gonna make that record that I always wanted to make,” which was a solo acoustic vocal record. I actually got very far into it and then my shoulder went, and by the time I got done with that, and I had made “Knapsack,” I had to make a decision. What was I going to do here?
I started to really feel a pull to get on tour. So I decided to hunker down and finish an instrument pretty straight ahead, for me at least, an instrumental record and get on tour and that became Inviolate.
In the “Teeth of the Hydra,” there were some in-corporative Latin vibes in there and with “Greenish blues,” it kind of goes into Jazz/Blues territory.
What was the sonic intention behind the generation of this album and this fusing of rock with other genres?
Well, because I’ve been making records my whole life and working with sounds and guitar tones.
I didn’t really set out to revolutionize my tone in a sense, the focus for this record was melody.
I love melody. I think that that’s the heart of a piece of music. And phrasing. I like the phrasings of melodies. The tones that were used were specific to the song. The song would, it kind of tells you what you need. So a song like “Little Pretty,” told me you need an archtop guitar, and you need this kind of an amp.
I didn’t sit down and create revolutionary sounds. I just wanted to hand the guitar over on a silver platter.
Of course there’s diversity in the tone of the guitar, the atmosphere that I captured with the guitars, and the sounds.
But really this record, Inviolate, was focused on accessible songs. Instrumental Guitar rock songs that are very melodic.
The melody is the important part because it’s the thing that speaks the intention. If you take a song like “Zeus in Chains” when I wrote that on an unplugged electric guitar sitting at the side of my bed. I recorded the riff into an iPhone but it didn’t matter what it sounded like. What mattered was the personality of the riff.
It has a flavor in it, it has an emotional dynamic. You go there and you embrace the sonic atmosphere. The emotions are the feeling that it gives you, and then the song leads you. The melody becomes low hanging fruit, and you grab it.
You mentioned that you’re working on this acoustic album. Is that still currently in production or have you found further inspirations?
Well, there’s a couple of things that once I did Inviolate, then it was tour prep.
Then I went on tour, and then I’ve been recording these orchestras in Europe, the Metropole, in Holland and the Tampa Bay Philharmonic.
So that was six weeks of solid orchestral recordings. That took up a lot of time and then I’ve got this American tour. So when I got home from South America recently, I took all the acoustic stuff that I already had finished and I put it in a folder and I’m going to take it with me on tour and listen and get back into that. I’m hoping that perhaps the next thing after that will be the acoustic record.
The next thing I have coming out is sort of like a flashback record that I recorded in the early 90s in like a two week period. And it’s just straight ahead, biker rock and roll.
I had it sitting on the shelf for over 30 years, and I thought I want to get that out now. A lot of projects are coming up.
You’ve got a lot of collaborations on your belt with the biker album coming up and the work you did with Jacob Collier back in 2019. Where do you start with your own creative endeavors and where do other people come in?
Well, there’s various ways most of the time, I don’t really sit.
Very rare that I sit with somebody and collaborate. I write all the music, I know what I want. Nobody touches the melodies or anything like that, because I’m just one of those guys.
But collaborating with others, on many other levels, like other musicians that come in, I’ll play them the music and we’ll talk about what they want to contribute. And I may give direction on things. Sometimes it’s very specific. And sometimes it’s like, okay, just go, you know, do whatever you want.
So there’s that kind of collaboration that I have with Jacob, it was a collaboration of sorts.
He sent me the track and he said, “Can you play these melodies?” And then in this section solo So I’m sure you know, and then he gets it back and does whatever with it. So it’s not like we’re sitting here going “What do you think of this note? Should we do that? Should we make this chord?”
You don’t do that with Jacob. He just knows what he wants. And then he has a good idea of how you’re going to contribute. And he uses it as a color. It’s been his palette. It’s much like the way Frank Zappa worked. He knows what he wants and you’re a color in the paint box.
You’re coming here on Nov. 20 for your show. What’s your favorite thing about Kansas City/ KC memory?
One memory that I have is when my bus burned down. My tour bus burned down to the ground. But we did the gig anyway. But it’s you know, there’s different reactions from different crowds in different states even you know, everybody has a different collective, and I always enjoy getting to know your area because the people are hungry for music. They simply enjoy things.
Steve Vai’s Inviolate tour comes to Kansas City’s Uptown Theater on Nov. 20. For more updates, follow Steve Vai on his Instagram.