The Story of Light : A Conversation With Steve Vai, Plus The Flobots' "Circle In The Square" Video Exclusive


The Flobots drop a new video exclusive for HuffPost, "Circle In The Square," that is probably their biggest statement song yet. It's the title track of their upcoming album, which comes out on Shanachie Entertainment on August 28th.

"The 'Circle In The Square' is a reference to many things," says Jonny 5 of Flobots. "Most specifically, it is the circle of people that formed in Tahrir Square last spring. More generally, it is any community gathered in a public place. As a symbol, it's the power to manifest a paradox, to refute expectations, to reshape conventional wisdom. People used to say the Arab world was incompatible with democracy, or that no one cared about income inequality in the U.S. They don't say that now."

Jonny 5 continues, "We had a ton of fun making this video. That was actually very important to us. Right now in both music and society, there's a weird artificial line drawn between living it up and giving a s**t. But the truth is, you can do both. To live life fully means to engage with the world around you. It means to make beauty more plentiful to more souls on this planet, to transform systems of oppression into mechanisms of liberation. It means bringing people together and exploding with color. It's a movement that appeals to everyone. That's what we want to say with this video."


A Conversation With Steve Vai

Mike Ragogna: Steve!

Steve Vai: Hey, hey!

MR: So you have a new album, The Story of Light. Is it really the story of light?

SV: (laughs) Well, I guess it's what I might perceive as a story of light. It's actually this big part of a concept that started with my last record that slowly unfolds. This particular record is called The Story of Light (Real Illusions). When you're creating, you can do whatever you want because there are no rules.

MR: When you're writing, what's your process like?

SV: Well, I don't put up any parameters of how inspiration might come in because it can come in a variety of ways, so there's really no one way. Some people may say, "Well first I come up with a lyric, and then I write the music around it," and that's great. Sometimes I do it that way, and sometimes I just come up with a title, and sometimes I'll put my fingers on the guitar and something comes out. If you start putting up parameters, you can kind of cut off your potential to be open to anything. I need to be open to everything because I'm not always inspired.

MR: Does inspiration randomly come to you?

SV: Well the funny thing about being inspired is you don't know it's happening when it's happening, I think, because you're in it. It's not until later that you say, "Oh, okay" maybe a second later or a minute later or whatever. You can't really be fascinated with what you're doing at the very moment it's happening. But you know when you're doing something that's got some quality to it.

MR: Let's go to the song "John The Revelator." What's the story behind that one?

SV: Well, I have this collection of music called Anthology of American Folk Music. It's all these really old Americana Folk recordings with everything from slaves to fieldworkers to reverends and just blues guitar players...not even blues, before blues. One of the recordings was from Blind Willie Johnson, and it was called "John The Revelator," and it just really grabbed me. The whole package grabs me. I don't go anywhere without it. It's like four CDs, and it's really authentic and sincere when you hear these people.

MR: This is a good seg into the movie Crossroads. You were not only on screen in Crossroads, but you also supplied the guitar work...well, you and Ry Cooder. Can you go into the story of how that came about?

SV: Yeah, sure. That was odd because I got a call from Ry Cooder. He had just called Guitar Player Magazine, and he said, "I need a hot shot guitar player. Who's the new hot shot?" They played him one of my songs over the phone, and he said, "Okay, that's the guy." He called me and sent me a script because originally, it was just to play the guitar part in the film, not to be the actor. I read the script, and I immediately saw how it could kind of evolve into this kind of guitar head cutting duel. So Ry and myself had worked on it, and we finished it, and the director Walter Hill came in and heard it, and he was pretty impressed. He asked me if I wanted to play the part of Jack Butler, the guitar player, in the film. At first, I thought, "I'm not an actor. I don't know," and then he asked again, and I said, "Oh, I'll give it a shot." I put on the persona of Jack Butler, and that's really how it happened. It was very simple.

MR: You also were with the band Whitesnake, on their Slip of the Tongue album.

SV: Actually, Whitesnake came later. Right around this period, I was just joining David Lee Roth's band. I did the Eat 'Em and Smile record and Skyscraper, and we did two world tours. It was quite wonderful.

MR: Was he as wild as he came off as in those days?

SV: Much more. People have a persona of what a rock star is like and all, but Dave was different because he was really intense, and he was very focused, unbelievably driven, and he would set out to accomplish something, and he would accomplish it with no excuses. It was really great to learn from him. He was really amazing, and he really knew how to throw a party.

MR: Nice, and getting back to Whitesnake...

SV: Well, after I had left Dave's band, I went back and finished Passion and Warfare, which was my solo record at the time. Dave Coverdale called, and he was looking for a guitarist. I was a little apprehensive. I really liked Whitesnake. I liked the music a lot, and I really liked David as a singer, but I had just gotten off tour, and I really wanted to kind of hunker down and finish this record. But I thought it would really be a great opportunity to go up there and play to a million people again and be a rock star and all that stuff. The allure of that compelled me to join the band, and it was great. David is a wonderful cat and amazing singer, and it was a good time, and I finished my solo record too, so it all worked out.

MR: And then there was G3.

SV: Yeah, G3. Joe Satriani called me once, and he said, "I'm putting this tour together, and I want to make it these three guitar players that just really play their asses off, like a celebration of the guitar." I went, "Sure, count me in!" That turned out to be a really great brand. Matter of fact, I just got back from Australia with Joe, where we had Steve Lukather, and it was very, very cool.

MR: Steve, over the years, you also contributed music to video games. For example, you're on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

SV: I'm on a bunch of them. I can't remember what they are. Grand Theft Auto is one of them. They licensed the track. And Guitar Hero and Rock Band, they have a bunch of tracks. But the only time I ever really actually went in and recorded on a soundtrack for a video game was for...

MR: ...Halo!

SV: Halo, yes. It was a good time because my friend Nile Rogers was producing it, and he called me and said, "Hey, come on down. I'm in Seattle here." I was in Seattle at the time, and he said, "I got this video game that I've been working on," and I thought, "I don't know, man. I don't know if I'd fit into a video game." He goes, "Oh no, you'll love this." I didn't realize how big the game was, that it was the most anticipated game in the world before it came out...Halo III or something. So I just had a good time recording it, but it kind of dawned on me what this thing was about when I was in the studio and I was talking to my son. I said, "Yeah, I'm playing on this video game." He's usually not very interested in anything I'm doing because they're teenagers, and I said, "Oh, the game is Halo III, this Halo game." There was like dead silence. Finally, I was a star in my kid's eyes because I was playing on this Halo video game. It sold millions. It was crazy.

MR: And it all began way back, when you were Frank Zappa's transcriber and eventual his guitarist.

SV: Yeah, when I started working for Frank, I was 18, and I was transcribing music because he felt I was too young to audition for the band. But when I was 20, I moved out to California, and that's when I joined the band.

MR: How long were you with the band?

SV: I worked for Frank for about six years. I transcribed for a couple of years, and then I joined the band and I toured for three years with Frank. Then I went back to transcribing because he had quit touring. He went out after that, but I had moved on by then.

MR: Many years later, you got together with his son, Dweezil.

SV: Oh yeah, I'm good friends with the family and Dweezil. I've known him since he was a little boy. He is this unbelievably naturally talented person at anything he does. He's very intelligent, funny, and really took hold of Frank's music. It really got to him. He created this Zappa plays Zappa band, and I toured with him in the beginning a little while, a couple tours.

MR: All right, let's get back to the album and talk about the track "Gravity Storm."

SV: Well, it was a riff that I had come up with, but in the story, there are these gravity storms that take place because the earth had kind of pitched its axis a little bit because of everything that man is doing, so the poles were shifting and we would get these gravity storms where the gravitational pull would increase, sometimes a little bit, and sometimes tremendously. Sometimes they'd be so strong they could actually crush you, so I wanted to create this track that had this crushing nature, this feeling of gravity to it. I achieved that by using all these subtle bends on the guitar with my fingers. When you listen to the track, it's got all this weight to it. That's the gravity storm.

MR: What about "No More Amsterdam," the one you wrote with Aimee Mann?

SV: I had known Aimee because we went to college together. We actually lived in the same building a few doors away from each other. My girlfriend at the time was really good friends with Aimee--my girlfriend from then, who's now my wife. So through the years, she was always listening to Aimee's music, and there was just something about it, about her, about Aimee, that I really loved as an artist. She's extremely creative, like a poet. She has this very vulnerable, beautiful kind of a voice. So I was having trouble writing the lyrics, and my wife said, "Why don't you call Aimee and see if she'd be interested in working with you?" I did, and it turned out so beautiful. It's a vocal duet. She wrote the lyrics, and I wrote the music, and I really like the way it turned out.

MR: Steve, what was your reaction when you sat down and listened to it top to bottom, sequenced and mastered?

SV: Gee, I wish it was all done so I could be collecting the royalties. I'm kidding! Well, I'm half joking. (laughs) Going through the process is really the fun of it. As you know, it can be really treacherous and trying and challenging and all that, but I love it. I love making music. I love playing the guitar. I'm trying not to sound pretentious, but for me, when I listened back to this record, and as is the case with most of my records, it usually turns out better than I expected. It's all relative because this is just my take. I'm grateful that I can even write a song, but I was so thrilled after the record. I've been putting a band together. I'm going on a world tour. I love traveling. I love touring. One of the great things about being a guitar player is there are these hoards of guitar players around the world in every corner of the world that fetish the guitar and every little nuance about it, so I can go to China and Africa and India and Australia and all through Russia and Eastern Europe. I just looked at my itinerary for Europe, and it starts out in Helsinki, Finland and goes to Latvia and Lithuania and Estonia and all the way to Greece and Athens, then back to Europe proper, and then I go to all those other places I mentioned and South America. It's really a thrill, and that's what I'm looking forward to. Playing this music for people who really enjoy it.

MR: Do they get into the minutia, like what guitars you play, etc.?

SV: There are all sorts of fans. There are people that are really interested in breaking down everything you do, especially on the guitar, and finding out how you played this and what gauge strings and what kind of amps and what kind of cables and batteries, and then there are people that don't care about any of that. They just like listening to the music and feeling the energy, and there are people that may not buy the record, but they want to see the show because they heard that the show is something interesting and accessible. And then there are people that a guitar solo just sounds like Morse Code because they're tone deaf, but they experience music differently and on other levels, which are just as valid, but different. There's every type. It's great.

MR: What are your favorite guitars lately?

SV: Well, I designed a guitar with Ibanez called The Jem 25 years ago, and it's still running extremely strong. It's the most consistent thing in my life. That's my favorite guitar.

MR: Steve, you're a beekeeper too, aren't you?

SV: Yup.

MR: Can you go into that? How did that start? How do you do it?

SV: Well, I was living in Hollywood with my wife, and I had two boys, and they were young. We didn't want to raise them in Hollywood, so we moved to the Valley, and we got out there and we found this property that was two acres. It was vacant because the guy that owned it didn't want to move in for like ten years. Everything was dead, and I wanted fruit trees and the American Dream. My wife wanted these gardens and everything, so I did some research, and I discovered that honeybees are a really great way to pollinate, and they're really easy to keep. They don't require much work at all. You don't have to do anything except when you extract honey. It's a big job, so every year, we have a honey harvest party. Last honey harvest, I pulled 512 pounds of honey! They're really amazing, fascinating creatures. Their whole social infrastructure is literally unbelievable. I get a lot of satisfaction from having bees.

MR: The obvious question is have you gotten stung?

SV: Oh man, I've gotten the piss stung out of me, are you kidding? The temperament of a hive is based on the queen, so if you have a rough queen, like a queen that grew up in a rough neighborhood or something, the whole hive is pretty aggressive. So there are certain things you do. I wear bee suits and stuff, but I've had hives that have been very aggressive. Most of the time, like the hives I have now, they're so mellow. You don't need any protection even really. They're just really sweet little creatures. And they know you because the more you go into the hives, the more they get to know you. They know your scent. We're friends, you know? But still I'm very careful. The only time I've ever gotten stung is when I do stupid things.

MR: You mean like going in quickly, like you're just going in and out for a sec?

SV: Yeah, that usually doesn't work. But also the way that you propagate your hive is when they swarm, you catch the swarm and you create another hive, but one time I was capturing this one swarm--I've done this many times--I hit the swarm by accident when I was trying to throw a rope over the ranch, and half of the swarm fell off and fell down my back inside my clothes. I didn't have my gear on. So that was my stupid mistake, and I had all of my clothes off in about three seconds.

MR: Oh my God! I'm afraid of one bee, I don't know how you do it.

SV: Very carefully.

MR: Since you know more than anyone I know about bees, let me ask you about the Africanization of bees scare that we had? How did it eventually affect our populations?

SV: Well, it didn't affect the population of the bees. What it did was they did come, and they are here. In certain parts of America, they're more prominent, and they are very, very dangerous. They're very different from regular bees. They look the same. Actually, they're a little bit smaller. But they're really rough. If I go into my hive, and I don't do all of the proper things, it can take like forty seconds to get them riled up. But the African bees can take four seconds, and they just don't let up. If they attack you, they just don't let up. If you do get attacked by an African hive, you have to run in a straight line for a quarter of a mile without stopping. You can't jump in water. You can't turn or anything because they just won't let up.

MR: Oh God.

SV: A word of advice about bees!

MR: Well speaking of advice, there's a question I ask everybody, which is what advice do you have for new artists?

SV: Well, try to find the thing that excites you the most, and then throw yourself into it, and don't worry about what anybody else is doing.

MR: Is that what young Steve Vai did?

SV: When I look back, yes. Actually, I should say, whenever I found myself most satisfied and most successful, that's what I was doing because you're going to be the most successful at the thing that excites you the most, because when you're an artist or you're trying to create a career, there are a lot of storms and you have to be wearing some really serious overcoats. Your overcoat, basically, is your passion for what you're doing. If you have any reservations or any questions, you're doomed because true artists don't. They just do it because they have no choice. They don't care. To them, the finished picture in their mind is the most compulsive and attractive thing, and they can't help themselves. We all have that in different ways in different parts of our lives, but if you're really a music lover, and you want to make a career in the music business, it now is probably a better time than any. I love the music business. It's filled with creative people, and there's so much opportunity. But your perspective on the music business and your career is going to be forged by the attitude you have when you go into it, so it makes really good sense to cultivate a really good, strong, positive attitude of confidence. You cannot miss them.

MR: Hey, it seems that one of your early credits has you playing with The Ohio Express.

SV: (laughs) The Ohio Express was a band that I had in high school. It was the first band I was in. I didn't even play guitar! I played the keyboard, and I only knew two chords. We could play "Proud Mary" all day. (laughs)

MR: As you mentioned earlier, you are going to be touring pretty extensively.

SV: Yeah, absolutely.

MR: Will the family be coming along?

SV: Actually, I'm heading out on a G3 tour in Europe, and my boys and my wife are coming for that. But they're like 20 and 23 now.

MR: Eh, kids are kids until they're at least 30.

SV: Maybe they'll always be kids to me.

MR: Nice. Steve, I really want to thank you, this has been terrific.

SV: Well thank you! And good luck with your station. I know how grass roots you guys are and how supportive you are of artists. I really applaud that.

MR: Steve, everyone at Solar-Powered KRUU-FM thanks you for your kind words. All the best with everything.

1. The Story Of Light
2. Velorum
3. John The Revelator
4. Book of the Seven Seals
5. Creamsicle Sunset
6. Gravity Storm
7. Mullach a'tSi
8. The Moon and I
9. Weeping China Doll
10. Racing the World
11. No More Amsterdam
12. Sunshine Electric Raindrops

Transcribed by Kyle Pongan


And the story goes...

Vancouver band Bend Sinister has a new album, Small Fame, that was released July 10. This is their first full length since 2008 and also their first time breaking into the US market. They've received amazing reviews on past releases and tours throughout Canada. CBC Radio raves "Bend Sinister is one of Canada's most powerful and most underrated bands. They don't write songs, they write anthems." Now Toronto claims, "Dan Moxon will leave your jaw on the floor." The 12-track album was produced by Shawn Cole and recorded at Fader Master and Mushroom Studios in Vancouver, check out the track "She Don't Give It Up":

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