Generation Axe is back on the road for six weeks with only one Canadian date in Kitchener, Ontario this Sunday, November 25th, 2018. Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi promise to melt your faces for three hours worth of blistering guitar licks showcasing each guitarist’s material with overlap where each of the musicians will perform together throughout the evening.
Generation Axe is currently in the midst of a PledgeMusic campaign for their upcoming live album release The Guitars that Destroyed the World (due early 2019). Albums and merchandise can still be pledged at this link. Fans can expect to hear different material on this current run of Generation Axe dates, along with a few other surprises, which just may be hinted at in our chat with Steve Vai.
The Kitchener Centre In The Square performance on November 25th still has some tickets available RIGHT HERE ; don’t miss your chance to see guitar history in the making as these five talented guitarists strut their stuff in one of the best live venues just off of Highway 401. The audio of this interview is embedded here via SoundCloud for anyone interested in hearing Vai’s answers in real-time.
Check out this Generation Axe fan shot “Highway Star” video clip from the band’s gig at The Wiltern Theatre in Lost Angeles.
How does it feel to be back on the road with Zakk, Yngwie, Nuno, and Tosin? Steve Vai: These shows with these guys is like a vacation, you know what I mean? It’s like you work your whole life and you tour and make records and, tour and make records, and you deal with this and do that. But at some point, it’s just so nice to go out and do a gig like this because it’s a cakewalk. It’s like everybody’s contributing. It’s not like it’s your tour. So there’s this alleviation of the responsibility of it being your tour and you having to make all the decisions and put on the entire show.
The Generation Axe show is sort of like a revolving stage as guitar players coming and going with it but it’s seamless. You know, the show doesn’t stop at any point, and you just get to witness the best of these guys in their craft. And because it’s such an easy gig, everybody is just completely relaxed. So it’s really great.
Let me ask you this... What did you learn about each other on that first Generation Axe tour and how has what you’ve learned affected this new touring production? Vai: Well, there was a lot I already knew. But you don’t really get to know somebody until you’re out at sea with them. You know what I mean? Because there are no secrets at sea. And one of the things I got to really understand about these guys is that side of them that is really cool. Just friendly; funny; really funny; passionate about their craft and completely confident in what they do. These guys are bullet-proof confident in their craft and the kind of music they make. They don’t make excuses for themselves. They just do it, and they’re content in what they do.
There’s no competition. Because there’s nobody to compete with because everybody’s unique in what they do. So we support each other, and it’s such a big difference in the vibration of competition and mutual support, you know? What I’ve noticed is how much nicer it is to be able to support each other and how these guys are absolutely capable of that. That’s nice. Because I’ve been in bands where it wasn’t like that, and that’s no fun.
Have you deviated much on the material that you toured together in 2016/2017 for these current dates? Vai: It slowly evolves. You don’t want to do the same set. So when we went to Asia, we changed that up a little bit from the American tour. Not much, but this American tour we changed it up. I’d say about fifty percent of it is different.
Wow. That’s a lot. Good. Let’s talk a little bit about the live album that is either now released or coming out in a week or two and Pledge Music? Vai: Yeah thanks. We did the American tour and then when we did Asia I recorded all the shows. Actually, I recorded seven of them. When I got back, I started listening, and it was quite a feat to edit the record together because I wanted to get the best performances from each night. And sometimes that required editing together various performances for one song. We put a lot of work into it, and the sound of this record and the way it comes off is I think both unique and extraordinary for guitar players who just love the sound of the electric guitar. And also it’s not just an instrumental guitar album. There are beautiful vocal tracks. Nuno and Zakk sing beautifully. And even Yngwie, he sings “Highway Star.” People will be so surprised.
But the most remarkable thing about this record when I listen to it is how we blend together because when we put this tour on you know we didn’t want it to be just a gangbang of guitar freaks just making noise. So it’s organized, and I actually did arrangements. I orchestrated these arrangements of some of these classic songs for five guitars. So when we do “Frankenstein,” you’re just going to be so surprised at how beautiful it is because we get all of those beautiful intricate horn parts that Edgar Winter wrote and they are done on the guitar.
And then when we do “Highway Star,” that whole solo that Richie does, it’s like five guys in harmony spot on. It’s really cool. We’re very happy with it. I think it’s going to be released probably around mid-February, but I think the Pledge campaigners have more access. I’m not exactly sure how that works, but yeah, it’s ready to go.
I’m on that Pledge campaign. Before I did this interview I went onto it like “Oh my God! is it out?” And I had to log in and actually look at it to know it’s not coming out for a little bit. Vai: Yeah, they’ve been waiting for me to finish mixing it. (laughs) But I’m done, and the master (tape) is approved, and it’s ready to go. And we’re actually recording all the shows on this tour for a second record at some point.
Here’s another live clip of Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen performing “Black Star” off the new record.
Was this your first PledgeMusic campaign - the Generation Axe one? Vai: Well, oddly enough I’ve tried to refrain from doing the pledge thing because I didn’t really understand it. But then I got more into it, my friend Dweezil who has done Pledge campaigns explained it to me and showed it to me. And I thought “This is good. This is good for the fans. It’s good for the artists.” It’s really kind of an evolution of contemporary record company... record industry, you know? Because it empowers the artists and the fans. And you’re not subject to the economic and creative constrictions of the record company. So it’s really a great thing.
So oddly enough I launched two Pledge campaigns at the same time. One was for Generation Axe, and another was for this Jam-a-Thon that I put on right before we came out on tour. It was a fundraiser for Extraordinary Families which is a foster care home that I’m on the board of directors of. And it ended up being 53 and a half hours of non-stop jamming. And it was extraordinary. I had all these and every day I called everybody I knew. And we raised a lot of money, and we had like two and a half million click-throughs because it was all streamed live.
We still have a Pledge campaign for that (jamathon.org). So it was interesting that I launched two Pledge campaigns at the same time and they've both been very helpful in achieving the goals that we set out. So support your pledge campaigners!!! (laughs)
That sounds to me like you use the interface again - you’ve had a good experience with it? Vai: Oh absolutely. As a matter of fact, in 2020 I’m planning on recording all of my orchestra pieces. I probably got about four hours of orchestral music I don’t have properly recorded. I have like shows and stuff but... And that’s going to cost a tremendous amount of money because recording orchestras is really expensive. Yes and I’ll probably do a Pledge campaign for that, but that’s not until 2020.
Will Generation Axe only ever be the five of you? Or will you open your roster to other acts, men and women, and possibly rotate? Vai: Well the concept, in the beginning, was to create a brand of Generation Axe that would eventually morph into various genre fields. Like in the background we’re working on a Generation Axe blues tour. I may or may not be on it. Probably not because I’m going to be in the studio and working. When I kicked this thing off in my mind I created where I just wrote down a piece of paper various genres; like rock, metal, blues, fusion, and then I put on my favourite guitar players in these categories. I decided to move forward with the sort of rock metal category because that’s probably closest to my home.
And the first four guys on the list were Yngwie, Nuno, Zakk, and Tosin. And they all approved, and they wanted to do it. And here we are. So this incarnation of Generation Axe will continue to evolve hopefully, but there’ll also be various incarnations. There’s an acoustic core that we’re looking (at) putting together. It wouldn’t involve any of us that are on this tour but I’m kind of like pulling the strings for that in the background, so it’s kind of a brand, but we’ll have to see how it evolves.
Now you do meet and greet and entertain some of your excited and swooning Steve Vai fans. Can you maybe share a moment where you yourself were starstruck and in front of someone that you consider in high regard? Vai: It happens all the time. It’s kind of funny because you when you resonate with a particular artist music it means something to you and you create an identity for that artist in your head. You kind of create an image for them in your own mind. And this image evolves, and then finally you meet them, and it can be weird because it’s like, “Holy mackerel, there they are. They’re actually standing right there in front of me. I’m looking right into their eyes.” And it’s kind of a shocker for some people. And I know this because it’s been that way for me.
Like when I met Frank Zappa for the first time. Even though the entire time I was with Frank, a part of me was just still stunned that there he actually was in front of me. And I remember when I met Jimmy Page you know, and probably one of the biggest stunners for me was the first time I met Tom Waits, he is my favorite living artist you know? It’s just odd sometimes. A part of it, there’s a professional courtesy there, and I don’t act starstruck, but a part of me is going, “Holy mackerel I can’t believe it’s him standing right there.” It’s kind of weird.
A live clip of the track “Frankenstein” from Count Basie at Red Bank, NJ on 5/9/2016.
Has your approach to crafting music changed much for you decade by decade? Are you challenged by the same things now that you were 20 to 30 years ago? Vai: Well, things have evolved in the music business and in technology. So the way that we make music has changed dramatically. You know, from the time I started when it was all analog and tape. Now the digital workstations which made things it was a complete game changer in the way that there’s the freedom that you have in crafting your art. And then the way that we record; the way that we package; distribute; listen to, and purchase music has changed dramatically. And it will continue to change. We always think that wherever we’re at, we’ve arrived.
But in reality, it never stops moving forward. So right now is a nice time in the music business. It’s an exceptionally good time for young musicians who want to be independent. They have more control over their career more access directly to their fans, and they have more of a forum to express their creativity. Because if you’ve got the goods these days you can make a record in your kitchen and it can sound incredible. And if you’ve got the creative goods, you can create content on platforms like YouTube and all of the myriad of available outlets to express yourself.
That’s how you build a story. The thing is there’s so much more access to doing that now for creative, independent artists. I think creative because the barometer of these days that’s going to determine if you can cut through. Before you had to rely on a record company. But now you’re left to your own devices, and there are no excuses. Either you're reaching into your own unique creative potential and manifesting it, or you’re complaining why the world sucks, and the industry sucks and technology sucks because nobody knows how great you are. (laughs)
So if I was to ask one of your kids what they think is one of your worst habits, what answer do you think they’d give me? Vai: Interesting question. I don’t think they think I have bad habits.
You’re perfect. Vai: Yeah. Well, what would it be? Well, we have incredible communication. I have two boys. They’re 27 and 29 and hmm... Bad habits. I don’t know. I guess you’d have to ask them. (laughs)
Pushing 36 million views, this is Steve Vai performing “For The Love Of God”.
Over the years your music has featured in numerous films, but I don’t believe you’ve ever scored a film. Is that something you’d ever consider doing? Vai: Well I’ve contributed to films, and I’ve quasi-scored films. I’ve never scored a film in the conventional way where you write the score and then give it to an orchestra, and they play it. I don't think so. I've been offered scores. I got into it once (with the film) Miami Vice and there’s just too much constriction. To the people who are film composers, it’s a very creative exciting process for them. But for me, there’s just way too many restrictions because I compose music and have it performed and recorded with orchestras around the world and I’m so fortunate because there are many orchestras that are just saying, “write anything that you want, Steve Vai. We want to play it.”
So, I have absolutely no restriction in my compositional extravaganzas. And there are many orchestras that are willing to do exactly that. So I prefer that. If somebody came along and was making a film and it was an interesting, maybe perhaps esoteric kind of a film. And they knew me, and they knew my music, and they knew my musical instincts. And they said, “Vai, I got this film. You’re going to love it. And I want you to score it and just do whatever you want because I know what you do.” Then perhaps I might be interested. But nobody is doing that.
Fifty years down the road from now what would you hope that your legacy would be? What people will remember Steve Vai for? Vai: I’m not interested in being remembered. You know, it’s that kind of like at that time it’s not gonna matter to me. But having said that, I’m very very happy and very grateful that I can make music now for people to listen to now that like it. And that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to make as much music as I can for those who enjoy it. And as far as any lasting impressions, anything that I do, including my name, is going to be dust one day. And that’s the same for everybody including The Beatles. Including the Bible.
You know, the universe can hold its breath for a million years. None of that matters. But what does matter is virtually everything that you do, because anything that you do creatively contributes to everything. It affects everything somehow. So everybody’s creative efforts are valid about how they’re going to be remembered is completely unimportant really because they’re going to be dust one day. We’re going to be completely forgotten. And that’s fine. So I don’t really care.
And my last question. What is the easiest album that you have made so far and why do you think it came together so easily? Vai: Well, the ease of making a record is joined at the hips with your creative vision for the record. So, for instance, something like Passion And Warfare was an incredibly challenging record to make for various reasons. But the actual time I spent sitting in the studio doing it was blissful. So it was very easy. Hard records are records that I make, or things I contribute to that don’t really feel quite right to me. But I do them for some other reason, and I usually don’t do that anymore.
Like I was mentioning Miami Vice, that I started to score and then I dropped out? That would have been really hard because I wasn’t into it. But when you’re into something everything flows beautifully. Even the things that are challenging. Having said that, Skyscraper was hard.