By Mike Bax
Photo by Larry DiMarzio

A few days ago, the inimitable Steve Vai began an ambitious 21 date North American tour showcasing the entirety of his 1990 Passion and Warfare album – rehearsed to perfection and pushed out on the road for the masses. Already showcased over two months in Europe, this tour has been garnering rave reviews. These are the first live dates on this side of the pond for this tour.

There are numerous dates on this tour touching down in Canada, with 5 dates on the west coast heading inland from October 17th to 22nd and then three stops here in Ontario: October 30th at Centre in the Square in Kitchener, November 1st at London Music Hall in London and November 2nd at Algonquin Commons Theatre in Ottawa.

Considered one of the greatest guitarists in the world, this three-time grammy award winning artist began his career as a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa at the age of 18, then joining his band from 1980 to 1983. Vai has recorded and toured with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake, as well as doing recorded work with artists such as Mary J. Blige, Spinal Tap, Public Image Limited and Ozzy Osbourne.

Taking a bit of time out his busy schedule, Vai took twenty minutes to talk with Lithium Magazine about the roots of Passion and Warfare, what fans can expect on this run of anniversary tour dates, staying challenged, Tom Waits and reflects on Frank Zappa.

Mike: First things first Steve – when do you rest?

Steve: (laughs) Well, in some ways, I’m resting right now.

Mike: I ask this looking at your year so far. You’ve been a very busy boy this year w Generation Axe, G4, Passion and Warfare 25th and I believe an appearance at a Desmond Tutu event this week? Are you always as busy as you have been so far in 2016?

Steve: Yeah. It’s been a really crammed year. A lot of cool stuff. It started off with finishing the Modern Primitive CD, which is the disc that was released with the 25th anniversary of Passion and Warfare. And then putting together the Generation Axe tour. That was done in a short period of time, but it worked out great. And then right from that, I went into a few days rehearsal before kicking off the Passion and Warfare tour in Europe. that went for two months. And then I actually took a little break and went away with four other couples (our friends) to Scotland where we stayed at these castles. It was amazing. And then my wife and I and another couple did a bicycle trip through Italy. Then I did some Italian Masterclasses – about eight of those. And then I got back and went to an Eckhart Tolle retreat, which was enlightening, as usual. And now I’m getting ready for this tour. I’m going to dig my heels in around Christmas when I get off this tour. After the Vai Academy event that happens at the end of 2016. Actually, on the tour we did G3 and I was able to do a G4. It’s been just a wild year.

Mike: How were the European Passion And Warfare Anniversary tour dates in July and August received? Were you happy with the turnout, and how that material came off live?

Steve: There were many things that I was very happy with. One of them being how much I enjoyed playing the record with the band. We play the whole record from beginning to end. it was the first time I was actually able to take a completely different perspective of that record. I just remember feeling overwhelmed with appreciation that I had done that record and that I was able to tour on it 25 years later. And to still be able to play that music. The audiences really appreciated it. It was fantastic. The band was great. We all love touring, you know? We have a great time when we tour. There were some things I perhaps would have tweaked better. The amount of time that we had in announcing the tour only left three weeks for promoting and whatnot. Usually, you need a lot more time than that. By the time we got half way through the tour it was firing on all cylinders. We did this run of Spain and Italy that were perhaps the most delicious shows I’ve ever played. They were all outdoor in the summer in these beautiful amphitheatres. They were packed. It was just spectacular. It was really great.

Mike: There’s been a bit more lead time for the North American Passion and Warfare dates. This was announced 5-6 weeks ago, right? More time for awareness and people to get excited about it.

Steve: Yes. Usually, you go on sale long before that. But in this climate, we just decided to do it this way. But then you have to let people know you are coming, and thus appreciate doing these interviews.

Mike: Can we maybe just talk a bit about what fans can expect to see on this tour, Steve? You’ve already mentioned playing Passion and Warfare in entirety.

Steve: Yeah, sure. You know, I try to put together a show that has different elements than a previous show. And that also has as much entertainment value as I can stick in there. Because, you know, the ham’s cooking brother. (laughs) I’m a complete show-off. So we’ll start the show and do some older songs and favourites. We’ve got ‘Bad Horsie’ from my Alien Love Secrets record in there. And then after those songs, we start the Passion and Warfare record. And then when that is done we do this thing that I’ve been doing for a while now that has turned out to be such a hoot; it’s called build me a song. And I ask people from the audience to come up on stage and actually write pieces of music by singing them and we play them. We construct this piece of music together. It’s really fun and engaging. One of the things that very different for me on this tour is I have screens – there is video going through the entire show. And through a bunch of songs I have guest artists who come up and actually jam with me from the screen. Some of my friends, like John Petrucci appearing up there and Satriani. And Frank Zappa, we got some footage from the estate. It’s really great, and it’s something different that I haven’t done before.

Mike: Cool. I had the good fortune of seeing you when you brought Generation Axe through Toronto. My God, three and a half hours of the guitar was just insane Steve. I can’t even thank you enough for that. It was just an amazing thing to be in the audience for.

Steve: (laughs) Amazing. We had a great time doing that run. It was a great tour.

Mike: I believe there are still a few premium packages available for some of these upcoming Passion and Warfare dates – fans can get close seats, they can meet you, get photographs, and get the opportunity to ask you questions like these in person?

Steve: Yeah, I’ve been doing that for quite some time. I really enjoy that part of the day. There are three different premium packages I believe (details here). I sit with people and it can be anywhere from 1 to 60 or 70 people, you know? I sit for about an hour and just talk and answer any questions that I can. And then they are invited to a soundcheck and they get a little tour of the stage and they get a bag of swag, photos, and autographs, you know. I do enjoy doing that.

Mike: What’s one of the strangest things you’ve ever had to autograph?

Steve: Strange… Huh. I’ve signed all sorts of body parts. On the last tour, there were sixty body parts where people went and got tattoos done. That’s kind of strange, I guess. So that’s not the actual signing… but when I see somebody with a tattoo of me on their back – it’s touching. But it makes me feel like “Jeez, I hope they like my next record.” (laughs)

Mike: When you toured Passion and Warfare 25 years ago, did you ever play the entire album? There would be some songs here that you’ve rarely played live, correct?

Steve: Well, the fact is I never toured on Passion and Warfare.

Mike: Oh wow. I didn’t know that. I thought you did some live dates for it back in the day.

Steve: Yeah, when the record came out I was on tour with Whitesnake. And that was a long tour. And by the time that tour was over, I had the option of touring on Passion and Warfare, but my wife had just had a baby and I didn’t want to be out of town again for another year. So I never actually played all the songs. Only sporadically. So coming together now and learning the whole set, I didn’t even know if it was possible because there are so many parts on that record. But you know, with modern technology and some backing tracks you can fill out all the noise and sound effects accurately.

Mike: True. Let us assume there are people who maybe don’t know you’ve recently re-released Passion and Warfare – can you talk about what went into that re-issue, what’s been done to the original masters and the addition of the new Modern Primitive material?

Steve: Well, when I was 20, I started my obsession with studios and recording, engineering and producing. So I experimented a lot. And I made this record called Flex-able. This bizarre record. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I never even expected it to be a record. But I released it, and I realized that I really liked making records and releasing them. So I put a band together called The Classified and I started recording all this bizarre music. I started tracking it, but I didn’t actually finish it because I was invited to join Alcatrazz. So I took that gig and while I was with Alcatrazz I was offered a solo record deal with Capitol Records. That’s when I basically started from scratch working on Passion and Warfare. So the material that I had recorded and written in between Flex-able and Passion and Warfare with The Classified sat on the shelf. And I knew there was some interesting stuff there and that one day I would want to finish it. So when the time came to release this 25th anniversary  set I decided to finish Modern Primitive and offer it with Passion and Warfare. And it’s kind of like a little peek into the missing link between Flex-able and Passion and Warfare – because those two records are so wildly different. My music is kind of compositional in a sense. It’s more rock and there’s a lot of guitars. There are some vocals in some of it. It’s not mainstream or pop-culture. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s good, you know? I like it. There are some people who like it. You can get lost in it if it resonates with you. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to have a career with it.

Mike: I remember being a youngster and trying to find Flex-able on vinyl. I’m from a small town up in Canada and I can remember having a hard time getting that album. I think it was on a small indie label at the time.

Steve: Yeah.

Mike: And I can remember in initially playing it and thinking that it wasn’t an album, per se, but it was still great. There was some awesome stuff on it. But it didn’t feel like a commercially viable entity I guess for lack of a better descriptor.

Steve: Not at all. (laughs) It was a very quirky.

Mike: But it’s still a good body of work. And now, there are musicians who can put out their material in this fashion – thanks to people like yourself and Satriani. They can be quirky, instrumental and eclectic and manage to find an audience. And I attribute that at some level to Flex-able and Satriani’s Not of This Earth.

Steve: Well yes. People are changing. Times are changing. More and more things are being integrated into music. People are enjoying their freedom of expression more and more. This is a pattern through history. And when it comes to being creative in the arts, We have a tendency to be very conditioned by news and media as to what is acceptable. But really, the artistic heart has no borders. And it doesn’t have a particular genre. So more and more people are feeling the freedom to really do whatever they want. I was a student too innocent and naive at the time to know anything else. You know, that’s why I was able to make those kinds of records. Because I didn’t really feel that I needed to have an expectation of its success. It was just something fun to do at the moment.

Mike: You mentioned that you’ve got a bit of Frank Zappa footage that you are integrating into this tour. Can you share a Frank Zappa story, Steve? Something that makes you smile when you reflect on your time with him?

Steve: Oh, virtually every day. I mean Frank was extraordinary. And you just better be ready to hear the truth when you’d talk to him. (laughs) You know, he could read right into your intentions. Oh, there are so many stories. The most amazing thing that I learned from Frank was (and I was at a very impressionable age… I worked with him for like 6 years) when Frank wanted to do something, he would just do it. He would be moved by a creative idea and then he would just set out and get it. He didn’t make any excuses. He didn’t expect anybody to do it for him. So when I started to become an independent artist, I thought that is just what you do – you do what YOU want. And that was something that I got from Frank.

Mike: That’s a good life lesson to have.

Steve: Yeah man.

Mike: What in your career do you consider to be the most challenging thing you have done? Performance wise. Something that really challenged you and makes you reflect on it as something you weren’t sure you’d be able to do.

Steve: Well, there’s a piece that I used to do with Frank called ‘Moggio’. And it was just death-defying. And I would have to constantly practice it and practice it. And even to this day if I listen to it, I feel my bowels loosening. (laughs) It was just so hard. In the way of challenges, there were a lot. But a challenge that I enjoy is coming up with a unique idea. I sit down before I start anything and I say “Ok. What are you going to do now?” That is going to evolve your boundaries, so to speak. Where are you going to take it? And that’s really fun, you know? That’s where the passion in it all lies. So that’s a challenge. But you can do it. Everybody can because the process of creation is endless, you know? You are never going to tap it out. So that’s exciting and challenging.

Mike: Can you recall the first time you heard a guitar solo that blew your mind?

Steve: Yeah. It was ‘Heartbreaker’ by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin II. It was at that precise moment I decided “I’m going to play the guitar”. I always wanted to play but I never had the courage. And then finally when I was twelve and I heard that solo, it was like “That’s it. I’m playin’ the guitar”.

Mike: Can you describe a time where you found yourself to be star-struck? With somebody that you were either excited or even nervous to meet.

Steve: I was sitting in a senate hearing for the accounting practices of major record companies and my favourite artist came in and sat down right next to me. It was Tom Waits.

Mike: Nice.

Steve: And I was just listening to his records on the way there. I got out of my car singing one of his songs and there he is, sat down right next to me. I was stunned.

Mike: When was the last time that a piece of modern music touched you emotionally? What was it, and why do you think you reacted to it?

Steve: Devin Townsend sent me his new record. And the opening song is a track called ‘Truth’. And it’s glorious. There’s divinity in it.

Mike: There are some vocals on Modern Primitive by a woman named Jaz James. Where did you first meet her and what brought her to this recording?

Steve: That is a song called ‘Pink Blows Over’. Jaz is a family friend’s daughter. She became very close friends with us and we used to go and see her play. She is this very artistic, beautiful, sexy, talented young girl. And when I was looking for a voice in my head for that song, I just couldn’t get her out of it. She had to be the one. And I couldn’t have hit the nail more on the head. And neither could’ve she.

Footage from the European Passion and Warfare 25th Anniversary Tour:

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Passion And Warfare Anniversary 2016 North American Tour Dates:
October 8 – Riverside, CA – Fox Performing Arts Center
October 9 – Las Vegas, NV – House of Blues – Las Vegas
October 11 – San Diego, CA – House of Blues – San Diego
October 12 – Ventura, CA – Majestic Ventura Theatre
October 13 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
October 14 – Sacramento, CA – Ace of Spades
October 16 – Portland, OR – Revolution Hall
October 17 – Nanaimo, BC – The Port Theater
October 18 – Kelowna, BC – Kelowna Community Theatre
October 19 – Calgary, AB – Jack Singer Concert Hall
October 21 – Saskatoon, SK – O’Brian’s Event Centre
October 22 – Winnipeg, MB – Burton Cummings Theatre
October 23 – Burnsville, MN – The Ames Center at Burnsville Performing Arts Center
October 25 – Northfield, OH – Hard Rock Live
October 26 – Milwaukee, WI – The Pabst Theater
October 28 – Grand Rapids, MI – The Orbit Room
October 29 – North Tonawanda, NY – Riviera Theater
October 30 – Kitchener, ON – Centre in the Square
November 1 – London, ON – London Music Hall
November 2 – Ottawa, ON – Algonquin Commons Theatre
Additional North American tour dates to be announced soon