Fans Expect 'Certain Things', But That Won’t Stop Steve Vai Doing What He Wants

4 August 2023 | 11:51 am | Mark Hebblewhite

Guitar legend Steve Vai might be the master of fretboard histrionics, but in talking to The Music about his highly anticipated national tour, Mark Hebblewhite quickly found out that, above all, he’s one of rock n roll’s nicest guys.

Steve Vai

Steve Vai (Credit: Larry DiMarzio)

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Pie Face” is Steve Vai’s unexpected answer when asked about his overriding memories of his many visits to our shores. “Everywhere you go in Australia, there’s one of those,” he laughs. “No, actually, I’ve always thought that every city I play in Australia has a real particular character to it – I always remember that.

“But more importantly, and I’ve said this in many interviews, the Australian people are the nicest people in the world. I really love how accommodating people are in Australia and how receptive and supportive the fans are. Oh, I also arrange it so I can spend a day on Rottnest Island at the end of every tour – which is one of my favourite things to do.”

This upcoming tour is taking on particular importance for Vai. Leaving aside the fact that COVID-19 meant the prolific performer was unable to tour for years, Vai is now promoting not only 2022’s brand new studio album Inviolate but also a special recording from way back in 1991, and only released this year, called Vai/Gash.

The two LPs couldn’t be more different. Inviolate is a tour de force of Vai’s legendary guitar prowess and an album that undulates between mind-blowing shred and subtle melody and textured songcraft. Vai/Gash, on the other hand, is a simple joie de vivre, raw good, time rock n roll that shows a side of Vai rarely seen and which pays tribute to his friend and the album’s vocalist, Johnny "Gash" Sombrotto, who sadly passed away in a motorcycle accident in 1998.

Given Vai’s reputation as a shredder, was he worried that going against type on Vai/Gash would disappoint fans who expect technical mastery on everything that bears his name?

“It’s interesting you ask because I do think that fans expect certain things, and I sometimes find myself wondering if I should incorporate what I know people want in my music,” he muses. “But when push comes to shove – when inspiration comes over you - it trumps everything I think I should be doing. I have the musical DNA and attitude to bring what I think is needed to any project that I happen to be working on at the time – whether it be my own music or working with other artists.

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“With all the different things I did earlier in my career, I knew that I liked making what I call ‘high information’ music - where I can get forensic with notes and cords. That’s how you got the Passion and Warfare LP, for example. But there’s occasionally a hankering to go back and do something different – music from a different part of my psyche, so to speak. And that’s what happened with the Vai/Gash record. I recorded this after Passion and Warfare, and if you listened to the two records together, you would think two completely different people made them.” 

Vai is keen to let people know that even though the songs had languished in the vaults for years, he strongly believed they deserved to be heard, particularly given his friend Johnny ‘Gash’ never got to tour and bring the material to life.

“I made sure that I had the blessing of Johnny’s family before releasing the album, and I told them that I wanted to really make the record about Johnny rather than it being just another Steve Vai record. He had so much charisma and chutzpah – fantastic vocal delivery - he would have made such a great rock star.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Vai in planning any tour is trying to construct a setlist from a huge body of work. So how does he approach it?

“Look, there’s a conventional approach with setlists that you generally have to adhere to,” explains Vai. “There’s always a handful of songs that folks want to hear. If I didn’t play - say - Tender Surrender, Bad Horsie or For The Love Of God, I’d probably get beat up. Then I like to go back into the catalogue and grab a couple of things that I haven’t played for a while.

“After that, there is a healthy smattering of the new material. Usually, you would do three or four songs from the new record, but Inviolate is so ripe for us to play that we’ve been doing six or seven songs from the record. It brings something fresh – new dynamics to the set.”

Unfortunately, while tunes off Inviolate will be a centrepiece of the upcoming shows, the Vai/Gash material is a little harder to carry off.

“I would love to do that material,” offers Vai. “But the real problem is that there is no one who can sing that stuff. I can’t sing it, that’s for sure – maybe I should put an APB out for anyone in the crew who could sing a number from that record – or maybe even from the crowd (laughs).”  

During his career, Vai has worked with a veritable who’s who of the rock world, from noted weirdo Frank Zappa, through to Whitesnake, David Lee Roth, Dream Theatre, Ozzy Osbourne and even Spinal Tap. But The Music was very keen to hear about his experience with rock’s ultimate outlaw, Lemmy.

“Lemmy knew exactly what he wanted,” explains Vai in relation to his work on Motorhead’s late career ‘comeback album’, the monolithic Inferno. “I met him at the Rainbow, which was basically his home, and I said to him, “When are you going to ask me to play on one of your records?” He turned around and said – ‘I’ll be at your house at 1 pm on Wednesday’. Sure enough, he turned up at my home studio, and we sat for twenty hours and chatted and recorded. When I was playing, he really produced me – he said to me – ‘On this take, I want you to stand there, close your eyes and imagine there is a huge arena full of people’. It was great input that I’d never really had in the studio. He knew when it was right, and he knew when it wasn’t right.”

“Motorhead revolved in its own universe: it was rock and roll to the purest degree. With Lemmy, that sound, that bass, that voice, the way he built the songs, and the way he wrote with attitude – we were so lucky to have him and his music.”

Steve Vai will bring his Involiate tour to Australia in November – you can find all the tour dates below. Tickets are available via the Live Nation website.



Tuesday October 31 – Wellington, Opera House

Wednesday November 1 – Auckland, The Civic

Friday November 3 – Brisbane, Fortitude Music Hall

Sunday November 5 – Sydney, Enmore Theatre

Monday November 6 – Wollongong, Anita's Theatre

Wednesday November 8 – Adelaide, Hindley Street Music Hall

Thursday November 9 – Melbourne, Palais Theatre

Saturday November 11 – Perth, Concert Hall