Though guitarist Steve Vai has sometimes been typecast as an empty virtuoso held over from the metal craze of the 1980s, nothing could be further from the truth.
It's certainly the case that Vai set a standard for chops, actually cleaning up and re-imagining the licks of erstwhile guitar gods like Eddie Van Halen with his Berkeley training and legendary woodshed habits. And he also did his fair share of musical slumming, lending his considerable flash and panache to arena-metal stalwarts like David Lee Roth and Whitesnake back in the day.
But Vai also spent the first years of his career as a transcriptionist, then "stunt guitarist" in Frank Zappa's band. He's been a guest artist on albums by the likes of violinist L. Shankar, guitarist Mike Stern, Johnny Lydon's Public Image Ltd, and Joe Jackson. And his solo albums, though always rife with idiosyncratic guitar virtuosity, are also marked by sonic diversity, heady themes, and more than a few conceptual curveballs.
His latest album, The Story of Light, is no exception. "I had a story in mind I wanted to lay out over a series of records, a trilogy, but I didn't want to do it in a conventional way," Vai says, speaking on a break from the Story of Light tour. "It's a very in-depth kind of story, but I didn't want to drag all the music down with so much conceptual stuff. So what I decided to do was release three albums of material that are basically depictions of characters and events in the story, with some of the stuff in liner notes.
"But my goal is to release a fourth, a box, so to speak, later on, more like a quadrilogy, with all the songs in some narrative, and then it would be a linear kind of listening experience. You'd get the whole story with music and lyrics and all that sort of good stuff."
The Story of Light, by the way, is the second part of the trilogy; Vai's 2005 release Real Illusions: Reflections was part one.
Like other artists who have persevered and succeeded long after the era that birthed them has faded, Vai speaks like a man who is neither too tethered to the past nor overly concerned with he what other people think he should be doing now.
"I've been very fortunate. I'm surprised I even have the audience I have," Vai says. "But I think what happens is that if you find something that's very interesting to you and that you have a passion about, you almost have no choice. And what happens is you can create something that is charged with your own unique kind of passion and creative identity. And if that happens, there's going to be some sort of audience for it.
"I've never given up because I've never wanted to give up. There would always be an idea that would come up and I'd be crazy about it, and then I'd have to do it. It didn't matter if it was something popular at the time. I did that already. I was in big rock bands that catered to the masses. And it was fun. But you have to answer to yourself at some point."
Asked if he would ever consider a Big Rock project again, Vai doesn't rule out the possibility. But he has some strict guidelines. "It would have to be an extraordinary situation, because I get offers like that all the time," he says. "The problem is that most of the offers are from guys who want to relive the glory days of yore, and that's not fresh and new. You know, I've done that. If the right group of people came along, I'm interested in doing something different and heavy and accessible and [something] that resonated. But I have no interest in getting together with a bunch of legends to create a supergroup."
Those good instincts have helped Vai stay creatively vibrant and commercially viable long past the expiration date of most artists with his particular profile. Good instincts, and the lessons learned under the tutelage of an exceptional mentor.
"Frank was the most extraordinary man I ever met," Vai marvels. "It wasn't until later that I realized what an impact he'd had on my life. And the biggest impact Frank had on me was with his independence. He would get an idea and he would do it, without making excuses or expecting anyone to do it for him. Then he would move on.
"And I always thought, that's how you do it. That's how you make music. You just do it. I didn't realize until later that, no, that's not how a lot of people do it. Most people are complaining or expecting someone to do it for them and it never gets done. That's why they don't do it."