Steve Vai’s Studies in Harmony and Light

Sep 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Bud Scoppa


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Steve Vai

Steve Vai

Vai broke in his new studio making The Story of Light (released Aug. 14 on his own Favored Nations label), his 16th solo album and the second volume of a projected trilogy, following 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections. Seven years may seem like a long stretch between studio albums, but Vai has spent the time fruitfully, touring extensively behind the previous album, painstakingly composing and orchestrating a pair of commissioned works for two Dutch symphony orchestras, 2007’s Sound Theories Vol. I & II and 2011’s The Middle of Everywhere. Between those ambitious undertakings, Vai assembled a band and wrote the music for the Where the Wild Things Are tour and live album in 2009. With those projects out of the way, he was finally able to begin gathering ideas for the middle album in the trilogy, the whole of which he’d conceptualized back in ’05.

In January 2011, as Harmony Hut was in the final stages of construction and outfitting, Vai spent three months demoing material for The Story of Light at The Mothership, his API-equipped studio in Hollywood. He then switched over to the new facility and began recording in earnest, finishing this past April. During the year Vai spent here at Harmony Hut, technology and aesthetics collided, setting off sonic fireworks—though in an extremely deliberate manner.

“I don’t record tracks; I build them,” he says of his architecturally rigorous recording methodology. “I get a full picture of what I want a track to be, and that tells me how to build it. What I do for the most part is lay down a click or a drum machine as a groove, and I put a scrap guitar on it, and maybe scrap bass and keyboard as well. Then I’ll bring in my drummer, Jeremy Colson, and build the track with him.”

Story of Light album cover.

Story of Light album cover.

And build he did. Vai reckons there are upwards of 80 voices on “The Book of the Seven Seals,” while “No More Amsterdam,” which has Aimee Mann on lead vocals, “has 25 different guitars, probably—half the models on that wall.” At the other extreme is “Sunshine Electric Raindrops,” which has just one guitar, “but it’s as big as a house,” he notes.

Taking in his sonic sanctuary, Vai turns reflective. “This room could be a cardboard box, and it might make somebody perfectly happy, because they don’t want to see all the books and colored lights—it’s too distracting to them, and that’s completely valid,” he says. “They might just want to record onto ADAT. There’s nothing right or wrong about it—it’s all valid, it’s whatever somebody wants. But this is what I want. This is what I’m comfortable with.”

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