Intervjuer Nyheter

Steve Vai – Freedom and Friendship

Steve Vai will release his shelved ’90s rock album “Vai /Gash” in January 2023. He wrote it within two weeks in a “stream of consciousness” in 1991 to fulfil his desire to have a particular kind of music to listen to when he was riding his Harley Davison Motorcycle with his friends. “Johnny Gash Sombrotto” was one of those friends, and he turned out to be a remarkable rock vocalist, and sings on the record. We caught up with Vai in December 2022 to chat about the album and who Gash was. We also couldn’t resist asking him about playing with Whitesnake at what was, probably, their final performance.

Tekst & portrait photo: Anne-Marie Forker

– Hello there, Anne-Marie.
– Hei, Steve, nice to see you again, how are you?
– I am doing great. How are you doing?
– I’m doing very well. Greetings from Norway!
– Ah, thank you.
– The last time you were here, in Norway – your shoulder, you had some problems with it, I remember you couldn’t bring the Hydra guitar with you because of that. How are you doing now?
– Great [raises arms in the air]! Unfortunately, when I was making «Inviolate», I tore another tendon, which was the second time, and I opted to wait until I finished the record, because I needed to write and record «The Teeth of the Hydra» and make the video, and that took quite a while. It got to the point where it was failing you, you know, and two days after I shot the Hydra video, I went and had the surgery. So, I wasn’t going to heal in time for the American tour, so we moved that to this Fall – and we’ve just finished that tour – but we still had a European tour and I wanted to do that, we there was just not enough healing time. I had only healed for about five or six weeks. I could play, but I couldn’t get my arm around the Hydra. So, I had to leave it home.
But then, when I got home from all the touring in Europe, I had two weeks to prepare for the American tour and I really wanted to bring the Hydra, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play it. So, I got home, and I hunched over it and was surprised and delighted that it was there. I had to work on it. For me playing that piece is a work in progress forever, because it’s whole different kind of a brain muscle use, you know.
– Yeah, that must make it more exciting for you, though.
– Yeah, it’s fun.
– Also – and I’ll just quickly ask you this before we get into «Gash» – since I last saw you, you appeared at Hellfest with Whitesnake. How did that come about?
– Well, that was easy. I kinda knew it was going to come about, a year before, because we were invited to Hellfest and I noticed that Whitesnake was going to be there. And David and I talk quite a bit, you know, and of course, I can’t invite myself! And I thought, well, we’ll see what happens – if David wants to join them, I’d love to, if it worked out. And it couldn’t have worked out better because they performed directly after us at Hellfest. David invited me to do «Still of the Night». I was very happy, and it was great fun to be with them again on that big stage, with David and the band. They sounded great, they played great. And, interestingly enough, that performance of «Still of the Night» was the last performance of Whitesnake.
– Really? I knew it was their last tour, I didn’t know that was the end of the road for them.
– Of course, you’ll have to stay tuned to Whitesnake press to see what David decides he’s going to do, but the last thing I heard, they cancelled everything after that, and that was their farewell tour. So – yeah, I don’t know. Hopefully….. David’s going to continue to be musical. He’s very musical, he’s got great instincts, so I don’t think David Coverdale will stop doing stuff, but from the press reports, they cancelled their farewell tour, and the last song performed was «Still of the Night» with me at Hellfest.

– Well, what a way to go out, if they don’t do anything else, that’s a great way to go out. Now, going onto Johnny Gash Sombrotto – is that how you say it?
– Yeah, Sombrod’do, New York Italian.
– I’m brought up Irish Catholic and some of us always felt a kind of connection with the Italian Catholic community in New York.
– Yeah, because they all came together.
– Exactly. But Gash – what an incredible voice. He sounds like he could be singing with AC/DC or Alcatrazz.  Is it true that he never sang before this recording, and how did you meet him?
– That is true, as far as I know, and I had never seen him sing before that and I knew him for a while.  But he did sing Frank Sinatra style, which was odd – that was the only time i heard him sing. He made a little video for his dad, singing a load of Frank Sinatra songs, and he sounds just like Frank Sinatra – beautiful, smooth croony voice – the whole thing. Then I would hear him sing rock’n’roll lines, and I know a rock’n’roll voice. «Wait a minute, what did you sing? Come here a minute….» and I threw him in the studio. But the way it all came about was, when I was young I was really into motorcycles, motorbikes. I used to build motorbikes, minibikes, go-carts – I was into that thing. I could never afford a real motorcycle. This was from the age of about 10 to the age of 16. And a lot of my friends and my brother’s friends, who were older, all had Harleys. Then my friend got a Harley – he actually bought my brother’s – and I just loved that Harley culture. It was a different group of people, a different dynamic, a whole different hang-out crowd, different parties. The biker culture in early to late ’70s on Long Island was tough. There were gangs! There were rough biker gangs, like the Hell’s Angels, and then there were groups that would emerge from various jurisdictions, I think the one in my area was called «The Breed», and that was like a motorcycle gang. And they through great parties and were just really great people. I would do my best to steal my brother’s motorcycle when I could. He had this big, giant 1200cc chopper, sixteen-over front-ends, this big chopper, and I was just a kid! But I never could really afford one. Finally, when I moved out to California and I started making some money, I got a Harley. I got a bunch of Harleys, actually. It was my only guilty pleasure, because I was finally able to join that culture for a little while, because in California in the ’90s there was the yuppy biker movement just emerged. So, I started riding, and there was so much good riding in Southern California. And before that, a friend of mine that was working for me, Mark Cimino, one of his friends moved out to California, and that was John. And John has an incredible story to his life. John had been a motorcycle enthusiast his whole life, and he was riding his motorcycle, a dirt bike, along these power-lines, when he was twenty-one, and he got lost. So, he climbed the power-lines to see where he was, and the electricity arced and when through him, and he caught fire.
– Oh my goodness.
– He plummeted sixty feet onto a barbed-wire fence, and he had third-degree burns over sixty percent of his body. That’s why his name was «Gash». If you see the album cover, his body – it’s all scars, all the way – his ear is burned off completely. And his face is untouched. He survived, which is kind of a miracle, one of those things, you know.  Then he moved out to California later, and I met him later, and we started riding together. The hardest thing for me to do is to try to explain what he was like – I can’t.  I can rip off adjectives, but they never do justice. He was wild, he was so loveable. He was loved by all of us. He was a New Yorker to the bone. He would say things, and you’d go «What?! Did you really say that?» but then after a few minutes you’d just love him for it. It’s hard to explain. He was a daredevil par excellence. I mean, he had a handle of his motorcycle, but he was crazy was on a motorcycle. Like, he would do things – if you look at the album and look at the back cover, the photo is of him riding down the street turned around facing backward on his back seat, flipping the bird. He would pull wheelies on Harleys. We’d be at rallies and he’d come riding down the street in an iron cross [pose], standing on the seat.
– He sounds fantastic.
– Crazy stuff, you know! We had so much fun, so much fun. We would go on all these bike trips, all over the place. Once, what had happened was, I had this big Harley called a Full Dresser, so it had speakers in the front and the back so I had this great sound system on my Harley, and when you’re riding a big bike like that and you’re with your friends and you’re going on a trip, and you’ve got your girl on the back and you’re free, there’s a feeling, a sense of freedom. This is why bikers…. this is the unexplainable truth, there’s just a wonderful sense of independence, worthiness, and freedom while you’re riding a motorcycle, and I love that feeling, along with so many others. And I wanted music that represented that for me. Now, there’s a lot of music that you can say – this is good biker music – and it is, but I wanted to craft – because I’m a musician and I write music, and there are rock music sensibilities within me – I wanted to write a tailor-made record for us to listen to when we went motorcycle riding

– More personal.
– Yeah, more personal – just for us. And I did it so quick. I recorded first just a click track – I didn’t even know what the song was going to be – and would improvise a bass part, and then one or two takes on the guitar. Then I was working with this incredible drummer Tiffany Smith. I did a lot of stuff with her back before the Gash project, just a lot of kind of studio stuff, before I started working with Terry Bozzio on «Sex and Religion». So, I had this music, and I thought, I’ll sing on it, I’ll ruin it, because, you know, I don’t have that kind of voice. But this is just for us. I started to sing, and I’m like, I can’t sing this, this isn’t me, I don’t have that kind of voice, I will destroy this music. So, I just left it for a minute, and then I heard John. And I was like «wow!», and I got him in there, and what came out of his mouth stunned me.
– Yeah, it stunned me as well, listening to it.
– And this was like one take, two takes, I would just tell him and he just did it, and I’m like «wow!». So then we had this music, and we’re riding our motorcycles and enjoying it. Then, tragically, John was killed in a motorcycle accident, and it was just devastating. I was so disheartened, you know, and I just took the whole record and threw it on the shelf and basically forgot about it for years. Then, I started listening to it again, and I’m like «Wow, I really like this stuff, there’s something organic and sincere and authentic.» And I knew that when I was doing it, I wanted it down and dirty, right in your face, no noodling guitar solos, no in-between funny, quirky bits, no overblown production, straight ahead, rock’n’roll, up your arse, in a way which induces the feeling of freedom and joy in you. That’s what I wanted, and I did it.

– You absolutely did, hit the nail on the head.
– I can’t believe it, because I didn’t even listen to it for decades.
– Why now? Because you just picked it up and listened to it again?
– Well, I knew it was there, and every now and then I’d listen to a song, and I didn’t have it mixed, and I would always say «oh, I’ve got to mix all this» and I’ve gotta just release it one day… «Okay, maybe next year», and it just went on and it never seemed like the right time. I mean, if I had released that record in the ’90s, it would just have been destroyed, you know, because it didn’t represent anything that was going on at the time, it was just a piece of meat to throw to the wolves, you know. I was like «I don’t care if people, if the critics don’t hear this, ’cause they’re only gonna destroy it», so I didn’t want to subject it to that, it was too personal. «You can criticise this – here’s all my work, here’s Roth, here’s Whitesnake, here’s everything. Criticise it, but this? Just leave it alone. Matter of fact, I’m not even gonna release it.» It was weird, but I was also shaken up by losing John.
– Of course, so you wanted to protect that. I completely understand.
– So then recently, about a year ago, I started listening to it a lot, and I said «Wait a minute, this is good, I like this. It’s okay for me to like it and nobody else to like it, it’s okay.» And I had to say that to myself, because I don’t know. You know, I think all my music should be on the radio, that’s how crazy the artist can be. I know it’s not appropriate and I know it’s not accessible. But this record, it’s very accessible and very radio friendly. But I don’t play that radio game, it’s just too unpredictable. And expensive, you know. And I thought – if ever I release something that gets on the radio, it has to be because of the merit of the song. I never looked forward to anything like that, so when this record came out, when I decided to release this, I thought, well, every artist that has some kind of a fan base – and I’m very fortunate that I’ve developed a pretty loyal fan base through the decades – there’s a certain percentage of those fans, for every artist, that are just interested in everything the artist does, so this record would be like a little Easter Egg for them – a surprise and a delight. That’s what I like to offer – surprise and delight to the fans.
– Yeah, it is very surprising, actually. But I think it will reach out beyond your fan base as well.
– That’s up to people like you, my darling (laughs).
– I am a fan of your work also. I know you said there’s nothing quirky or anything on the record, and I agree, but “Danger Zone» reminds me a little of some of the heavier sounds of your guitar from «Bad Horsie». Just a little.
– Just a little! There’s one track on there, I wrote all the music except one song, «New Generation», I wrote that with Nikki Sixx. I like the whole record. I can’t pick a track, you know.

– This might be a difficult question to answer then, but if Johnny was here now, with us, and I asked him what his favourite track from the album was – which song do you think he would choose – and why?
– That’s a tough one. Hard to say – you’d get a colourful answer, that I guarantee! Maybe «Danger Zone», that whole outro scat rant that he does – I just let him loose and that came out.
– That’s one of the reasons it’s my favourite. It sounds so free at the end. He’s soaring. It’s wonderful.
– «Stay away, I’m hazardous stuff, I burn», or something.
– What a free soul, he sounds fantastic.
– You would have loved him.
– Coming from a photography perspective, that image where he’s scarred but his face, and especially his eyes, didn’t change – there’s so much in that.
– There’s so much in them. My greatest regret, no, it’s not a regret, disappointment I guess is that, I’ve worked with a lot of extravagant, extroverted, powerful, effective animated rock lead singers. I’ve recognised the particular DNA of sorts, the psychological DNA that they all have – Gash was that and beyond, he had that in oceans, you can hear it in his voice, and my greatest regret is, even if you hear his voice, you don’t get a chance to know who he was, because you would have loved him so much.
– His voice is out there now thanks to you. Although I’ll never get to know him, I certainly get the sense of freedom that he had.
– (sighs)

– I wanted to ask you about your current work, and whether we’ll see the third instalment of the «Real Illusions» trilogy. Is that something in the near future, or are you working on something else?
– Well, I started to work on that before the lockdown, and I’ve been chipping away at it for decades, you know, with the story and putting little snippets of music into the folder for it, and before the lockdown, I started working on it and I laid it all out, and I updated and completed more of the story. You know, on the first two records, you have no idea what’s going on in the story. In this one, you get the whole story. It’s a very dense record, a lot of vocals, everything’s vocals, it’s almost like a musical, so it was going to require a lot of work and a lot of people. So, when you woke up, and you’re in lockdown and you couldn’t leave the house, I had to change lanes. So, I started doing what a lot of artists were doing at the time, which was to reach out to the fans who where in lockdown with various kinds of offerings. I did some live streams, I did a series called «Alien Guitar Secrets» and a series called «Under It All», and then I had some time to work out some odd techniques on the guitar, which I recorded and did some home videos. One song was called «Candle Power» – then I had a shoulder surgery and I couldn’t play except with one hand, so I did a song called «Knapsack», I had the Hydra guitar. So, I decided, I wanted to get out on tour, and I want to play and I want to play and I want to play. So, make a record that you can go out and play, so it was already starting to come together. But before that, one of the other things I did during lockdown was a solo acoustic guitar/vocal version with me singing a song called «The Moon and I» and I just did a little thing from my studio, and that was pretty well-received surprisingly. I’ve never done a solo acoustic/vocal track. I’ve done that, but with my band.  So, I was really happy with the response from that, and I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do, which was a solo acoustic/vocal record. I still couldn’t pick up with the «Real Illusions» part 3 record, because we were still in lockdown. So, I ended up starting to record this acoustic record, and got about half-way done and then my shoulder gave out, and that’s when I had that surgery, and by the time that was done, I wanted to get out on tour and play, so I did «Inviolate» – and I still have a lot of touring to do for that – but my thoughts right now, which could change – I knew I wanted to get the Gash record out and I wanted to finish this acoustic record and get that out, but also over the last year, I’ve recorded about four hours of my orchestra music with the Metrapole Orchestra in Holland and the Tampere Philharmonic in Finland. So I have that on the shelf, and I may brush up some of those recordings and release those.
– Wonderful – please do.
– But the Part 3 might come after that.  That’s a long answer to a simple question, sorry!
– No, no – you’re notoriously prolific, so it’s wonderful to know all of that. Finland’s pretty close!
– I have performed in Norway with an orchestra that was put together at a Starmus Convention, which is this fantastic science and music convention.
– Are you coming back soon? You said you have a lot of touring, but you have already visited Norway on the first leg.
– Well, what I like to do is a hundred shows in America and a hundred shows in Europe including Eastern Europe. So, I did my fifty-two in America and my fifty in Europe, so now I’m going back to Europe in March – Eastern Europe. I’ll probably do some shows in Western Europe in areas that I missed, like there are some in Spain and I really want to get to places like Iceland and maybe there’s a place in Norway that I missed that we might get to. But then I’m back in America to get all the places I missed, and then South America, Mexico, then Australia, New Zealand, Asia. I’ll be busy until Christmas next year.
– Impressive. I might go to Iceland to see you then. Iceland is beautiful.
– Well, they haven’t booked it yet, I hope they do.
– Well, I hope they do too.
– I hope you can make it. Bring your camera!
– Oh yes, I will (laughs). It’s been wonderful to speak with you.
– Thanks so much, Anne-Marie, best of luck with everything – and your photography!
– Thanks, Steve – and Happy Christmas!
– Happy Holidays! Cheers!

Originally published in Norway Rock Magazine #6/2022