Steve Vai is a man who rarely look back to his past, but that’s exactly what he’s doing with Vai / Gash. Overcome with a desire to rip out the type of straight-ahead rock record that enthralled him as a teen, in 1991 he began working with close friend and fellow biker Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto for what would become Vai / Gash. With other projects coming to the fore and Sombrotto’s untimely passing in the late 1990s, the project however, remained on the shelf until now. We caught up with Steve to chat all about the record, as well as planned reissues, and other revelations from his career in part one of a special two-part in depth interview. In the fire garden; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Steve, how are you, and what are you up to today?
I'm doing great. It's a beautiful, sunny Southern California day. I'm preparing some music scores for a concert I'll be doing in Holland with the Metropole Orchestra in May, and then I'm getting ready for the tour.
You're always looking forward, but unusually this project sees you looking back. The only other time I can remember you doing that is when you released the 'Modern Primitive’ album in 2016; how was it revisiting this project?
It was relieving. I probably started listening to it again twenty-five years ago because after gash died, I kind of just put it on the shelf. Through the years as I would listen to it I would think; "well, it's only eight songs. I was only able to get eight songs, and I'd like to tweak them a little bit", and; "maybe I can do this to the guitars, maybe I could find another way of adding", and all this. So I kept procrastinating actually, approaching the project because a part of me wasn't sure, and because I wasn't releasing it, that was telling me; "that's the right move; wait until you're ready".
So it's taken until now until you felt ready to release it?
The thought came last year; "don't touch it. Just get it out", because as it was, it was representative of a time. You see, the 'Modern Primitive' stuff, I touched heavily; I re-recorded a lot of stuff, but the Gash record, the master tapes were on the shelf for thirty-two years, and we just thought; "don't touch it, it's what it is, It's all there, get it mixed". So I took the tapes and we had to bake them, and then right after that, they went to Mike Frazier and I didn't touch them.
So there was no embellishment at all?
There was only one thing I touched, and it was the first chorus vocal line in 'Flowers of Fire’, where he sang it better on the second chorus. The whole thing was analogue, and I digitised just those two choruses and I just took his vocal from the second chorus, and that was it. Apart from that, it's untouched. I always wanted to fix certain things, maybe add things, but I never actually made the move, and then the answer came; "leave it alone".
I'm glad you left it alone, because it sounds like it came from that period right after 'Skyscraper'; I mean, 'Danger Zone' has a kind of 'Knucklebones' groove to it, for example.
Yeah, it would have lost the innocence of being recorded when I was 30. Also, it wouldn't have retained the integrity of the climate that was happening at that time; it would have been disrupted by a 2022 Steve Vai that has a completely different mindset than a 30 year old Steve Vai.
In terms of the timeline, the album was recorded around the time you were in Whitesnake wasn’t it?
Let me think about it… '91, so it must have been right after Whitesnake.
Were you purposefully wanting to go into a rock band project, or were you still focusing on being Steve Vai the solo artist?
The Gash record is a Steve Vai creation, in a sense. Not ‘in a sense’; it is, and it's part of the flavours that I offered through my career. The thing is, you can't do anything authentically unless it resonates deeply with you. I think a lot of people that follow me or are on the periphery don't realise that I've got sort of two ears that pulled me in different directions when I was younger; one of them was very high information music, compositional music; I wanted to be a composer more than anything, and I am, and I did that my whole career. I mean, I've worked with Frank Zappa, and I've written hours and hours of orchestra, and I love that. I like progressive, but not conventional progressive, like my own kind of progressive, whatever that is. But there's another side to me that's very, very simple; it's very New York, it's very rock and roll. I mean, I grew up as a teenager in the '70s, and Led Zeppelin was my bloodline, and Queen, Purple, Kiss, Aerosmith, Sabbath; all these bands, and then the Jeff Becks and Al Di Meolas; that was all part of my food.
The album was inspired by your love of motorcycles.
There's a part of my growing up from the ages of 12 to 17 where I loved the motorcycle culture. I started building many bikes and motorbikes, and I had these incredible cool mini bikes, but I always wanted a Harley. My brother had a Harley, and I loved hanging out with him and his friends. They were all these bikers, like gangs; some of them were Hell’s Angels, and they threw wild, great parties. They were tough, and they had big hearts. When you get on a motorcycle, if you ever talked to an enthusiast, there's this feeling of freedom that's uncanny; they'll wax on romantically about the joys of being in the wind and the freedom, the feeling of the power. I loved that, and it was just part of me, and attached to it was a very authentic brand of rock music that I was exposed to at that time; 'Born to be Wild', Steppenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival; it was a great energy biker music. That was always in me, so this Gash project was an expression of my love for that. It's authentic because my love for it is authentic; there's nothing superficial about the Gash record. There's things that are comical, there's playfulness in it, but it's not superficial. I love that shit.
You'd have to go back to 'Eat 'Em and Smile'  to hear you rocking out in such a stripped back manor with riffs, rhythm, and short solos.
Absolutely, and that's what I was focused on. This record, it's not about ‘Steve Vai the composer’; the widdly widdly guitar player, the creative that over-produces. I love all that stuff, but this was about; "you're going to make a record that's absolutely straight ahead; great melodies, high energy, feel good". There's no need. I've got oceans of records that have tonnes of overplay, tonnes of guitar playing and I feel okay saying that, but this record was not about any of that. And I know that people didn't think I had it in me to be that simple, but it's great energy and the difference in this record, and something like Alcatrazz or Roth or Whitesnake, or, I mean, you mentioned 'Knucklebones'; there's a huge committee involved. Like, even with a song like 'Knucklebones'; I didn't write it, Greg [Bissonnette] came in with that. So, even songs I wrote, there's a committee that has an involvement in it; "what is the band feel? The singer, where is he going to fit; it’s his band?!”, you know?! And what does the producer say; the producer is always saying; "now, here, listen; let's try this", and then you've got the record company that just says; "no, not that song", and so many suggestions.
It's a lot of chiefs.
I had a fight at times; not 'fight', but I had to argue hard for doubling a guitar part. So when I made the Gash record, it was a committee of one. Okay, I go into the studio, I locked the door, and I want to build a record. I say to myself, I say to the 'committee’; "you're going to make a record that has that rhythm guitar playing that you love". A lot of these records you hear me doing the rhythm parts, and I'm going in and out of the vocals, and I throw in all these riffs and long solos and this kind of thing, and I said; "no". I love that freedom of playing like that. When you listen to those rhythm tracks, that's as Steve Vai as I can get. I'm not competing with anybody; I'm not trying to sound like something else. My rhythm playing, it's loose, but it's tight, but it's free and it's liquid, but it's appropriate. It's also musical. I have a musical ear, and I love those melodies in these songs, and I just loved the way the guitar just floats through the whole thing. That wouldn't have happened with any other situation.
I know that Ted Templeman didn't want any doubling on 'Eat 'Em and Smile', but was that the case even on 'Skyscraper' , where you were a producer?
Not as much, obviously, but with 'Skyscraper', Dave and I were just really forensic, because it was his first production outing, and he's got great ears and all but we probably lacked being producers that made rock and roll records as a career. It's different; Ted Templeman was just like; "alright, let's go", and he knew how to capture 'something', but Dave had been doing that for so long he wanted to navigate to something differently. And my guitar solos? Well, okay, for instance, I demoed all that 'Skyscraper' stuff, and Dave liked the guitar solos so much that I had to use the demoed solos. I didn't really want to, but the committee was involved. And it's his band, you know, and I didn't have a problem with that; it's not like they sucked!
Those solos on 'Skyscraper' definitely didn't suck!
The Gash record is a whole different thing. I mean, first of all, Johnny Gash, he was so east coast; he was a New York, Italian biker, and tough, funny, lovable, completely unpredictable, charismatic; he dripped with swag, man. And you can hear the New York accent in his singing. And he was playful. He didn't take himself seriously; he was totally unpretentious, but he was intense, and sometimes a pain in the ass because he was so unpredictable, you know?! And that's a big difference in the energy of the Gash record compared to something like the Roth records I did; the Roth records are more west coast, California; that's got great energy, but the New York is different, and you can hear it.
It's funny, whenever you talk about him your accent suddenly goes a little bit more New York.
Well, I’m from New York. [Affects heavy New York accent] It's kind of funny how that happens. "Can you tell me the way to the Statue of Liberty, or should I fuck myself here?" [laughing].
Given that he's no longer here, it must be an emotional thing for you to listen back to Gash's singing.
Well, there's so much when I hear his voice and think about him. There's that whole outro to 'Danger Zone' where he's singing, you know; "stay away, I'm hazardous stuff, you might burn" or; "making my fire higher". Just knowing him, he was so lovable and vulnerable and soft; it's so hard to explain that guy. And he can sing lines like; "love is the reason", or "flowers of fire"; those are very vulnerable lyrics, and he made them effective, because you can't unless you have that in you. He had it in him, and I love the way it came out.
Obviously you were in Alcatrazz, and quite ironically, Gash sounds a lot like Graham Bonnet.
Yeah, and you know what, the funny thing is it wasn't until I released the record, now, where I started reading people saying; "it's Graham Bonnet!" and I said; "of course!" I didn't even recognise that, but yeah, he's got that very much. There's a lot of different mixes in him, but he didn't try to sound like anybody. He didn't know how to try to sound like anybody. This was the first time he'd sang on a record. He just went in and that was him, and when I listened to this record and I listened to his inflections, his playfulness, his intensity, his seriousness and his not seriousness, I think; "how could that be?" That voice! There's no monkeying about; there’s not a superficial bone in his body. That's him, and I feel so crazy saying this because it sounds like I'm trying to sell something, but this record, I held it for 32 years; if it dropped tomorrow, and nobody cared about it and it went away; that's fine. He would still be as authentic as any anybody I've ever heard. It's rare because, not only did he have the charisma and the DNA of a rock star that could command an audience, although it's not proven, I know it. I've worked with enough of them, and I've been on enough of those stages to know how, and I knew Johnny well enough. I know how he would have reacted, and how the audience would have loved him the way we did.
I'm sorry, you look like you're getting emotional.
Just for a minute. I always do with him!
I'm really am sorry for your loss.
Thank you. I'm a believer in fate, and I have no complaints about anything.
Have you any plans to play any of these Gash tracks live, or is it a bit too emotionally too far for you?
Emotionally, I would be exuberant playing them. That's a question that's coming up. I mean, when I released the Gash record, I thought a handful of my fans would like to take a peek into what I was doing back then, and have an opportunity to create a fantasy alternative reality that starts with 'what if?' I mean, it was just released, but I'm getting all these reports that it was like, you know, number one, most added rock radio in American, and that it's number four on the heavy rock charts now. But I don't live on charts; my music is unradioable! - not to me - I think all my stuff should be on the radio like every artist, but I'm really surprised and delighted with the immense response. So I'm getting asked the question, and ultimately, I would love to perhaps play a couple of songs live, but I go; "who's going to sing them?"
You don't want to sing them yourself?
Not me, brother. I got the guys in the band, and they're already saying; "come on, we got to play some of the songs". I go; "fine. Who's going to sing them?!", and it's like, now Jeremy [Colson], the drummer who actually has a really good voice, he's working on it. My guitar tech Doug, he's like; "I could sing 'She Saved my Life Tonight', and then I'm thinking; "well, maybe I could sing a couple of things", and if the audience is kind, they can help, because I will tell you this unequivocally; you can't replace Gash. You can't. It's like trying to replace Devin [Townsend] or Dave Roth or Frank Zappa or David Coverdale, or Ozzy or Lemmy; they’re all people I've worked with that are irreplaceable, and Gash is absolutely one of them.
You've worked with some of the best, so you should know.
I've worked with many singers that could come in and do the job, but there's a big difference between somebody that can sing, and somebody that knows how to deliver like a boss, and he was a boss. I know because I've been on stages with people who were bosses; they can engage an entire arena of people and permeate it with their ego and be that enigmatic embracer of the energy, and the holder of the presence of an entire audience.
So it's undecided, but likely, by the sounds of things.
To put a band together and go out and play this record, I can't see myself doing that, at least in my mind right now, because I need more than a good singer. Those guys just do not grow on trees! They fall in your lap mysteriously… if you're lucky!
Check out part two of this interview where Vai talks about working with Devin Townsend, Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy and more.
Vai / Gash is available now via Mascot Label Group.