Recently releasing Vai / Gash, the biker-rock inspired album that sat “on the shelf” for over three decades, guitar virtuoso Steve Vai has been looking back with fondness over his past. In part one of our chat, we got the background on how and why the album came about. For part two, we delve deeper, taking a look back at his ‘90s albums and plans for their reissue, his unexpected 2022 onstage reunion with Whitesnake, and in an EXCLUSIVE, learn details about the unreleased album he recorded with Ozzy Osbourne. In the ultra zone; Eamon O’Neill.
For part one of this interview, click here.
So Steve, I'm guessing that the Vai / Gash album got shelved because you started working on the Via 'Sex & Religion'  project. At the time, that was being advertised as being called 'Light Without Heat'.
That's what I was going to name it, yeah.
So what happened; did you just decide that 'Sex & Religion' was a better title?
No, I didn't. I was working with somebody that was very strong in their opinions, and I had a song that I wrote for the record called 'Sex and Religion', and they said; "you have to name the record 'Sex & Religion", and I thought; "hmm, well, it kind of works, because it's like 'Passion and Warfare”, and it is a little blueprint to a particular psychological situation that some people find themselves in; you know, the battle between sex and religion in their mind.
Of course, if I was to phrase that today, it would be very different; the record might have been called 'The Ego and the Soul', I don't know [laughing]. But the working title was 'Light Without Heat', and I was contemplating calling it 'Sex & Religion', but I thought it's a little cheeky, you know? I'm not that guy; I don't want to be that controversial. But it had an edge to it, and I thought; "no, no, no. Well, you know… maybe?! No, no, no!", and then at the last minute, I remember they said; "Steve, you have to know the name of the record by three o'clock today", and I'm stood by the phone going; "Nah, nah, leave it! Leave it ' Sex and Religion'. No, no, no, I've got to change it!" It was one of those things where it's slipped by, and I'm a big believer in whatever things are, they are. Fine!
So both the Gash and the Vai album were happening around the same time?
Well, what happened back then was I had recorded the Gash record before I started working on 'Sex & Religion', and so at that point, 'Passion and Warfare' was already out, Whitesnake, all that stuff from before that, and I really recorded this record on a whim. I was starting to put my radar out for musicians for 'Sex & Religion', and I was hanging out with Johnny Gash and a bunch of people, and there was a period of time there where I was very ensconced in the biker culture because always my whole life, I loved riding and Harleys, and that culture's fantastic. I just had the inclination to stop everything I was doing and get into the studio and record a bunch of songs that we could listen to when we were writing because there's such a great feeling of freedom.
That background really informed the Vai / Gash album.
When you're a motorcycle enthusiast, you can hear these people wax on romantically forever about the joys of riding a motorcycle because it is wonderful. It's like the power, the freedom with friends, the adventures you're going on, so I just thought I want to make a record of music that sounds like the way I feel when I'm rocking my bike with my friends. Then, what my mind said was; "alright, it's going to be straight ahead rock, based on that stuff you love so much from the '70s and the '80s, based on your natural rock rhythm guitar playing; that is my freest form of playing the guitar. That needs to be straight ahead; no filler stuff, no long guitar solos that shows everybody how great I am, and no intricate production shit. I'm 14, and I want to rock and steal my brother's Harley and go for a ride! It's got to be high energy, fun energy. I want to feel good when I'm listening. I want to feel empowered, and above all else, it's got to have great melody".
That's quite the mission statement!
I made that directive and I went into the studio and I blasted this record out in like, a week, a couple of weeks maybe. And as the story goes, I didn't even know Gash could sing! He didn’t know he could sing! He would sing but it would be more like Frank Sinatra style; he had a beautiful crooner voice, but I could hear in his screaming voice that there was something there. So I went into the studio, and for these songs I'd lay down a click, some of them I'd improvise a bass part in one pass - that's it - and then put guitar parts. Everything was really very quick. The solos are just like one, one pass, most of it.
That sounds like a really free way of recording, and very unlike the Steve Vai we know.
It's just like; "just play; you're not allowed to do anything but just play"; totally different than when I get very forensic when I'm working. This was just free. I even tried to put the vocals on it before I knew Gash could sing, and that was an abysmal disaster because I don't have a rock and roll voice at all. So I thought; "let me just see what happens". I grabbed Gash, and I bring him in the studio, and just; "here's the words, here's the melody", and I just couldn't believe what came out of his mouth. It was so authentic sounding and so much confidence and fun, and just all these great things that are part of his personality. So I had the record, and now this was '92, so grunge had just came in and basically decapitated '80s rock, so the record felt too precious to me to release because I felt like I'd be throwing it to the wolves.
I think you're right; the Vai / Gash album wouldn't have got a fair chance if you had released it at that time in the 1990s.
It was the wrong time for it, and it was personal. Whenever you make a record, you have to promote it, you have to sell it, you got to try to convince people that it's good. I mean, you don't have to, but there's a process. It's almost, in some ways like a fight, and I didn't want to fight for this record. It was too good to me. I know that sounds bizarre, but it was like; "okay, look, I got it, it's good. Who's going to be affected by this the most? ME". You know? And then there came the time I did the whole 'Sex & Religion’ thing, and I contemplated going back to the Gash project because there were things I wanted; a few more songs and tweaks, things I wanted to fix because these were demos, basically. I had just tapped into Johnny, I mean, he was an untapped natural resource of glorious potential and I knew it. I would have loved to have had him for a few more years just to see, because I know where he could go. So, I still didn't think it was the right time in like, '94, '95.
So you moved on and did the ‘Fire Garden’ album.
That's what I did. I did 'Alien Love Secrets' [EP, 1995] first. That record, I really needed to make. I wanted to make a whole record out of that instead of just an EP, because I wanted after all the 'Sex & Religion' and everything, I wanted a straight ahead record that was bass, drums and guitar; the end. I only got seven songs out of that before I became too excited and had to release it. It should have been a full record, but I felt like that was what I was compelled to do at that time, and then 'Fire Garden’ , and then I wanted to get with Gash, but he was killed.
While we're on the subject of 'Fire Garden' is there any chance of getting a vinyl reissue of that album and others from your back catalogue such as 1999’s 'The Ultra Zone'?
Yeah, I think when they hit a certain anniversary. Like, I'm going to try to work up a 'Sex & Religion' anniversary release coming up. I feel absolutely, it's a responsibility to bring forward, if not just for technological advances that are at your disposal, past records. So 'Fire Garden' will definitely, hopefully, be remastered.
'Sex & Religion' is thirty years old this year, so is that anniversary release likely to see the light of day in 2023?
It's on a massive list of things I'm trying to get to, but the idea would be, at minimal to try to get a remastering with contemporary technology, contemporary vinyl, contemporary converters to digital. The record will sound so much better, because I hear it and it drives me mad, so that would be the least. Of course, it would be nice to have some bonus stuff. I have some film footage from that period. I know Devin [Townsend, vocals] would be interested. Devin is so great, he's ready to do anything he can realistically, within reason that doesn't disrupt his plans. I don't know if anything will come of that because we're both mad busy, but that would be nice if something like that happened. I just don't know.
You and Devin got together at the Starmus festival in Norway a few years ago, so do you think possibly that you could end up playing even one show together to celebrate the anniversary?
Well, of course, that would be fantastic, but for me, for us to put together one show, it's months of work; read, learn all that stuff and build a band, and economically it would probably be a disaster, but that's okay. You don't do things like that for the money. So that would be nice. I would love to do something like that, but I'm going to be on tour now until probably April 2024.
Moving on, and you joined Whitesnake on stage in France at Hellfest 2022 for what, thus far has been their final date; how was that for you?
Oh, it was fantastic. I love David [Coverdale]. We were going on right before them, so I was hoping that he would invite me. I kind of thought he might, and he did, and it was great to just be able to embrace a little snippet of my past because that Whitesnake past for me holds a lot of good memories. I just saw Rudy [Sarzo, bassist] the other night [at the Metal Hall of Fame in Agoura Hills, California], and we reminisced. I talk to Adrian [Vandenberg, guitarist] relatively often, and David, we text several times a week, just little memes and stuff. So it represented that particular kind of a project that I enjoyed being a part of. It was obvious, based on all the wacky stuff I do, it wasn't going to be my career choice for life, but I'm really happy I had that chance. And then to have been up there with them at Hellfest, in front of that audience? It was fantastic. It was just like little storybook paragraph, and the thought that it might have been Whitesnake's very final performance?! I mean, I couldn't have calculated that.
It was fantastic from the point of view of someone who was in the audience.
I've got to tell you that whole Hellfest experience was extraordinary. What a jam, man! The guy that developed it and evolved it has done such an excellent job for all of us. I was stunned.
Elsewhere, Ozzy Osbourne has this year announced his retirement from touring, so I wanted to ask what it was like to work with him back in the 1990s?
Well, I'm sitting on a whole Ozzy record, and it's like the Gash record - not 'like' the Gash record - but it's a project that I recorded that's sitting on the shelf. I don't have any control over it or rights to it, obviously, but we did record some pretty good stuff. The interesting thing about that stuff we recorded from a guitar perspective is all of my rhythm guitar parts, I use an octave divider [guitar effect], and that record doesn't sound like anything else.
How close did you come to joining Ozzy's band at that time?
Okay, so Ozzy and I, basically what happened as far as I recognised, Ozzy had recorded about half of his record [ 'Ozzmosis', 1995] for the record company, and Sharon and the label wanted to get him together with some different songwriters to just get some more songs. So I was one of the ones that they wanted to get together with. It was really just to write some songs for Ozzy's record that he would then take and go use for his record, and whoever he was working with on the record would record it. So I thought; "yeah, that'd be great. I'd love to do that", but Ozzy and I got carried away because we were having a lot of fun, and we ended up recording a lot of stuff. And then we started scheming; "hey, let's make a new record!", and all that was fine and good, and we got excited about it until the hammer came down, and they basically said; "what are you doing? No, you've just got to take a song from Vai and finish your record. We're already into it for this much money, and Vai is expense", so it worked out perfect, really.
So you ended up doing a whole album with Ozzy?!
Yeah, one of the songs was 'Danger Zone'. I had already written it, and it was already done - it was a Gash track - and I thought; "well, maybe he'd like this", and I reworked it a bit, but it's on the shelf. There's also a song called 'Dyin' Day' that's on my 'Fire Garden' album, because that song originally had lyrics, and that was one. There was some real, real heavy stuff because, as I mentioned, I used an octave divider on everything, and that's was a conscious effort. I thought "okay, you're going to work with Ozzy, and all these incredible guitar players have played with Ozzy; what are you going to do?" I was not going to be conventional. Yeah, that's not me as you know, but I had to be accessible, so I thought; "I'm going to use an octave divider on everything"; I mean, all the rhythm.
That's incredible; 'Dyin' Day' is actually one of my favourite Vai songs.
We play it on this tour, the 'Inviolate' tour, we're playing that song. It's the first time I've played it. It's nice.
While we're on the subject of 'Fire Garden', I wanted to ask about some of the tracks on it; firstly 'When I was a Little Boy'; why?! [laughing]
Why not?! Because I'm a quirky weirdo, really! I mean, the people that know me and love me that I live with, they know how silly I am, and they love it. I mean, the guy that made 'Fire Garden' is the same guy that made 'Flex-able' . It's just one of those things where whenever I feel like I'm trying to fit in, I recoil a bit. I don't know what it is; it's just like; "why?", you know, it just feels weird. Everybody's individual, and everybody has unique creative impulses, and when you limit those, you're limiting your joy, and 'When I was a Little Boy', it made me laugh, and that's the reason I put it on the record. It's so stupid, it's so silly; I thought; "this will show them I don't take myself too seriously".
I also love the song 'Little Alligator', and the way you're shouting and arguing with your guitar.
Well, thank you. No one's ever asked me about that track. Well, a part of me loves the idea of singing like a rock singer. It's a challenge for me because it's not something I've felt compelled to work on, or to try to master. I have trouble playing the guitar and singing at the same time, but every now and then, if I come up with the right riff, I hear myself singing it a particular way. I had that riff, and I've got a lot of riffs that are bluesy rock like that.
What about the lyrics to that one?
Many years ago, my wife and I, we went to this drag club. In America, they have drag clubs, and they put on shows and they're fantastic. You see 'Marilyn Monroe', and 'Cher' and all this, and we were in Florida, and we went into this one drag show, and it was fantastic. I love watching the drag queens do the show because they love what they're doing, and this one showed up, and she was the most exotic looking creature. I can't even explain it, she just had this edge, and this the sexual intensity, and I said she reminded me of a little alligator. And then she started dancing for us, and then she kind of attacked me in a fun way, like grabbed people from the audience. There I was, getting dragged on stage by a little alligator, and getting devoured. I mean, it was a show, it was one of those things, so I thought I'd write a song about it. Of course, then I embellished, and my lyrical sensibilities at the time were very different than they are now. That's something that changes for everybody through time, so if I wrote something like that today, it would probably come out very different. I used to enjoy playing it too; things like that, and 'Firewall' [from 'Real Illusions: Reflections', 2005]; they were fun.
Before you go, I wanted to touch on some of the fantastic early videos you made, like 'I Would Love To'.
It was a very '80s video sensibility; very quirky and silly sort of, but funny. That was the MTV kind of generation. I mean, it was a particular thing I was involved with then, and I really enjoyed doing it all.
Vai / Gash is available now via Mascot Label Group.