Steve Vai Discusses His Albums with David Lee Roth & Van Halen’s ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’

Justin Tedaldi at Examiner.com is a die-hard Van Halen fan and avid VHND reader who, over the weekend, spent an hour talking with Steve Vai for an exclusive Q&A. Steve was gracious enough to open up about the albums he recorded with David Lee Roth (Eat ‘Em and Smile & Skyscraper), the time he and Eddie Van Halen jammed with Frank Zappa, and his thoughts on Van Halen’s new album, A Different Kind Of Truth.

The DLR & VH mentions are below. The entire interview can be read in two parts at Examiner.com.

Let’s talk about the David Lee Roth years when you joined the band. Bassist Billy Sheehan said that Steve Stevens of Billy Idol was originally considered for the guitar player of that group, and it didn’t work out. Do you know if anyone else was in the running before you came aboard?

There were some other guys, but I don’t remember who they were. When I came in, I think I was the only one at the time that was being considered. I think they had spoken to a couple of guys. I don’t know if they had ever gotten together with them, but when I was there I was just like, “Okay, if you like it, here it is.” (Laughs)

What was your songwriting process with Dave like? Were there any similarities that he might have mentioned to you that compared with how he worked with Van Halen?

In a band situation, usually everyone’s contribution is accepted. When I was with Dave—I’m not exactly sure how they did it with Van Halen—I would come in with riffs or a song, or maybe somebody in the band would come in with a song, and Dave would either like it or not, and then we’d present him another song, and we’d work on it a bit and maybe shape it, and then at some point once the track was done, or at least written, Dave would take it and write lyrics.

What did Frank Zappa think of your work with Dave? Did you ever discuss that with him?

No. I never heard Frank comment on my work with Dave Roth, but he did say that I should invite Dave over his studio sometime.

That would have been interesting.

Yeah. Oddly enough, the first time I ever met Edward [Van Halen] was back in the ’80s when I was in Frank’s band, and Edward was a big Frank fan. I had met Edward at a club and he found out I was with Frank. I gave him my phone number and said, “If you ever want to meet Frank, I’m sure he would be interested in seeing you.” He called me the next day—it was so bizarre, and he went up to the house and we all jammed. It was really cool.

I wonder what became of that.

I don’t think it was recorded.

Regarding the song “Yankee Rose,” were there actually any words ever considered or written for that guitar conversation you had with Dave for that?

Yeah, there were some words I was thinking in my mind, but I can’t remember what they were. Something silly, you know. “David?” (Laughs)

It’s a great way to start a cut.

Yeah. When I joined the band—I have a very quirky, esoteric guitar nature, but I’m also a big fan of rock and metal. So when I joined that band, or any band that I join, I assess the situation and I come to grips with what I think the appropriate contribution would be, but I also have to be myself at some point. So in opening up the record and doing “Yankee Rose,” I thought, What can I do here that’s completely preposterous that’s very me but still has rock and roll integrity and people will get a kick out of it? And I always have the talking guitar thing in my arsenal, so it was the perfect opportunity to pull it.

The song “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?” has been called a real artistic achievement for Dave, and the lyrics are really interesting. Do you have any memories of how that song came together?

I had written that song and I had demoed it, and when I demoed it it had all of these guitars, all of these textures and keyboards, and Dave really liked it. When we took it into the studio, [producer] Ted Templeman said, “Okay, let’s lay down a basic track. Just go out there and play live as a guide guitar.” I thought, “There’s a lot of parts—how am I going to make them all work on one guitar?” [The guide guitar’s] intention was that it was going to be built up with all these other layers and stuff later, and Ted goes, “Well, there it is!” So that’s the part and that’s the song. There was a real kind of beautiful rawness and an in-your-face kind of intimacy that was much different from the very produced version that I had done. That’s how it turned out.

Do you have any idea what the title is supposed to refer to, with the question mark?

Exactly what it is…ladies’ nite in Buffalo, New York. That’s what it’s about, I guess (laughs). You’d probably be better off asking Dave.

The lyrics for the song “Big Trouble” are also open-ended. You could take it as a story of character sketches.

That’s the nice thing about lyrics. There’s lyricists who will create images, and the listener is left to their own imagination to put them together. I can’t speak for Dave, but I think that that was relatively influenced by his like of Tom Waits.

Talking about other debates in rock circles, people are always analyzing whether the original Eat ’Em and Smile band was better musically than the original lineup of Van Halen. What are your thoughts about this?

“Better” is such a subjective term, you know? I just don’t respond to these competitive comparisons. They’re useless and meaningless, because if it’s better for one person and not for another, then they’re both right. Your opinion is the important thing. You can never deny the immense talent, rock credibility and iconic historical contribution that Van Halen made. And Edward Van Halen is a guitar god of the highest order. I have immense respect and love for Edward, you know? I would probably be playing the guitar very differently if he never came along. He’s a totally inspired person.

When we started Eat ’Em and Smile, Dave got the best musicians he could, who he thought was the best. And I thought it was a hell of a band. It was one of my favorite times in my whole musical career, because we were rock stars, you know? And touring with somebody like Dave, you can’t even imagine what it was like. It was just glorious, man. And I knew it was fleeting, and I knew it was something that I wasn’t going to be doing my whole life, because my brand of music in my own head is very different. So, if you like Van Halen better than the Eat ’Em and Smile band, then you’re right. And if I like Eat ’Em and Smile better than Van Halen, then I’m right. But I don’t like one better than the other. The Eat ’Em and Smile band was fierce. And that’s it.

A lot of people like to adopt a sports mentality when it comes to this. They want to have winners.

Yeah, I know. And you know what, it’s a big fucking bore after a while.

Sports is sports, but there’s all kinds of music out there.

It’s part of the process. We all have egos, and if a person responds to something that’s really interesting to them, their ego tells them this is better than everything else, and I’m right and you’re wrong. That’s something that if a person can get over, they’ll lift a big burden off their back. Because then you can appreciate everything…it doesn’t mean that vanilla is better than pistachio (laughs). If you’re playing basketball, if you get the most hoops, you with the game and you’re the best. It’s very different from music.

For Van Halen now, what are your thoughts about their reunion with Dave and the last studio record they put out, A Different Kind of Truth?

I was really happy to hear how great Edward was playing. I mean, I was afraid he was losing it; we were all concerned. But I think that he’s in really great form. As a matter of fact, he sounds as good as he ever has to me, and frankly, I’m hearing Dave hit notes that he couldn’t hit when I was recording him. And I think the record is really powerful—it’s kinetic. I can’t listen to the whole thing at one time because it’s almost too powerful, in a way. But I’m happy with it. I’m really happy for them and I’m glad to see them doing it.

Moving on to Skyscraper, that was your first album as a co-producer, right?
Yeah.

What are your memories of working with David Lee Roth doing the main production?

It was hugely different. Ted Templeman is an amazing producer and he has a particular approach and it’s very raw, and that’s why Eat ’Em and Smile is so visceral. But when it came time to do Skyscraper, I was doing demos, and my demos sound really good because I had all of the right equipment and I’ve got a good ear. And when I started working with Dave in building the demos, they were great songs. I mean, they sounded like produced pieces of music. And then it was a surprise to me that he wanted to produce it and have it done with me, because although I enjoy doing it, I overproduce stuff, and my approach is a lot cleaner and a lot more sort of organized than the raw approach of someone like Ted Templeman. So the record definitely has a different slant to it, but I went along with it. I think that elements of that record are really good, but it has a completely different dynamic to it than Eat ’Em and Smile.

“I love David Lee Roth, he was a mentor for me. You have no idea what I learned from that guy; you can only imagine. I have nothing but respect and he’s still a friend of mine.”

Billy Sheehan left the group after the album was finished. He said in interviews that he believes the demos were superior and a lot rawer.Yeah, I tend to agree.

What kinds of things besides the overall polished sound did he feel was lacking?
Dave’s the kind of artist that wants to evolve a little bit, so he was taking some chances. It’s a much dryer record, you know? And it’s more produced—there’s more layers, there’s more keyboards, there’s more pop kinds of songs, you know. It’s not nearly as raw. And that was a direction that [Dave] consciously wanted to make, because he’s not an artist; he wants to evolve. And I’m capable of doing various things—I would have been very happy to take those tracks and have Ted Templeman produce them; they would have sounded very different. But, you know, we moved forward with what we did.

On “Just Like Paradise,” Dave said in his memoir: “The song had impact, and Steve just hated it. He didn’t want to play it.” 

There you have it…that’s exactly how I felt. It was too “pop” for me, it was too Glee, you know? I didn’t resonate with it…“hate” is a strong word. I didn’t hate it; I enjoyed playing anything that I played in that band. It just wouldn’t have been my choice. But I still enjoyed it, and I think I did a great job on it.

You know, it’s funny; I never read the book, so I don’t know how I was represented…I love Dave, he was a mentor for me. You have no idea what I learned from that guy; you can only imagine. I have nothing but respect and he’s still a friend of mine, you know, and I don’t care what anybody says. But yeah, I wasn’t a fan of that song. I didn’t like it when it was written; I tried not to get it on the record. [Dave] liked it and I did my best with it.

Of course you introduced the triple-necked heart shaped guitar to the world in the song’s video.
That was kind of my brain thing: What can I do to this song to make it theatrical on my part and a little more interesting. I don’t think it’s a bad song; it’s funny that I went to see that movie Rock of Ages and then they use that song and I’m like, Oh fine, one of the songs is on the record I didn’t write they’re using (laughs)…it was charming.

The song “Skyscraper” is an instrumental tour de force. Did that one not change too much from the demo?

We used the demo; that’s what we came to master, because that’s a very Vai-esque song, it’s a little esoteric; it flows a certain way, and I remember I wanted it, the solo I put on it was just a one-take kind of thing as a placeholder and I was going to go redo the solo and Dave said, “No, it’s a great solo, leave it.” So that, of any song that I’ve ever contributed to Dave, I think that the song “Skyscraper” is more Vai-esque than the others, although I really love “Hina.” That’s a great track.

The original title for that one was “Tahina,” wasn’t it?

Oh, it might have been. I can’t remember the working titles of tracks, but I love the lyrics and how he wrote that. It was very ethereal and beautiful. Hina is the moon goddess in Hawaii, I believe, or Tahiti, and Dave has a real soft spot for Tahiti. I just love the lyrics in that.

And that technique you had with the microsecond delay in the speakers so you’re playing against yourself. Do you think songs like that and “Skyscraper” set up your solo career to come?

Yeah, more so than most other songs, yeah. It was me being more myself, and you can tell, because they’re not very straight ahead rock songs, and it’s a credit to Dave that he’s open. Even “Damn Good”—when I played that for Dave I said, “Here’s something that I was working on for one of my records,” and he said, “I want that…it’s beautiful,” and he was really moved by it, and I love the way it came out.

But you know, I’m not a commercial guy. You have to have a particular ear to really appreciate the kind of thing I do sometimes, and on Skyscraper there’s more of that than on Eat ’Em and Smile. And Dave accepted those things as part of how he wanted to evolve. And some people really got it, and others said (sarcastic tone), “Oh, this isn’t Eat ’Em and Smile.” And, well, whatever.

Is it true that at the end of “Skyscraper” the backwards message says “listen to your parents”?

(Laughs) “…And use a condom.” (Laughs) It says, “Obey your parents and use a condom.” That’s funny.

Good old Dave.
You’re a big Roth fan, I take it.

Well…I do my research.

I’ve given you more on it than I’ve given anybody else.

Thank you. I don’t want to waste all of this.

I guess I should write a book someday (laughs).

Have you ever thought about that, Steve?

Yeah, but I’m just not one for laundry, you know?
I mean, I could write books about all the various acts I’ve played with and whatever. I’m sure there’d be some kind of a market for it, but when you’re working with somebody it’s a private kind of a relationship, and there are trust boundaries and it’s like talking about your family or something. To me, that’s a trust that I don’t want to break—there’s no need for me to discuss that stuff. And I only have great things to say, because I only had great times, you know? But it’s not on my radar, simply because it’s not interesting enough to me. My past is very interesting and I treasure it, but to write about it, it’s just not on my radar.

I’ve been approached many times to write all sorts of books about my past and my personal life. I get interest from people who want to do reality shows, and somebody just offered me a huge amount of money to write my spiritual memoirs. I’m just not interested.

It’s hard to write about music. Billy Joel put the brakes on his memoir even after he’d written it because he just didn’t want to real any personal things.
Yeah, because then you have to answer to it in the press for the rest of your life. Things I’ve mentioned in 1982, people still ask me about, you know? And it’s okay, but my life is not unlike a lot of other people’s lives in that I have challenges, I have joys, I have hopes and desires, and I have very seriously intense life situations that were traumatic at times, and I’ve had really, really wonderful experiences. And to write about them—I’m not opposed to somebody else doing it.

As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s very interesting because you can find some common ground with some people that you didn’t even know. And perhaps someday I might do something like that, but first of all, I don’t think there’s enough interest for it in the world about Steve Vai, and also, it’s private; it’s personal.

Getting back to Skyscraper, at the very end of “Damn Good.” Dave says something. Do you know what it is?

I’d have to listen to it (laughs). I recorded Dave through that whole record. Every vocal on there, I hit the record button and then mixed it, but I can’t recall what you’re talking about right now.

There are some things better left as a mystery.
Yeah.

Is it true that when recording the solo on “Hot Dog and a Shake,” you purposely stopped playing in the middle just because you wanted to go see an Alice Cooper concert?

(Pause) Wow, I don’t think anybody has ever asked me such in-depth questions about Skyscraper.

Please don’t judge me.
No, I’m very happy to talk about it. It’s fun because I like that record and it was a great part of my past.

That was a quote of yours from a 1988 Guitar World cover story.

(Laughs) My God, did I say that? That sounds like something that might have happened…it’s quite likely that what I said was true, but I don’t remember any of it. I’ve got a good memory, but it’s short (laughs).

That’s one of the fastest solos that human beings have ever heard.

(Laughs) What I do remember about doing something for Alice Cooper is, when I first moved out to California, he was looking for a guitar player, so I wrote and recorded this song in one night called “The Attitude Song,” and it used to be called “The Night Before,” because I just did it the night before I sent it in. And I don’t know if he ever heard it or not, but that’s the only time I ever did anything like that. I also contributed a guitar solo on one of Alice’s records, but that was way after Dave.

On the song “Stand Up,” that’s the one tune that Billy doesn’t have any involvement on.

[Keyboardist] Brett Tuggle wrote that, and when he came in with that it was pretty much arranged and there was a lot of synth bass, so I think that Dave may have decided just to keep that.

Was there any tension at the time that Billy wouldn’t be having any involvement on that track? Did he let that be known?

No. Billy is incredibly professional and he’s a totally beautiful soldier. You know, he was really restrained on that record because I was producing it with Dave, and my approach at the time was a lot more freeze-dried than the bombastic Eat ’Em and Smile approach. In some respects, it would have been nice to see how the record had came out if Dave had just basically let some of the bass fly like crazy throughout the record, but it was just a different kind of a record, and there’s times where Billy played his ass off, you know? But Billy was totally professional about everything, as always, and he didn’t have any animosity at all [toward] that track. The track was a different kind of a track, and it called for some kind of a thing.

When was the last time the other Eat ’Em and Smile guys got together, excluding Dave? I’ve heard that you guys meet up on occasion.

Yeah, well, it’s funny. We have a little get-together probably once every two years, and the last time we all got together, me, [drummer] Gregg [Bissonette], Billy and Brett, we went to an Indian restaurant and we just had a great, great time. And we tried calling Dave (laughs) but we couldn’t get through to him; we wanted him to come and join us.

When was the last time you had a conversation with Dave?

Not too long ago, actually. I can’t really discuss what it was, but probably a year and a half ago.

Last question about a song from Skyscraper: On “Two Fools a Minute,” you did the horn arrangement. What are your memories of recording that tune? 

I just remember I wanted to have a track that had that bounce to it, that up-tempo, fun kind of a bounce, and Dave was experimenting with horns on previous records and he liked the sound, so we discussed doing a horn arrangement, I did it, and it turned out the way it did. It was kind of quirky.

How many horns did you end up playing on that track?

You know what, I can’t remember. I’ve got the arrangement around someplace, but I really don’t remember.

It sounds just like the horns on “That’s Life” from Eat ’Em and Smile.

(Laughs) Yeah, kind of a little bit of a big band vibe.

Is there any unreleased material from the David Lee Roth era that hasn’t seen the light of day? I read that Kim Mitchell’s “Kids in Action” was recorded as a demo for Eat ’Em and Smile.

Yeah, there’s probably a half a dozen tracks were demoed—maybe even more—that didn’t make it, but that’s not an uncommon process when you’re making a record.

Is there any difference in the mix between the Spanish-language version of Eat ’Em and Smile versus the original one as far as the instruments go?

From what I know, no. Not at all. The only thing that was replaced was Dave’s vocals.

What are your favorite tunes from that era?

I really like “Shyboy,” “Hina,” “Skyscraper,” “Elephant Gun.” “Big Trouble”’s a really good one.

There’s a lot of fans who would love to see the Eat ’Em and Smile band get back together.
Well, you never know.