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interview: Steve Vai

By Anthony Garone

See and hear what makes Steve Vai's brain tick when composing and performing.

Some Context

Below is a 1-hour interview with Steve Vai conducted on September 12, 2015 at 12PM. It was filmed/engineered by Carl King.

Don’t know who Steve Vai is? Check out our Discover post about Steve!

Interview Audio (Podcast)

(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).

Or, download an mp3 .

Interview video

You may notice some issues with color and editing; that’s totally my fault. Carl did the filming and audio editing (the good stuff). I did the rest (the amateur stuff).

Whoa!

This interview has been featured on Guitar Player Magazine’s website on the front page! And the feedback for the interview has been fantastic!!

“Awesome interview. Gives me a new look into how I will direct myself musically.” - Timothy R.

“This is the best interview Steve has ever done. Well done Guys!! This is gold.” - La Plata Clases de Guitarra

“I have pretty much seen anything and everything Steve has ever done- I have to say- I watched the whole interview last night- WOW- impressive- probably the best overall interview i’ve ever seen him do- it wasn’t campy and stupid like ‘what strings do you use’ or ‘blah blah blah wah pedal’ or ‘tell me about david lee roth’ it was really deep- on both ends- and great- i was extremely impressed.” - Jeries A.

Thank you to the hundreds of people who have shared this interview and to the tens of thousands that’ve viewed it!!

Sponsors

Before getting started, I want to take a moment to thank the sponsors of this interview, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to afford to conduct the interview and have the hardware to do it:

Cory is a software development and management expert who’s written a fantastic book called Software++: Must-Have Skills for Engineers . There are a lot of software people I’ve met via Make Weird Music and Guitar Circle.

Ed is an electrical engineer and business management consultant. He runs Mad Hatter Guitar Products and has developed a great solderless electronics kit for guitars . I purchased one and installed it in my white Ibanez Jem. It’s never sounded better. I’m not a tone connoisseur, but even I can tell that the guitar sounds so much better than the standard, low-end stock components that came with the guitar.

Carl is an expert filmmaker, author, and former musician. His book, So, You’re a Creative Genius… Now What? , has been a huge inspiration for me and many others. He filmed this interview and provided lots of great equipment and expertise.

Interview transcript

Anthony: Hi, this is Anthony from Make Weird..

[Steve proceeds to give me a noogie and then rearrange/fix my hair.]

Steve: Get outta here!

A: And that’s how we start it! Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and I’m here with Steve Vai. Steve, the purpose of Make Weird Music is to be a resource to musicians who may or may not have explored a lot of new kinds of music. So, could you give a brief intro to yourself and what you do musically?

S: Well, on one level, my name is Steve Vai and I am a musician and a guitar player and I love traveling around making music and playing it live. And I play the guitar.

A: I’m highlighting you on Make Weird Music and the context of the word “weird” is not necessarily “unlistenable” or “unapproachable” or anything like that. People who do things different, who don’t write pop music targeted to the radio for mass sales and that kind of thing. I want to get behind the motivation of your creativity, what your approach is to composition and how you ended up getting into instrumental guitar music and that kind of thing. When you say, “I play music” and “I play the guitar,” what makes you different from, say, a guitar player who plays in a blues band?

S: Well, the same thing that makes them different from people that play in other kinds of bands. There’s a wide selection of music that I enjoy. I like listening to various genres, but when I was growing up, I was a teenager in the 70s, and so I was into all that progressive rock stuff, Led Zeppelin , and Yes , and Queen , and all that stuff.

As I was growing up, I was really into these kinds of progressive guitar players. I listened to blues. I went through jazz phases. Classical phases. It was so interesting to hear such great players all the time. One of the things I realized is “I’ll never be that good.” It was stimulating, but I never felt like I’d be very good at doing that and why, when somebody else was doing it so well.

So I would learn the riffs just for fun, but the thing that always turned me on the most, and the one thing that I’ve always had with me through my whole career, was always the “home base”–the enthusiasm I feel for coming up with something new. For me, at least… New for me.

You’re always expanding on your own self. You’re never the same one moment after the next, so the most exciting thing for me is when I do something or I come up with an idea that I haven’t had before. That’s my fuel, that’s my source of inspiration. What I realized I was doing as I never thought I was “good enough” is I would come up with things on my own and say, “Well, that’s interesting. That’s fun. I haven’t heard that.” And then I’d challenge myself to reach different plateaus of technical proficiency and see where that could take me on a creative level and then rise above it. Constantly this rising and it’s exciting!

That’s how I developed my own style. It’s like an accident. It was almost kind of a conscious turning away from “the norm.” When I say, “the norm,” I mean “genre-specific type of playing,” which is beautiful, I love it, but I can’t do it. It seemed like a waste of time to try to play what sounds like something else that’s already better than what I could do. I just sort of organically started finding things that I liked.

One of the things that made it work is I had no expectations. I wouldn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I need to write something that everybody will like.” I didn’t think anybody would ever hear anything I did anywhere. It was my little secret, which created an opening because if nobody’s going to hear what you’re doing, then you can just do whatever you want.

I was really excited when I would come across something that sounded unique to me. Like I said, I had no expectations… So this is sort of a challenge that I to people sometimes when I’m giving a lecture or something, I say, “Go to write a song, but write a song as if no one’s ever going to hear it.” If I was to tell you that the next song you write is not going to get on the radio, nobody’s going to hear it, nobody’s going to buy it…

Some people respond to that with, “Well, then why would I do it?” My answer is, “You shouldn’t because you don’t really want to.” Some people see the opening in that. What that opening is is the message that “now you have no expectations, you can do whatever you want, you can be completely free of the fear of being criticized, the fear of failing.” You’ve put it away, you’ve already “failed” so to speak with worldly success of it. So, it can create this opening of freedom, like real fearlessness.

Fear is the thing that holds people back from their own unique potentiality. The interesting thing is, that piece of fearless creative enjoyable enthusiastic non-critical work that you then do is usually the thing you’re going to be the most successful at. You’re usually creating a style and your real true self is flowing into it. Then, the appropriate audience will be responding to it as opposed to trying to second-guess an audience, which is just stress, and you’re competing with people who write music in a field that’s very natural to them. So, that’s what I’ve become more aware of.

A: Were those fears and anxieties ever a part of your development of your voice and your identity as a musician?

S: On one level, yes, because once I started to tour, like when I started with Frank Zappa, or even when I’d have to play live, I enjoyed it, but there was always this nervousness. What that nervousness is (that we feel) really is just our ego. It’s fear. It boils down to fear of not being accepted. You know what I mean?

A: I do.

S: When you start to recognize that for what it is, then you can work on it. That’s really your true work because you can’t really be uniquely expressive if you’re afraid.

A: How did you feel when you released your debut album, Flex-Able ? Were you feeling that “I’m just gonna do this and nobody’s gonna listen to it and that’s cool.” Was that where you were coming from?

S: Yeah. When I made Flex-Able, I had no intentions of being a–at least in my head–a touring, famous… Matter of fact, the idea of being famous was terrifying to me. I don’t know why. I think when I was young, you know you hear things? I think somebody said, “People who are famous go insane.” So I always felt like I was teetering on the edge anyway, so I thought “fame is gonna make me crazy.” It did take its toll in various ways. I’m not so famous, which is kind of nice. I can live a normal life. Um… What was the question?

A: Hah, when you were making Flex-Able

S: Okay. So, still I loved that feeling of recording and editing and making music, coming up with an idea and working on it. So I would record tons and tons and tons of stuff because just recording was fascinating to me and it was all this really crazy stuff.

I was living in Sylmar with 8 people in the house, all friends. It was like a wayward home for musician refugees. I was making music to entertain me and my friends. I didn’t even plan on releasing it, you know? So there was no expectation. There was just this free flow, no concern if it was going to make me money or not, no concern if I’m going to be accepted with it or not. Pfft, the furthest thing! Because it was so weird!

The music was kind of left of center. It was very Zappa-influenced because Frank was one of my biggest influences so you can hear that phase of my life. I was working with him, I was seeing how he made music, and it was very… I was very impressionable. I loved his music.

So then when it was all finished–and that was my biggest learning curve, I recorded that record twice because I used to work really fast and sloppy. “Okay it’s done!” and I would listen to it and go, “Why does this sound like crap?” So after hanging out with Frank and seeing how everything is “like this,” I maybe went even too much into that really rigid precision, but it was good for me because it created an integrity. At the time, sometimes it was too much. And even now, sometimes I get carried away with the forensic nature of editing.

A: Do you feel that through your career as a musician, you’ve evolved your voice? Do you feel like you were still discovering it and you’re still in the process of discovering it? Like, that was your voice for that time? How do you feel about the evolution of your self?

S: Everybody is constantly evolving. You cannot stand still. It’s absolutely impossible. On some levels, it looks that way, but no. Even at this moment, when I was talking a minute ago, I’m different. When you make a record or you do a piece of art or anything creative, it’s like a little snapshot as to where you were at the time and you continue to evolve and so many things have an effect on your creative outlook, your creative perspective, how you’re finding yourself… Things that even seem almost inconsequential: people you meet, things you might eat, places you go, the little voice in your head that remembers things from your past or projects into the future.

All of these things are continually undergoing metamorphosis. Your perspective on even the same thoughts that you’ve had is changing constantly. So, that would only naturally have an effect on your creative integrity. So, yeah, I look back at that music and the guy that was making it and I see a lot of innocence, a lot of almost bombastic freedom. It’s that youthful freedom when you’re 21/22 years old. It was an explosion of freedom. And then when I released Flex-Able, I was even apprehensive to try because I thought, “Oh, this music is weird.” But I thought, “Well, I like it.”

It sort of captured this this weird innocence and corniness side to me that was just pretty prevalent at one point. I thought, “Well maybe somebody will like it.” And then I released it and, yeah, it attracted a particular type of audience. I think what they’re responding to in it is just the honestness, the sincerity of it. I know that when I make music that isn’t very honest, when I’m actually trying to hit a particular group, I always miss the mark. Even if it’s a hit, or even if it’s something that some people might like, I always feel that unless there’s something in it that moves me a particular way, I’ve missed out on my potential. And those songs have no real pull to me.

A: Interesting! Composition, what is composition like for you? How has that evolved over time for you?

S: Well, composition is like anything else. It’s a creative expression and it’s the one that I do that I like doing the most. There’s other ways that I love being creative, but composition is like anything else in that there’s a period of time that you go through where you have to hone your tools, you have to sharpen your knives, you have to prepare your vessel, and there’ a lot of focus and a lot of thinking (so to speak) and it’s a lot of repeating and repeating and repeating, it’s a lot of focusing how to change your style a little bit, or researching other music…

Whatever it is, there’s a period of time where, if you’re an athlete, you’re honing your craft, you’re learning the hoops. If you ever played golf, it’s this extraordinary sport because my father used to take me and he used to try to teach me. I’m so golf spastic. Actually, I was pretty good until my back… But, there’s so much to think about, you keep your eye on the ball, keep your knees this way, swing and follow all the way through, keep your head down, and it’s like, “How can you remember all this stuff?” Because you do it over and over and over and over and over and over again until it becomes natural. And then once something becomes natural, once the technique becomes honed, then you have to go deeper than the technique.

You have to access that part of you that’s deeper than the mind portion, that’s deeper than just the technique, or else you’ll sound great, but you’ll just sound like technique that knows what it’s doing. It needs that level of depth and then the technique becomes your tool.

So in composing, you go through the period, and it’s not hard… There’s some rules you gotta know because you’re dealing with time-based reality and people’s abilities and the limitations of an instrument, but there’s so many creative tools when you’re composing, it’s just amazing.

It’s so much more, for me, in many ways, it’s so much more open and creative than just with a band or even just sitting and playing guitar because now you have a whole large group of people that have to play exactly what you write and there’s tools where you can manipulate notes, there’s dynamics, there’s articulations, there’s all sorts of things you can do to one little note to make it sound a certain way. And then you can combine them with all these instruments. It’s this incredible palette of colors.

For me, the composition process makes every day like Christmas because you just hear things in your head. You don’t want to have to think about how to put it out. You hear it and then you know. So, the composition process is very similar in many ways to other creative processes, although the results are completely different.

A: When you are composing, whether it’s for an orchestra or a rock band arrangement, do you ever feel that you’re in a rut or “I keep doing this same thing and this is not who I am.” Maybe your influences have had too much influence and you’re not expressing yourself. If so, how do you break out of that?

S: Well, yes and there’s various ways you can circumnavigate around those ruts. The first thing is: Don’t worry about it. That’s big though, because a lot of people really worry. They think, “Oh my God, I’ve lost my mojo. I have no more vision. I have no more creativity. What am I gonna do? I keep repeating myself!” Well, that’s worrying. Another way to look at it is that the lull in your creativity is actually very valuable because it’s, in a way, it’s like you’re preparing and giving it a break.

So, there’s many things that you can do that I can recommend to get through these ruts. First, don’t worry. And it’s different for different people. Some people are constantly inspired, like Frank, for instance. It never ended and he was always in the moment of it. But, for someone like me, I’m not always inspired. I’d say maybe 3% of the time, I’m really inspired, but I can do a lot with that 3%.

So, what I do is when I feel something is coming or if I’m playing something and I like it and I feel that it has some “juice” to it, so to speak, I capture it somehow. I have thousands and thousands of talking into a microphone, by my bed I’ve got stuff, and it’s all over the place. The iPhone is usually…

A: Voice Notes?

S: Yeah.

A: Every musician’s favorite app.

S: I’ve got hundreds and hundreds and thousands from before cell phones were in existence. Some of them carry a lot of power for me and that’s where I go to to find a lot of songs. That’s where I find most of my songs. Any of my songs that you might like, I can probably show you the “la la la la la.” And all you need is just a little thread! Just a thread! And then when you go back and listen to it, even if you’re in a rut, it can pull you out. That’s one thing that can help. So, whenever you feel something is happening, try to capture it or document it somehow and then go back to it when you feel like you’re in a rut.

Another way is to listen, completely make a left turn and go listen to some music that you’d never think that you would listen to or expect you would listen to. For instance, if you’re a big metal head, I would challenge you to go and listen to Mahler ’s 4th  and 5th symphonies  10 times each with an open mind. That could be more valuable than anything else I’ve given you because that’s really powerful and incredible music. Or listen to the Rite of Spring  by Stravinsky . Just listen to it 10 times. Your world will change. Your world will change. It’s mind-expanding.

But you have to go into it with an open mind, without criticizing it or judging it, just like I have to go into country music with that or else I’ll cut my throat or something. Then I’ll enjoy it. I used to be like that, verrrry rigid. Very rigid. “This is it!” And when I was a kid, “If it’s not Led Zeppelin, it’s nothing.” And that only stifles your own creativity because the thing that the universe has to offer that’s so plentiful and absolutely at the core of creativity is the diversity. There’s nothing the same in the whole universe! Nothing! I mean, isn’t that remarkable?

A: It’s incredible.

S: It’s incredible, if you think about it. So, with that in mind, your ability to be creative is unique because you are an expression of the universe. So, yeah, that’s some of the things that I do. If you just go and force yourself with an open mind to listen… Like when I was doing Alive in an Ultra World , it was a glorious project because I was listening to all of this music from different countries, this cultural music. It was really beautiful because you taste the flavor of the country, you taste the people and the way the music is structured, because I have a musical ear (in a sense) I can hear the time signature, I can hear the technical aspects, but when you’re listening to it, you’re not listening to the technical. You’re hearing the thing that’s deeper than their technique.

So, if you go listen to a Bulgarian women’s choir, you think, “I don’t want to listen to a Bulgarian women’s choir, sounds like women making weird noises.” Listen really carefully. It will just change your world. That, then, can inspire you. Or if you’re a blues player, go listen to Meshuggah . Just listen to a few of their records–soft, if necessary. Just listen to the creative aspects of it and it’ll have a huge impact.

A: Your music ranges from straightforward (just you and an acoustic guitar not doing anything super technical, chords and singing beautiful melodies)…

S: I can’t on an acoustic guitar…

A: Hah! But then some of your other songs are very influenced by Stravinski and Ravel and these kinds of complex, more modern composers. Do you get in a mood and say, “I really want to channel some of that.” Or do these things just come out through listening 10 times?

S: Well, both. Sometimes what we hear has an impact on us and then it comes out unconsciously. Somehow it flows out into what we do. Somehow it does. To some degree. And then there’s the actual listening to something and being moved and saying, “I want to write something like that,” which is the way most people write music. There’s nothing wrong with that because it will still sound different, but that’s how things evolve, too. I do that occasionally, too.

Sometimes it works if there’s enough unique ideas that flow into it. If I just go to plagiarize a song, you wouldn’t know it was the original song, but usually it doesn’t carry–for me–the kind of thing I’m looking for in my music. Sometimes it does. Like, for instance, take something like Building the Church . My kids were listening to Linkin Park . I, immediately, when I heard it, I said, “That’s some nice big fat guitar. I like that. I gotta do something like that.” You know, those heavy chords and the tuning? I was inspired by that and that flowed into Building the Church, but!

There was enough other stuff, like the tapping thing, which originated 35 years ago with the song Upanishads and that was just a–I needed to transcend the gimmick nature of it. So, I put my technical mind to work and I said, “Well, I know that if I create these chords…” There was that. And then it had to have a particular melody that felt a certain way and then it had to have something else a little special, so there’s a little thing in the end… So you might be able to hear that it was [influenced].

You take something else like Dying for Your Love, which is on that record, that wasn’t inspired by anybody. That was just me listening to my inner ear and following a melody based on an emotional state of mind. That started out fooling around on a sample thing until the drum beat came. Then I took it from there. So there’s different ways.

A: Do you ever feel that you compromise in your music? Do you listen to something and go, “I could go in this direction, but that might bother some… my audience?” Or something like that? Do you ever feel sensitive to anything other than what suits you when you’re composing or performing?

S: Well, it has to suit you first. Why do it? Why do it if it doesn’t suit you? If it suits you–If you make you the most important thing in what you do, then the audience that comes to it will be the right audience for you as opposed to trying to say, “Well this genre here likes this kind of music, so let me throw some of that…” That’s insane thinking! I shouldn’t say it’s “insane,” it’s very common. And I do do it sometimes! But those songs just do not carry that thing that I like the most, which is, “Whoa. Oh my God, did that really sound real?” That’s what I like. Sometimes that happens.

That piece I just played you, the second half of Mighty Messengers [from an upcoming anniversary release of Passion and Warfare  ], to me it’s just so beautiful. It’s so beautiful, you know? I just love sitting there and just hearing those rich, thick chords with all these guitars and the melody, the way it moves. The solo section, which every little piece (for me) is… I mean, I worked on every piece until I did something different than I’d ever done.

That’s what I do. I’ll sit with a solo sometimes, I’ll do that so that when I listen back–and you hear yourself doing something that you haven’t really ever done, you’re just like, “Holy mackerel, wow! That’s so cool! So cool!” And it’s okay to feel that way about what you do. Why not?

The thing that says in you, “This sucks,” is your own ego. What it’s really saying is, “This is not better. This will not be proclaimed as making me mightier and greater of a brilliant creator than everybody else on the planet so it must suck.” It’s this weird shit in your head.

Creating something and then listening back and critiquing it, that’s a different story. “Oh I hear… I like that, I don’t like that, let me see how I can…” That’s good. I can only speak for myself because I used to go through every kind of emotional dynamic. Now it’s really: You gotta please yourself first.

A: We’re in a day and age where there are countless options, countless guitar tones, software that can manipulate every single thing you do and now it’s so easy to use that it’s almost more difficult not to get caught up in it. How do you feel about the evolution of what has been available to you from 30-some years ago to what you have now?

S: It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. It’s based on your attitude. Whatever your attitude on it will become your reality. So, if you’re looking at something… There’s three basic ways to look at something. Take new technology that’s come in and it’s suddenly there and it’s endless and it keeps developing every minute.

One perspective is: “This sucks. Why can’t we all just go back to just picking up the guitar and just playing it?” Well, go ahead and do that. Nobody’s telling you you have to record it with reverse flanges and chop it up and have it up on YouTube within 10 seconds. But, usually that kind of perspective carries with it a lot of baggage, like, “Not only does this suck, but the whole business sucks because how can I sell music anymore with this new technology, streaming, I can’t get paid at all. Why make music?” If you have to ask yourself that question, don’t make it! Go do something else! Because you’re not really compelled to do it.

People that make music under any circumstance have no choice. It’s like, “This is what I wanna do and that’s it.” So, perspective of “everything is sucking” isn’t just what you’re observing in the music business, it’s what you’re observing in most of your life usually. And it’s just your perspective. You could say, “But Steve, no, this is real. This is true. Streaming has destroyed the ability for artists to make money.” Well, on one level, that is true. There’s a lot of things that are true, though.

There’s a lot of other things that are true. For instance, right now is the best time in history to be an independent musician. You have more tools at your disposal than has ever been before. If you have the goods, if you’re creative enough, you can create your work. There’s so many people now to network with, you can get with other people… You couldn’t do that in the past. There’s so much you couldn’t do!

So, that’s the second perspective: Looking out and seeing, “How can this serve me? How can all this wonderful–wonderful!–technology serve me?” And I can tell you I’m doing better now than I’ve ever been doing and I’m selling a lot less records because records don’t sell, but I’m just doing gangbusters. I had my best year ever in my life this year.

A: Congratulations! That’s amazing!

S: Yeah. The government likes it, too. They’re very happy for me. Because I look and I see, “How can this serve me?” And that’s just a shift, just a simple shift, and then other things that are true are now on your radar. And whatever belief you have becomes your truth, but they’re all just thoughts in your head anyway. So, you have the ability to shift the vibration of your thoughts from that first perspective to the second perspective, which is much more advantageous to you. And there’s a lot of truths in that, too! Write a list of them! Write a list of all of the truths that make you feel good. There’s nothing better you can do.

And then there’s the third perspective, which is usually reserved for those people that breathe very thin air. That perspective is: “This is wonderful technology that’s going on in the world. How can I improve it? What does it lack? Where can I take it? What is impractical about it?” And there’s no end to where that ladder climbs to, by the way.

If you look to the past, you’ll find at any time in history, most of the time people feel like wherever they have evolved to with a particular technology, they feel like they’ve arrived. “How can it ever get better than vinyl?” Now it’s like, “Great Steve, but how is it ever going to get better than streaming anything you want?” It’s gonna get a lot better.

I don’t know what that is, but I know that what we look for as a species is convenience, simplicity, and immediacy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s never going to happen because even when you’re at that stage, even if you can say, “Queen II , Liar…” Oh that’s on Queen I  You can just say, “I wanna hear Queen I, Liar.” And all of a sudden, you just start hearing it. That’s pretty immediate, no bills to pay, or maybe there’s bills to pay, but nothing to touch. That’s a lot more convenient than what we have now, which is a big pain in the ass, really. It’s still completely inferior as far as I’m concerned. I tried to do the streaming and, no, it’s not good enough. It doesn’t work every place, I have to reach into my pocket and grab something and fiddle around, I don’t want to do any of that.

A: Hope you have a connection, hope you’re logged in…

S: Hope you’re logged in! It’s so inferior! Come on, guys! So, there’s somebody sitting there right now going, “Nah, nah, it’s just not right yet. What can I do to make it right? What can I do to make it better?” And that’s the third way of thinking. So, look at the vast contrast in the person that’s saying, “Okay all of these great toys, now I’m going to focus on this and make this. I have a vision for something that’s much better.”

And that’s how it always works to the guy that “everything sucks.” And they’re talking about the same thing! The perspective that you choose is not just reflected in the thing you’re looking at, it’s reflected in all the other things in your life. All you have to do is change one little perspective in some place one little bit and then everything else changes too.

A: Has your music always been so influenced by these softer skills? These emotional approaches, spiritual approaches to your music?

S: Well, whenever we enter that creative zone in our heads, we’re always attracted to the things that we’re most interested in at the time. So, when I look back, like I’m doing this 25th anniversary [of Passion and Warfare] and I’m going all the way back to Flex-Able and I’m listening to all the tracks that I recorded and stuff like that, there was a period of discovery for me back then when I was going through changes and I was studying metaphysics and spirituality and all these things, so a lot of the symbolism flowed into the music, but a lot of it was really just symbolism and surface value things. I didn’t really understand at the time–well how would you? Now, a different kind of interconnection flows into the music, so to speak.

A: When you hear that older music, are you still as proud of it as you were when it was new? Do you listen and you’re excited by it, or is it like, “Well, that’s cute Steve.”

S: Yeah, a lot of “that’s cute. That’s funny. I remember that guy.” I don’t really feel proud, I feel gratitude. I’m grateful that I did it. I see that kid sitting there working his ass off, same thing I’m doing now, and just having fun. Just being creative and getting an idea and having to do it. And that’s never changed. All the technology’s changed, the way you do it, the tools you use might change, but still the arising of an inspired idea, you need that. And back then, I was cutting my teeth in the studio learning how to record, learning how to decorate the stereo real estate, so I hear all that too. There’s still something in there that I get a kick out of.

A: Were you a musician before you picked up the guitar?

S: Yeah, I believe so. I mean a “musician” is a big word.

A: I don’t mean as a profession, but as your identity, your form of expression.

S: I know that I always had a deep attraction to music. A lot of people do. Most people do. I think when I was 4 years old, I remember walking up to a piano and hitting a note and realizing to the right, the notes go higher, and to the left, they go lower. And immediately, I had two great epiphanies right at that moment. One was I understood instinctually the construction of music, so whenever I would hear, I would think, “Oh, that’s what music is!” And then, “These are all the notes.” I could see them, I kinda knew what staffs were and those kinds of things, you know?

When I heard anything, I could say, “Okay, that’s that and oh, that’s cool.” But then the other realization was I was overcome with the reality that musical creativity is infinite, that no one can tap it out, that it’ll never end. Within me alone are infinite musically creative ideas. I knew at that moment, that flooded through me, and I knew I was going to be a musician. I didn’t know the word “musician,” I didn’t know what that meant, I just knew that “I like this, I want to be one of those creators forever. This is what I like.” It was an epiphany of sorts.

A: Yeah, absolutely. That drives so much creativity, when people have that epiphany moment.

S: Yeah. And you can point to times in your life where you have them. It’s like a moment of clarity. You can even picture, smell what was going on, or see what was going on. So, I loved the way music looked. I thought it looked like beautiful art and I would doodle musical notes and I just started writing. I didn’t know what I was writing, but it looked like music and it didn’t have any sense to it. Then I started to learn, “Okay, this is that and that’s what that means,” and I loved that information.

I had no interest whatsoever in virtually anything that I was learning in school. [Author’s Note: Do yourself a favor and read The Element  or watch Ken Robinson’s TED Talks  on this subject.] I couldn’t retain things like history. I could not retain anything. I’d sit and I’d listen to the teacher and I’d just say, “I don’t care about any of this shit. And I don’t want to know about it. It’s crazy people at war! Why do I want to know about that?”

A: And you’re graded on it. And your success is determined by how you memorized it.

S: And the level of your intelligence is based on it… Now, if it’s interesting to you, that’s great! And I can understand that there’s certain things that are probably a good idea to know and I know those, but spinning wheels learning about “things.” I like math, but if you don’t like math, no worries! Don’t study it! But, that’s unfortunately not where we’re at right now. But, that was the thing.

You asked if I knew I was a musician. No, I didn’t, I just knew that I loved music and I had all these musical ideas. Now, I didn’t realize until later in life that most people don’t hear and see music that way unless you’re a musician. And then there’s this more visual/audible understanding in your head.

It took me many years before I could call myself a musician because it was always such a sacred word. You know the word “musician” to me meant somebody who really knew music and really immersed themselves in the musical experience and had command over the technique and the technology and could just hear this and see that. And I said, “Yeah, that’s what you are. That’s what you like. Go with it.” There was always this apprehension to call myself a musician because I was afraid of sounding pretentious. Like, “Ohhh yeah? Now you’re a musician? Oh yeah?”

A: “Can you do this?”

S: “Can you do that?” Then I realized that’s another egoic mind structure. Then that went away and it was just, “Yeah, I play music. I’m a musician.”

A: Do you still face any of these inhibitions or these things that block your creativity or the good voice that tells you who you are and what you do?

S: Well, the little voice that tells you who you are and what you do is an identity that you created for yourself through your life. You know what I mean? It’s not really who you are.

A: It’s your idea of who you are.

S: It’s your idea of who you are. Yeah, it’s the… You have a name, which is just funny sounds that come out of the mouth, and you picture your name as a hat, all the things you went through you throw into that hat, and then you look at these things and you create an identity for yourself. “I am this guy that this happened to, or this one man/woman, or this happened to me so that means I am this and I have these issues and I have these strengths,” so you create this identity for yourself, but it’s not really who you are.

On one level, it’s fine, you know? But people say, “Music is your life.” “No, it’s not. Music is what I do in life. Life is something much deeper than what I do in it. Not just me, but everybody.” So, your question was…

A: Do you still face these things that torture many other people and perhaps tortured you in the past?

S: There’s various aspects of things that torture me and one of the things I’m getting over right now, as stupid and as simple as it might sound: it’s little frustrations that have always driven me crazy when I’m at work. I’ll be into doing something, all of a sudden a string would break or a battery would go dead or something where I have to go and deal with it. It would always create this frustration. And it’s funny because I can be really solid on so many levels. People come to me with problems, or I have a problem, but run out of battery?! “Why can’t you?! Why does it?!” It’s a form of suffering.

I realized I don’t want to suffer at all in life, so how do you deal with it? These things happen, all this stuff happens, so you just deal with it, but you don’t need the drama. And then you use going up and changing the battery as part of the process of making the record and getting to your goal and it’s fine. There’s things that are challenges, I have similar challenges as many people, but through the past 5, 6 years I’ve been undergoing a huge change. We all do. This is profound change for me.

One of the biggest things a person can go through is when they start recognizing in themselves their own destructive thought patterns that have been in place sometimes for many, many, many years. And they’re just thoughts in your head, but you believe them! But they’re relative. Once you realize that, you’re starting to access freedom, liberation because you’re not a prisoner of your own thoughts. That’s really what meditation helps with, all those things.

So, do I suffer through a lot of the things that everybody else does? I go through them, but I can’t vouch for the way other people suffer. When I look into the world, I see there’s a lot of it. They take things very seriously and I used to, too. Very, very fiercely intense. Now I don’t! Hah.

A: A lot of people write music in response to an emotional trial or something. It sounds like you’re getting to a point where the creativity is more pure and less reactive. It’s creative for the sake of being creative, not “I need to express how pissed off I got when that battery died.”

S: No, I don’t do that because that perpetuates that frame of mind. I’ve always felt, and I don’t criticize anybody because everything is a process and it’s different for different people, but emotion is… Let’s say it’s a vibration, which it is. We’re really just vibrating energy, any scientist will tell you… Well, not any, but you know…

A: [Points to Carl King] That scientist will…

S: So we’re just vibrating energies and a thought is like an energy and it has a vibrational quality to it, so to speak. Those thoughts create corresponding emotions. That’s what emotions are: emotions are just indicators of what you’re really thinking. So if you want to know what you’re thinking, ask yourself how you feel.

But are you in touch with the way you feel? In order to be in touch with the way you feel, you need to be able to put your attention into your body and see how it feels. With thoughts being of various qualities, they create a resonance in your body, which then turns into an emotion. It’s not the other way around.

A lot of people think, “I’m just feeling shitty.” You’re feeling shitty because of the thoughts you’re thinking. You don’t realize it because there’s this natural momentum that has happened over your whole life. Actually, it’s the collective consciousness of humanity for thousands of years, thousands and thousands of years. They’re not even your thoughts really. But they are, they’re thinking you. So, that has an effect in the body as an emotion, so when you then enter the creative zone in anything you do and you’re basing it on an emotional charge, that flows into whatever you do.

So, you can hear that in certain music, people are very happy to tell you how miserable they are. They’re very happy to create music about how fucked up their life is and how fucked up the world is. Oh, that’s a good one! Because when you proclaim that the world is fucked up, what you’re really saying is, “Because I know better. Because I am better. I’m better than the world and I can show you how. The world is fucked up!” It’s a form of insanity, but it’s the ego and it only brings suffering to yourself and others and that flows into your work and that work carries that energy.

Now the reason why so many people are attracted to brokenhearted love songs is because most people are brokenhearted. They’re looking for something in another person that you can’t find because it’s not there. You have to find it in yourself and then you can share it, that’s when you can become really useful and helpful. When you enter a particular emotional frame of mind and you create within it, you’re perpetuating that particular frame of mind.

You need to decide how you want to feel. Do you want to feel miserable?, which the ego loves. Some people really love feeling miserable. They don’t want to not feel miserable. They don’t want to not feel drama. They don’t want to not complain about something. It’s because it’s a sense of identity. With complaining you’re telling the world that you’re better than whatever it is that you’re complaining about. Or, do you want to put all that emotion aside and just get real with it? Enter that zone…

Now I use “emotionless” but it sounds on one level like a coldness, but really it’s pure joy, really, because when you enter that ultra zone of creativity, you’re resonating at a higher vibration, so to speak. What comes out may not necessarily… It’s comes out through the filter of who you are, too. That’s what I focus on. Now, do I like to create things that sound really intense and wild? Yeah! Sometimes yeah! I like to, the best that I possibly can, find the most beautiful stuff that I can write.

What I love doing, I was just telling Pia the other night, I love cultivating delicacies and I like to find little… And I’ll do it with one little kind of thing that I’m the only one that’s going to get it. I am the only one, but oddly enough, there’s this small group of people that get it. And that’s nice. But that’s what I like. I like it to feel powerful and joyful all the time.

Now when I look back on some of my music, there’s some real tortured stuff because I was really tortured at some points in my life. But if you stay in that, you perpetuate more of it. Now some people might say, “Well, no that’s how you work it out. Get angry! And you do that!” Yes, if you’re using the anger to escalate yourself to the next higher emotional state, and then the next one, and then the next one…

A: Not to just replace the torture.

S: Yeah, but if you stay in the anger, no it’s not good for you, it’s just going to perpetuate more of it and you’re going to be more miserable and you’ll love being miserable more and more until there’s a collapse because nothing can withstand the weight of that kind of suffering. Your ego has a built-in self defense mechanism.

A: Wow. Some deep stuff. Carl, do you have any questions?

Carl: Did you just make all that stuff up?

S: I don’t know.

C: No, I do have a question, actually, that popped up. Somehow, this sounds a little bit like, and I don’t mean this in any making-fun-of-you kind of way, but some of this sounds like Dianetics . Things that you’re referencing, elements of it.

S: Well, it could be. I read the Dianetics book 35 years ago along with many other books. What I realized is that, at the core, religions basically have fundamental truth that resonates with all of them. I can’t really comment on Dianetics. I have some friends that are Scientologists  and I read the book many years ago and I actually was audited when I first moved out to California. I was, like, 20 years old and they were out on the street and it was a very interesting process.

I think I understood that the basic principle was–now I’m using different terminology, but it’s the same terminology, it’s a parallel terminology with anything that Christ might have said or Buddha or any of that, and basically is: You’re not your thoughts. Your thoughts have an energy to them and who you are is under the thoughts, it’s your consciousness itself.

When you realize, and it’s not something acquire, you already are, but it’s obscured and in Dianetics, the process is to eliminate those mind patterns that are obscuring your true presence, your true consciousness. They have terminologies for it, I don’t know what it is… What do they call it?

C: Thetans .

S: Thetans! Whatever it is. And then you reach a stage where you’re clear and that means that you have conquered the world the way Jesus said it in that there’s nothing in the world that’s gonna disturb your peace. And that’s the destiny of all of us, hopefully. I don’t know these things for sure. So, you can say the same thing about Buddhism, or Christianity, or any of these. They’re all pointing to one thing, but the ego of man is not satisfied.

Everybody’s at a different level of understanding and they’re all ranked. There’s nobody that’s wrong because that’s what they see! And to them, this is their reality. And there’s always people below them that they’re pulling up and there’s always people above them that they’re being pulled up by. So, it’s all relative wherever you are in your religion, even if you’re a right-wing fundamentalist. It’s fine, “fine” until you suffer and you might start hearing the truth of it.

Anyway, maybe that’s some analogy with Scientology. But, Scientology, like very many of the others, there’s also an egoic contingency that the reason I didn’t pursue it more, I saw the deep ego in it. When I was being audited, I understood the processes of explaining certain situations in my life that were painful in order to work them out and confront them.

But then there was this suggestion that I felt from the people that were interviewing me where they were holding something over you because whenever you express something that’s personal, you are being vulnerable, you’re allowing yourself to be very vulnerable and there’s people who will abuse that, and that’s what I was feeling. And I don’t think that’s the case with everybody in that religion, whatever it is. I have friends that are Scientologists, amazing people, and it’s worked for them beautifully. And then there’s zombies, and it’s like that in all of them.

A: Well, it’s really interesting to hear how this all feeds into your creative approach and your composition. It’s fascinating and that’s what I’m learning through these interviews. Everyone’s approaches are so…

S: Yeah, my creative approach, I didn’t really talk to much about that. One of the things that I do that I want to share and I think you’ll really enjoy, I think my greatest talent is the ability to visualize. I didn’t realize I was doing it all these years, but that’s what I would recommend people focus on when they want to be creative. Visualize how you want to feel about what you’re going to create. Visualize yourself performing it, visualize yourself creating it.

Sometimes what I do is I write a list of the things that I want a particular song to have. I don’t know what the song is going to be, but I know that it’s going to happen because I’ve been doing it so long I’m conditioned to know that “if I want this, it’s going to happen.” So, one of the things you can try that’s really exciting, and I do this sometimes, is you just write a list of the kind of things that you want in a song and then watch it come together. Enjoy the process of it coming together.

The most important thing that you can feel when you’re creating is enthusiasm for the unique creative ideas that arise in you. If you don’t have the enthusiasm, wait until an idea comes that gives it to you. Don’t block it because of your ego. That’s hard to do. And the other thing that I might say very simply is you can only do one thing at a time, even if you have plans to do hundreds of things, you can really only do one thing in this moment and if you give it your full attention while you’re doing it, there’s a quality that flows into it that’s very powerful. You lose psychological time.

A: Right. You’re in the element.

S: You’re in the now.

A: All right, well thank you so much. I really appreciate you getting into this.

S: You got it.

A: That’s a wrap!

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