Guitarist Steve Vai Revisits His Landmark Album, 'Passion and Warfare'

click to enlarge Guitarist Steve Vai Revisits His Landmark Album, 'Passion and Warfare'
Larry DiMarzio
At the time that Steve Vai released his landmark album, Passion and Warfare, in 1990, it seemed like a huge step forward from where he’d begun with Flex-Able, his 1984 debut. The two projects came from different places.

“I recorded Flex-Able in the early '80s when I was just learning how to record and engineer and produce. It was really just a pet project. It had a lot of music on it that I made just for me and my friends to laugh at,” Vai recalls during a recent phone interview from Las Vegas. He plays at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Hard Rock Live at the Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park. “I never really expected to release it and then I thought, ‘Eh, why not.’ I released it and it was great, and I thought, ‘You know, I can do this. I can release records.’”

He put a band together and started writing material and recording basic tracks for a follow-up and during that time period received an offer to join the heavy metal band Alcatrazz, featuring former Rainbow vocalist Graham Bonnet. He took the gig and while he was on the road with the group, got an offer to do a solo album with Capitol Records. “At that point, I thought, ‘I’m going to start over because I’ve got all-new musical ideas and I’m going to record a new record.’ That turned into Passion and Warfare.”

Eventually. First, Vai would get another phone call, with an opportunity to go work with David Lee Roth. Naturally, as any guitarist who got that phone call in the '80s would have, he seized the chance to work with Roth.

“It was really great. Because first of all, I love that style of music. I was a huge Van Halen fan and a big David Lee Roth fan too,” Vai says. “What was good about it that a lot of people don’t quite understand is how intuitive David Lee Roth is. His press persona comes off as this wild, crazy kind of guy, but he’s got a lot going on there and he’s very intuitive. He knows what he wants, he knows what he doesn’t want. He looks for that special thing in the songs that makes it worthy of the big rock arena genre. That was good for me, because I was coming from more of a quirky musician side and I always wanted to let my rock freak flag fly and that really allowed me the opportunity, because I had to write music that worked and had that simplicity, but high energy. It was great. Dave knew it when he heard it and he knew it when he didn’t hear it.”

After two successful albums with Roth, Eat ‘Em & Smile and Skyscraper, Vai was ready to move on and as he recalls in a post on his website, he was “determined to finish the record.” On the heels of the experience of working with Roth, he felt like there was a “larger, other world of music to explore. I was reaching into that secret part of the brain that we all go to for inspiration, and was curious as to if I could make those visions an audible reality.”

Even after parting ways with the former Van Halen frontman, Vai was still juggling. He had accepted an invite to play guitar with Whitesnake and finished the album that became Passion and Warfare in between recording his guitar tracks for the Whitesnake album Slip of the Tongue and leaving to tour with the band. Vai found himself being pulled in a lot of different directions inspirationally with the material that he was writing and recording for his solo album. When he had completed the record, he attempted to “amalgamate all of these thoughts and experiences into [an album title]. I sat down and wrote the words 'passion and warfare.'”

All of the work that Vai had done in the years leading up to Passion and Warfare paid off big time. But he was on tour with Whitesnake at the time the album was released and admits that he didn’t see it coming.

“It was a stunner," Vai says. "Because you’ve got to keep in mind that I had no expectations. I thought this was going to be the end of my career. I remember when the record came out, a few days after the record came out, I was in Toronto with Whitesnake and I was doing this radio interview. I walked into this radio station and I walk into the lobby and I see this guy and he meets me in the lobby and he says, 'Hey, I heard your new solo record came out and it’s gold and it’s at number 18 on the Billboard charts.' This guy said this to me and I thought, 'This guy, he’s got me mixed up with somebody else.' Because that happens occasionally. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but that’s fine. I’m not going to tell him he’s wrong. So I just said, 'Oh, thank you! It’s going great!' Because you hear stuff like that and you’re like, 'Whatever.' He also said it was gold. It was certified gold, it was number 18, but I thought he just was wrong.”

Vai stepped into the elevator and went up to the radio station and received similar congrats from the DJ during an interview, echoing the details of the chart position and sales and at that point, things began to sink in, but he still thought that it might be finding success for reasons that had very little to do with the record itself.

“I thought, ‘It’s just because of the momentum of all of the things that I’ve been doing.’ There was a big build-up, you know, on Flex-Able. There was a song called ‘The Attitude Song’ that made its way into a guitar magazine and it was quite a nice addition, because it was a very innovative way of playing at the time. And then the Crossroads thing happened, so it’s like, ‘Okay, who is this guy?’ I have the cachet of being in the Zappa alumni at so young of an age. And then there was the David Lee Roth thing, which, how do you quantify that? And then there was the Whitesnake thing. So there was this huge momentum of press that you can’t buy. You know, you can’t even buy that kind of momentum. So when Passion and Warfare came out, a part of me felt, ‘There will be some people interested.’ But for it to go gold in the first week, meant there was something in the record. And then it just continued. It just continued to be so well-received. The press was crazy good and I just thought, is this really happening like this? It just continued to sell and people would come up to me with tattoos and I’m going, ‘Okay, maybe there’s something there.’”

As the album marks its 26th birthday, Vai is on the road playing the entire record in full for the first time. Unlike other artists who have done similar, Vai’s current trek is unique because due to the fact that he was on tour with Whitesnake when the album was originally released, he never did a tour in support of the album.

“I had the option of going out for Passion and Warfare, but I had just done a tremendous amount of touring and we had just had a baby and I wanted to stay home,” he says. “I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to front a band playing instrumental music. Because I was always comfortable being the sideman with an extroverted singer. So I passed on it. And who knows what would have happened. But I thought, this 25th anniversary might be a great opportunity for those who like this record.”

In typical Vai fashion, the anniversary edition of the album is being released a year late, because he took the opportunity to do more than just add on some unreleased bonus tracks. “I always like to do more,” he says with a laugh. As a result, the expanded edition of Passion and Warfare adds four bonus tracks, but that’s just the opening act. Fans are also getting a “new” album, Modern Primitive, packaged as a second disc of the reissue. The album features 11 previously unreleased tracks, which help to fill in the gaps of what Vai was up to musically between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare. The veteran guitarist took the opportunity to revisit and finish a good portion of the material that had never been completed — with the original musicians from the time period.

“I always thought that I’d love to go back and finish that material. Because when you create something, it’s like a little snapshot of who you were at that time,” he says. “Back then, the person I was, although I was much younger, was having a sort of creative explosion. I had no expectations on the future. I wasn’t concerned about who would like this music or if it was going to be accepted or not or if I was going to be criticized. None of that was on the table at all. Because frankly, I didn’t think I’d have a career releasing records. So this created an opening for me to kind of be pretty adventurous and out there, just really experimenting with stuff.”

He says that that edge is something that can be lost when success starts to kick in, because of the expectations of others.

“Those expectations started to creep into what I was doing when I was playing with all of these rock bands in the '80s. And that was fine, because I enjoyed playing with these bands and I was able to deliver something that was authentic enough. But still in the back of my mind was that freedom of just doing whatever I wanted. So that’s when I quit all of that stuff and I made Passion and Warfare. Under the same kind of creative freedom as the Modern Primitive stuff. I pretty much held onto that M.O. through my whole life. So when it came time to do something with the 25th anniversary of Passion and Warfare, because it’s not uncommon to reissue something that’s remastered and maybe add some bonus tracks, [this seemed like the] perfect opportunity to take that music and finish it. So I did. And I’m so happy with the way it came out.”
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