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A Guitar Hero, Guinness, GP, and "Single Girls": Conversations with Steve Vai and Graham Parker, plus Laura Jansen's New Video

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A Conversation with Steve Vai

Mike Ragogna: Steve, you and Berklee are trying to set a record in Guinness by attempting to teach as many guitarists online as possible within a single lesson. How're you going to pull that off?

Steve Vai: Well, believe it or not, I don't do drugs. (laughs) I don't know how it came about, it's more or less for the promotion of the online class that's being taught at Berklee. When I graduated from high school, I went to the Berklee College of Music, I really enjoyed it. Through the years, I've been in contact with them on various things. They kicked off these online music lessons for virtually anything, you can go to Berklee and take these classes on all sorts of things about music. They are really great because you can be anywhere in the world--you sign in, the classes hold twenty people and have an instructor. It's very interactive...they wanted to develop these classes that were more specific to the techniques of artists. So, they approached me and I liked the idea because I always like teaching, I'm also a big proponent of music education.

I went to Boston and recorded an entire day of videos based on my experiences and the things I think are important. The way I approach teaching is more esoterically. So, they chopped all up and created these classes, it's over one semester, you can sign up and there is an instructor and they watch a video of me and they discuss it and they talk about the things I talk about. Once a semester, I go online and participate in the class and do a Q&A. They launched this in September and it did wildly well. In order to promote the class, the marketing geniuses came up with this idea, "Hey let's get Steve to create the biggest online live guitar lesson in history."

My first question was, "Did anybody ever do this before and is there actually a record?" You can make a record for anything, like I'm going to see how many pieces of Juicy Fruit bubble gum I can stick in my mouth...it's not that easy. If you're seriously attempting to set the record or create some kind of a record, they send their minions and they examine it and they set parameters and you have to reach them. It became kind of a quirky little idea, and frankly, I think it's going to be a really great class. One of the reasons is because Nigel Tufnel did a commercial for it.

MR: Can you go into how the course is offered?

SV: Well, there are two basic things--one is the online course that you can sign up for, it's twelve sessions in a semester and I'm the only one that's filmed for it. The other is this thing happening Thursday which is a one time free online guitar lesson with me. I only have thirty minutes, so I have to blast people through a lot of stuff. There are just a few things that you can understand (about) the guitar, and you can just pick up an instrument and start banging stuff out. I've discovered that everybody wants to play the guitar, and if they don't, they are lying.

MR: Also, one dollar is donated for every person that takes the class online.

SV: Yeah, and God knows we don't know how many people we are going to get. Out of my Facebook friends, I'm at like 800,000 or something.

MR: What the hell, amazing. How'd you get that many?

SV: I've had that account for quite some time. I've never checked it, my web guys put it together. Then, when I started to look at it I thought, "This is very brilliant," then I started participating and posting stuff. It's great because it's a conduit to people who are interested in what you're doing. So, it just grew in one year about a half a million people...it's just growing like crazy, it's fun. It's one of those things that technology is offering that is vital to independent artists and people who are looking to communicate.

MR: Okay, since we're kind of in this territory already, so what advice do you have for new artists?

SV: You see, I'm really against teaching my techniques necessarily because it doesn't matter. My techniques are me, and people who are interested in knowing what I do and playing like me, that's fine and great. (But) people want to discover their own self on the instrument, they want to do their own thing. They want to play all different kinds of songs or just find themselves. It's called "Steve Vai's Techniques," the class, but in reality, I show various ways that I do things, and I'm always encouraging people to discover themselves and to find the thing they are most interested in. It may have nothing to do with what I do on the guitar. So the way I like to teach is all encompassing, it's not from the bottom looking out, it's from the top looking down. When I'm speaking to somebody that's interested in playing the guitar, a good teacher tries to identify with the goals of the student, he helps cultivate those goals and the right path to discover them. That's what I try to do. It's not like, "Sign up here and play like Steve Vai" or "Watch this online guitar lesson and learn how Steve does stuff." There is a small minority of people that I think want to do that, but there are a lot of people that want to play the guitar. There are just a few principles that I've discovered through 32 years of being a touring musician and making records that I think can be helpful.

MR: That boils down to saying you have to find your own inner artist.

SV: I think you have to find your own inner goal, that's number one. What is it that you want to do? You have to know that; a lot of people don't know that. They know that they want to play, but a lot of people are just very apprehensive to play because of insecurities or they think they aren't good enough. The truth is it's because of the thinking, that's what I approach more. If I was going to give any one piece of advice, I would say try and discover what it is that excites you the most about playing an instrument. Visualize that, set some goals, and take it step by step. There's no way you can't achieve it, you just have to keep the excitement and stay excited about it. Nothing can stop you.

MR: Of course, people know you from your solo work, but you've also played with Zappa, Whitesnake, Joe Satriani, and many others. And Joe was your teacher as well as a colleague, right?

SV: Yeah, Joe and I grew up in the same town on Long Island. He was about three or four years older than me. He could really play, he was THE teacher in the town. My guitar lessons were sacred.

MR: You also came to the attention of Frank Zappa in an interesting way.

SV: Yeah, I was a big Frank fan. I got his phone number through this guy that stole a Rolodex from this recording studio in New York City, and it had all of these rock star numbers. Frank's was in there and I called his house.

MR: And he was fine with that?

SV: Well, it took me four years to get a hold of him. I didn't want to call a lot, and the first time I called, I think I was fifteen or something. His wife answered and she was very nice. I said, "You know what, I'm just a fan and I'm really sorry and I want to know if I could talk to Frank." She was very nice and said, "Well he's on tour, call back in 6 months."

MR: Any memories of Whitesnake?

SV: Well you can imagine how cool it must have been in the '80s to be in it and David Lee Roth bands. We were out there playing to 20 or 30 thousand people a night, living the life. It was a rock star scenario and I really enjoyed it. I played that rock star card for about five years and it was great fun. I can't even began to tell you all of the ecutrements, but I knew that I was going through it that it was relatively fleeting and it wasn't really how I wanted to create my catalog of music. That was really the thing that was most compelling to me, creating a unique catalog of music.

MR: You've also contributed tracks such as "For The Love Of God" and "Halo Theme" to Guitar Hero 3.

SV: Yeah, I have a bunch of tracks on a bunch of those games.

MR: Plus you did an "Experience Hendrix" tour.

SV: That was great last year, and I've also just committed to doing six more shows in May.

MR: What are you playing these days, what's your favorite guitar?

SV: I designed a guitar 25 years ago for Ibanez. It's called The Jem, and it's been wildly successful. It's the guitar I've been playing all this time because it's all of my idiosyncrasies.

MR: Is there a follow up course after this one at Berklee?

SV: There are no plans for that right now, but you never know. Eventually, I would like to build my own curriculum for my own teaching scenario. For right now, this Berklee class is a wonderful alternative.

(transcribed by Theo Shier)

INTERMISSION:

Laura Jansen, a Dutch-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter's debut album Bells is coming out on Universal's Decca Records on March 22, 2011. You can catch her at this year's SXSW (see dates below), and the single from the upcoming record, "Single Girls," was recently featured by USA Today and LA Times. Check out the video for that song below. More on Laura at Facebook and her website...

SXSW Dates
March 16 - Waterloo In-Store - 5:30pm
March 18 - Berklee School of Music Show - 1:40pm @ Friends
March 18 - Dutch Impact Party - 5:40 pm @ Brush Square Park
March 19 - UMG Party - 12:40pm @ The Speakeasy
March 19 - Patagonia Store - 7:00pm 316 Congress Ave
March 19 - Hotel Cafe Showcase - 10pm @ St. David's Historic Sanctuary

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A Conversation with Graham Parker

Mike Ragogna: Graham, you released your twentieth album last year, Imaginary Television. Twenty albums.

Graham Parker: I guess it's around there. There are so many compilations and live albums, but I guess it's about twenty studio albums.

MR: And 2001's Deepcut To Nowhere was voted one of the ten best albums of the year by Sound and Vision magazine. Through the years, whenever there is a new Graham Parker album, eyes and ears and critics continue to be attentive.

GP: There's not that many now, actually. Yeah, I guess so, I still get enough attention that people are interested in and that's a good thing. It all seems to be online now, I guess that's nothing to worry about now, is it. I used to call it the Gulag of reviews, being online. But nothing seems to make the papers anymore for me, it seems that's the way it is.

MR: Times change.

GP: But it's good though. I keep bashing away and making records.

MR: Like your latest CD/DVD, Graham Parker & The Figgs: Live At The FTC.

GP: The DVD was me and the band I sometimes work with, The Figgs. They did a tour with me to promote Imaginary Television. It just keeps rolling along.

MR: How did you approach capturing it?

GP: I didn't pay too much attention to the technical aspects of it. I've got this business signed with a publishing company called Primary Wave who administrate my catalogue, trying to get me a few placings here and there. They hooked up with these entertainment people who make live DVDs with live bands. So, they put it all together, and I was very welcoming of the idea. It's been a long time, the last thing that I had that was professionally filmed was in 1982 or something, that was in the days of tape with VHS and Betamax. So, we picked a date on the tour at this theater that I've played at many times--FTC's Stage One in Connecticut. It's almost like a sound stage, but it was a big deal and they had eight cameras there and guys with computers in the back rooms all over the place. These things can often be where you turn up, then everyone's got a bug or the flu or something awful happens. Everyone was kind of well and playing good though, and we had done about three gigs on the tour. So, we were hot to trot, it worked out very good, I think.

MR: Is there a preference for you between live or studio?

GP: They both have the same variety of aspects with them, whether it's in the studio worrying about if the songs are as good as you think they are or hope they are. Watching them grow and turn into something and then the surprise that, "Wow that's actually good," there is all of these ups and downs. Being live, you are going to be different every night. I play solo a lot and play with a backing band when I'm promoting an album. Solo is kind of my bread and butter. I'm a working musician, I do this for a living. Having said that, I get lots of months off and I'm very lucky. For instance, in the winter, I would rather go skiing. So, I tell my agent don't book me because there are storms everywhere. Why would you want to be going towards the airport knowing there is a blizzard coming towards Chicago and you are about to arrive there. I'm lucky enough to be where I don't have to do this every day of the week. There is stress and there is joy involved with it. There is nothing like being in front of an audience, when they know what you're doing and they are into it. This is something I've built up over the years. In the old days, it was much more about the intensity of going out and screaming at people. Now, I tell more jokes than I do songs sometimes. It's a much more enjoyable aspect to me. I just wish they had teleporters.

MR: Do you change up the sets from night to night?

GP: When I'm solo the set changes constantly. I recently did three wildly different gigs in wildly different venues and did three totally different sets. Obviously, with all of those albums under my belt I've got a lot of material. All of it takes practice, you can't remember all of these songs. Sometimes I have to go to the internet to remember all of these lyrics of certain songs. Luckily they are there, I don't have to listen to my records thank god. I can just go and find the lyrics and sometimes I will reinvent the song a little bit with the chords because I can't remember what they originally were. As far as this tour with The Figgs, when your working with a band everything is very tight and scheduled. Two days rehearsal, maybe three max. Then your on tour. There is really no time to be learning lots of new songs. It's solo I'm free, that's the great thing about playing solo. I'm free, I can sit backstage and say I will do that one and write it on to my set list which changes constantly. With the band is pretty much locked, when we got to encores somebody would suggest a song that we did four years ago. We would say go for it, it's encore it doesn't matter. Otherwise we would be pretty much locked into the same set.

MR: How do you compose your live sets, how did you choose the track list for the DVD?

GP: Mike Gent who plays guitar in The Figgs and sings and writes and also plays the drums on my record, he picks a lot of songs, and most of them are too weird for me to bother with. He knows my material a lot better than I do. So, that is kind of handy, he will pick out a bunch, and I will kind of cross out a lot of them. Half the set might come from Mike and half the set might come from me. Some will be songs that we've done before, others will be totally off the wall. There is no real mindset about anything. I kind of figure what I fancy doing at a certain time. For instance, we have quite a lot of grooves in the funky element like "Chloroform," also a song called "Beancounter" which I've never done live, I don't think. There are a couple of different rhythmic structures we were using throughout the tour, so the setlist takes this life of its own. You start playing it in rehearsal and wonder why we are doing this kind of song. These things just come up organically.

MR: How do you feel about your album Squeezing Out Sparks these days?

GP: I think it's very good. Jack Nitzsche was the producer who worked with Phil Spector and The Rolling Stones, along with many other great artists. The approach he took with it was absolutely necessary at the time. Me and The Rumour, my first band, had been a little overindulgent in the musicianship in earlier records, which have been very good, but that bunch of material had a different approach to it--a clean, modern approach. Jack Nitzsche was very instrumental to behave and to stop playing, because they were very good musicians. He tightened up the whole thing and made for a very different album. The songs are strong, I think, and it's going to stand out. I don't have any problems with it, I'm glad that at least there is something that stands out, it could be one flat line stream of records. You need something to pop out of the record now and again. I'm fine with it.

MR: You also had the album, The Mona Lisa's Sister.

GP: That was a good one as well. Another case of a refreshing approach to making a record. I said, "I'm going to be the producer, I'm tired of this overproduction of the '80s." Basically, it was about me and an acoustic guitar singing live, and adding instruments was really the approach to that, then stopping at four instruments and very few overdubs. That's not going to always work, but it worked for that one and for that material. That's another one that I think stands out above the pack. You also mentioned Deep Cuts To Nowhere in 2001. A lot of fans of my music think that's a very strong album as well, that was, of course, on Razor & Tie as well. So, I'm proud of all of the records I've made. I don't look back at any of them and think that was a clunker, I think there were stronger periods and some ups and downs in certain respects. It shows up more in the textural production of the record, it is usually the technical things that I look back on. I've always worked very hard on writing the best songs I possibly can and hoping for the best that there is enough inspiration that it's incredible.

MR: Regarding your earliest albums, many became fans from your strong songwriting, energy, rock-soulfulness, and those horns.

GP: Yeah, there wasn't a lot of soul inspired bands with horn sections in 1976. There wasn't much of that happening because progressive music, as it was, was still ruling the roost, which I had been very much into myself a few years before. I just, for some reason, felt deeply inspired by the music that I liked when I was 16 and 17, I went right back into listening to soul music again. Also, Bob Marley popped up around '74. I had also been into Ska music when I was 16 or 17. I was reintroducing that kind of aspect, with healthy doses of Van Morrison and The Stones' influence as well. We had our fingers in a lot of pies in terms of the way we played, luckily, I had the band that could pull it off. There weren't many musicians during those days that could understand that kind of roots of American music. Howling Wind and Heat Treatment were very dense albums, I would have likened us to an English Little Feat in a way--an extraordinary musicians' musicians band, way too good to be really big. Me and The Rumour were the same; it was a little to good for its own good. It made for really intense and different albums at the time.

MR: In the U.S., you moved over from Mercury Records to Arista, but you stayed on the same label for Squeezing Out Sparks in the UK.

GP: Well, basically, I got my record deal with Phonogram in England, it was all owned by Phillips. Mercury was the American branch they were affiliated with, so they got the first dibs on all of the artists that were signed in England on Phonogram. So, they picked me up in America, I was with them for three albums, and my manager was trying to extricate me, realizing it was a huge mistake to be on Mercury. It was sort of loaded with 40-year-old guys, which seemed very old at the time. They were quite happy to sell their back catalogue and weren't interested in a new band with strange material that they didn't understand. It didn't really fit the kind of corporate rock that was all over America, we just didn't fit. I guess I got out of the Mercury side of it before making Squeezing Out Sparks. My manager at the time, Dave Robinson, said before making Squeezing Out Sparks, "Why don't you make a whole record of hate songs about Mercury Records?" I obliged by writing one song, and I said, "Dave, I don't think I can do a whole album." We stayed with Phonogram in England for that next album, Squeezing Out Sparks. It came out on Arista, so it got a little complicated there. Arista put out, as a bootleg, the "Mercury Poisoning" single--there was sort of an industrial gray vinyl with a skull and crossbones on it. It was a promotional piece, I didn't think it was a good enough song for Squeezing Out Sparks, but it was sort of a lark. A lot of people ended up liking it apparently.

MR: I know people who thought that was a great single who worked at Mercury. And it had more than one meaning, right?

GP: It has a few references of Mercury being in oranges. There was something going on in the news about oranges having Mercury in them. I slipped a little bit of environmental stuff in there as well.

MR: Does the experience of making this live CD/DVD set, all that goes into it, make you want to follow it up with another?

GP: Touring with a band is a limited thing for me. We do two weeks on the East Coast, we fly to Chicago, do a gig there, and that's pretty much it. Once it's come out for me, it's old news a bit because I'm writing new songs. I'm very lucky to be able to continue to do that and be inspired by what I'm writing. I'm usually always looking one step ahead of things.

MR: You don't examine the best tracks of your last album for inspiration for new material?

GP: No, it's just like I start again. When I'm writing songs, it's like the first time. It's a mysterious process, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here. I bash around on the guitar and start getting melodic structures and throwing a few lyrics down. Sometimes, I will do that for a month and nothing is clicking, then, boom, I have a song in front of me. I think that's the great thing about continually being able to come up with stuff. Talking an overview of my career, I must mention there is a documentary of me right now. We had a screening in New York and a lot of the donors that put money into this came and flew in from all over. Three of the original members of The Rumour came, it actually turned out to be quite entertaining. People really loved it. That's in the can, the guys are looking for a festival to put it in before putting it on DVD. So, whether that will come out this year, I don't know. I'm looking forward to that and it has a great overview of my career, and some great clips of me and The Rumour, other artists being interviewed about me...I'm really looking to see how that goes down.

MR: I Have to ask you about a terrific song on another of your Razor & Tie albums, 12 Haunted Episodes called "Disney's America." That was around the time when Disney was looking at Virginia to do a theme park.

GP: I tell the story about that song when I do it on stage. I heard on the radio that Disney wanted to build a theme park next to the civil war battlefields in Manassas. There were a lot of environmentalists saying it was going to be an eyesore and disgusting. Disney said it was going to bring work to people, with people selling hot dogs. I thought it was going to be a done deal and I thought Disney would win. So, I wrote this song, which was a preemptive protest song. It turned out to be a preemptive redundant protest song, Disney scrapped their ideas and it got canned. I did that whole songwriter trick making it about different things. I made it about "Virginia" who could be a girl as well. I made it a lost love song, which covered for the fact that it was a preemptive redundant protest song. Disney didn't do a theme park, but the song is still a testament to their attempt.

MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?

GP: I never really took any advice so that's my advice. Don't listen to old geezers like me. (laughs) My advice to songwriters is to not listen to anyone in record companies like Mike Ragogna. Do your own thing and just take their money. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) I can't wait for all the out of context uses this quote gets. Thanks ol' pal... (laughs)

GP: (laughs) Cheers, Mike.

Tracks:
Chloroform
Turn It Into Hate
It's My Party (But I Won't Cry)
England's Latest Clown
Hole In The World
Life Gets Better*
Weather Report
Broken Skin
You Hit The Spot
My Love's Strong
Black Lincoln Continental
Blue Highways
Bring Me A Heart Again
Beancounter
Local Boys
Local Girls
White Honey
Snowgun*
Mercury Poisoning
1st Responder
Soul Shoes

*Not on CD

(transcribed by Theo Shier)