Crossroads: Steve Vai
Pivotal moments propelling musicians from obscurity to infamy
by Mark E. Waterbury
Is it really surprising that a guitarist who cut his teeth as one of the most respected sidemen in the music industry has firmly established himself as one of the most respected solo recording artists and performers around today? Not when that particular gentleman's name is Steve Vai. This prolific ax slinger first woke the music world to his presence playing for prime acts such as Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. But Steve was meant to be a solo artist, and after those early days as playing in other musicians' bands his prime avenue for presenting his talents to the masses has been the quote-unquote solo album, solidifying his stature as a modern guitar deity and prompting his fans to delve into his earlier material as well. Steve was always known for having a great ear for music; at the age of four, he figured how to play melodies the first time he sat down at an old Spinet organ thus implanting an early career ideal. And in the past couple of years, Steve has turned that ear to other talented musicians, launching an indie label that provides music lovers with the music of many fine players that may have not otherwise received notice.
"I had the natural ear, but not the natural talent to play," Steve recalls of his formative years. "I had to work really hard at that and wanted to be a composer, but when I started listening to progressive bands like Queen and Led Zeppelin, I became interested in the guitar." Steve learned the six-string himself at first, and then later he wound up attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, where guitarist Joe Satriani was among his instructors. "I've always been fascinated with music theory, and I thought if I went to a music school, I could meet a lot of interesting people and learn about music. As it turned out, most of what I learned academically I knew before, but going to Berklee did allow me to get jamming experiences with other people and put different bands together." In his late teens, Steve also met some people at a recording studio in New York City, one of whom gave him the phone number of one of Steve's favorite musicians Frank Zappa. Steve actually tried calling Frank once every nine months or so and always seemed to find out that Frank was busy on tour or with something else. Then one day during the time he was at Berklee, Steve made one of his calls and Frank picked up the phone. "I was about eighteen years old at the time, and he allowed me to send him a tape of my playing and some transcripts I had done of his music, and he was very impressed and hired me to transcribe music and wanted me to try out for the band. But when I told him I was eighteen, he thought that that was too young to actually play in his band." Transcribing music began to take up all of Steve's time, which eventually caused his departure from Berklee and his relocation first back to New York and then to Los Angeles where he worked in Frank's studio. There Steve finally was able to prove himself as a worthy member despite his youth, and he joined Frank's band, recording a number of albums with him including "Tinseltown Rebellion" and "Thing-Fish." While recording and touring with Frank, Steve found time to record a solo album called "Flex-able." "That really started to get me a reputation, because there was some music on "Flex-able" that was pretty inspiring for guitar players. There was some pretty psychotic playing on there, and I started to get kind of an underground rep for that." With very little airplay or publicity, "Flex-able" sold almost a quarter of a million copies, and Steve's burgeoning reputation first allowed him to replace Yngwie Malmsteen in the band Alcatraz. That brief stint brought notice not only to more fans but to former Van Halen lead singer, David Lee Roth. Steve was tabbed to join David's solo band along with bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Greg Bissonette. "I learned a lot working with Dave. He's the consummate front-man, and it was a great experience for me. It made me literally famous overnight in the guitar realm. Touring arenas you can't help but to learn a lot." After two albums and tours with David, Steve then joined the "supergroup" lineup of Whitesnake, recording the multi-platinum "Slip Of the Tongue" with them. But after nearly a decade of playing in bands led by other people, Steve realized he wanted to return to his solo recording. "I knew that someday I would return to doing solo music even though I really enjoyed my time with Dave. It was getting back to my roots and my real desire to create a specific type of music that transcended conventional pop." Steve kicked off the 90's with "Passion and Warfare," considered by many as a guitar classic. He continued to record and perform throughout that decade, increasing both his fan base and his credibility as one of rock's top guitarists and most intense live performers. Toward the end of the 90's, Joe Satriani called Steve and asked him to join a concept he developed called G3. Steve agreed and since that time he has performed for the annual tour which along with Steve and Joe always features a third prominent guitarist, having included Eric Johnson and Dream Theatre's John Petrucci among others. Then as the twenty-first century was being ushered in, Steve noticed that the type of music he and a number of his peers performed was not being received warmly by most of the record labels, so he decided it was time to do something about it. "I always felt that having a record label was in my cards. Through the years, I have learned the infrastructure of the music industry and I have come to realize that there is a market and an audience for very musician-oriented high quality music. That's the market I made a living on and there is not really a label out there that caters to that market." Steve met Ray Scherr, and together they launched Favored Nations in 2000. Since that time the label has grown to around a dozen artists including the likes of Billy Sheehan, Stuart Hamm, Dweezil Zappa and Pierre Bensusan. "Ray and I had very similar concepts with the type of label we wanted to build and the artists we wanted to have. And the kind of deals that we do are very different from conventional record deals, which are usually very lopsided. The deals we do with artists are co-ventures and profit shares. The label does not make as much money but I'm a successful musician and my partner is a successful businessman so we put everything back into the label." Steve is also planning on launching an acoustic division of the label in the near future. He continues to record his solo material with his current lineup that includes Billy Sheehan, the first time he has worked with the bass phenom since the David Lee Roth Days. A box set was also recently released on Vai's Light Without Heat Corp. and is a veritable musical history of Steve Vai including music from all the groups he has performed with as well as the solo forays. "It was something I had been chipping away at doing for years. The only way to get things done is to finish them so I had to finish this and was going to release it on another label. I'm kind of a control freak and I need complete creative control and you can loose that if you put your works in the hand of a major. So at the last minute I decided to release it on my own and I'm kind of stunned by the great response." With the solo career, the record label and the annual G3 tours keeping Steve busy, he is loving the fact that he is doing what he has true passion for. "I've been happy at every point in my career because I always feel that no matter what I'm doing I have the ability to make music and that's something to be very happy about. I'm extremely fortunate in the sense that I can go to my studio and create something and there is a group of people out there that want to hear it; that's quite an honor. There are always the battles and the demons, but you just take them as they come. And there is way too much I would like to do musically. I would need five more lifetimes to do everything I would like to do." :->
For more info about Steve Vai, please visit his web site at http://www.vai.com.
Industry Profile - Ruta Sepetys, Personal Manager
by Mark E. Waterbury
Detroit is often called "Rock City" especially after the song with that name was released by KISS back in 1976. The make-up clad foursome's concerts in Detroit's Cobo Hall were some of their most famous performances, and one of those shows really put the bite on a young Ruta Sepetys. The effect it had on her was however different from many who watch a top band perform and dream of being on stage in front of thousands themselves someday. "I was always interested in what was going on behind the scenes, and with a big performance how it was put together and what was involved in making that happen." Ruta actually got a taste of the business side of music at a young age, as she booked her brother's band while she was in junior high school. She learned to do this as she went, calling primarily other schools in the Detroit area to book his cover band. Several years later Ruta would find herself in California, where she began to work as an assistant for Winston Simone Management, who was working with Desmond Child as well other songwriters, producers and a couple comedians. She worked as an assistant for a "wonderful woman" who had decided in two months that she had wanted to relocate to the New York Office, leaving no job for Ruta. "At the time, I was really desperate to break into the business, and really enjoyed working with these people. I thought they were extremely creative and generous people. So I made them and offer telling them I'd work seven days a week for free, and if they didn't like me, they could fire me and if it works out, then great. And luckily it worked out." Ruta worked hard to learn the ins and outs of management, working her way up to being an associate in the company, primarily with Desmond Child. "Winston and Desmond were my mentors. They were my first exposure to the music industry and management. When I look back and see the gamut of people that are involved in artist management, I realized how lucky I was to be working with them. They are extremely generous and encouraging, and they actually prompted me to go out and find my own management clients." Ruta heeded the advice and in early 1990 while out at a club in L.A. to scout a band, she watched the performance of another band called Lit. She was so enamored by the show and their potential that she signed them as management clients. A couple of years later, Ruta found out that one of her favorite musicians Steve Vai was working on a project called Bad for Good on Interscope Records. "I had always been impressed with Steve's musicality and his intelligence, so I went to Desmond and told him Steve was working on a project where he needed songs and maybe some co-writes. So I encouraged Desmond to write with Steve, and Desmond came back and was so impressed with how highly creative and talented Steve was." This led to Steve signing on as a management client of Winston Simone. Then in 1994, the company decided to close their office in L.A. and operate out of their offices in New York and Miami. Ruta was not very keen on the idea of moving to Miami and decided to branch out on her own. "It was a very amicable split with Winston Simone. They were very supportive knowing that I wanted to start my own company. They gave me their blessing and they also invested in my company which is almost unheard of." Ruta also spoke to Steve Vai, who wanted to keep their relationship intact. Steve, Lit and a songwriter named Danny Peck stayed with Ruta and thus was the birth of Sepetys Entertainment Group. The initial roster presented an interesting cross section of management responsibilities, working with an established talent like Steve Vai and then a baby band like Lit. "With someone like Steve who I have so much respect for, he created his name for himself. No one can take credit for his success other than Steve. He made very wise decisions where other artists would have made poor decisions. I'm fortunate that at the time I started with Steve, he really wanted to be a solo artist, which was a great time for me to get in on the ground floor with that. One of our first goals was to establish a base for Steve as a worldwide touring artist - working his records market by market and putting together his tours and press campaigns. With Lit, it was an artist development process. They are very creative and they work very hard, and we worked and worked to get them going. We had one indie deal that went under, but we parleyed that into a deal with RCA and ended up with the number one modern rock song in 1999. So it was two completely different acts, different types of music, even different industry contacts." Ruta also started working with Eric Sardinas, a delta blues guitarist whom Ruta's brother had recommended, and a film and television composer Nils Nilson. She loves the idea of being in on the ground floor of the various workings of a musicians professional life. "The manager is the closest to the artist, and therefore you are privy to ideas in their earliest stages. Steve played his idea for his latest "Alive in an Ultra World" for me at a party at his house. He gave me the headphones and said, "You gotta hear this!" And I listened and I just knew it was going to be fabulous. And it's the same thing with Lit. They called me one night about midnight from their rehearsal studio, and said they just wrote a new song and they played it for me to see what I thought. They played the opening riff of "My Own Worst Enemy." And of course that song went on to become a worldwide hit, and to be part of that is something that I almost cannot explain. I feel so fortunate to work with people who are so talented." Working with Lit as they finally made it big has given Ruta a perspective on what it takes for a band to be successful. "They are talented, disciplined and hard working guys, and that is the first step in a band. Do all the band members have a common goal and are you willing to work for it? In Lit's case it took ten years, and that is a long time. They were very dedicated. I think musicians need to realize it takes a long time. In the cases that it does happen overnight most of the time it will not last. For artists that want a career, they have to realized how much dedication it really takes." :->