Interview:Steve Vai talks to Musician's Friend about Favored Nations



In 1979, a 19-year-old student at Boston's Berklee College of Music sent a transcription of Frank Zappa's incredibly complex "Black Page" to Zappa for his perusal. A duly impressed Zappa hired the young Steve Vai as a transcriber and soon had him playing in the band as his "stunt guitarist."

Vai was incandescent on Zappa's six early '80s albums, navigating intricate turn-on-a-dime song structures with aplomb. Anybody with ears could hear that he was a force to be reckoned with. Guitar Player magazine chose his "The Attitude Song" for its premiere Soundpage insert and published a monthly column featuring Vai's transcriptions.

In '84 Vai put out his first solo album, Flex-able, and a quarter of a million people bought it. That same year he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz to good effect. But the band's fortunes were waning and when David Lee Roth split from Van Halen, Vai joined him as the instrumental fire for Roth's solo band. That kept Vai in the big stadiums, where he stayed throughout the '80s, touring with Roth and, in '89, Whitesnake.

In '85 Vai became a celluloid hero (or villain, in this case) when the movie Crossroads featured him on-screen as the devil's number one picker in a guitar head-cutting duel with Ralph Macchio. The soundtrack of the duel begins with Ry Cooder playing Macchio's half on slide and ends with Vai playing both parts. (The whole amazing dual can be heard on The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1. [Favored Nations 2002].)

The '90s saw Vai really blossom as a solo act. 1990's Passion and Warfare astounded guitar players everywhere with an entirely unprecedented display of raw, emotional intensity combined with supernatural technical prowess. (Check out "For the Love of God" to hear what some hail as the most amazing guitar solo ever recorded.) Eight additional solo records have followed in regular succession.

And now Vai's boundless energy has resulted in Favored Nations, a new record label featuring works by such musical luminaries as Eric Johnson, Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, Frank Gambale, and of course Vai himself. (Click here for the complete Favored Nations catalog.) Musician's Friend caught up with Vai at his Lake Tahoe headquarters to ask him about the label.

MUSICIAN'S FRIEND: Let's talk about the birth of Favored Nations. What first inspired you to create your own label?

STEVE VAI: I actually started my first label back in 1983. It was basically just to release my own music. I'm very resourceful and I did a little research to discover the infrastructure of the music industry and how distribution works. I went to work and made a record, then I called and cultivated relationships with various distributors. They'd take a couple hundred here, a couple hundred there. Eventually when I started to get more press the records started to sell more.

I was always fascinated with the idea of having a record company and I was just waiting for the right moment. Although I like all forms of music (there's even a lot of pop music that I like) I always felt that there was an audience-a very loyal following-of people who enjoy more musician-oriented type music. I don't mean to say that it's inaccessible. But I know there's an audience out there that seeks out that kind of stuff.

I met a guy-his name is Ray Scherr-and we became good friends. Ray built the Guitar Center chain up to about 28 stores and sold it about 5 or 6 years ago. He's a real music lover and a man of real integrity. We decided to start this label. We both had very similar ideas of how we'd like to structure it. The idea was to create a label that cultivated the potential of very musically oriented people. And so far, so good. The kind of artists we've signed are the kind we're very comfortable with. We're not really set up or interested in trying to break trendy acts in pop radio. But we are starting to branch out a bit. We just started an imprint called Favored Nations Acoustics which releases solo acoustic music, whether it be piano, guitar, or whatever. It launches with four releases next month and it's just unbelievable stuff. I've got a record from Tommy Emmanuel, who's a tremendous acoustic guitar player from Australia; Peppino D' Agostino, who's Italian; Pete Huttlinger from the Midwest-the guy's amazing-and Andy Summers.

MF: Oh really?

SV: Yeah, he's done a record with John Etheridge. It's beautiful music and I know there's an audience for it. It's not a huge audience but it's a beautiful type of music. Major labels are not as interested in cultivating these kind of artists. But they're very valuable and they create beautiful music. So that's what the label's really about.

MF: Aside from your choice of artists, how does Favored Nations operate in a way that's different from other, bigger labels?

SV: We are a small label, basically. And we operate very similarly in the sense that we have little divisions that take care of different things. I've learned from the past that the best way to be successful is to surround yourself with great people who know what they're doing. I delegate responsibilities and basically do the A&R, cut all the deals, and talk to the lawyers and the managers. I oversee a lot of the stuff. But I have an assistant, Jason Feinberg, and he oversees a lot of the day-to-day stuff. And then John Digilio handles all the production. And we have a marketing guy, David Counter. And a multimedia team and also a sales team. So we have all the basic elements in place.

I guess the way that we function a little differently-and I'm not sure if this is different than most labels-but we don't have to have hit music. We don't have to sell millions of records to stay in business. I don't plan on growing it to that kind of a level. Because once you're growing like that you have too many responsibilities. The record business is fickle; it's here today, gone later today. And if you grow too big too soon and you don't have a string of hits to tide you over, you're going to be in trouble.

That's the problem with a lot of major labels. They grow, grow, grow, and then if they have a thin year it can destroy them. They've got too much overhead. And that cuts into the integrity of the music they sign. They start looking for the billing, which basically means either an act that they know is going to sell a certain amount . . .

There's a formula involved in releasing music. And if you can figure out that formula you can make it work. But the majors then are forced into trying to find these acts that are going to break and sell a million, two million, three million, and then they're discarded. Because they're just little pop sensations. We're not about that. I'm not interested in doing that at all. I don't draw a salary from this label and neither does my partner. We just contribute, and all the profits are just turned back around into the label. I'm a musician. That's my primary function.

The deals we cut are very different than what majors do. We do more co-venture deals which means we pay for anything that's necessary, like the making of the record, the artwork, the marketing, promo, et cetera. And then we recoup that off the top of the sales and we split the profit with the artist. If you're familiar with record deals, that's pretty unorthodox compared to most labels that pay an artist a paltry percentage that most expenses end up being recouped from before the artist even profits.

MF: So it's a great deal for the artist.

SV: Yeah. If the artist sells records it's a great deal.

MF: And you certainly haven't had any trouble attracting a lot of very well-known people.

SV: Yeah. It's been very good; indeed, we're very happy. The only problem that I have is having to say 'no' to people. Because people are very passionate about their work. It means everything to them. When somebody works hard to create something it's a reflection of who and what they are. And when it's either not received well or not accepted or turned down most artists take it very personally. They feel like it's them that's not being accepted. So a lot of times I come across music that's just not right for us and I have to turn it down, turn it away. And that's the difficult part.

MF: I've heard you spend a lot of time listening to new artists.

SV: Actually I do. I sit in the office for some time every day. And I answer my email-which is an extraordinary amount-and I listen to music.

MF: It's amazing that you have time to run a whole label and still work on your musical life.

SV: Well, I'm a good delegator of time. I wake up, I get the kids to school, I'm in the office by 9:00 after the gym and I work until 1:00 or 2:00 or so and then I go home and I'm in the studio till like midnight.

MF: What important lessons have you learned since you started the label?

SV: Micro managing. You really have to break things down into small elements. You've got to see the big picture, break it down into small elements and just be relentless until you achieve the goal of the big picture. Obviously sometimes it works and sometimes the big picture is a long-term goal that you've got to slowly chip away at. And I've learned you have to have good people working with you. You cannot tolerate incompetence.

MF: And so you don't, I presume.

SV: No, I don't.

MF: Do you find yourself wanting to get more involved-especially when people are recording at Mothership-getting sucked into other people's stuff?

SV: Well, it's easy. Sometimes I become very passionate about it because I like it. But the label is about freedom. And I only sign artists that have the chutzpah to create their visions on their own or with a team or with a producer. But I'm not about trying to pair up talentless people that look good with people that know what they're doing. So if the artist would like to work with me I try to make myself available. Obviously I can't go in and produce every artist that I work with. That would be impossible. If there's anything I can lend in the way of advice or A&R work, I'm happy to.

But a lot of artists when they record their work they don't want to know anything from the label. I signed Alan Holdsworth. He's been working on a record for a year and a half. I've heard nothing. And he prefers it that way. But there's another artist I have, Greg Koch-an amazing guitar player. I'm working pretty closely with him on putting ideas together. But they come from him. It varies.

MF: Is Mothership really closely associated with the label or is it still just kind of your own-

SV: Well, the Mothership is my studio, but I offer it to artists. And a lot of artists take it. There's a lot of outboard projects that go on there. But then some of our artists work there. I mixed the Carlton/Lukather record there. And Johnny A.'s going to probably do his next record there. The Yardbirds recorded there.

MF: What's your vision for the future of the label?

SV: Well, I hope to build a catalog of respectable music and brand the label as one that people can turn to for quality music, musicianship; and also create these little sub-labels like Favored Nations Acoustic. We have Favored Nations Cool that we're going to launch probably within the next few months. That's sort of like anything jazz oriented, smooth jazz or hardcore jazz, anything in that field. And the only other division I want to open eventually is a heavy rock division that deals with talented rock artists. But that's a tough game, rock music. That's an expensive big-boy game. So we're walking very slowly into that realm. Other than that, I hope to build the label to a point where it's got a good flow of artists, a good catalog; to get it to the point where it can slowly grow into a nice comfortable boutique-type label . . . And then sell it for 40 million [laughs].

MF: Is there anything else you want Musician's Friend's customers to know about the label?

SV: We're not solely focused on guitar, but at this point it seems like most of our artists are guitar players. When I listen to a guitar player I listen with the same ears that listened to Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Danny Gatton, Joe Satriani, and artists like that. So if I'm going to sign an artist that plays guitar, chances are they're wonderful, beautiful, or tremendous players. Most of the people who are shopping in your catalog are guitar lovers. I'm uncomfortable trying to sell myself or sell things, but it would behoove them to increase their collections with Favored Nations music if they are lovers of incredible guitar players and just good music.