(Left) “The one thing that doesn’t change,” says guitarist Steve Vai, “is that the thing you’ll always need is an artist or creator to have some kind of inspiration.” Photo by Larry DiMarzio. (Right) “It’s trying to become an actualized version of whatever the heck you are in this lifetime that just provides constant friction,” says Devin Townsend
about his creative process. Photo by Inside Out Music.

Put together two creative giants and you’ll probably get a masterpiece, along with massive doses of chaos and conflict. That was the case when guitar legend Steve Vai and former Strapping Young Lad’s frontman and prog-metal icon Devin Townsend teamed up in 1993 for Vai’s Sex and Religion. Though Vai has referred to Townsend as one of the only two musical geniuses he’s ever worked with, it was a challenging experience for both. “We’re sort of like opposite sides of a coin. We get along but we give each other ulcers,” summarized Townsend in a 1993 interview.

The two first connected by accident when Townsend sent a demo of his project Noisescapes to Relativity Records, Vai’s label at the time. Vai was looking for a vocalist, and though Relativity signed Noisescapes, they also suggested Townsend connect with Vai. He did, and ended up singing on Sex and Religion, nailing everything to perfection even though he’d only heard the music the day before the recording session. But this wasn’t exactly the happy rock star dream come true. While scoring a gig with the biggest guitar hero in the world should’ve been a high point, Townsend’s tenure was marred by the conflict between his own strong musical vision and his passion for Noisescapes, and Vai’s unwavering pursuit of perfection. After the experience, Townsend swore off working under anybody’s direction.

Decades later, these two creative giants again crossed paths. In 2005, Vai lent a hand to Townsend’s Synchestra album, and in 2013, was cast as narrator on Townsend’s live album, The Retinal Circus. When Vai decided to record this year’s Modern Primitive, which features music he wrote in the period between his debut solo album Flex-Able and his groundbreaking Passion and Warfare, he enlisted Townsend to sing on a song entitled “The Lost Chord.” For both musicians, there was a lot of historical weight attached to this recording, and, in a way, it symbolized both closure and new beginnings.

Modern Primitive was recently released as a double-CD package along with Passion and Warfare 25th Anniversary Edition. Townsend just released Transcendence, and his autobiography, Only Half There, is on the way. Vai and Townsend recently convened to chat about their new projects and clear the air about their touchy past. Part guitar geekery, part therapy, Premier Guitar was there for the ride.

Steve Vai: It’s nice to be able to do this. It gave me another opportunity to listen to the record.

Devin Townsend: For me as well, with your record. What number album is this for you, man?

Vai: I lose count. Everybody has different counting systems—how many studio albums, how many albums.

Townsend: You just let it rip on Modern Primitive. Is that all old stuff or is it new stuff as well?

Vai: Aw, thanks. Actually, it’s funny because after I finished my first record, Flex-Able, I put a group together and was writing all this weird music, and recording as much as I could. I got as far as tracking about 12 songs and writing a bunch more. It was an obtuse little band, but had really great musicians. Then I joined Alcatrazz and got offered a real record deal. That’s when I kind of put all that stuff on the shelf and started working on Passion and Warfare. I always felt like, “One day I’m going to finish that record.”

“A lot of times when I’m recording something with vocals, in the back of my mind I hear Devin.”—Steve Vai

So I went back and picked out about six or seven tracks that were tracked—drums, bass, some rhythm guitar—and then I took a bunch of songs that I’d written back then but never tracked, and recorded them. Then I finished those older tracks. If a person listens to Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare, it’s like two totally different guys. That’s why I called it Modern Primitive. It’s really like a peek into the missing link between those two records. It’s like Cro-Magnon Vai, as I like to say.

Townsend: As you were talking, I was thinking that it was a happy accident that the music industry went to shit.

Vai: Laughs.

Townsend: Because now there’s no reason to chase radio, and at that point you’re just like, “Well what am I going to do?” It seems like this great weight to be liberated from. That need to please that sort of imaginary marketplace. If you’re just like, “It’s going to sell what it’s going to sell anyway, so I might as well go to town.”

Vai: The thing I noticed is how free and innocent I was when I recorded all that music. I had no expectations, which is really a great way to make a record. Then you’re not trying to please anybody other than yourself. That’s all I did back then—like, “What can I do to entertain myself?” In some respects, I drifted away from that here and there over the years, but I’ve gotten back to it. Because that’s really the value in creating anything—pleasing yourself first.

Townsend: I don’t know what it’s like for you, Steve, but there’s a lot of prostitution going on, on my front. I take it where I can get it at this point, because I want to make a symphony. Ultimately if I had to define the process and the theory behind it, I’m an absolute obsessive perfectionist that has never gotten anything right and will never get anything right, fundamentally. So it’s this undercurrent of irritation that propels it.

Steve Vai calls Devin Townsend “visionary,” but if there is anyone who has done it all with a guitar, it’s Vai. Here’s Vai eating strings on the Generation Axe tour in May 2016. Photo by Ken Settle

Vai: You’re a visceral composer! Dealing with symphonies can be a big boy game when it comes to outlay. There are various ways to get that sound. One is obviously the synthetic way, with samples and whatnot, and sometimes that can be really cool. But if you write orchestral music and have a lot of articulation and dynamics and flow to it, then you gotta get an orchestra. But these days, even that’s getting a little easier in that there are more and more orchestras that are hungry to work with young composers coming from a completely different part of the playground. And I’ve had the great opportunity to work with a whole bunch of orchestras. Even on my last tour I played with six different orchestras, and I actually got paid [laughs]. And they were playing my music. I was able to record it and use it. If you’re writing a studio record and you need an orchestra, there’s almost no way around having to pay exorbitant amounts with the kind of complexity involved with creating the scores and the parts, and dishing them out. So I’ve never really done that. I’ve only created events with an orchestra where I can have them play music, and then I can record it.

PG contributor Joe Charupakorn: Devin, while Steve went to Berklee College of Music, you pretty much became a musician from your late teens on. How did you learn to write orchestral music?
Townsend: I have no idea. If I was to articulate any part of my musical process that’s connected to theory, I think I’d be emotionally retarded since as far back as I can remember. It’s also interesting that above and beyond the technical acumen or the options that come into it, it’s the friction that creates it. It’s trying to become an actualized version of whatever the heck you are in this lifetime that just provides constant friction, and I often wonder if the end goal of being a musician is to not have anything to write about any more. Because at that point you’re clear completely [laughs].