Charupakorn: You both have very strong musical personalities. What was the dynamic like recording “The Lost Chord?”
Townsend and Vai are both known for their expressive, larger-than-life performance styles. Here Townsend summons the crowd during his Ziltoid Live show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2015. Photo by Christie Goodwin
Vai: We both have very strong musical visions and aspirations for the kind of things we like to do. Back when I was starting to work on Sex and Religion, I was pretty focused on that vision—being the composer, the writer, and all that. I needed a great singer and when I heard Devin, I immediately thought, “This guy is great.” He was very young at the time and still formulating his own independence as a musician. I mean, you were, like, a teenager.
Townsend: Man, it’s that long ago? [Laughs.] You’re officially old, by the way.
Vai: I know. I know. [Laughs.] During that process, I worked with a lot of different people but I always felt like when I do my solo work, I have a very rigid approach—“this is my vision and something I want to focus on”—and everybody’s contributions came at various levels. I need to be the Svengali, so to speak. Oddly enough there wasn’t a lot of creative collaborating, with regards to songwriting or production.
Townsend: If I can play devil’s advocate for just a second, my god, dude, I was 19 years old and out of my league in so many conceivable ways that I think a concise musical vision was something that was far from my scope at that point. There’s something I wanted to say that I haven’t had the opportunity to say, and that’s when I was 16, I listened to the shit out of your records. I remember listening to you on [the now defunct radio show] Rockline and the whole works, man. I remember watching Crossroads in my parents’ bedroom and loved it. When I finally got together with you, it was such a public thing for me out of nowhere, and I think I was so desperate to have an identity that was separate from that, that my first reaction was to rebel against it all. To be like, “Fuck it. I don’t want anything to do with it because I want to be me.” The one thing I had going for me was total belligerence. I probably still have it and it’s a lot less entertaining in my mid 40s than it maybe was in my early 20s. But in terms of the Svengali-type control of everything, god, if there’s anybody that can relate to that, it’s me. So I think what you did at the time was what was necessary for that vision. I would have done the exact same thing.
Vai: I innately felt that what we did go through was appropriate.
Townsend: I totally agree. You become molded by your experiences in whichever way, and a lot of it for me has nothing directly to do with Steve, but just to do with my own reactions to things. Past the Sex and Religion experience, I didn’t want to be told how to do anything. That’s how that belligerence really played into my musical growth, which eventually became Strapping Young Lad, and a lot of things that were rooted in that kind of mentality.
Vai: I thought, “What the fuck could happen that could bring us back together?” So when I recorded “The Lost Chord,” I tried singing it, but I was just ruining the music, and a lot of times when I’m recording something with vocals, in the back of my mind I hear Devin. It’s just part of the joining at the hip thing. It did take me a lot to ask him if he would do the vocal, because he’s a visionary.
Townsend: You’d done a solo on Synchestra and a bunch of stuff for me with this Retinal Circus thing. A lot of music in this day and age is on the barter system as well. So when you were like, “Would you help me with this verse?” I was like, “Fuck. Yeah, dude, what do you need?”
Vai: Asking somebody to sing the lyrics you write is almost like an intrusion, and it wasn’t the optimum collaboration that I think could yield the greatest stuff, like where maybe we’re actually starting from scratch. But I sent him the stuff and I guess it worked for him well enough to where he felt comfortable singing the verse.
Townsend: When it came time for “The Lost Chord,” I was apprehensive at first only because 20-some odd years in, it carries a lot more weight than simply doing a vocal performance for somebody. It’s like the whole experience with Steve was something that started my foray into all of this, so I didn’t want to take it lightly.
Vai: In the back of my mind, I thought, “If Devin got a hold of this and went to the wall with it, it would be astounding.” And I just said, flippantly, “And if there’s anything else you want to do on it …” I didn’t expect it, but when I got the music back I had this moment of clarity. It was a great realization for me, and what I realized is that my ideas are not always the best. Whenever you write something, there are always these little delicacies that are important to you as a writer.
Photo by Frank White
That might only mean something to you, and it might just be the way one note flips or the way a chord hits the melody. It’s so rare that you feel that somebody else is hearing those little sweet spots and doing something with them emotionally. But when I heard what Devin did, it was so obvious to me that not only was he able to hone in on these very intimate kind of sweet spots, but what he did on those exact moments with his voice just was better than anything that I think could’ve happened if I was sitting there going, “Okay, now try this, try this.” When I got the piece back, it was a total overhaul of my perspective of everything.
Townsend: In addition to the trepidation of revisiting something that had a profound emotional impact, there was a sense of, “If we’re going to do it again, this is where things have evolved to. This is the point where I am as a musician and a person, and where you are as a musician and a person. Can we make this work in a way that pays homage to the original experience between us while incorporating where we’ve gone?” And for me it was like, “Let me do it on my own. Do it in a way where I could hear my voice with consideration for that fact that I don’t want to shy away from what it is that you’re trying to achieve.”