I have worked for Steve Vai and side by side with Steve Vai for over three years.
It is something that I am very proud of and it had obviously opened the way to the demanding and intricate world of networking and is a focal part of my “Bio” on advertisements and sponsorships.
However, it is a period of my life that I don’t often talk to many people or in detail. At all.
I do it in front of a steak or a coffee, on some special occasion meeting with some distant and special friend, or I sometimes I let some story out during my masterclasses, after being pushed by some super-curious participant who wants to hear “stories of famous artists” … and honestly by now I know exactly which story to tell, it is like having an ammo-cartridge of the few anecdotes that I want or I CAN tell, the ones which people may like.
Exactly… “I CAN”…
Because, apart from the excerpts of daily life that I lived for months at Vai mansion – and which are in themselves useless to tell (if not to be lived hour after hour, day after day) – there are many small events, moments of human exchange, daily “accidents” that cannot be put into words in writing … and perhaps I will continue to treasure those happenings privately and to tell about only in rare to my closest friends still on the most special occasions.
I worked just over 3 years with Steve Vai, I was saying.
I spent the very first 2 months exclusively as “Second Engineer”, at the former Mothership, the “historical” and mythological studio in the Hollywood hills -originally the home of the Vai family- where Steve recorded all those beautiful things that we we all love, from Passion & Warfare to Ultrazone (with some exceptions on the process on the latter).
Considering that I was a young guitarist, just “graduated” from the RIT (recording) department at Musicians Institute, but, above all, just graduated also on guitar at the GIT department -plus the fact of being a good curious Italian fellow- I literally bombarded the first engineer Neil with tons questions; and when I could, I use to drift around the 4-floor house\Mothership … all of that!
(Btw, Steve already moved out and no longer was living in the Hollywood hills)
There would be an entire chapter to devote to Mothership, how much I learned myself of this business and all the magic that you were able to capture “coming out” from every wall… and maybe when I get inspired I will write a chapter about it, who knows…
Because to me writing is about inspiration, it is about being somehow inspired to do it, for sure.
And it is the recent inspiration that pushes me to make this first solitary chapter of one of my (im)probable blog pages: I got all the thrust on doing that by the genuine and shining curiosity that I perceived when I told some of these stories from people and friends participating on a recent live Instagram streaming I did … and one full night of thoughts convinced me to start putting down some lines (and to make my webmaster happy, since who he’s been pushing me to do it for years!)
And I have to admin and confess you that sooner or later I will talk about other moments of “that” life: the wonderful sessions at Mothership with the greatest guitarists and guest sound engineers, the way the Mothership was, how I went from working between Mothership and Favored Nations and Casa Vai (Harmony Hut) until working as Steve’s assistant on a regular basis.
But also about the most curious technical details, on the sound engineers and guitar players point of view: for example I remember spending a good hour with Steve explaining’ to me in details how he builds up his stereo delays for his solos and how Eddie (!) or other players instead would built their own sound… a real personal lesson from Mr. Vai …
But also I will talk about the Live at the Astoria London, the making of the Archives, my transcribing work on music staff for Steve, the Frank Zappa book given to me…
Now it’s the time, however, to talk about the “Ibanez Jem’s broken headstock”, which in the IG live streming I was talking about lcreated a certain buzz and that inspired me to all this writing process!
First of all there is not so much to say about it, huh… so why does this Ibanez headstock story have a particular place in my memories?
Because it is one of the very few physical objects that remind me of that time of my life.
Of course, it’s OBVIOUSLY nice to read my name on some albums and DVDs from Vai and Favored Nations label: but that is work, very satisfactory, yes, making me proud, yes, sweaty, yes (!).
But the heart is a different matter…
And today, in 2020, where smartphones make better videos than expensive cameras, where we can travel virtually “everywhere” from our sofa and where anyone has now acquired the same speed of a rocket in taking selfies with his beloved artist randomly met on the street and posting it in real time on 14 social networks altogether….
…. well, all of that did not exist back then, it was not even foreseen that and one could consider himself lucky to have a camera with him ready for such unexpected encounting… I do only have a “selfie” with Steve in the studio at the time of the writing of “K’m-pee-du-wee” (and the term “selfie” was not yet invented and universally recognized), made with a roll camera: a selfie of which I could not verify the quality for obvious reasons and that obviously, once printed days later on photographic paper, I found irreparably … blurred! Oh well…
But I still have that one selfie, you bet I have it.
I loved the daily life at the Vai house, working from 10 am to midnight on all weekdays: having a quick lunch with a sandwich -a sandwich that the then housekeeper Monica helped me to prepare in a hurry in the kitchen- and having dinner around a table, Italian style, with the whole family. Steve, Pia and the children.
Sometimes even with Steve’s mom from NYC, the XXXXXX sweet Theresa.
Or have a chat with his sister Pam.
Or drive his black Nissan Z with fluorescent green edges, with the plate “UR 777” (YOU ARE 777) …
And the more I deeply think of these times, the more I recover many memories … if in my teenage hood they had told me what I would have lived I wouldn’t believed it, I could not have believed it…
And by looking back on those days, nowadays, actually helps me to retrace them, not to forget them, to recover some important memories bringing them back to my daily life; my life now buried by the thought of work commitments, by the fancy software plug-in, by email working, by amplifier emulators … but “THOSE” memories that are part of the “engine” that keeps me running and spinning today.
So… here we go…
Guitar headstock. Broken. Ibanez. White. From a Jem model (unspecified).
By Steve Vai.
with a personal message.
One day in November (or December, I don’t remember) of a warm Los Angelino winter time spent at Mothership -only a few days after attending the audition for drummers held by Steve and Billy (Sheehan) with a guy named Jeremy Colson- finally I decide to clean up some mess, to kill time since it was one of “those” days …
And considering that I am in the studio from 9 in the morning to help Steve in the first draft of what it will become the Real Illusions album but also considering that sometimes Steve himself loves to be alone in the control room, I decide to re-activate myself to spend my time in a different way.
So during such as “downtime”, after already have watched THREE times in a row the entire Beatles DVD Anthology box in the small lounge of the studio, it is time to do something else: I can even go in the live room, full nice micro-microphone already set and “ready to go”, therefore remains … the storage room below!
Steve has been telling me for quite some time now how it was impossible -due to the chaos that had created over the years- to access the small room attached to this storage place, a room where there were a few spare electrical and electronic parts but also much else.
“Armed” with a healthy will and, above all, very aware that in reality a messy environment is annihilating to the eye but a couple of good hours are enough to clean it up all: so I quietly went to work downstairs always paying attention to a possible screaming call “Enrrrrrrricooooo” by Steve, from the forest of cables of the control room…
I’m not going to tell you how much garbage I found in the form of empty and badly folded cartons, plastic packaging, pieces of wood (!)… in less than an hour -in my full full-throttle frantic mode- I do total a clean up, finally accessing to this phantom “back room”.
And … good God … how much stuff … I’m not gonna talk about all the condensers and electronic parts of compressors, mic-pres or API consoles; but it would deserve a whole chapter to talk about guitar knobs (of all – ALL! – possible and imaginable colors), pick-ups of all types and colors.
All these objects surrounds a well organised working counter, a counter in which I later discovered, Nordregg occasionally rightly hung out in there.
And also there were guitar bodies but above all, guitar necks … with floral inlays, simple or colored dots, truncated pyramids … all the imagery of years of music magazines and album covers studied down by me to very the last detail … it was all there…
Among these “porn” items I find a white Jem headstock, accidentally broken diagonally between the nut and the first fret, with one tuning peg of another color added on the fly.
I put it aside.
I finish my patrol tour, put all the excess cardboard and garbage outside the house to become the next burden of the Hollywood garbage truck service, and I go back upstairs to the studio.
At the very first coffeebreak that Steve takes I grab him almost by the hand (!) and take him “downstairs” … becoming happy to finally see a usable clean place and not a trash incinerator facility, and entering with me into the room of wonders, I show him the headstock.
(I don’t forget to tell you that on that occasion he also gave me an unobtainable and unfindable Ibanez POGO pick-up, which he experimented with the Evolution first series on the album Sex and Religion ……….)
We bring it in the control room, Steve tells me of an unspecified gig during which his guitar broke and despite the interventions they tried to do, in the end they let the initial crack continue in its total breaking effect of the neck: eventually it was decided anyway to keep the headstock since it was a memory for Steve and it ended up, among the thousand things, in the middle of that “bundle” of objects, forgotten.
Since I was not accustomed to such requests (and I still I am not like that), it took courage to me to ask Steve to sign it for me: I realized that I had been working with him for over a year now and that I didn’t have the smallest “souvenir” as a fan.
So he sat in his black armchair with me standing in front of him, he had a good healthy laugh about my request – unforgettable in his light metallic flavour and a distinct tone -, he looked straight at me for 2 seconds pupil-against-pupil, then he looked for a console marker, and he didn’t just sign it:
Down here, in the picture you can see … what remains in my mind and heart? The fact that he took the time to write these heartfelt words, totally spontaneous despite having such little space to write on, by starting with the way he affectionately used to call me: “Ennnnriko”, accentuating the Italian-ness of my name and the Italian-ness of its pronunciation.
Oh yes, because for him I was, in order:
• “Ennriko” during work
• “My little buddy” (sometimes)
• “Ennnnnnnnnriko” if he was in the mood for jokes, anecdotes to tell me or simply in a carefree good mood.
… so here we go:
“Ennnnriko. Thank you very much. You are the coolest. Steve Vai. “