MIKE STERN'S ALBUM, Big Neighborhood, features Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. We covered a lot of ground in my interview with Mike Stern. Here's a taste:
When recording Vai and Johnson, were you guys all in the same room together?
Yeah, and that’s really important. Someone suggested that they could just “fly in” their tracks, but I don’t even know what that is. I don’t have a computer or a cell phone. But I do know that having musicians overdub their tracks has never worked for me. The kind of music I like to play has got to have the edge that comes from everyone being there playing at the same time. If you want to fix something later, that’s cool, but the whole thing is a conversation that happens between everyone, and that can’t happen with overdubs. Eric and Steve couldn’t make it to New York, so Jim Beard and I arranged to record Eric in Austin and Steve in Los Angeles.
The title track with Steve Vai sounds a lot like the Band of Gypsies.
Definitely. I wanted to write something simple but not too simple that was coming from a place we would both really dig, and the Hendrix-y thing seemed like a good idea. I also wrote “Moroccan Roll” with Steve specifically in mind. It’s a little more intricate, and has a difficult melody, but he got it right away and played it better than I did [laughs]. Also, when rehearsing that tune they were playing it a little funkier than I wanted, so I asked Dave [Weckl] to add more ride cymbal. Then I asked Steve if he was familiar with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani singer, and he said, “Yeah, I almost played with him,” and I thought, “Man, I hooked up a good tune for this guy.” Steve also overdubbed a really cool Sitar Guitar part onto the melody line.
Were the songs you did with Eric Johnson also written with him specifically in mind?
The song “6th Street” was already partially written, but I didn’t know how to finish it, and then when Eric agreed to play on it I made room for his parts, with that great clean sound he gets playing through an Echoplex particularly in mind. And he used that clean sound again on “Long Time Gone,” playing quietly and adding little fills in the beginning while I played the melody, before rocking harder during the solos. I asked him if he could do certain things and boom—he got them all right away. At the end we vamped out and went a little nuts trading solos, but more like having a conversation than trying to play louder and faster than one another, which I’m not a big fan of. Eric was totally cool. People said that he’d be really crazy and want to check out every note before approving his parts, but he just played a whole lot of stuff and let it go. I was really honored that he was into it because he’s a bad cat and a really beautiful musician.
Read the entire feature interview in the October 2009 issue of GP.