Virtuoso Steve Vai is one of those rare gifted guitarists whose style is unclassifiable and talents are far-reaching, allowing him to cross over several musical genres with ease. The three-time Grammy Award-winning musician began his professional career with Frank Zappa while studying at the Berklee College of Music and has been feted by guitar aficionados and journalists alike since he released his first solo album Flex-able in 1984, while the public at large know him best from his time playing with Alcatrazz, the David Lee Roth Band and Whitesnake throughout the Eighties. The Long Island native continues to dazzle fans nearly three decades later as a solo artist, producer and composer, having released seven more solo albums, guested on countless albums, completions and soundtracks, toured on his own as well as with the G3 tour and started his own label called Favored Nations. Beyond his prolific music work, Steve keeps busy with various music-related charities; in 1998 Vai founded the Make A Noise Foundation, whose goal is to provide funding for music education and programs for those unable to pursue music-related activities due to limited resources.
Perhaps one aspect of his life that many fans may not know about is his vegetarianism. In this interview, Steve speaks about going vegetarian first for health reasons, then later discovering its life-changing results. Watch for a future post about Steve’s beekeeping, a hobby which brought him media attention as well as controversy from several animal advocates.
What kind of vegetarian are you?
I don’t eat meat, fish, chicken or eggs or anything made with those ingredients, so I’m not vegan. I would never pour myself a glass of milk, but I do like cheese, I eat ice cream occasionally along with yogurt, cottage cheese, but I don’t eat eggs.
So you are not quite vegan…
I think everyone has to find what’s right for them. I don’t judge anybody for what they eat. That’s their world and everybody has to find what resonates with them. The kind of diet that I eat is based on a lot of different things, some soul searching and just reaction. There is a certain moral value to the reason I eat the way I eat. I have great respect for vegans, but it’s hard being a vegan and just doesn’t work for me on a convenience level.
What made you go vegetarian?
When I was younger, I could stuff five Big Macs in my mouth. I probably ate meat three times a day. I was constantly sick, there was always something; I had bad digestion, I had awful skin. I used to suffer from what they call hereditary migraines, which were so powerful and so bad that they laid me out. I would throw up occasionally, and it just got to the point that I was feeling so unhealthy. What happens is everything that we put in our body has everything to do with our mental and physical equilibrium. It’s all part of the same thing. And you really have to find what‘s right for you. I went into a very, very deep, dark depression when I was between 20 and 21 years old and was suffering from severe anxiety. It was a very dark period for me. I didn’t know what it was or why it was, but I was in bad shape. I had always been a seeker for spiritual truth and I wasn’t getting it, plus I think I was eating so bad… I had to make a change. A friend gave me The Complete Illustrated Book Of Yoga, and within it the Yogi talked about the benefits of vegetarian living. I had to make a change. I never really enjoyed eating meat. There was always something about it that didn’t resonate with me, and I became a vegetarian. I started exercising and cut out all crap food. I stopped eating processed salt foods and sugar, although these days I still eat salt and sugar, but not like I used to. My life changed completely. I can’t even tell you the dramatic change in my life. This happened on my 22nd birthday, and for about six months, I just slowly went up up up with my mental and physical outlook and started feeling happiness. And you know, I can count on one crippled hand the amount of times I’ve suffered from a migraine since that day. If I threw up once in five years it’s because I had a terrible flu or something as opposed to once a month. I never get diarrhea unless I drink the water in Mexico. The only time I get a headache is if I eat too much popcorn with salt. It was a dramatic change, and it changes our mind and the way we think. Heavy foods excite the passions and dull the intellect, and I noticed that when I stopped eating heavy foods.
I can relate with the migraines. I used to get painful ones as well, and they stopped when I went vegetarian. I can’t remember the last time I had one.
It’s like a well kept secret but you can’t tell people that. And I’ve noticed there was a time — and we are talking for me over 25 years ago — if you told people you were a vegetarian they thought you were really weird, and in some places it’s still like that. I don’t talk about it because it doesn’t matter and usually if I am talking to someone about vegetarianism, it’s either because they’re inquisitive because in their heart of hearts they are not comfortable eating meat, or they just want to argue with you about it. So I only engage in conversation with people who are genuinely interested because it resonates with them.
“One of the things which makes total sense to me, just as plain as one-plus-one equals two, is being a vegetarian.”
I find it sad that some people can argue with you that you’re not vegetarian enough.
Part of the reason why some people become vegetarians is for the non-violent nature of it and that resonates with me very strongly. I never felt good about the idea of eating meat because when I think about it, it is completely, absolutely repulsive. For years I couldn’t even sit at a table if somebody was eating meat. I never told anyone, I would just try to tolerate it, but through the years you just develop this tolerance, but it’s hard because I connect the two things. I connect the fact that eating meat is a violent thing, and I just don’t want to be part of it. Then there are the practical reasons. The human anatomy is not built to be meat eaters; we are herbivores. You can tell by the way our teeth and the way our digestion system is built and the enzymes that we secrete. All these things point to being an herbivore, but go tell that to a truck driver in Texas. But usually when I talk to people who are vegetarian, if they are doing it for health reasons, most of the time they go back to eating meat, but if it’s for non-violent spiritual reasons, they usually never go back because they really connect the two.
I have found that as well. I always sensed you have a spiritual side….
Well, everyone has a spiritual side. I have been a seeker of spiritual truth my whole life, and I have a very scientific approach in a sense that I can only understand things that make sense to me. I don’t follow folklore and weird ritualistic things or miracles or any of that stuff because some of it doesn’t make sense as being possible. And there are a lot of things about the spiritual realm that makes sense to me and that is what I follow. I only believe things that I experience with my own kind of conscious sense of abilities, and one of the things which makes total sense to me, just as plain as one-plus-one equals two, is being a vegetarian.
How has being vegetarian affected your music?
It has affected my music in a way I believe that what we put in our bodies has a reflection on the way we think. And the way we think has a reflection on what we create. So I can’t tell you consciously how being a vegetarian affected my music but I’m sure it has.
Is it hard to keep this lifestyle when you are touring?
I’m not finicky at all. I’ll eat a baked potato and be very happy, but it’s hard to find a baked potato in some places that’s not stuffed with meat so I carry food with me sometimes. It is tough. One of the things that happens to me when I’m on tour is I lose a lot of weight, and I have to be really careful because I can lose too much and start getting sick. I go to sit down, and I have no ass.
Well there is always peanut butter.
Almond butter. It’s really good for you!
Are the rest of your family vegetarians?
My wife [Pia] was vegetarian for many years and then she started eating fish, but she still doesn’t eat meat or chicken. I have two boys and through their whole lives they were vegetarian, they did not eat any meat, fish or chicken, but they did eat eggs and dairy. When they became teenagers my older boy [Julian] started eating meat but later went back to being sort-of vegetarian, more than not. And my younger boy [Fire] started eating fish but never started eating meat.
Well, you can’t force them…
Like any parent, I just feel it’s important for me to do my best to give them what I feel is right, but they reach an age where they have to make up their own minds about stuff. I don’t want my kids to not eat meat because I tell them not to. I want them to understand what it is, what they are putting in their mouths and the effect it has on their body, their mind and their soul; and let them make the decision for themselves. I don’t judge or criticize anyone for what they eat.
Well I think that is why a lot people get turned off by some vegetarians because they come across as being too preachy. I try not to unless it relates to a health issue, as you mentioned with the migraines. I suggest they try going veg for a month as it worked for me…
What is the response?
They usually say they like meat too much.
A lot of times when I see people getting on their holy horse and beating other people up it’s usually that they are doing that to convince themselves of what they are doing because they are not really secure in their ways. If you are secure, you don’t care what anybody else is doing. People are saying ‘What about the rights of animals?’ And if your desire is to preach the rights of animals, well God bless you. I think that that is wonderful, but you also can be pissing people off and they don’t care. For me, the best way to preach is by my own actions, by setting an example the best that I can. That is the best example you set.