Steve Vai hails Devin Townsend as “a bona fide genius” – but admits HevyDevy’s talent was “a little squelched” when he fronted his band

Steve Vai and Devin Townsend play the Jay Leno Show in 1993
(Image credit: Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Steve Vai has been looking back on some of the top-tier vocalists he has worked with in his career and says that Devin Townsend is “as brilliant as they come” who was ultimately “a little squelched” when he fronted his band for 1993’s Sex & Religion.

After playing with Frank Zappa, then David Lee Roth, and the release of Passion And – a landmark in electric guitar – Vai was already established while Townsend was just starting out on his musical journey. He was only a teenager when Vai hired him. Speaking to the Vintage Rock Pod, Vai admitted that he only needed a singer and that his vision for the band and its sound left Townsend frustrated. 

“Devin was great to work with in the studio because he was eager and he was patient,” said Vai. “He didn’t need a five-star hotel. He was also incredibly talented in his own right. And that was kind of squelched in my band because I just needed him as a singer. I didn’t know how brilliant he was as a creator, a musical creator, because I didn’t allow it, basically! A little bit, here and there, but I had my vision.”

Vai had a clear idea of how the record was going to go. He wanted to put a supergroup together, and while he was not prepared to altogether jettison the ambitious arrangements that made Passion & Warfare resonate, he wanted to make a more accessible record.

Vai’s melody-centric approach never changed but that vision did fall under Townsend’s influence as he turned him onto heavier music. Townsend, who was recommended to Vai by his label, Relativity, gave Vai’s arrangements the voice he had been looking for.

“I finally had a singer that I could work with,” he says. “If you listen to that record, there are oceans of vocal harmonies.”

There were creative tensions. There is, of course, that famous story of Townsend taking a number two in Vai’s guitar case. But that is all water under the bridge, and is the sort of misadventure that happens when you have two creative minds trying to express themselves when only one has the casting vote. It certainly hasn’t coloured Vai’s affection for their collaboration. 

“Devin was always entertaining, I can tell you that,” said Vai. “You never knew what he was going to do. He was unpredictable, and he was bold, and he was… Did I say unpredictable!? Yeah! He would do these crazy things. It was constantly entertaining. I knew it was frustrating for him because he had so much to offer and it was bubbling inside him and he was trapped in the Vai cage, doing music that maybe wasn’t necessarily what he would do, but he was a good sport about it.”

Townsend put that energy and talent to good use. After completing his stint with Vai, he formed Strapping Young Lad, initially as an industrial metal studio project, but within a few years Townsend had recruited Gene Hoglan behind the drum kit, Jed Simon on guitar, and Byron Stroud on bass guitar, and that intensity made them extreme metal royalty. 

After flaming out on extremity, Townsend went on to become one of prog-metal guitar’s most creative talents. It was then that Vai fully appreciated how good Townsend was.

It wasn’t until later when Devin started making his solo music that I’m like, ‘Woah! I didn’t know that was there! Because he is in my book a bona fide genius. He is as brilliant as they come

“We collaborated on some things but it wasn’t until later when Devin started making his solo music that I’m like, ‘Woah! I didn’t know that was there!’” Vai says. “Because he is in my book a bona fide genius. He is as brilliant as they come.”

You can listen to the full conversation with Steve Vai at Vintage Rock Pod, and watch an extract above, in which Vai reflects on the good times playing with David Lee Roth, and the pressure of being the first guitarist to work with Diamond Dave after Eddie Van Halen. The pressure? As Vai explains, there was no pressure.

“I didn’t feel pressure because if I would have felt pressure it would have meant that I was competing with Edward and you can’t do that,” he says. “That’s foolish. You can’t compete with Edward, y’know.”

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.