December 2012, London Hammersmith Apollo
I spent the day with Thomas Nordegg and Steve Vai... OMFG!!!
NOTE: This story was written waaaaay back in 2012, and things have changed since then. Steve still uses my KickTags labels on his boards, but is now using the commercially available UniSurround based system available for sale through ZenRigs, rather than my early 'hobby' labels, which this story is about. I hope you enjoy the read! Onto the story...
This is my journal of an incredible day I spent in December 2012 with Thomas Nordegg (legendary guitar tech to a who’s who of superstars including Steve Vai, Frank Zappa, Dweezil Zappa, John Petrucci, Yngwie Malmsteen and many more), Steve Vai and Dave Weiner. It’s a record / memory jogger, for when I’m old, of my experience of spending the day with Thomas, watching the Vai gig from his station at the side of the stage and seeing all that goes along with being THE tech for one of the most famous guitarists ever to walk the planet.
I was extremely fortunate to be invited along to hand out with Thomas when the Vai band came into London on December 2nd 2012 as part of the Story of Light tour to support Steve’s new album. Although the reason for the invite was to label up Steve’s Fractal MFC controller with the first full production set of my KickTags V2 labels (important to me for more reasons than you’d think – more on that later), it was such a small part of a really memorable day that I thought I’d get my experience down in writing; mostly for my own recollection but also in the hope that it provides an interesting ‘behind the scenes’ view of what goes on in the course of such a high-profile gig.
So, just to be clear, although I’m obviously going to talk about labels and how that all happened, there’s a lot more to this tale. It’s a long one, but I hope you enjoy it :-)
The story actually begins in June 2011, shortly after I decided to start tinkering with labels to meet my own needs, and I created my original KickTags labels for the Fractal MFC. I had a lot of interest at the time from a lot of artists, and, through a series of strangely connected events, I found myself talking regularly with Thomas Nordegg about ideas for labels, what I’d managed to make with V1 and what I wanted to make in the future (but didn’t have the ability to do so at the time). Thomas was interested in the idea and I really wanted him to check them out, so he agreed for me to send a set to him, with the idea that, if they were suitable, they’d be used to replace the labels on Steve’s board, for which Thomas had created his own labels.
I sent a set to Thomas and waited patiently. A couple of weeks later, I heard back and the news wasn’t good; he loved the concept, but feared the labels would not be magnetically strong enough and generally hard-wearing enough to survive the stresses and rigors of touring, so he couldn’t use them. He did, however, use the glow-in-the-dark text labels I sent, and stuck those on top of his existing labels on Steve’s board. While this was cool (and I still grin when I see a Vai rig-rundown and see my glow labels on there), I was pretty devastated. At the time, I had no way of making what I knew I wanted to make, so we left it at that but we had gotten on really well so stayed in touch.
Fast forward to a few months ago while I was still ironing out the kinks in KickTags V2, and I heard from Dave Weiner (who I’d also been speaking to on and off for over a year) as he wanted some glow-labels for his CAE-RS10 for the upcoming Vai tour. We agreed to meet up when he came to London, and he told me Thomas would be teching for Vai, so I contacted Thomas and also asked him if he’d like to meet up in London, as I was meeting Dave anyway. Thomas asked how I was getting on and if there had been any progress with the label idea and I told him what I was up to. Now, for anyone that knows or has read anything about Thomas, you’ll know he is a genuine mad scientist and loves to talk about crazy ideas/inventions and anything that is time saving and makes life easier!
We spoke about some ideas and what might work specifically for Vai and started sending ideas back and forth (graphically tweaking stuff). Eventually, I’d ironed out all the bugs I had with making the V2 labels (had a lot of hassle over surface material and laminating process – some of which I shared on the forums and my facebook page) and I showed Thomas the end result, with a suggested set for Vai, based on some pictures he had sent me of his touring rig. At this point, Thomas hadn’t actually seen the new labels physically; it was all pictures, specifications and chat on email. However, he loved the designs and already knew about the glow-aspect of the text labels, and was of the opinion that if they were physically as we were discussing, the flexibility of the two-part design would be perfect for him.
Steve had just undergone a fairly significant change to his MFC setup, following a session with Matt Picone of Fractal (whom Thomas refers to as ‘A Genius’) and Thomas felt the new labels would have aided in quickly reconfiguring the layout of his board after the session with Matt. He suggested we meet up in London and that I bring a set with me for him to check out. There were two BIG ‘ifs’ here… he would only use the labels IF he thought they would stand up to touring and only IF Steve liked them! No pressure…
I chatted regularly with Thomas in the run up to their London gig and, the day before the gig, he mentioned the new labels to Steve to make sure he was cool with us potentially changing them. The big thing for Thomas was that he didn’t want to do anything mid-tour that would confuse Steve in any way, as that could obviously affect his performance. We agreed to meet at the Hammersmith Odeon around 3pm on the day of the show and see what we could do.
The day of the show arrived and I set off on a very cold and frosty day to London, labels in hand. The traffic was unusually quiet and I got there around 2pm, parked up and wandered over to the venue. There was one guy waiting outside with his guitar, who I figured was there as part of the ‘Evo’ experience. I was freezing my nuts off, so went trundling off to try to find a chippy (fish and chip shop), luckily finding one right round the corner.
“Large chips please mate”. I joke to the chippy dude that I might end up stuffing them down my pants to help warm me up, but I think he thought I was insulting his chips and just gave me a dirty look. I considered stuffing a couple down there for comedy effect, but thought better of it and headed back out.
Anyway, back to the venue and 2 more guys have turned up, guitars in hand. They’re also there for the Evo experience and we spend a few minutes chatting about random stuff. It’s 2:45pm now and I decide to call Thomas to see if he’s arrived. He’s there and says he’ll head out to get me in a moment. Right then, Steve Vai steps out of the tour bus, sees our small crowd and decides to walk over and say hi! Very cool. He says hello to the other guys and then gets to me (I’m last). I introduce myself and tell him I’m there to label up his board hopefully. Here’s one of the first things that struck me about Vai. I’ve seen him many times, but never met him. He doesn’t know me from Adam, and I’m a complete nobody. Instead of dismissing me, he says ‘Oh, cool – you should come on in’ and motions for me to come in with him. Not a hint of ego. For some strange reason, I suddenly feel that I should really offer him one of my chips, but I manage to stop myself and say that I’m waiting for Thomas and will go in with him. ‘OK, no problem – I think he’s inside’ he says
“Yep, just spoke to him, he’s coming to get me”
“Ok, see you inside” he says and wanders back through the venue gates. Right then, Thomas appears from the side door and waves me to come in. I follow Steve in and meet Thomas. It’s lovely to meet him at last and, if I’m being honest, I’m slightly in awe of him. I’ve known of Thomas for a long time and feel a little star-struck (more so than with Vai, oddly enough!). However, I’m amazed at how ridiculously down-to-earth and ‘normal’ he is. Not a hint of ego, and he picks up with me as easily as if I were an old friend that he’s continuing a recent conversation with. Again, I’m a total nobody, but it’s a testament to the class of Thomas that he’s taking the time to introduce me to everyone; crew, band, techs, and spend so much time chatting to me even though he had a lot to take care of for the gig. Very, very cool...
He doesn’t even mention the labels, but goes on to give me a tour of the stage. We talk about Vai’s rig, his use of the Axe FX II (he has two in his rack – one is a backup), amps (two legacy heads on top of two cabs on stage), cables, guitars, you name it… Thomas is a gear-nerd like me and we spend a good 15 minutes talking about all manner of things, except what I’ve actually come there for! Thomas shows me his incredibly organised work-station then gives me a run-through of all the guitars Steve has with him on tour, including Evo and the incredible Ultrazone Guitar, and what he uses for which songs.
Some serious hotness!
Thomas tweaking the awesome Ultrazone Guitar
He has some string stretching to do on Evo, so pulls her from the rack, hands her to me and starts fiddling around with some tools on his station. Now you have to remember that, regardless of anything else, first and foremost I’m a fan (I got into guitar 20+ years ago after hearing Vai and Satch), so I’m standing there, holding Evo, trying not to grin like a buffoon, while Thomas is doing his thing! He grabs Evo from me and starts stretching strings. We talk about his string-changing schedule, some tips on setting the bridge angle and whammy bars (a new design from Ibanez) and Thomas’s very cool work-bench, filled with large rolls of Velcro! (more on that later). Vai’s action is pretty high (for me, anyway) and Thomas says he likes it set that way so he can get more ‘bite’ out of notes.
I mean what I’m about to say with the greatest of respect – but the guitars are not ‘pretty’ – they are tools that need to do a job and are scuffed, marked, taped, labeled, velcro’d etc so that they do the job right. Thomas shows me a couple of guitars that have strips of glow-tape on the fret marker positions on the back of the neck, as the dots are too difficult to see on dark stages (in the case of one guitar, there were no fret markers at all). He shows me his ‘pic holder’ strip that he made for Steve and that he uses on all his guitars (very inventive, made out of the cut spine of a plastic binder then velcro’d to the guitar). There are lots of little quirky things like this that Thomas has come up with to make the job of ‘playing and not thinking’ as easy as possible.
Finally, he asks to see the labels and I show them to him. His face lights up when he holds one. “Simply brilliant! This is the future of labelling!”. I’m relieved…. He tells me how he’s been making his own so far, but that he won’t be any more…
We wander over to Vai’s pedalboard and look at the MFC. The board is neat and there’se Velcro everywhere (we found out we share an unnatural love of the stuff). The MFC , however, is beaten and bruised and covered in writing and stickers. Again, it’s not meant to be pretty, it’s meant to be functional, and Thomas tells me he thinks it’s a great, and sturdy, piece of kit. He still wants to show his boss the new KickTags before ripping up and replacing the old labels, so he decides to just place them on top of the old labels for now, let Steve soundcheck and then we’ll see what happens. After a minute, he looks at me and says ‘ let’s take a few of the old ones off – just the obvious ones’ and starts ripping off a couple of the old labels! Unfortunately, we run into a bit of a problem… The old labels had a particularly strong adhesive backing and won’t come off without leaving a lot of gunk and residue on the MFC . The glue is too strong to pull off with our hands, so Thomas runs off to his station and comes back with an ‘Exacto Knife’ (a mini-Stanley knife) and starts scraping the board! OUCH!! He decides that’s not going to do the job, runs back and grabs a black bottle, comes back and starts squirting the contents onto the MFC . “Naptha” he says, “It’ll get anything off!”. Sure enough, it works and the residue turns into a gel-like goo. He hands me the blade and the bottle of Naptha and tells me to carry on while he takes care of a couple of things! I get to work. Then it suddenly hits me; I’m on stage at the Hammersmith Apollo, scraping Steve Vai’s board with a blade and Naptha. I chuckle to myself and scrape away… Thomas comes back to help after a few minutes and we manage to get 3 labels off cleanly. We placed the KickTags over those switches and the remaining ones on top of the existing labels.
The KickTags placed over the top of the existing labels
Thomas scraping away!
We’re on our knees looking at the board when Phil Bynoe (Vai’s bassist) appears. Thomas introduces me and Phil says ‘They look great, but what about when the lights go down – you won’t see them?”. Right on cue, the crew start testing the lighting rig and the stage, (which has been brightly lit up to this point), suddenly goes dark. Phil is still looking down at the board at this point and immediately sees the glow-labels shining back at him.
“Woah! Cool”! (to a big grin from Thomas). Phil is great fun and I spent some time talking with him about an idea he has…
The band start coming out and Dave Weiner appears. It’s great to finally meet him too after all the email chat, and it’s great to see his CAE-RS10 in the flesh, with the glow-labels I made for him.
“They’ve been invaluable”, he tells me. “The first song I play starts in darkness and it’s awesome that I can see the labels – they’re great!”. Dave is the most easy-going guy you could imagine and also loves to talk about gear. We chat about his rig, life on the road and how he keeps sane while touring (“you have to bring elements of your life with you and stick to routines, like practicing, sleeping, watching familiar TV shows, reading…”). He’s keen to check out what I had done for Vai’s board and we wander over and take a look and chat about some of the designs. I measure up Dave’s board to see if a two-part labelling system would work for the CAE and we talk over how he controls everything. He’s a really great guy that has all the time to talk to you. I also got to meet with Jason Wilding from Wampler Pedals who was also very cool (and took many of the great pictures in this story).
Time for soundcheck…
Vai comes out and the band starts playing. It’s REALLY weird watching the band from where I am. I’m in the wings standing with Thomas at his station, so am hearing the backline rather than the PA. From here, it’s just a bunch of guys standing on stage, having fun playing music. From the front, it’s “Steve Vai and his band”. Hard to explain, but it really did feel odd! Anyway, the sound coming off of Vai’s cabs is amazing. Really, really beautiful tone with stunning effects. The Axe FX II sounds stellar and everything is very clear. After the band finish soundcheck, Thomas walks over to Steve, takes him over to the MFC and asks what he thinks of the labels. Remember, if he didn’t like them, it’d be game over (for the labels anyway), and at least I would have tried and still had this great day.
“Oh, nice!” I hear Vai say… “They’re great!”. Thomas asks if it’s ok to pull the old labels and replace them with the KickTags. “Yeah, sure, go ahead”. We’re on!!
Soundcheck has run late and there are only 15 minutes until the doors open and 45 minutes before the show starts, so we don’t have much time. Thomas and I head over to the MFC and start removing the labels using the blade, naptha, a cloth and Velcro(!). Strangely, we’re chatting about religion, family, greed, things that make life enjoyable, parents, Vienna, snippets of Zappa, Vai and how Thomas believes that a story has been written for each of us that we just happen to be following. It was really wonderful. He’s renowned for his love of Velcro and tells me about a scooter accident he had in the 80’s where Veclro literally saved his life (interesting story - its been written about before). Again. I’m struck at just how ‘normal’ Thomas is. He’s just a guy that loves what he does, is very good at it, and works like crazy. He’s not sitting here boasting about what he’s done, who he’s done stuff with, who he knows etc. Just 2 guys, chatting about random stuff while mangling the hell out of Steve Vai’s board.
At one point, the board looks a complete mess. There are bits of labels and glue residue everywhere and Thomas is being very liberal with the Naptha. He quips “here’s a great video for YouTube!” and gets me to take a picture of him hacking the MFC to send to Matt Picone. Just as I’m about to ask him to remove the glow labels in case he squirts them with the Naptha, a drop falls on one of them and the ink immediately starts to run…. My heart just sank, but Thomas, unfazed, just says ‘Don’t worry – it’s fine!’ and carried on. (After our meeting, I worked out how to make the glow labels waterproof). By now, the venue is half full and we’re still on our hands and knees scraping away, wondering if the audience was wondering what on earth we were up to! We managed to remove all but 4 of the labels and then decided to stop so Thomas could get ready for the start of the show.
Steve's MFC, 'mid-mangle'!
Naptha... lethal stuff!
Still scraping as the venue begins to fill...
Almost time for the show to begin, so we managed to get a couple more off/on before stopping....
Lights go down and Steve is next to Thomas getting his guitar strapped on. The place is packed and Vai starts playing off-stage. The crowd go nuts and he walks on to play ‘ Racing the World’. The band sound amazing – everything is super clear and they are tight as anything.
My view of the gig is from the side of the stage from Thomas’s station. Thomas is constantly working; tweaking guitars, checking tuning, truss rods, strings, straps, electronics… he doesn’t stop all night, but is clearly enjoying the show in-between his work. I do my best to stay out of the way, but Thomas continues to chat and joke while working. The man is a whirlwind of activity and as cool as a cucumber. Vai is incredible – seeing him play up close and personal in this way is a memory that’ll stay with me forever and I’m just soaking this all in.
Vai is playing Evo on ‘Tender Surrender’ and towards the end of the song, I’m watching him go nuts with the whammy bar. I mean, REALLY nuts. Thomas is looking at him, and is looking slightly concerned. The song finishes, Thomas goes over to give Steve the guitar for the next song, (Gravity Storm) and chats briefly to him before heading back to his station.
“He broke the whammy bar”, Thomas says when he gets back and plops Evo onto his bench and gets to work. I carry on watching the show and am videoing Gravity Storm (awesome song) when I notice from the corner of my eye after a couple of minutes that Thomas is really trying hard to either remove or insert the bar back into the bridge. I keep looking over and it looks like he’s having a real battle. The bar is removed and he has a giant screwdriver stuck in the trem barrel, trying to tighten it back in! I’m still watching the show then look over and see Thomas holding the trem barrel in his hand, but then dropping it to the floor. He puts Evo down and gets on his hands and knees in the dark trying to find the barrel. I stop filming and get down there with him to find it, which I quickly spot under his stool and hand it to him.
“It’s broken”, he says. “The whammy bar broke off in the bridge and part of it is still stuck in the barrel, or maybe the thread has been damaged, but I can’t see it”. Vai’s still in the middle of the song and Thomas is doing his best to work this out before the song ends. He passes me Evo and we put her down on a guitar case. I hold the guitar steady, get out my iPhone and use the torch to light up the barrel while Thomas tries to see what is blocking it. No luck though and he shrugs, “He’ll be using Flo tonight. It’s happened before – it adds to the energy of the show.” (cool as a cucumber, remember?). When Steve comes to collect Evo for the next song, Thomas quickly explains what has happened, Steve just says ‘Oh, Ok’ grabs the guitar that Thomas is holding out to him and continues with the show!
If you click on the image below, you can see the video I'm talking about, with Thomas working on Evo
Be sure to click this picture (left) - it's a video!!
Evo, iPhone light, Eeeek!
Everything continues without a hitch until it’s time to play the ‘Ultrazone’. For this song, Steve has a crazy costume with lights that ‘flow’ around him, and gloves, a mask and head-gear with lights and lasers shooting out etc. He’s next to me, getting his super-cool ‘Ultra Zone’ guitar strapped on by Thomas and then makes his way on stage to the intro ‘clangs’ of the song. The on-stage smoke machine is going crazy and all you can see is smoke and lights coming out of Steve. It gets to the point he’s obviously supposed to be playing, but he isn’t… then he shouts ‘Thomas, help!”. Thomas looks at me and asks if he heard that right, when Steve stops the band playing, casually walks up to a microphone and explains to the audience that his strap broke and they’ll have to restart the song!
Thomas grabs the guitar, comes off stage with Steve and holds it out to me saying “HOLD. THE. GUITAR!”. So I grab hold of the guitar, get out my trusty iPhone and light it up so he can see what’s happened. He uses a clear strap on that guitar, and part of it has come off. Within 20 seconds, Thomas has run out back, got a replacement clear strap, strapped the guitar back on Vai and he heads back out to restart the song!
Getting ready to play The Ultrazone
The rest of the show went without a hitch and was truly the best I’ve ever seen. Amazing stuff. As the audience starts to clear out, Thomas tells me to stick around while he starts to pack up stuff. He’s involved in everything and is helping the stage hands, helping the techs etc while packing up his own gear. A couple of stage hands go over to pick up Vai’s amps and Thomas tells them to leave them. He then asks me to go and pick up the amps so we can pack them together, which I do. A member of the crew, seeing me help Thomas, assumes I’m part of the crew and asks me to help load up the truck! Thomas just grins at me and we both start working with the crew to load up the backline gear. It’s raining heavily and cold outside, but everyone is working quickly to get things done. It’s amazing how quickly everything comes down and gets packed. Before long, the stage is pretty much empty and the backline truck is loaded.
Finally, the night is over. Thomas kindly invites me to hang out on the tour bus and chat, which we do over a slice of pizza and stories of ex-girlfriends, with the European tour manager and the monitor engineer.
I’m absolutely knackered and am ready for bed. Thomas and the crew have to do this all over again for next 7 nights and it hits me as to how much hard work is involved in ‘working’ on a tour, regardless of how much fun it also is.
A great day and night and some great memories with some truly decent people. I’m more of a fan now than I was before I went, but more so of Thomas Nordegg than anyone. One of the most interesting, genuine and generous people I’ve had the good fortune to meet. If you get the chance, check out his YouTube video on the crazy guitar rig he’s building and if you're lucky enough to ever meet him, make sure you have some Velcro to share :-)