Neal Schon of Journey (Exclusive Interview)

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The songs are as iconic today as they were after being released in the late seventies and early eighties: “Faithfully,” “Separate Ways,” “Don’t Stop Believin,” “Wheel In The Sky.” It’s like they have always been a part of our lives. And Journey, the band that brought them to illustrious life, has always been out on tour. Like many of those popular big arena rock bands – Styx, Rush, Aerosmith, Foreigner – they are still here, still rocking in sold out venues, still making the music sound as fresh as it did when we first heard it, all while pulling in new fans, and most importantly younger generation fans who grew up with the music playing in the background. To regenerate like this is a band’s dream. To keep going even when members have come and gone, records have changed formats, recording technology has advanced and cultural tastes have changed. These songs have never faltered.

Neal Schon, who once sported a ‘fro so high it could reach the rafters, is still busily creating music. No sooner has he finished up one project then he is off working on another one. This is his love, his life, his rejuvenating spark that keeps his fingers on a fretboard after fifty-plus years. It still excites him. And next week, on May 19, he will release his new album called So U, featuring Journey drummer Deen Castronovo and Dead Daisies/Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders bass player Marco Mendoza.

For a man who started his career when he was just a teen playing guitar alongside the legend Carlos Santana, ending up in 2014 with nineteen Top 40 singles, twenty-plus platinum and gold records, a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame and his own signature guitar, this is a dream he never imagined happening.  Born on an Air Force Base in Oklahoma before settling in the Bay Area, Schon is the only member of Journey to play on every album. Forming the band with Santana bandmate, keyboard/piano player Gregg Rolie, the group skyrocketed in the hot bed arena days with soaring ballads that became the staple of lovers for many, many years. When Journey was going through a quiet spell, Schon hooked up with former Babys Jonathan Cain, Ricky Phillips and John Waite in Bad English, releasing two really good albums. He has also played on successful albums with Jan Hammer, Sammy Hagar, Michael Bolton and Joe Cocker; as well as six solo albums of his own, with 2012’s instrumental The Calling, featuring the enchanting “Irish Field,” reenergizing the genre of music without words.

On a busy afternoon full of interviews last month – “I’ve only done two so far but I have about four more today,” he said with a still-enthusiastic laugh – Schon called in to talk with Glide about his new album, his songwriting and how Jazz Fusion actually inspires him the most.

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We’re really excited about your new album coming out. In fact, when I interviewed Marco Mendoza last year he told me that he had fun working on it with you and Deen.

Yeah, you know, it’s been sitting there and done for a while. I kind of got ahead of myself when we recorded it because I had just finished The Calling CD and that was scheduled to come out first before this one. So it had to run it’s course and then it took forever actually to mix this record. I spent a lot of time mixing it, going back and forth mixing in Nashville with Dave. I mean, our work took a long time. It was just everything else seemed to take longer than recording the record. So I’m glad to see it finally show it’s face and get out there soon.

Why were Marco and Deen the perfect fit to work on this with you?

Well, I’d worked with both of them before, on the Soul SirkUS record briefly with Deen and Marco and I’ve always felt really hooked up. They connected, just bass and drums, and then also vocally we really didn’t get to that space on the Soul SirkUS record to hear Deen sing and Marco sing. I’ve seen Marco a million times play with his trio so I knew definitely that he was not only an amazing bass player but a great vocalist. And you know Deen is the secret weapon. He can pretty much play any of the older songs and synch the whole set while he’s playing drums. So he’s got amazing dexterity and I don’t know anyone who can play like he plays and sing like he sings. He’s a powerhouse. There’re a lot of drummers out there that are really great drummers and I love my old friend and ex-bandmate Steve Smith too. I’ve been making records with him again and he is a powerhouse in his own right but in a different way. But I’ve seen a lot of synching drummers, ok, but Deen’s truly talented and I think that’s something that people are going to be astounded by.

“Take A Ride” is a great way to lead the album off.

Yeah, that song has actually been sitting, the verses were sitting there for a long time with me. When I was working with Paul Rodgers, I did a few years with him and did his solo tour and we did a lot of clubs and then we did a tour opening up for Steve Miller, and I was laying down ideas that I thought would be great for him and I sent him a cassette at that time of the song and he just never got back to me on it. I thought it would initially be great for Paul to sing. So it just kind of sat there, I guess, waiting for the right opportunity and right voice to utilize it. After we started playing, I was like, Marco can sing this. So we laid down the music and then I go, “Marco, this is going to be yours to sing.” Then him and I sat there and wrote out the lyrics and BAM, it was done. I think he sounds great on it.

And you’ve got the great ballad, “Love Finds A Way.” You always have a great ballad in you Neal.

(laughs) I had the orchestrated part that is in the middle, that I orchestrated with keyboards to make it sound like a symphony orchestra, and I played all those parts separately in the studio. That was really fun to do but I had that piece of music sitting in my head for a good, I don’t know, twenty-five years. I actually thought it would be a Journey song at one point and it never ended up being and then a little bit before we got together, I was sort of going through my mind and trying to remember bits and pieces of songs that I liked that I never used and that was one of them. I just sat down and I ended up writing the verse chords then the b section and then the chorus and it kind of like all came together with a different arrangement. It reminded me a lot of the guitar part itself which is very much like “Troubled Child” off our Frontiers record. A little more complicated rhythm guitar part than your usual rhythm guitar part, and melodic, you know. It moves around. I like that it’s moving all the time.

nealYou moved around quite a bit as a kid. How do you think that formed you into the songwriter that you are today? Was that an influence at all?

I’ve been playing for fifty years, believe it or not – that’s kind of crazy (laughs). I thought about that the other day and I’m like, fifty years of guitar? Oh my God. I’m glad that I feel good, you know. I still feel young anyway (laughs). But I think that after you play for that long and play with so many great people, it all rubs off. You know Journey started out as a Fusion rock band. When Steve Perry came into the band that was like really the first time that I sat down to write with a singer. I mean, Gregg Rolie was a singer in his own right, but I mean to write like a three and a half minute song. The early Journey was not about that. And when I wrote “Patiently” and “Lights” with Steve, and we did it like effortlessly, in about ten minutes or fifteen minutes, that was the beginning of me thinking inside the box rather than outside the box.

It’s really hard to make a three and a half minute song sound really musical and you learn how to arrange basically. It’s coming up with good arrangements and good songs but very difficult to make a good musical statement in such a short amount of time. So I started learning that craft with him and the rest of the guys in the band as we went along. It’s just something that sticks with you. Now, I’m not so interested anymore in playing inside the box cause I’ve already done that and we already have all those songs. I’m thinking more outside the box where I naturally came from in the early days, even before I joined Santana. So I go in the studio and basically have a blank canvas with a lot of colors and paints and just kind of making up stuff on the spot. Some of the ideas may have been sitting there for years but it’s not like I walk in with an agenda. I don’t have a piece of paper and I’m not going, “So this is what I’m going to do today.” We just walked in and go, ok, an up tempo song? Give me like five minutes and I just bang something out with a drum loop. Then the guys jump on it and we just lay it down.

Doing it this way keeps you invigorated

I think so. I’m very driven and I do it purely. There is no new music in the street any longer, you know (laughs). So I do it out of the love of what I love to do and I love creating and moving forward. I feel like I’m still excelling and moving forward. Like I’ve always admired Jeff Beck and guys like that that just don’t sit still, they don’t settle for, “Ok, I did this and I’ve got twenty platinum records on my wall so I don’t need to do it anymore.” Really, I’ve got boxes and boxes of platinum records in storage, you know what I’m saying, but none of them are in my house cause I don’t really need to look at them or show people them. I know what I’ve accomplished and I just want to move forward.

neal96You have two instrumentals on the new record and I have to say that both fit the titles that you gave them. How do you find the emotions in the notes to convey what you’re feeling?

You know what, the song kind of does that for me. It’s the mood first. So I created a mood, I played keyboards on those songs before we played anything on them, and I laid the keyboards down to a click track. So the vibe of the keyboards sort of dictated to what kind of melodies I’m going to come up with. You know, a lot of the melody is built right in the chords. Like “Big Ocean.” I was trying to come up with a title for that and it’s a very slow, kind of down, a beautiful bluesy song, but it wasn’t a traditional blues. So I’m going, “What does this make me feel like?” Well, I’ve been out in the middle of the ocean in Hawaii sitting on a boat and watching the ocean move very slowly, where you almost feel like you have vertigo when you’re standing in the boat or sitting in the boat. That was it. That’s how the song kind of makes me feel when I listen to it. I feel like that giant ocean that’s moving really slowly but majestically and massively huge.

Why did you pick Jack Blades [Night Ranger] to write with? He’s like a bee, always buzzing.


I know. He’s very quick (laughs). He and I have always got along. If I went up to his ranch to write, it never failed, we always came out with a good song by the end of the day. When I thought about doing this project with Marco and Deen, I called up Jack and just said, “Hey, you got a couple days free? I want to come up and kick around a couple ideas.” “What You Want” was one of those songs and was one of the only songs that I walked in to the studio where it was like completely written and everything was laid out. But he’s quick to bounce off of for me. We write lyrics together very quickly, we come up with melodies really quickly. He’s moving fast and so am I so I like that. You know, you spend so much time sitting around thinking and going, “Hmm, I wonder what I should do here?” No, we just kind of like move real quickly. A lot of times when you over-think in art, your drawing or your playing, whatever you’re doing, if you over-think it, then it’s not going to come out. You just got to move with your gut instinct and go on it.

What was THE song or album that literally changed your life?

Initially, when I first heard the blues, I loved the blues, so I have to say I loved BB King and I loved Albert King and Buddy Guy and Michael Bloomfield actually. I listened to a lot of Michael Bloomfield when I first started playing guitar. I was listening to a lot of Jazz, listening to Wes Montgmery and Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin; more Fusion Jazz, Chick Corea, all that kind of stuff. Then everything started coming over from England like Cream and Hendrix, and I think that was really a turning point for me. When I heard the Cream and I heard Hendrix, I was like, “Wow.” That came on the radio and I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” So I really dove into those records, sort of ripped them a part and listened to them over and over and over, and learned as much as I could off those records, because in those days nobody was on a computer and looking at YouTube and taking guitar lessons on YouTube. It was all like old record players and I’d literally sleep with the arm up on the record player so that when one side of the record got done it would just go back and repeat again. I’d sleep with it (laughs). I was actually learning it in my sleep from listening to it over and over, to where I knew what the notes were in my head and I just had to make my fingers go there.

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Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Well, it’s not exactly a rock star but a star in his own right: I believe it was BB King. Or Elvin Bishop. I had a friend who was taking me in to jam with Elvin Bishop once a week from the peninsula when I was about thirteen/fourteen and I’d play with Elvin at The Keystone Korner in San Francisco, which was Michael Bloomfield’s old club. Then Elvin took it over when Michael passed. I became good friends with Elvin and one night Elvin goes, “Hey, I’m going to take you to meet BB King” and we went to the Fillmore West in San Francisco on Market Street. That’s where I met BB, that’s where I met Bill Graham and that’s kind of like where it all started. Before I knew it I was on stage with him. I was paying respect to him because a lot of guys, young guys, when they get on stage with an older artist, you know, but I think you got to show them respect and you don’t get on stage and try to burn them by playing a bunch of fast licks. It was like we were talking, from one side to the other side of the stage, and he kind of looked over at me like, “Who is that little shit?” (laughs) That was like the beginning.

What do you have planned for the rest of the year?

I just finished another record, a brand new record, a double CD, with Steve Smith and Jan Hammer, which is a follow-up to The Calling, and this record is fricking on the ceiling. So I’m very excited about it as well. It’s eighty-five minutes worth of music and this thing is built to play live and it’s just jamming, all instrumental, and probably beyond anything I’ve ever done instrumentally. I just finished that but I probably won’t get back to it till I get back from touring this year. We start touring in May with Journey all through the summer. When I get done, I’ll do the holidays with the family and enjoy some time off. I’ve been working again with Carlos Santana, with the original band, and we’ve been writing and recording some stuff that sounds amazing. We’re in talks, talking about 2015, and it looks like we probably will play some dates together, Journey and Santana. Carlos and I have been hanging out a lot. I love the man and “Exotica,” the instrumental off of So U, I dedicated to him on the record. It’s very much got a Santana influence and Marco’s Latin Fusion vibe.

What still excites you about playing music after all these years?

Really what excites me is that I feel I’m getting better at my craft. I feel like I’m moving forward as a guitar player and an artist, not like stuck in the rock star thing and doing just one thing. I feel like I’m actually creating and continuing to better my craft. There’s so much to be played, you know, musically. You can never get too good to know it all. I have plenty to learn and I’m grateful that my health is good and life is great and I’m inspired to play. I love playing.

 

Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough

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