As we gear up for the 2011 Billboard Touring Conference and Awards — which kick off Nov. 8 in New York — we present an extended conversation with Neal Schon of Journey. The band will receive this year’s Legend of Live Award at the Billboard Touring Conference.
Journey has been a live powerhouse since forming in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1973. In the years before that, founding member and lead guitarist Neal Schon had already honed his onstage chops, leaving home in 1970 to become a touring member of Santana at the age of 15.
The Billboard Legend of Live Award honors individuals or bands who have made significant and lasting contributions to live music and the touring business, and Journey — and Schon — certainly qualify on every level, withstanding shifting musical trends and personnel changes that would have brought down a lesser band. In fact, with their current lineup of Schon, Jonathan Cain (keyboards), Ross Valory (bass, backing vocals), Deen Castronovo (drums, percussion, backing vocals) and Arnel Pineda (lead vocals), the band is close to wrapping its biggest tour in 20 years, in support of new album “Eclipse.”
Billboard enjoyed a lengthy conversation with Schon as he traveled on his tour bus between shows in Los Angeles and Fresno, Calif. Despite the rigors of a global tour, Schon was upbeat as he discussed the band’s early days, how to withstand personnel changes, and the joys of playing guitar in a rock’n’roll band.
When did you first pick up a guitar?
I guess I first picked up a guitar when I was 10. I played other instruments; my dad was a jazz musician, and he was also a teacher, so he got me started pretty early. I was always surrounded by music. I played a little piano, all the woodwind instruments, he taught me some clarinet, I played some oboe. I wish I would have been playing sax, I ended up liking sax better than all of it. And it actually looked like a cooler instrument than a clarinet or an oboe.
But it turned out that I felt like playing something other than what [my father] already played, and then I heard that twang of a guitar in the ’60s, whether it was a Beatles song or The Dave Clark Five, whatever was on the radio. I heard it and I go, “what is that? I want to know about that.” At the time I started playing, it was all about the British invasion, all of that cool stuff, whether it was Jeff Beck and [Eric] Clapton and Jimmy Page in the Yardbirds, or the Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, and I heard blues riffs before that. I met B.B. King when I was like 13, I met [legendary promoter] Bill Graham, and went and played with Elvin Bishop, who introduced me to B.B. back then in San Francisco at the Filmore. I had a lot of R&B and blues background in my playing when I was very young.
People disagree with me sometimes, but I hear blues in your playing, more a matter of the feel than the actual notes.
I’m absolutely not playing an original blues thing in Journey, but I have done it before. There’s a song called “Walks Like a Lady” where I play a real stripped down, quiet, quiet blues thing, where the guitar’s barely on. [ ZZ Top‘s] Billy Gibbons even commented, “Man, I love the solo you did on that.'” So I can go there, I can play the blues and dig it, but it’s not what I do with the band out here all the time. There is blues in my playing, but for me it’s more of a classical, symphonic blues experience. It’s knowing how to make a note cry when you want it to cry or sting when you want it to sting.
I probably play too fast for straight-forward blues. I like to have the flurries in between, but I do know how to hold onto a note and make it sing. I learned a lot about that by listening to great singers, not even guitar players. Aretha Franklin, I listened to non-stop when I was learning how to play guitar. I tried to emulate her voice, her phrasing, her choice of notes, vibrato, the whole thing.
The first three Journey albums had more of a prog-rock/jazz fusion sound to it, with less emphasis on the vocals. Do you ever re-visit that music? (Among the players on the first three records were Gregg Rolie on keyboards, Ross Valory on bass, rhythm guitarist George Tickner and drummer Aynsley Dunbar).
I’ve been wanting to get together with Aynsley and Ross, when and if I do ever have any down time. It seems like an impossibility, because I’m always on tour. I’ve been talking to Rolie about it for years, that I would love to have a reunion, even if we only played a handful of shows at the House Of Blues in different cities and do nothing but our old songs. I think people would go absolutely nuts for it, just because of the history of it and the fact that it’s not been heard in years.
By the time Steve Perry joined the band, Journey already had hundreds of shows under its belt.
We played a lot of shows, my friend. We played eight-and-a-half to nine months out of the year, every year, from the beginning. I don’t know how we even squeezed in time to make records. If we had a month off, it was spent in the studio, then straight back out on tour, that was our bread and butter back then. We traveled in two station wagons, with the crew in one car and the band in the other car. It was nuts; we’d drive 13 hours, no hotel, jump out of the guitar, and jump on stage. Then we upgraded to a Winnebago, which was even worse than the station wagon, because we ended up pushing the damn thing all the time, it kept breaking down.
With three albums behind you, all of a sudden Journey becomes a platinum act with “Infinity” in 1978. How did that change the game?
We were all kind of in shock and stoked. In the Bay Area we started winning a lot of awards at the Bammies, I started winning guitarist of the year, year after year, we won band of the year, Steve Perry won vocalist, it went on and on, like an out of control dream. It was very cool, those are good memories.
Journey had huge momentum, but clearly Jonathan Cain brought a lot to the band when he joined in 1980, particularly as a songwriter.
No doubt. I had been eyeballing Jonathan for a while because we were on tour with the Babies and I was watching Jon every night. I started hanging out with him, we had a lot in common musically. When [original keyboardist] Gregg Rolie decided he had really had enough of touring, he wanted to start a family and get off the road, Jon was my absolute first pick. He’s a tremendous asset to the band, not only as a songwriter, but as a player. He pretty much can pick up any instrument and play anything he wants to play.
The impact of Jonathan joining the band was pretty immediate.
We had done all this groundwork. We had “Infinity” (1978) that was hugely successful, “Evolution” (1979), then “Departure” (1980) then we came with “Captured” (1980), a double live record from Detroit that just went ballistic for us and set the ground for what was to come next. We were over the top live at that point, playing stadiums, and were rocking hard, there was a lot of energy on stage.
You were rocking hard, but you found this sweet spot where you had these romantic ballads and your guitar-playing in particular kept the rock fans engaged. A good example of that is “Don’t Stop Believin’,” where the guitar keeps the song firmly in rock territory. Were you conscious of the need to keep the guitar very prominent in the music?
What was cool about that era of the band, I had a rehearsal place in Oakland I had taken over from Larry Graham, the bass player for Sly and Family Stone. That’s where we rehearsed and wrote everything, and when Jonathan brought in the chorus to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” I remember kicking the thing around a lot. It all came together, but it came together ass backwards, not like you usually would come together with a song. That chorus was a great thing to have in your back pocket when you first walk through the song. And together we sort of trusted each other’s intuition of how we should be doing it. When the first guitar break comes in, it sounds like a train, and it’s really something I hear in symphonies every day. When I wake up in then morning I listen to symphonic stations, I don’t get to rock and roll or blues until I get on my Harley later in the day. I hear that triplet that I do in the first solo [of “Believin'”] before I get to the end solo, in all kinds of symphonies. So it came from me listening to classical music. I just started playing it, and it prompted them to write the lyrics around it. It just kind of unfolded in a natural way.
When the guitar comes in on that song, that’s when it’s for real.
What I think is cool about it is it’s not your usual AM radio format. Everything goes away and the guitar just sits there for a second. At that time on AM radio, nobody’s going to listen to that. Maybe that’s the reason we did it. But the song is just a great song. We have a lot of other great songs, but for some reason that one has latched on like none of the others.
It’s the guitar, man.
(Laughs) I don’t know if it’s the guitar or not, but thank you.
How can you sum up the Steve Perry era of the band and his contribution to the Journey legacy?
Steve Perry is an amazing singer, one of the best ever, in the world. I love the fact that he had R&B roots, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson. Anybody that ever listens to Sam Cooke would go, “Wow, that guy sounds like Steve Perry,” if they didn’t’ know about him, but really it’s the other way around, and God bless Steve for that. He knew exactly what he loved, and he could really do it like nobody’s business. I love what he brought to the band because of the mixture with my playing; my job was to bring the rough edge to everything. When Jon and Steve wrote, it was all melody, beautiful songwriting. I loved that [Perry] brought the soul factor in with the rock, it made it sound to me way different than what we used to get categorized as.
You guys came back strong at the turn of the millennium with vocalist Steve Augeri. You did some great shows, the 30th anniversary tour — it was a productive era, you sold a lot of tickets. How can you sum up the eight years with Steve Augeri?
Steve Augeri did a great job for us, especially in the beginning. I think the wear and tear of the road eventually took its toll on him and wore him down. Steve Perry was bionic to be able to do what he did for as many years as he did under our touring schedule. That would be tough for anybody to keep up with that — except Arnel Pineda. This boy is insane. He’s got tremendous strength and …wow. We’ve done a lot of work this year, and not easy work. One five in a row, a lot of three in a rows, that’s not easy to do with us, there’s a lot required of a vocalist. Perry set the standard very high and we like to give the fans what they’re used to hearing.
The story’s been told a lot, but for the record, did you discover Arnel on YouTube?
I did, I discovered him on YouTube. I didn’t want to go through the whole auditioning process, so I was looking for a good way to actually use the Internet instead of having the Internet use me. I liked the idea of YouTube because it’s all live and un-doctored. So even though doesn’t sound great fidelity-wise, it was no big deal, I could still tell if the guy has pipes, or is singing in tune, with soul and conviction. That’s what I was looking for, and I searched a couple of days and was about to give up when I hit this one last link. It was Arnel singing a Survivor song and I’m like, “Wow, who is that?” He really sounded like he had big lungs and lots of power, and a lot of control and very into it. So I got really curious and I followed it back to his site and listened to 40 other songs from all sorts of bands. Aerosmith to Led Zeppelin, Sting, the Police, Beatles — he was doing it on there. Then I hear our stuff, he did “Open Arms” and “Faithfully,” and I was astounded by his talent and the dexterity of his voice.
It wasn’t a question of whether he could do our gig, I was looking at him like “What can’t he do?” I told management and Jon Cain about him, I said, “I found a singer.” They said, “Great, is he in, L.A. or New York?” I said, “Not exactly, he’s in Manila.” They said, “You’re out of your mind. Does he even speak English?” I said, “I don’t even f*cking care. He sings in English really great. You’ve got to get this guy over, I know this is the guy.” So they worked on it, it’s not easy to get someone over from the Philippines to the United States on short notice. But it happened, we got him over, he did the audition, and Jon and I took him in the studio and ran him through a couple of brand new songs we were just writing. We put his voice on it, and went “there it is.” It was that automatic.
But who could have foreseen how the public would fall in love with him?
I didn’t even really care. I’ve had people ask me, “Don’t you think it was risky to bring someone in from the Philippines when you’re this all-American band?” and I don’t look at anything like that. I hear and feel. He’s the greatest guy, I love him to death. And nobody deserves the gig more than he does.
What is the secret to a band surviving personnel changes?
I think it’s just your desire and strength to move forward. As a person, I refuse to go backward, and I refuse to sit in neutral. I want to always go forward in anything I do in my life. No mater what happens, you can always pick up the pieces, you can’t sit there and sulk in a situation. It’s mind over matter, you could sit there and go, “This guy is irreplaceable, let’s just break up and move on.” Anybody is replaceable. The music and your accomplishments there are much larger than any one individual when you’re in a band.
Journey is still bringing it every night.
You know what, we are bringing it, and we’re bringing it in a different way. We stretch out a lot. It’s really wild. I did this guitar solo on my girl’s birthday the other night, and I thought, “I’m not going to tell anybody about it.” My gut instinct was just to do it and it’ll show up on Youtube and be really cool. I played it, improvising and jamming hard, by myself, which I do every night. I make it up as I’m going along, I just go with what the audience feels like and what I feel like. And I jammed for like two minutes before I even played the “Happy Birthday” theme to her. Then I played “Happy Birthday” to her, and decided to go back and give her a kiss, then we go to “Stone In Love.” This thing gets picked up and it’s all over, the news stations have it, and they’re playing not just the “Birthday” section or the “Stone In Love” section, they’re playing me improvising for two minutes. Two minutes of guitar time on TV! I’m telling you what, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai are scratching their heads right now (laughs).