Guitarist Neal Schon is one of the best and arguably one of the most underrated guitarists in rock. Clearly he has achieved massive success with the indefatigable Journey and has had a prolonged life in the ever-tumultuous music business. But the reality is that while plenty of people know his axe work from huge pop-rock hits like “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” his playing spans a wider range than that and has embraced multi-genre influences. And where is playing in Journey really shines is through rock-oriented numbers like “Chain Reaction,” “One More” and “City Of Hope,” one of the heavier cuts from the new Journey album Eclipse, the second studio effort to feature frontman Arnel Pineda.
While Journey is the band that made Schon famous, he has created plenty of music beyond that realm: solo albums (including the Grammy-nominated Voice), two albums with keyboardist Jan Hammer, Azteca (post-Santana, pre-Journey) and releases with Bad English, Hardline and Abraxas Pool, the latter an ensemble of ex-Santana members. Many people do not know that Schon joined Santana when he was just 15 years old. (Santana III came out when he was 17.) His Journey output is great; so is his work beyond.
I recently chatted with Schon for a Journey cover story for the Aquarian. Our chat lasted an hour, which resulted in plenty of material for A.D.D., including a Digital Playlist.
Journey has been successful for a long time, and clearly it’s not a question of doing it for the money anymore. What keeps you going after all these years?
You know, I started the band in ’73, and I have a certain investment and emotional attachment with it. When things fell apart after Steve [Perry] decided that he couldn’t do it anymore, I wasn’t quite ready for it to go away either. I started seeing him do solo dates and doing our material, which was way in front of me reforming the band, and I decided if he was going to do then I was going to do it too. I’ve got Jon Cain, and we’re two-thirds of the songwriters, if not 100% [at times], so we have every right to play the stuff too. That’s what stirred everything up. When he went out by himself on his solo tour [in 1994], he wasn’t just playing solo material, which he could’ve because he had two [solo] records that did quite well. He was mainly playing Journey songs without us, and I felt like that was not right.
You’re talking about the period between the late ’80s and mid-’90s now?
It was after Raised On Radio. Trial By Fire we got zip [for a tour]. He wanted to do a record, and we went in and did it. We had a number three record on Billboard and a number one single with “When You Love A Woman”. Then he didn’t want to do anything. He didn’t want to play the Grammys, he didn’t want to do anything.
Since then you guys have kept going with different singers — Steve Augeri, Jeff Scott Soto and now Arnel. Obviously a lot of your female fans love the ballads, but as a rock guy I never really cared about the famous ballads. I love the Journey rock songs. I always did. Everybody knows “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms,” “Faithfully” and many other hits. I think people need to hear the other tunes to fully understand Journey. And as far as the ballads, I love “Mother, Father”.
You’ll probably like this new record. I don’t know whether you’ve heard it…
I have. It’s great. It doesn’t have any of the traditional Journey ballads on there. It’s a very vibrant, rock oriented album.
Yeah, the ballads are heavier rock ballads too.
And they’re more existential, not just about love. I also liked the album Generations. That had a lot of great tunes on it.
Generations did have a lot of cool stuff on it. Somehow that one got screwed in the mix. We spent quite a bit of money on it too, but there was something wrong that went down in the mix there where everything sounded out of phase and funky. Something went haywire on that record.
Obviously you’ll be playing a fair amount of new material on the current tour. What happens to lesser-known stuff like “Can’t Tame The Lion”?
It doesn’t get played. [laughs] “Can’t Tame The Lion” has been one of my favorite songs. I’ve been trying to get them to play that for a while, but nobody can get past the lyrical content. Everybody loves the song musically, and it sounds like a great rockin’ summer song, but when we get to the chorus, everybody goes, “What is that?”
What about “La Raza Del Sol?”
We played that before. We’ve played that quite a lot, just not right now. Obviously we need to make room, and we only have so much time in a show with two other bands. We’re allowed an hour and a half, and we’ve got to play the greatest hits and whatever new stuff we can squeeze in.
Arnel did co-write a couple of tracks on Eclipse. How did that work out?
It worked out great. Arnel probably could’ve been involved in much more if he was around. He lives in Manila, so it’s very difficult to try to write over Skype or anything like that. You kind of need to be sitting in a room. I suggested to him that he get another place out here. He likes San Diego and California. Maybe he could get a little place, get dual citizenship, come out, and we can hang out in a room with a guitar and piano and go at it.
“I think when people are younger they’re too hung up on egos. Their heads are too big to get through the door. As you get older, a lot of that stuff goes away. If you’re confident in yourself and know you what can do, there’s no reason for all of that silliness. Let’s just play, it’s going to be good.”
A lot of times a famous band will get a replacement singer for a renowned frontman, but the new singer does not get to contribute much in terms of songwriting. But it seems like there’s a good chemistry in Journey right now.
It definitely is, and there’s a lot of room for Arnel to grow with us. There’s already so much chemistry between Jonathan and I throughout the years — he and I just read each other’s minds. There’s never a day that we’ll get together and work on something that doesn’t come out that’s decent or great.
The last Journey album sold far more at the beginning than this one did. Then again, these days anybody selling 100,000 copies is a miracle. When this album didn’t sell as well as the last one, were you disappointed?
No, because we actually started ass backwards. We started in Europe because we were touring in South America and Europe before the States, and the other one got a jump because we started in the States. We’re still coming with singles right now. This record is far from being done, and I think it’s going to have long legs. Whether or not it charted as high or moved as many units, there are other things that go along with that. Like the fact that we had the story of Arnel coming from the Philippines, and everybody was so interested in that. Now that’s not brand new news anymore, so it’s going to take more to get the music out there. The live show is absolutely kicking ass, and we’re selling out everywhere.
The fact that Revelation sold 1,000,000 copies is pretty impressive given the fact that many bands that have been around for 30 or 40 years can’t move units like that anymore. Wal-Mart having the exclusive release certainly played into that success somewhat. But you continue to have strong concert revenues. I believe 2 or 3 years ago you did $35,000,000 in concert revenues in one year.
We do that almost every year, which is really, really stand up right now.
You’ve done many other projects outside Journey. I remember the two Schon/Hammer albums.
I just did two more [solo albums]. I felt really quite prolific this last year. I had the whole year off, so when I get done with the Journey record I decided to stay in the nice studio because I was comfortable in there. I had [former Journey drummer] Steve Smith come in and knocked out a solo record with him. Jan Hammer guests on it with me. He never plays on anybody’s record, and he burns some amazing keyboards again. The thing is on fire, man. As a solo record, this one is rocking and doesn’t sound like a Satch record or a Vai record or an Eric Johnson record. It definitely sounds like me, but on fire. Then I did another record after that was a completely different concept. The first is instrumental, and the second is a power trio I did with my drummer Dean Castronovo and Marco Mendoza on bass. All three of us are singing on it. It’s a very late ’60s, early ’70s, psychedelic rockin’ type extravaganza.
Do either of these have titles, and when are they coming out?
The first one does, but I’m afraid to give out the title because I’m afraid someone’s going to use it. I’ve got all the [song] titles and got it sequenced, so all I need to do is get the artwork done right now. I’ll probably put it together out here on the road in the next couple of months.
Which solo release will come first?
The one with Smith.
When was the last time you to played together before this?
It’s been a while, but he sounds bionic.
He’s always had a jazzy flavor to his stuff.
Bits and pieces of it do [here], but it’s a pretty full-fledged hard rocking stuff with flair.
Even when Journey had a decade-long down period, you went from one project to the next. Most people go through a rough patch, but you haven’t really seem to have done that. You just keep going.
You know, once I get started and the creative juices are going, I’d just rather keep going. This was the case during the last year, and I didn’t have to worry about playing live last year. I took the year off, and our biggest thing for the whole year was to make a record. We made it pretty effortlessly. I had a lot of extra time on my hands, and I hadn’t done anything solo in a while, so I thought it would be nice to knock out a couple of things. I got through the one and went, “Wow, that was fun and easy, let’s do another one.” I made up all the stuff on the spot. I didn’t have anything written. I just walked in with a blank sketching pad and some colors and just went at it.
I was reading an interview with you from a few years ago where you talked about protecting your hearing. I’ve had tinnitus since high school from cranking loud thrash metal through my Walkman repeatedly. Do you have tinnitus?
Are you kidding? I was try to get enough volume out of this phone because my ears ring constantly.
Is it multi-tonal? I have different types of ringing now.
I have that, yeah.
Dealing with the fact you have to tour and play loud music every year, how do you deal with it?
I wear the in-ear monitors, but instead of blasting everything through them like some people do, I turn them down very, very low and plug them up completely instead of using dB cuts. You need to get those good earplugs that have the dB cuts on them. You get them made from molds of yours ears. You can hear everything, it just pulls everything down to a way lower decibel level.
“There’s a lot of room for Arnel to grow with us. There’s already so much chemistry between Jonathan and I throughout the years — he and I just read each other’s minds. There’s never a day that we’ll get together and work on something that doesn’t come out that’s decent or great.”
Society in general is getting louder. There are some recent movies where I have worn earplugs.
It’s so absurd. You can’t hear the dialogue but when some action happens, they want to take your head off. I know, yeah.
I have the same thing, and my ears have stabilized because I use the same type of protection all the time. I ride motorcycles, and they’re loud. I’ve probably done more damage on a motorcycle then I have playing loud music over the years, so I always wear really good ear plugs. They’re bad but staying in the same place and not getting any worse.
How are things onstage?
Right now, it’s the best it’s ever been. We’re doing something right now that we’ve never done before, and it’s working out amazing, which is we have no cabinets on stage. The only thing that’s live on the stage is drums, and we have some clear pieces of plexiglass in front of the cymbals, so Deen is not in a total box. I’m playing off the PA, which is what I like. Everything sounds big and full, and you don’t have to worry about the stage getting all rumbly and trying to hear through it all. It’s been really, really clean, and no leakage through the microphones, which is great for Arnel because he runs around a lot. So it’s working out great.
Do you see the influence that Journey has had on rock and pop music over the last couple of decades? Do you hear it in other groups that you’re checking out?
I don’t know so much about that. I hear similarities here and there. It’s weird, when I listen to Kings of Leon, I don’t hear similarities as far as the band and us, but I know where they’re coming from. When I listen to their singer, even though he doesn’t sound like early Perry, he sounds like he’s getting from the same place. When I listen to his melodies and listen to their songs, I can imagine Perry singing that stuff.
Are there any guitarists or other musicians that you’d like to play with that you haven’t?
I’ve always admired and loved John McLaughlin. I’d love to play with him sometime, even though it’s frightening [to contemplate]. I love playing with Carlos [Santana], even though I did a long time ago. He and I have become closer friends, and if we did some sort of reunion down the line it would be really cool because our heads are in the right space now. [Eric] Clapton is another one that I never got to quite finish anything with. I was asked to join and do the Derek and the Dominoes thing with him [around the time of joining Santana]. I would love to do that, even just one or two songs. I love to play with Jeff [Beck]. I have played with Jeff live quite a few times but nothing in the studio with both of us on the same track. The closest thing to both of those guys was a tribute that we did to Les Paul, and Jeff and Eric were on that record along with me. I went in to do my track because I was good friends with Les and his brother, and they wanted me on the record. I was in LA, and the producer played the track they wanted me to play on, and I hated it. But he had the best studio musicians in LA sitting there, and I said, “Why don’t I just cut a track with these guys?” We just did a slow blues thing and left open bar space to find a singer to sing it. I thought Beth Hart would sound amazing on it, so I sent it to her. She wrote it, sang it and sent it back, and it went on the record as it is. Everybody raved about the track, and then shortly after that I went to see Beck in San Francisco. He had Beth Hart and Vinnie Colaiuta in the band, half the people that did I the track with. So I went back and said, “Oh, so you like what I did on the record?” He was like, “Motherfucker!”
Do you think it’s easier to collaborate with certain name artists as you get older rather than when you were younger because of ego or other reasons? Do you think people’s barriers drop a little bit because there’s less of a sense of competition?
Yeah, I think when people are younger they’re too hung up on egos. Their heads are too big to get through the door. As you get older, a lot of that stuff goes away. If you’re confident in yourself and know you what can do, there’s no reason for all of that silliness. Let’s just play, it’s going to be good.