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Interview with Neal Schon from Journey: Signs Of Lifeby Bryan Reesman - The Aquarian
August 18, 2011
When it comes to lead singer changes, Journey are practically bulletproof. After famous frontman Steve Perry departed without even touring behind their strong 1996 comeback album, Trial By Fire, no one could have predicted that the band would soldier on and continue enthralling thousands of concertgoers every night nearly 15 years later. Indeed, successive vocalists Steve Augieri, Jeff Scott Soto and now Arnel Pineda have kept the fire burning. With Pineda's second effort with Journey, Eclipse, out now, the band members-Pineda, guitarist Neal Schon, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bassist Ross Valory and drummer Deen Castronovo-are proving that they have plenty of life left in them, and their continued vigor probably stems in part from the renewed public appetite for their music.
While Journey has certainly maintained a strong performance record over the years, commercial lightning has struck twice for them. Not that they went away, but public perception is huge again. In recent years, the use of "Don't Stop Believing" on the series finale of The Sopranos, on the series premiere of Glee and as the closing number of the Broadway jukebox musical Rock Of Ages has brought huge interest from a new generation of fans as well as revived interest from older followers. The song is also the most popular digital single of all time, selling 4.4 million downloads. And the amazing story of new singer Arnel Pineda, a struggling musician from the Philippines plucked from obscurity after Schon discovered him on YouTube, helped boost sales of their 2008 album Revelations, which has since gone platinum.
The hard rocking new record, Eclipse, continues their musical roll. Although its immediate sales have not been as high as its predecessor-at least domestically-the group continues to play huge concerts, and Schon believes that, with more singles on the way, there is life in the release yet. Journey recently performed on the Today show and were featured on the CBS Morning News. The group, whose members are predominately middle-aged, seem indefatigable.
"Last week we did five [shows] in a row, including the Today show, which we did on no sleep from Minneapolis," reports Schon, the band's co-founder, when he calls The Aquarian from the road. "We played St. Louis and somewhere before then and then flew out from Minneapolis at midnight in a private jet, arrived in New York at four in the morning, went directly to their place [NBC], got changed and waited around to play with no sleep. We did that, then flew back to Chicago that night on a private jet. It's just becoming a wash. With songs like ours, even in the heyday with Steve Perry, it was hard to do more than two in a row. Once in a while we did three in a row."
In contrast to many previous Journey efforts, Eclipse does not feature the kind of tender, traditional love ballads that make some of us groan. Forget tunes like "Open Arms" and "Faithfully," the group's power has always been in pumped-up rockers like "Separate Ways," "Stone In Love" and "Higher Place." Indeed the new release is ripe with rousing, inspired anthems like the majestic "City Of Hope," the spirited "Anything Is Possible" and the tribal stomper "Human Feel." Eclipse is a thematic concept album inspired by the group's visit to Pineda's hometown of Manila, during which he showed them where he lived on the streets during hard times, thus invoking the themes of hope and perseverance rippling throughout the album. Even when the group does dip into lighter musical territory, the existential lyrics give it extra weight. While Schon states that in the past Journey considered radio when writing their music, this time out the thought was not there due to the way music is now consumed through downloads and iPods.
"The record is meant to be listened to from beginning to end," stresses Schon. "A lot of people might listen to bits here and there and wonder where the hooks are and not get it. They're sitting there, they're just a little deeper. They're there if you really listen to it. I really dig this record, man. I think it's one of the strongest records we've ever made. If I have to compare to anything we've done in the past, I'd compare it to Frontiers."
When asked about which Eclipse song is the most personal to him, Schon replies that he likes all of them for different reasons and that they all have their strengths. He does immediately pinpoint the songs "Edge Of The Moment," "Human Feel" and "Tantra" as favorites. "I think with our biggest singles that haven't been released yet, John and I have a lot of work ahead of us to edit the songs because I refused chop them up when we were in the studio," admits the guitarist. "Most of them are five and a half to sex minutes long, and I need to chop them down to three and a half to four minutes. It's possible. Some of them sound a little more hacked than others, but with Pro Tools it's much better than trying to chop tape in the old days."
Given the perception of the band as a pop hit machine, particularly in the wake of the "Don't Stop Believing" craze, it would seem natural that Schon or his other bandmates might be frustrated by the view of some that an album like Eclipse goes against the grain of what Journey is known for. "Honestly, we've not been the critics' choice for years and years and years, so it's nothing new to us," notes Schon. "We're probably receiving more critical acclaim right now than ever before for something that is 30 years old, and we're also getting a lot of rave reviews on the new record. All across Europe, everywhere we've played, we've gotten five-star reviews. People are raving about the record, giving it album of the year, this and that. We're clearly moving forward, not sitting in neutral and just abiding on our hits, which is easy to do. There are signs of life, and we're moving forward. I wanted to do a conceptual rock record and come up with some things that we don't have in our show. I really wrote for what I thought was missing in our live show that would mix good with what we already have."
Many heritage acts try to relive past glories but Schon recalls that when he discussed making Eclipse with keyboardist and co-songwriter Jonathan Cain, he questioned what the point of writing more pop-oriented songs was when they already had an extensive back catalog of similar songs that they need to play every night. Cain agreed, and the first tune he brought back was "Resonate," a love song disguised as a driving rocker.
"The softer side is usually where his mindset is at, and the harder side is usually where mine is at," delineates Schon. "Usually the combo of them is what makes us sound like we do, but with this record I really talked to John about getting our ducks in a row and heading in the same direction. Once we got that, he brought in 'Resonate,' like when he brought in 'Separate Ways' years ago. John can rock, and he can write great rock songs, it's just getting his mind in the right place. When he brought in 'Resonate,' I just added in a little bridge and bits and pieces, and it was done."
Right after Journey finished Eclipse, Schon decided to stay in the studio and indulge in a long overdue solo project. He ended up with two. "I had [former Journey drummer] Steve Smith come in and knock out a solo record with me," reports Schon. "[Keyboardist] 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, and all three of us are singing. It's a very late '60s, early '70s, psychedelic rockin' type extravaganza."
The first project should come out sometime in the near future. Interestingly enough, neither solo endeavor was planned. "I made up all the stuff on the spot," reveals Schon. "I didn't have anything written. I just walked in with a blank sketching pad and some colors and just went at it."
As if music wasn't enough to keep him busy, Schon and his wife have five kids ranging in age from five to 23. Their lone son is the oldest of the brood and a guitar player himself. "He's playing his ass off and writing like a monster," boasts Schon. But the business is way tougher now than when the Journey axeman started. "He's going to me, 'Dad, you've got help me get out there.' I go, 'Son, you're just going to have to go play. I can help you as much as I can with studio time and gear and all that, but there's nobody who can do the work for you. You're going to have to go out there and play, get in front of people and make a name for yourself.'"
Of course, Schon and Journey offer the best example for survival in these tumultuous times: Play a lot of gigs. "I think it's terrible that there is no music industry out there and it's all based on live shows," laments Schon. "So all I can say is get out, play live and if you manage to get on television, television is key for getting awareness about yourself. Moving CDs is a whole other chore that we all deal with."
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