Journey's Neal Schon Doesn't Just Want to Play The Hits

Neal Schon of Journey
Neal Schon of Journey
by Marta Giannotti

When most people are 15 years old, their biggest worry is passing a driving exam. When Journey's Neal Schon was 15, he faced probably one of the biggest decisions of his career: should he join Eric Clapton’s band, or Carlos Santana’s?

Schon admits he made the right decision by joining Santana — shortly after he made his decision, Derek and the Dominos broke up — but soon after touring the world, instead of high school halls, he went on to something that, somehow, ended up being even bigger: Journey.

Since 1973, Neal Schon has bjoeen the one constant in Journey, which formed in San Francisco during one of the city’s most delicious musical periods. Over the years, the band has gone through more than a dozen lineup changes with worldwide album sales that have hit around 90 million — basically making them one of the top-selling bands of all time. And with solid arena tracks like “Wheel in the Sky” (1978), “Any Way You Want It” (1981), and “Don’t Stop Believin’” (1981), it’s a wonder that it took until October 2016 for the band to be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But Journey is only one of the colors of Schon’s musical palette. For the 2016 album Santana IV, he reunited with the early 1970s lineup of Santana for the first time in more than 40 years to record 16 brand-new tracks. His soulful guitar style and penchant for writing arena-filling songs has spawned collaborations with everyone from Sammy Hagar to Paul Rodgers, Joe Cocker and the Allman Brothers. And with the recent passing of musical icon Leon Russell, he posted a touching tribute online that he actually recorded to the musician more than 10 years ago, which most people had never heard.

New Times talked with Schon about new solo project Santana and Journey music; the Arizona show he remembers most; how he almost didn’t find lead singer Arnel Pineda on YouTube; and the truckstop story behind “Wheel in the Sky.” You can catch Journey at Talking Stick Resort on Saturday, November 19.

New Times: Congratulations on being one of the nominees for induction into the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! I have to say I was surprised to find out Journey wasn’t already in there!
Neil Schon: So was I! I thought we were, too! I guess all you can say is "better late than never." You know, we still gotta get in, though. We were just nominated, and it’s an honor. Right now, we’re leading with the fans and public vote, I know. But that’s only a small portion of what happens; there are so many people it has to be run by and there’s a lot of people on the roster that have been around for years, incredible artists.

Speaking of legends, the tribute you posted for Leon Russell on Facebook touched a lot of people.
Thank you! I was a major fan of Leon Russell and followed him for years. I saw him many times live and I always thought he was an amazing performer, lyricist, and songwriter, and his band was always excellent. "A Song For You" I actually recorded about a decade and a half ago. It was nominated for a Grammy, and I didn’t win, but that came off a record that was all copies of my favorite ballads written by other people. It was released on a now-defunct record label, and I don’t even know where you could find it anymore. I guess everything’s online now, huh?

The song goes back really far with me; I used to play part of it as a segue to one of our other songs, back with Greg Rolie. So when I saw [Russell] passed, I wanted to post it, and hoped that people appreciated it.

People were going nuts over it.
I really like playing that symphonic stuff you know? I’m working on something else right now with Narada Michael Walden. I’m sort of stepping aside from the writing aspect and the producing aspect. ... I’m learning how to step back and let someone help me. We just started recording; it’s orchestral and brand-new stuff.

So it is an instrumental album?
Yes, at this point. I mean, you never know what might happen in the middle of a project with a producer like him. The grooves are really deep. He’s an excellent drummer, songwriter, and producer.

Is that something fans could expect maybe next year?
Definitely, yeah.

You played on Santana VI (2016), which reunited the classic lineup. How was it performing with those guys for the first time in more than four decades?
It was wild. You know, I was pitching the idea to Carlos for a long time, and he finally warmed up to it. The first time we got together in a room, it sounded like nobody had ever left. The chemistry was so strong, and you know, it was very organic, the way everyone plays together with the rhythm and blues and melody. There’s never any lack of enthusiasm or creative ability. Carlos is an abundance of creativity all the time.

They’ve [the producers] done an amazing job with that record, distributing-wise. I actually got a check the other day, and it was a nice check! And that’s just unseen this day in age.

Nowadays, it’s common for bands to find members off YouTube. But in 2007, what first prompted you  to use YouTube as the search tool for a new lead singer?
You know, I found Arnel [Pineda, Journey's lead singer since 2007]. Nobody had really thought about YouTube yet. At that time, I was not really into computers. But I liked the fact that you know, I can see artists all over the world, and it wasn’t like a produced CD or packet that someone sends you to check out. I knew that, when I was watching it, it’s all live and nothing has been fixed in ProTools or tweaked.

And you know, it worked out and this is Arnel’s ninth year. That’s longer than any singer that’s ever stayed with us.

I remember seeing Journey play in Phoenix within a few years of Arnel coming on board. I thought it was a gamble, and then realized he was a perfect fit. The show was outdoors, and a huge lightning storm and monsoon came through.

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You know, I remember that. We had to cut the show short because it was a wailing storm. We were playing an instrumental song off our Revelation record. I looked up, and there was this blue light coming on the stage and I could see all the rain pouring and I thought, "What an amazing video! Too bad nobody is filming this." It was really cool and looked like something produced in a studio.

It was a memorable show. I’ll never forget the energy of the crowd, especially when “Wheel In The Sky” started with the lightning. What can you tell me about that song?

“Wheel in the Sky” goes back to pre-Steve Perry days. We were traveling by station wagon and stopped at a gas station for everyone to relieve themselves, and the driver wanted a candy bar. I remember I yanked out an acoustic guitar and just started strumming the chords. I came up with the chords for the song, and at the time there were some lyrics that Ross [Valroy, bassist] had written, and he gave them to me, and I just kinda blurted out “wheel in the sky keeps on turning” so we had the chorus.

Shortly after that we were considering a guy for a singer, Robert Fleischman, and he was a good songwriter. So he helped me finish writing that song and went on to write other songs with me, like “Winds of March” and “Anytime.” Our management wasn’t so crazy about the song. That was a song right before a big band transition, when Steve Perry came on board.

You’ve been the one constant over the years as the founder of Journey. Was there ever a time when you felt like the band wasn’t going to last, or that you weren’t sure of the path you wanted to take?
You know what, the band has great musicianship and writing, but people butt heads. It’s like a family. And everybody has a difference of opinion, but the combination has proved time and time over again to work. Jonathan [Cain] has his ballads that he does, that’s a bit more pop, but then there’s stuff he wrote with Steve that are R&B-influenced, which is a huge factor. That turns a rock song into a soul rock song, you know? Rock 'n' soul is like, the coolest stuff ever, I think. We wrote some great timeless music, I guess you could call it.

Reflecting back on the fact that you joined Santana at the age of 15, what are a few of the career highlights that stand out to you?

Shortly after I joined the band, we traveled all over the world, and what an amazing experience that was for me. I was so young, still in high school at the time. There’s one thing in particular, though, that was monumental to me, and Carlos and I still talk about it. We were playing in London and Eric Clapton was there — I had met Eric Clapton right before joining Santana, and he came into the studio while we were jamming for the Santana III record. Eric was a big fan of the band, so he stopped by while they were in San Francisco. So we jammed for a few hours, said hello and goodbye. He got a hold of me the next day at the studio and invited me to play with him at Berkeley Community Theater with Derek and the Dominos. I got a ride — because I didn’t have a driver’s license, or a car — and he told me to come on stage to play with them. I had a blast, and he asked me to go to the hotel that night, and he proceeded to ask me to move to London to join his band! I felt like I was a day away from getting an offer to join the Santana band; when that happened, they moved a little quicker. And lucky me! I wish I could’ve split myself in half and went both places. I would’ve loved to have played with Eric, but I made the right choice because shortly after that, the Dominos broke up.

But who knows what could happen in the future? We’re still here!

But I got sidetracked. The story I was going to tell you about the memory that stood out: I played London Hammersmith with Santana, and that night it was Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck were some of the people on stage. It was crazy. We kicked so much ass. The next day there was a picture of me, and it said, "Schon Burns Clapton" and I was like oh shit! ... Sometimes journalists like to stir things up.

That’s an amazing story, though. So, you’ve performed with so many musical legends over the years. Can you name someone that you haven’t collaborated with, or shared the stage with, that is on your bucket list?
When you play with someone new and different, they bring something different out of you. You bring something out of them, and they bring it out of you. You know when Journey gets together, we sound like us.

Can fans expect new Journey music any time soon?

Absolutely. I’ve been writing and have a lot of ideas. We’re going to be out on tour this year, and then I’m going to push Jon to do something. Even if we don’t do a full record. I don’t feel like we need to do a full record each year – it’s costly and time-consuming. ... However, I have a hard time sitting in neutral, and I’m not all about nostalgia. I’m always aspiring to move forward, regardless of the state of the industry. We could easily do a song or two songs a year, and get them placed in a movie or something. If records are really not selling as well as everyone would like, bands have to evolve. If you don’t evolve, you get trapped. If you get in that place, where you’re comfortable looking at your gold records on the wall, then you’re on the way out. And I’m not there yet. I won’t be done for quite some time.

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