Neal Schon is the founding member and lead guitarist for Journey, one of the most successful and beloved rock bands of all time. In addition to his amazing work with Journey, Neal is a former member of Santana and Bad English, and he’s had a prolific career as a solo artist as well. Journey is touring this summer with Def Leppard, and, following the tour, Neal is releasing a new solo album: Universe.
You have a new solo album in the works, Universe. How’s that coming along?
At this point, I’m buttoning up all the ends on Universe with Narada Michael Walden. We just got all the sequencing and mixes final. That’s to be released later this year, probably close to when Journey’s tour gets done. Then we’re going to look to book some dates around that, at venues where we can have an orchestra. The music sounds amazing. I’m really happy with the project.
I remember when your last solo album came out, Vortex, you were pulling double-duty by opening the show with your solo music and then coming out afterward to play Journey’s set. This time around, you’re going to do a separate tour and play more intimate venues?
Yeah, that’s what we’re hoping for. There is live orchestra on the record, which is why we figured we’d go that way. It’s very melodic, powerful and majestic. There’s also some fusion on it. We did some cover tunes, but most of it is written by Narada. He produced it and played the hell out of it, on drums. We got his bass player, Buddha, playing on it. It sounds really solid and it’s probably one of the best sounding records I ever made. Kudos to those guys. His drum sound is just phenomenal. And the guitar sounds great. Everything just came together. It was an easy project for me because I didn’t have to worry about writing material. I just let him take me in a different direction.
That’s interesting. So, Narada came to you with what he thought you should work on rather than the other way around?
Well, I went to him and I said, “Write me a record, man.” He had enough free time and he said to me, “You want me to?” I said, “Yeah.” I figured he’d come back to me in a couple months and play me a couple tunes. Instead, he called me four days later and he had seven tunes written and I was like, “What?” [Laughs] I thought for sure that maybe some of these songs had been sitting around for somebody else and they got shelved and he goes, “No, man. I just wrote all these right now.” He’s very prolific, fast and on-the-spot like that. It’s very cool.
Narada has worked with some amazing artists, including Whitney Houston, Elton John, and Natalie Cole, just to name a few. What’s his songwriting process like?
I don’t know. I wasn’t there when he wrote these songs. But I’ve been with him in the studio other times and it starts with him getting a drum loop going. Then he’ll go play keyboards on it. He’ll find his chord passages, and then put in some keyboard bass. Then he plays real drums on it.
For my particular record, he sung the guitar melodies in certain places where he wanted the melody played. It was funny because I didn’t know that’s what he wanted. When he played it all for me, I was blown away. I thought it was outrageously cool. I said, “Let me go wrap my head around it.” I went back to my house and got comfortable with all the arrangements. I thought the melodies he sang were just a guide for me to mess around with. The first day of recording I start playing and he’s like, “What are you doing?” [Laughs] And I go, “I’m playing, man.” He said, “No, man. You’ve got to play that melody.” And I responded, “Oh, you want me to play that exact melody?” It was a learning process for me in that sense. It turned out really great, so I didn’t mind being the student. There’s always way more to be learned.
Do you know approximately how many songs will be on Universe?
I think there will be 12 or 13 tracks. It’s a long record, no doubt, but it’s so well paced. It takes you in and out of all these different type of grooves. The rhythm section is so powerful but also wide open too. There is a lot of powerful, melodic guitar playing, and it’s a bit funky, too, in other areas.
This summer Journey is touring with Def Leppard. I’m sure that’ll be a fantastic night of music. What’s also cool is you and Def Leppard are alternating which band closes out the show each night.
We threw it back and forth. I talked to Joe about it. I was in New York doing all the press with him and it worked out where Journey is bigger, we’ll end up closing, and where Def Leppard is bigger, they’ll end up closing. It’s not a flip-flop every night, but it’s pretty much 50/50.
From what I can tell, Def Leppard and Joe Elliott are really nice guys, so you’re basically going to be touring with friends, right?
I’ve always liked these guys. It was great to see Joe again and to hang for about a week. And I just saw Phil Collen before that. I just went to the G3 tour over in Oakland and did that. I sat in with John Petrucci, Joe Satriani, and Phil Collen. It’s crazy, we haven’t seen these guys in such a long time but they’re still the same nice guys. They’re great guys and they’ve got a solid crew behind them. So, it’s going to be fun.
Back in the 1980s, when Journey and Def Leppard were at the top of the charts, did you guys cross paths at all, or did you get to know each other later on in your careers?
I believe we were playing Salt Lake City in 1981, and Def Leppard was playing the night before or the night after us. They came by, so we met them back then, yet we didn’t play together. I was a big fan of their first record. We didn’t play together until the tour we did 12 or 13 years ago. It’s good timing, I think, for two bands that get along really well. Our music fits together really well for both audiences. They’ll be a lot of happy fans.
Speaking of Def Leppard, they recently released their entire catalog of music digitally, for the first time. Lots of bands or artists have held out on making music available digitally, especially for streaming services like Spotify. The common complaint is royalties being too low. Do you think it falls on record companies to negotiate better deals for artist when it comes to royalty rates for streaming services?
Yeah, I do. And I think it’s up to your attorneys. You gotta get somebody to light the fire. I know management has been on it for Journey. I’ve seen all the legal documentation going back and forth with Sony that we’re requesting much, much higher than we’ve been getting for years from streaming. We have one of the most downloaded and most streamed songs of all time with “Don’t Stop Believin’” and what I’m seeing is substantial. But it’s not to the degree of what I think it really is worldwide.
This song has become an anthem worldwide. Not just in the United States — all over the place. I don’t think there’s one human being that doesn’t know that song and sing it. We’re working at all that right now and, hopefully, it’s going to pave the way for when we finally do get it straightened out to where it should be, not just for us but for all bands. That’s going to pave the way for lots and of younger musicians that are struggling to try to get out there, which, right now, is pretty much — you have to play live, you sell a little bit of merch, and that’s what you have to survive off of. There’s no money in recording anymore because of the streaming and everything. Everybody is getting rich and fat off it except for the artists.
Best Buy announced that it’s no longer going to sell CDs in its stores. What’s your take on that?
I’m always going to have a CD, even if they stop making them. I’ll print them myself because I like to drive with them. I think they sound better to me. The fidelity — I hear a difference. I really don’t know what to think about it. On the other hand, they’re making LPs again, and the sales have been great — they’ve performed better than anyone expected them too. The mere fact that it’s circling around to making and selling records, and, luckily, the royalty rates for records are still intact. I believe artists are making more money off the record sales than they are off the streaming and downloading. So, it’s crazy to think that CDs will be gone completely. I think there’s definitely a lot of talk about it. But if records are back, I don’t know, man. [Laughs] I doubt that it’s going to go to an 8-track in a car. [Laughs]
Yeah, I don’t think we want that. [Laughs] Speaking of music, you released a holiday EP a few months ago. Tell me about that.
Yeah, I had a blast doing that. With “Faithfully” and “Open Arms,” I got to mess around with the arrangements. I got to hear the songs in a different fashion, sung by my guitar. I will probably do more in the future because it’s kind of a no-brainer for me. Very easy to do. The guy that orchestrated all the tracks for me, Gary Cirimelli, is just a monstrous producer out of Nashville. We plan on doing more for this next year. I have him working on something right now, but I can’t get into the details about it just yet.
One of my favorite albums of yours is Voice, which got nominated for a Grammy, because I thought your version of “Hero” by Mariah Carey was better than hers.
It’s crazy. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and believe that I wrote that song [Laughs] and that Mariah Carey heard it, had lyrics put to it and then created her version. So, I tell people, “No, actually, it’s the other way around.” Gary did that whole record with me. It was a pretty easy record to make. He had the majority of the work, with a 100-piece orchestra on every song he had to build, all in Pro Tools. It’s all played by keyboard but they’re all real samples. That’s quite a lot of work, and he’s one of the best at it, I believe.
To make a 100-piece orchestra on a keyboard sound great and not cheesy is not easy to do. I picked the songs for us to do and then I told him what key I was thinking that would be best for the guitar to sing in. Some of them ended up being in the original keys, which is pretty crazy. When I look down at the guitar, there are no markers on the neck. If it sounds right, I’ll play it, in whatever key. Then I talked to Gary about extending certain sections and improvising a bit — put a couple extra chord sections in songs, sometimes. Other times, it’s not needed. I love making records like that, and I see myself going further and further in that direction in the future as a solo artist. I can rock with the best of them, but I love playing symphonic music. When I go out later this year with Narada, it’ll be the first time I’m doing it with actual string players. I’m curious to see how it goes.
One of my favorite musicians is Barry Manilow, who went to Juilliard and is a formally trained musician. There are other musicians I like, KISS, for example, that aren’t formally trained. They are self-taught musicians. Which camp do you fall into?
I listen to everybody. I keep what I like. I didn’t study. I didn’t go to school because I’ve been on tour since I was 15 with Santana. I didn’t finish high school, [Laughs] let alone go to Juilliard. I’ve often thought about going back. But I’ve talked and played with so many incredible musicians that come from a jazz background and know everything they’re doing, and some of the best guys have said, “Just keep on doing what you’re doing. You’re coming from the heart. You’re coming from the soul.”
There’s something to knowing every musical scale there is but, really, I don’t know any scales. People are astounded by it, if I sit down and play with them. I can hear what it is when people play for me, but I’ve never studied scales. I know what sounds minor, major, whole tones, half tones, which makes it sound more out. Really, to me, it’s patterns, where my fingers are. And the choice of notes is where my ears are and what I hear in my head, from listening to so many great players.
You recently did a benefit show called “Journey Through Time” with Gregg Rollie, Marco Mendoza, and Deen Castronovo. What was the impetus for that show?
We had devastating fires here in the North Bay. It was so bad. When I drive by, it looks like a bombed out shelter area, right now. I wanted to do something on a larger level with Journey, but everybody was all over the place. I spoke with Irving Azoff about it, and the bigger shows were already booked. So, me and the guys decided to play The Independent in San Francisco. It was a great little club, really beautiful. Nice inside, and I think they crammed about 650 people in there. It was really cool, and it all benefited North Bay Fire Relief. People flew in from all over the world, and tickets sold out in two minutes. It was a lot of fun, and we played for three-and-a-half hours.
The festival-type situation I’m looking to get into more, this band would really be suited for that. We went beyond just playing the greatest hits. We played deep cuts, and stuff off the records that some people have never heard before. We discovered that there wasn’t anything we really couldn’t play. We dove into some Santana stuff because Gregg was there. It was wild. Really, really wild.
Will you guys get together to do more shows in the future?
Absolutely! We had a gas. It was really a lot of fun for everyone. I look forward to doing that again.
About a year or so ago, you talked about doing a blues album with John Waite. What’s the status on that?
Well, John was supposed to be the surprise guest at the Journey Through Time gig we were just talking about. But then his management got him a corporate gig that was paying really well last-minute and he said, “I’ll meet you later down the line.” He’s definitely interested in mixing everything with us. I see it as sort of a festival type thing. If we can play Journey, Santana, and then mix in some of Waite’s stuff, Bad English, and then some of the Zeppelin stuff John has been doing and sounding fantastic on. Wow! You have quite a library of material to keep people’s minds boggled and enthused.
The last time I saw you live was at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, when Journey got inducted. Up until that point, when was the last time you had seen Steve Perry?
I had not seen him in years, up until that point, and I have not seen him since that evening. But I still feel very connected. At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, we talked backstage in his room for quite a while, before accepting our awards. It felt like we were really well connected again. A lot of time had gone by, but there was definitely love and respect there that I could feel while I was talking to him. And I felt the same thing as he was talking to me. A lot of time had gone by and everybody is settled now. And even if we didn’t end on good terms and everybody was pissed off for one reason or another, it’s all passed now. What remains are the good memories.
The monotonous question is, ‘Do you think Steve Perry will ever come back to Journey?’ [Laughs] I don’t think so, at this point. He’s not going to come back to Journey as it is, but I do hope that him and I can work together in the future on something different, even if it’s only a song for a movie or whatever. After speaking with him that night, I felt that we would work together again.
You mentioned having not seen Steve Perry since the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. But have you been in contact since then?
No, we have not. I haven’t been chasing it. When you want something to really happen, you can’t chase it. The best things in life, they just kind of happen when they’re supposed to. My marriage with Michaele and your marriage with your wife — things just happen when they’re supposed to.
Former KISS guitarist Vinnie Vincent just came out of seclusion, and Robert Fleischman joined him on stage at a KISS expo to perform songs from their time together in Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Are you familiar with Vinnie Vincent? If so, what are your thoughts on him?
Well, I do know who he is. And, like you said, I do believe Robert worked with him a long time ago. Robert and I see each other a couple times a year, usually when Journey is passing through his town. And, Robert, no doubt, is a great songwriter. We had great chemistry before Steve was in the band. “Wheel In The Sky,” “Winds Of March,” “Anytime.” He’s a great lyricist and he had great melody.
You’ve had a fascinating and prolific career. Have you ever considered writing an autobiography?
Oh, yes. I believe I started writing it before anybody else in the band did. I’ve been writing it with a good friend for over 10 years now. There’s so much to my life story. I didn’t want to do any of the cheesy stuff that other people do all the time. I wanted it to come more from the musicians that I played with and interviews he’s done with those musicians. Steve Perry did an interview for my book, and he gave a great interview. It’s coming, man. But things keep getting more interesting all the time, so we don’t feel like closing the door yet.
Are you interested in putting out a new Journey studio album?
As long as I’m here, there will always be another Journey record. A few days ago Jon said in an interview that he’s open to doing new music, which is news to me. Last time we spoke about it he said, “There is no new Journey music.” I’m always going to create new music, like I do every day. And I’d also like to create a record with the Journey Through Time band. I think we could knock out a record very quickly. We’ll see how it goes this year. Journey is made up of amazing musicians. Let’s see how we connect this year, throw ourselves into it and try to be one.
Since you and I last spoke, Deen Castronovo has had a successful recovery. He’s put out another Revolution Saints album and joined The Dead Daisies as their new drummer. And you got to play with him at the Journey Through Time show. What are your thoughts on Deen and all of his recent success?
Deen is awesome, and he’s in the best place I’ve ever seen him. Mentally, physically, and singing-wise. He quit everything, including smoking, which made him able to sing even better. At the Journey Through Time gig, he sang all the songs in the original keys, without an in-ear monitor! He held up amazingly well. We played “Walks Like A Lady,” and he really gets the R&B side of Steve. It’s phenomenal to watch him play for that long. He played the hell out of the drums and sang amazingly well.
Even though Steve Perry is no longer in Journey, does he receive a percentage of the money Journey makes touring because you guys are performing material he helped write?
That’s an interesting question. Most of the material was co-written by Steve, myself, and Jonathan, and some of it by Gregg. As long as we keep touring and keep everything alive, everyone benefits. We have a built-in deal with Steve, which I can’t really talk about, but everybody benefits as long as we’re still out there.
See Journey perform live June 11 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, June 13 at Madison Square Garden in New York, and June 15 at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Michael Cavacini is an award-winning communications professional, and his arts and culture site, MichaelCavacini.com, features additional interviews with iconic artists.