Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ice as nice: James Young recalls Styx's first Utah visit

Styx guitarist James Young in concert at USANA Amphitheatre in 2011. (Doug Fox)
Looking back, it's obvious that guitarist James "JY" Young served as my initial portal to StyxWorld in a couple key ways.

The first real Styx song I fell in love with was "Miss America," the lead track on Side II of "The Grand Illusion." On first listen in 1977, I was somewhat lulled into complacency by the droning keyboard intro. The stunning payoff, however, came with a punch to the gut of adrenaline as the song's main nasty guitar riff took over.

Yes, Styx had me at "You were the apple of the public's eye."

A few years later when I was at college, some like-minded, rock-loving dorm friends turned me on to the "Equinox" album. Is it any surprise that I was immediately drawn to "Midnight Ride," one of the most rocking Styx tunes ever put to vinyl?

Of course, both "Miss America" and "Midnight Ride" are powered not only by Young's lead guitar playing, but also by his vocals.

Jumping a couple decades into the future, when I was starting to get a bit more involved in music writing, Young became the first member of Styx I did an interview with. I remember mentioning my fascination with "Miss America" and "Midnight Ride" and Young saying, "Well, you must be one rocking dude" -- or something close to that.

With Styx's constant touring schedule, as well as several more in-depth side projects, I have had the opportunity to interview JY so many times that it would take a real mental fact-checking exercise to determine just how many. I've found each time interesting and engaging on its own merits.

With so much experience behind us, JY and I kind of have an unspoken agreement. He knows that I am somehow going to bring up "Midnight Ride" in the course of an interview, and I know that he will laugh but remain mostly non-committal about whether I will ever get the chance to see it played live again. That's how we roll.

A majority of this interview takes a look back at an early period in Styx history -- when "Lady" first became a hit in Utah and Styx played an infamous local show in Provo at a place called the Ice House in 1973. With Styx returning to Provo on Wednesday -- the first time since that 1973 show -- it provided a perfect opportunity to revisit those early days, not only with JY, but also with the local radio program directors who helped make "Lady" a hit more than a year before the song broke nationally. (To read that full story, click HERE.)

Young also talked about the resurrection of the band's well-received "Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" show, which features both those albums being played in sequence and in their entirety. Following the Provo concert, the band will head to Las Vegas for two special performances of that show on Friday and Saturday. Check back for a review of that show next week.

As it turns out, the obligatory "Midnight Ride" reference spontaneously came early in our conversation this time around. JY is usually extremely prompt, so when his call came a bit more than five minutes late, it was a rare occurrence. Turns out a couple digits in my phone number were transposed. The innocent mixup left the door open for a "Midnight Ride" parry.

DOUG FOX: It’s not like you've never called this number before!

JAMES YOUNG: No, but usually I don’t call on cell phones. I may have it in my little Hewlett Packard Palm Top that’s vintage 1991 that I keep most of my most important secret information on because most of today’s geeks don’t know how to work it.

DF: Well, that’s probably where you have the decoded information of when “Midnight Ride” will appear in the setlist again, too.

YOUNG: (laughs heartily)

DF: We couldn’t have a conversation if I didn’t bring that up at least once!

YOUNG: Well, yeah, it’s very reinforcing to me and my voice, which I was struggling with for quite a while. Actually I went back and took some voice lessons and learned about the horrors of acid reflux and what it could do to your throat, so I’m still not ... proper rest is an important thing, shutting your mouth during the rest of the day is an important thing, and I allow Tommy [Shaw] that privilege because we are more dependent on his voice than mine, but unfortunately because I’m on the phone a lot and when it comes to showtime I’m just not the guy who sang “You Need Love” and “Midnight Ride.” I’m about a step, step and a half lower than that.

DF: But it sounds like you said you’re gradually getting back there.

YOUNG: Well, I think over the space of a couple of years I’ve absolutely regained — there’s better living through proper chemistry and then actually even diet has improved. I gave up Coca-Cola about nine months ago today, actually, January 28th, well, late January, roughly nine months ago today.

DF: So, if I’m understanding you correctly, in my eternal optimism, you’re telling me there’s a chance!

YOUNG: (laughs) So you’re saying there’s a chance!

DF: Exactly!

YOUNG: One in a million — so you’re saying there’s a chance! Jim Carrey’s great line. (laughs)

DF: That’s exactly right. As long as there’s that chance, I’ll continue hoping.

YOUNG: Oh, yeah.

DF: Where are you calling from today?

YOUNG: Lovely, we’ll call it Escanaba, Michigan, because you can actually find that on a map, but we’re about 20 miles west of there in a tiny little place called Harris in a Native American casino-type situation.

DF: That’s where you’re playing tonight?

YOUNG: Tonight and tomorrow, yeah.

DF: It’s funny, I checked out on the Internet some of your recent setlists, and it had one for a show, it said it was in the last couple days, but it had all these songs that I know there’s no way you could have possibly been playing. Well, like it had Babe in there, and an entire setlist of songs that I know somebody was just messing around.

YOUNG: Well, we have lately done “Castle Walls,” “Pieces of Eight” — but those aren’t the two you’re talking about.

DF: No, I mean, it had “She Cares,” “Half-Penny Two-Penny,” just a bunch of really obscure songs ... “Shooz” ...

YOUNG: Yeah, someone is dreaming there.

DF: Yeah. I figured that with the shows coming up in Las Vegas ...

YOUNG: We’re rehearsing the deep tracks there, yeah. We rehearsed “Lords of the Ring,” which is the toughest one.

DF: Yeah, I’ll ask you more about that later.


DF: But first of all, I know you’re fond of saying that if it wasn’t for flashbacks you wouldn’t remember much of the 70s ...

YOUNG: (Laughs)

DF: But I also know you’re the band historian.

YOUNG: Well, that’s a fun joke to get out of answering these questions, but I do save — they will have a “Hoarders” TV show about me at some point. But I can still sort of walk through all of the rooms in my house, but not quite.

DF: That would be some treasure trove, I imagine.

YOUNG: Well, who knows what kind of value some of that stuff’s going to have and there’s a memory attached to each one. I ran across something just yesterday, it was a photo from before Tommy was in the band. It was some sort of Styx ID and I looked like Lawrence’s son. Kind of sour-pussed and dark and long straggly hair and a beard. It’s fun to have that stuff to touch base with and what have you — but I know we’re going to talk about the past today and I’m ready!

DF: All right, excellent — because that’s especially why I wanted to talk to you, because I wanted to delve into what you remember about that first show in Provo. Even dating back to that first time we talked, I think it was in 1996, you brought up the history about how Provo was one of the original three cities where “Lady” first became a hit and how you’d driven out here in a rented motor home to play the Ice House. So with obviously the Provo show coming up again — and correct me if I’m wrong, as near as I can figure out this is the first show actually back in Provo since the Ice House show in ’73 — I know you played nearby Orem a few times.

YOUNG: OK, Orem we definitely played, starting in ’96, we were there two or three times.

DF: See that’s what I mean, you’ve got a good memory because I think it’s three times.

YOUNG: But going back to the heyday, I mean this is the thing I think that stands out, and we’ll get to Provo in a second, very few places were we able to sell out three arenas. Mostly in top 10 cities, I’m talking about Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, where you have that sort of population. Detroit was a place where we did three Cobo Halls at one point in time. St. Louis we probably did two arenas, Kansas City, places like that, and Dallas and Houston. But Salt Lake City on the “Paradise Theatre” tour, we did three shows at the Salt Palace. And I know in recent times, you know, actually I think it was when we released “Big Bang Theory” and they were tracking sales around the country and Los Angeles and Chicago were neck and neck — of course Los Angeles is bigger, so per capita, Chicago has always been our biggest, but the second-biggest per capita place for the sale of Styx music is Salt Lake City. It’s, basically, ‘Wow, all this is coming from that much less population base.’ So something about our music caught on in 1973. And we were managed by a guy in ’73 named Vince DePaul, who was married to one of Dennis DeYoung’s female cousins. And he understood the business on a local level and how to get work for a band and how to keep (them) performing, playing, whatever. But once we got a recording contract and stuff, he was kind of ill-equipped to cope with it. And when “Lady” out of the clear blue, with the release of our second LP, you know, all of a sudden we hear we’re getting airplay in Rapid City, South Dakota, Little Rock, Arkansas, and a place called Provo, Utah, which I’d never heard of before then, and KEYY radio, we didn’t have a proper national booking agent, and we didn’t have a lot of things organized about our career that major acts that were better represented had. Ultimately we parted company with him because his skill set, we all sort of felt, we thanked him for his service getting us where we got, but felt that he was an impediment to us going any further at all — but he took it upon himself to somehow find a way to get us booked in Utah, and that was the Ice House. I don’t know if we were the opening act there, but I know we played there early in the life of that club.

DF: So, when you first heard this, you didn’t have any idea where Provo was?

YOUNG: Well, my family, my dad was very much into taking long automobile trips with his wife and five children. In 1955, we drove all the way to California to see one of my uncles, and we got there, I think, just before Disneyland opened. We drove past it, but “It’s not open yet, we can’t get in there!” Then we drove up to San Francisco to see some relative on my mother’s side, and drove back home. This was with five kids in the car, in a ’55 Buick ... so I’m not geographically challenged, I know where things are, but the lesser cities of the great state of Utah were unbeknownst to me at that point in my life even though I was a college graduate and had traveled quite a bit. But, no, it was exciting to go far away and then see that sort of a response to our music when we’d been banging our heads against the wall in front of, maybe sold-out clubs, but we were still doing a lot of cover songs there and had a reputation in Chicago, and was sort of spread around the Midwest from our performances — but, you know, to go that far away, 1,500 miles ... it was a very exciting time for us in our development as a major league recording act.

DF: Right, and that’s what I was going to ask you about. At the time you traveled all the way out here, what was your road experience at the time? It sounds like you’d been doing shows around the Midwest, if I understood you correctly, but you had not been on a trip this far away?

YOUNG: No, we’d go places like Peoria, Illinois, and up to Milwaukee, over to Indiana, maybe over to Michigan, but at that point in time, I’m not sure. Because I was out of college and driving a cab part-time to make ends meet with the money we were making from performing, and I think Dennis and Chuck (Panozzo) still were teachers. Dennis was a music teacher and Chuck was an art teacher, so they still had full-time jobs up until, I think, the release of “Styx II.” And they may have kept them beyond that even. Some of that kind of limited what we did because reason and financial necessity sort of dictated, (laughs) “Don’t give up something you’ve worked your whole life for, that is a teaching degree and the way to work on something that may never come to fruition, financially for yourself.” And Dennis’s wife, who I know was interested in the future well-being of herself and her daughter, was very outspoken about it all. But I’m a little bit vague, I should have gone back because I know there’s this website, Styxtoury, which is not perfect, but it’s pretty close on a lot of things that went on way back when in terms of the shows we played. Have you ever seen that website?

DF: I might have in the past, but I’ll have to go back and look at it again.

YOUNG: But I think we did not stray far outside of a 200-mile radius of Chicago.

DF: OK. Can you elaborate a bit more on the actual road trip? I remember you telling me once it was during the oil embargo.

YOUNG: Well there was a couple of different trips that happened. The first one might have been during the oil embargo and I think Dennis was not feeling well, so he got on an airplane and John Panozzo and I decided we were just going to drive it back and drive it straight through. But that was clearly during the Arab oil embargo. We had an extra can of gas with us, which I think may not have been legal, but nonetheless we felt going through the mountains ... I think we got to Evanston, Wyoming, and realized we were going to run out, so we sort of fashioned a road map into a funnel and poured whatever we had left into the tank and managed to make it to a gas station somewhere. But that’s a slice of American history as experienced by two members of Styx in the middle of the mountains, going, “Are we out of our minds here, why are we doing this kind of a thing?” But being young enough and bull-headed enough to say, “We can do this!” So we just traded off, and had a wonderful steak in Kearney, Nebraska, and I’d driven much of the way, and then John Panozzo took it much of the way home ... 27 hours, with one steak dinner in the middle of that, and get back to Chicago.

DF: Those are the types of experiences that generally turn into good songs!

YOUNG: Uh, yeah!

DF: Do you have any memories of the actual show itself? I know that may be kind of difficult.

YOUNG: Well, I have a picture in my mind of the club — but it is vague — and what the audience looked like. But it’s very vague. I wish I could, but I can’t give you very much on that.

DF: That’s understandable — who knows how many thousands of shows later. What type of a setlist might you have been playing in those days? Not the order, but the typical songs.

The building that used to contain the Ice House, on 100 West in Provo. (Jim Mcauley/Daily Herald)

YOUNG: Well, my guess is we probably still would have been playing some covers at that point in time. We probably played a number of originals, but probably would have worked in something like “Whole Lotta Love” and some of the covers that really got a big reaction at that point in time, where people were amazed that those guys could sing as high as Robert Plant on that song, or what have you. “Aimless Lady” was one song that I sang, that we did from time to time, by Grand Funk. We were known for early on, Dennis, we would do the Sly and the Family Stone thing, and Dennis would go off into this feel-good rap and get the audience in a call-and-response kind of thing where he got the audience wound up and spoke to them — which seems to be somewhat at every stage of our career, he’s taken it upon himself to do that. Tommy even tells a story about how, because he was not in the band at that point in time, that they heard that Styx had this feel-good thing that really got the crowd going crazy, and he said all the club bands hated us because we weren’t stuck playing, you know, five sets a night, six nights a week in some bar until five in the morning or whatever it was. But when Tommy auditioned, “Midnight Ride” was actually the first song — I don’t know if you’ve heard that part of the story?

DF: Yeah, you’d told me that.

YOUNG: His band was broke up at that point in time and he was back playing a bowling alley in Montgomery, Alabama, kind of a thing just to make ends meet, whatever. And in his own mind, as he would tell it, “I’ve got to be part of this band. I’ve got to do this.” So, that feel-good thing was a big thing. “Whole Lotta Love” was one that comes to my mind.

(Telephone rings on his end) ...

YOUNG: Now I have another interview I’m supposed to do in like five minutes. Can I call you back after that?

DF: Sure.

YOUNG: Actually, I’m just calling The Arrow in Salt Lake City.

DF: Oh, OK.

YOUNG: And  then I’ll get right back to you.

DF: Fine, sounds great.

YOUNG: Hold on a second, we’ve got another couple minutes.

DF: I’ll keep my eye on the clock, but let me know for sure. ... As part of the story, I’m trying to track some people down who were actually at the show and get their reactions. I’ve talked to one person so far and he mentioned that one memory he has, of course, he’s familiar with the song “Lady” and that was the only thing he was familiar with going in, so that was kind of what he was expecting, but then he got to the show and he said it was a lot more rocking than he expected going in. That’s probably a lot of the material you were playing then.

YOUNG: Yeah, I’m having a hard time remembering what the actual setlist might have been, but I know when we were a club band we’d do a couple of sets so there had to be cover stuff in there. There may not have been that much covers, but if they had us play two sets, that’s something I couldn’t tell you. But we had two albums of material to draw from at that point in time, obviously because we’d recorded “Styx II.” But I’m sure there would have been some notable covers in there, like I said “Whole Lotta Love.” John Curulewski was there, he wrote “22 Years,” which is quite a rocking song. Our best thing, obviously, from “Styx I,” that we would have done, “Mother Nature’s Matinee,” we always did that one. I’m not sure if we did “Children of the Land” — those were the three originals off the first one. We may have done some of the covers that they made us do on that first record. We had material from the second record, “Father, Oh I Say” would have been a strong one I think we always played. “You Need Love” we would have played. We had two albums of originals to work from at that point, but I’ll bet there were certainly some covers in the set.

DF: OK. Was there a feeling after that that this might be a stepping stone to something bigger — not that the show was in Provo, but just that there was starting to be a demand in previously unenvisioned locales?

YOUNG: (laughs) Well there was great optimism, which lasted for a brief period of time until we put out “Serpent is Rising” and then, really, nothing happened at all. I remember Dennis saying to me at one point, “Well, J.Y., we’ve seen our heyday.” (laughs) And even for his sometimes pessimistic attitude, (I thought) “I think it’s a little early for that.” (laughs)

YOUNG: Let me call these other guys.

DF: OK, I’ll catch you after.

(Interview continues after Young calls back.)

DF: I guess it’s no stretch to say that Provo still holds a soft spot in Styx history?

YOUNG: Oh, tremendously. I mean, the first time, I can even remember back in my teenage years when myself as a musician got recognized in any way shape or form, those things sort of stay with you. The band that I had with my brother that was sort of a precursor to Styx, all those things, every little milestone that we had are kind of things that you’ll never forget. And particularly, Utah, which just is a unique place unto itself for a variety of reasons, yeah, and the trips back and forth that were filled with drama, all those things just kind of will always be with me.

DF: Just one final question on that because you had mentioned it — there have been rumors, some people have thought there was a second show, but I’ve been able to find no documentation on it.

YOUNG: Well, now that you’re saying that, it’s quite possible that there was not. I do remember there was another time where we were out in the — I swore that we drove back twice from Salt Lake City, but maybe I’m wrong about that. We’ve done some long drives along I-80, and in fact had an accident, it wasn’t a rented motor home actually, we had purchased, we actually owned one, but it should have had four tires on the back axle instead of two like a passenger van, because we overloaded that thing. (laughs) We brought back all kinds of Coors beer from Colorado, so we were at least as far as Colorado, but maybe we didn’t get ... and there was a famous story where Dennis was driving and we were supposed to be going north from Wyoming into the Dakotas — and so the fact that we were so far west, I thought we came back and played again, but perhaps we did not.

DF: Like I said, that rumor’s been out there ...

YOUNG: Well, I’m probably the one that started it! But I remember two long trips in that motor home and both coming east along I-80. Because there was one with John Panozzo and there was just two of us and the next one was when we had the accident, I think actually John Panozzo was ill. He couldn’t make the trip, so actually the guy that was our drum tech at that point in time sat in on the drums and he was in this vehicle when we had this accident. Mike Phillips — so Ricky Phillips wasn’t actually the first Phillips to be on stage as a member of Styx.

DF: But they’re not related?

YOUNG: No. At least not to my knowledge. You never know. Probably eight steps removed, maybe, who knows?

DF: Yeah, and I was surprised to find out that Ricky had lived in Salt Lake.

YOUNG: Ricky spent quite a long time in a band that was based in Salt Lake. He said they were incredibly talented guys but just kind of very much socially dysfunctional. One of them got arrested for some prank in a city in Nebraska or something, I don’t know. Spent a week in jail or something like that. (laughs) It’s kind of hard to schedule your life when guys don’t have enough sense to not get themselves tossed in jail for some stupid prank — an M-80, I think, in a bathroom in a restaurant that blew it up and caused all sorts of commotion.

DF: Yeah, you’ve got to at least be throwing TVs out of high rises ... you’ve got to get some mileage out of your bad pranks. (laughs) OK, moving back to the present — you’ll be immediately following up the Provo concert with the resurrection of “The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight” shows in Las Vegas, how do you feel about revisiting that?

YOUNG: It was the hardest I think the band worked at rehearsing certainly since Ricky Phillips has been in the band. I mean, because Tommy and I had to go back and relearn things, and there’s things that we had never performed live so we had to figure out how to make them actually stand up on stage. “Superstars” was something we were always afraid of, but having four guys that can sing when you’ve got those long-block harmonies that kind of extend forever, that kind of fries my voice to do anything after that, and then I’m doing the rant that Dennis did on the original record, which completely fries my voice, so it’s kind of (in high voice) coming back and trying to sing the harmonies (in regular voice) was not really coming out too well. But we found a way to, with modern technology, to sort of have a keyboard on a certain vocal sounding pad to help reinforce that. There’s nothing on tape it’s technology as our friend here as well as having four singers instead of just three. But I love that show and it’s songs that I never thought we’d play live, we’re playing live. And the visuals behind it, my dear friend Steve Jones, who is a feature film producer and was an animation director before that, and he’s still an aspiring director, he teaches a class in film production actually at DePaul University now at a graduate level, but Steve’s always wanted to be a director and never quite gotten there, but he is the director of the visuals that are on the screen behind us that are part of that whole show. I like it because it’s kind of a junior Floydian presentation, it’s not simply a rock band and a sound system and moving lights, but there’s a whole additional production element there that I think is magical that goes along with the songs. I think it really takes the Styx live performance to another level and a lot of the tours we’ve done, the package tours where we can afford to bring that with us — because it’s expensive to have that video wall behind us and run it and another truck to drag it around and what have you, so whenever we get a chance to use it, particularly in this way, which I think we’ve done a marvelous job with this. I’m very proud of it and I encourage people to check it out. And if they can’t get down there, the DVD, particularly the 5.1 is amazing.

DF: I was going to say, speaking for myself from the perspective of someone who hasn’t seen that live show in person, I thought the DVD captured things extremely well.

YOUNG: (laughs) I’ve spent too much time post-producing it, I can’t bring myself to sit down and look at it. (laughs) Because I still see the flaws that we could have — “If we’d only had that camera shot from that angle this would be better!” But you’re always going to do that and that’s why people a lot of times they work as hard as they possibly can to make something as great as they can, and it’s impossible to ever completely step back from it. Maybe 10 years from now I’ll be able to do it. I’m still not ready for that.

DF: Well, the good thing is you get to break it out live every so often.

YOUNG: And that’s what we’re doing.

DF: And you did mention the visuals, and I think my favorite part is the guy sifting through the albums and pulling one out and putting it down on the turntable.

YOUNG: Well, that was Tommy’s idea, that my friend Steve did make that come to life.

DF: That really resonated with me because that’s how I kind of experienced my watershed Styx moment — when a friend pulled out “Grand Illusion” for the first time, dropped the needle on “Miss America” and said, “Check this out!”


DF: And I’ve been checking it out for 35 years now.

YOUNG: (laughs) How ’bout that!

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jack Blades: 'Look, dude, I'm a registered American, OK?'

Front left: Kelly Keagy, Eric Levy, Jack Blades, Joel Hoekstra and Brad Gillis of Night Ranger.

It was the summer of 1987 and the Lifestyles editor at The Daily Spectrum newspaper in St. George, Utah, was in the position of having to cut a deal.

I was fairly new to my gig as the sports editor there and had only a year under my belt in the daily newspaper business, and still quite unsure what my exact career path would be. The Lifestyles editor needed someone to cover a local Donny Osmond concert -- still a pretty important thing in that town in those days -- but she was scheduled to be out of town to attend a friend's wedding.

Suffice to say, she was getting no volunteers.

"I'll do it," I said, adding my one condition: That she also let me cover the Night Ranger concert that was coming up a few weeks later. The deal was beneficial to both parties. I loved Night Ranger ... and she didn't.

Since I was covering the show, I also got the opportunity to do an advance phone interview with Night Ranger bassist, vocalist and frontman Jack Blades. I remember nervously prepping for several days. The late-night interview, of course, turned out to be great fun -- I wish I still had a copy of it somewhere.

These days, I don't remember a whole lot about what was said during that initial interview, but one thing has always stuck with me. I found Jack amazingly down to earth, so I asked him how he balanced the demands of his crazy rock 'n' roll lifestyle with everyday life. He explained that all day he was Jack Blades the rock star, but there arrived a certain time each evening -- usually after a show -- where he reverted into just being Jack Blades the regular person. I always liked that analogy.

That chat with Jack was my very first rock-related interview. I parlayed that into a chance to shadow the band at the arena for a feature story on the typical day in the life of a rock band on the road -- getting glimpses into the band's pre- and post-show routines, and even a tour by guitarist Brad Gillis of the bus that would take the band up the road to its next scheduled date.
Some 25 years -- and hundreds of interviews/concerts later -- there's no question in my mind who got the better end of the Osmond-for-Night Ranger package story deal.

In my latest interview with Jack -- the rock star as it so happens since he called while the band was actually en route to the venue for a show in Atlanta a few hours later -- we discussed a variety of topics, ranging from his support of the U.S. troops -- the band's local appearance is a benefit concert for Operation Rebound on Sept. 11 -- to new music by Night Ranger and his Shaw/Blades side project with Styx guitarist (and former Damn Yankees cohort) Tommy Shaw.

But what really had Blades buzzing was his experience at the Republican National Convention, which ended the day before our interview on Aug. 31. Blades had already received a lot of blowback via social media for his decision to perform his new solo single, "Back in the Game," live at the convention and for supporting the GOP presidential ticket.

To say he remains perplexed by today's toxic political scene is an understatement.

"Look, dude, I'm a registered American, OK?" said Blades. "And what's with all the hating anyway?"

Well, read for yourselves ...

DOUG FOX: Well, I've got to say it really is a pleasure to speak with you again. Believe it or not, you were the first rock-related interview I ever did, and I was just figuring it out this morning and that was 25 years ago, so that's been a long time now.

JACK BLADES: Oh my ... it's nice to see we all still have a gig! (laughs)

DF: Yeah. It will be good to have you back in Utah again this year, I don't know if you remember but your very first show of 2012 was out in Wendover.

BLADES: You know, it was. And I can remember ... and I think it was like our second show or something like that was with Journey at (pause) ...

DF: Rio Tinto Stadium last year?

BLADES: Yeah, yeah, that was a great gig. I loved that. It was wonderful.

DF: I think that actually opened your tour last year.

BLADES: That's right. That opened the tour with us and Foreigner (and Journey). That was the beginning of the tour.

DF: My main gripe about that show was you didn't have more playing time.

BLADES: I know, I know. Well, hopefully when we come up and see you guys, coming up on this tour, we're gonna have more playing time.

DF: Yeah, I would imagine. Well, for starters tell me about your experience this week at the Republican National Convention, how did you enjoy that?

BLADES: Oh, yeah. Are you a Romney fan?

DF: Actually I am, yes.

Jack Blades performs "Back in the Game" at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla.
 BLADES: Yeah, because he's from your neck of the woods. It was a wild experience. It's something I never, ever experienced. I mean all my life I've watched these things, I mean starting when I was about 9 years old in 1964 watching LBJ against, what was it, Goldwater or one of those kind of guys, watching on a black-and-white TV. And here I am, actually at a presidential convention, you know, and actually playing that ... it was bizarre. It was wonderful.

DF: Now Paul Ryan mentioned that his iPod playlist started with AC/DC and ended with Zeppelin, which I thought was cool, but I've got to think that had he wanted to touch down in the middle of the alphabet, you know he's got to have Night Ranger on there as well, doesn't he?

BLADES: I'm thinking that "D" is Damn Yankees and "N" is Night Ranger. I'm convinced of that. There's no question about that. (laughs) So, yeah, look, man, for me it was like an honor to play at this thing and I don't care what persuasion you are, whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you know what, man? We're all Americans, and that's the whole thing to be involved and sort of engaged in the political process is pretty cool. And what really got me is talking to a lot of the younger congressmen dudes that are like really trying to change things and everything. They're trying to shake up the old guard. You know, "Out with the old, in with the new" that's my theory.

DF: Well, I loved your performance of "Back in the Game," first, it's such a great song but second, I think it's got a message that really fits right now, but one interesting thing -- and you kind of touched on it just now -- is the divisiveness we've kind of seen the last several presidential cycles. But the other thing that's come up is the unapproved use of songs at campaign events to where several bands have come out and demanded that their songs not be used. Since you jumped into the political arena this week, I wondered what your thoughts were on that and also it does seem that most of the complaints come against the GOP, and that a lot of the artists allow their music to be played by the more liberal persuasion.

BLADES: Well, I think a lot of the guys feel real strongly about that sometimes. And you know what, a musician has every right to say, "I believe in this, I believe in that," cause it's the American way to say what you believe. That's what we're all about. You know, some guy writes a song and it's like, "Hey, this person is using my song and I don't agree with that" and stuff like that -- then hey, man, tell them, (but) don't pull the song. It seems like it's always shaded against the Republicans -- you know, I have a theory that it's just kind of one of those deals where they get the rotten end of the stick all the time. And I think it really pisses people off when there's actually Republicans that are looser, it like breaks up the stereotype of what people think Republicans can be. Like everybody's slagging on Clint Eastwood for getting up there and saying something. It's like, dude, I thought it was awesome. I thought it was loose. I thought it was totally awesome. The guy said what he wanted to say. And the guy would go somewhere and just when you think it was going off the deep end, he'd come back with a big zinger, man. It seems like in the conservative world, they're not allowed to sort of do that. I mean it would be OK if it was Harry Belafonte or something like that. But it's like, "You can't do that!" It's like, "You can't have rock 'n' roll, you can only have country music!" Stuff like that. Here's the deal, man, everybody at that place was trying to pin you down and everything like that. Man, I told them, "Look, dude, I'm a registered American, OK?" And what's with all the hating anyway? What's with all the haters? Who taught these people to hate so? Like, who taught them to hate? I mean, the beauty about us is like, I'll listen to your idea if you're on the other side of the persuasion, and I'll listen to that, and if it makes sense to me, I'm in. And that's kind of where I'm at. But it seems like you get shut down if you're on one side. The only way to be free in your ideas is if you're on the far other side. That doesn't get me, I just don't understand the hate. That's what I don't understand. Who taught these people to hate so? Enough of this. Enough of all this stuff. We're all Americans, man, let's just all pull together and do what's best for this country. Let's get those 23 million people that are out of work, let's get 'em working again, that's what I say. And all the other stuff? I think all that stuff is just stuff, and it's all just chatter. Let's get the folks working again, that's kind of my theory on the whole thing. And to tell you the truth, I don't care where the ideas come from, man. I don't care if it comes from Bill Clinton, I don't care if it comes from Obama, I don't care if it comes from Mitt Romney. Let's just get it done. You know, that's where I'm at. (laughs)

DF: Well, you're preaching to the choir ...

BLADES: Yeah, you know what I'm saying? I'm like, it doesn't matter to me, let's just get it done. Get 'er done. That's my take on the whole thing. And down there, I was seeing a lot of the craziness that goes on. You know, I think that these people have just trained everyone ... I just don't understand the hate, that's what gets me, man. It's not in my DNA. It's not in my makeup, spewing vitriol and just utter hatred. I saw it a little bit from people online when I did my song "Back in the Game." I'm like, "Really, people? Really?"

DF: I noticed that on Facebook, that you were asking, "What's with all the hate?"

BLADES: Yeah, I'm like, "Really, people? You try to shut me down?" Anybody that doesn't, if they didn't approve ... well, I didn't even say anything, I just went up there and played my song. (laughs) You know, I didn't spout some political ideology -- I just went up and played a tune. But ... "Really, people? Who taught you to hate?" It's sad, and you know what, that's going to stop because Americans inside are good people.

DF: Right. Well, they should take you out on the stump for the next couple months!

BLADES: Just what I need! (laughs)

DF: You didn't even need a teleprompter!

BLADES: (laughs) Let's get back to the music, man. Sorry we got off on a zag. Let's forget it all happened and get back to what's important. (laughs)

DF: Well, I was going to ask about "Back in the Game" again because that's such a great song and the video especially also, you know with the theme honoring the military and the troops, as the father of a daughter and son-in-law in the Marines, I really appreciate that ...

BLADES: Well you know what? That telegram that's in the video there is actually the telegram that my mother got informing her that her first husband was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and I still have that, it's up on the wall in my studio. And those are his medals. The medals that are in the video are his medals ... and he's sort of a war hero, got that Silver Star and everything, and a Purple Heart. And so I honor the military for their steadfastness and their defense of our country. I felt like, OK, I've got a solo record, I can do what I want to do on this one, and so I made a mini-war movie, "Saving Private Blades." That's actually my son in the video that gets shot.

DF: Oh, is that Colin?

BLADES: Yeah, that's Colin, my youngest son, so there you go.

DF: Yeah, that was really cool. It kind of ties right into the local show that you will be doing here in Utah which is a benefit concert for Operation Rebound, which I'm not sure you're aware of this this far in advance, but it's a group that helps disabled solders stay active in athletic activities -- but that show is actually here in Utah on Sept. 11 ...

BLADES: I love it! Well, I've got to tell you, Night Ranger is honored to be playing this event, and we're honored to be with you guys, and we're honored to be there on the anniversary of September 11th, and believe me, we're going to be rocking in America with all you people out there, that's for sure.

DF: I know that you're an extremely busy guy with both Night Ranger and you having pretty new albums out, and I'd also be remiss if I didn't get an update from you on the next Shaw/Blades project before we're done here, but where do find the time to write so much? Is it just something that flows out of you all the time or do you really have to buckle down and make an effort? How does that work for you?

BLADES: You know, it's kind of something I've done all my adult life -- I think it's kind of in my DNA makeup at this stage of the game. There's just times of year where my brain just starts getting creative, you know what I mean? And the next thing you know, there's songs coming out. So Night Ranger has a live acoustic DVD coming out on Oct. 22, called "24 Strings and a Drummer," and it has a companion CD with it. So we have that release coming out. And Night Ranger is going to be on this weekend, too bad your thing's not going to be in the paper (yet), but this weekend on "The Bachelor Pad," I think it's coming out on the TV show on ABC on Labor Day. We're on the 3rd, on Monday night. And then two weeks later we're going to be on another show that's a very big show and I can't tell you about it, but it's going to be coming out in two weeks after that.

DF: So I'll have to figure out what that is, huh?

BLADES: Yeah, yeah on the premiere of that show. So there's a lot of stuff going on for Night Ranger. We keep going. And of course Shaw/Blades, Tommy and I are about three-quarters of the way through a new Shaw/Blades record, and we're excited about that. You know, it's just the way I am. I love to write, I love to create. You know, we (Night Ranger) had a new album out last year, "Somewhere in California." That's just who we are. We just keep doing it.

DF: Whenever I talk to Tommy (Shaw), I always try to get some of the new songs you've been considering working on -- how's that selection process going for you?

BLADES: It's going really good. We've got some surprises that will blow some people's minds.

DF: He told me about one song probably a year, year and a half ago, and I haven't said anything about it, but I noticed you mentioned it in a recent interview -- "Going to California"?

BLADES: Yeah, yeah, Tommy sings the hell out of that, man! That's a good story. You know what I mean? And we're doing "Tiny Dancer," too. We did a killer version of that.

Brad Gillis and Jack Blades perform in Wendover, Nev., in 2008. (Doug Fox)
DF: Yeah, I actually talked to you about that -- I last interviewed you four years ago, that's how long you've been working on this record, I probably don't have to tell you that!

BLADES: Isn't that funny, it just seems like it's been four days ago.

DF: I know, it just goes and goes ... but with yours and Tommy's mutual connection to the "Madman Across the Water" album, it just seemed natural that you had to do something off of there. I'm glad you did "Tiny Dancer."

BLADES: Of course.

DF: One of the magical things about Shaw/Blades is how your voices blend so perfectly, I've always wondered, how do you guys end up deciding who's going to sing what part?

BLADES: You know, it just happens. I've been fortunate with Kelly Keagy and me, and everything -- every band I've ever been in has had two vocalists, you know what I mean? And it just happens that way. Like with Night Ranger, it just happens like, "You sing this." "No, you sing this." It's like whoever's voice fits better. It was the same thing with Damn Yankees, with Tommy Shaw and me, and the same thing with us. You know, when he brings a song in or I bring a song in or something like that, it's like "Dude!" Like Tom, he'll kill this one and I'll kill that one. You know, our voices just fit certain things. We look at each other and encourage each other. "No, you do it." "No, you try it." "Dude, you've got it." It's like, "Oh, cool." And everybody, it's always that situation, with Kelly and I, it's just that situation where we go, "Yeah, you got it." It's pretty obvious what works for one person and what works for another one. I've been very fortunate, all my musical career there's been like two lead singers every time I'm in a band.

DF: Hey, since you have those two pretty new albums out, both your solo and the Night Ranger one, I wanted to get your thoughts on the current state of radio. I know a lot of bands from your era are in the same boat where radio stations still play all the old hits but when it comes to your new music, it seems almost impossible to get that on the radio, at least for very long. Have you had to temper your expectations or change your approach at all when it comes to your expected impact when you release new material?

BLADES: Yeah, you know what? We don't have any expectations when we release new material. The reason we keep creating is because we all have a theory, especially the boys in Night Ranger and myself. We have a theory that when you stop creating, that's when you start dying inside. So we're just going to keep writing songs and creating it, and fortunately we have a great record label in Frontiers Records that's totally behind us all the time and just encourages us. "Any new material? What have you got? Come on, let's do a new record. Let's do new material. Let's do this, let's do that!" And so we're so fortunate to have that partnership with them that they give us an outlet to keep creating because I think that's the key to anything -- I don't care if you're an artist, I don't care if you're a painter, I don't care if you're a writer of books. I don't care what you are. You know, when you stop creating, I think that's when you start sort of shriveling up and dying inside, so we're just going to keep coming up with stuff.

Night Ranger will release a new CD/DVD live acoustic package on Oct. 22.
 DF: I also wanted to ask you what you thought of the "Rock of Ages" movie because I remember you played one of the lead roles in the Vegas production of that one time, didn't you?

BLADES: Yeah, yeah, I played what Alec Baldwin played in the movie, Dennis the club owner, in the Vegas one of it back in 2006. I loved it, I thought it was really fun. I thought Tom Cruise did a really good job playing a rock star. You know, I thought it was really kind of cool. You know, I mean, it was fun. I loved the fact that the whole movie started off with the first song, bam -- "Sister Christian!" God love ya! It was supposed to have another one, "High Enough," 'cause "High Enough" is in the Broadway musical, but for some reason something happened and that didn't end up in the movie, which was unfortunate because I thought in that part of the movie it could have really used it.

DF: I was just wondering when we're going to finally see the Night Ranger, Styx, Ted Nugent tour?

BLADES: Yeah, I'm wondering that same thing, man, "When is that going to happen?" Night Ranger, Styx, Nugent, Damn Yankees, right? You'd get it all.

DF: And Shaw/Blades.

BLADES: Yeah, and Shaw/Blades. Shaw/Blades can open it -- you know, we could do it all, bro! We could be like our own self-contained tour, wouldn't you love that?

DF: Yeah, that's the tour I've been waiting for, for five years or more.

BLADES: That would be awesome, man! That would be absolutely awesome!

DF: Yeah, because when it comes to my Jack Blades history of live performances, I have seen you in Night Ranger, Damn Yankees and even Rubicon, but the only thing I'm missing is Shaw/Blades, so I've got to get that crossed off my list.

BLADES: That is so much fun. Bro, it's so much fun. I mean we just, like, sit there bagging on each other and playing acoustic guitars and singing songs -- we have so much fun when we do it. Tommy is the greatest guy and such a dear, dear friend, too.

DF: That's excellent. Is there anything else you'd like to add that we haven't talked about?

BLADES: No. Night Ranger is pumped up, and like I said, we're extremely honored to be playing on September 11th and being with our friends in Utah. I mean, I love it. I absolutely love it. So please, spread the love and spread the word, and we're looking forward to seeing everybody there because I know that every time we come and play in Salt Lake and thereabouts, we have a good crowd and the crowd loves Night Ranger. And I want everybody to know that Night Ranger loves Salt Lake City, and that's the most important thing, man. Keep the love going.

DF: Thanks so much for your time.

BLADES: My pleasure and we'll see you, gosh, it's just like a few days, a couple weeks, right? (laughs)

DF: Week and a half, something like that.

BLADES: There you go. OK, bro.

DF: All right, take care.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Tuning up with Journey's Neal Schon

Journey guitarist Neal Schon.  (Photo: Travis Shinn)
My first visit behind the curtain, as it were, to the mystical concert realm reverently referred to as "backstage" occurred on Aug. 26, 1978, and I was a recently graduated 17-year-old who had no real clue what he was doing while wandering aimlessly around hoping to catch a glimpse of rock stars in their natural habitat.

My family had just moved from Los Angeles to Utah earlier that summer, but I excitedly made the 11-hour drive back down to Southern California to catch the most anticipated concert of the year. The Electric Light Orchestra, then at the peak of its popularity, was headlining at Anaheim Stadium. I recognize that statement might sound a little funny now, but trust me, ELO was the biggest band in America that year, touring behind its definitive double-album opus, "Out of the Blue," even though the Jeff Lynne-led group experienced a rather dramatic fade in the ensuing years -- due in large part to its out-of-left field, disco-tinged followup, "Discovery," but I digress. The word on the street in that pre-Internet daze was that ELO was performing inside a giant spaceship stage with an array of dazzling effects, creating a show that was not to be missed. Certainly I was not going to allow something as minor as a multi-state move be a roadblock to attending.

  As it so happened, a friend who worked for one of the major record labels at the time and knew I was traveling down for the show, kindly arranged for a pair of backstage passes. Alas, they came with one caveat: I had to pretend to be a British newspaper journalist. (Because every respectable British tabloid flies a non-accented, 17-year-old overseas to cover a random concert in Los Angeles!) Figuring I had nothing really to lose and an unparalleled backstage opportunity to gain, I accepted.

The passes, as it turned out, were arranged through the management of Journey, the main support band that day. Journey was just starting to break nationally at that time behind the arrival of a new lead singer, Steve Perry, and the strength of their current release, "Infinity." I had the album -- or rather a crackling and hissing cassette tape that had been copied from a friend's vinyl album (the 1970s version of Napster) -- and had been wearing it out while grooving to great songs like "Wheel in the Sky," "Lights" and "La-Do-Da." One thing I knew: The band's guitarist, Neal Schon, could flat-out rock.

On the day of the show, backstage check-in was at a door somewhere behind left-center field at the stadium. Another friend and accomplice, Paul Moore, and I approached the burly -- and extremely brusque guard and waited while he attempted to find our names on the hallowed list. Of course, they weren't on there. Fortunately, I had been given a phone number for the nearby hotel where Journey was staying and the name of the band's tour manager, Pat Morrow, in case there were any problems. So I rang him up.

"You're on the list, I just barely went over it," Morrow said. "We're just getting ready to leave the hotel, so we'll be there in 10 minutes. We'll be pulling up in four limos. Meet me there."

Buoyed by the positive response, we went back and waited in the parking lot near the backstage entrance. The same security guard saw us and ordered us to leave. I explained the situation -- but the guard clearly didn't believe us, and, in retrospect, who could blame him? I countered by saying the band would be pulling up in four limos shortly and he would see all was in order. He scoffed and told us to wait outside of the immediate parking lot.

We felt no small amount of vindication when the quartet of limos -- precisely as promised -- pulled up a few minutes later, and members of the band and their contingent piled out. One man glanced toward us and yelled out my name. We hurried up and were greeted by Mr. Morrow, who was every bit as friendly and inviting as the backstage security guard was rude and gruff. The security guard actually balked as Morrow cleared the band -- and us -- through the door.

"They're with me," Morrow said a wee bit dismissively -- to my amusement. Once inside, I thanked him by name, but he quickly corrected me. "Call me Bubba," he said. "All my friends call me Bubba."

With that, Bubba turned us loose in the backstage area -- where we had absolutely no idea what we should or should not be doing. During the first two acts, bands named Trickster and Kingfish, we wandered out and watched the show from right in front of the stage, in the pit separating the stage from the vast stadium audience. It was surreal.

We were wandering around at some point between the band performances when we noticed a few trailers off to one side. One trailer had an open door and a sign that said "Tuning Room." I wandered up and looked inside and that's where I had my first real interaction with Schon -- a guitarist who would go on to write the riffs and melodic leads to some of the best-known songs of the 1980s. Journey may have been supporting that day, but in a matter of years, it would be the San Francisco-based band headlining stadium shows.

That memorable first backstage meeting with Schon, at least for me, is detailed in this interview. I like to think that experience 34 years ago, at least in some fashion, eventually helped influence a legitimate career in music journalism. One that no longer requires a fake British accent.

This interview -- which touches on a variety of topics, including Schon's upcoming two solo albums, his memories of seeing guitarist Eddie Van Halen live for the first time when Van Halen opened for Journey on the band's first tour and his year in the tabloids as a result of his relationship with reality TV starlet Michaele Salahi -- took place on July 24, the day of the third stop on Journey's U.S. tour with Pat Benatar and Loverboy. The show makes a stop tonight at USANA Amphitheatre in West Valley City.

DOUG FOX: Now, where am I reaching you at today, are you in Paso Robles, is that what I saw?

NEAL SCHON: Yes I am. I’m here and we’re playing here tonight and then we’ve got a long-ass drive.

DF: Where are you going tomorrow then?

SCHON: We’re going to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

DF: That is a long drive.

SCHON: Well, it was either that or take a zillion little tiny flights to get there. And I hate the airport anymore, anytime I have to do a connection and then another connection, I say screw it, we’ll drive — but it’s 18 hours. It’s an 18-hour drive. So that’s our day off, it’s an 18-hour drive.

DF: Well, if it’s any consolation, I think a lot of that terrain is good to sleep through.

SCHON: Exactly. That’s just what I’m looking forward to doing actually, you know. Sometimes I get more sleep on tour than when I’m at home.

DF: You know, I can believe that.

SCHON: So I’m going to catch up on some sleep.

DF: OK, well good. In starting, I must say that it’s a pleasure to finally get to speak with you because the first time our paths crossed — which was just about 34 years ago — you left me completely and utterly speechless ...

SCHON: What did I do?

DF: Well, it’s funny. It goes back to when, I know you’ve played a thousand shows since then, but this was a pretty big one and it’s still one of the best concerts I’ve ever witnessed from top to bottom, so I think you’ll remember it, but it was when you opened for ELO at Anaheim Stadium back in 1978.

SCHON: Oh ... so this was pre-Steve Perry?

DF: No, Steve was there. It was the “Infinity” tour. 

SCHON: Oh, and we were opening for ELO? 

DF: Yes. Do you remember that? 

SCHON: It must have been right in the very beginning when he first got in the band. 

DF: Yeah, you were touring for “Infinity” I remember, that was the big album then. 

SCHON: Right. 

DF: But the thing is, that summer I was just fresh out of high school and I had a friend in the record industry who was able to set me up with a backstage pass through Pat Morrow ... 

SCHON: Yeah, Pat. I love Pat. 

DF: And that was like my first backstage experience and of course I didn’t have a clue what I was doing back there, I was just kind of walking around and soaking in the atmosphere, but there was a series of trailers that were there and I noticed one of them had a sign that said “Tuning Room” on it, and the door was open. So I wandered over there, just to kind of get a peek inside to see what was going on. So I was there looking in the door, and there you are, like 10 feet away sitting in a chair, like, warming up ... and I’m just standing there thinking, “Oh, wow, this is so cool to watch.” I must have been there like 10-15 seconds just watching and then all of a sudden, I guess you kind of realized that I was standing there, and you suddenly turned and stared at me. And the look on your face to me, as I interpreted it, was “Whaddya want, kid? I’m getting ready to play before a stadium full of people, what are you doing here?” That was just the look on your face, of course. But I totally panicked, I was like a deer in the headlights. 

SCHON: Oh, sorry, man! I was probably in the zone trying to get ready for everything. 

DF: Yeah, I know that’s totally what you were doing. I was just so out of my element, I was like, “Oh, no, what do I do now?” And I just turned and walked away. But that’s still one of my favorite backstage stories to this day. 

SCHON: Oh, that’s funny, man. Well, if you come to this one, I won’t be shocked if you’re standing there looking! [laughs] 

DF: And I think I’ve grown up a lot since then, I think I could at least get a few questions out before turning and walking away. 
SCHON: Yeah. 

DF: Well, you’ve got so much on your plate these days, I mean, it’s almost hard to pick where to start off, but since you kind of mentioned it already and the tour has just barely kicked off, the brand new tour you’ve got with Pat Benatar and Loverboy, how have the first few shows gone? 

SCHON: Doing great. I’ve heard that the reviews are really outstanding, I haven’t read any yet, but you know, really, the first show all I was trying to do was remember the songs. We did very little rehearsal, really all we did was fly down to San Bernardino and we were able to set up our gear in the actual place we were playing, that was San Manuel the amphitheater. So we had new video content, our whole crew was there and we were sort of doing run-throughs of the show with new content, but the band had not actually played for close to 10 months, the last 10 months. So, you know, I was just trying to remember songs. I had a couple train wrecks, you know, [laughs] up on stage I did some fast editing in my mind — that sometimes works in the studio, but it doesn’t work on stage. So I’m playing an extra chorus and I’m looking around at everybody going, “Where are you guys,” you know? So we had some real moments like that, but I think overall it was good. And our show in Lake Tahoe the night before last was very strong. I mean, I felt like I had a good show, and the band had a good show. The altitude is very high. Right now we’re playing in A4-40, which is the original key. And then there was a fire that broke out, a forest fire. And so all through the set I was watching these ashes come down. My lungs were filling up. And they’ve got the high altitude and I’m sitting there singing and I’m going, “ ... I can’t even breathe.” And so I’m going, “I don’t know how he’s doing it.” He really did well I thought. He got through it with not such a great environment to try and sing in. But, you know, that’s what the road is. You deal with all these different elements from time to time, things that happen. That’s what it is. Sometimes you get dealt lemons, you make lemonade, you know? 

DF: I’ve got to say, that’s kind of the rock ’n’ roll attitude. And I think, though, in listening to you talk about that and having seen you play live so many times over the years, as well as so many other great musicians — I assume you guys make some mistakes, but most of the time in the audience we don’t figure that out. Do you find that those things happen occasionally or more than that? 

SCHON: I think usually the mistakes are so minimal and so small that nobody would notice it except for us — or someone that’s really a “muso” guitar player or somebody that plays keyboards as an actual musician, and he would go, “Oh, that was terrible, what was that clunker?” Then there’s train wrecks, you know. [laughs] And usually those never happen, but I mean, if we had rehearsed more it wouldn’t have. But I think we ended up playing a lot of material when we were soundchecking and will continue to do that. We’re working up a bunch of stuff and plan on moving things around a bit more than we usually do. Sometimes we get locked into a set that works really well and we just kind of stick to it. I think we’ll just keep mixing it up, because I think, not just us but any other band, that plays the same thing all the time, you get kind of just worn out with it in a longer tour. You’ve got to just kind of put in some new elements once in a while to keep everybody thinking and creative. 

DF: And building on that, I know that you’re kind of locked in, I’ve heard Jonathan [Cain, keyboardist] refer to them as “The Dirty Dozen,” you know, your hit singles that you really have to play a certain amount of those, but are there any old album tracks that you personally would love to see in the setlist? And do you get the chance to break those in once in a while. 

SCHON: Well that’s what I was just saying. We just rehearsed a bunch of older stuff. I mean, we rehearsed a bunch of “Infinity” stuff that we haven’t played for years. A lot of stuff. We’ve got a lot of material. Yeah, we do have to play the greatest hits, that’s what everybody comes to see, but, you know, we have stuck in a couple songs that we didn’t play last tour from “Revelation,” which was our first record we did with Arnel [Pineda, vocalist], and we’ve been playing those, so who knows what we’ll throw in? But we have our little slots, I believe there’s like three or four slots where there’s interchangeable songs, that we have right now. So far, the first two shows we’ve moved things around. 

DF: I saw some setlist from not too long ago where you opened with “Majestic”? 

SCHON: We just did that the other night, yeah. And that was something we did that was in our “Live in Manila” DVD that’s close to a three-hour show. So we went back to that because we didn’t use any intro the prior tour. You know, you do so many things throughout the years, you don’t want to go out every two years or every other year and go, “Oh, let’s not do exactly the same thing.” We do have to play the hits, there’s no getting around that. I mean, we’re a classic rock band and, you know, we’re selling out. It was just really great news, we did better business the last couple nights than we ever did in the past. And oversold. I think it’s a good package, once again. Pat Benatar’s very strong, Loverboy’s great. You know, we toured with Loverboy in the 80s, and we did a few shows with Benatar and Neil [Giraldo, Benatar’s husband and guitarist]. I think the music goes together really well. It’s definitely a classic rock show. 

DF: I was going to mention that because delving back into my Journey history, I also caught your “Escape” tour show with Loverboy at the Forum in L.A. ...  

SCHON: Right. 

DF: And that was such a dynamic pairing back then. As I recall, “Escape” had just gone to No. 1, and Loverboy’s “Get Lucky” was also really big. What kind of memories does this pairing rekindle for you? 

SCHON: You know, we always got along with those guys really great. They were great guys. I remember I was in Canada in Vancouver, mixing the second Bad English record that I did when I was in that band with John Waite, Jon Cain and Deen [Castronovo, Journey drummer] and Ricky [Phillips, bass, now in Styx], and Mike Reno [Loverboy vocalist] was in the back studio — same studio, another room — doing a solo record. Well, the Bad English band had broken up, in fact, while I was in the studio — mixing this record, you know, we decided that we were not going to continue, so I kind of just bolted down to the other studio to see what Mike was doing and I ended up playing on his solo record. [laughs] 

DF: It seems to me today, with all the people I’ve talked to involved with the packaged tours that have really popular, the thing that stands out to me is it seems like there’s a really cooperative spirit between all the bands and a healthy camaraderie, but that hasn’t always been the case, right? In the old days didn’t it get pretty competitive between the headliner and the support acts? 

SCHON: Well, you know what, I think everybody’s still competitive, it’s something that keeps everybody alive and kicking. But there’s no reason to be, like, weird about it. It’s like, everybody’s good. It’s like that. It’s like just play as good as you can and it’s going to be great. 

DF: As far as lead guitarists, what’s been the most competitive tour that you’ve ever been on? 

SCHON: With other guitar players? 

DF: Yeah, with other guitar players on the bill. 

SCHON: Well, absolutely I’d have to say, hands down, it was our first “Infinity” tour that we did that we were headlining, with Van Halen — that was their very first tour. It was Van Halen, Montrose — Steve Smith was then playing with Ronnie Montrose, it was instrumental — then us. All I remember saying is I was glad that I was not following Eddie [Van Halen] back then — even though, you know, I had my flaming moments too. We were all on fire but Ed was like coming out of left field at that time and nobody knew what the hell he was doing with the tapping, you know? I mean, I sat in a bedroom and tried to figure out his stuff with a record player, slowing it down to a slower speed and the whole thing and I still couldn’t — I’d never seen anybody do a triplet thing with their other hand, you know, with tapping. Until I met Ed and he showed me what it was, I was like, “You got me. This completely stumped me.” And he was just on fire. You know, I don’t think he ever plays bad, but in the very beginning, Eddie was just ... the whole thing, those guys were just rockin’. You know, that was a great guitar show. 

DF: What was it like to see him live for the first time? 

SCHON: It was just, really I was like, “Wow! This guy is so on fire.” I loved the whole attitude of it, you know? He had a really different tone than anybody back then and it was interesting. He had a lot of interesting things he did to get that sound. The power alternator, all kind of things that made the amp head get hotter, like run hotter, they sound better. They blow up more frequently, but they sound better, you know? So he was like a mad little scientist, you know? Ed and I became really close. We hung out a lot. Later we jammed and hung out for years after that. And Sammy Hagar — Ed and I were hanging in my room one night, I think after he played, and I had just done the record with HSAS [Hagar, Schon, Aaronson, Shrieve] and I had a boombox in my room, and I was playing Eddie this record and he was like, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” And he was going back and he kept listening to some riff that I did in some song back before, and I said, “Let the thing run, listen to the whole thing!” And then he goes, “Well who’s the singer?” And I go, “It’s Sammy Hagar.” So shortly after that, Sammy Hagar was in the band, so I think I brought awareness of him to Ed at that point. 

DF: Well I would love the day when the tape surfaces of those jam sessions that you and Eddie had. 

SCHON: Well, I don’t know if there is any tape — we jammed a few times on stage. One was a NAMM show, one was at a little place in Marin County, close to where I live, called Uncle Charlie’s, and I jammed in there with Albert King, and a lot of people. I used to play with Albert a lot when he came through town. And B.B. You know, there was a lot more music going on in the ’80s all the way around, in clubs. Clubs are kind of non-existent right now for the most part. There’s a few, but I think they’re trying to get back on their feet. I hope they do for the sake of a lot of younger bands that are trying to get out there because there’s just no other way that they’re going to be heard. 

DF: I know that despite your main time commitment to Journey over the years, and you’ve just touched on this again, but all the solo and side projects — HSAS, Bad English, Planet Us, and everything along the way — do you ever have any down time when you’re not playing? 

SCHON: Actually, you know what? I’ve just had 10 months off and I worked my ass off. [laughs] My manager just said to me yesterday, she’s just like “Work like a dog!” I had recorded two solo records in my down time. Actually right after we did “Eclipse,” the last Journey record with Arnel, we had a month of time off, so I decided I was going to stay in the studio and I knocked out a new solo record that’s coming out Oct. 29, “The Calling.” 

DF: Yeah, I was going to ask if there was a release date for that yet. 

SCHON: Yeah, it’s now coming out on Frontiers worldwide, and EMI in the United States. Yeah, I was hoping it was going to come out sooner because it’s done and ready to go, but I’m really proud of this record. It came out of nowhere. I just kind of improvised the whole record with Steve [Smith]. I played bass on the record. I had Igor Len on keyboards, who worked on “I on U” and “Electric World” before with me. He plays a lot of great acoustic piano, a blazing Moog solo. And then I also had Jan Hammer did me the honor and played on a couple songs and played a couple of blazing solos. And the record is really well rounded musically. There’s a lot of different variety on it, which I’m happy about. So when I got done with that record, I decided, “Well, I’m going to stay in and I’m going to do another record.” [laughs] I had the creative juices flowing, you know? That’s how it is with me, once I get going ... if I get going and get off to a good start, I sort of have endless creative ideas. So I did another record with Marco Mendoza on bass and lead vocals, and Deen Castronovo, on lead vocals and drums, and then I also sang. And then Jack Blades came in to help round out songwriting. I got together with Jack and him and I wrote lyrics for a lot of the songs. And I wrote some lyrics with Marco on a couple tunes, and that record is just being finished right now, I’m tweaking the mixes right now, but it’s done and it sounds really strong. Very experimental, every song is a bit different. You go, “Are those the same guys?” Really jamming stuff, pretty cool. 

DF: They’re sending me “The Calling” in the mail but it hasn’t gotten here yet, but I’m really looking forward to listening to it. 

SCHON: Yeah, I really feel it’s one of the more musical solo records I’ve ever done — instrumentally anyway. 

DF: And it’s a full instrumental album? 

SCHON: Yeah. 

DF: Listening to you talk about getting the creative juices going, all of a sudden I’m remembering a quote from Sammy Hagar back in the HSAS days where he said playing with you was like turning on a water faucet, you know, once the faucet’s open you can’t slow it back down to a drip, it’s like flowing non-stop. I’ve always remembered that. 

SCHON: Yeah, I’ve always had a lot of ideas, and Sammy has actually given credit to the whole project that we did together. He’s told me before and he’s told a lot of other people that I’ve read, that he just said, “Had I not done that project with Neal, I probably would have never known where to start in the Van Halen realm.” I think that we got really experimental. Him and I wrote everything in two weeks. We wrote like, I don’t know, I think close to 20 songs, and then rehearsed for two weeks with the guys and then we played lived, and that was that. 

DF: Have you had a chance, I assume you have, to listen to “A Different Kind of Truth” — the new Van Halen record? 

SCHON: I have listened ... I just actually downloaded it a while ago and I’ve listened to a few tracks. I have not gotten through the whole record because I have so much new stuff that I downloaded, I’m kind of like moving around and checking everything out a little bit, but I definitely am going to get through it. 

DF: Yeah, I just wondered what your thoughts were from a guitar player’s standpoint. 

SCHON: You know, I think it’s really good. I have to be completely honest. I think Wolfie sounds really good and competent as a bass player, more than competent, he sounds like a great player. I kind of miss Michael Anthony in the realm of things because I just feel that he was like the glue that kind of glues everything together — even though it’s very good. You know, but a lot of people feel the same about us. You know, you change one element of a band, it always sounds different. It still sounds very good and very strong. 

DF: As fans, at least as far as my thought process is, we can’t make bands stay together in their original lineups, sometimes change turns out even for the better. All we can do is listen to and judge the current product. 

SCHON: All I know is that we always have fans like that, that say, “You guys are not Journey” without this, without that or without Steve. And I’m like, “Well, obviously we are because we’re doing better than we’ve ever done.” The last tour was the best we had done in 20 years, and this tour is already doing better than we’ve done in the markets prior to this. So we’re off to a good start again. 

DF: You opened that last tour here in Salt Lake. 

SCHON: Yeah. 

DF: Now throughout your career you’ve been used to a certain amount of attention, like as a rock star, but this past year or so has really taken things to another level with the lawsuits, tabloids and everything involved with that ...  

SCHON: [laughs] 

DF: Now I understand you have a reality TV show coming out too? 

SCHON: Well, there’s lots of offers and I’m dabbling with the idea of it, but I’m also, like, thinking about it very carefully. I can definitely tell you that I would not get involved with anything that I’m not controlling. I’d have to be executive producer, and then I would consider it. I’d only consider it at that point. But, yeah, it’s been a lot to digest, a big learning curve, though, for me, because I never knew any of this stuff existed out there. And then, bam! [laughs] “What is going on?” It was crazy, really kind of surreal. But people have been really great through it all to myself and Michaele. Everywhere we go, people are very, very nice and supportive. You know, we were just dealing with some crazy things — the fact that everything went so ballistically public, in TV and everything, you know? I’ve had my divorces before but everything was taken care of behind closed doors, and so the fact that everything was brought out into the open, and brought on “Good Morning America” and this and that, I was just like, “Wow, this is insane!” But we’re alive and well, and skin has gotten thicker and we’re still smiling [laughs]. All is good, you know? 

DF: Well, that’s great to hear. I think we’ve gone past our allotted time so I don’t want to keep you hanging on, but I’ve enjoyed talking with you. 

SCHON: Oh, thank you. 

DF: And hopefully if I see you in Salt Lake, I’ll be able to say something this time. 

SCHON: Yeah, say hello. 

DF: Thanks, Neal. 

SCHON: All right, buddy.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Def Leppard's Phil Collen

I interviewed Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen on May 23 to advance the band's U.S. tour-opening appearance at USANA Amphitheatre in West Valley City on June 20. Here is the full interview:

DOUG FOX: Hi, Phil, how are you doing?

PHIL COLLEN: I’m excellent, mate.

DF: Good, well it’s a pleasure to talk to you. again. It’s been a few years, but I look forward to it.

COLLEN: Absolutely, yeah

DF: Where are you calling from today?

COLLEN: I’m at home in California.

DF: What part of California do you live?

COLLEN: We’re in Laguna Hills, you know, Orange County.

DF: I grew up in La Crescenta, down by Glendale, Burbank area.

COLLEN: My son lives in Burbank.

DF: So, what are you up to these days — are you enjoying some down time before the big summer tour?

COLLEN: We kind of did. I did a trip to New Zealand, which was beautiful. A lot of pretty colors there. The rest of the time, we’re getting ready for the tour. There’s so much going on, you know. We did the “Rock of Ages” stuff. We’re constantly writing, I’m always in a state of writing songs and stuff. There’s that and then there’s the Manraze thing, I don’t know if you’re aware of that?

DF: Right, uh-huh.

COLLEN: Again it’s just constant. I just really do like getting time off at home.

DF: OK, I was going to ask you about Manraze, then you mentioned it. What can you tell me about that, what’s the latest there?

COLLEN: The latest thing would be, we had a single out actually here. We did a song in a movie called “Showdown,” which was a documentary .... the second one we’ve done actually, so that was cool. We try to write songs for that as well, which again was very different. Just kind of like a regular rock thing, like a whole garage thing. That was a blast.

DF: So, you’re just kind of doing that in you time apart from Def Leppard, and just to kind of fill in the gaps? But I understand it’s pretty successful.

COLLEN: Yeah, pretty much. I mean it’s ... you know, you have to sacrifice a few evenings and such because of it. And then you get on tour and it kind of screws that up really, and there’s only Def Leppard things to be doing, you know?

DF: Now, your upcoming tour actually kicks off in Salt Lake City ...

COLLEN: Right.

DF: I’m sure that every show on a tour comes with its own built-in level of adrenaline and excitement, but I was wondering if that’s amped up even a little bit more for a tour-opening show, you know, at least until everybody settles in a bit to the routine of how things are going to be working on the tour?

COLLEN: I think so, especially this tour, you know, we’ve got a lot of new stuff going on. We’ve got a different stage, a new screen system, so it’s all different. There’s a bunch of different people actually working on this tour that we haven’t worked with before so we’re really excited about that. So, yeah, Day 1’s always an exciting thing — especially production, so many things can go wrong and we’ve had brilliant Spinal Tap moments in the past.

DF: What are some of the most memorable ones of those that have happened?

COLLEN: We played in the round once and it was Wichita Coloseum in Kansas and we’d open up with a Kabuki dropping down. This thing would go down and then the Kabuki would fly into the ceiling. My guitar would be the cue, they would say, “Do you wanna get rocked?” and I’d go [makes guitar sound to Let’s Get Rocked] but the guitar wasn’t on. And everyone just looked at each other under this tent, “What do you do now?” Then the guys let go of this weight, and then the Kabuki flies into the air and we kind of trainwrecked our way into “Let’s Get Rocked.” It really did affect us, I mean, how many shows do you do, thousands upon thousands of shows, and it still threw us, completely threw us, it really affected the mojo. We also had another moment on the Hysteria tour and this was true “Spinal Tap.” We had these three triangles and the wings were flowing, so there’s these three things and we were supposed to climb up with them into these clouds. And we hadn’t really rehearsed it. And we tried this thing and it was really dangerous up there, and we ended up not. We wanted to use it but we had to can it. It was pretty funny though.

DF: A good memory! When do you actually begin rehearsing for the tour, like, with the new production and everything?

COLLEN: Next week actually. Thursday the 31st.

DF: How do you personally enjoy these double-package tours — I know you guys helped kind of pave the way dating back to your hugely successful tour with Journey, and you’ve done well with them since then. How do you personally like them?

COLLEN: Well, I think they’re great. I think in this day and age it’s what people come to expect really. The first tour I heard of like that, it was Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. In a million years you wouldn’t have put those two together. I think what happened on that tour, all the audiences loved it. They loved both guys. They went in there either a Bob Dylan fan or Willie Nelson fan, but they came out liking both guys. I think that was really cool. You can see that with the Journey thing. If you weren’t a Journey fan, per se, obviously you found you knew half the songs — and maybe you were a Journey fan and didn’t know it. So we really like it with these packages because it actually does that. So even if you weren’t a huge fan of the band, there’s a reason why these bands are up there. These double package things are really cool.

DF: I remember talking about these touring partnerships with Lawrence Gowan, keyboardist from Styx, this past fall, who of course toured with you a few years ago, and one of the things we were talking about is how they tend to be really great for camaraderie between the bands and he specifically mentioned how one of the highlights for him was that he was playing guitar backstage. He said he got to have you actually sit down with him before a couple shows and teach him how you exactly play some of your parts and things on Def Leppard hits. 

COLLEN: (Laughs) I’ve actually got a brilliant Lawrence story. He is an amazing practical joker. I probably shouldn’t tell you this.

DF: No, you probably should. I know him fairly well.

COLLEN: He’s always doing pranks. We were playing Reno, Nevada, and Joe Elliott was working out with our trainer doing some weights. There wasn’t really a big backstage area so we took, um, Lawrence, someone had bought some fake [boobs], and so you know those Billy Bob teeth?

DF: Yes.

COLLEN: OK, so he had the Billy Bob teeth, the fake [boobs] and he tucked his package underneath himself and he comes flying out of these curtains, “Whoa, hi, I’m John ... “ Everyone nearly just burst into tears. We were laughing. It was just the funniest thing, you know, you had no idea and all of a sudden this big lug pops out with [boobs] and teeth and no clothes on. So, yeah we did have a blast with those guys. Lawrence is great. It was actually a great vibe backstage and that really helps the whole thing as well.

DF: OK, so do you that kind of similar camaraderie with Poison, this year’s partner?

COLLEN: With Poison it’s a little different. We’ve known them since the 80s, so you know, it just really goes back in time. I’ve known C.C. [DeVille, Poison guitarist] for years. Over the years I’ve bumped into all of the guys. So, yeah, it’s great. It’s really opened up. They will be touring with the same band, it’s the original members, which really makes a huge difference. So, yeah, it’s going to be wonderful.

DF: I suppose that Hugh McDonald will not be appearing with them this year in Salt Lake? I don’t know if you remember that show a couple years ago when [Poison bassist] Bobby Dall got sick and Hugh, who was hanging out backstage, actually had to come out and play bass for Poison.

COLLEN: That’s right. Yeah. Everything’s back to normal ... they’ve got that under control.

DF: I read that the band is releasing some new renditions of “Rock of Ages” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” — what can you tell me about those — what prompted that?

COLLEN: Well, we’ve got, obviously the movie’s coming out. It’s such a big deal. As you know it’s pretty lame that we’re not on iTunes. We had a legal action against our record company a while ago, you know with the whole download scene with these guys, that they can’t have permission to put our stuff out. So we’ve been waiting and this has gone on for years. ... We actually have a ton of catalog, It’s pretty lame if we don’t have “Rock of Ages” and “Pour Some Sugar” out when Tom Cruise has got the song out and the movie’s called “Rock of Ages.” So we took it upon ourselves to make sure that we’ve done two new versions that sound identical to the other ones.

DF: Can you talk about “Rock of Ages,” what has been the band’s involvement with the movie coming out?

COLLEN: I think that I’m just flattered to be quite honest. It’s an honor ... you know, the whole thing, I don’t know if you’ve seen the Broadway play, it’s really quite fun as well ...

DF: Uh-huh.

COLLEN: Yeah it’s based on that, but it’s a lot more, you know, obviously huge movie stars, really intelligent and funny and just the fact that they use 80s as a backdrop and the title is a Def Leppard song. We have three songs in there, one of which Tom Cruise sings, it’s almost like the highlight of the movie, as far the performance goes. So we were thrilled about that. You know we met Tom and saw him film that part when he was on the set ...

DF: Oh really? What was that like?

COLLEN: We were so impressed with the fact that he learned how to sing just for that role, you know. He actually said he felt nervous when we turned up. He said he wanted to get the song, because it’s so iconic, to get all the perspectives there. So that was lovely coming from the world’s biggest movie star. You know, that was great.

DF: Excellent.

COLLEN: Yeah, he totally done us proud. And the other song he sings in the movie, I was, like, blown away. You know, really cool stuff. So the involvement there we really didn’t have to do anything, but we were definitely involved in the album sleeves and you know it was a very technical part of that era, I guess, so it’s pretty cool that it’s in there. I think we’re probably going to hopefully get some music in the play because again stuff legally wasn’t talked out when the play came out.

DF: Right.

COLLEN: So hopefully now we can get all that out.

DF: I was going to say that I saw the touring production of that just three to four months ago and they didn’t have your music, just the music playing at the end, like, over the speaker.

COLLEN: Yeah, so we’ve changed that. So it should be in there, you know.

DF: Just yesterday, I was talking with Matthias Jabs from the Scorpions, who of course are wrapping up their farewell tour this year ... I know it’s still way too early for you guys, to perhaps be you know focusing on this, because you’re kind of the next generation past the Scorpions, but when it’s all said and done, how would you like Def Leppard to go out?

COLLEN: Well, we’re just getting started obviously. To be quite honest ... it’s a new lease on life, not that we needed one because we were touring and recording and writing new songs all the time. So I think, it’s not even crossed my mind. Not even a thought at the moment.