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.