Neal Schon finds his 'Calling'

The Journey guitarist recalls colorful times with Roy Thomas Baker, Geoff Workman
By Peter Lindblad
Neal Schon - The Calling 2012
Some are simply eccentric, a little strange but ultimately harmless. Others are complete loons, absolutely certifiable and more than a bit scary – Phil Spector comes to mind. Down through rock and roll history, some of the most interesting figures have been music producers. Journey’s Neal Schon has run across a few in his time.
Roy Thomas Baker, famed for his work with Queen and his innovative method of stacking harmonies, made sweet music with Journey on 1978’s Infinity and its follow-up, 1979’s Evolution. For 1980’s Departure, as Journey put its nose to the grindstone and put out three hit-laden records in three years, the band was put through its paces by Geoff Workman. Though different, both men were uniquely talented studio artists, capable of wringing the best performances possible out of their clients. And both were a little … different.
“I remember we did have a great time with Roy Thomas Baker and Geoff Workman; they were two characters – I mean really strong characters, both individuals,” said Schon, who will release a new solo instrumental album on October 23 on Frontiers Records titled The Calling. “You know, Roy was very flamboyant. He always had this king’s chair and he wore this king’s crown – you know, it was like Monty Python, for real. And Geoff Workman was like a pirate, and you know, he was always smoking a French cigarette and drinking a case of Elephant beer. It got very colorful in the studio.”
For Schon and the rest of Journey, whose direction had shifted somewhat with the addition of Steve Perry as vocalist on Infinity, as the band morphed from a collection of jam-band hippies from San Francisco to architects of a pop-infused hard rock Hoover Dam that generated hits instead of electricity, Evolution was made at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles at a time when they were feeling their oats.   
“We had some late nights, all-night benders (laughs), I remember that,” said Schon. “We were partying a lot as a band back then. I remember that the studio we were working in, we came in one morning, and I believe that Woodie – Ron Wood – and Keith Richards were in there the night before, and a couple of the guys were still sleeping on the floor. So, it was funny. I met them that way, and the studio was down there. We just waited for them to get up and got out, and we got our studio time started.”
Schon waits for no one anymore, as the rushed recording process of The Calling so aptly demonstrates. On a break from his duties with Journey, Schon made the most of his time, working quickly with former Journey mate, drummer Steve Smith, to create a surprisingly heavy and progressive set of tracks that travel through diverse musical terrain.
“I went in with a completely blank canvas, and a lot of colors, and the colors were all the guitars and amps I brought in, and obviously, the musicians that I played with,” said Schon. “And Steve Smith, it’s been a while since him and I got together and played, and the creative juices were just flowing. Really, I came in there unprepared. I hadn’t written any material. I had a few riffs here and there, and we sort of went at it day by day, and went about it in a similar way to when I’m working by myself at home, where I’m sort of playing up the instruments like on a demo, where I took a drum loop and instead of using a drum machine – which I would use at home – I had Steve Smith there, which was much better. I had him do a tempo for a certain riff that I would come up with, and I’d have him loop it for like eight bars, on the Pro Tools, and I’d say, ‘Give me a half an hour or 25 minutes to map this thing out.’”
Briefly repairing to another space, Schon continued to sketch out the mental musical blueprints he and Smith would follow.
“And so then I’d just take a rhythm guitar and have these definite drum loops going the whole time and I’d arrange what I’d need till the end of the song and all the different sections – the solo section, the intro, the heavy section … you know, all the sections and so forth, just like you’d arrange any song,” explains Schon. “And then, at that point, Steve Smith would come back in and would write down on paper musically what I played on guitar, the arrangement; then we’d talk about which was the heavier section, which was the solo section, and there’s the groove section, where the melody happens, you know, and then he’d play with different velocity. So he’s essentially a musician like that where he can see the landscape far in advance as well as I can.”
Working with Smith, who was trained in jazz at the revered Berklee College of Music prior to his joining Journey, was a revelation for Schon.
“It was a joy to work with him; he’s actually the perfect guy for me to work with on a project like this,” said Schon. “And so we would then go in, replay the drum loop, play the whole song together as if we were playing as a band, with all finished parts. And then I, immediately after that, before we went on to another song, would slam down the lead guitar, like we’d always do and do a couple of things, all the way through what was in my head. We didn’t have anything written. We just kind of winged it, you know. And it came out. It just came out. To me, that’s the beauty of this record – that it just kind of fell out of the sky, and you know, there wasn’t a lot of thought put into it. So whatever did come out, it was completely from the heart and soul. It was very organic, and I love the organic way of recording where it’s not so thought out – the old blues thinking, from all the old cats, like if you’re thinking, you’re beaten, you know (laughs).”
Schon had more to say about his days in Journey in our interview, and we’ll have more on that later. So, keep watching this space for more with the guitarist, a teen prodigy who played with Santana at Woodstock, and his incredible history.  

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