Neal Schon explores new frontiers on 'The Calling'

Journey guitarist readies solo album
By Peter Lindblad
Neal Schon 2012
Neal Schon is a little fuzzy on the concept of “down time.” Three weeks of vacation mean nothing but rest and relaxation for most people, but when Journey takes a break from the rigors of touring, that’s when the guitarist really goes to work.
The guitarist’s latest solo album, The Calling, due out Oct. 23 on Frontiers Records, came together very quickly while on leave from the multi-platinum road warriors, with Schon playing all of the guitars and bass on the record, as well as producing it. Journey followers might find it interesting to see Schon collaborating again with master drummer Steve Smith, who manned the kit for the band between 1978 and 1985 – playing on such classic LPs as Evolution, Departure, Captured and Escape, among others – before returning to the fold for Journey’s 1996 LP Trial by Fire. Smith’s jazz credentials are impeccable, and his talents helped move the project along at a breakneck pace, as Schon pushed for a funky, edgy, experimental direction to The Calling that constantly keeps listeners guessing and should completely baffle those who only know the Neal Schon they’ve heard on Journey records.
For The Calling, an album comprised entirely of instrumentals, Schon took up residence at Fantasy Studios, the historic Berkeley facility where Journey’s Escape and Green Day’s Dookie were recorded. Working feverishly, Schon recorded the album in only four days. What makes that fact all the more amazing is Schon had nothing prepared before going into the studio. He did have help, however. In addition to Smith, there was Igor Len, the noted classical, jazz and film composer who played acoustic piano on The Calling. Also making an appearance is occasional Schon collaborator Jan Hammer, the Grammy-Award winning keyboardist and composer who has also worked with Jeff Beck and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but is obviously best known for scoring the “Miami Vice Theme” and “Crockett’s Theme.” Hammer contributed Moog synthesizer solos to two tracks on The Calling, “Fifty Six (56)” and “Tumbleweeds.”
In a recent interview, Schon discussed the new solo album and his long, distinguished career as one of the most underrated guitarists in rock.
The new album certainly has a lot of stylistic diversity on it. It’s very heavy, funky and progressive in spots, with the title track, “Back Smash” and certainly “Carnival Jazz,” but it’s also very soulful and jazzy. In what ways did doing this record stretch you musically?
Neal Schon: You know, I went in with a completely blank canvas, all right? 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. 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, and I’m sort of playing up the instruments 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.”
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. And then, at that point, Steve Smith would come back in, and he 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 a different velocity. So he’s essentially a musician like that where he can see the landscape far in advance as well as I can. It was a joy to work with him; he’s actually the perfect guy for me to work with on a project like this. And so he would then go in, replay the drum loop, we’d play the whole song together as if we were playing as a band, with all finished parts. And then, immediately after that, before we went on to another song, I’d 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, the beauty of this record is that it just kind of fell out of the sky, and 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).    
The album was recorded in only four days. It doesn’t seem … well, improvised, and yet in some ways, it does seem that improvisation played a huge role.  
NS: It was very improvised, and you know, I happen to be really quick in the studio, and I think that’s a tribute to my having made so many records. So I know how to think when I’m in the studio. I’m pretty organized, even if I’m unorganized as in I’m walking in with nothing prepared (laughs). I’m organized the second we get started, as far as what order I want to do things. And then, Steve did the drum sound, I left the rhythm guitars for what we needed and then played lead guitar, and then we moved on to another track. And then, while these guys took off, I would work later and I put on bass, I started playing bass. And instead of having me following the bass – that would be the usual thing in the studio – I played the bass to the guitar with every solo I played, and I kind of moved around in a Hendrix-type way, like how he did for “All Along the Watchtower.” I wasn’t in the studio when he did it, but it was said he already had the guitar down and he just replaced the bass to move with the guitar.
How do you feel this record compares to your other solo work?
NS: Well, I’m proud of all the work I’ve done, but I think this is one of the best I’ve done to date, for it being an instrumental and the fact that it’s very diverse and has a lot of different elements that I’ve taken with me over the years from people I’ve listened to, people I enjoy. You know, I’m kind of like a sponge, like many other musicians, in that when you really love something, you really focus in and stay there. I really enjoyed listening to Igor Len stretch out on acoustic piano, and he played a bit of Moog on “Back Smash,” a blistering Moog solo, as well as Jan Hammer – and it’s cool to move it around and let other people stretch out and bring in all these different colors. He brought in this really cool jazz influence. And I’ve always loved jazz. I’m not really a jazz guitarist, but I definitely fused a bit. I’m more of an R&B, rock, blues guy that can fuse, you know. I’m not a jazz guy, but I do like jazz, and I have to say I can fake my way through it, you know, if I hear the chords at least.
You know, I understand the voices, and so everything I did like … Steve Smith co-wrote a couple songs with me that started out with marimbas and one was like an Indian drum that gave me the whole idea for the riff that I came up with, but the rest of it I wrote. So, it was a fun record to make, and when it’s moving that fast, it’s even more of a joy. You don’t have time to think about anything. I did spend a lot of time mixing, so it wasn’t mixed in four days. Like I said, all the tracks were cut with drums and with all of Igor’s keyboard parts in four days, and then I worked a little longer cleaning up things and mixing. I mixed, actually, for quite a while, and went back and forth between Nashville and mixed with my buddy there.
You mentioned all the styles on the new album. Santana was such a wonderful mélange of musical cultures. Was that what you enjoyed most about playing in Santana?
NS: Absolutely, it’s like really, Santana was like a big pot of Cajun stew … you know, in New Orleans. You stick that in and you stick that in, and you stick anything in it and it becomes very spicy and tasty. And I really did enjoy that about playing with the band and Carlos and Gregg and everybody. It was just a very mind-opening musical experience for me to go through that, because before playing in Santana, I was really just more of a blues and R&B guy. I really loved like R&B funk and blues, and that’s what I listened to. I did listen to some jazz, but really what I was playing at that time was kind of fiery rock and blues. And so, when I did get into the Santana band in 1970, that opened me to so much music. They turned me on to so many different kinds of music that was out there that I was really unaware of. So, it was a great experience for me, and a knowledgeable one.  
How did Carlos welcome you into the band?
NS: You know what, everybody was really great. And I hung out with Carlos a lot when I first got in the band, and you know, we were buddies. We hung out a lot during the day, we played a lot. We’re still good friends and we’re talking every other day, you know, texting each other: “What’s up? How are you doing?” And we keep talking about getting together, and when I get home, he has to take off. But when he gets home, I’m gone. So we’re trying to hook up just to play some new music and talk to each other.
What do you remember most about recording Santana III?
NS: Um, Santana III … wow, it was great. I was pretty much like … we were really quick in the studio, everybody played live, and there were a few solos that were overdubbed. And I usually got ‘em in one take, you know. And that’s all I remember about it. I remember we were in and out, and it was a great experience. Great record – I love it to this day. And actually, a bit of information I’ve been putting out there, “Everybody’s Everything” – the song that ended up being the No. 1 hit single off that record and had a Tower of Power horn section on it – I actually played lead guitar on it. And Carlos played rhythm guitar and bass on that.
I didn’t know that.
NS: A lot of people don’t, but it is what it is. 
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the founding of Journey. When you and Greg Rolie formed the band, did you envision it being an extension of your work with Santana or something completely different?
NS: Well, Gregg and I did like the rock aspect of what we did on the first Santana record. We liked the rock place where that record went, and so we wanted to continue doing something that was rock, but obviously, we weren’t going to have all the percussion. It would be a different sound, and you know, I was always a fan of everything that came out of England in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and so I wanted to do something that was a bit progressive like that. It was a bit more English sounding. 
Why was Infinity the big turning point for Journey?
NS: You know, it was funny. I didn’t know what it was going to be like because it was so different when Steve Perry came into the band, you know, from what we were doing and what we had built. We had built this cult audience in quite a few places, because we had toured extensively for three years, and very hard. I would say nine months out of every year we toured. And we had built quite a following being one of the original jam bands in San Francisco. You know, people really enjoyed seeing us live. We weren’t selling any records, but we were selling lots of tickets. And so, I remember the first night that Steve Perry came onstage with us, and we played a couple of the songs that we had written, the audience was like, “I don’t know about that.” It was so different that it really kind of threw them off course, you know. But, immediately when Steve and I got together, I knew that we had chemistry. We sat down, and I sat down with an acoustic guitar, and we were in one room in a hotel and I had these chords for “Patiently,” and he just started singing and writing lyrics, and you know, within, I’d say, 45 minutes we had that song. And then the next one we did together, it like in about 40 minutes again; it was “Lights.” And it was just pretty much listening to him sing and me humming a few things, and organizing the chords, the arrangement, and adding a few sections, that was that.
When Jonathan Cain joined the band, bringing in his synthesizers, it must have signaled a big change in the band. Was there a point during the recording of Escape when you felt that it was going to be something big?
NS: Well, you know what? Before Escape, we had just come out with Captured, and that was exploding. You know, and the band had already exploded on tour, and I think everybody … the Captured record was exploding and the energy on that record was something you couldn’t deny. And so, I felt that at any point that whatever we came with, as long as there were good songs, it was going to be big. We had done all the work, you know. And we paid [our dues] with all the live playing and continued to keep writing good material, I felt, and when Jon came in, he brought in a whole different thing. It was like, he’s an accomplished songwriter, and he brings in a “Faithfully,” you know, and then a lot of great elements. And Jon was an accomplished keyboardist, a classical keyboardist like on piano, and Gregg was more of a bluesy guy, someone from a B3/Jimmy Smith school of organ playing, which was a completely different thing. So we went more with Jon, obviously, because Gregg wasn’t there, and we came up with stuff like “Mother, Father” … you know, I wrote a lot of the music for that with my dad and then Jon and Perry would work on melody and lyrics, and there was always more of a classical vein to what we were doing, as opposed to what we were doing with Gregg. And yeah, it was kind of … I listen to it now and it’s a great record, but really, it’s all over the map. You’ve got a song like “Dead or Alive” on it, which is like really musical punk (laughs) – I don’t know what you’d call it. It had tight time changes and drum lines that Steve Smith had to sort out. And then you have “Open Arms” on the other side of the spectrum, and so it was like, you know, everything between A and Z and everything in the middle.
So, at that point, we felt that there was nothing really that we couldn’t play. I think it was a thing that really stumped a lot of journalists that wanted to niche us to something and say, “Aw, they’re just copying this,” or there was always a journalist that would say, “They sound just like Foreigner or Styx,” or anything else that was out there. Everything was coming out of the ‘80s, you know. I actually thought that we didn’t sound like any of the other bands and not that the other bands didn’t make great music either. I just thought that we sounded very different because of … you know, Steve Perry brought in an R&B flavor. He definitely had R&B roots in his singing, and anybody who has heard Sam Cooke would know that. And so I think it was a combination of the R&B with the rock, soaring guitar, the melody soaring guitar, and the songwriting that made us sound like we did. And I felt we sounded different from everyone.
A lot has been said of the thorny relationships between guitarists and singers, and you and Steve seemed to have a similar background, but I guess it’s always tough between singers and guitarists. Was there always creative tension between you two?
NS: You know what? There wasn’t always. We had many, many great times, and those are the ones that I prefer to remember. And usually, I think that everybody gets full of themselves, and I mean everybody, and so that’s what rips apart people. And in the end, when you look back, and you get away from it and you look back it and you remember everything, you know, really it’s silly. If you change one individual, everything changes radically. I don’t care if it’s the drummer, bass, and definitely the guitar player, it’s going to change radically. But, when we started regrouping at the point that Steve had gone out on a solo tour, I figured he had two solo records and he was going to play most of his solo material, but I heard that he was doing eight out of nine Journey songs in his tour, where on a VH1 special, “Behind the Music,” he said [to us], “Don’t play those songs, don’t go out and do this material.” He had already done it. And so at that point, Jon and I were the other two-thirds of the songwriting, and I said, “F**k this.” I go, “You know what? We deserve to be able to go out as much as anybody does.”
And it was a long, hard ride to get back to where we are now, 12 years of work again, from the beginning. And so, when I found Arnel (Pineda) a little over four years ago, things really started clicking for us again. And Arnel is an amazing vocalist. There’s nothing this boy can’t sing, I’m telling you right now. And I loved the aspect of that when I found him on YouTube and listen to … and, of course, he was just doing only covers, but it wasn’t just of Journey. Journey was just a tiny little niche of everything he was doing there. He was doing Zeppelin, he was doing Aerosmith, he was doing Sting, he was doing Heart … he was doing everyone under the sun. I’ve never heard a vocalist be able to do this in all my life. I mean, he is the chameleon of all chameleons, and if you ever come and I meet you backstage, when you come and check out a show, I’ll bring Arnel, and I’ll say, “Arnel, sing Nat King Cole,” and you will die. You will go, “No way!” He’s really amazing, and then ultimately, okay, these are songs that other people have done, but Steven Tyler is not easy to do, Robert Plant is not easy to do, Steve Perry is not easy to do, Sting is not easy to do … These are all top-notch singers. Nat King Cole is not easy to do. There’s nobody that he actually cannot do. He can do it, you know. And he has very good intuition about what to do, and I feel we’ve made two great records with him, and things are only going to get better there.
Let’s talk about side projects, starting with Hagar, Schon, Aaronson and Shrieve. Was it a rewarding experience for you, musically? How did the project come about?
NS: We’d been great friends in San Francisco, and I’d always wanted to jam with Sammy when he was doing solo gigs in San Francisco, whether it was Winterland or wherever it was, and we always seemed to jam on “Rock Candy,” the Montrose song, God bless Ronnie [Montrose, the famed guitarist who died in March]. And so, I always chose to work when I had my time periods where I had three weeks off or a month off – like before HSAS, I had three weeks off and I got together with Jan Hammer and I said, “Jan, would you like to do a record?” So I went to upstate New York and moved into his house for a second where he had the recording studio, and we knocked out a record in two weeks, and then did it with Jan again when I had another three-week break. And so I always chose to work when I had time off.
Well, it was the same thing with Sammy. I had a month off, and he had a month off from his tour schedule, so I said, “Why don’t we do something? We’re always playing; we dig working with each other. I think we could do something really cool and interesting, and a bit progressive and not so generic – just free up the reins a little bit and get creative.” And so I was always into experimenting a lot and not being so stuck in a niche or a box, and so, I suggested Kenny Aaronson. We had played some dates with Billy Squier – Kenny was playing with Billy Squier at the time – and I thought he was a really great rock bass player and really dictated time when I watched him onstage. He was really funky, and a cool guy from New York, had a really cool attitude. And then, I loved Michael Shrieve, which Sammy didn’t get. You know, I don’t know if he gets it to this day (laughs), but you go back and listen to the record, and I like Michael Shrieve, because he was more from the jazz side. And Sammy was used to really heavy rock drummers, and I wanted, from a jazz guy, kind of like what Jimi Hendrix had with Mitch Mitchell. You know, Mitch Mitchell was a jazz guy. And so, it gives it a different spin on the guitar and overall feel of the music, where it’s not so regimented. I love what Michael did on the record, and we only recorded four shows. We played three or four shows – I can’t remember. That was it. We did the best nights, everything was live, and then we went in and did minimal overdubs on the live recording – sometimes putting a rhythm guitar where there was no rhythm guitar, where I was playing lead. But, pretty much everything was live. Yeah, that was it. Sammy and I wrote the stuff, I believe, in two weeks, and then we rehearsed with everybody. We learned it, and the next week … there were like 20 songs, I believe, like in a week. And some of them were complex arrangements, so it was a lot to remember for everybody, because they weren’t there for the whole writing process. And then we just went and recorded – the fourth week, we went and played, and that was that. And then I went back on tour with Journey, and then he went back on tour.
Just that simple – moving in and out. What was different about Bad English? I know you had a really great singer to work with in John Waite. For Jonathan, that must have been interesting working with his former band mate
NS: Well, it’s funny. I had met Deen Castronovo in a rehearsal space, and I was rehearsing next store, doing something I think with Abraxas Pool at that time. And I heard this drummer … I went in to grab some gear one day, and I heard this drummer just going off in this room, and he sounded really heavy, but really, you know, like he had a lot of chops, but very powerful. And I dug the energy, so I poked my head in the room, and I introduced myself, and he was all excited to meet me.  And I said, “Give me your number, because I’m about to start a solo band.” And at that point, I was going to go solo. I was going to start putting things together for myself, because Journey had been on a long hiatus. We never really broke up, but at that point, Steven just said, “I need time off and I really don’t know when I’ll be back,” and it just seemed like it was never going to happen. And so, I just started saying, “I can’t sit around forever.” It’d been like three years or something, and I wanted to get busy and do something.
So I was going to do something with Deen and then, interestingly enough, Jonathan Cain calls me the next day and he says, “Hey, I’m down in L.A., with Ricky Phillips and John Waite [Cain’s former band mates in The Babys], and we’re putting a band together. We want to know if you want to come down and check it out.” And I said, “Well, that’s sounds really interesting.” And I said, “I just found a drummer that I really want to work with.” I said, “If you guys don’t have a drummer already, I’ll come down with Deen and we’ll both check it out and see what happens.” And so, we plugged in and we went into rehearsal and sparks kind of flew. And you know, before we knew it, we were in the studio recording the first record and did a lot of writing and went into the studio right away, with Richie Zito producing. It was a fun record to get through, and relatively painless, and it was a good time. By the time the second record came around, you know, John Waite and I were becoming really good friends and we were hanging out a lot. We were talking about direction, we were all talking about directions for the second record. And I preferred the stuff that was on the record that was a little heavier, bluesy, had a little R&B funkiness to it and “Rockin’ Horse” – stuff like that. To me, it was a little heavier than The Faces, but that kind of vein, a party kind of vibe, with a little more edge than The Faces, but that kind of vibe. And I said, “That’s where we belong,” because we had done the Diane Warren song [“When I See You Smile”], which I knew would be a hit, but I wasn’t crazy about it for the musical direction of the band. And of course, it had to be a No. 1 hit.
And so, when the second record came about and we were compiling the material, that’s where we had a fallout because we had talked about one thing and then, all of a sudden, John wanted to do nothing but Diane Warren songs. It was exactly the opposite of where we had talked about going, and you know, I’ve never been one to want to do other peoples’ songs, no matter how good they are. I just feel that if you don’t put your own stamp on it, it’s never going to sound like you. And at the time, she was writing hit songs for everyone. And is she a hit songwriter? Yes, she is. I mean, it was popular what I played on to as well, a song of hers, and I mean she wrote a lot of hit songs, but I really felt that that was not what the band was about. And so, actually, while we were in Vancouver, mixing the second Bad English record Backlash, we had a falling out, John and I. And I just quit, just moved on. I went to the back of the studio … it was funny, Mike Reno from Loverboy was back there doing a solo record, while they were mixing our record, after we had just broken up, in the front, and Mike goes, “Why don’t you play on my record?” And so I walked back there and started playing on his record.
Frontiers has an anniversary next year. Are you planning on doing anything special for it or the Journey anniversary? And just what are your memories of recording Frontiers?
NS: You know, Frontiers was very much like Escape. It was a bit more of an experimental record, which I really enjoyed. We were fighting a bit more at that time period I think. Like, I’d come in the studio and I’d turn up the faders on the guitar, I’d want the guitar to be louder. Perry would turn them down.  And so it was going both ways (laughs), and then we got into it a lot, and he’d get pissed and leave the studio, or I’d get pissed and leave the studio, but it was a great record. Otherwise, it was pretty much like Escape. Jonathan brought in “Faithfully,” I believe, at the last minute, you know, when Mike Stone and Kevin Ellefson said, “We need one ballad here. We’re missing a ballad,” and Jonathan … what I remember is, Jonathan brought that song in and he goes, “Well, I have one.” And none of us had heard it and so he brought it in, he played it for me on piano and I charted it out in my own chart language (laughs), in staff notes for musical notes, a road map that I could read. And I remember we kind of just played it through one time, just getting the chord changes and everything down, and then we recorded. And what you hear on the record is what came out, you know, after we recorded one time.
* Photo by Travis Shinn

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