Journeyman Neal Schon

Definitely progressive fusion rock

Long before “Don’t Stop Believin’” – and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Who‘s Crying Now,” “Faithfully,” etc. – Journey was a prog rock group. Prior to that, its founder Neal Schon, 62, joined the final lineup of the Santana band as a teenage guitarist. Journey lands at the Circuit of the Americas on Wednesday.

Austin Chronicle: You’re from the Bay Area, San Mateo I believe?

Neal Schon: Yeah, originally from New Jersey. My folks moved out there when I was very young, like around 6. We moved down to my grandmother’s in Hollister [near Monterey], and stayed there. I had a lot of cousins down there – aunts, uncles, what have you. My family ended up getting situated in San Mateo, so we moved up there.

AC: Why did your folks move from New Jersey to the Bay Area?

NS: Well, I know my mother wanted to be closer to her family. She has lots of brothers and sisters, and her mother. Lots of cousins out there. A big family on my mother’s side. I think we just wanted to get to the West Coast. By the time I got older, I was so happy we were close to San Francisco, because that became my very early stomping grounds, and it still is.

AC: How is it that your mother had so much family there? Was she originally from California?

NS: My mother’s mother brought them all up in Hollister, California. They lived in a little house that was between Hollister and San Juan Bautista. That’s south. That’s where they grew up.

AC: You started playing music at an early age. Were there musicians in your family? How did you come by the guitar originally?

NS: I started playing other instruments earlier, woodwinds instruments. I was good at it, but I wasn’t that interested in the end. My dad was a tenor sax player, a big band arranger, and a writer – composer. I was weaned around a lot of really great jazz music. My dad and mother were in the Air Force together. My dad was the leader of the Air Force band, and my mother was actually the singer – in Oklahoma. That’s where I was born, at Tinker Air Force Base. Then we moved to Jersey, then to California.

I was brought up around a lot of cool music. I remember the early, early days of our little house in Trenton, New Jersey. My dad would have about half of the big band in our living room, and they were playing Ellington, Basie, Stan Getz. All that early stuff, Oscar Peterson, and a lot of my dad’s original arrangements. My dad also took me to see a lot of really great music. He took me to see Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald. “This is cool stuff, kid. Listen to this.” I just loved it, and that was before I was playing. I was just surrounded by great music all the time.

When you’re really young, whether you’re playing or not, kids are like sponges. I see some of the kids that pop up now on the Internet or on Facebook and they’re so young, 4 years old and playing concert piano. Or shredding classical guitar. It’s crazy how fast they’re excelling these days and I think it’s because the learning tools are unbelievable these days. Kids can look anything up on the Internet, slow things down, watch fingers. There’s so many visual lessons that nobody had in those days. Basically it was an old record player for me, and if I couldn’t pick it out at regular speed, I would slow it down. I would drop it exactly an octave and you could somewhat tell what was going on.

AC: Given that your father was a musician, I guess that explains how your parents let you join the Santana Band at such a young age.

NS: By that time, I had chosen what I wanted to do. I wasn’t really going to my classes in school, although the classes I did go to I got very high grades in. I just wasn’t interested in history and a lot of other classes that I had to take. But I was very interested in music and art. This was before I even got to high school. Even in elementary school I was the same way. I was pretty gifted at drawing, and still am – anything having to do with art. And I knew I was either going to paint, draw, design, or play music or both. I kinda do both now. I’m still helping with designs for guitars I’m coming up with for Paul Reed. It’s just something I had a natural knack for.

I started playing the guitar at 10, and by the time I was 12 I was pretty accomplished as a blues guitarist, because I had listened to all the right guys. I listened to a lot of B.B. King, and Albert King, and Freddie King, and Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. I was a big fan of Michael Bloomfield at that time, from Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and he went on to do Electric Flag. I really loved his playing. I thought he was a singing, screaming, guitar player. I studied those guys very intently, 24/7 pretty much. A guitar, a record player, and an amplifier was all I needed.

AC: At what point did you let your parents know that you were out the door to play music?

NS: I’d been hanging out for about half a year in a Bay Area band called Old David. I had [Santana Band members] Gregg Rolie and Michael Shrieve come in, and we were playing down in Palo Alto. The bass player, Nine Year – Bob Woodridge, that was his nickname, “Nine Year” – he knew Gregg and he knew Michael, so he invited them down to see us play. We were playing in Palo Alto at the Poppycock. We were one of the best bands in the Bay Area. I got to join that band and they were much older than me. They were kinda a cool funk/soul/blues mixture, with a little country, actually. The other guitar player was a very good chicken picker.

So Gregg and Michael came down to check me out. And I guess they liked what they heard, because they ended up hanging out until after the club closed. The club owner locked the door up and let us stay up and jam in there.

Santana III

AC: When does that all morph into the band that recorded 1971’s Santana III

NS: Almost immediately – the next day. I was going to Aragon High School at the time, and Gregg Rolie and I became very close. He started picking me up at school in the early afternoon, and I’d just bolt [laughs]. I’d drop everything. Gregg was living in Mill Valley at that time, but his dad Howard had an apartment down in San Bruno where he had a piano. So I’d bring a guitar and a little amp, Gregg would pick me up at school, and we’d go to the apartment and jam. Pretty much after that, we were inseparable. I was always hanging out.

I was working in a studio on El Camino Real that a guy named Paul Cursio had [Pacific Recording Studio in San Mateo]. He gave me some free studio time. I think he was hoping to sign me to one of those endless contracts. You know, for life – own me forever. My dad wouldn’t let me sign it. I was so pissed off at the time, because I just wanted to get out there. I thanked my father many years later for not letting me sign it.

That was actually the studio that Santana recorded their first album in. I was in there playing one day and I met Jackie Villanueva from Santana’s road crew. I think they were all talking amongst themselves [about me]. That’s the feeling I got. Jackie decided he was going to come and pick me up like once or twice a week, and take me up to San Francisco to introduce me to all the club owners up and down Broadway. There was so much music going on there. A lot of blues clubs; Michael Bloomfield’s Gold Club that Elvin Bishop had taken over. He introduced me to Elvin Bishop, and I soon started jamming with him.

He had such a great band. There was a guitar shoot-out at night where guitar players would come from all over to see who would be left standing, and I was always winning. So that was my prize that Elvin treated me to after about a month of winning: He took me to the Fillmore West for the first time and told me, “I’m going to introduce you to B.B. King.” I met [Fillmore owner and promoter extraordinaire] Bill Graham for the first time, so we went backstage and B.B. invited us onstage. That was the first big gig I ever played. And they were all great to me because I didn’t know any better, but to play at the Fillmore with B.B., I was just, “My God, this is insanely cool.”

AC: How old were you that night?

NS: I think I was 14.

AC: Where, finally, did Carlos come in?

NS: Carlos enters the picture a little bit later, after I had been hanging with Gregg for quite some time and I knew everybody that worked for Santana. They were busy recording Abraxas at Wally Heider’s [Studio] in San Francisco, so they invited me to come hang out in the studio and watch the recording process. [Santana and future Journey manager Walter] “Herbie” Herbert and Jackie set me up in a room off to the side with a little record player like I like to work, and I would take my Fender Twin amp, turn it face down to the floor with a pillow over the back, and turn it up to 10. That was my first volume alternator [laughs].

So I’d sit in the room and practice, and walk out once in a while to check out what was going on in the studio. I almost got on [Abraxas’] “Mother’s Daughter” for one second when they were recording that. Carlos got a little stuck on it. It was a little different song for him, so he was going, “Why don’t you let Neal try.” I remember Fred Catero was producing and he was like, “Neal can’t play this. It’s Carlos.” Right after I tried one take, Carlos went in and kicked ass. I think he thought we were good for each other.

AC: So did you make it onto Abraxas?

NS: No. And I didn’t play Woodstock either; a lot of people think I played Woodstock with the band, but I joined shortly after that. After they busted wide open.

AC: That was for Santana III, then?

NS: Yeah, I’m all over that record. And Caravanserai. Then we disbanded. After which Gregg and I started Journey.

1972’s Caravanserai

AC: Right, and I want to come back to that, because those first three Journey albums are mindblowing. But that whole Santana saga then comes back around to this year and the new Santana IV album. Carlos writes in the liner notes that you were the catalyst for the album – that you kept coming back to him about it over an extended period of time. What made it such a burning desire for you to get the band back together?

NS: You know, it was something I dreamt about after all these years: To go back with the original guys that took me under their wings when I very young. That was such an amazing spark in the whole music industry. I traveled around the world with them and it was just mind-boggling for me at that time. We’d be all over Europe, and the next day we’d be in Ghana, Africa, playing [1971’s] Soul To Soul [concert] with Roberta Flack, Staple Singers, and Wilson Pickett.

Santana were such a worldly band. I remember playing on so many types of festivals when we weren’t playing our own solo shows. It was so mixed, the crowds, like Montreux Jazz Festival. The band fit in everywhere. I started remembering all that and thought, “It would be so cool to help these guys reunite.” Because when we split up, everybody split up on sour notes. Not everybody stayed tight and communicated after all those years.

It was gratitude on my side, something I felt, like I owed it to everybody to help them get reacquainted again, because it was such a magical band. I was very persistent, as Carlos will tell you [laughs]. I just refused to take no as an answer – kind of like my career. Like there was a phys[ical] ed[ucation] teacher in high school that was all over my shit, just saying, “You’re going to amount to nothing.” From then on, anybody who told me I couldn’t do it, I was determined it was going to happen, and I’ve never not done it.

And I felt good about it. I felt like God was making it happen with me. It was coming from above. Everywhere I went, I ran into Carlos. It was some sort of omen, and a message to me to keep going for it. And I think, finally, Carlos... We ran into each other so much, I think I was badgering him [laughs]. I think I just wore him out. He goes, “Okay, okay. We’ll do something.” He invited me up to his house in Tiburon, finally, and we sat down and started talking.

We started hanging out again and that was the beginning of it. We got reacquainted and got very tight again. It was a blessing, because him and I are so similar, and we’ve never been tighter, which feels really great at this point in life.

Santana IV, released 4.15.16

AC: Santana IV is pure flashback. It captures the spark of the original group and all the instrumentals give it a real elasticity.

NS: You know why, man? I’m kinda blown away, but then I’m not. One of the reasons I pursued it was because there’s such chemistry with certain people when they play together. You don’t always have to have it where everybody in the band has to be the best in their field – the best on their instrument. It’s a group of guys that when they play together it makes natural magic.

This record, I have to tell you, was very effortless. We did very little preparation. We only jammed two days prior to going into the studio, and it was within a three-year span when we were all not touring. Gregg’s been really busy with Ringo Starr, and I’m always busy with Journey and touring. And Carlos was busy, plus Michael Shrieve and Michael Carabello. We had to work around everybody’s schedule.

The first time we got together, three years ago, I heard it was going to be a meeting. Carlos called a meeting in Las Vegas. We went up Las Vegas, my wife and I, and I went there not knowing it was a rehearsal space. I brought a present [for Carlos] that was an NS 14 semi hollow body guitar that I designed with Paul Reed. I love the guitar, and I thought, “Carlos will love this.” So I bought one, because Paul didn’t have any, and I was taking care to give it to him. When I got close to the door where I thought we were going to sit down, I heard all this music. And it sounded like... Santana.

I could hear Gregg’s organ playing, and I could hear the rhythm section, and I could hear Carlos. At the time, there was no bass. Benny [Rietveld] wasn’t playing at the point; David Brown had passed, so we just didn’t have bass at the beginning. Gregg was playing left-hand bass on the organ, but it all sounded like Santana. So this was the meeting. He had a really cool amp set up for me. I think it was a Dumble. And I had never played through one before, but I’m glad I brought the extra guitar that I was going to give him, because he said, “Plug it in.”

So before we even talked about anything, we jammed all day long. I never quite got through all the hard drives afterward [listening back to the session], because I was so busy working. I really didn’t have time to listen to everything we did. All I remember is that it was very natural, and it was so easy to just continually jam all day on different types of African rhythms and listening to everyone color.

We did some reggae stuff, we did some heavier blues, we did some funk. We did some really up-tempo Miles Davis-type stuff. It was all over the map, and I go, “Yup. There it is,” you know? This is a very colorful band. Very unique. I don’t think there’s another band out there that’s quite as unique as this band in terms of diving into so many musical facets.

AC: Is the band doing any live dates to promote the album?

NS: We just played four. We have two more coming up this year, because Carlos was still booked at the House of Blues, and also, I was already booked on this tour that I’m about to start in a few days with the Doobie Brothers and Dave Mason.

AC: You’ve stayed in touch with Gregg Rolie all this time. In 2009, when Journey was in town, you got him up onstage for an oldie since he now lives out here in Dripping Springs.

NS: Right, he came up and we did “Just the Same Way.” Gregg was a big part of the foundation of Journey, and we did a lot of hard work together. And we were met with a lot of success. A lot of people have forgotten that, but Gregg was on seven records. We did the those first Journey records – Journey, Look Into the Future, and Next. That’s about the time CBS came to us and said, “If you don’t get a new lead vocalist, someone we can get you on the radio with, we’re gonna drop you guys.” That’s when Herbie brought forth a tape of Steve Perry.

Journey

(1975)

Look Into the Future

(1976)

Next (1977) – (l-r): Neal Schon, Gregg Rolie, Aynsley Dunbar, Ross Valory

We got together and we decided to move in that direction even though we were all not so sure about it at that time, because it was so far afield. After Steve and I wrote the first couple of songs together, we realized we had great chemistry, great writing chemistry. Because I had never really written for a vocalist before that. Everything was more instrumental. Gregg knew where to put his vocals in after having worked with Santana, where music is driving all the time.

Steve and I fell into a natural groove. In about an hour, Steve and I wrote “Patiently” one day. I had all the music, and he just came in singing to my chords on an acoustic guitar at a room in the hotel. The next time we got together, we wrote “Lights.” That was our second song. Gregg was on Infinity. Then we did Evolution together. Then we did Departure together. Then we did Captured, the double live record from Cobo Hall in Detroit.

The back cover to 1978’s Infinity: (l-r) Schon, Steve Perry, Valory, Rolie, and Dunbar

By that time, the band was just kicking ass everywhere. We were pulling down major shows. If we were opening for someone [laughs]... We just had unbelievable energy back then. We still do, but I’m talking about that era when the band busted wide open. We were actually busting wide open before Steve came into the band. Herbie Herbert had us on the road nine months out of every year for those first three-and-a-half years, and the other few months we were making a record – which was our first, second, and third record.

We had played with everybody under the sun; Kiss before Kiss was huge – when they were playing theaters. We opened for [fusion pioneers] Mahavishnu [Orchestra]. We opened for Cheech & Chong. We opened for Emerson, Lake & Palmer. We opened for Thin Lizzy. We opened for many, many other bands, but the one band we found that we got over big with – before we made the big move with Steve Perry – was Lynyrd Skynyrd. We started playing dates with them, and their crowd just loved it. We were getting three strong encores a show in front of them, and I mean like really ballistic encores. And we were just doing our thing back then. So that was a magical connection with their audience.

Then shortly after that, the plane went down. How tragic for those guys. They were such great people, too. Out of that, Kevin Elson, their sound mixer, we met him. He was one of the survivors on that plane. Kevin ended up coming with us for years, mixing our live sound, and producing the albums.

AC: Those first three Journey albums are out there. I don’t know whether to call it acid rock, space rock, what? Nuclear, definitely.

NS: [Laughs]

AC: You can hear the fusion, sure, but I’m pretty sure no one remembers how Journey began. How would you describe the sound of that version of the band?

NS: Well, you know what, in a sense I think we were like a mini Mahavishnu that was more rock & roll, progressive. Definitely progressive fusion rock. We were experimenting a lot, but it was very progressive. We were the original jam band from San Francisco. We just owned San Francisco. Every time we played at Winterland, no matter who we opened up for, we just killed. Destroyed. We did amazing. I remember when [our fans] saw the first show that Steve Perry came up and sang with us. They didn’t know what to think.

AC: [Laughs]

NS: A lot of these fans refused to go with the majority of the fans. We gained so many fans, but we lost a lot of those original fans. And just like Santana, it came out of nowhere. The same sort of [reunion] could easily happen with the early Journey stuff. I would love to do some one-offs and gigs like that. Maybe not all the original guys, but Gregg and myself, and Ross [Valory] if he wanted to. And I’m sure Steve Smith could do Aynsley [Dunbar]’s stuff. Aynsley isn’t around [though not dead], but it would be fun to revisit that stuff, because if nothing else, people would love to see it live.

I feel like one of the reasons the new Santana record is doing so well is that we brought real music back into the mainstream. And the record’s been very successful the first weeks, and I mean worldwide. I’ve only received chart action two weeks in a row, but nobody’s selling records out there today, and especially new records. Usually it’s just older records, like our Journey catalog, or Pink Floyd, and records that have been in the Top 100 for years. The music industry is just failing in that area, so for us to be doing as well as we’re doing with this new Santana record is proving people wrong that you can’t sell new records and you can’t get on the radio. We are.

I’m excited about that mere fact that we’re proving some people wrong.

AC: Your style, especially early on, is so fiery – really explosive. Is that from working with Carlos at such a formative age, or is it from jazz and your father?

NS: Absolutely: It came from working with Carlos. When I joined Santana, you listen to that third record and I’m not really playing melodically. I’m playing really, like, machine gun fiery blues [laughs] – speeded up. At that point, when I joined them, I was trying to come up with my own style, and what I was doing was throwing some Cream in there, some Hendrix, some Jeff Beck, some Jimmy Page, and then all the original amazing blues artists I was weened on. Then kinda throwing them into a pot and making musical guitar Cajun soup [laughs].

I was trying to come up with my own style back then, but really that’s what I was doing. And then I was just practicing to play really proficiently, and clean, and fast, and still soulful, but definitely after I played with Carlos. He taught me so much about melody like he did again on this record. Know what I mean? Some people just bring the best out of you.

I was listening to the record again today, Santana IV, and I just thought to myself, “Wow. I haven’t heard myself play like this in a long time.” It’s different when I play with Carlos. I feel we bring the best out in each other.

AC: On a lot of those San Francisco albums of the Sixties, whether it’s Santana, or the Grateful Dead, or Jefferson Airplane, you can really hear and feel the LSD. They glint a certain lysergic... crackle. Did you experiment with psychedelics?

NS: You know, I experimented like anybody did growing up, but I wouldn’t say it infected me, or made me play anything I wouldn’t have played naturally. I’ve been straight, and completely sober, for going on 10 years. I feel like I’m playing better than ever. I don’t really feel like I need any drugs or alcohol or pot or anything. I’m just feeling everything on the natch. I think that’s when you’re at your best.

I’m sure there’s something to be said about people who’ve taken a lot of LSD. It’s opened their minds musically, and made them a lot more intellectual. I know the whole era you’re talking about. Definitely everybody was dropping acid. I went to a few Grateful Dead shows [laughs], and everybody was out there.

Escape (1981)

AC: Journey has been such a popular and populist juggernaut. You had so many hits. Do you feel like in becoming a “pop” band that people forgot about you as a guitarist?

NS: Umm, you know what? I think the real hardcore fans that come to see us play live never forgot because they see me all the time. I dig in, and I cut loose. But yes, I do feel like I get more attention as a guitar player when I’m hanging with Carlos just because he’s known as a guitar player. Had I gone with Eric Clapton when Clapton asked me to, it would’ve been the same thing. [Journey] is a different thing, a different animal. A great animal, but it’s just a different animal.

And I’ve always enjoyed my solo career. The things I’ve done throughout the years, I think, have been met with a lot of hardcore politics, though. Throughout the years, everybody likes to keep you in the mother ship, contained. But at this point, I’m into doing it all. I have the energy. I just proved that. I did double duty a night the first four shows that we did with Santana and Journey. I played with both bands, close to 30 songs a night.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle