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Journey guitarist excited about "Universe" of new music, projects
By Gary Graff
firstname.lastname@example.org, @GraffonMusic on Twitte
Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2021
See more SOUND CHECK
Neal Schon is working hard to be the master of his musical "Universe" right now.
The guitarist — who came to fame as a 17-year-old in Santana — recently self-released his ninth solo album, "Universe," on the heels of taking the reins again in Journey, the band he co-founded 47 years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's also expanded his social media and web commerce endeavors, and with a new Journey album in the offing and a return to touring whenever the band is able — it's even on this summer's planned Lollapalooza festival bill in Chicago — Schon is as energized as he's ever been during his lengthy career.
"There was a period there where some things weren't really right, and it took time to figure out what was going on and what to do about it," Schon, 66, acknowledges by phone from his home in northern California. "But I'm strong and I'm resilient, and we ... figured it out.
"Now there's a lot of good stuff going on and more coming. I'm just excited about everything, man. There's some really interesting stuff that I've never done before. It's just fresh and, yeah, exciting."
The "Universe" album was certainly the smoothest of these endeavors for Schon. Finished nearly three years ago, it was co-produced with multiple Grammy Award-nominee (and Kalamazoo native) Narada Michael Walden — who also became Journey's latest drummer last March. The instrumental collection features originals as well as covers of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and even Journey (the group's 1978 hit "Lights") and was a departure from Schon's usual working methods.
EVOLUTION AND DEPARTURE
"I've known Narada for many years," the guitarist says. "We've played together, jammed together, but never actually worked on a project in the studio. I got curious. 'I wonder what he'd be like if he produced a record for me?' So I asked him." Walden not only said yes but surprised Schon with six new song ideas, singing the guitar melodies on the demo tapes.
"It's the first time I've actually done a record where I didn't write everything," Schon says, "but I loved the material, so I went with it." He was further surprised, however, when Walden pushed him to maintain the guitar melodies exactly as he laid them out on the tapes.
"I started veering away from what he had sung with his voice, and (Walden) goes, 'No, no, no,' you're gonna play the melody just like this,'" Schon recalls with a laugh. "It was difficult in the beginning until I fell into it, to play less and to play simple and make it sing. It was challenging, but I've been a melody guy all my life, so I was happy to have Narada produce this and guide it in the direction he did."
The cover choices, mostly recorded before the sessions with Walden, came largely from improvisations during Schon's guitar solo section for Journey concerts. Of particular note is Prince's "Purple Rain," a song connected to Journey because Prince had contacted keyboardist Jonathan Cain to discuss his song's similarity to Journey's 1983 hit "Faithfully."
"I think they're two different songs," Schon says, "but (Prince) was definitely inspired by "Faithfully."
When Journey played in Minneapolis after Prince's death in 2016, meanwhile, Schon included part of "Purple Rain" in his solo as a tribute.
"When I did it the audience really came unglued, and I felt I really connected with them," Schon recalls. "That stuck with me, and I said, 'I think I want to do a whole version.' There's been so many artists now that have covered 'Purple Rain,' but I did this over three years ago, so I felt like I was one of the first ones to jump on it.
"I was really moved by Prince's music, and to later find out that one of the last records he bought was 'Santana IV' and that he was a fan of mine and Carlos', I was moved. So it seemed fitting to have it on here."
"Universe" comes as Journey is working on a new album — its first since 2011 — and is set to begin a new era after considerable upheaval during 2020. Schon and Cain fired and sued bassist and co-founder Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith after their attempt to take control of the band (the pair has counter-sued, supported by ex-frontman Steve Perry and former manager Herbie Herbert). The group also changed management, did some other housecleaning and legal reshuffling, and worked on settling trademark issues that hadn't been firmly established in the past.
"There was tremendous turmoil coming from every angle — especially towards me," says Schon, who had started another band, Journey Through Time, that included Santana bandmate Greg Rolie, another Journey co-founder. "Everybody wanted to own the brand, and I felt there was a takeover going on." One of the group's old managers, in fact, even suggested Schon should quit the band he started, which only strengthened his resolve to establish new order to the group. Journey has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
"Things took a turn, businesswise, that I didn't like and that Jonathan didn't like and we decided not to go along with it," explains Schon, who's limited by litigation from talking about too many specifics. "There were a lot of unrealistic statements that were being made by different people and us not really talking and just believing what others were saying. Once I actually sat and talked to Jonathan we cleared everything up and got rid of the divide-and-conquer scenario and realized we had a lot more to say musically together, as brothers.
"The ship is not going down, and nobody's stealing the brand."
DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'
Schon adds that "things are not settled right now" with Journey, but the group is nevertheless moving forward with Walden, Randy Jackson (yes, that Randy Jackson) back on bass and Arnel Pineda, Journey's frontman since 2007, making a new album.
"We're, like, deep in, and it's sounding really, really great, man," Schon reports. "It still sounds like Journey, but there is definitely a different strut in the rhythm section. It's bombastic. It's rocking. It's majestic, and it's soulful. We have 21 songs in the works right now and there's still more coming in. We'll end up picking the cream of the crop and put out a killer album."
He hopes to have a new single and video out during February, with other plans still to be determined. Mostly, Schon is looking forward to infusing new material into Journey's concerts, whenever they start to happen again.
"I felt like it was really important to not just go out and play the same show," he explains. "We're always gonna have our hits to play, but I believe we have new hits now. As hard as that is to imagine, these (new songs) sound like bona fide hits to me, and they're rockin'. There's no lack of guitar."
Schon has been keeping guitar front and center in his other endeavors, too. He's been posting almost daily featurettes on his social media, spotlighting some of his guitars and specific parts from songs and has expanded both his nealschoncollection.com and schonunivers.com sites with new content. He's overhauled his Spotify channel, and Schon has been working with Straxnetworks (aka StraxAR, straxnetworks.com) on augmented reality presentations that are "a whole new way for me to engage with my audience."
"I'm just all about moving forward right now," Schon says. "I'm making so much music and there are so many positive things happening. I've bought a lot of new guitars and I'm having a blast playing. We'll get all this other (stuff) taken care of and behind us, and then it's just full speed ahead. I can't wait."
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