Journey guitarist Neal Schön gives credit for a lot of his improvisational skills to Cream’s 1968 album “Wheels of Fire”. Listening to that along with healthy doses of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and the Three Kings: BB, Albert and Freddie. Perhaps absorbing that combination of master musicianship is one of the reasons why Schön’s new album, “So U” is so insanely good.
For “So U”, Schön transforms ¾ of his former Soul Sirkus band (including bassist Marco Mendoza and longtime Journey drummer Deen Castronovo) into a late 60’s/ early 70’s psychedelic power trio. Infusing elements of funk, rock, fusion and jazz into a sound that’s very much reminiscent of Schön’s early recordings with Santana and Journey.
Schön is currently out on tour this summer with Journey, The Steve Miller Band and Tower Of Power. I spoke with him about “So U”, Journey and the new project that reunites him with his former bandmate, Carlos Santana.
What made you decide to record this new album?
I had finished up recording my last album [2012’s “The Calling”] at Fantasy Studios and was just having a blast. Since I had some extra time, I thought I’d give Deen and Marco a call to see if they would be available to come in with me. The three of us had worked together on a Soul Sirkus record with Jeff Scott Soto a long time ago. So I had already known Marco for years and obviously Deen has been with me in Journey for a long time.
You did some songwriting with Jack Blades for this album. What’s your relationship with him like?
Jack and I have also known each other for years. We go way back to the beginnings of Night Ranger when we played some dates with them after their first record came out. I like getting together with Jack because there’s always something good that comes out of it. Whenever I go up to his studio to write, I know that we’re going to come out with one or two really great ideas.
Let’s discuss a few tracks from So U:
What You Want
When I first started thinking about doing this project, I had already been up to Jack’s house and the two of us had been throwing around a few ideas. “What You Want” was one of the songs that popped out. That was one we had a basic map and arrangement for and knew what it was going to sound like.
Take A Ride
“Take A Ride” was something that I wrote musically way back when I was working with Paul Rodgers. I wrote it for Paul because it had this funky, bluesy, rock groove with a modern “Free” type of feel to it. Then Paul had to continue touring and I had to go out and tour and for some reason, the two of us lost contact about it. So I already had the song just sitting there in my head. Then I remembered when I saw Marco playing at The Baked Potato in LA with his Latin Fusion group. They basically do these amazing Latin/fusion versions of Stevie Wonder songs. I knew that he could sing his ass off and had this funky, bluesy voice and that’s when I said, “Marco can sing this!” So we laid it down, wrote the lyrics and it was done.
Exotica is very Latin/fusion. It’s sort of my “hats off” to Carlos Santana. I dedicated that one to him.
What was the recording process like?
A lot of the instrumentals on the album actually started out with just a click track and me playing keyboards. I would put down the chords as I heard the song going without any arrangement at all. Then the guys would come in and play and it all came to life. It was nice to go into the studio with a blank canvas and have a lot of “brushes” and “paints” to throw at it.
What kind of “brushes” and “paints” did you use?
I have a lot of guitars but pretty much use the same thing for recording now. A Fractal Axe-FX double rack. That and a Bogner Shiva. It’s a little 2×12 bottom and a hand wired head that they made for me.
Will you be touring with Marco and Deen?
I would love to find the time to do it. Right now with Journey we’re doing so well. Although we’ve never gone away, it’s been an incredible rebirth. Especially with all of the young fans. We’re so fortunate to have this huge resurgence.
What can you tell me about your upcoming project with [Carlos] Santana?
We’ve recorded nine tracks so far and it sounds a lot like where we left off on Santana III. For this one, we went for some funkier grooves and a few other different things. We’re going to be going back in to do some more electric, up-tempo stuff as well. Four or five tunes like that. It’s very electric and organic.
What’s it like for you to be working with Carlos again?
It’s funny. I still remember the first meeting we were going to have about it. Carlos mainly lives in Las Vegas now and has a rehearsal studio there. Journey was playing in Vegas and I had a few days off, so I figured I’d just walk into his office and have a meeting to talk about it. I even brought along one of my new Paul Reed Smith NS-14 guitars as a gift to give to Carlos. I thought we were just going to sit down and talk but when I opened the door, everyone was in there playing. It sounded amazing and just like the old band. So instead of talking, I wound up plugging in the guitar I was going to give to Carlos and jammed with them all day. Then later I took Carlos aside and said “Hey, I thought we were going to have a meeting?” He just laughed and said “Dude, this IS the meeting!” [laughs].
I could ask you a million questions about some of the Journey songs, but I’ll settle for the origins of just two:
Stone In Love
Back in the heyday I was living in California and had a few friends over at a house I had just moved into and we were having a party. I had a guitar set up in a bedroom that didn’t have any furniture in yet and I just started beating out the chords to the track. In those days I used to carry around one of those little Sony recorders and a bunch of cassettes to record ideas into. I’d either be humming into it or sometimes would play a riff. It was shortly after Jonathan Cain came into the band and I’d bring him all of the cassettes with riffs I made and he would help me sort out the ideas.
Any Way You Want It
That was another early one that I wrote with [Steve] Perry. At the time we wrote it we were on tour with Thin Lizzy. I think it was inspired by listening to Phil Lynott and the guys open up for us every night. We just started jamming to it at sound check one day and it just kind of came out. Just three chords and there you go. Sometimes the simple songs make for the best ones!
What other projects are you working on?
I have a follow-up to “The Calling” that’s already complete. It’s an 85 minute double-cd that I did with Steve Smith, Jan Hammer and Igor Len. I’ve been trying to stay ahead of the game and come with new records all the time. I have so much music in me.
It’s been three years since Journey’s last album [Eclipse]. Has the band given thought to working on another album?
We’ve been talking about doing something, possibly at the end of this tour. Sometimes when things are going so well it gives you that much more incentive to want to go in and do some new music. Or maybe revisit older music you wrote long ago which never really saw the light of day. There are some things we did back there; even when Steve Augeri was singing with the band, that I think are really great songs and ones we could easily redo and rearrange with Arnel [Pineda].
Of all the projects you’ve been involved with over the course of your career, is there one thing that stands out as a particular highlight?
Back when we did Santana III we had a song on it called “Everybody’s Everything”. I remember we had a Tower of Power horn section on it and I played lead and Carlos played bass and rhythm guitar. That ended up being a number one album for us and was something that I’ll never forget.
For more on Neal Schön visit: www.schonmusic.com/