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Neal Schon on Journey’s New LP ‘Freedom,’ Ambitious 50th Anniversary Plans

It’s been 11 years since Journey released their last studio record, and for a while it was looking like they’d never get around to making one. “Nobody was really interested in making new music,” Journey founder and guitarist and Neal Schon tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from his California home. “It’s very difficult to get new material played and to get people familiar with it before you go out and play live. Everybody in the band was like, ‘I don’t want to do it.’”

The band’s heavy tour schedule also made it difficult for the band to create a new record, but when the pandemic forced the band to cancel their 2020 summer tour with the Pretenders, Schon suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. He filled it by heading into the studio with longtime friend Narada Michael Walden, who joined Journey as their new drummer right around this time, and began writing new tunes that were fleshed out by his bandmates at their home studios, including singer Arnel Pineda from his house in the Philippines.

The result is Freedom, which arrives in stores July 8. It’s a mixture of classic Journey ballads, heavy rockers, and funky numbers they were able to create thanks to the addition of Walden and bassist Randy Jackson into the fold. We spoke to Schon about the creation of Freedom, Journey’s plans for their upcoming 50th anniversary (which may include Santana), why Jackson and Walden didn’t tour with the band this year, and his feelings about Andy Cohen labeling them “Fake Journey” on CNN after their New Year’s Eve performance.

How did the tour go earlier this year?
Killer, man. Couldn’t have asked for better shows. We were back in arenas, selling them out. It felt great. Things are moving straight up.

The combination of you and Toto really worked.

Yeah. I’m glad I thought of it. When Billy Idol was originally going to only play the first 28 shows, I suggested Toto for the second half of the tour. Luke [Steve Lukather] and I have been friends for many years. When Billy got sick and had to pull out, I said, “Let’s just put them on for the whole thing.” And it worked out great. The music really fits together. They were getting ready to do a theater tour, so we helped to elevate them in the United States, where they deserve to be.

Next year, it looks like we’re going to go out and do the same thing. We’ll play secondary markets and some of the main markets we missed the first time around with Toto. We have 40 dates already booked. And then we’re planning on going aboard with them.

It was interesting to hear “Don’t Stop Believin’” as the third song of the set. It sort of changed the gravity of the night since it’s usually the closer.
I think we fumbled on that a bit. We wanted to recreate the Greatest Hits [record] the last time we played Vegas at Virgin [Hotels]. We were recreating the Greatest Hits album exactly as it was on the album. That’s where the song came in. We tried it and I ended up liking it. That’s obviously a huge song, but to me, it was never a closer. It’s an up-tempo power ballad. To me, no matter how big the song is, it’s not the closing song of the show. I thought it worked out great.

Tell me how you made this new album Freedom during the pandemic.
When the pandemic hit, everybody was at home, obviously. We couldn’t work. I started experimenting a lot and looping a lot from our house. At this time, we had gone through the lawsuit [against former drummer Steve Smith and former basset Ross Valory] and were able to move on. I wanted to work with Narada Michael Walden and Randy Jackson. Narada lives in San Rafael in Marin County. And even though it was a lockdown, he and I were able to get together and start working on ideas.

I spoke to Arnel about a year ago. He was in Manila, but he had a whole home studio setup so he could work on the new songs with you. Tell me about the process of working with a vocalist on the other side of the planet.
It was really amazing to watch. I wasn’t aware completely of the new technology that allows you to record anywhere in the world and be exactly in time without any delay. I figured if you were all the way in Manila, it couldn’t work. I thought there would be glitches and delays. But Narada and our engineer, Jim Reitzel, were explaining to me that there’s this new technology out there and it could be exactly in time. Arnel would not have to engineer himself. Jim could actually engineer from Narada’s studio. All Arnel had to do was sing.

Narada told me funny stories about producing his vocals. He’d be singing, and since he wasn’t in a real studio, it would start pouring rain or hailing. They had to stop the session since they’d hear it pounding on the roof.

His voice sounds really strong, like what he sounded like in 2008. All of the wear-and-tear on his voice was gone.
It’s so crazy. We brought out a vocal specialist that Randy Jackson had suggested we use. We tried to figure out what was going on with him since he had been struggling for many years. He was always complaining that he couldn’t hear himself. We thought, “Why not invest and have someone come out and assess it?” The guy came out and said, “Wow. With this mix, I don’t understand how he’s hearing anything. You guys have a real problem here. It’s too loud.”

Our monitor mixer Josh said he knew a guy with fresh years that could come in and help us overhaul our setup. We got him out. It was like, “Snap!” It was that fast. All of a sudden, it started sounding like a record in front of me. I was going to the guys and saying, “Wow! It’s sounding like it’s pre-mixed. And with Arnel sounding so perfect in the mix, we can do what the Grateful Dead have been doing for years. We need to build up our website more, put some money into that, and start giving people live streams.” As long as we mix up the shows, I see us going in that direction.

This is Randy’s first time on a Journey record since Raised on Radio in 1986. What was it like having him back? What did he bring to the table?
It’s Randy and Narada. What they bring to the table is their personalities. It’s always a pleasure to be around them, beyond the fact they are both amazing musicians and great people to be around. I knew what I was going to get musicianship-wise, and both brought it. The way we started this album was all drums and guitar. It was really fun for me to not work with a computer from the get-go.

I was in the studio playing live guitar with Narada on all the tracks that we cut. A song like “Let It Rain” was just a jam. I came in one day and went, “I got this riff.” He goes, “Let’s go jam on it.” We went out and jammed on it. It was one take like it was on the record. I went down and arranged it. I didn’t know where it was going. It wasn’t even really a song. I just kept jamming through it.

In a sense, it was like what a lot of people did in the Sixties, like Jimi [Hendrix] if he was working on something and he had [drummer] Mitch Mitchell to work with. He’d just jam through a thing and then throw bass on it afterwards. That’s what we did with that. I threw some bass on it right afterwards. I did my best Jack Bruce impersonation. I sent it down to Randy, and Randy totally got it. He just took what I did and played it better.

I was really pleasantly surprised to hear the rhythm section on this whole album. We have a whole new strut about the album, whether it’s a ballad, a power rocker, or the funk rock, the heavier stuff we have on this album is kind of a new chapter for us.

I really like “Beautiful As You Are.”
That’s a suite. It’s one of the longest Journey songs. I think it encompasses everything from Infinity and before that to “Don’t Stop Believin’” and beyond.

It’s the longest Journey song since “Look Into The Future” in 1976.
I hated the days when people were looking at their stopwatch and everyone got into that vibe of, “Don’t bore me, get to the chorus.” Why? If they want to get it on the radio, whatever radio is left out there, they’re going to edit it anyway, so why chop the baby’s legs off?

I also really liked “Holding On.”
That’s interesting. It’s one of my favorite songs. It’s one of the first songs I recorded with Narada after the first single. It’s just a riff that I had in my head. I laid it down to a drum machine at home and threw a bass on it. I came in with it and went, “I think this is really cool and aggressive; a funky, rock riff that I would love to hear you play on.” I knew he’d fuck it up in a good way, in a funny way, and wouldn’t play it completely straight, like heavy rock. And so he did. He put the syncopated funk on it with the rock, which brought it to a Wired kind of groove, things he did with Jeff Beck years ago.

I think the track is very strong. I shared it with a few musician friends, one being Sammy Hagar. He came back exactly like I knew he would. He went, “Man, I don’t know what you’re doing. You got all these slow songs at the beginning. I can barely get through it. I would have opened up with ‘Holding On.’”

Tell me about picking drummer Deen Castronovo to sing lead on “After Glow.”
Well, we got through playing our first shows [in 2021], which started with Lollapalooza and the [Aragon Ballroom] in Chicago. I really wanted to try the two-drummer thing. For some reason, we were putting together a very long show for the [Aragon] in Chicago. We were doing a three-and-a-half hour show with an intermission in the middle. It became a lot for Narada to remember all the material. I suggested bringing Deen back to help out. [Editor’s note: Castronovo played drums in Journey from 1998 to 2015.]

Deen is such a sponge. He remembers stuff I wrote better than I do. I’ll go, “What did I do there?” He’ll be like, “Bro, go back here. Do this, do this …You’re going there too soon.” He has a photographic memory on all Journey material. He knows every lyric, every vocal part, every guitar part. He’s just a wealth of information when you can’t remember your own stuff. He’s also an amazing drummer and an amazing singer.

He came in to help us out and it worked out really great. We got through all the East Coast dates. And then Narada had a mild heart attack. We got him home safely, and Deen continued to stay out with us, God bless him.

At that point, Deen was out with us and continuing to play our shows. We were finishing up the album. And the music to “After Glow” came to me. It’s the last song I wrote on the album. I was playing electric guitar at home and singing the chords and the melody into my iPhone. I went, “Well, Arnel can sing this. Deen can sing it too. But since Deen isn’t drumming on this record and he’s pretty much back in the band, we might as well have him featured as a vocalist, at least on one track.”

Will Narada rejoin you on the road at some point, or it’s just going to be Deen from now on?
I think it is Deen. Deen is really doing amazing out on tour with us. He’s gotten past a lot of obstacles, and clearly shown that he’s on the right path. He’s playing amazing. He’s singing amazing. He’s a great band member. We know he can withstand the road. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Is Narada still a member of Journey?
To me, he’s a musical member. Always. I love working with him. I certainly will write more with him in the future. Randy is not out there either. He’s a musical member too.

Why didn’t Randy join you guys on the road?
Randy had back surgery. He’s still recovering. As you know, we started with Marco Mendoza. He played some dates with us and we did the iHeartRadio Festival in Vegas. I was mixing it one day with our long-time mixer, Dave Kalmusky, in Nashville. I was noticing that the bass parts — Marco is an excellent bass player, excellent singer, excellent guy — but it just wasn’t gelling. Him and Deen weren’t gelling correctly for Journey. I felt like the bass was in front of the drums. You try to put a guitar in the middle of that and it’s all squeezed. It just wasn’t feeling right.

The bass has to sit behind the drums with us and do that Motown thing. I talked to Marco about it. He goes, “I’ll keep that in mind.” I thought, [incredulously] “Keep that in mind?” I talked to Deen and the rest of the guys about it and we all agreed that it wasn’t quite gelling. I suggested Todd Jensen at that point. I had played with him and Deen. We had gone on tour with Paul Rodgers [in 1993] and done the Hardline thing. He’s very soulful and coming from that Motown place.

When I played with Paul Rodgers at the Hollywood Bowl years ago with Todd, Steve Perry was there at the soundcheck. He came up onstage and goes, “You guys sound killer. You sound better than ever.” Shortly after that, Todd was in his solo band when he went out. He just seemed like an obvious choice.

Might Randy join the band on the road at some point, or it’s just Todd going forward?
I really can’t predict the future. I see Todd as being very solid as being a permanent member. He’s got the right personality and the right type of bass-playing. He’s a no-drama person. He’s an awesome guy, easy to get along with. Very talented, sings well. Seeing that it’s our 50th anniversary coming up — my 50th, the only founding guy now — who knows what’s going to happen?

What are your plans for the 50th?
What I’d like to see happen is not going to happen completely on our 50th, but eventually will, is An Evening With. I see us going back into these arenas and doing pretty much what Rush was doing, playing long shows and incorporating everything we’ve ever done, and using little segments of our early, early material as segues into other songs. It won’t be a cheesy medley, but we’ll get musical with it. I’ve also appreciated bands like Zeppelin and Hendrix and the Who that weren’t locked down to anything from night to night. They were ready to allow things to flow in a very natural way. I’d like to do that and incorporate anything.

A dream show for many fans is Santana, Journey, and then an OG Santana encore portion with you, and Greg Rolie, Michael Shrieve, and all those guys.
I see that completely. That would make total sense for a 50th anniversary. I’ve been talking to Carlos. I’ve been talking to our agent, and also AEG has been amazing to work with. I love working with them. I think it’s on the horizon. I’ve been talking to Carlos’ manager. Carlos and I were talking about getting together. I’m actually pushing for the end of 2023, if we’re in Europe or we come back here, nothing is in cemented, but we’re talking about going over to Europe, playing some large arenas with Toto, since they are very big over there. And then I said, “Why don’t we add Santana to that bill?”

I recently saw an old poster from Bill Graham days for Day on the Green [in 1982] on Facebook. It was Journey/Santana/Toto. That would be a great stadium tour too.

I saw the Santana reunion show at the House of Blues in Las Vegas back in 2016. A lot of fans were hoping to see that band tour, but it didn’t happen.
It wasn’t my wish, but it just didn’t. Politics were involved. Some people were not happy about me doing both gigs. It wasn’t me. I’m happy to play six hours a night. [Laughs] I don’t have any tendonitis or anything going on. I’m ready to go.

Are there any talks about more Journey shows with Def Leppard?
That’s always a possibility. I’m probably not supposed to mention anything since they’re out there now doing what they’re doing, but we always consider Def Leppard. It’s obviously a great bill. I think we’re strong enough to sell out stadiums without anyone else…In all honesty, we were playing the same places, along with old management, Live Nation, for two decades.

You’re right. The band played too many summers in those same amphitheaters. The show works better in arenas.
I think we could have done that years earlier, but Live Nation didn’t have those arenas. They don’t own them. They share them once in a while with AEG, but AEG has a lot of those arenas. They want you to play where they own. The amphitheaters, if there are 5,000 seats that are accountable, the other massive amount of open air space [on the lawn] that people fill, you have no idea how many people are there every night. I had to start going to parking lot attendants because I suspected there was a lot of foul play.

Their main goal is to make money from the parking and beer sales.
Exactly. That is the main money, honestly. They don’t care about who is playing there. They care that it’s booked out 24/7. It doesn’t matter if it’s Journey, Santana, or whoever. They care about the parking. The parking is the main money, and the concession stand.

As big as the band has gotten, there’s still a vocal element that refuses to give it a chance without Steve Perry. That’s what Andy Cohen was saying on New Year’s Eve on CNN. He called you guys “Fake Journey.” Are there certain people you simply can’t win over?
[Laughs] I think Andy Cohen is never going to say that again. He was like a hop, skip, and a jump away from where we were on New Year’s Eve that night. He wanted my wife and I to go over there, and we didn’t do it. He was pissed off. He was also drunk. I think that was a setup anyway.

But when I got the real numbers of what networks had the highest ratings, from the second we went onstage that night on ABC, to when the ball dropped, we totally annihilated all networks put together. That night they had the smallest ratings ever [at CNN]. I plastered that all over the place, and did that with a chuckle. “Here you go, Andy. Thanks a lot, man. You actually elevated it.” As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad PR.

I’ll wrap in a second here, but what’s the status of the Arnel biopic? Are wheels moving on that?
I hear all kinds of different things. I think inevitably there will be, but I don’t know if it’s going to be exactly like it was planned out to be. I got word from one of the producers that a lot of people that were involved with the initial movie deal aren’t around anymore. People are getting re-situated at companies. When that happens and new bigwigs come in, you never know what’s going to happen. But I think it’s inevitable there’s going to be a Journey flick, much like the Queen flick.

If done right, that could bring out even more fans to see you guys when you tour.
Yeah. It’s really kicking butt now though. There’s going to be a small number of people that are resistant. But I went on social media after we got the new mixer and we started sounding like a mixed record every night, they all went away. We silenced everyone. The real truth of the matter is our biggest fans were saying, “I’ve seen you every decade, from the very beginning, prior to Perry, and going through everything and seeing every different decade, and you’ve never sounded this good.” People are comparing it with the highest levels of what we did in the Eighties.

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