Neal Schon: The evolution of Journey

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Journey guitarist and founding member Neal Schon. Photo by Neal Schon.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Journey guitarist and founding member Neal Schon. Schon formed the band in 1973 after an already successful career as a musician playing alongside Carlos Santana as well as part of the group Azteca. Schon has a vast collection of vintage guitars that will be auctioned off on July 31 with Heritage Auctions. Schon tells The Treatment about his R&B roots. He discusses working with Betty Davis (former wife of Miles Davis) on her groundbreaking funk album. And he talks about how Journey’s iconic song “Don’t Stop Believin’” came to be.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today played on some of the most epochal and trendsetting albums of the ‘70s and went on to found a little group called Journey. His name is Neil Schon, and he's auctioning off a few of his prized guitars on July 31, at Heritage Auctions. I think of you as being a guy who was a part of that big jam band movement out of the Bay Area in the ‘70s and also somebody who found himself in situations where you always got the right chemistry with people, be it with Carlos Santana, Greg Rolie, Greg Errico, or Steve Perry. 

Neal Schon: I've been really fortunate and blessed to have met so many great musicians in my lifetime. I listened to a lot of different music growing up, and was influenced by many different types of music, a lot of soul and R&B. Journey has not really been about that for many, many years and was never really a blues thing. But my roots are all in blues and R&B. Really, that's the stuff that I know the best.

KCRW: Let's talk about Azteca for a minute, because that's a great configuration, a really cool band.

Schon: I was never completely in the band. There were about 25 members in that band, and it was really hard to get organized, as you can imagine, trying to get that many guys together and in the same place at the same time. 

What's really interesting about the Azteca story is I played one show with them in San Francisco, and that is where I met Steve Perry. My friend Jackie Villanueva had introduced me to him after we played that night. He asked me to give Steve a ride to his car, so I gave him a ride, and I didn't know who he was. I didn't know that he was a singer. And then we met a couple more times, years after that, down in Los Angeles playing on the strip in little clubs. He came back and said, hey, I'm the singer. And I go, yeah, Greg is our singer, but it's great to see you again. I didn't know how great he was. 

KCRW: You can't think about Steve Perry singing without that kind of Sam Cooke melisma.

Schon: Absolutely, and that was the flavor that came into the band. I think that truly set us apart from everyone else. Even though critics liked to categorize us in those days with many other bands. I never thought that we sounded like them. Steve brought in his roots, which were Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and many others, and it was R&B soul. 

KCRW: Thinking about what’s on "Caravanserai" like "Song of the Wind" which feels like kind of a jazz R&B jam to me.

Schon: It was totally a jam. That whole record, from what I recall about it, was pretty much a jam. Carlos [Santana] was in the middle of wanting to go into a completely different direction than we had gone in on the third album that I was lucky enough to be a part of. "Song of the Wind" was simply a couple chords that Carlos came up with, and we started jamming in his studio one day, and they rolled tape, and I ended up playing the first solo and he comes in in the middle, and then I played the last solo going out, and we're just improving. It's a great way to make records. 

I've made a lot of records like that, as opposed to sitting down and really working out things. I mean, they're both great aspects about making records and attaining different audiences, but the new Journey album is about to encompass and put everything in one. We have all the hits I think that we'd ever need. We have a new record on the way that is just really slamming. I think it sounds amazing with the addition of Narada Michael Walden and Randy Jackson.

KCRW: The first Journey song you wrote- "Lights"- starts off with basically 16 bars of jamming before you get into the song.

Schon: Yep, we're getting back into that, which is just coming into a new era for the band, a completely new chapter and for me, I want to encompass it all. I want to encompass the beginning and where we are now. 

KCRW: Even "Don't Stop Believin’” you don't jump into it right away. You just sort of take your time to lay down those opening chords. And that, to me, is a shrewd way of saying we're gonna take our time and make this work, and we trust that the audience will follow along with us.

Schon: Absolutely. To me, it's just a setup for vocals. It's completely the way I think all the time. I think we need to set up. The beginning of “Don't Stop Believin," I wouldn't call that a jam. That's sticking the chorus in someone's mind, before the vocal actually starts. To me, a jam is doing “Bitches Brew.” Miles Davis: that's the jam. I've been doing a lot of that in my house during the pandemic, making outside loops for myself and trying to stay in tune with my fans and audience.

KCRW: What we're talking about is that way that this musical stew when you got started, it was all part of this kind of same thing. Everybody was probably listening to everybody else. We know that Miles was listening to Santana; everything seemed within reach in those days.

Schon: The thing that I loved about Miles and Santana was that nobody was afraid to go anywhere, at any moment. And everybody had to listen, because things would happen on stage that were not rehearsed. That's where the magic comes from. It's not from being stuck in a box, musically, where it's exactly like the record every night. You know, that's very easy to do. And it's very easy to emulate for anybody else to do too. Journey probably has more tribute bands than I've ever seen. I don't want to do the same thing they're doing. They're doing what we did a long time ago, so I want to keep on moving forward and doing some different things. 

But, you know, these guitars, I've been collecting guitars for my whole life. And, I had 350 guitars at home that my wife let me have, and we were crawling over things.  I was like, it's really time to let go of some of these axes. They're not my go-tos any longer even though they were. 

Some of them are just so clean you could not imagine that they're vintage. I thought to myself, I could either do a museum and put these guitars in a museum, or I could let somebody else enjoy them. But I really feel like when you open something like that, it would be much like opening a restaurant where you have to be there managing it every day, and I'm still in the game of playing live. That's where my heart is. I love our fans, and I want to keep on performing until I can't anymore, 

KCRW: I can't sit here and not ask you about what it was like to play on what I think is one of the most important funk albums of the ‘70s: that first Betty Davis album.

Schon: It was right after the Santana band disbanded and before I really started Journey. I was playing with Greg Errico at the time, former Sly and the Family Stone drummer. Betty Davis had contacted Greg Errico, so he suggested that I play on the record, too, with And that record is so funny. It was very ahead of its time. Now that I listen to it, and see how many people have come up to me about that record. It was done such a long time ago, and people are just still discovering it. She was ahead of her time. She was like rapping, singing way back then.

KCRW: Talking about who was playing with you, Greg Errico and Larry Graham, but also Merle Sanders on that record. And it's one of the great funk rhythm sections of all time. Also, what she was doing on that record was just being really kind of open, and you can't imagine there being a Madonna, or basically any of these kinds of women singers, without the example of Betty Davis.

Schon: She was wild. She was a free spirit is what I recall and remember about her, very outspoken on what she wanted. And it was a very interesting record for me to make. I was just like, wow, this is really different. 

KCRW: You're going from Santana, to then working with Greg and Larry Graham, and then Betty, and then going off to Journey with Jon Cain, you find yourself in situations where it's been about chemistry as much as anything else. And we can feel that chemistry happening in these situations almost immediately for you.

Schon: Absolutely, there's always chemistry with great musicians. It's just opening your mind and listening a lot. Listen to everybody that you're playing with and where they're coming from. You shouldn't think so much. Everybody today thinks so much. There's a lot of technical, young guitar players today that are doing things that I couldn't even dream of doing. They're acrobatics of the guitar. If it goes by me, it's going by everybody else. They're like, sped up scales. And, I never studied scales to this day. I've been playing for many years now, and I've never studied scales. I just listened.

 I'll sit down with a keyboard at home and make up some really wild chords. I've often talked to many people that are very well schooled, and they said, stay like that because I've often thought, well, maybe I should really study and learn exactly what I'm doing. And they said, no, don't because then you're just gonna have to forget about it to get back to where you are now.

KCRW: One of the guitars in the catalogue is listed as the "Don't Stop Believin’" guitar. Can you walk us through the origin of that song?

Schon: When Jonathan came into the band, we got together and we started putting together new material for our new album that we had not created yet. Greg Raleigh had just left, so Jon came in one day, and he started playing the opening chords, that ends up being the verses, as well as the chorus and the vocal just changes on top of it. So he's playing the keyboard part, but there was really no baseline at that point, and I started playing bass guitar ideas of what to play against it, and I was trying to think of more of a Motown type thing. And that's how it came about. 

It's the craziest arrangement because you have the intro, verse, then a breakdown, then a guitar solo. And I started just doing a symphony line, because I used to listen to a lot of symphonies. And that made Steven and Jon think about the lyrical side of the song, "she took the midnight train goin’ anywhere." So they thought that the guitar reminded them of a train traveling on the tracks and speeding up. So it was a really different type of arrangement, compared to other arrangements that were on the radio because, usually it's a verse, if there is a B section, a B section, it's quick, and then it gets to the chorus. And the chorus doesn't come till the very end of this song. So it's a wild arrangement. 

But, what’s really crazy is when we finished the whole "Escape" record, I heard that song, and I went, I think there's something special here. I think this song is going to be bigger than everything. And this is back in '81. And they released it, and it didn't get as big as the other songs that they released at that time on the radio. But to have it be like this worldwide anthem now is funny that I could sense that it was gonna be huge. I just didn't know it would take that many years.



Rebecca Mooney