Steve Perry

Steve Perry attends the US Premiere of DreamWorks Pictures "Need For Speed" at The TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, CA on Thursday, March 6, 2014.

Eric Charbonneau/Invision for DreamWorks Pictures/AP Images

Eels leader Mark Oliver "E" Everett says he's "trying to get used to my new role as Neal Schon" after former Journey frontman Steve Perry's surprise performance with the group over Memorial Day Weekend.

Perry sang a pair of Journey hits -- "Open Arms" and "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin' " -- for the first time publicly in two decades along with Eels' own "It's a Motherfucker" on Sunday (May 25) during the group's show at the Fitzgerald Theater in Minneapolis. According to Everett it was the culmination of a long friendship that's part of "the secret inner life of the Eels" and dates back nearly a decade.

"We're good friends with Steve Perry and have been for years," Everett tells Billboard. "He started coming out to our shows a long time ago and would occasionally send word backstage that he wanted to meet me. And it was a little awkward for me because when I was younger I just didn't have a real appreciation for Journey. I was like, 'I don't know what I'll say to the guy.'" 

Everett was ultimately convinced to meet Perry by a mutual friend, film director Patty Jenkins ("Monster"), and discovered that "he was the greatest guy."

Before long Everett invited Perry to play in Eels' Sunday night croquet games, and the singer also began showing up at the group's tour rehearsals in Los Angeles. 

"Every year the guys in the band would try to bait him; they'd start playing Journey songs hoping he'd pick up the mic and sing a Journey song for the first time in 18 years or whatever," Everett recalls. "He never would, but he laughed. He was a good sport." 

About four years ago, however, Perry did take the bait, and when the group started rehearsing for its current tour, supporting the new "The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett," Everett noticed that "he walked in carrying his own microphone. I thought, 'Something's up here. Something's changing.'" He says Perry brought up the idea of an impromptu appearance, telling the group, "'Maybe I'll fly out somewhere and we'll do this.' We all said, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll all believe it when we see it.' We agreed we weren't gonna get our hopes up."

Why St. Paul? "You'd have to ask (Perry)," Everett says. "Even then I thought, 'It isn't gonna happen, but it'd be fun if it did.' It wasn't until the moment he walked on stage and started singing that I finally accepted it was going to happen. And it was such a beautiful moment to see my friend out there, in his element, doing what he's made to be doing. He had a great time, and you have to respect that he did it for all the right reasons. He could've mounted a huge, zillion-dollar comeback tour, which maybe he'll do at some point and have every right to do. But he came because he wanted to have fun and he wanted to sing those songs again, 'cause he's so good at it."

So does Everett think we'll see more Perry drop-ins ahead? 

"I don't try to press Steve on anything," he says. "Our relationship is Steve does what Steve does. I would love to do more and I hope he will, but that's all up to him. This may be enough for him, and if this is the only time it ever happens, I'm just glad it happened. 

"And in the meantime, I'm going to not stop believing."