Rock

Journey's Neal Schon Talks Stadium Shows, Tour With Def Leppard & Getting Past Band's Internal Drama

Journey
Travis Shinn

Journey

The guitarist says he wants to collaborate with Steve Perry and has moved past his feud with keyboardist Jonathan Cain over a White House selfie.

Journey is hitting the road this May for a 58-city co-headlining North American tour with Def Leppard, mixing arena dates with big stadium shows at iconic ballparks like Rogers Centre in Toronto, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston. The two bands are coming back together after their 2006 co-headlining tours of amphitheaters, evenly dividing which band gets the shows' closing slots. 

Journey is getting back to work after a tumultuous break following the huge Classic West and East dates at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles and Citi Field in New York that saw band feuding over a White House selfie.

“How do we get past it? We just don’t talk about it,” says Journey guitarist Neal Schon, laughing about his social media feud with keyboardist Jonathan Cain over the influence of politics and religion on the band.

“What can you say other than let the music do the talking,” he said about his feud with Cain after a picture surfaced this summer with President Donald Trump alongside singer Arnel Pineda and bassist Ross Valory. Cain’s wife Paula White is a Pentecostal televangelist and spiritual advisor to Trump and Schon said the band had agreed not to do the visit, writing on social media after the photo surfaced "Journey should never be used and exploited by anyone, especially band members for politics or any one religion.”

For most Journey fans, the hubbub was just one more disagreement in the band’s rocky 45-year history, punctuated by the exit of singer Steve Perry from the band, once in the 1980s and again in 1998. Schon and Perry were reunited in 2017 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Billboard caught up with Schon recently to discuss the Hall of Fame reunion and how the stadium rocker likes to sound at music’s biggest venues. These are edited excerpts from the conversation. 

After you saw Steve Perry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony this year, you said you were interested in collaborating again. What did you have in mind?

I was very moved seeing Perry there because he was very moved by seeing me. The first thing he did on stage was give me such a great compliment and I felt the same about him. We had amazing chemistry as two musicians together. It brought me back to a lot of their early days with him where we really had a lot of fun: We were young, we were having a great time experiencing success like we've never had before and making great music. I knew that there was still chemistry there and that we cared a lot about each other and I can foresee something in the future.

How did the idea for the tour with Def Leppard come together?

I guess you can say we have a long relationship but we haven't talked to each other in that many years. It was brought about by management and I loved the idea. We toured together 12 years ago and it will be great again, if not better this time. These are huge shows, we’re both stadium bands and I think it's a great match and we know that it works.

Is it challenging to get the sound you want in baseball stadiums?

As a guitarist, you have to imagine what you think sounds good in a big place like that. Sound only carries so far before it dies unless you're at 120db or louder. If it’s not hung high enough it's going to bounce around all those seats and on stage. It can be really touchy when it's not your system and you have to walk into it. Your sound guy has to ring it out and make it sound the way he wants.

What sound are you aspiring too for these big stadium shows?

We like to sound like a giant jukebox -- that's the easiest way I can say it. A great old jukebox has all this really rich bottom end for the bass and drums. Then you got guitars in the middle slot and keys above that. And a voice is put on top of everything, but you have all these different frequencies and if you don't have them with the right sounds you're going to be missing a lot of those low mids. You don't want really shrill highs in rock n' roll. Especially with louder instruments like my guitar. I liked to come from the warmer side. You have to listen how it sounds organically on stage and then put your ears in and adjust.

Were you happy with how you sounded at Classic West?

My guitar rig was made for that size venue. And especially for outside. I thought that the gig was good. We had a hard time hearing on stage, I remember that. And then from just sound bites that I heard that other people had posted, I wasn’t hearing much drums. I don't really know if it was just where the person was sitting. They could have been sitting off to the side. You can't judge from a little iPhone.

How did you feel about playing a classic rock festival?

Journey is classic rock. So is Fleetwood Mac and so are the Eagles. So I think that's a no brainer. And I liked the idea. I suggested it to Irving [Azoff] a long time ago because I wanted to play bigger places and I believe that's where the band lives. 

Almost all stadium shows now utilize huge video LED boards for concerts. Do you think they enhance or distract from the concert experience?

For the most part, I prefer to have art work that moves with the music or just bright colors changing the backdrop, so the energy is still in the center of the stage and you're looking at the band, I find that when they do too many individual shots on big screens, it alienates everyone and is not necessarily portraying the band properly. I would put more money into sound and lights and not worry so much about screens. But we’re going to have all of it for this tour and I have talked to our lighting designer and told them that I feel the screens are a little bit overdone. Less is probably more for me at this point. Otherwise everybody wants equal screen time and you're all fighting about that. I think it's really stupid. I'd like to go back to the days where we didn't have them. 

You have a manager, Irving Azoff, who is phenomenon in his own right in the music business. Between you and him, who manages who?

Irving and I go back quite a ways. He's helped me in some hard times that I really appreciated. I've always looked up to him and Irving is a funny guy. I know who he is and he knows who I am. We go around sometimes but we seem to come together. But there’s not doubt that he’s very powerful in the industry. But he knows that I’m smart as hell and I’m watching everything [laughs]. I know he doesn’t like it but I'm at that age right now where I'm allowed to do that.