Journey's Road to Billboard Legend of Live Award: A Candid Q&A With Neal Schon

Journey's Road to Billboard Legend of Live Award: A Candid Q&A With Neal Schon

Schon on Guitar Gods, Not Being A 'Critics' Choice, Ever' & What Steve Perry Meant to Journey

As we gear up for the 2011 Billboard Touring Conference and Awards -- which kick off tomorrow (Nov. 8) in New York -- we present an extended conversation with Neal Schon of Journey. The band will receive this year's Legend of Live Award at the Billboard Touring Conference.

Journey has been a live powerhouse since forming in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1973. In the years before that, founding member and lead guitarist

How can you sum up the Steve Perry era of the band and his contribution to the Journey legacy?

Steve Perry is an amazing singer, one of the best ever, in the world. I love the fact that he had R&B roots, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson. Anybody that ever listens to Sam Cooke would go, "Wow, that guy sounds like Steve Perry," if they didn't' know about him, but really it's the other way around, and God bless Steve for that. He knew exactly what he loved, and he could really do it like nobody's business. I love what he brought to the band because of the mixture with my playing; my job was to bring the rough edge to everything. When Jon and Steve wrote, it was all melody, beautiful songwriting. I loved that [Perry] brought the soul factor in with the rock, it made it sound to me way different than what we used to get categorized as.

You guys came back strong at the turn of the millennium with vocalist Steve Augeri. You did some great shows, the 30th anniversary tour -- it was a productive era, you sold a lot of tickets. How can you sum up the eight years with Steve Augeri?

Steve Augeri did a great job for us, especially in the beginning. I think the wear and tear of the road eventually took its toll on him and wore him down. Steve Perry was bionic to be able to do what he did for as many years as he did under our touring schedule. That would be tough for anybody to keep up with that -- except Arnel Pineda. This boy is insane. He's got tremendous strength and …wow. We've done a lot of work this year, and not easy work. One five in a row, a lot of three in a rows, that's not easy to do with us, there's a lot required of a vocalist. Perry set the standard very high and we like to give the fans what they're used to hearing.

The story's been told a lot, but for the record, did you discover Arnel on YouTube?

I did, I discovered him on YouTube. I didn't want to go through the whole auditioning process, so I was looking for a good way to actually use the Internet instead of having the Internet use me. I liked the idea of YouTube because it's all live and un-doctored. So even though doesn't sound great fidelity-wise, it was no big deal, I could still tell if the guy has pipes, or is singing in tune, with soul and conviction. That's what I was looking for, and I searched a couple of days and was about to give up when I hit this one last link. It was Arnel singing a Survivor song and I'm like, "Wow, who is that?" He really sounded like he had big lungs and lots of power, and a lot of control and very into it. So I got really curious and I followed it back to his site and listened to 40 other songs from all sorts of bands. Aerosmith to Led Zeppelin, Sting, the Police, Beatles -- he was doing it on there. Then I hear our stuff, he did "Open Arms" and "Faithfully," and I was astounded by his talent and the dexterity of his voice.

It wasn't a question of whether he could do our gig, I was looking at him like "What can't he do?" I told management and Jon Cain about him, I said, "I found a singer." They said, "Great, is he in, L.A. or New York?" I said, "Not exactly, he's in Manila." They said, "You're out of your mind. Does he even speak English?" I said, "I don't even f*cking care. He sings in English really great. You've got to get this guy over, I know this is the guy." So they worked on it, it's not easy to get someone over from the Philippines to the United States on short notice. But it happened, we got him over, he did the audition, and Jon and I took him in the studio and ran him through a couple of brand new songs we were just writing. We put his voice on it, and went "there it is." It was that automatic.

But who could have foreseen how the public would fall in love with him?

I didn't even really care. I've had people ask me, "Don't you think it was risky to bring someone in from the Philippines when you're this all-American band?" and I don't look at anything like that. I hear and feel. He's the greatest guy, I love him to death. And nobody deserves the gig more than he does.

What is the secret to a band surviving personnel changes?

I think it's just your desire and strength to move forward. As a person, I refuse to go backward, and I refuse to sit in neutral. I want to always go forward in anything I do in my life. No mater what happens, you can always pick up the pieces, you can't sit there and sulk in a situation. It's mind over matter, you could sit there and go, "This guy is irreplaceable, let's just break up and move on." Anybody is replaceable. The music and your accomplishments there are much larger than any one individual when you're in a band.

Journey is still bringing it every night.

You know what, we are bringing it, and we're bringing it in a different way. We stretch out a lot. It's really wild. I did this guitar solo on my girl's birthday the other night, and I thought, "I'm not going to tell anybody about it." My gut instinct was just to do it and it'll show up on Youtube and be really cool. I played it, improvising and jamming hard, by myself, which I do every night. I make it up as I'm going along, I just go with what the audience feels like and what I feel like. And I jammed for like two minutes before I even played the "Happy Birthday" theme to her. Then I played "Happy Birthday" to her, and decided to go back and give her a kiss, then we go to "Stone In Love." This thing gets picked up and it's all over, the news stations have it, and they're playing not just the "Birthday" section or the "Stone In Love" section, they're playing me improvising for two minutes. Two minutes of guitar time on TV! I'm telling you what, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai are scratching their heads right now (laughs).

You sound like maybe you're under-valuing your status as a guitar god.

I'm just saying, in this day and age, for any guitarist, no matter how good they are, to get two minutes of just wailing guitar on big TV, that's unheard of, man. There's lots of better guitarists out there I'd rather hear than myself, believe me.

Overall, do you believe Journey gets the respect it deserves?

I feel blessed and honored to be in this band. We have tremendous pride in what we do from night to night, and I think we're actually playing better right now than we ever have before. These last five shows we have for this tour, it's amazing that it's getting better. We're fine-tuning the show even more, after touring almost the whole year. We get together every night before we go on and say "let's do this here and that there," and that's kind of unheard of in most bands, they get choreographed, "do this at this point, that at that point." There's so many things we do differently every night, and I think that keeps things from getting stagnant and sterile.

Of all the other bands that were big in the '80s, we were not a critics' choice. Ever. I think we're becoming that now, this late in the day, because of everything we've done, it's hard for people to say bad crap about us anymore. It's obvious, we have so many fans. We're not in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, people are scratching their heads. I'm like "oh, well, whatever." It's not gonna make or break my day if I'm in there or not. But it think it's so silly, we've sold so many records, and we've been so successful, and we don't even chart in their book. There must be somebody on the board of directors there that just has a hard-on for us.

Do you still get off on playing in front of live audiences?

Oh, yeah. That's the deal. Nothing is like that. Ever. And there probably will never ever be anything like that. There's nothing like that feeling.