Look up “busy” in the dictionary and you’ll likely find a photo of Neal Schon?.
“I’m really busting ass this next year and this year,” Schon tells Billboard. “I’m so busy I don’t have a free day. I barely have a day off ’cause I bit off so much. But now that I’m in it, I’m not willing to go, ‘Y’know what, man? I’m tired.’ I’m a little fried, but everybody goes, ‘You look great.’ I’m feeling good and health-wise I’m really good, so I’m just gonna do it.”
The two-disc Vortex, whose title comes from a recent nickname for Schon bestowed by Carlos Santana, reunites Schon with early ’80s collaborator Jan Hammer, after the keyboardist dropped in on 2011’s The Calling. “I had sent Jan a couple tracks to play on for (The Calling) and I hadn’t worked with him since the ’80s, so we rekindled our friendship and renewed everything,” Schon says. “For this album I went to him ahead of time and said, ‘I’d love for you top-lay on this record but I’d love you to stretch out more and I’m gonna leave some open space,’ and he said, ‘Great.’ He worked on it in his own studio and just killed it, man.”
Working on basic tracks with former Journey drummer Steve Smith, Schon says many of Vortex‘s intricate compositions were created on the studio floor without a great deal of forethought — “El Matador” being a case in point. “That just came together from a little drum loop I had at my house, and it just kind of unfolded from there,” Schon recalls. “When I got to the studio we had the groove happening and I orchestrated it a bit with some violin guitars; we tried keyboards but I preferred the guitars and I just tried to orchestrate it and make it sound interesting. I added a little Spanish section in the middle and put some nylon-string guitar on and it took on a whole different flavor, but I love it. I think it’s one of the more commercial tracks on the album. It’s not that long; most of the tracks on the record are pretty epic, and some of them are suites, but there’s plenty of fire in this track to grab people’s attention, I think.”
Listen to “Matador” below, which Billboard is exclusively premiering below.
Schon plans to give Vortex a live airing during the Les Paul 100th birthday tribute concert on June 9 at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York. He has designs to do a solo tour as well but will have to fit those between his other endeavors. Journey begins its nine-show residency on Wednesday night (April 29) at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which Schon predicts will be “really great. We’re gonna be mixing up the set, so we won’t be playing the same thing every show. We’ve rehearsed a lot of stuff that we didn’t play in our tour last year, but we’ll have time to rehearse even more.” All nine shows will be recorded and filmed, according to Schon, and he also hopes that during downtime Journey will start working on new material.
“I’ve been trying to get things going,” Schon reports. “I have a few ideas, just everybody’s been in different places and we haven’t gotten together yet. But we could probably put together a couple songs while we’re rehearsing in Vegas, maybe get ’em in movies or play some new stuff live. That’d be fun.”
Schon has been spending time in Las Vegas recently finishing up the Santana IV lineup, which reunites original and Santana III era members. Schon says the project is largely finished and “sounds like the old band picked up where we left off. It sounds like Santana. We’re having a blast together.” There’s no word yet on when the album will be released, but after playing a couple of Santana/Journey shows in Mexico last year, Schon has a vision for how a tour to support Santana IV could be realized.
“We’ll absolutely tour,” Schon promises, “and we’re moving forward to try to make that happen, a co-headline tour which could be very, very interesting because you can go in a chronological order, which would be the early Santana, from Woodstock, before I was in the band. Then it would move to early Journey and do a couple of the progressive tunes we did with Greg Rolie and then go through the rest of the Journey catalog, old and new, all greatest hits and then some of our newer stuff with Arnel (Pineda). And then Santana would come on, the new Santana, and we would play the new record. I don’t see a better package out there that is making my eyebrows go up and making people go, ‘Yeah, I want to see that.'”
Vortex is out June 23 — preorder the album here.