When Neal Schon was ten, he started playing guitar. At thirteen, he was improvising. At 15, he joined Santana. In 1973, shortly after he and keyboardist Gregg Rolie left Santana, they formed Journey. The rest you could say is history. At the time of this interview, Neil Schon was busy with his solo career. "Beyond The Thunder" marked Neal Schon'a debut on the Higher Octave label.
We spoke with Neal Schon about his Higher Octave release, his rise in the music business and his days with Journey.
Q - The last time I saw you was at the Syracuse War Memorial in 1981, with Journey.
A - You know what? I remember that gig. At the time, my girlfriend that was with me for about 4 years was in Syracuse.
Q - You met your girlfriend in Syracuse?
A - Yeah. An old-time one. I'm married now. But that was a long time ago.
Q - This "Beyond the Thunder" CD of yours is very soothing and relaxing to listen to.
A - I was in a real melancholy sort of mellow state when I did it. I wasn't playing Rock 'n' Roll. This is sort of the type of stuff that comes out of me when I'm away from the road and away from Rock 'n' Roll for awhile. Stuff I do when I'm around the house. You know I've never made a record that was that mellow. So I decided...you know there is another side of me that is going more in a jazzy vein and that is more of a commercial version of where I'd actually like to go. The next record I do I'm gonna take it out a little bit more. More grooves, than per se songs. I have a lot of melody oriented songs on that record. It's nice. But I find that, that format is very stifling for me. The whole New Age format. The radio format. I try to listen to it on the radio and it was nice at first when I was listening to it a lot, but it gets old very fast. A lot of things sound the same. There's not too many things that are musically challenging to me. I'm trying to be able to appeal to that format. I've got the Rock 'n' Roll thing going on with Journey and everything else I do in the Rock 'n' Roll vein, but I'm interested in opening new genres for myself. The Jazz format seems to be where I'm heading. I'll always have my Rock/Blues roots and I'll always play that. It's a thing I like to do 'live'. But I see myself doing these other types of solo records as well. It's a completely different thing. It's creative for me to go somewhere completely different.
Q - In the liner notes to this CD, you write, "After all these years, I can honestly say that I'm just now learning what I'm doing." What did you mean by that?
A - You know, I was very confused when I read it myself. (Laughs). I think maybe what I was trying to say is that I'm finally getting a grip on all the different sides of my musical abilities and coming to terms with that and not just stifling myself and staying in one place. I'm learning that I do have the ability to grow and learn a lot more. I think what I'm saying there is I don't feel like I've peaked out at all and that I have a lot of places I can go musically.
Q - You go on, "It's a whole lot easier for me to do those 20 minute fastball guitar solos. The harder thing is to make a great statement that isn't self indulgent." Are you saying less is more?
A - Yeah, I mean the older players have always said that. I never quite understood it, but now I'm in my 40s and I'm starting to understand it. It's really easy to sit there and noodle around and play a zillion notes. That is how I was noticed when I was a kid, at 15. I was doing machine gun riffs. That shocks people. The initial shock is great for shock value, but I've been doing that for a long time. I can do that in my sleep. The harder thing to do is what great singers do. They don't oversing. Aretha Franklin. It's the phrasing. It's the notes they choose and it's the way they sing 'em. The vibrato. The intensity. The softness. The whole thing. That's sort of what I'm trying to show people with this last record that I put out, that I do have that sensitivity to the instrument as well as being able to blast through a wall of marshalls.
Q - Did guitar playing come easy to you?
A - It did actually. It did after I got into it. The first couple of years it was a lot of practicing. I wasn't out playing sports with the other kids. I was in my room playing guitar. I studied like all day and all night for the first two years, until I started to get a grip on just the basic blues, R&B blues. Once I felt that I understood that and could express myself with that, then I sort of didn't practice as much. I still walked around with a guitar all day. I don't practice that much any more. I come down to my studio and it's a different way of practicing. I play. I hook up to a couple of Echo Plus now that enable me to sample up to about 3 1/3 minutes worth of background music for myself to jam over. It's more creative for me to make up something on the spot rather than practice scales. I've never been a fan of that. I don't like the way players sound that are so well schooled that you can obviously tell that this is a Dorian Scale and this is a Minor Scale and this is a Flat Fifth Scale. Some notes sound right to me and some notes sound bad. So, I try to play the notes that sound right.
Q - You're not from San Francisco are you?
A - I grew up as a kid; actually I was born in the Air Force with my folks.
Q - Great background for your chosen profession.
A - (Laughs). I guess so. Anyway, I lived in New Jersey with them until I was about six and then we moved to the West Coast. I lived down in Hollister actually while my Dad was getting us situated in the Bay area, with my grandmother for a couple of years. Then I moved up and we lived in a small apartment in San Mateo until I was a teenager, 14, 15, when I got asked to join Santana and moved up to Mill Valley and lived with Gregg Rolie.
Q - How far is San Mateo from San Francisco?
A - Depending on traffic, half an hour, forty-five minutes.
Q - What is there about the Bay Area that produces so many talented musicians?
A - I have to say that it is the city itself. It's truly an inspiring city. I've lived in Los Angeles. When I felt I needed to get away, I moved to L.A. just for a change. I lived down there close to 5 years and I couldn't stand it. I just couldn't wait to get back up (to Mill Valley). I relocated up here a year ago and I just love it. I love driving into the city. I love the air. I love the people. I love the whole vibe. It's got a very European quality to it. It's one of those special cities. I've been all over the world. I've seen everywhere that there possibly is to see and if I wasn't living here, it would be one of my favorite places to go visit.
Q - When you joined Santana at the age of 15, what was the average age of the other band members?
A - I believe Michael Shrieve (drummer) was the youngest besides myself and I think he was 22, 23.
Q - Did you go out on the road with those guys?
A - Yeah. I was out traveling the world with those guys. Everywhere. Ghana. Peru. Africa. Everywhere in Europe. For 2 years. From 1970 to 1972.
Q - And you recorded with them as well?
A - Yeah.
Q - How come you weren't in school?
A - I quit. (Laughs). My son asks me the same thing now. He hates school and I say "You really have to stay in, because I don't want you doing what I did." He says, "But Dad, you did good." I say, "Yeah, but, (laughs) I don't know if I want you to be in the music industry business. Itís a cut throat business."
Q - And thatís putting it mildly.
A - Yeah, itís gotten a lot different from when I started to what it is now. Itís completely different. Itís tough to survive out there if you donít have any legacy of fans out there.
Q - I may be wrong, but you have to be 16 before you can leave school.
A - Well, I needed my parentsí consent and they gave it to me. They knew this was what I really wanted to do. I had basically made up my mind at that point that music was gonna be my career. Thatís all I was interested in. I was doing terrible in school Ďcause I never used to go. I used to sit in my room and practice and write music.
Q - Your parents were in the music business. Did they enjoy any time of regional success?
A - No they didn't. My Dad deserved to actually have some success. He was a pretty incredible composer and arranger. Because of where the music scene had gone, he was more of a Big Band arranger like a Gerald Wilson or early Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, that kind of thing. There really was no market for Big Band stuff. He wasn't getting any work and he'd become disillusioned with it all. He can still write and arrange beautifully. But, he just never had any success with it.
Q - Did you ever meet Jimi Hendrix?
A - No. I was about to meet him. He was actually good friends with everybody in the Santana band. It was about 2 weeks before we were ready to leave for New York to go to Electric Ladyland and we were gonna meet and jam with him in his own studio, and he had died.
Q - You probably saw a lot of top acts in the Bay Area.
A - I saw Jimi Hendrix twice at Winterland in San Francisco. I saw Cream a couple of times. I saw The Who. I saw the Dead with Santana before I even knew those guys. They all played here, man. It used to be such a cool scene. Actually, in the old days when I first started around 1967, 1968, you could go to Winterland and see B.B. King, Cream, Electric Flag and some other major bands for $3.50. (Laughs).
Q - Bring back those days! This Higher Octave music, are they a subsidiary of C.B.S.?
A - No. They're a small, independent label based out of Malibu.
Q - Why would you go to them? Why not a bigger label?
A - Well, you know what? I shopped my material and I started out making a completely different record than what it ended up to be. I had mixed everything up like I had done before in my other solo projects. I had a lot of Fusion Rock, blistering guitar stuff, and at that time the market was really flooded with guitar players doing that. So I wasn't doing anything new musically. It still sounded like me playing as opposed to nobody else and I still liked the stuff. But I was getting no bites. This one company, Higher Octave, showed the most interest in the softer material that was on my demo tape.
Q - Since you played guitar on Michael Bolton's "Dock of the Bay", maybe you can answer a question for me, why do critics dislike Michael Bolton so much?
A - You know, I think it's a routine thing that happens. Anybody that gets that successful, they're the first ones the critics will go after and take jabs at. But he's made some statements openly about critics on big award shows and they don't like that at all. I think maybe it would've been smarter for him to dummy up and swallow a little bit of his own pride. He tends to be very monotonous to me. He's got a great voice. I think that he over sings. Too much crooning. I think he needs a good guitar player or a saxophone player to take over so he doesn't sing through the whole song. It's nice to have a breath of air. It's like nobody can like you if you don't go away, once they've had so much of you. (Laughs).
Q - "I've always been wild and crazy. I look back and just have to believe that someone was watching over me." If you were this wild and crazy, how come we never read about it in the papers?
A - Because I never got caught for stuff. I don't know. It was nothing really bad that I did. I never got caught for half the stuff I did, which I really don't want to talk about. I was sort of a rebellious little, punky kid. I've mellowed out. (Laughs).
Q - Obviously.
A - Yeah. But, I lived very hard for all the years I was in Journey and early Santana. I was overindulging in everything that I shouldn't be. I lived that Rock life. I was always in the bars. I was always out partyin'. I was always doing things that people die from. I think it was after I had my kids; you want to be around and grow up with them and teach them the things that I did that are not right. So I think that helped straighten me out a lot.
Q - Do you ever get tired of writing, recording, rehearsing, touring, making videos and giving interviews?
A - No, because you know what? It's not a lengthy process. It's a very fast one for me. I can usually make a record in 2 to 3 weeks. If I'm doing just a Blues record, which I've never done, or a jam type record, like an R&B record, I can make one in a couple of days. It's not a hard thing to do. I've always been into that concept. Let's get it, get it done and get out. The more you stay in there...the more you think, the more it stinks. That's about it.
Q - I see you have a business manager. If you're smart enough to make the money, how come you're not smart enough to invest the money? Why do you need a business manager?
A - I do know where to invest my money. If I do invest my money, I tell her where to invest it. It's someone that takes care of my day-to-day stuff really. People that call up that want me to do this, want me to do that. It's not just a business manager. She does a lot of stuff for me. I've got a lot of different things going on business wise that have nothing to do with music and so she looks after those things for me, so I don't have to call up everyday and say "what's going on?" It frees me up so I can be more creative.
Q - When you and Gregg put Journey together, did you know it was gonna be something special?
A - Not really. I thought it was good. I didn't know what to expect. It was a very hard road for us. The first 5 years for us we were very uncomfortable touring, traveling around in a station wagon. Nine guys in a station wagon. It was a rough, rough road and we were on the road constantly, like 9 months a year.
Q - What is it today that you're looking for, more fame, more money, more recognition, more power?
A - It's not the money. It's not the fame. I've had both of those. It's just plain out fun. I'm looking for fun. I'm growing up with my kids. They teach you how to stay young, if you stay in tune with them. I'm looking to keep the music young. I want it to be fun. I want it to be painless. I want it to be creative. In order to do that, I think you have to put everything else aside and not think about that.
Q - Journey is back together.
A - Yeah we are back together. We're getting ready to do a studio record right now. We've already recorded a few tracks. We're trying out different studios and sort of deciding where we wanna go. Then, we're speaking with different producers. I think we're gonna pop one out (record or CD) like we used to, always. All I can say is, the band sounds phenomenal. It sounds better than it ever sounded. I think it was good for us to take a hiatus. I think we're gonna have a lot to do with where music goes. I think we're gonna help bring back a lot of what has gone.
Q - Somebody better jump in and save it.
A - Yeah, it's all too angry. One of the reasons Journey did really well is that we left the anger at home, if there was any there. The music we brought people was to make everything a little bit lighter, so people could come and have a good time and forget about their hard times. The old man upstairs is gonna let us have another time at it.