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Neal Schon On The ‘Freedom’ Of Journey, His Friendship With Carlos Santana And Much More

Journey will release Freedom, their first album in 11 years, this Friday (July 8). With the 11-year gap between records, the band’s longest break between albums, and the presence of drummer/producer Narada Michael Walden, Freedom, according to guitarist Neal Schon, is a true representation of who Journey is in 2022.

While the album began during Schon’s sharing his workshop time with fans during COVID, this is a true band record. Co-produced by Schon, Walden and keyboardist Jonathan Cain, the album also features significant contributions by vocalist Arnel Pineda and bassist Randy Jackson, all of whom have at least one songwriting credit among the 15 tracks on the record.

I spoke with Schon about the making of Freedom; the drastic business changes the band made during COVID, including reclaiming their merchandise; the bands they would love to tour with, like Santana, Toto and Def Leppard, and much more.

Steve Baltin: It’s very cool that we’re talking the first new music in a decade. I think for a lot of artists you reach a point where if you’re going to continue to be a touring artist you need new music just to keep things fresh for you.

Neal Schon: Yes, absolutely. I’m not one to sit in neutral and definitely took advantage of the downtime that we had to get creative and start experimenting a lot by myself in my little work space downstairs that a lot of my fans shared. I decided I needed to reach out to them in some way because I love performing and staying in touch with them. I keep my chops up and I play and I experiment, and something nobody ever has really seen before. And now it’s become a real highlight on a lot of my sites. People are like, “Wow, your tour was amazing, but I’m really glad you’re home and you’re doing these videos.” [Laughter] So it’s funny.

Baltin: I think for a lot of artists, they were forced to get very creative in how they interacted with their fans. I can appreciate the fact people today love having that access. They love feeling close to the artist, and from an artist standpoint, it’s exciting because you get to interact with your fans, you get to hear from them, and they get to tell you what they think.

Schon: There’s so many great musicians out there, and I thought, ” I am a guitar player that is in it for the musicianship side of it.” I consider myself a real musician. And to me, I was brought up that way from my father because he was a jazz musician, that you should be able to throw down at any time, at any point on the spot without being afraid of putting it out there, mistakes, whatever. Just record it and let them see that. And so I have no issue with that, and I love actually the liveness of being in time and have people be able to tap into that, and I think many have gotten very curious about that. And it surely allowed me to lay down so many new ideas and sketch out thousands of ideas I have for new songs where I’m just looping by myself downstairs, whether I’m playing keyboards or guitar. And many, many songs to come from that. That’s the beginning of how it all starts.

Baltin: So was there one song early on that jump started Freedom?

Schon: “The Way That We Used To Be.” I had recorded this loop I played keyboards on it, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it had a nice funky groove to it. So I decided to send it to Jonathan [Cain] and see what he would come up with. But I didn’t really feel like it would be a Journey song. I felt like it was more a heavier Stones vibe or Black Crowes or something like that. But John put vocals on it and that was the first thing that came from us exchanging over the internet. And then I just proceeded to start working on more, but at that point, I felt like I really wanted to get involved with Narada Michael Walden, having just worked with him just a bit ago, and him being a great producer, a great drummer, a great songwriter, and a great person just to be around.

Baltin: Being on the road before the tour got cancelled, did you get to do any of the new stuff? Were there any songs that you previewed just that you were excited to do?

Schon: Yes, we did. We were playing “You Got The Best Of Me.” And that got added to the show because the single came out. And so we intend to keep on adding new stuff as it’s coming out with a new release of “Let It Rain,” which I think is gonna throw everybody a side curve. I’m excited about [that], because it’s like the new chapter. I look at it as the newer chapter that’s on this Journey album. It’s got a lot of exciting material on it. I feel that it’s one of our best outings ever. And if we compare it to some of our biggest albums, in Escape or Frontiers, as far as being experimental, and going to new places that we’ve not gone before, especially Frontiers. So I’m excited about it, and Arnel gets to be himself and not have to try to sound like someone else, or doing it and a very good job at it. But he’s excited about the new material because it’s very funky and it’s rocking and shows a completely different side of him that I’m very excited about.

Baltin: As you started to work with the idea of doing this with a different vocalist, and also the fact that you hadn’t made new music in 10 years, were you almost surprised by the way the Journey sound came back? Were there hints of familiarity that maybe surprised you even?

Schon: I wasn’t totally surprised by the stuff that sounded like older Journey, because there’s a chemistry there of people working together, John and I, for one. We have a chemistry together when we write and want to come up with something that’s a little more Motown. It’s gonna take on that shape of a new “Separate Ways” or a ballad, if we go there and don’t try to take it into completely a new era and in a place musically. But we have those songs that bring it some familiarity, as you’re speaking of, to this album, which I think is important not to lose your audience. But at the same token, I feel like we’re taking them into some new areas of the power ballad, the rock. We’ve gone into some new places that I’m very excited about. And frankly, at this point, we play nothing but a lot of big hits in our set, and if you don’t play it, people are gonna be pissed off. And then if you don’t play new stuff, they’re gonna be pissed off. So while we were compiling and finishing this album, and we were about 11 songs in or 12 songs in, I went to Narada, I go, “We need some other stuff that we don’t have on any of our albums, that we can actually add to our show when we get a chance to play a longer show or an evening with.” You can’t take out a new song that sounds kind of like a newer version of a “Separate Ways,” ’cause it’s overly redundant to add a song that sounds like that when you already have one. So I said “I want to write stuff that will add to our live show.” So that’s where that all came from, and it kind of flew out very quickly. I’m pretty on the spot, I get an idea and it just kind of flies really quickly. And with somebody like Narada to work with, we captured the freshness and that emotion and organized it and arranged it very quickly and laid it down with guitar and drums, and I put bass on, then I’d be singing and scatting with him as well. And I’d lay down a bunch of harmony parts, and then everybody kind of chimed in after that and took the lead of all that and put their finishing touches on the time.

Baltin: So once you started to realize that you were making Freedom and it was going to be a Journey album how did you handle recording during COVID?

Schon: I’d made records like this before, and I happen to love making records with just drummers from the get-go. Jan Hammer is one of the first people I did that with when I went upstate to his house in New York. And I did the Schon & Hammer albums in the ’80s and had a month off or three weeks off and chose to go to his house and record an album. Well, Jan played amazing drums, I didn’t know at the time, but him and I would write something, we’d put the song together. He would play drums, I’d play live lead guitar with no bass or anything, and then we’d overdub bass and everything else after that. But it had that live feel because I’m playing live with the drums. So we did the same thing with Narada this time on this album. I think we really did an amazing job of putting it all together and making it sound like it all happened at the same time with the liveness of what we were able to create from the get-go.

Baltin: When you go back to hear this record, are there things that really pleasantly surprised you as to who Journey is in 2022? Because again, in ways, this is kind of the first chance for you guys to really understand this is Journey in 2022.

Schon: Absolutely, and I’m proud of what we are right now. And coming off this sold-out tour that we did, our first time getting back into arenas since the ’80s, and with Arnel, and selling out arenas, it’s showing me that we’re just rocketing all the way to the top again. And something else I want to bring to your attention is I took advantage of the two years that we had down, not only to write music, but to also get our business affairs in order. It was a mess, and it was all over the place, and it was chaos on top of chaos by the pro chaos merchants. It’s what I’m gonna call them. And I discovered that I never knew, because we were told the opposite by accountants and attorneys that represented us, and everybody else that had worked with us for years, that our trademarks were taken care of. I investigated, and I found that we had no trademark on any of our merchandise since 1973 to just recently. Now, I’ve attained a trademark and a new LLC that Jonathan Cain and I are on, and we now own everything that is Journey, and I trademarked everything. And so I’m coming around to talk to a lot of CEOs with some of the bigger stores that they’ve been selling our stuff for decades in, and I would say making billions of dollars all over the world. And so it’s been an interesting process, but glad that had I not had the downtime, I would have never had the hours to dedicate with my wife of figuring out exactly what had been going on.

Baltin: When you guys are playing sold-out arenas and you’re watching everybody sing along, is it something that you appreciate even more now?

Schon: Absolutely, and I completely feel good about the managerial role that I’ve taken on as well with the band and moving us into a new area which allotted us to be able to do this. Leaving where we were to go to AEG, to our good friend Jay Marciano and our new Agent Jeff Frasco at CAA. They’re been tremendously supportive and are standing by us and now quite amazed by the numbers that we’ve done, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re going back in stadiums. We’re already planning out ’23 and ’24. And it’s gonna be quite interesting. I’m talking to Carlos Santana, we’re talking to Def Leppard, talking more to Toto. Everybody loved the package with Toto and Journey this year, as I thought they would when Billy Idol pulled out because of some issues he was having with his sinuses and needed to get an operation and pulled out at the last minute. I told our agent, “Grab Toto.” Steve Lukather and I have been friends for a long time, and always thought that the music would be completely compatible. Well, it turned out that I was right, because it just snowballed. We were near sell-outs in the very beginning, but after a week and a half into it, they were all sell-outs, and so it’s been really great for them as well as us. And Toto’s got a very large audience in Europe as well as Santana, so we’re looking at next year opening it up, going overseas, going to South America, a lot of other markets that we’ve not done in years.

Baltin: Talk about the idea of touring with Santana.

Schon: I love Carlos, and him and I are closer now than we have ever been. We talk all the time and looking forward to getting together again and recording some new material together. But got some really cool ideas about doing some stuff together as we experimented with the idea before when I wanted to do the double package of Santana and Journey in stadiums, and sell the package as we intermingle both bands because that’s where we came from. Journey came from Santana, the leftover from Santana when that band disbanded from Caravanserai album and the third album. And so it just makes sense. It makes logical sense to me, that an audience would love to see that. It would be a very good package again, and I think Toto, us, and Santana is just a killer package. And it’s funny, I didn’t really recall because I was kind of numb from the neck up in those days and the ’80s, indulging in way too much of everything. But I saw an old Bill Graham poster, they came up on Facebook, and it was Journey, Santana and Toto, on the Day On The Green, San Francisco. And I went, “Wow, there it is.” It was almost like a message from Bill from the heavens above, going, “Yes, you can do it again.”

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