Journey's Neal Schon on Rock Hall Induction, Possible Steve Perry Reunion

"I think it would only be right and just," guitarist says of taking stage with ex-singer at induction ceremony

Journey guitarist Neal Schon says he hopes that Steve Perry will finally reunite with the band when they enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Credit: Adam Bettcher/Getty

Despite selling upwards of 50 million records, landing 18 Top 40 singles on the charts and continuing to sell out arenas all over the world even though they parted ways with frontman Steve Perry two decades ago, Journey never even appeared on a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot until earlier this year. That may be because they reached the pinnacle of their popularity in the early 1980s, a time when most mainstream bands were dismissed as faceless arena rock by the critical establishment. To this day they haven't won a single Grammy, and a lot of old-school critics still blanch when they hear their name. But they've had the last laugh in recent years. Not only has their 1981 song "Don't Stop Believin'" become perhaps the most enduring song of the entire 1980s, but new vocalist Arnel Pineda (who the band found on YouTube in 2008) helped them regain the mass audience they lost when Perry defected. They play at least 50 shows most years, and each time out they seem to draw bigger crowds.

A couple of days after guitarist Neal Schon learned that Journey was getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he phoned up Rolling Stone to chat about the honor, the possibility of a long-awaited reunion with Steve Perry the evening of the induction and what's coming next for the band.

Congrats!
It's all hush-hush, but I've heard about it.

How do you feel?
It's really great [laughs]. I kind of feel like we were already in with our fans and the amount of records we've sold all over the world.

How did you find out? Who told you?
I was told from the inside. I don't even know if I should believe it until right when they announce it.

What was your first reaction?
I wasn't expecting anything at all. I've learned to be that way. If you don't expect something and it comes, then its good news. I'm honored. I think we're all honored. I'm happy the original band is included with Gregg [Rolie], Aynsley [Dunbar] and Jonathan [Cain] and Steve [Smith] and Ross [Valory].

So the ceremony is on April 7th.
We'll be in the middle of a big tour, but we'll be there. I think it's kind of cool it's gonna take place in New York.

Have you ever been to one of these induction ceremonies?
Never been. Nope.

They usually end with a big all-star jam where everyone plays together.
That's cool. I'm wondering what they'll pick for us to play, or who will pick it.

With Pearl Jam there, you could all join them for Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."
Yeah, a lot of people have been doing that for a long time. I know [Joe] Satriani has been doing that forever.

I'm sure someone will bring up "Don't Stop Believin'" as the jam.
You think so? [Laughs] I'm hoping that Steve Perry will get up and do something with us. We'll have to see.

Do you think that's going to happen?
I don't know because nobody has contact with him. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. I suppose we'll hear something about it a day before or the day of. Who knows?

I emailed with his manager. He said Steve was going to release a statement about the honor, but would not be doing any interviews.
No interviews? OK. Well, I understand that.

You last sang with him in public at the Bill Graham tribute show in 1991, right?
That is the last time we did anything onstage together, and that was very last-minute, too.

He got onstage two years ago and did two songs with the Eels. He sounded pretty good. It's clear he can still sing.
I saw the clip. I thought he sounded fine too. I was just like, "OK, his voice has dropped a bit, but whose hasn't?" So yeah, I'll keep my fingers crossed. We all love Steve. We had a great relationship for so many years. I don't know why there's been an absence of it for so many years besides the fact that we just moved on because we wanted to, we had to. We needed to get out there and keep playing for our fans. I'd think everyone would be grateful at this point because we've done so well.

You kept the music alive.
That's what I think. I think one of the reasons the band keeps getting larger and larger is because we're out there every year. We're playing and digging in and doing great performances. Our fans are loving it. We're getting new fans every day and playing to much younger audiences. It's really wild when I look out and see like four generations of people now, some that have been with us forever and some that are so young I can't believe it. It must have been their parents that were fans of us and maybe they get turned on from Glee and got curious. It's very cool to look and see that. It's inspiring.

When's the last time you even spoke with Steve?
Um ... We haven't spoken in years, physically. I believe when we got the Hollywood star in L.A. [in 2005], that was the first time I'd seen him in many years. That was the last time I spoke with him. We did communicate a couple of years ago via email. That was going really well. I was just saying hello and hoping he was well, and that's it, just reaching as a friend and letting him know I was there as a friend. It went well and then it just kinda stopped. I've asked to get his number, but nobody will give it up and nobody knows what it is [laughs]. So that's where it's at.

The fans are really hoping he gets up there one last time.
I think it would only be right and just. He's the one that created all the music with us.

The fans are always confused about what's going on with him. He's so beloved, but so mysterious. Why do you think he avoids the public eye so much?
I don't know. We had a lot that was going on for us in the 1980s and late 1970s when we started becoming successful and having success with our songwriting. Some people just don't want that sort of lifestyle. I've sort of managed to stay in the middle somehow. I still have my privacy and can keep my privacy, but when I want to get out there I can. It's not like I feel like I need to cross this big ocean to get to the other side. It's not a big, heavy thing for me. It's just part of what I do.

You guys have no Grammys. …
We were up for one for Trial by Fire. It entered at Number Three. We had a Number One single with "When You Love a Woman" that Steve, John and myself wrote. Irving [Azoff] wanted us to play the Grammys, and it just didn't happen. Steve had his accident hiking and he didn't want to be seen onstage like that.

Why do you think the group never got any critical respect?
I don't understand, but it didn't really make any difference to me, honest to God. Maybe it did when I was younger, but I soon got a grip on it. You're not going to please everybody. Journey was really a different band for the people that didn't really know us and weren't fans. They couldn't put their finger on what we were. We had so many different sides to our music and songwriting. We weren't afraid to go anywhere. Everyone is so talented in the band, so there wasn't anything we couldn't play or write. I think a lot of critics kind of got bothered that we weren't in one box and doing one thing.

You listen to Escape or Frontiers, which we've all been diving into recently, because the first place we hit in 2017 is Japan and the Orient. One of the requests from Mr. Udo over there, because he's celebrating his 50th anniversary of doing concerts, is that we play the whole Escape record and the whole Frontiers record from top to bottom in the exact same order. We've all been digging into that stuff. There's a few songs I don't even recall playing, like "Troubled Child." Digging back into that stuff has been a lot of fun. We're looking forward to doing these different things. People have been hearing that we're doing this and asking for the same thing with Infinity. People in Detroit are asking if we'll come there and do the whole Captured record. And I'm like, "Yeah! Why not?" That's part of our legacy. There's certainly some rocking tunes and good times. I'm sure we can do it justice, if not play it even better.

Do you see the Hall of Fame induction as an overdue validation from the critical establishment that never really embraced you guys?
I didn't really think of it. I don't pay too much attention to what critics said after a while. In the 1980s, when we were really big with Steve and reached our height with Steve, we got hammered by everybody. It didn't matter because our fans were so strong. To me, it's always been about our fans. The critics don't buy our tickets. They don't come to see us live. They aren't the ones that are yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs and bringing their families. Our audiences have to be one of the greatest audiences to ever play for. There's never any crazy stuff that goes on. Nobody ever gets hurt. Everybody comes to have a good time, which is really what it's about. You shouldn't have to go into a place with the police and have 25 people having your back. It's about entertainment. Feel-good music is what Journey has always been about.

In the next couple of months are you going to call Steve or email him or somehow try to get the ball rolling on a reunion that night?
Yeah, of course. I'm going to try and reach out again, as I've done many times. And Arnel is so gracious. He says, "Anytime he wants to come on and do anything, I'll very gladly step aside and let him sing." He's always been welcome. He knows that. The mere fact [Steve] went on with the Eels and sang, all of us said, "Maybe it'll happen some day." But you can't make somebody do something they don't want to do.

I can't think of a better place for it to happen than the Hall of Fame.
I would be surprised if it didn't happen, but I'll deal with it whichever way. I think it's gonna be an interesting evening.

Are you disappointed they didn't take Arnel in?
Well, I understand. I feel the same way about a couple of other members that have helped rebuild the band in the close to two decades we've spent doing this. ... We continue to do better business every year. We are carrying the legacy quite well. They will all be there in my heart. I know Arnel will be there. I think he certainly deserves a nod from Steve and everyone else for helping the legacy go on. If it wasn't for me finding Arnel, who knows where we'd be right now. He does bring it. Now that people know him and have seen him so many times, they understand him and they believe it. They know there's conviction in it.

The band was gone for way too long. The world did need it back, and he was so key in allowing that to happen.
The band was my baby. I was just not ready to bail on everything. The major turning point was when Steve went out on his solo tour [in 1994.] There was no Journey music to be found. I found out that he had half our road crew and guys in his band doing our parts, and eight or nine songs from his set were Journey songs. I went, "Wow, if he can do it, even though he was opposed to anyone in the band doing that …" Jonathan and I looked at each other and went, "If he can do it, we can do it." We were the other two thirds of the songwriting, and before Jon it was really mostly Steve and myself and some outside songwriters, and Gregg Rolie too.

You guys have really become a classic rock band. I see Journey t-shirts all over town. I hear the music everywhere now.
That's something I didn't really think about, but I didn't imagine years ago that I'd be experiencing this and newer generations are coming aboard every day. They love this music. It just makes me think that we got it right and did some things very right. But I want to move forward too. I do think that going back into our catalog and reviewing all the great music that's there and playing it for the fans is something we need to do, but I also want to move forward. I'm never one to sit in neutral. I'm always creating. I'm working on a couple of solo records right now and have a lot of stuff in the can. There's one with Narada Michael Walden and I was talking to Kevin Shirley today about doing a stripped-down blues record, something I've never quite done either. I have another record I have sitting in the can that's a whole other thing.

I'm constantly recording and going for it, but I want to get together with the guys [in Journey]. Even if nobody wants to do a full record since we have so much material we never play anyway, we should at least do a song or two a year to keep the juices flowing and know you can still do it. Really, once you get everybody on the same page it's the same brew, it keeps coming.

If Steve does come out and do a few songs, I'm sure everyone will start thinking a reunion tour is coming. That's probably just impossible, right?
Oh, man – I can't even comment on that. I don't know what he's thinking and what he's capable of. He hasn't wanted to do this for a long time. The door has always been open. He's said it blatantly himself that he doesn't want to do that and he's done with that. Until he changes his mind, we're going to keep on doing our thing. Who is to say that Perry and Arnel ... Steve would love Arnel. Hopefully he'll meet him. Arnel is very excited about meeting him. He worships the ground that he walks on as a singer.

I am really crossing my fingers he'll at least play with you that night.
Yeah. And I'm still talking to Carlos [Santana] to figure things out. Journey is supposed to have a shorter tour this year because we're planning on doing a way more extensive one in 2018, so midway through the year when we finish the tour dates in July I'm going record some more. But I've been talking to Carlos and I'd like to go out and so some more dates with the Santana IV project.

I was at the Las Vegas show. It was really special. The fans would love a tour.
It was even better two nights after that in Pennsylvania. By the third show everybody started kicking in on all cylinders. I was thinking to myself, "God, I wish we had gotten this night on DVD." It doesn't take much. It's just everyone had been gone for so long, but playing in the studio and playing live are two different things, but we really starting to jell by the third gig.

I don't want to take more of our time, but I can't wait until April. Congrats again.
Thanks. And I'll see you in New York!

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's class of 2017 will honor Pearl Jam, Tupac, Journey, Yes, Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra and Nile Rodgers.