Three years ago, Journey guitarist Neal Schon finished a solo album of instrumental tracks that mixed classic-rock covers like “Hey Jude” and “Voodoo Child” with originals he created with producer-drummer Narada Michael Walden. Since that time, Journey fired drummer Steve Smith and bassist Ross Valory after a bitter business dispute, brought in Walden and Raised on Radio–era bassist Randy Jackson to take their places, and canceled a 2020 summer tour with the Pretenders due to the pandemic.
During his forced downtime, Schon decided it was finally time to share his instrumental album, The Universe, with the world. “This has been a hellacious year,” he says. “There’s some healing music on here. I feel like it’s going to ease a lot of people’s pain and give them something new to listen to and some hope.”
Schon called up Rolling Stone to talk about The Universe (which is streaming right now), the legal battle that split Journey apart, parting ways with manager Irving Azoff, repairing his relationship with keyboardist Jonathan Cain, cutting Journey’s new album while on lockdown, his continued hopes of making peace with Steve Perry, the possibility of an Arnel Pineda biopic, and why he thinks this new lineup of Journey will lead to a whole new era for the band.
Tell me the backstory of The Universe.
About three years ago, I ran into Narada Michael Walden. I said, “Narada, why don’t you write me a record?” We’d known each other forever and had jammed and played live together, but we’d never really worked together with him as a producer and me as a guitar player.
I said, “I really want to veer away from anything that sounds like Jeff Beck.” That’s because there’s only one Jeff Beck and only one Jimi [Hendrix]. But I said, “You’ve known me for a long time and you know what I like to play. What I’m hearing is a very majestic, symphonic-type blues-R&B-fusion rock album.”
He goes, “That’s the whole spectrum.” I go, “Let’s just diversify it.” And so he said, “Let me have a few days and I’ll call you when I have some tracks.” Three days later, he calls me and says, “Why don’t you come by the studio? I have some stuff to play for you.”
Where did it go from there?
I went by the studio and he had like six tracks that he had written with drums on them, keyboard bass, and voice singing the main melody of a guitar. He said, “Take this home and get comfortable with it and let me know when you’ve got it down.”
This was something new for me because I usually write my own material. I took it home, listened to it, and worked my way around it. I felt like I was going to improv my way through the melodies and add my own shtick to it.
I went into the first session with him and I started playing something from the heart where I veered away from the melody. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m just playing what it is.” He said, “No, you have to play that melody exactly like I’m singing it.” I went, “Oh. OK.” He goes, “I’m treating you like you’re a vocalist and your guitar is the vocal.”
After conforming to that, I managed to get things down very quickly on the record. We worked on it in different time periods. We got as much done as I could when I was home and then I’d go tour and come back and work with him when he was available. We finished it over the duration of about a year with three, four weeks in the studio altogether.
Let’s talk about some of the specific songs. Tell me about your version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
There’s a clip of me on the internet playing it in the Twin Cities right after he passed [in 2016]. I get a few sections in the [Journey] set to do my own thing. And I’ve been looping for years. And so a lot of times I’ll loop some chord changes to a song and improv my way through it.
That night, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. But I felt his presence and I played the chord changes. I overdubbed one of the melodies he did on the end. I put that in there and just blew through it and the audience really came unglued. It was his hometown, but he just passed and I captured the moment.
That stuck with me and I said to my friend Gary Cirimelli, who I did the  Voice record with, “Please do me an orchestration of ‘Purple Rain.'” He did an amazing job and I actually recorded that before I started the record with Narada.
You also tackle “Voodoo Child.” Clearly you weren’t shy about taking on some of the greatest guitarists of all time.
You know what? They are in my blood. I grew up with these people and I’ve been playing a long time. I’d actually been jamming with Narada before at Golden Gate Park in front of about 100,000 people. He said, “We’re going to play ‘Voodoo Child.'” I said, “Great, I know it.” I jumped onstage and we jammed for a while and the audience loved it. It actually goes back in time where I played the Crossroads Festival for Eric Clapton. It was Narada, myself, Randy Jackson, and Jonathan Cain. It’s ironic that’s what Journey has become with Arnel.
We did play “Voodoo Child” that day, too. It was a no-brainer for me. I was like, “Why don’t we jam it out and have a live jam in the studio?” That is what we did. We played live, one take. You can tell that it falls apart a little when it goes into “Third Stone From the Sun” at the end. I was lost and playing and I had to find a place to put my arm up and then everyone jumps in a few seconds later. You can tell it was a little loose and we were just finding our way through it. I felt there was some magic there and being real since it wasn’t overdubbed to death. It was just what it was.
Why did you decide to revisit the Journey song “Lights?”
That was Narada’s idea. I was not sure about it. I had done, with Gary Cirimelli the year before, a little EP [Ave Maria] around Christmas where I had done an instrumental version of “Faithfully,” “Open Arms,” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley. I had done it before with guitar instead of voice, but “Lights” I had never considered doing as a lead vocal on guitar. He talked me into it. I didn’t know what to think of it, but it sounded good for a guitar version. I tried to capture as many Steve Perry melodies as I could and implement them into the guitar in a soulful way. I think it came out well and people are loving it.
I like hearing vocal melodies on the guitar. Jeff Beck does it a lot, but it’s hard to pull off exactly right.
Yeah. There’s something very difficult about it. I see a lot of young guitar players today that have dexterity beyond. I can comprehend what they’re doing technically, but I’m not that interested in trying to do it myself because I’ve never been a scale guy. I was listening more to horn players and vocalists.
To convey a melody and play it very simply is not an easy task, especially when it’s a slow melody. There’s plenty of room for mistakes and loss of feel. You can lose the feel of it in two seconds flat because there’s no lyrics you’re playing along with. That actually helps you dictate the melody when you hear a singer sing. It’s all about placement, phrasing, and how the vibrato goes, where you put it. It’s complicated and it comes much easier to me as a musician than it does to other guys because I’ve always been a melody guy.
Tell me about your version of “Hey Jude” that ends the record.
I had played “Hey Jude” back east in New Jersey, I believe, in some theater we were playing. I looped that one night. I played the chords first, just the ending, and then I looped the melody and had the whole audience singing the song. I went, “Wow, this could be a possible way just to end the record.” As a Beatles fan, I loved it.
What’s the status of the new Journey record?
We’re deep in it. It’s coming along, man. It’s really shaping up. Narada and I have been working nonstop. Jonathan [Cain] is also working from his houses in Florida and Nashville. Arnel is working from Manila. Randy Jackson is working mostly from L.A. And it’s one of those Zoom sessions and it sounds phenomenal. It sounds like we’re all playing in the room at the same time. I actually can’t wait until we do get together and start putting the show together. The new single should be coming out mid-February.
Working remotely must have been a big adjustment at first.
Yeah. It was at first. What I was really grateful for is that I’m willing to get together with Narada and work with just drums and guitar, which is something I’ve always done with drummers working on records. We’re able to map out and get things feeling right. Narada is very accomplished. He can play keyboards and bass keyboards, and we kind of fill out the tracks. And then everyone does their parts. The end result is sounding amazing.
How is Arnel doing?
Arnel sounds very, very strong. I think this break has been good for him. He’s back in there, I feel, like when we first got him. His vocals sound very, very good. We’re planning on a full album release in 2021 before we get back to touring. We did book our first show of 2021. We’re going to be headlining Lollapalooza in Chicago on July 31st unless they move it. My fingers are crossed that everyone is going to get the vaccine and feel good and get back to it. I’m just so looking forward to playing with the new band. Post Malone is headlining at the same time as us about a mile away on another stage. It’ll be interesting.
How have the new members changed the band’s sound? Do you have a different groove now?
You have to hear it for yourself. It still sounds very much like Journey thanks to the songwriting, my guitar playing, and the vocals. But the rhythm section is definitely a powerhouse. Narada has been known for years, and Randy Jackson is a completely monstrous bass player. Some people may not be aware of his work, but they have credentials that go way, way back. Randy and I have always been pretty in tune, and Narada and I are in tune. And now it’s coming together. It’s got a new strut to it.
There’s nothing we really can’t play. I’ve got a track I laid down with Narada the other day. I sent it to Arnel and he was freaking out. He said, “This sounds like brand-new Hendrix or Prince. Please write more of that.” And I was just messing around. It was just a jam we did and it turned out to be monstrous. We’re creating. We aren’t afraid to go to new places. It’s easy to stay safe and write where we have always been. We have a bit of that so we don’t lose everyone, but at the same token, this is a new chapter of Journey. I want to go where we have not gone before.
Why did you leave Azoff management and sign with Q Prime?
It was a long time coming from myself. I had a falling out with old management and just didn’t agree with a lot of things the way they were coming down or the way that things were being treated that I was bringing up. I felt like they made it seem like I was an outcast even though this was a band that I started. Azoff actually said to me, “Why don’t you quit?” at one point. I said, “I’m not quitting. I’ve been here all my life. Why don’t you quit?”
We kind of went at it. Finally, I made the move. I said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen from here, but I feel like it’s time.” I remember that I talked to Peter Mensch over at Q Prime about a year before that, telling him that I really wanted to make a change. He said that contractually we had to get to this point before we could do anything. When we finally got to that point, I called Peter back up. He said, “This is a no-brainer. We’d love to manage you.”
I’m really happy. They understand the guitar. Cliff [Burnstein] is awesome. I’ve only talked to him a few times, but I can tell we’re on the same wavelength. I send him stuff, unfinished and finished, and I’ll crank up the guitar and he goes, “Oh, yeah. That’s it.” Then we’ll get on the phone with Jonathan [Cain], myself and him, and Jonathan will go, “Do you want the softer version?” They’ll go, “No, we don’t want the softer version. We want the heavier version.” I love the guys.
You and Jonathan Cain are clearly in a much better place than you were a few years ago. How did you patch things up?
We found out that there was a lot of miscommunication that I felt was coming from management. The divide-and-conquer situation was going on. They were saying I said things that I didn’t say. I heard it had happened with other bands from guitar techs that I had been with. It was happening in the Van Halen camp between Eddie and Sammy. I was just like, “I’m seeing the same scenario.”
Once we got past all the crap and we talked everything out, we found out that a lot of it was just b.s. and we were actually good. Him and I are still very tight as songwriters. There’s still magic there. He’s still creating amazing music, even without me, but us together, we create something that really sounds like Journey.
Some fans were surprised to see him play in the house band at the White House during the RNC a few months ago. What did you think about that?
You know what? I learned to just stay in my music lane through that whole fiasco. I think everyone knows my feelings about politics and religion in music. I just decided that I was going to keep my friendship with him and the music with him. We’re still creating great stuff. I got to a place where I said, “It’s a free world. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want to do.”
In a way, it’s like Mick and Keith. They are two very different people, but they come together in a band and it works.
Exactly. That tension leads to great music and not agreeing … Jon and I always have been like that. We’re like bookends with all the music in between. Where we start from is two completely different places. He usually starts from music, melody, and piano. I start from a rocking track. There’s a lot of melody on the new songs we’ve been laying down. We’ve gotten very comfortable with singing on it right afterwards with Narada helping me, giving me the confidence, and so I have a lot of the melodies. I recall even in the old Journey with Steve Perry when I’d hum a few things and he’d go, “Oh, I like that.” Then he’d do his own thing to it. There’s a road map there if you aren’t afraid to put it down.
How about tour-wise? The Pretenders 2020 tour was called off. Might you go out with them in the future?
I don’t know what management has planned. We love playing with the Pretenders, but I don’t know if that’s where they are going or even if they are available. I definitely enjoy playing with them. They have so many great songs. Chrissie [Hynde] was very nice. The whole band was. I felt that it was complementary to our show, even with Def Leppard. I don’t know what Peter and Cliff are thinking over at Q Prime, but I’m definitely open to that. And I love the Def Leppard guys. I’m open to that, too. But this time we have to bring our PA. [Laughs]
I’ve heard rumblings about a biopic about Arnel. Do you think that’s going to happen?
I think it’s something that will come down. The story of me finding him on YouTube is sort of unbelievable. I remember when I first told people I had found him. They were like, “Come on, man. Did you just make this up?” It was like a Cinderella story that was too good to believe. We made the documentary [Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey] off the fact we found him in Manila, not New York or L.A., and I heard his voice and went, “This is the guy. I know it’s the guy.” Apparently Warner Bros. thinks is a great story too. I think they are going to make it. I don’t know when. I don’t believe they’ve even started. I think they are still writing the script.
Who would play you?
Uh … the only meeting we had took place when we last played in Vegas. They were they talking about Joaquin [Phoenix]. That’s what this director said. [Laughs] I was like, “OK!” [Laughs]
You could play yourself, I suppose. Have you thought about that?
I have not thought about that, but it’s not ruled out. I’d probably prefer not to. It’s gotta be so time consuming. At one point, I was going to try and get into some movie stuff and I was taking some acting classes. Everyone was like, “You look like a young James Caan.” This was way back in the Eighties. There were a couple of producers that were approaching me. But I went on a set and thought about it and auditioned and I was like, “Wow. This is so time-consuming. I can do four albums in the time it takes to do one movie.” I’m too impatient. I like to move quickly, so I doubt I’d be the right choice for it.
Is your Journey spinoff band Journey Through Time something that can get back on the road in the future? Fans loved seeing you back with Gregg Rolie and playing the really old songs.
I was met with a lot of resistance from some of the former band members and the trademark guy that was sort of working for Journey, I’m finding out. There were many trademark issues I’ve gotten to the bottom of. I’ve cleaned everything up 1,000 percent. There were too many handshake deals and money deals and no real contracts. I was like, “OK, it’s time for all this to stop and for everyone to get treated fairly and equally.”
They were having a real problem with me using Neal Schon’s Journey Through Time, the name of the band. I don’t see why. It has been my journey from my life and the fans loved it. But to tell you the truth, I foresee us being able to do that with the new band; I foresee us being able to play in two different places. I feel like we can play these outdoor festivals with bands like Phish or for that audience and dive into the older material and play that stuff very well and take it to a new place.
Also, we can play in the 20,000-seaters or the coliseums we were doing with Pretenders and Def Leppard. I feel like it’s two different audience we can play to. The main thing is just playing longer where you can dive deeper into the older stuff and making it all work together.
Do you think you could bring Gregg Rolie into the fold at some point, at least for the jam-focused shows?
We might talk about that. I’d have to see what Jonathan thought about that. But it’s not really on my plate right now. It’s something I definitely enjoyed. We were picking up speed very quickly before it was taken down. We had a whole tour that was ready to go. And then Gregg unavailable and then [drummer-vocalist] Deen [Castronovo] wasn’t available. There was a lot of politics involved.
Are you close to resolving the legal dispute with Steve Smith and Ross Valory?
Unfortunately, no. [Laughs] We will, eventually. I have confidence that we will. It is going to be what it is. We’ve already made that choice and we’re moving on. But we’re not about to get held up, either. We’re going to start playing and ultimately we can settle this and come to a mutual agreement.
Do you ever see a day in the future where you’d play with them again?
Who knows? I’ve known these guys for a long time. I didn’t agree with the way they went about business. I had been in a situation in the band with management and some of them for a long time where I felt like they were trying to make me leave. I was catching on to a lot of things that I’m getting to the bottom of now, business-wise.
I spoke with Steve Perry a few weeks ago. He says he misses playing live. As just a fan of his, are you hoping he’ll tour?
I am. I was hoping he would tour when he released his record a couple of years ago. After going through the pandemic, I imagine that most everyone that has ever toured is dying to tour. I miss it so much, that energy you get from the audience that you throw back. I’m totally missing that. I’m sure everyone that has ever been onstage is missing that. I’m hoping that he would really do it. He should. He sounds in good voice and he could do it. I hope he’ll actually do it because he talked about it last time.
Are you still hoping that at some point in the future, the two of you will be able to sit down and be friends again?
I’m still trying to talk to him directly on the telephone. For some reason, I don’t know if it’s him or his attorney, they do not want us to talk, or he feels uncomfortable. I’m sitting in the same place where I’m waiting to get on the phone or get together and have some coffee, but it just isn’t happening and it’s not because of myself.
It’s crazy that one rock band can get so complicated with all these feuding factions. It’s just people playing music together that a lot of people love.
You know what? There’s a lot of things that get in the way, the conquer-and-divide thing. I believe that that’s been happening with him, too. When we got inducted into the Hall of Fame, I felt really connected to him again where it was emotional to see him after not seeing him for a long time. He was moved too. I felt, “Why is all this other crap happening for so long? Why did I feel like we couldn’t get together and talk?”
But at the end, it went right back to that. I watched him do the first interviews that he did. He talked very highly about myself like I’ve always talked about him and how happy he was to see me and the rest of the guys, but he said it was mainly me he was happy to see. And then all of a sudden, in all the interviews after that, after the first two where I felt like he was speaking from the heart, it took a left-hand turn and I was never mentioned again. It’s very weird, man. I felt like politics, once again, were in the way.
I guess the one constant in the whole Journey saga is you marching forward and keeping it alive.
It is the ship I’ve been in from the very get-go. I’m the only guy that’s been there for every show, every record, every date. I’m the only guy. And my heart is still in it. We’re definitely moving forward and I’m happy with what I’m hearing. I’m moving. I’m going forward. I’m not going to sit in neutral and wait for things to settle out.
We’ll soon be approaching our 50th anniversary. It’s kind of mind-boggling to me, even sitting here telling you it’s been 50 years for me. It should be a great one. What I do know is that we’ve hardly spent any time abroad, but we are going to be taking this around the world and playing in countries and cities we’ve never been to before. Anytime we’ve done this before — like our first first show with Arnel [in Chile] when the audience went wild — we’d never been there before, but they went crazy. His audition was in front of 30 million people. He was scared to death. I had to push him out onstage.
I really feel like late 2021 and certainly 2022 will be a celebration of live music.
I’ve got butterflies about the vibe I’m getting or what it’s going to be like when we put our show together. We’re not just going to play the same old show. We’re going to be adding a lot of new stuff. I know Randy and Narada, because I’ve jammed with them before.
It’s going to conform into a whole new thing. They aren’t afraid to try anything right on the spur of the moment onstage, which is where I’ve always been. I play by ear. If you go there, I’m going there, man. I learned to do that playing with Carlos Santana and Rolie and all the original Santana guys. I’m from that school and I love it.
I think we’ll construct a set in a way where we’ll have time for all of it and it won’t have to stay the same every night. We don’t have to conform to that. Everyone will be able to carry it and feel strongly about improvising on the spot and going with it.