It’s never been easy to replace the singer of a hugely popular rock band. After Steve Perry left Journey in 1998, the platinum-selling Bay Area act moved on with a series of vocalists to varying degrees of success, but it wasn’t until guitarist Neal Schon landed at an obscure video on YouTube late one night that he knew he’d found his man — in Manila.
The voice singing Journey hits in the lo-fi video belonged to Arnel Pineda, a Filipino singer who grew up in poverty and sang in local cover bands with no expectations of rock stardom. All Schon knew was that the guy sounded just like Perry, and he soon had Pineda on a plane to San Francisco to audition for the gig in late 2007. Months later, Pineda made his debut as the band’s new singer in front of 20,000 fans at the Viña del Mar International Song Festival in Chile. “He’s a clutch hitter, this kid,” guitarist Jonathan Cain tells Rolling Stone. “He comes through.”
The story of Pineda’s dramatic first year in the band is told in the documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, which is set to air September 30th on the PBS series Independent Lens. Directed by Ramona Diaz, the film won raves at festival screenings last year and will be released August 20th on DVD and Blu-ray.
Pineda’s first year was a grueling trial for the singer, whose dream gig came with the physical challenge of international touring and the expectations of Journey fans as he ran through an FM radio hit parade of “Faithfully,” “Any Way You Want It” and “Who’s Crying Now.” He faced moments of loneliness, stage-fright and genuine racism, but still remains with the band after six years, and will be back on the road when Journey tours next year with the Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power.
He has yet to meet Perry, but knows what he’d say if that encounter ever happened, and without a hint of sarcasm: “Can I have your autograph?”
In Los Angeles, Pineda, Schon, Cain and bassist Ross Valory spoke with Rolling Stone about the documentary and Journey’s new era as a truly international rock act.
The lead singer position is historically a very hard spot to fill.
Neal Schon: There were guys being pitched to us — people in L.A. and New York that have been doing the classic rock thing for a long time — and I really was not moved by it. I was looking for some serious talent, somebody that we could move forward with — and have serious pipes and go in new directions with us as well as cover our old stuff very well. When I found Arnel, I went, “That’s the guy.” I’d never heard any singer cover that broad of a spectrum. He’ll do Nat King Cole for you right now, and you’ll go no way. Sing for him, Arnel. . .
Arnel Pineda: [Singing] Unforgettable, that’s what you are . . .
It seems like a crazy idea to find your singer that way from across the world.
Schon: I didn’t think it was that crazy. Everybody was concerned that he was in Manila and does he speak English? I’d go, “I just watched 40 videos and he’s singing all songs that are in English. If he doesn’t speak good English, he can always learn.”
Jonathan Cain: Ironically, the Internet proved to be a friend. When Arrival first came out [in 2001], Napster stole the album. We spent a ton of money flying to New York making this record only to have it up there for fans to get it for free, so I hated the Internet. Then it comes around to serve us well in the future. It’s quite a tool and for us it was a blessing.
What was it like for you to suddenly be immersed in Journey’s world?
Pineda: It was my world being turned upside down — but in a good way, a fantastic way. I’m still in disbelief. I’m in front of thousands of people singing all these songs that I listened to when I was 18 years old. Now I’m with the big boys and it’s such a blessing. It’s one in a million.
Schon: He brings it. He sings his heart out every night, and it’s not an easy menu. Our songs are so difficult to sing. It’s going on six years now and we’ve toured a lot.
What was it like as a new performer to be faced with all the pressure that comes with playing to large audiences?
Pineda: I had to give up a lot of foods that I’m accustomed to eating: dairy products, beer, wine, spicy food. And no talking. I like talking. It’s become a luxury to last even through a 10-minute talk with you. I have to go back to my room and my silence — until the next gig happens.
Was there another downside to having this all happen at once?
Pineda: I get really homesick inside. I would miss my life with my wife.
Schon: In the very beginning, we threw him in the fire, no doubt about it. I remember we’re getting ready to go on in Viña del Mar and it’s sold out and it’s live to 25 million people all over South America. Arnel is like, two seconds before we go on: “Can I go home? I don’t want to go out.” It was fear and loathing to the max, but then he went out and he went for it and the audience went nuts.
How nervous were you?
Pineda: I was terrified to death. It took years, but I survived it. I’m still here.
Other bands have tried to replace a popular singer with an unknown and failed.
Cain: It is rare that the audience goes with you like that.
Schon: The good news is that when he came in, it was a breath of fresh air for all of us and every scenario that went with it. All of a sudden, instead of us being a band from the U.S.A., we became a worldwide band. We’re accepted worldwide everywhere we went with him in markets we were never accepted before. There’s always going to be the naysayers who cant live with anything but exactly what it was from the beginning. You can’t please everyone.
In the film, it shows that some of the early reactions were very negative, even racist. How did you deal with that?
Pineda: I just didn’t bother to get intimidated with those words. I’m not trying to compete with Mr. Perry. I’m trying to help out here. I am so blessed to be in this position, to be the one to carry the legacy.
Cain: Back in ’98, when we started with Steve Augeri [as singer 1998-2006], I was worried about him getting shot. We took a lot of flack. We used to get hate mail. Somebody got my number and would call me: “You son of a bitch!” They were reading us the riot act because how dare us be Journey without Steve Perry?
Schon: It was vicious, man.
Pineda: This is the first time I’ve said this — my wife was so freaked out with all these racist comments that she told me to bring a bulletproof vest: “You might get shot there!”
Because of your history together, you must still have business with Steve Perry.
Ross Valory: Steve has been really, really cooperative. He helped produce the greatest hits video. It’s unfortunate we don’t have a physical relationship with him.
Schon: Working on it though. I have ultimate respect and love for the guy this many years later. I’m getting older, man, and you don’t want to hang onto all the stupid things that you do in your life. You start looking back and I’m cherishing all the good times that we had — and the first time I sat in a room with him and wrote “Patiently” in 10 minutes. The door’s always been open. Arnel’s even open. If he ever wanted to come onstage with us and do a song, we’d be like, “Come on!”
What was your reaction to the documentary?
Pineda: I’m so happy that it’s out there. I think it’s going to give a tremendous amount of inspiration for all of these hopeless musicians out there — especially those we will never learn about how fantastic they are. Second, it’s like I’m not supposed to be there — I look at it and it’s an ill fit. But it’s how I look and how I was born, so I’m going to live with it. It’s my journey. I’m so grateful for what’s happened, and it’s still going strong.