It’s a punishingly hot August day and Steve Perry is tucked into a corner table at a Lower Manhattan Italian spot taking a quick breather between a long round of radio interviews promoting Traces, his new comeback album that he spent the last five years recording in such secrecy that he made everyone on his team sign strict NDAs. He’s no more than two minutes into our conversation, barely enough time to dip a single piece of bread into olive oil and take a bite, when he stands up and announces he has to leave at once. There’s loud dance pop playing on the radio and it’s driving him crazy.
“This is very distracting,” he says, as a large, tattooed bodyguard and two publicists perched near the bar look on. “I’m hearing drums and rhythm. I have a very ADD, multi-track mind and I can’t listen to two things at once. I just hear these electronic drums. Let’s go outside even though it’s going to be a little sticky.”
With the bodyguard in tow, we head onto the street towards a park overlooking the Hudson River. It’s a complete shift from our plan for the afternoon, but Perry has never been one to stick to a script. Ignoring the desperate pleas of his bandmates, management team and fans, he walked away from Journey near the pinnacle of their success in 1987 to live a quiet life free from screaming crowds and record executers thirsty for another hit. And even when Journey-mania returned again in the mid-2000s and “Don’t Stop Believin'” became absolutely inescapable — used everywhere from the The Sopranos finale to Glee — he refused to emerge from hiding in any way, allowing his former bandmates to reap the hefty rewards by playing about 70 shows a year with a soundalike they plucked from YouTube.
Dressed head-to-toe in black, Perry walks down the city streets, past throngs of tourists that don’t give him a second look, and attempts to explain why he turned in his rock star card over 30 years ago. “It seemed like the only thing I could do to stop some of the badness in my heart and the lack of passion for singing,” he says. “I just had to stop. I was feeling like a forced version of myself, getting into some bad habits and not connecting to my heart. I was completely deep-fried.”
Rolling Stone published an extensive feature on Perry’s life earlier this month, but there was still a lot we learned that didn’t fit into the piece. Here are 13 of them.
1. He became interested in spiritual matters during his lost years.
“I don’t attend any religious practices and I’m not religious,” he explains. “But I’ve devoted a lot of time to people like Joseph Campbell who opened the doors to all the theologists that I have opinions about now. It took a lot of open-mindedness to rewire my thinking about so many things. It needed to happen. They say that every seven years your body completely changes, that every cell in your body is no longer the same. There’s a metamorphoses. And right now, I’m more open-minded to the idea of not knowing the answers to all things.”
2. He has a crystal-clear memory of the moment they wrote “Don’t Stop Believin.'”
“I know everyone has their own opinion about this,” he says. “I don’t know what Jonathan [Cain] thinks, but I remember it starting out in a warehouse in Oakland where we had a rehearsal space. I suggested we needed something with eighths on the piano because I always liked songs that began like that. It flowed from there. We were all in the room. It was me, Jonathan and Neal [Schon]. It was a true group effort. Then I went to Jonathan’s house and we wrote the lyrics together. There’s no one genius to any one moment. If you’re in a band, what you do is a group effort.”
3. Contrary to widespread rumor, he’s never suffered any vocal issues.
“I have my vocal box checked all the time,” he says. “I have no nodules on it. I have a really good doctor. She sticks a camera down my nose. I call it the garden hose. It goes down to the vocal chords and then she grabs my tongue and I have to go, ‘Eeeeeee.’ She’s really able to see them well and, knock on wood, nothing wrong with my voice. The only thing is I didn’t really use if for a while, but it’s like working out when you begin using it again.”
4. His mother pushed him return to Journey in 1985 after he’d taken a long break to focus on his solo career.
“I was ready to leave the group because she was so sick,” he says. “She couldn’t speak because she’d had so many strokes. She was also pretty quadriplegic at that point, but she loved my music. I asked her what she thought about it, whether I should make another solo record or go back to Journey. She said one word: ‘Journey.’ I went, ‘Are you sure? Mom, this means I won’t be around you much. Again she just said, ‘Journey.’ Then she died during the making of the record. I dedicated it to her.”
5. The “corporate rock” label that Journey was stuck with still baffles him.
“That was amazing to me,” he says. “Any band that came to America, whether it was Led Zeppelin or anybody, would incorporate to order to create a tax shelter and not leave penniless. The way to do that legally is to form a corporation. Everybody did that, but we got stuck with the label. Isn’t that fascinating?”
6. He enjoyed meeting Arnel Pineda at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2017.
“He’s a sweet kid,” he says. “We talked for a while backstage. It was really fun.”
7. But he never even considered singing with Journey at the Hall of Fame.
“I heard a rumor that the invitation was open,” he says. “But I’m not the singer in the band anymore. Arnel is. He’s been in the band for ten years. I just wanted to come and thank everybody for everything, including Arnel.”
8. He was the last one in Journey to give his approval for The Sopranos to use “Don’t Stop Believin.'”
“I wasn’t too excited by the possibility that it might be used when someone is whacked,” he says. “Everyone else was okay with it, but I wanted to know more. So the girl who sub-licenses my music kept on asking David Chase’s people if they could tell us a little more. But since it was the last sequence in the entire show, they were a little tight with information. I told them I wouldn’t say yes unless they told me that nobody got whacked, which is how [Martin] Scorsese would have used it. So I just waited and Thursday afternoon my girl calls and says she just spoke to David Chase’s people and they told me how it ends, but I couldn’t tell anybody. They didn’t tell me the screen turns to black, but they told me everything else. And I said okay that Thursday and it aired on Sunday.”
9. Baseball gives him the same sort of satisfaction today that he used to get from music.
“The electronic aspect of music just started wearing me out,” he says. “There’s not a lot of live musicians being played on the radio anymore. But when I’m watching baseball, these guys walk out there and hit, play, catch, run…I mean, they’re just killing it. There’s no auto-tune for baseball. They have to play. The musicianship of the music industry used to be that way.”
10. If he does tour, expect to hear a lot of Journey songs.
“I don’t know if a tour will happen,” he says. “Right now it’s premature to even guess. But there would be no way in the world I’d go out there and not sing Journey music too. It would be solo and Journey together. But those songs are vocally challenging. They’re challenging for Arnel and everyone else. They’re not easy. They were challenging for me when I wrote the damn melodies, but back then I was young and in my olympic singer mode. [Barbra] Streisand lowers the keys when she does her old songs. There’s nothing wrong with lowering a key We’re not spring chickens.”
11. His time out of the spotlight after he left Journey in 1987 reinvigorated him.
“I went back to my hometown and reconnected with old friends,” he says. “I bought a Harley Davidson and rode it around the country roads of my youth. I let the wind hit my face and my hair blowed behind me. There were no helmet laws back then. I disappeared. I went to the fair in the summer. I went to movies. I had dinner with friends. I had relationships. I lived.”
12. Money was never really an issue after he left the band.
“I wrote every single song with members of the band with the exception, I think, of one,” he says. “And those songs kept selling. I don’t eat out a lot. I only drive one car a time. I live kind of small, so financially I never really had to work. There were certainly some sweet [royalty] checks as the years went by, but I’ll tell you something else: I was probably one of the only guys who saved his money. A lot of people were living very extravagant lifestyles. I was not raised that way. My grandfather said to me when I was very young, ‘It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you save.’ So I lived small and saved my money.”
13. When pushed, he refuses to make a Shermanesque statement that he’ll never, under any circumstances, return to Journey, even though it’s highly unlikely.
“The only thing I’m willing to be definitive about is that at this age I am right now, I have to do things that I feel really great about, that feel life-sustaining and give me passion,” he says. “I really want to continue to move forward. I’m not too excited about going backwards. I’m more excited about moving forward to what is next. I’ve already written a lot more new material, in fact.”