Neal Schon, Guitarist of Journey & Soul Sirkus interviewed by Glenn Milligan at The Corporation, Sheffield on Tuesday 10th May
Find out what Neal has to say about his Soul Sirkus, Journey, Touring, the music biz and a bit more as well !!
Glenn: What would you say are your favour parts your new solo album 'IOU are?
Neal: Well I like the whole album as a whole. I think it makes a nice musical statement because of the different types of textures that are on there and it's sort of a landscapey record. I would say it's like Movie Soundtrack material. I'm hoping I can land something in a movie - I haven't had any luck so far but I think if I could get one of those tracks in a movie then there's easily more that could come off that record.
Glenn: I really like 'The Chamber' - it's very space-like.
Neal: You know a lot of it is very reminiscent to me of stuff on the 2 co-solo records I do with Jan Hammer - I mean especially 'The Chamber' - a lot of the melody is very Jan Hammer'ish. I got the scent with the guitar that I actually wanted to simulate him playing with me cause I couldn't get him off his arse to do anything with me. (Laughs) Hopefully Jeff Beck, he's gotten to wanting to go out and play so...
Glenn: I heard a while ago that Jeff was more into tinkering with his car.
Neal: Jeff is playin'. I saw him the other night man and he's playin'.
Glenn: Nice, that's good. How did you get on Steve Vai's label 'Favoured Nations' - had you known him a long time?
Neal: You know I met Vai round about 5 years back and then before that we had met and I was actually on tour when he was in Whitesnake for a second and I was in Bad English with John Waite and the rest of the guys and we were opening up for Whitesnake, so we did a whole tour with them years ago and most recently when they started doing the G3 tours in the States, they invited me to come out whenever I was close by to come and sit in.
So I started doing that every year and it just developed a better relationship with Joe (Satriani) and Steve and I'd been hearing about his label. He'd be talking about it every time I'd see him and I told him my situation - that I was on 'Higher Octave' and that I wasn't really happy to being there. They absolutely did nothing to help the records at all and they didn't like the music that I gave 'em. So I was like 'What am I doing here?' And I owed them like about three more records so I decided that I had completed this record almost three years ago and I just decided to shelve it. They weren't gonna go do anything with and anything that had electric guitars on it, they were like 'Oh my God! - we can't have that'.
They do all acoustic instruments and I'm just like, 'I'm not gonna do it'. They did very well with the 1st record I gave them, 'Beyond The Thunder' and they wanted me to keep on re-making that record over and over and I said, 'I'm not gonna do that'. I mean there's one record there - that's that record - the next one is gonna be different and the next ones gonna be different and every one of 'em's gonna be different because I don't see the purpose of doing a solo record like that and repeating yourself and playing exactly the same type of stuff everytime. So I just decided to shelve it.
Three years later the label folded and I decided to call up Steve and sent him the material and he said 'Yeah I think we can definitely work with this and he asked me to go in the studio and add some more songs to this. I went back and I knocked out 'Blue Passion'; 'Highland' and 'Moondust' while I was in Nashville for a couple of days. Then I felt like it was pretty well hounded at that point.
Glenn: You mention 'Bad English' - do you see much of John Waite now - do you think you'd ever do any dates - like a 'Bad English' reunion?
Neal: Well John came out and he toured with Journey a couple of summers ago and he sounded really great. He had a great band and we got along great. I was going on along with him very early in the day and the last time I saw him, I saw him in New York and he was playing with Ringo Starr, playing bass and I haven't seen him since or talked to him so I don't know what he's doing.
Glenn: How did you come up with the cover design for the 'I O U' album?
Neal: Oh it's my wife's eye. It was a picture that was actually taken when we were married four years ago. The photographer had taken a close-up of her eye. I always loved the photo. I always thought she had really great eyes and I sent them half. I said, "Use one eye" and after the artist tried to mess with it a bit, so he did with wax paper and I thought it was very cool. It looks great in a poster.
Glenn: Where did the name 'Soul Sirkus' come from?
Neal: The lack of trying to find a name that was any better (he says laughing and jokingly). You know, it's like there's so many bands (and) so many names are already taken. Anytime we thought of something cool, like I had 'Sonic Circus' and I liked that and then I looked it up and some band already had it. So at that point Dean (Castronovo, then drummer of Soul Sirkus - who is also a member of Journey) said, "What about Soul Circus?", and then I said, "Yeah, that's cool, that works" so we looked that up and it was taken too with the correct spelling of 'Circus'. So I got really just like, 'I'm tired of kinda findin' a name here' and we needed one like yesterday and I said, 'Let's just miss-spell it and re-spell it again but I came up with the idea of using the capital 'US' at the end of it because we were 'Planet US' before that. So Dean and I were at that point the remainders of the 'Planet US' project' and so it kind of just made sence to do that. Oh, I like the name thoough.
Glenn: Yeah. How would you say the gigs have been different (for Soul Sirkus) with regard to the UK and the US?
Neal: More people here in the UK that came to see us than the US (laughs). But (in the) US our records not out over there except for on the Internet and there was absolutely no promotion done at all. I actually fired our booking agent and I fired our management because they were both the same management for Journey and I found there was a huge conflict of interest for me to be with the same people for both bands because Journey is obviously going out this Summer and we're playing big shows and they didn't want my name affiliated with 'Soul Sirkus' on the radio because they thought that it was gonna be a detriment to our shows this Summer and so they appropriately kept it as a 'thumbs down' on it.
Glenn: It's two different things isn't it?
Neal: Completely. There's no threat at all. I mean, it's completely two different audiences I think. But word of mouth did get out and we had some great shows in the US in the biggest cities like New York, Chicago, LA - we did great, we did great business and got rave reviews, great, great reviews. They seemed to get it a lot.
The band is pretty out-sided at different moments of the show and they seemed to be getting it more in the US right now, you know as far as reviews that Jeff (Scott Soto - Soul Sirkus' Vocalist) has told me about - they don't understand what the jamming is about (in the UK) and this 'n' that and that's about what the band is.
That's what the band is about, about being different, not just being so generically tied to a song format and being able to improvise and make it different every night is why I wanna do this. I have my formatted band in Journey – it’s much more formatted and song orientated. It’s not that we aren’t song orientated – we are – we just do a lot of different things in the show. I thought that the United States so far was more receptive than the UK. But they’re diggin’ it but I think they’ve never seen anything quite like it. I think they just gotta warm up to it and I think it’ll be fine. I mean definitely in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden – in places like that they’ll get into it.
Glenn: I was reading the reports that Jeff had been putting in his diaries on the website with regard to Firefest (and the negative response). I mean Soul Sirkus are a different sort of band.
Neal: Firefest, personally had I known it was gonna be the way it was I wouldn’t have even played because it’s too long for one – it goes all day long. I mean, we went on last, and we’d prefer to play somewhere in the middle when people are not so wasted and tired. It sounded like crap – nobody got a soundcheck. We were all on rented gear – it was our first show because we weren’t able to bring all our gear over here. It was a feat in itself for our roadcrew just to get the sh*t up and running. Then the microphones didn’t work. I had two microphones that were out of my straight cabinets so all these people were getting out on front was effects which was really f*cked up. Our mikes were out on the drums and my missis said it was just horrid and flat. It sounded great on stage but out on front nobody’s hearing it.
Glenn: And you don’t get a good show all round. What’s happening with Journey? It’s been so long since we’ve seen Journey in Britain - Is there a reason behind that?
Neal: Well for one we’ve never got any offers to come over and it wasn’t basically a money issue but it was just no offers – period from Promoters. So we just completed a new cd that sounds very, very good. Much better than anything we’ve done in this configuration of the band right now to this point and that’s gonna be released this Summer when we play the sheds. There’s a lot of talk of us coming over here next year. I wanna play the festivals in the Summer. I’d love to actually come over with both bands like Journey and Soul Sirkus but not put us next to each other obviously.
Glenn: What did you most enjoy about Hardline? Would you ever consider do anything with them again?
Neal: I had pretty much a falling out with the brothers - with the Giolli Brothers. When I divorced their sister things got kinda nasty and it got way too personal and it was just a mess up situation. To tell you the truth, I thought we made a great record but when I got out on tour with those guys I just thought that some people were not up to par in the band as far as performing live and being able to convey what is on the record. I’m used to working with really talented singers and having something really strong means a lot to me.
I mean, Steve Augerie (Journey vocalist) has had his ups and downs where he’s gotten off the 1st leg of a tour on a bad foot – we made a mistake of rehearsing in (Las) Vegas one year where it was very dry and it was in a giant building there. Our management did it and didn’t think about the dryness and he blew himself out before we even had the tour. That was the Styx/Reo (Speedwagon) Tour and so he had no voice for the whole tour but this last year I think he sounds the strongest he’s ever sounded. He sounds great on this record and also everybody in the band is singing now so it takes a bit of the heat off him.
Glenn: It makes it easier.
Neal: Yeah. Those are tremendous shoes to fill for anybody. I mean, anybody who is not the original person that did it – to try and step in and make it believable and do a good rendition of it – it’s not easy but I think he does really well and Dean our drummer’s been singing lead for a couple of years now and people are just mesmerized by how good he sounds on the stuff. So I think that we got it pretty much together right now. It’s taken a longer than I anticipated for what’s to get all the pieces of the puzzle kinda put together but it’s our 8th year now (with the current Journey line-up) and it seems to be getting stronger. The record is very strong. It’s not so poppy – it’s more rock. It’s not heavy metal – it’s more soul rock and blues rock – pretty cool.
Glenn: What’s the title of the new Journey album?
Neal: It’s ‘Generations’.
Glenn: Are there any particular songs that stand out that..
Neal: They’re all good. They’re all good. They really are. We’ve got great songs on this record. I think that the fact that we took our time making another full length, you know everybody just accumulated a lot of material. So when we went to put the record together we listened to everything and we had a lot of strong stuff sitting there just cause there was a lot of time that went by.
A lot of times when you rush – you go into a studio – we made a record very fast – I mean I finished the record in 3 or 4 days and did the Soul Sirkus record in two days because I needed to get into rehearsal with these guys (Soul Sirkus) for three days before we hit the states tour. The songs are the things that take the longest to come by and sometimes you just need more time. I could wing a record very easily like the Soul Sirkus stuff but I spent a month by myself before I sent the stuff off to Jeff. I spent a month writing by myself – like a song a day and then out of like 30 songs he picked 11 that he liked the most. You need the time just to sit there and mess about and try to be as experimental as much as you can and try to keep things in a straight line too so it’s not all over the place. A collage – a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of that – I like mixing it up a little bit.
Glenn: I’ve recently read about the fact that you’ve met up with Steve Perry again?
Neal: You mean at the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Walk of Fame’ in LA. It was fine man, it was great to see him. I personally invited him onto the radio. Iwent to a lot of major radio two days before that. I did Rockline with Bob Coburn which is a syndicated radio show that goes over everywhere and I personally invited him. I said, “You need to be there – everybody wants you to be there”. I wanted everyone to show – everyone actually did show except for Greg Rowley – I think he was touring or venting some shows but it was great to see him. We had a chat. We hadn’t seen him for a long time and invited him and basically said there’s an open door any time you wanna come and sit in or play a song here or there, you’re welcome.
Glenn: What did he say to that – was he up for that or was he a bit..
Neal: Well he didn’t show so…… (starts laughing)… He said “You’ll never know” and so at that point I was just like, I told the audience, I said, “Well he didn’t show so we never will know unless he does” (laughs). But there’s been a great cloud following me around for years so I think it’s not my fault that he’s not really in the band – it’s just not really not so – it’s that he doesn’t wanna be there.
Glenn: He likes to chill out. Yeah have his own life outside of music. When you’ve been in the United States have you been touring alongside other bands or has it been just ‘Soul Sirkus’ on their own.
Neal: Pretty much us. Once in a while we’ll have an open-up (support slot) but most of the time it was just us. Because we were stretching like two hours and twenty minutes.
Glenn: Can you see Soul Sirkus album number 2 coming out depending on strength of this?
Neal: Absolutely. Yeah – it’s gonna happen. I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t wanna do it for real. This is a lot of extra work for me and I’m getting paid zilch. I’m actually losing a lot of money and it’s coming out of my pocket because nobody else has the money to pay for the bills so I’m about a hundred grande in the hole for this whole project right now. I’m doing it cause I wanna do it. Not because I need to. (laughs)
Glenn: I suppose you can make it back through Journey but then I guess your still gonna be like X amount in the hole.
Neal: Yeah, well I get to make some money there an so that’ll make up for a lot of money I’m losing so if I didn’t wanna do it’, like I said’ ‘I wouldn’t be here’. It’s just that it’s a lot of extra work. We’re (doing) nine shows in ten days. It’s insane - like Jeff today it’s like “walk up to the mike today and nothing came out”. I’m like, ‘Ooh, OK!’ and he got one day off tomorrow then another four in a row. So it’s a lot of work.
Glenn: And his voice is like… that’s incredible’.
Neal: Yeah he sounds... and when he’s got like a day rest, forget about it. I know. Really I don’t think I’ve ever worked with somebody that’s as strong as him. He’s incredibly strong and really diverse and he’ll sing anything I’ll throw at him whether it’s soul or it’s – well whatever it is, he can do it.
Glenn: He reminds me of like an American ‘Glenn Hughes’ or something.
Neal: He’s a chameleon and definitely a chameleon singer. He’s got a lot of different sides to him.
Glenn: How did it all come about – working with Jeff?
Neal: I read a lot of stuff about him on the Internet – just about his live shows in Europe. I was aware of the song that he did in the movie ‘Rockstar’ – the Sammy Hagar song and I was like, ‘Wow, that guys got some pipes’. And so after reading so many positive reviews and stuff I decided to contact him and get together with him.
It was around a Namm show time in LA. I had to go down and it was as a Gibson Poll that was coming out and they wanted me to play a Gibson party. I invited him to come and play with me just to see what it was like on stage – just to have him on stage with him and have a blow. It was great and the audience dug it and I just decided right then, ‘I’m gonna send you all my material and just see what you think of it.’
And he just started working on it straight away and he pretty much sent me like a new song every day or every other day. I was like ‘WOW – THIS GUY’S GOOD’. He knew exactly what to do with it. I didn’t have to go, ‘Must you try this when you try here’. He got stuck in a couple of spots but I just hummed him a couple of things and he was up and running. It’s like I thought ‘Wow - it’s great chemistry’ – definitely – writing chemistry. For him to come in and just take a look at my stuff and finish it out. I thought it was happening and then Aaron (Dilks – now Soul Sirkus Tour Manager) introduce me to Marco Mendoza the next night and (I) talked to Marco to see if he was interested and he was down (up for it) and it just kind of came about like that at the Namm show. I met these guys down there and by the time I left we knew everybody. Jeff was working on the stuff at the point that he completed 11 songs. Everybody got sent a CD and everybody learned the stuff at home and got familiar with it. We went in and rehearsed for two days and then went in a studio and cut it for two days.
Glenn: What I like about the album ‘World Play’ is that you can’t categorise it at all because it’s like you’ve got your funky stuff and you’ve got that spanishy jazz thing and you’ve got your blues as well and it’s very, very varied.
Neal: It’s definitely a musical band yeah.
Glenn: It’s not like we’re an AOR band or a heavy rock band or we’re this or we’re that.
Neal: Journey was kinda like too. I mean the record ‘Escape’ that we did was all over the map musically where people didn’t know how to categorise it and through the lack of being able to do that a lot of people just said, ‘I hate it’ (laughs). Like the reviewers, they were just like, they can’t say it’s this or that then they don’t know what to call it.
Glenn: Just music.
Neal: Just music.
Glenn: In the future would you like to go out with any other big bands?
Neal: I’m trying to get anybody that’s big to let us open for them. We’re having a hard time getting opening spots. We almost had the Queen – we had the Queen Tour for a second for two months in Europe. Management called us and Jeff was talkin’ to Brian (May) and they said you’ve got the tour if you want, so we said, “We’ll take it” and the two days later they called back and said, “We’ve decided to do ‘An evening with..’”.
Before that we were gonna open up a couple of shows for Van Halen – that got yanked and then we’ve been trying to get on some Velvet Revolver shows because I thought that would be a strong package. Actually I thought us, Audioslave and Velvet Revolver would be a very strong package and we just haven’t had any luck pulling anything off it.
The other thing is, is that it costs money to be out here – I guess I’m already losing my a**e but if we weren’t headlining we’d be making no money so when you’re opening up you really don’t make any money and so we would lose more. Even though I wanna get in front of more people I’d rather do, like I said, come over here and do the festivals and just get in front of lots of people.
Glenn: What would you say is your main staying power of being in the music business? – Is it because you love doing it?
Neal: I f*ck*ng have no idea. If I didn’t love doing it I wouldn’t be doing it because it sucks (laughs). As you know, the music industry is nothing like it used to be and it’s such that … it’s was very corrupt in the old days but now it’s just even worse. So for anybody that’s doing this as a living anymore you have to real be yourself to do what you do otherwise there’s no reason to be there anymore.
Glenn: One last question – what would you say have been your biggest highlights that you are most proud of as Neal Schon?
Neal: Like an album that I did?
Glenn: Overall. Albums? Tours? Who you’ve worked with?
Neal: I’m proud of all my kids – my family – that’s a whole different issue but I don’t know – Everything I do I put my heart into and so I don’t think that one is better than the other. I just think they are all different. I think they are all like my babies and they are just different. I’m pretty much proud of everything I’ve done.
I think some things could have been better like the ‘Red 13’ record – I think it’s much better than what it sounds like because John and I mixed it and produced it. I was talking to John and the other guys about having it remixed by somebody much better because I think that it is way better than what it sounds like. There’s projects that I’ve done like that, like ‘Pirahhna blues’ that I’ve mixed that I did not mix well and I just decided that my hands do not belong on the faders. So I’ve learnt from f*ck*ng up (laughs).
The new Journey record is very good, it’s very strong and I’m proud of the guitar playing on it because I pretty much did it like I did the ‘Soul Circus’ – I played live and for the most part – there’s some tracks that have some guitar overdubs on ’em but there’s very few overdubs and some tracks have few overdubs – just one gigantic guitar track from beginning to end. So the fact that I’m playing live solos and winging it – completely just winging it. I don’t have planned out anything – just sorta play for the moment and walk in the studio and you listen and you go ‘There that’s it!!’ And we go “F*ck*ng Great”.
Glenn: It’s what you want.
Neal: I love that. I love that. I love being able to do that and not having to sit there and scrutinise something or make something up.
Glenn: You can tell when things are forced out – it’s like here’s your contract – get on with it sort of thing.
Neal: You know, after you’ve been playing a long time you should be able to do that – you should be able to jump on stage with anybody and just wing it – play. (Laughs)
Glenn: That’s great.
Glenn: Have a good show mate.
A Big Thank You to Neal Schon for his time and great interview.
thanks also go to all at Judy Totton PR; The band for an awesome show
later that night; The Soul Sirkus Crew; Aaron Dilks (Soul Sirkus Tour
Manager); DJ Mutley and all at The Corporation.