Neal Schon Retracks Journey

Unless you truly live in a cave without a satellite dish, you already know that Neal Schon discovered Journey’s new singer, Arnel Pineda, by watching YouTube—ultimately making both musicians national heroes in the vocalist’s homeland, The Republic of the Philippines. The other part of the Cinderella story is that Journey’s profile is currently hovering high above the ranks of the nostalgia circuit. It’s almost like the former “biggest band in the world” is pulling a Rocky, and taking another run at the title—some 20 years after the hitmaking glory years with Steve Perry at the mic.

The band’s return to form isn’t just musical. Journey is also embracing new music-distribution strategies, releasing its recent CD/DVD set Revelation [Nomota] exclusively at Wal- Mart. The collection includes 11 hits recut with Pineda (a stipulation of the Wal-Mart deal that Schon initially wasn’t down with), 11 brand new tracks written mostly by Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain, and 14 video selections on a live-concert DVD. Revelation was produced by Kevin Shirley, who helmed Journey’s Trail By Fire in 1996, and has also worked with Led Zeppelin, Rush, Aerosmith, and Iron Maiden.

One of the interesting things about the Journey recording process is that the band members track basics almost totally live—like some ’60s throwbacks or feral indie mavericks. So if you tag Journey as a classic, corporate-rock hack that painstaking overdubs its tunes pieceby- piece to ensure maximum radio friendliness, well, you’d be as wrong as wrong can be.

I think it’s pretty ballsy that a veteran band of Journey’s stature actually rocks it out live in the studio like an old blues band.
We’ve never known how to do it any other way as a band. After we agree on the arrangement of a new song, we go straight in and cut it. If you can’t remember the structure in your head, you just write down some notes. That’s it. In Journey, you play the song—start to finish. For the Revelation sessions, I’d sometimes play the rhythm guitar live, and, other times, I’d play the leads live, and then overdub the rhythm part. I can’t remember what was what. But if I was going to overdub a solo, I’d get right in there after the basic track was cut, and lay stuff down before I started thinking about it too much. I like the feeling of playing on the fly. Things tend to come out more naturally that way.

Do you feel that playing live with the band drives you to perform better than overdubbing parts individually?
Well, I actually prefer overdubbing in the control room because I have tinnitus. When everything is loud and the room is ringing, I tend not to perform that well because I can’t hear tuning or pitch. What works best for me is to get a nice, big sound, and then stand in front of the mixing board with the tracks playing back at a very low volume.

Do you typically go with complete takes for your solos, or do you cut-and-paste bits from different versions?
Most of the time, I like going with one full take. Kevin [Shirley] definitely likes to mess around with Pro Tools. I’m not opposed to it, and if Kevin came up with an edited solo that was equally as interesting or better than the full-take version, I flew with it. I would do four or five takes, and he would usually use all of the first one, or all of the second one, or a bit of one and two.

Do you just plug into an amp and let it fly, or do you already have a sound in your head that you’re trying to capture?
I knew we needed to jump on things in order to make the twomonth deadline for delivery of the album, and what helped me do that without worrying too much about my tone was a combination of three things: my signature Les Pauls, a Diezel amp, and a Boss GT-6. I’m very familiar with the way the guitars sound—I’ve been using the same pots in every guitar I’ve had for the last 20 years—and the Diezel delivers a nice, smooth, and predictable tone. I use the GT-6 for effects such as chorusing, and I’ve spent a lot of years programming that little thing.

How did you mic your amps?
Because we were cutting live, my amp was in a big closet off Studio A at the Sausalito Record Plant. Jonathan’s piano was isolated in a side room, and the drums and bass were set up in another room. I used some Royer ribbon microphones positioned close to the speaker cabinet, as well as further back in the closet. I was really happy with the way those mics sounded. When I’d come back in the control room after a take, the playback sounded almost identical to the guitar tone I was hearing live in the room. That was a nice shock. It’s usually, “Wow—that’s not what my guitar is supposed to sound like!”

As you are a very melodic player who also shreds, did you need to change up the gear or the mic positions to capture different levels of tonal articulation?
No. I didn’t change the amp heads, the speaker cabinets, the mics and mic positions, or anything. Once I got a good sound, I stuck with that setup. If I wanted a cleaner sound for a rhythm part, I just turned down, or I brought in a Telecaster once in a while. We only had two months to record 26 songs [Ed. Note: The band recorded more songs than were released on Revelation], so I needed a simple setup that would work for everything. If we had another month or two, I would have experimented a bit more— perhaps using three different amp heads with three different cabinets.

How do you always manage to uncork such “sing-able” solos?
I really pay attention to melody, because a lot of guitar players don’t. It’s definitely a challenge to play something really melodic in a short amount of time—something that carries over from a vocal line and catches the attention of not just casual listeners, but other guitar players, as well. I always like having a good beginning and a good ending. The middle part is on the fly, because I like a solo to wander a bit. But that’s just my style. After all of these years, I still can’t tell you what scale I’m playing. My style is a mishmash of everything I like. I throw it all in and make some Cajun soup.