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Journey guitarist Neal Schon talks touring with Def Leppard, endurance of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ and more

(This story was originally posted at 11:56 p.m. June 28, 2018)

With his omnipresent shades and customized guitars, Neal Schon embodies a veteran rock star. 

As the last original constant member of Journey, Schon still has a massive playground to unleash his masterful riffing and soloing thanks to the band’s undiminished live appeal. 

Journey, which also includes longtimers Ross Valory (bass) and Jonathan Cain (keyboards), as well as Steve Smith (drums) and Arnel Pineda, the sprightly lead singer who has ably filled Steve Perry’s mighty void since 2007, has been on yet another mega-tour this summer. 

This year, they’ve hooked up with their old pals in Def Leppard — the bands last toured together in 2006 — and will storm the SunTrust Park stage on Sunday. Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders will open the night, followed by Journey and then a closing set from Def Leppard. 

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Earlier this month, Schon, 64, was on a short break from the tour and took some time from an afternoon at home in San Francisco to call in and chat with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Kaedy Kiely of 97.1 The River (you can listen to the interview on 971theriver.com). 

Here are some excerpts from our candid conversation. 

Q: How far back do you go with Def Leppard? 

A: We’ve always gotten along since we met. (It was) in ‘82 or ‘83 in Salt Lake City and we were playing a show and they were playing the same place the night after us. They came to the show and we met after it and became friends. I hadn’t really stayed in touch with anyone until management brought up this idea of touring together. I headed out to New York to do a lot of tour promo with (Def Leppard singer) Joe (Elliott), and we had a blast. The rest of the guys are really amazing, too. Vivian (Campbell), in the days he was playing with Dio, we shared a cover of Guitar Player magazine years back. They’re all great guys. 

Q: You’re playing our baseball stadium, which is probably the biggest show you’ve done here outside of Music Midtown (in 2013). Has the Atlanta market been good to you over the years? 

A: It’s been amazing. I don’t really recall ever having a show there that was average. It’s kind of mind-boggling that after all these years, I think we’ve got a lot of things right. We wrote a lot of great songs together that stood the test of time. 

Singer Arnel Pineda (L) and Neal Schon of Journey rock out a tune in Las Vegas. (Photo by (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)) (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

 

Q: Arnel has been in the band more than a decade. How have you seen him grow as a performer?

A: He was a tremendous performer from second one, but none of us were aware of how active he was when I found him on YouTube. When I found him singing a Survivor song and heard his voice, I was like, this guy really has a set of lungs and is singing his (butt) off. I said he sings great, but I don’t know what he’s like on stage. We played our first show with him over a decade ago, live on TV, 30 million people, South America. It was a do-or die situation – for all of us, but mainly him! There were huge runways all around this building - it was set up for, like, the Stones or someone really active, like Jagger. All I remember was we were playing great and the audience was really, really receptive. I had my eyes closed and I was looking up at the ceiling and the sky and reaching for every note and I open my eyes and look around, like where is Arnel? And he was just way, way out there, and he was just having a blast. From that second on I go, oh, this is going to be a little bit different here, this is gonna be good. 

Q: What was it like for you to see Steve Perry last year at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction? 

A: I had a great time while we were waiting backstage. I went in to see Steve and I hadn’t seen him since we did the Walk of Fame in L.A., many years ago (in 2005). We had a great conversation and sort of reconnected. There’s been no talk of anything, but I felt the connection I had with him again. It moved us both. We’ve been through so many years (together). When I saw him, I could tell there was a lot of love there still. I wish nothing but the best for Steve and feel confident that one day him and I will get together and do something. 

Q: Jonathan has said that you guys hit the reset button at the start of the year. How do you feel about the status of your relationship? (Last summer, the musicians publicly feuded about politics, religion and the direction of the band.) 

A: I have no time for BS anymore or politics or inner struggles with bands. I am who I am, and I’m always going to call it as it is. I’m not going to put up with it, either. Everybody knows who I am, and we know each other pretty well by now. That’s how I want to live my life. I think that Jon and I are making some strides toward a better place in friendship and music as well. There was a lot of stuff to get through. There was a lot of stuff that just wasn’t cool that I won’t go into. I have a book coming out. It’s not a book where I’m talking about myself; it’s one about everyone talking about me — other musicians. It’s a reality book. I’ve been putting it together for 15 years. I thought I’d wait it out a little (since Cain recently released his memoir, “Don’t Stop Believin’: The Man, the Band, and the Song That Inspired Generations”). I’m thinking maybe next year. 

Neal Schon of Journey working his guitar magic. (Photo: Erik Kabik)

 

Q: And speaking of that song … 

A: When we wrote (“Don’t Stop Believin’”) and finished recording it, I remember looking at everyone in the band and going, that’s going to be a huge hit. It was in concert. It wasn’t a huge chart hit, but there are so many politics about a No. 1 record. Just because it doesn’t have a number on it doesn’t mean it isn’t a bona fide hit in my mind.

The best thing that’s come out of “Glee” (using the song) for us is the younger audience finding out about Journey. I think a lot of what you’re seeing in the audience is the aftermath of “Glee” having success with their own version and that audience getting curious and going back and listening to our records and coming to the shows and going wow, this is so different. These guys actually play and they sing! It’s much different than what they’re used to seeing now. 

Q: You’ve been ending the SET with it, but not the SHOW. How come not just end the show with it since that is sort of THE song now? 

A: You know what? I don’t know! We haven’t stopped shuffling things around. It’s like a tuning process and you tune according to what market you’re playing, what the energy and vibe is, if we’re closing or in front of Def Leppard. It’s been working out really great - but I don’t think we happen to play as loud as they do! There was a friend of Steve Smith’s out there the other night who had a DB meter on his iPhone and Steve showed me it went from 118 db to 122 db (when Def Leppard played). That is like, wow, insanely loud. I think their music sounds good like that; I think our music doesn’t as good that loud. Our music sounds good when it’s big and fat and powerful, sort of warmer, like a jukebox. 

CONCERT PREVIEW

Def Leppard and Journey

With the Pretenders. 6 p.m. Sunday. $34.50-$99.50. SunTrust Park, 755 Battery Ave. SE, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com

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About the Author

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers the Atlanta Music Scene and entertainment news for print and online.

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