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Neal's rock Journey goes on

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American supergroup Journey kept their British fans waiting 25 years before returning to these shores. Now, less than a year later, they are back again, with a gig in Birmingham. Ian Harvey speaks to guitarist Neal Schon.

Many people thought melodic rock had been wiped out for good when grunge reared its greasy head in the early 90s. But it was not to be.

The most high-profile survivors are, of course, Bon Jovi, still travelling the world and playing to sold-out huge stadiums.

Elsewhere, American supergroups like Journey, Styx, Toto and REO Speedwagon have refused to lie down and die, and are now reaping the rewards as they feel the tide turning.

Journey, in particular, are enjoying a renaissance, having celebrated receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, garnered praise and awards for a spectacular American tour with British rockers Def Leppard and having even been featured on The Simpsons.

Many British rock fans may only be aware of a few of Journey's hits from the 80s, the likes of Don't Stop Believin', Whose Crying Now and the mega ballad Open Arms. In fact there's a legacy going back over 30 years and an enormous back catalogue.

But nursing a cold in his New Orleans hotel room, Journey founder and lead guitarist Neal Schon is keen to look forward. The band has a new, young singer, Jeff Scott Soto, set to be introduced to British fans this month for the first time, including a concert at Birmingham NIA on Tuesday, March 13.

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But Schon is convinced British fans are going to warm to Soto and enjoy a spectacular tour.

"I think it's going to be brill," he laughs.

He says Journey were astonished by the reaction when they toured Europe last year.

"I was completely take aback by it. Did not expect that at all. We didn't really know quite what to expect but we were all pleasantly surprised and the question that came to mind was, 'Why had we waited so long to go there?'."

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"It was not like we kept just blowing it off, we just never had any offers to go over there by promoters. Luckily enough someone was brave enough to step up to the plate and get us over there and we realised we have a big market and a lot of fans over there.

Schon is delighted with the new energy which Soto has brought to band, which was a real bonus on the US dates with Def Leppard, where initially Soto stepped in temporarily to replace the stricken Augeri before landing the job full time.

"It's a different audience when we play with Def Leppard and I think that we did very, very well with their audience," Schon explains.

"We had played just the year prior and we were playing good sized venues just ourselves with no support. I think our audience, the die-hard fans, if they were not into Def Leppard they didn't want to come, so I think the audience was pretty much split about 40:60, something like that, when we first started playing.

"And I think after Jeff came in it actually went the other way and it was always 50:50 and the 50 per cent of the audience that was not ours, that were pretty stone faced before he came in, all of a sudden were ours at the end of the night. So I think that we've attained a whole new audience besides our own."

Schon is also bubbling with enthusiasm about new songs he and Soto have started working on. It's not the first time they have worked together. In fact in 2004 the pair played Wolverhampton's Wulfrun Hall in their side project Soul SirkUS.

He replies: "Did I want Soul SirkUS to sound like Journey? No. Did Jeff? No. But the one song lent itself to that sort of vocal and so he thought he'd put that Sam Cooke spin on it and there it was. Yeah, definitely that could be a Journey song. I think it could be a hit for us right now."

When I say I'd love to hear that, he replies: "Well, we could always re-do it," before revealing that the pair have already enjoyed some recent, fruitful songwriting sessions.

"I just got back from L.A. about three weeks ago and we hung out and had a writing session, him and I, for about two days straight, and came up with about 18 ideas, so things have really started moving."

So could there be a chance of recording something this year?

"Yeah I would like to record actually. I think that what's going to happen is that we're gonna get home after the UK tour and the rest of the European dates that we added and take a rest for a couple of days, collect some ideas and get together and kick it around."

So, what does Soto bring to the band that's new?

"I think it's going to be beneficial for our songwriting, not that we didn't have anything going on with Steve (Augeri) but it was just different. I feel I have more of a connection with Jeff, songwriting wise, than I did with Steve in some respects.

"He and I just jump on stuff very quickly, much like I did with Perry. We wrote Lights in 10 minutes, we wrote Patiently in 15 minutes and so things just happen a bit faster and more spontaneous with Jeff and I.

"And I love the fact that he's very versatile. He sings so many different styles, I don't think we'll be limited at all to 'We have to stick to this', 'we have to stick to this'.

"You know everyone's so worried that I want to take this band into a heavier place, and I just want it to sound like Journey. It's going to sound like Journey, we've already written some stuff that does sound exactly like Journey, without him sounding like a Steve Perry emulator.

"And if I want someone to sound like Perry, Deen (Castronovo, Journey's drummer) sounds more like Perry than Jeff does."

Which brings us, in a roundabout way to the departed Augeri, who was Journey's singer for a straight eight years, to many ears sounding as much like Steve Perry as was possible.

Fans were split both when he arrived and during his tenure. For some he was just a soundalike clone who could never replace the irreplacable. For others he brought a great voice with its own soulful nuances and a wonderful new stage presence.

But in 2006 rumours started to circulate on the internet that Augeri was suffering serious vocal problems on stage, to the extent that at some shows pre-recorded vocals were being pumped through the sound system at gigs to help fill in at moments when his voice started to crack.

He pauses a few moments before answering: "You know, I don't say much about it. I didn't really pay too much attention to it. I mean, definitely I don't think it was going on. If it was going on, I didn't know anything about it.

"I have my own monitor mixes, we have in-ear monitors and I have tinitus. I've had it for years, and so the reason I have in-ear monitors is to keep the volume of everything really low, and what I don't need in my ears I just keep out of my ears.

"I basically have a bit of guitar, some drums and bass and a bit of keyboards and I really don't listen to vocals.

"I can hear vocals through the PA, I can hear the band through the PA, I can hear a bit of the band on the stage, but really it's down to very, very low volume in my ears, just to help save the hearing that I do have.

"It sounded perfect to me every night. If it was going on I didn't even know about it."

Referring to Augeri, he adds: "You know he'd had some serious problems that could not be cured. It's something very strange.

Schon has always been known for a variety of solo and side projects outside Journey, working with the likes of Jan Hammer and Sammy Hagar, and as a 15-year-old being asked to join Eric Clapton's band before opting to play with Santana instead.

"Are you a workaholic?" I ask him.

"Er, not so much lately," he laughs. "Last year was one of those years, you know, and the year before that, when I was just at it the whole time. This year I decided I'm just going to concentrate on Journey.

"I do have, probably, a solo record that's in the can right now if I go in the studio and add a couple more songs to it, it's all instrumental stuff and just stuff that's been sitting there for a while. But as far as working on anything outside of Journey this year, I'm not even thinking about it.

"If anything, with some of the time we have off, if I'm not writing, I might take (Soul SirkUS bassist) Marco Mendoza's band out and play some solo dates. I've never really done a solo tour but I might play some smaller venues and just play some of the instrumental stuff I've been working on for years and never actually gone out and played it live.

Getting back to Journey, we talk about the 30th anniversary tour in 2005 which saw the band performing over three hours a night, delving right back to their earliest recordings and right up to date with the Generations CD, which was given away free to fans at the concerts. It was an amazing show and one which fans on the band's website www.journeymusic.com have been asking for a DVD of ever since.

"We did film in Dallas, Texas, and it's sitting there in the can and I think it will see the light of day eventually," says Schon. "But right now, with Jeff coming into the band, I don't think it's the smartest thing.

"To stick it out right now would just confuse the issue. It's quite good though. I watched it and I was pleasantly surprised, I mean it wasn't mixed or anything yet, and I thought it sounded very good."

"Well, you know, I think we got categorised and stuck in the classic rock thing. It helped through the test of time and some of our songs have become hits again, like Don't Stop Believin'. It shows up at Superbowls and this and that and we have a lot of our songs on a lot of young, popular TV shows in America and I think that translated to lot of younger fans that we have now."

And a message for British fans ahead of the tour?

"We're really looking forward to this tour and I think that we're not going to let anybody down. We've worked out quite a bit of material, a lot of stuff that we haven't played before and we're going to be switching it up.

"I know that some nights we're playng two nights in one area and we'll switch up the songs and add different songs and things like that."

"I guess that keeps it fresh for you as well," I say.

"Yeah, absolutely," Schon replies. "It's a lot to remember but it keeps it fresh."

We say our goodbyes as Schon prepares to enjoy New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebrations, which will climax with a Journey performance at the city's Superdome.

Next stop, Britain.

* Tickets for the Birminham NIA concert on Tuesday, March 13, cost £37.50, and are available from the venue box office on 0121 780 4141 or online at www.necgroup.co.uk.

By Ian Harvey

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