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EXCLUSIVE: Journey’s Neal Schon On His New Album, ‘So U’

Neal Schon
Robert Knight

Neal Schon doesn’t like to sit still for long. We recently learned that, in addition to his work with Journey, he has three albums in the works, one of which, ‘So U,’ will be released May 20.

‘So U’ is being described as a fusion and blues-inspired hard rock album, with Schon, bassist Marco Mendoza (Ted Nugent, Whitesnake) and Journey drummer Deen Castronovo sharing lead vocal duties on its nine tracks. We caught up with Schon to talk about the new record, an interesting nickname given to him by his old friend, Carlos Santana, and his recent decision to put umlauts over the “o” in his last name.

I was happy to see the release date finally announced for your record with Deen Castronovo and Marco Mendoza.

Yeah, I know. That didn’t take too long, did it?

Not at all, considering that you and I were talking about it in 2012, so it hasn’t been long at all!

[Laughs] It took really long. I don’t know, man — it was on the shelf. I continued to work straight ahead and work on new stuff. So now it’s an old album for me and new for everyone else. But it’s exciting that it’s finally coming out. I’ve got another record in the can, with like over 80 minutes worth of music with [Steve] Smith, Jan Hammer and Igor Len. It’s all instrumental and a double CD. That’s ready to go. And you know, I’m going to work on the ‘Santana IV’ record and then going on tour. Busy, busy.

How did this project with Deen and Marco come together?

Well you know, it was near the end of ‘The Calling’ record that I was doing with Steve Smith and Igor and Jan. I was having a great time in the studio. I hadn’t been over to Fantasy [Studios] in a while in Berkeley, which is kind of like our old stomping ground. I got very comfortable in there. It’s a great sounding studio and I didn’t want to leave. When the record was done, I wanted to do something else, so I called to see if Deen and Marco were available and they were. I just stayed in the studio and they came in and we just kind of winged it. Nothing was planned out at all, I just didn’t feel like leaving the studio when I was done with the other record.

I know you wrote some songs with Jack Blades for this one? Where did Jack come into the mix with this record?

I started writing with Jack and I had some ideas. I went up to his ranch and we had worked on a couple of songs off this record that were pre-written before I went into the studio. Jack and I always kind of kick it around when we’re home and our own touring commitments lighten up. We always come out with something. If I get together with him for a day, it’s a sure thing that we’ll come out with a pretty decent tune afterwards. I was basically taking advantage of the time that we had off together.

We pre-wrote a couple of songs and then I went into the studio and I didn’t really know I was going to cut a record for those songs at the time. I was just writing with him and then when Marco and Deen were available to come in, I just thought, “What a great opportunity to do those songs with these guys playing.” At that point, after we had made up the rest of the songs [by] pretty much just improvising on the spot in the studio, like I did with ‘The Calling,’ I called Jack in. So as we were recording and overdubbing, I started writing lyrical ideas and then we went back and forth on lyrics and wrote lyrics together, and it’s sort of how we were able to finish up very quickly.

With nine tracks on the album, it kind of indicates that you probably stretched out on some of these tunes.

You know what? They’re vocal songs [but] there are two instrumentals on the record. ‘Exotica’ is very stretched out and very different from the whole record. I’m sort of tipping my hat to Carlos Santana on this one, because it’s sort of like a fusion-Latin rock thing. I definitely stretch out on that. I basically jam with some good melodies and some great playing.

What are a couple of the songs that you’re really excited about from this record?

You know what? I’ve been away from it so long that I don’t even know. I’m going to have to wait and see what people react to. Like I said, the record musically is kind of all over the map. For the most part it is a fusion rock record with a lot of different flavors.

Serious question that some folks have asked me recently — when did you start using the umlauts in your name?

You know, my father was German and I’ve always liked the umlaut over the “o,” because in German it means “beautiful.” I’ve had very few people come up to me or write me on Facebook or whatever and say, “Hey, you know I hate this — take it off.” There have been a few, indicating that they thought I was a Nazi or something. But you know what? It means “beautiful” in Germany and so I thought, “That’s a very cool thing.” Every time I go to Germany I see it all over the place and I didn’t quite know what it meant until I asked some German people that we were with when we were over there. I said “Why is Schön all over the place with two umlauts?” and they said, “It just means ‘beautiful’ in German.” So I thought that was cool.

At the rate that you keep cranking things out, there won’t be a shortage of things for us to talk about anytime soon.

Yeah, you know on this next release I do, which right now, I’m going to call ‘Vortex.’ Carlos Santana gave me a new name after we were in rehearsal and he’s calling me “Vortex.” I looked it up afterwards and I was like, “Wow, what a cool name!” So I decided that one of the new tunes off this new record that will be next coming after the ‘So U’ record with Smith, Jan Hammer and Igor Len, I’m calling it ‘Vortex’ and I’ll probably call the record ‘Vortex.’ Because this record leaves chips on the ceiling.

I saw the “Vortex” mentions on your Facebook page and wondered what that was about.

Well, you know it was funny, because Carlos gave me this name and then I went and read about it and that art that is sitting there [on the Facebook page], the blue that looks like a tornado coming down — I found out that is public domain and anybody can use it. So I shot it to my artist that does my artwork, Jim Welch, who did all of the Journey stuff and I said “Why don’t you get a jump on this and put some stuff together?” I think he pretty much nailed it. I’m digging it. The simplicity of it definitely conveys the message that it’s powerful.

Next: Top 10 Journey Songs

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