I had to ask about the video game: Journey, produced by the finest arcade technology 1983 had to offer. I mean, Schon was flying around in a jetpack saving the future with a guitar. -The members of Journey (Ross Valory, Deen Castronovo, Steve Augeri, Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon)- Neal Schon, co-founder and guitarist of Journey, seemed mostly amused that anybody remembers that one. “I maybe played it once,” he told me. “It was really hard, as I recall. I was never as much into video games as the other guys. It made my hands cramp up hard.”
Figures. Band full of notorious video game nerds and here I am talking to the one guy who doesn’t like gaming. Ah, well. We’re not here to talk about that; we’re here to talk about the “Classic Rock’s Main Event Tour” that’ll bring Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon to Conseco Fieldhouse June 19.
Schon’s own interests lean more towards guitar nerdery anyway. (I mean, the man played with Santana and Eric Clapton. When he was 15.) Along with former Santana member Gregg Rolie, Schon started Journey as a mostly instrumental and experimental group in the early 1970s, and it’s not hard to tell that experimenting with format and technique is Schon’s first love.
He and Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain presented an improvisational set two weeks ago at the House of Blues in Chicago. “We just sat there and jammed a while, what I call flamboyant rave jazz. And the audience just loved it.” The band’s new EP, Red 13, is an outgrowth of this same approach. “It’s not a direction we intended to take. We just took it,” Schon said. “A sudden left turn. A little bit of the past and a little bit of the future. This album sounds just like we do live. It’s not overproduced … We wrote it all right there in the studio in a couple of days.” It’s an experiment in both sound and business.
No longer with longtime label Sony, Journey is tinkering with alternative means of advertising and distribution, such as handling ad purchases themselves and selling the EP at shows and through their site at www.journeymusic.com.
Journey’s early days, before radio friendliness, were marked by progressive fusion and a constant pushing of the envelope. Their second album was even titled Look Into the Future. That was 1976. What about the future now that we’re living in it? “It’s hard to talk about the future when you’re not there,” Schon said. “We haven’t got there yet.”
Backs to the future, fronts to the past. Journey has been experimenting more and more as of late with the progressive fusion sound that marked their early years. The first track off the EP, “State of Grace,” has a distinctive early 1970s prog-rock feel, and “The Time” has a strong blues influence.
Last year the band moved out into the secondary markets for the first time, smaller venues and fairs. “It really felt like playing those old stages that Patsy Cline once played, where it’s just you and a stage and one row of lights,” Schon said. “There’s no frills. It’s just you and the audience and the music.”
Statements like that remind me of the root of Journey’s appeal: Despite 30 years in the business and a healthy stint as one of the world’s biggest bands, they still talk and sound like a bunch of guys who just finished up recording their first EP in their San Francisco garage studio.
The current tour, heading back into primary markets, has been a smashing success. Along with retro-loving adults, a new generation of kids who weren’t even born when “Don’t Stop Believin’” hit No. 1 are getting into their music. Ironic, really, for a band that was never really embraced by MTV but still embraces the power-performance aesthetic of a different age.
“It’s really interesting when these kids come up to us after the show,” Schon said. “These 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids are just mesmerized. They’re blown away. They’re saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.’ It’s a different era. They grew up in the 1980s. These are kids who’ve grown up seeing whatever’s on MTV. You live what you’re taught. I grew up in the 1970s. I remember going to see Cream and Zeppelin and The Who and all those guys live in concert. I grew up in the age of FM radio when DJs could play whatever the fuck they wanted. You can’t do that anymore. It’s all corporate controlled.”
Journey will play Conseco Fieldhouse June 19. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster outlets or by calling 239-5151.