Neal Schon Has His I on U
Not many guitarists have such a rich musical history as Neal Schon. He made his musical debut with Santana as rhythm guitarist in the late ’60s at age 16 and went on to cofound the band Journey with bandmate Gregg Rolie. What’s wonderful about Neal is that he’s always remained musically active with his side projects outside of the mega-hit-making machine Journey. Who could forget his great collaboration with Jan Hammer in the ’80s? That’s why I wasn’t surprised to find his solo release on Favored Nations entitled I on U
to be creative and refreshing. Neal, working alongside Russian keyboardist-sequencer Igor Len, put together 12 tracks showcasing Neal’s classic rock tones with the modern drum programming flair of Igor. The haunting melodies of Neal’s guitar-driven tracks flowing over the lush keyboard changes induce a sophisticated, cinematic feel throughout the album—but without forsaking his shredding, screaming leads and signature tone.
I had the pleasure of sitting down and speaking with Neal Schon about I on U
and his new journey with Journey.
Were you influenced by anything in particular when you wrote the album? I know it’s different from your Higher Octave releases. I like your tone much better on I on U
I definitely wanted to give it a bit more of an edge. On the Higher Octave releases, I recorded what they wanted and dabbled in that area for a bit, and it was fun for a second. But I look at it like each solo project should all be different. I don’t want to repeat myself on any one record; I’d rather go all over different genres.
I on U is a great album. I love the instrumental vibe—it just sings with great composing. I like how you combined your signature sound along with urban new grooves. Can you tell us a little about it?
I worked with a keyboardist by the name of Igor Len. Working with him reminded me a lot of working with Jan Hammer. Igor is right up there with Jan and a very talented musician and composer. We just went at it every day and came up with the material. We sort of just winged it with Pro Tools, as opposed to going into the studio with a very structured schedule. I think I do my best when I’m not thinking about it too much; more off the cuff and from the heart, not the brain.
What’s your recording setup on I on U?
It was mostly direct. I used a lot of Roland gear, the GP6 and plug-in amp simulators. It was all done on Pro Tools. I did a lot of programming on the GP6. When you do not have access to a large studio where you can set up a couple of great-sounding amps, the GP6 is a great alternative. I didn’t have a working studio at the time, so we just used an empty room and set up shop and laid down the tracks. Then we sent it out to Gary Cirimelli at Amulet Music in Nashville.
The title track, “Revelation,” on the new Journey album is a guitar instrumental. How did that come about?
I had the chord changes in my head and was working on creating a power ballad, a bit darker with classical-oriented changes like the old Journey song “Mother Father” from the album Escape
. Producer Kevin Shirley encouraged me to put an instrumental on this record. I went home with a few ideas and played the chord structures down to a little digital recorder and laid down some guitar and drum loops. I really liked the way it came out and played it for Kevin, who loved it. Kevin then edited down the song a bit and had me cut it live for the record. We also added a longer intro and did some trippy reverse guitar on the outro.
The album was recorded at the Plant in Studio B in Sausalito, which has an old Neve Desk with a couple of 24-track analog Studer recording machines. We also used the new Pro Tools HD, which has some really impressive converter sounds. I was amazed by the fidelity and how much Pro Tools had improved. The old Pro Tools sounds used to leave me cold, because everything got squashed in the middle and it didn’t have that giant spectrum of fidelity that you get out from using analog tape. You get low, low bottom end and nice highs and nice mids that sound like night and day from the old Pro Tools. We then had it engineered by John Neff and mixed by Kevin Shirley at Studio at the Palms, Las Vegas.
Being a real professional, Neal understands his craft and the making of a good-sounding record. For those of you who want to delve into Neal’s solo side, I recommend picking up I on U
from Favored Nations. Keeping with his classic Journey sound, “Revelation” is a true journey into his self-preservation of his craft.