Beyond The Thunder (1995)
By Ralph Burnett
The Eighties saw the emergence of the rock "supergroup", defined as a band who's sales figures looked more like a math equation of how far the earth is from the sun. Among these, Journey is a premier member, and the biggest selling band in the history of CBS Records. Neal Schon, Journey's founding guitarist, has just released his first all instrumental solo album, Beyond the Thunder, for Higher Octave Music. "I've gotten board with rock, from what's being played on the radio, that I just don't listen to it anymore," states Schon. "I haven't really watched MTV in years. I guess when you can't hear what you want to hear, than you've got to resort to pulling something out of yourself (which is really where the inspiration for doing this album came from). This is the first record that I've ever made that I still leave in my car and I pop it in every other day and it still sounds fresh."
Drawing inspiration from a musical family (his father played tenor saxophone and was a band leader and his mother a big band singer), Neal began playing the guitar at the age of ten. By the time he was 14, he had jammed with Elvin Bishop on stage with B.B. King at the Filmore West. "I Got this reputation as the fastest gun in town," recalls Schon, "the guy who could shoot anybody down, so they used to bring these kids from all over the place and the kids got bigger and bigger."
By the time he turned 15, Neal was playing with Santana and had turned down Eric Clapton for a spot in his band. "Clapton actually asked me to play with him a night before Santana did," recalls Schon, "and Clapton was like a guitar god to me at that point. I had learned a lot of what I knew by listening to his records and other blues records." Playing with Santana was more the result of an all night jam than an audition reflects Schon. "I was playing in an r&b/blues band in the [San Francisco] Bay Area and our bass player was friends with Michael Shrieve and Gregg Rolie, so we invited them down to see the band at a club called the Poppycock in Palo Alto. They showed up one night and stuck around after we had finished our set and we ended up jamming until it got light the next day. After that I had a great relationship with Gregg and he used to pick me up at high school and I used to just take off and play -- I wound up playing hooky a lot." After Santana, Rolie and Schon went on to form Journey.
The melodically fluid control that has defined Schon's guitar style throughout the years, seems to push that envelope on Beyond The Thunder. "The 'singing' of the guitar," explains Neal of his style, "is from a voice. I used to listen to a lot of Aritha Franklin and a lot of r&b and blues singers (as apposed to listening to a lot of guitar). But still one of my favorite instruments to listen to is the voice."
Most of the tracks on Beyond the Thunder were co-written with Journey-mate Jonathan Cain. "We click," states Schon. "We get a certain thing together, I mean it's really different. I experimented with a lot of different guys just to see what would come out, and it surprised me because it really does matter who you write with for what is going to come out. When Jonathan and I write together, no matter what we're trying to write or what style of music it is, it always comes out with a character that is very much the same."
"I think this album makes a full statement that is very cohesive from song to song," continues Schon. "When I listen to it from top to the end, it really has a flow, where all of the other solo or co-solo recordings I've done in the past were all over the map. The way Jonathan and I started this project, didn't sound anything like the way it ended up. Because I'm sort of a chameleon guitar player, I can do a lot of different sides and I was doing a heavier fusion-rock thing when I started out and it ended up in a more laid-back, mellow fashion, which I'm really greatful for. It sort of just fell into place."
"The worse part of my career right now is having people spell my name right," jokes Schon, "it's always "Neil". My dad named me after Neal Heafty, so it was spelled with an "a" just to make it a little different, but I'm seriously considering changing it to an "i" because nobody spells it right. But seriously, it's been really cool sort of getting out of the rock thing and sort of getting back into the music thing, which is where I actually started. It's like I sort of walked backwards for a while and got successful with it, and now it's time for me to finally make this statement."