When Neal Schon was 15 years old, he had a decision to make. It wasn’t a sort of decision a typical teenager has to make, as Schon was very much not a typical teenager. The young guitarist had offers from both Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton to join their respective bands, Santana and Derek and the Dominoes. Schon chose the former, and the rest is history. Before their disbanding in 1972, the classic Santana band lineup of Santana, Schon, Gregg Rolie, Michael Carabello and Michael Shrieve experienced some of the peak years of the band, culminating in their 1971 album Santana III. Now, the group is back together, thanks in large part to Schon’s prodding and persistence, and have a new album, the spiritual follow-up to that classic record, aptly titled Santana IV. You can read the full story in the June issue of Relix, with an extended excerpt now online.
After leaving the band in ’72, Schon went on to found another hugely successful but decidedly different band, Journey. Throughout the years and the different lineups for that group, Schon has been the one constant, having participated in every album and tour to date. This year, Schon’s two bands are co-headlining a handful of shows together, and Journey is on a massive tour with The Doobie Brothers and Dave Mason. We caught up with the guitarist on that tour to talk about how the Santana reunion is going, why he felt the urge to mastermind this recombining of old friends and what it’s like to pull double duty with two big-name bands on the same night.
So how did that run of double-bill Santana/Journey shows go?
They were very strong—and obviously a lot of fun for me, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. Clearly, completely two different bands. We went and played our first couple of shows together in Mexico earlier this year, and the audience came unglued for both bands. We found out very clearly and early that the chemistry was good. But going back in the years, Journey had played with Santana many times. We opened for Santana even before Steve Perry came in the band for one whole European tour. So it’s not like something that was never done before. To be able to go back and reconnect with all these guys and help pull them all together, it felt like something that I wanted to do from the gratitude of my heart. They took me under their wings when I was so young and showed me the world. I got to experience so much as a young guitar player and really opened my eyes to so much, musically.
You said you guys have played together before, but had you ever done double duty like you did with this past run?
No, not to the degree that I just did.
It must have been tiring.
No, it wasn’t tiring at all actually. I think everybody was expecting me to be tired and I was like, “Let’s go.” I was playing close to three hours, about 30 songs a night. I had no problem physically doing it, much like I did when my solo band opened up for Journey for the whole Canadian tour we did.
Were there any highlights, any shows that stood out from his past run?
Well, they’ve all been great. We started off at the House of Blues with one day rehearsal after we made the record—we jumped in the fire and took the best bits and pieces where everybody connected. They’re just finishing that DVD right now. It’s going to be released on TV. I forget exactly if it’s an HBO special or whatever is going on, but that is going to be coming out soon. That’s very cool because it’s raw, and we moved on from there. We started the first co-headlined date at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was a great day. We did two more East Coast dates after that. They were both great. We have two more scheduled for this year. Otherwise, I’m out here for the majority of the year with Journey and Doobie Brothers and Dave Mason.
Between cutting the album and doing your first live show together you only had one rehearsal?
Well, we didn’t really rehearse. We made the record, but we didn’t rehearse for the record [laughs]. We rehearsed for a couple days for the record, but we rehearsed a bunch of stuff that—most of it—we didn’t end up using. We were kind of just on the fly, which I love doing anyway. That’s how I make my solo records. When you’re not really consciously trying to make a commercial record, you just go in and have a blast, you know? See what’s in everybody’s head and idealize. I think that’s where the coolest stuff comes out of. It’s not so much premeditated—“We gotta bring this part here.” It just gets a little too clinical. The coolest thing is that we went back to basics, which I really enjoyed. The computer was not involved for most of the process at all. Even though it was used for HD recording, the way we recorded everything was not in the usual sense, with computers. There were no quick tracks. We just kind of played, like we should.
These two bands are pretty different. Especially in the early days, Santana was very improvisational, with Journey being more song based. Playing with these two bands—especially in the same concert, in the same night—what is it like to switch gears between the two?
It’s the best of both worlds. We do have areas in the Journey band where I stretch out and John [Cain] stretches out, in between the songs and within the songs. There’s always improvisation going on. With Santana, it’s a bit different, because we have all the percussion to work with. It can go on much longer, I found, because of the rhythm. Once the rhythm gets going, it’s like a locomotive. It’s hard to slow down or stop it. They’re both great. I enjoy doing them both, and I love both bands.
Do you think you brought a little of one band into the other one in your playing or working with other members?
I would like to hope so, yeah. I know that I was very responsible about pulling all the Santana guys together. That was very satisfying to me to do that at this point in my career. When we broke up in ’72, everybody went their separate ways and didn’t remain close, a lot of the guys. I felt good about pulling that unity and respect they once had back into place. Now everybody is very respectful. I think sometimes you just need to grow up a bit and have some years pass, and everything is a lot clearer on all aspects.
All you guys were very young back then, especially you.
I was very young, having been 15 when I joined a band—very young. Michael Shrieve was second in line to myself.