By Mike Greenblatt
Just prior to taking off on tour, pulling double-duty on a co-headlining Journey/Santana bill, Neal Schon took the time to talk to Goldmine about his latest adventure.
Goldmine: So after three successful albums, Santana are certifiable rock stars in 1971 before Carlos takes a severe left turn into “Caravanserai” and it breaks up the band.
Neal Schon: You know what, man? I don’t think it was entirely the musical direction that broke up the band at that point. Everybody had pretty severe issues and was going in different directions. Sometimes you just need a break. Of course, usually the break isn’t for 45 years until I finally talked ‘em into getting back together. I’m so glad we got the results that we did without really trying too hard at all. This has been in the making for awhile. We had rehearsed a couple of different times over the last three years when our schedules met up for just this occasion. There had been so many different ideas at those rehearsals that I didn’t think they would all fit on this one record. We kept chasing new stuff, but it was pretty much off the cuff. We would chase something, then somebody would bring in an idea, we’d listen and go, “let’s tackle this today.”
GM: “Caminando,” for instance, must have taken some heavy arranging forethought for all the changes it goes through.
NS: That one, in particular, man, I had no clue where it was going. I came up with the main riff in a weird over-the-top time signature like Herbie Hancock. I think like 6/8. I did it right in the studio. They chant the song title over it, but I twisted the rhythm around when I played it for Carlos with Michael Carabello. That was the whole song, as far as I was concerned, right? So, when we went in to tackle it, Carlos put it back together with his vision. He had it go into a shuffle. (laughs) I’m like, “Man, that is the last thing I would’ve ever thought of!” When it was going down, I was thinking to myself, “This should be interesting if anything comes of it,” but when it was put together I was like, “Carlos, how did you hear that?”
GM: I want to go back to 1971. So what did Carlos say to the band upon deciding to do “Caravanserai” instead of “Santana IV.” Did he give you the option of doing it with him? Or did he fire the whole band like Van Morrison or James Brown.
NS: I don’t think Carlos knew exactly where he wanted to go. We all knew he was itching to try something different. That’s just the way he is. He was more into furthering his relationship with John McLaughlin, but “Caravanserai” was not conceptualized yet in his mind. But he went there because he felt like he needed to. That’s what most true artists do when they feel like they need to move and they need to try something. If it’s in the heart, you have to chase it.
GM: True artists, unless you’re The Ramones, AC/DC or Motorhead, always change.
NS: I stand with change, too. No doubt. Sometimes I’m met with a lot of resistance, depending upon what situation it is, but the one thing I love about playing with these guys again in Santana is that Carlos and I are so similar. We’re wide-open, man, about the way that we like to move forward and how fast we want to move. Especially these days. Carlos and I have reconnected in such a major league cool way. I think there’s lots of great new music in us together.
GM: This whole thing was your idea, no?
NS: Yes it was. I never actually called him but Carlos and I kept running into one another: at the mall in Marin County, at a restaurant or even taking a hike! So we were laughing about just that and took it as a sign. Carlos saw it as an omen. Initially, after we definitely decided to get back together in some way, we were talking up a guitar summit kind of thing, maybe a tour with all our favorite guitar players. I remember saying to him, “These are all great ideas. They all can happen. If not now, then soon. But if we really want to make a statement that will turn everyone’s head around, let’s go back and play with your original band!” He wanted to think on it for a little bit, so he did. It was only a few days when we got back together and he said, “Let’s do it.” In the meantime, I was calling all the guys, and they didn’t believe me! They didn’t think anything would come down after all these years. But I really chased it. There’s something to be said for wanting something so bad that you just do not let it die. You just go for it.
GM: You being the most successful of all the Santana alumni, having sold almost 90 million records worldwide with Journey’s 14 albums, you’d have to figure if you were down with the project, both Michaels and Gregg would be, too. This Journey/Santana tour is gonna be a monster, with you playing double-duty.
NS: Yeah, the first five shows are a co-headlining situation. I don’t know how much Carlos is going to want to play the new record. He changes his mind a lot. Santana will be playing first. I do not know how much I am going to be implicated in Santana’s set. Journey will be playing last. I originally thought it would be better the other way around. I really wanted to open but then Carlos did, too! I know how he feels. Everybody wants that first shot! He sounds amazing. The band sounds amazing. I think he’s doing a split band. I don’t know quite what he has in his mind. He has two completely different bands. He has the band he’s been playing with and now he has us, too. I really have no idea at this point what he’s doing! Carlos is always about the moment. He likes to think about things for awhile before he tells anybody what he has in his head. Carlos is so inspiring to be around. He always was for me even when I was a kid joining Santana at 15.
GM: You were 15 when you joined Santana?
NS: I wasn’t on the first two albums, did not play Woodstock with them, but did play on “Santana III” at 17. But, yeah, when I joined them, I was just a kid they let hang out in the studio with them. I was in the studio with them during the recording of “Abraxas,” soaking it all in. That’s why I say I “joined” them at 15. I was there, man. They just wouldn’t let me play yet. I already knew Gregg and Michael Shrieve. I knew they didn’t mind me being there.
GM: What kind of 15-year-old does a rock band allow to just hang out? How did you even get in that position?
NS: Gregg and Michael had heard me play. They were fans. Everybody else became a fan as soon as they heard me play. Herbie Herbert was the Santana guitar tech who became my tech, then Journey’s manager. It was his idea to wrap a band around myself. Some of the other guys on the road crew at the time like Jackie Villanueva, a very dear friend, and his brother John, took me under their wing. They were the guys who allowed me to be in the studio watching and listening during the making of “Abraxas.” They introduced me to guys like Elvin Bishop and B.B. King, who I played with at the Fillmore West and the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. I had been listening a lot to Michael Bloomfield and he was a major influence in my playing. Still is. Clapton, too. It was just a circle of guys who were all, in one way or another, connected to Carlos. It just felt so natural.
Then Clapton came to town. He let me sit in with him at the Berkeley Community Theater for almost half the set. Then, back in his hotel room, he made me an offer to join Derek and the Dominos. The catch was I had to move to England. The next day, everybody in the Santana camp got wind that was going down so they asked me to join Santana. I remember wishing that I could split my body in two because I wanted to be in both bands. I feel like I made the right decision not moving to England.
GM: You definitely made the right decision. You might be dead now otherwise considering the massive volumes of cocaine and heroin that infested Derek and the Dominos.
NS: The guys in Santana were no angels either. It was pretty much that whole era. The Santana band was one of the craziest! For me? Nothing but great times and one great education. Being a kid seeing the world in a rock ’n’ roll band?
GM: To what do you owe your longevity?
NS: The last nine years of my life have been alcohol and drug-free. I’m the healthiest now that I’ve ever been. Had I continued doing what I was doing for so many years, I would’ve been a good-looking young corpse.
GM: So in 2007, at the age of 53, you chose life.
NS: I made the big move and I am so glad I did. I’m so much more in touch with my guitar. Everything around me is so much better. I’m very much like Carlos, in a sense. I never really wanted to be a “rock star.” I don’t like that title. My dad was a jazz musician. I love a lot of those older jazz guys like Carlos does. My dad turned me on to big bands like the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, too. I’ve always just considered myself an aspiring musician. That’s why I’m still here. And I’m still playing because I love it. I love what I do. It’s not just a way to make a living. I’d be doing this whether I made a living out of it or not. I think I’m one of the fortunate ones on the planet Earth to be making a living doing what I love. As an aspiring musician, you’re always trying to be better. It’s a mindset. Carlos is like that, too. Carlos and I, in the middle of recording “Santana IV,” were already talking about where we want to go musically.
GM: How was it that very first gig in Vegas?
NS: We only rehearsed once. Carlos is a band leader on stage. He changes stuff up. Much like when I saw Frank Zappa back in the day when he had Flo & Eddie, George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar in the band, he’d call out different time signatures. It’s so demanding on the players. We’re not doing that but we rehearsed all these sections for three hours in the afternoon before the gig and we get there, it just doesn’t happen. We were following his chord progressions all night. It was a different thing for me. He would come in at a different place every time! And (bassist) Benny (Rietveld) just went where Carlos went. And I’m thinking to myself, “Now wait a minute! That’s not right!” And Benny knows what I’m thinking, man! He turns to me and says in my ear, “Just go with it, man.” I had to really listen, be on the ball and ready for anything to happen. It’s kinda cool, because what you’re getting is completely real. And you don’t know what’s going to happen. But the key is knowing beforehand that you won’t know what’s going to happen (laughs). I’m going to be ready for anything! I’m gonna go wherever he goes. I know I have to completely rearrange my sound because they play so loud. Carlos is unbelievably loud. I probably played that loud with him when I was a kid and just don’t remember it. We played with Fender twins and Altec speakers, and I know he’s louder than that now.
GM: So where do you go from here? It seems unlikely that Carlos is going to want to stay on any one trajectory too long.
NS: No, Carlos is into this. He’s liking what comes out when we all get together. There’s a chemistry there. So I know that he wants to move forward and do more with us. It’s a no-brainer, man. There’s a God-given energy and communication on a musical level to the point where we don’t have to talk about it. We just listen to one another and it kinda comes out. Believe me, it was a very easy record for me. I cut the record live with the guys like we always do. We didn’t do massive overdubs. We cleaned stuff as we were going along. Only “Caminando” was pieced together. I got to play some cool bluesy stuff like I like on that track. Only when it was all over, did I say, “Oh wow, I’m hearing it now.” I think it’s limitless what we can do from here. What you don’t want to do with a band like this is overthink it. There’s a beautiful naturalness that transpires when we get in a room. You don’t want to try and pre-conceptualize anything. It’s great to have vision for songs because that’s where they come from, but in this case, you just want to have the landscape in your mind. Like a picture before you paint it, you chase it and what comes out, comes out. In our case, what comes out is pretty sacred and you just want to leave it be organic and what it is. I feel like a kid again with these guys.