Neal Schon can’t stand still.
When the nimble-fingered guitarist isn’t writing or recording — on his own or with his platinum-selling band Journey — he gets antsy and heads for the outdoors, cruising around his native Northern California at high speeds to clear his mind and summon fresh musical inspiration.
“I can’t sit in neutral,” says Schon, who will be with Journey Wednesday when they headline a lineup of ’80s rock stalwarts at the FedEx Forum that also includes Foreigner and Night Ranger. “I like to drive. Whether I’m in a Lambo (Lamborghini) or on my motorcycle, I don’t like to go in reverse and I don’t like to sit in neutral. I like to go forward, and I like to go fast.”
Besides top hits like “Anyway You Want It” and “Faithfully,” that no-looking-back attitude has helped Schon write one of the most improbable second chapters in rock history. In the past dozens years or so, he and his bandmates have persevered through the loss of their most recognizable member, burned through a pair of replacements before finding an unlikely new one, and ultimately found success again with a pair of new records and a place in the pop culture zeitgeist, thanks to a new generation of fans.
Originally a teen prodigy who got his start playing with Bay Area superstar Carlos Santana, Schon was just 19 when he was tapped by Santana’s manager to be one of the original members of a new band he was putting together called Journey. After some personnel changes, in 1977 the band brought in lead singer Steve Perry and began a 10-year run of arena rock dominance that included hits like “Lights,” “Don’t Stop Believin’’,” and prom staple “Open Arms.”
In 1987, Journey went on indefinite hiatus, during which time Schon played in the supergroup Bad English, among other things. In 1996, Journey reunited to record Trial By Fire, but Perry, reportedly hobbled by a hip injury, refused to tour behind the album.
Not wanting to let the momentum die, Schon and the rest of the band, which by this time included founding bassist Ross Valory, ’80s holdout Jonathan Cain on guitar, and drummer Deen Castronovo, replaced Perry, first with Steve Augeri and then, for a brief time, Jeff Scott Soto. But by 2007 they were again without a singer.
Frustrated by the studio enhanced singers he was finding, Schon turned to YouTube looking for live footage of vocalists whose pipes could keep up with Journey’s demanding material. After a few days he was about to quit when he stumbled on a video of Filipino singer Arnel Pineda.
“He was singing some Survivor song,” recalls Schon. “The second I heard his voice, I was like, ‘Who is this?’ It knocked me over the head. I thought to myself, ‘This guy has got some lungs.’”
Checking out more of Pineda’s videos, Schon was impressed by his versatility and ability to project. He took a motorbike ride to clear his ears, and when he came back he was still blown away. That night Schon sent an e-mail to Pineda’s friend who ran his website looking to contact the singer about an audition.
“It took a lot of persuasion to make Arnel believe it was me,” says Schon. “He thought it was a bad joke.”
As Pineda went through the audition process, Schon was even more blown away by the singer’s story. Pineda was weaned by his mother on Barbara Streisand and the Carpenters and began entering singing contests at age 5. But when his mother died when he was 12, poverty split the Pineda family apart, and Arnel lived for more than a year on the streets Manila.
By the age 15, Pineda was making a meager living singing in cover bands. He spent the next 15 years living in Hong Kong, working as a singer though he twice lost his voice. When Schon called he had just moved back to the Philippines with dreams of making it big in his homeland.
“He’s still pinching himself, as he says,” says Schon, who appears in an upcoming documentary on Pineda called Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey. “It’s so wonderful to talk to the guy because when you do, you realize where he’s from and what kind of background he has and how he’s had really a tough life. He’s just so grateful to be here, and he gives it his all.”
The addition of Pineda to the band coincided with a renewed interest in Journey in general. In 2007, the band’s 1981 hit “Don’t Stop Believin’” was famously featured in the series finale of the hit HBO drama “The Sopranos.” Two years later, the song found life among a whole new generation of listeners when it was featured on the Fox show “Glee.” The show’s version of the song would go on to sell more than 1 million copies. Last month on “The Today Show,” Matt Lauer presented the band with an award commemorating the song as “No 1 single of the 20th century.”
“I’m more than surprised at the life of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’” says Schon, still proud of the song’s unconventional, un-pop-like structure. “When I first heard it played back in 1981, I remember thinking, that song’s going to be big. Little did I know that 30 years later it would become a world anthem.”
The success of “Don’t Stop Believin’” has spilled over into Journey’s new ventures. In May, the band released Eclipse, their second album with Pineda following 2008’s platinum-selling Revelation. Released exclusively through Wal-Mart, the record sold 21,000 copies its first week and reached No. 13 on the album chart despite scant promotion.
“The hardest thing with the new record is to make people aware that it’s even out,” says Schon, who is also anticipating the release this fall of a second Journey greatest hits album, partially supervised by Perry (the band’s 1988 Greatest Hits remains one of the top-selling best-of compilations of all-time, selling around a million copies a year) as well as a pair of solo albums. “The thing with Eclipse is it’s a Catch 22. Some of our diehard fans really get it, and some of the other fans think it’s the worst record they’ve ever heard. You can’t please everybody, but I’m proud of ourselves for not just sticking to our usual mojo and trying some new mojo.”
Journey with Foreigner and Night Ranger
7 p.m. Wednesday at FedEx Forum, 191 Beale St. Tickets: $49.50 and $69.50; available at the box office and through Ticketmaster. For more information, call 901-205-2525 or visit fedexforum.com.