Neal Schon of Soul SirkUSNever a free minute for Neal Schon... and he likes it that way
By Naughty Mickie
Photos Courtesy

Soul SirkUS is the latest project with the Journey, Planet US busy boy, Neal Schon, and it includes other music mavens, drummer Deen Castronovo (Journey, Planet US), vocalist Jeff Scott Soto (Yngwie Malmsteen, Talisman and lead vocals for lead character in film "Rock Star") and bassist Marco Mendoza (Ted Nugent, Whitesnake). The quartet recently self-released the effort "Word Play" (Soul SirkUS Records, an effort of classic rock licks with up-to-the-minute edges. The support tour, unfortunately, was delayed due to Castronovo's health. But the band should be back out and about as this interview hits the Web.

My original goal was to discuss only Soul SirkUS with guitarist Neal Schon, but that seemed like just one layer of his many musical endeavors. I decided the best way to get a thorough understanding of him, was to begin by peeling away at his core.

Schon currently lives north of San Francisco in Marin County. He moved from California to New Jersey as a child and returned to California around age 7.

"I came from a musical family, my father was a tenor saxophone player, he also taught all woodwind instruments and he was a composer and arranger; he wrote his own charts," Schon starts. "He was the leader of a jazz band in the Air Force. My mom was also a singer in the Air Force in that band.

"I was born in the Air Force and shortly after that we moved to New Jersey, but I was brought up around a lot of jazz. My dad was a big jazz fan and it was constantly Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Count Bassie. Then a lot of really cool jazz guitar players too, like Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell, all kinds of people," Schon adds.

"I'm sure it had something to do with tuning up my ears in elementary school and high school I played woodwind instruments. Finally, at the age of 10, I picked up a guitar and started playing guitar. I was playing the oboe, first I played the clarinet, I hated that. I didn't care for the way it sounded or looked or anything. I didn't think it was a cool instrument. I should have played tenor sax, I don't know why I didn't. But inevitably I ended up playing guitar because I wanted to play something my father didn't play. He had such short patience when he was teaching me," Schon laughs. "The reason I picked up guitar probably had a lot to do with the first record he ever bought me which was like a 'Rubber Sole' Beatles' album."

Schon left high school in the middle of his junior year because he received offers to play with Santana and Eric Clapton.

"I clearly knew what I wanted to do at that point," Schon states. "I was 15 and I knew that I wanted to make music my career. And I'd known it for 10 years before that, that I was definitely serious about it and that's where I was heading."

And with his parents' permission, Schon put his dream into action by joining Santana.

"I took off from being in the middle of my high school years to playing all over the world with one of the world's biggest bands," Schon says.

Now, don't even get the idea that Schon has a lazy streak.

"I had a couple jobs (during high school). I wanted to work all the time, but I wasn't old enough too. I had one job where I worked in a bicycle shop rebuilding bicycles. This guy gave me a job, but he paid me such wages that he should have been shot," Schon chuckles.

I ask him about his hobbies other than music.

"I'm always so busy and everybody asks me that and I always think about it and I go I really should have some other hobbies, but I go from one project to another it seems like." Schon pauses and then, "I love riding motorcycles, if it's sunny outside I never drive a car. It's inspiring to me to jump on a bike and listen to music, I've got a stereo in one of my bikes. I like to listen to what I'm working on or listen to somebody new and cruise around and sink it in."

Schon has a Harley Roadglide, as well as another Harley and a chopper from Exotix of Florida. All of his rides are "pimped out."

Back to my original plan, I ask Schon about Soul SirkUS and learn that it was formed out of the ashes of what was Planet US. Sammy Hagar and

Michael Anthony were in Planet US, as was Joe Satriani, but they left to rejoin Van Halen.

"I had about 20 songs sitting there that I had worked on by myself. It was music, a lot of melody, no lyrics at that point. After sitting around for a couple of weeks, I'm thinking to myself, 'Man, I did all this work and where am I going to use it? It doesn't sound like Journey material.' I knew it had to be something new and released under a new name, either that or give it to someone else to do," Schon explains.

The International Music Merchants (NAMM) trade show was being held in California and Schon had been reading Andrew McNeice's site, McNeice was friends with Jeff Scott Soto, who often received excellent reviews for his vocals. Schon contacted McNeice and arranged to meet Soto. The two ended up playing at the Gibson after-show party that night and discovered that they had some chemistry. Schon's road manager then suggested he check out Marco Mendoza. He did at the DP Party and recognized him (Marco also sings). They met and talked about getting together.

"It's funny, at the NAMM show everything came together for me down there," Schon remarks.

After NAMM, Schon sent MP3s to Soto and Soto rearranged his songs, added lyrics and send them back almost "a song a day." Soto used all the parts Schon provided, sticking them in the right places. Schon was very impressed with his work: "He's got some moxie, he gets it."

When they completed 11 songs, Schon thought that there was enough for a CD.

"I want to go back to the retro style of making a CD of 10 or 11 great songs and when it's over you want to put it back on immediately instead of falling asleep in the middle of it," Schon says and, at that point, he got the group together.

"We rehearsed for two days, went into the studio and recorded it and within two days it was done," Schon recalls. "Not only are they talented, but they're very fast. I'm extremely fast in the studio. I think I've met my match in these guys because they're just as fast."

All right, talented and quick, but what's the meaning behind the funky seeming name?

"We were trying to come up with a name and everything was taken," Schon responds, a typical musician's mantra.

They originally came up with Soul Circus, but it had been used in the '70s by an R&B band. Schon became frustrated seeking another moniker and finally said let's just respell circus and use the US from Planet US, so it became Soul SirkUS, which they have copyrighted.

"Everybody thinks I can't spell," Schon jokes.

Schon has a home studio with a 24 track Korg recorder, Roland processors, bass, synth guitar, drum machine and more.

"I'm pretty much able to landscape anything I hear in my head without other musicians." Schon goes on, "When I sit down at something I have no ideas. I have so many ideas in my head that have been sitting there for years and so I know something will come out. It's usually a drum beat that will spark me and I just remember something or I make something new up on the spot and just kind of wing it. I'm used to doing that. It's really weird, once I get started, it's like I don't stop. When I wrote all the songs that were initially for Planet US and ended up being Soul SirkUS songs, I wrote 20 songs in a month.

"I just get on a whim and a grind and I just get going," Schon continues. "I've always been very creative, prolific, I've never hit the wall and said, 'Man, I don't have anything left in me.' Who knows? That day could be coming, it just hasn't yet. I get inspired by something and it just gels in my system and I'm off and running."

We discuss the today's music scene.

"I hear a lot of it going back to the traditional stuff that I like. A lot of the new stuff that's catching on and is real big right now is actually retro," Schon comments. "If anything, I think this Soul SirkUS record is a bit ahead of time of where all the young retro bands are now. I think it's a little more progressive, more out of the era of the mid-`70s bands that came over from England, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, all the kind of stuff that I really was weaned on is where my heart is still at because I think that was some of the finest rock and roll ever."

"I don't know what to think about the Internet from day to day. I have mixed emotions about it," Schon tells me, as we talk Web.

We discuss how people take quotes out of context and post them on the Internet, changing what Schon (and other artists) say. If you try to take any recourse, it only makes it worse.

Musically, Schon is like that kid in class who just can't sit still because he might miss something. This month finds him back with Journey working on a new album. No co-headline is planned for upcoming Journey tour, instead it will be a long show where they will play music from every era, as well as inviting past members to guest at different stops. The concert will include music from their first three albums when they were more progressive rock oriented.

Journey's recent concerts have been fun for Schon, as they have "jammed out" and took advantage of the freedom they have when performing.

"I feel like I'm locked up in a cage if I have to stick to a radio format because I'm an expressive guitar player and I like to jam and improvise," Schon says.

His other project is "Eye on You," a solo effort set for release Feb. 22 on Steve Vai's label Favored Nations. It contains three tracks totally and truly solo with Schon on all the instruments, plus others with Igor Len on keys and Omar Hakim on drums. The work is all instrumental and encompasses everything that Schon has ever done.

"It's very melodic, but it's very moody, it's a very cool record, it's a landscape record," Schon clarifies. "People have told me when they listen to it that they see a full-on movie to it. Everyone see a different movie to it, but it's definitely that kind of record where your imagination can run wild."

The lucky pre-release listeners must know something, as Steve Vai has already been pitching the album for a movie score.

"I figured if I do these solo projects, they need to be different from each other otherwise what's the purpose?" Schon smiles.

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