A Conversation with Neal Schon
Mike Ragogna: Neal, what is it creatively that satisfies you, playing solo or with Journey?
Neal Schon: Well, Journey is more about well-crafted songs and well recorded and produced songs, and I think that what I enjoy about my solo songs is that I'm sort of more of a painter with a blank canvas and a bunch of paints and materials to work with and I kind of throw everything on there and see how it lands. It's more experimental, definitely. In Journey, we do experiment from time to time, usually when we're all playing in a room, which doesn't happen a lot. We were fortunate to get together at Fantasy this time. We were there for about three weeks rehearsing and recording and listening back to everything that we were doing. It helped us sort of hone in on our older songs. A lot of times, when you've played something for this many years, they drift. Everybody starts playing different things, you get bored, so we pulled everything back and now I think we're having really great shows because of fine-tuning stuff like that again.
MR: On So U, you recorded with Marco Mendoza, Deen Castronovo and wrote some of the songs with Jack Blades. What was behind the collaborating this time out?
NS: It was mainly a time issue for me. I didn't have a lot of time in the studio to do this, it was kind of at the last-minute. I was just finishing up The Calling record, my solo record before this one. I was in Santa Fe and I was really enjoying myself and I just happened to call Deen and Marco to see if they were off because Marco's always touring, he's never around. But he just happened to be around and I said, "Do you guys have like, two or three days available?" and they said, "Yeah." I was astounded that they were both available at the same time. I said, "Want to come up Santa Fe? We can work on something, I think we can work out a record." Working with Jack in the past, he's always very quick and energetic. I always come up with something great with Jack. I figured while we're writing music and we're in there kind of winging it, he can be listening to it and getting a jump on it lyrically. Some of the songs I had melodies for. I'd hum them to Jack and then he'd write lyrics.
MR: During the process, were there any surprises, like songs changing drastically from their original versions?
NS: There were only a couple songs that I had really sketched out with Jack before we got there. I had actually written the music for "Take A Ride" a long time ago when I was working with Paul Rodgers but it never happened. I just said to myself after I heard Marco's voice, "Well, I think he's got a bluesy quality in his voice and he could hold this up," so we went at that lyrically, but I had the music already. "What You Want" was something that I had already done a demo of with Jack at his house and we pretty much just laid it down like the demo. I worked on "On My Way" up at Jack's house, too. That one was put together very well. The rest of them were just kind of like winging it when we went in there.
MR: Were there any songs in particular where you might have used a new technique or technology than you're used to? Did you take any different or bigger stretches on So U?
NS: The song "So U" itself is over nine minutes long. It all started with this sound that I was getting through the effects axis--a piece of gear I use now--and there was this very cool sound. It almost sounds like a synthesizer with bouncing echoes, kind of like in a U2 sense, but a little bit more surreal. It started out with that sound and I just kind of jammed with Deen all the way through the nine minutes of it. I was going to chop it up and take some of the bits out, but then after I started overdubbing with it I said, "Wow, this is really cool." I really like that it falls down and goes into this Electric Lady land vibe where it floats around for a second with a wah-wah guitar. I got it to do the 1970s Echoplex, slowing down the tape machine a little bit so it sounds like the spaceship is moving around from side to side, to simulate some of that stuff. I had fun with that track, stretching it out and making it make sense. It didn't make sense when we cut it with just one guitar and drums, but with a little bit of imagination and some overdubbing, I thought it really took shape. Then we figured out where the vocals were going. I sang the verses and then I had Marco do his freestyle Curtis Mayfield-type bluesy stuff on the intro and the ending. Then Deen does all the high vocals when a track is up and moving after I sing the verses, he's got that wailing voice that sits there on top. It was fun to do, man. I hadn't sung in a long time and I'm not even close to Deen and Marco. Deen is an amazing singer, he's been killing every night. People are wowed.
MR: What's the story on Deen?
NS: Deen has been singing live with Journey forever. He's like the little secret weapon back there. If Arnel is struggling some night, if he has a cold or a virus or something, Deen will help everyone get through the show. I think it's so mindf**king when Deen does "Mother Father," which is a song that goes way back. I wrote the music with my dad and then John and Steve finished it years ago in the eighties when we did it on the record. But the drum parts are very difficult, Steve Smith's drum parts, and the vocals are very difficult, and Deen does both of them effortlessly. Deen is somewhat of a freak that he can do that, he really is. He's so talented. There are other singing drummers out there like Phil Collins, Don Henley, and a bunch more. But those two come to mind and I haven't seen either of them play intricate drum parts like on "Mother Father" or high vocals that are all completely removed from the drums. He's kind of like Sting. When I first saw Sting, he was playing bass pedals and singing completely off the beat, playing these syncopated reggae bass parts and I thought, "Wow, this guy's dexterity is sick." Deen is like that. He's kind of like an octopus, he's got all the limbs going and the vocals going and they're all doing different things. It's pretty amazing to watch.
MR: Neal, you got a lot of critical acclaim for the album The Calling.
NS: Yeah, and there's one in the can that I feel is the best of all of them. It's just waiting for me to get a break and get better and get off tour and rest up and then I'll head in and finish mixing that. It's sort of my follow-up to The Calling. We're taking it a few steps further. Actually, when we recorded the record, I was thinking more about playing live. It's a little more of an organic record in the sense that it's really jam-y. You can tell it's a live performance-type record when you listen to it. As soon as I heard it I said, "I'm going to love playing this stuff live," and I will do that. It's Steve Smith again on drums and I played bass again. Jan Hammer is all over this record, he's totally on fire more than I've heard him. The whole record is kind of like that. Igor Len, my other keyboard player, did some of the writing and embellishments and orchestrations. It's not quite as layered as The Calling, it's not as produced in a sense. It sounds great, it doesn't sound raggedy, and I did less overdubs and left it more raw. I think it works with a record. That's going to be called Neal Schon Vortex.
MR: You recorded a couple of albums with Jan Hammer a while back. Might this be a musical reunion for you guys or do you still get together for projects often?
NS: Well, Jan has been pretty quiet, not really doing much at all, so when I reached out to him with The Calling, I didn't know if he would get back to me or not. I sent him the couple of tracks that he played on for the record and asked if he'd do a couple of solos and he never got back to me. But two weeks later, he sent a track to me that he'd played on. He's kind of like that, you know? This time, I reached out and I sent him the tracks and he had them for a few months before he actually played on them. I think he just wanted to sit on it and think about it for a while. He just smoked, completely smoked the tracks.
MR: Does Vortex musically come close to the Schon/Hammer days?
NS: Playing-wise, I think it's a step further than that. Everybody's playing is quite a few steps further than that. There's some stuff on here that's really on the ceiling. I think it's going to twist a lot of heads when this comes out, just from the performances. Everybody's on top of their game on this record. There are no vocals, it's just instrumental. Right now, I have eighty-five minutes worth of music, so it's a double CD.
MR: Neal, you're pretty famous for being a member of Journey, but your time with Santana is pretty important as well. And lately, you've gotten together with Carlos to make some music together.
NS: I love playing with Carlos and the guys. It was so much fun, and we're going to do more. Carlos has a very busy schedule as well as me this year. When we get off tour in September or maybe closer to November, we're supposed to both be off and we'll go back in the studio again around that time and cut some more stuff. We went in the studio and had nine tracks before we both went on tour. This stuff sounds amazing and we know what we both need to come up with after listening to that. We cut a lot of stuff that was sort of inside the box and song-oriented, very good. But Santana is known for the other side as well, so I think we're going to go back in and get a little more outside and up tempo. We'll do about four tracks like that. When I talked to Carlos, we were both on the same page. I love going back and getting into that music, that's some of my favorite music ever.
MR: When you get together with Carlos or Paul Rodgers or any other artists, do you soak in what happens during the experience playing with them and take it into your own projects?
NS: Absolutely! You're as good as the people who you're in the room with. That's what I've always found. I'll sound completely different as a guitarist playing with different people. When I play with Paul, because I was a big fan of Free, I go more towards blues and my roots, more of a flashed-up Paul Costas. I was a big fan of his playing, so it's a natural thing to hear from me because as a kid, I was turned on to Free and that's imbedded in my system. I'll never forget that stuff.
MR: And a couple of your other stops along the way were being in Bad English and HSAS.
NS: Yeah, I love all those projects. Bad English, we were extremely successful for a brand new band. John Waits was a tremendous singer and we had some great songs. I actually went back and listened the other day and was like, "Wow, this is a Goddamned good band." We didn't quite see eye-to-eye on where we wanted to travel musically, which I think inevitably broke up the band. But our first record was very strong. The second record is very good, too. We went through a very weird recording process with producers and stuff during that record, it wasn't as smooth. The first record was very easy.
MR: Where do you feel Journey is heading? Is there a game plan when it comes to Journey or, at this point, are you guys just getting together to have fun?
NS: We are talking about getting together and recording a new record. We just don't know quite what we're going to do. I think musically, we know where we're going to go. We're not going to try and reinvent the wheel, yet we're not going to try and repeat anything we've done either. We did some experimental records back a ways, even with Steve Augeri. We had this record called Red Thirteen, it was this little EP, and then we did this record called Generations and Arrival. There are three records there and I feel like--maybe not all the way through the three records--there are some great songs there that could be redone, re-looked at and re-recorded with Arnel. That's one idea that I've been tossing around with Jonathan [Cain] and he sort of agrees with me. Once we get going and the music is going, I know that we'll write some brand new stuff as well. That's just a given.
MR: Here's a delicate question and it's out of curiosity, not gor gossip. You guys are on a great path with Arnel, but will Steve Perry fit into Journey's world anymore?
NS: I had been collaborating with Steve on a friendly basis just through email...it seemed like we were on a friendly basis. But he wasn't ready to get together and he isn't ready to get together. He's said numerous times now that there's no reunion and that he's not interested in doing anything like that. When Steve left, he wanted to do his solo thing and I think he remains there. We're fine, we're doing great the way we are. I don't think you've seen the massive crowds that we've had, but we've continued the legacy amazingly well. The door has always been open. I've approached him to work on a couple of things with me that were not even Journey-oriented, but he wasn't interested in doing it. It's fine, man. I wish him well and he says that he wishes us well.
MR: I've seen many iconic bands release projects that feature guest artists paying tribute to the older hits with re-recordings. Has that ever been a thought for Journey's catalog?
NS: Nah. We're not really interested in that. I think people resort to that when they really run out of steam and ideas. I've seen it happen. There are a lot of different artists that end up doing these records and it's whoever's album and it's everybody on the planet on the record except for that artist. Sure, I see it happen all the time, but I've never been interested in doing it solo-wise or in Journey.
MR: Neal, what advice do you have for new artists?
NS: It's a rough business out there. It's very, very difficult to get notoriety as a new artist. What I tell my son who's an amazing guitar player is just be seen as much as you can be seen, play wherever you can play and if you play well enough, I'd hit up every studio in the area and say you're available for session work and just play with as many people as you can play with and be heard. With the demise of record companies and even clubs... Smaller clubs are the place for a new artist to play because you can't play anything bigger than that with clubs for the most part. It's really rough, man, everything is in the digital domain. Try to make decent recordings and use what you have. With the new equipment out there, you can actually make a great-sounding record in your bedroom off a computer...Pro Tools and a computer. I think it's possible; the thing is just getting it out there. I think the best means of doing that is through all the media. Everything is media driven, It's so different than it used to be. You don't have record companies working it and A&R guys. It's very difficult.
MR: Is there any technology out there that you're liking these days?
NS: I love the Fractal unit that I'm using, the Axe-Fx. That unit is monstrous. I use it live, I use it in the studio, I have rows and rows of amplifiers, you can do studio effects on it, it's a pretty amazing piece of gear that you can plug in and use in any instance. You can be live, I can literally just leave without a back line, take that box and a small case and a couple of guitars and head to Europe or wherever and plug directly into a PA and have all my sounds there. Traveling light is really a great way to go. It's very road-trustworthy. I've used it on tour now for years and have never had a problem, which means everything.
MR: With The Calling, So U, and Vortex, it looks like you're ramping up the Neal Schon part of your career. Is that where you're heading now?
NS: It's inevitable that I'm going there, yeah. It's something I've been working at my whole career. It doesn't mean this is the demise of anything. It just means that I keep adding more and more to it and I will find a place to go do that solo stuff, and when I do a solo thing this time, I'm going to have so much material to pick from that's going to be brand new material and there's a lot of old stuff sitting there that I could also play. The main thing for me will be being able to put together the right band of whom I'm going to play with and have enough time set aside to actually rehearse and learn the stuff properly and put the show together. But at this point, I feel like when I do go out, I'm going to have monstrous material to play live. Most of it probably will be instrumental. I think that the So U record, if we were to do anything with that... It was really more a band record than a solo record, except for the instrumentals that are on it. But Deen is all over the place , he's doing so many projects. Marco's in like three or four bands. I'm going, "I don't know if I could put a band name on this record because I don't know if it will ever be a band," so I decided to make it a solo record featuring those guys. But if we were ever to do anything together, I think the band name would be So U.
MR: It must be hard to keep on a straight line with a solo career.
NS: With all the solo material I have out there now, I think the right thing to do before even trying to play any dates would be to do a live DVD in a controlled area, whether it be a studio or wherever, in front of a live audience. Do a live DVD and make sure it sounds really, really good and then you've got something for people to actually latch on to and watch and go, "Oh, I dig this," or "I don't dig it," and "I want to see that," or "I don't want to see it." That's kind of where my head's at.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Judas Priest's Rob Halford
Mike Ragogna: Hi Rob. How did Judas Priest's approach to the new album Redeemer Of Souls differ from the last?
Rob Halford: I think the challenge, if you want to call it that, is just to really dig to come up with something that's fresh, that's new, that's different from a previous experience. That is just the way that Priest has been doing things for forty-odd years, really. I don't think anything has really changed that much in the way that we're doing things.
MR: Maybe any surprises that came up during the recording process?
RH: I suppose the big surprise was having Richie "The Falcon" Faulkner with us now for the first time. Richie's input can't be overstated. He made some incredible additions to our new record. He's just got this phenomenal completeness about him, not only as a guitar player but also as a writer and most definitely on stage. Richie's involvement on this record was very important along with Glenn and myself, getting the focus and keeping everything on track to try and make a really strong, fierce, energized metal record and that's what we've been able to do.
MR: Was this album more about exploring basics and essentials than expanding the group's musicality?
RH: Yeah. The mantra we kept chanting was, "Heavy metal, heavy metal, heavy metal," which has served us well over the decades. A short sidebar... Whenever we record with Priest, the idea of being able to transpose the recording into a live format is very important to us. Sometimes we're able to do that relatively easily, but sometimes it can be a bit different. Compare the complex arrangements and sounds of Nostradamus to the very straightforward approach of Redeemer Of Souls. It's such a good example. We really wanted to emphasize the basic instrumentation of the band with very few embellishments. It genuinely is about as live as you can possibly get in that respect.
MR: Is what inspired Judas Priest originally the same as what inspires you now? Did successful careers and becoming famous affect thngs?
RH: You know, that's a really cool question, and I'll answer it like this: Regardless of all the fame and success and the fifty-million records we've sold, the core of what makes Judas Priest raw is still intact. When you put any kind of band together, in its pure state, it's all about a dream, it's all about self-belief. You start with a bunch of people that have a strong connection musically, that have an idea of making a sound and doing some shows, and that's what we still do in this band. I'm really pleased that none of that has been sidetracked by any of the extraneous things that can happen when you do become successful. When you take all of that away, you're just left with your band, you're just left with your music, and that's really what I think is still at the heart of Judas Priest, the simple love, the passion that we have from making music.
MR: And do you think that's what connects you to the audience after all these years?
RH: Yeah, I think so, Michael. Particularly, metal fans. Metal fans can smell anything that's less than pure and genuine. They can sense it. I think we had the most amazing time due to that fantastic relationship with our fans. Our fans know we've given our hearts to all of them. We've been writing and recording and performing, and I think that's part of the success of Judas Priest as well. We've maintained that friendship for twenty albums. You've got to be upfront and as real as you should be.
MR: Does the scene or this whole lifestyle ever get old, or is it still a thrill after all these years?
RH: Yeah, the thrill is still there. It's still the best thing you can ever have in your life, being in a band that has this wonderful connection through multiple generations of fans. It's really heartwarming and it's very inspiring. It's also very humbling because it's a different world today from when we began making metal forty years ago. In today's world, the metal fans find you themselves. They're not led to you by radio or the media, and I don't mean that in an insulting way. What I'm saying is these young metal heads with their smartphones and their laptops and their texting and tweeting and Instagramming and Facebooking are on a personal journey of self-discovery regarding the music they want to get into. For that portion of your fan base, it's quite remarkable. It's a combination of all of those wonderful aspects that various generations of fans bring to the shows and bring to the records. It matters, really.
MR: If you look at metal through the years, it's had many variations. Might a decent way to describe metal these days be classic rock on steroids?
RH: I think I've lived long enough now to be able to move past a lot of issues that I have personally with certain types of metal. I thought we started with a very pure form of music that then became all kinds of alien species. When that started to happen it was a bit confusing to me, but now I embrace it, I think it's all extremely potent and valuable and important. More than anything else it just shows you the diversity of this kind of music. All of the things that branched out into various subgenres come from the roots of a band like Judas Priest. It's amazing, really, that it's been able to take on all of these different manifestations. It's fantastic, I love it. Anything that encourages the strength and power of metal globally is clearly something we should welcome.
MR: Who were your first influences?
RH: When we began, we didn't really have much in the landscape to go to for inspiration on our level because it was a brand new music. For me as a singer, I was inspired by all the greats of the time, whether it was Janis Joplin or people like Robert Plant or Mick Jagger--singers that had some power or personality. Even the roots of singing in metal, which is the blues, people like Bessie Smith, for example; people that were singing from the heart, just a pure, flawless type of strength and delivery. That was what I was thinking about when I became a professional musician. I daresay the rest of the guys in the band, at the time, would have been pushed by those artists that they were involved with. I think really the foundation of the House of Judas Priest is multi-layered, coming from all areas of classic rock and bluesrock. It's a wonderful place to build from because it's so psychedelic, really. We've often said that to be able to live through the sixties and the seventies was quite phenomenal. The originators have now moved on or passed away, but what a wonderful source for Judas Priest to have gone to. We really value that.
MR: I've had the thought that metal's closest cousin is really opera because of the relentless theatrics and crescendos. What do you think about that?
RH: In Judas Priest's world, we've embraced all of that fire and flair and flamboyance and strength and power. Judas Priest is a very hard band to pin down. We call ourselves a classic metal band, but we've done a lot of things over the decade. I think we were one of the first metal bands to bring out that type of production, actually, the big dramatic shows. You look on YouTube at shows we did in the eighties, for example. The Turbo show was gigantic, so was the Defenders Of The Faith tour, which is celebrating thirty years this year. The Painkiller tour more recently, the Epitaph tour... We've always embraced that because heavy metal music has always been known to be larger than life in volume, in power, in the visual aspect of it. We've always tried to take on all of those extra elements to push the power of metal through Judas Priest.
MR: Where do you think metal embraced religious and occult themes? It seems like some bands use them and some bands don't and there's not really an eye batted either way anymore.
RH: Judas Priest is a great name. I love the name of my band. I think it's one of the most original, strong names ever. It's not only a great name, there's only one Judas Priest, but in the two words you get a sense of what we tried to do with our music. You've got Judas, who betrayed Christ, so you have that kind of dark element, and then you have Priest, which is obviously the other direction, it's a sense of purity and empathy and light and all the goodness. It's the two things--the negative, the positive, the left, the right, the dark, the light, the power of the metal, the more subdued elements. It's a wonderful name that translates into some of the things that we've been trying to do with our music throughout the years. But as far as the antagonistic side of it, I think it's great if you've got a name that provokes. To me, that's what rock 'n' roll has always been about. Rock 'n' roll was invented to do what it did. It wasn't a music that was invented to be taken lightly, it was a music to create revolution, and it should still do that now.
MR: To me, one of your album covers really illustrates that juxtaposition of light and dark you were talking about, British Steel. It said a lot without being an overblown illustration.
RH: Yeah, it did. That artwork has become iconic, really. If you look in the history of rock 'n' roll covers, you'll always find the British Steel razor blade in there somehow. Again, your artwork should try and project the entity of the music that's displaying. It still makes people wince a little bit; it's like a paper cut, or dragging your nails across a chalkboard. It kind of goes down your spine, doesn't it, when you look at it for the first time. There's something very appealing about it even though it's quite menacing. It's got a Dexter quality about it.
MR: You might say whoever came up with the cover concept was pretty sharp. Sorry.
RH: [laughs] Oh, I agree, yeah. Just the title, British Steel, just the two simple words along with the simple cover sent an extraordinarily loud message around the world. And particularly at the time that it came out, Michael, as you know 1980 was the beginning of what's still referred to as one of the greatest decades that heavy metal had. If you look at all of the metal that came out from 1980 to 1987, it's quite mind-blowing; extraordinary talent from all over the world, particularly the UK and US. The 1980s was the epitome of metal music really taking hold of the world and giving it a good shake.
MR: Rob, Judas Priest and a handful of bands like AC/DC collectively were the clarion call that metal was here to stay whether anyone liked it or not.
RH: Yeah, exactly. It was an extraordinary decade because, of course, not only were we gaining tremendous success, but we were also gaining tremendous pushback from parts of the world that were becoming quite intimidated and a little afraid of what we were doing. I think there was a feeling in some parts of the establishment that metal was going to be just as reactionary as what was happening in the sixties in America, around the Vietnam War and everything. You have these extraordinary figures, whether it was Dylan or Crosby, Still & Nash or any of those provocative performers, and there were some people in the establishment in the eighties that felt that heavy metal was going to be just as potent in its reach. And to some extent, it was. Even though the eighties was an extremely affluent time for a lot of people--it was just a major pig out in all forms--I think there were some areas of the establishment, i.e. the PMRC organization, that were legitimately concerned about the values of some of the things that were going on. The 1980s was an amazing time in many reference points.
MR: So the mission of metal in the 1980s? Mission accomplished. Now what is the mission of metal today? There's no one left to shock.
RH: You're absolutely right. I think the invention of the internet has really dissipated the shock value of anything anymore. Maybe that's a good thing, because shock value can have its appeal, but if it's not supported by some kind of quality good music, it doesn't have much value, does it? I was talking to some friends the other day about the last really great shock artist that had substantial music--my friend, Marilyn Manson. There won't ever be another Marilyn Manson because it's all been done now, and kids are doing it themselves. They don't need to go and look at an artist or watch something on TV, they're doing it themselves and posting it on YouTube, thanks to Jackass. It's probably not much of a great loss, in my mind anyway.
MR: Well, the key now to breaking acts is supposedly social media, but the key to breaking in the metal genre also used to be the great discovery of the mystery behind the band. It almost seems like social media would work against that, wouldn't it?
RH: Two of the greatest bands that pushed back against all of the intrusiveness were Led Zeppelin, who never gave an interview in their lives and Tool who you never saw a picture of. Also to some extent KISS, because they took the makeup off. That's a very interesting question, Michael, because even in recent years, Priest had to get on board with that. I've always treasured the mystique and the mystery and the magic of a rock 'n' roll show. I don't really want to know what's on the deli tray in the dressing room. I don't want to see how everything works. I just want to get lost in the escapism and fantasy of a rock 'n' roll show. But that's over now, that's completely gone. Now if you don't jump on board and get integrated in social media you're going to get left behind. They'll all be getting down to the nitty-gritty, getting down to the basics of what good music is all about, that's probably getting more honest and truer now than ever before. You win some, you lose some, Michael.
MR: So was the band going back to basics through Redeemer redeeming for Judas Priest in some respects?
RH: I think what we try to do is keep the brand and tradition of Judas Priest alive with a title like Redeemer Of Souls. It marries well with Sad Wings Of Destiny, Screaming For Vengeance, Defenders Of The Faith. We're just reaffirming a lot of things about ourselves with that title, and it just happens to have another kind of evocative sense about it. Whose souls are we redeeming? Are we redeeming your souls? Is this redeemer just a simple fantasy character? What are we about? We like to bring a lot of thought process and interest and value to not only the titles of our records but also to the artwork. When you look at the artwork and you read the title your head starts spinning trying to make sense of it. I think as long as we're doing that we'll lead everybody to draw their own conclusions.
MR: Rob, here we go again. What advice do you have for new artists?
RH: Well, I'm probably going to repeat myself, but you've got to try your damnedest to be as original as you possibly can. You've got to be dedicated to practice, practice, practice. You can't practice enough. Those are two important elements, but again it's all the peripheral stuff. You've got to be prepared for a f**king battle, man. It's a never-ending battle to be in a band, on all levels. You've got to be prepared to be able to handle that mentally. Keep your music at the heart of what you do, but be prepared to take on all of the other non-musical aspects and somehow find a way to deal with it all.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Edgar Winter
Mike Ragogna: Edgar, there's a new album, Superstars Of Classic Rock Honor The Music & Legacy Of The Doors, and you played on "The Crystal Ship" with Chris Spedding. How did you get invited and what do you think of this project?
Edgar Winter: I think The Doors are one of the classic groups, and I think we're all tempted to feel like the time in which we grew up was somehow special, but I really do believe that there were two golden eras in music: The forties and fifties of big band, jazz and swing, and the sixties and seventies of rock. To me, they're really unparalleled. I was not that familiar with The Doors on the east coast, they were more of a west coast band. I'm from Texas originally and I moved to New York right out of high school and lived there for twenty plus years until my wife Monique and I moved out here to California. So I'm a New York Texan living in Beverly Hills. When the Doors thing came along "Crystal Ship" was still available, and that was one of my favorites so I said, "Hey, I'm in."
MR: How did this Chris Spedding collaboration happen?
EW: With the modern miracle of Pro Tools all of these things usually end up happening without the usual interaction between musicians. That track was already done and sent to me, I loaded it into Pro Tools and did it. It's not as glamorous of a story as I'm sure you'd like to hear, but that is the truth of the matter.
MR: What do you think of you and your brother's contributions to rock music history?
EW: It's an honor to be a part of it. There are a lot of reasons for the magical quality of the music that occurred at that time, and I think that a large part is that there was so much freedom. Music was not that commercial yet. The record companies weren't really looking over your shoulder, and there were also the political aspects of music. There were a lot of people writing and performing songs that they really believed in. There was the whole hippie movement. Drugs contributed a great deal to mind expansion. It started out really more innocently and then spiraled out of control, but when all of that started, it really fueled that sort of musical revolution and a consciousness revolution.
Johnny and I are very different and very much the same. If there's any common thread that moves through all of my music, it's the blues. I'm primarily thought of as a rock guy, largely because of "Frankenstein." "Frankenstein" is interesting because, as far as I know, it's the first instrumental to feature the synthesizer as a lead instrument, and I also happen to be the first guy to get the idea of putting a strap on the keyboard. It seems like something that was really obvious and would have been thought of, but no one had done it. I'll never forget walking out on stage for the first time... [crowd noises] It was just one of those moments where the crowd just went crazy. "Frankenstein" was written to feature the synthesizer.
Johnny and I grew up together, and I just love playing with Johnny. He's my musical hero. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be where I am. He was the ambitious one when we were kids. Johnny loved American Bandstand and read all the magazines. Cool Johnny Winter with the shades and the guitar and I was the weird kid that played all the instruments. In all of our bands, Johnny was the front man singer and I just loved to work on the arrangements and show Johnny the parts. It worked out as a good division of labor. Then in my teens, I got really interested in jazz and classical. I was more of a jazz/classical guy than a pop guy. With Johnny's popularity, he invited me to come to New York and play on his first few albums and then his manager Steve introduced me to Clive Davis, the president of Columbia at that time. Clive offered me a record deal. As they say, the rest is history!
I should mention that Johnny and I are touring together. There was a long period of time where we hadn't played together in twenty plus years, and then over the past three or four years we've started doing stuff together again. We're doing Rock N Blues Fest, which will be Johnny's band, my band, Vanilla Fudge, Rare Earth and Kim Simmonds from Savoy Brown. My band is sort of the nucleus for two or three of them, Rare Earth and Vanilla Fudge are a couple of guys being supplemented by my band. That'll be a lot of fun, we'll do that tour and jam together at the end of it. I'm looking forward to that.
MR: Will Rick Derringer be joining you guys?
EW: He did it a couple of years ago, but he's not in it this year. Rick and I, of course, are still best of friends. We probably do fifteen or twenty shows a year together, but he's not on that particular tour. Rick's in Florida now. I think you've spoken with him as well.
MR: I have in the past, but I haven't interviewed him yet. He's someone I would absolutely love to interview. I especially love his Guitars And Women album. Anyway, you and Johnny...
EW: In the beginning of our careers, Johnny wanted to be sure that we maintained our separate identities and I said, "Johnny, I think everybody knows who we each are." What we'd done was so different, though we did do that Together album in the seventies, which I loved. That was really so much fun, reprising a lot of the songs that we used to do in clubs together growing up, in our teenage years. But he didn't want us to become known as The Winter Brothers. I love The Winter Brothers myself.
MR: That's terrific you have such a solid relationship with him. By the way, I remember in 2011, you toured with Ringo Starr's All Starr entourage.
EW: I did indeed! It was just one of the most rewarding experiences, and just fun. I toured with the All-Starr band in '06, '08, '10 and '11. Usually, Ringo doesn't invite people back more than one time. I think his twenty-fifth anniversary of doing that is coming up and probably a lot of the people that have done that over the years will be there and I'm really looking forward to it. I think in discussing that whole era, The Beatles were, of course, at the forefront. To me, The Beatles were bigger than music. They changed the mindset of the entire generation. They brought about a revolution without firing a single shot. They really changed the world and Ringo is still, to this day, such a heartfelt advocate of peace and love. Every year on his birthday, wherever he is, usually in that tour, somewhere, he does a deal where at noon, he invites everybody to stop whatever it is that they're doing and just think "Peace and Love." That's such a simple yet powerful thing. Being all hippie myself and having played Woodstock with my brother Johnny, that really resonates with me. Ringo is just the greatest. He's just an amazing guy. It was one of the thrills of my life. On his seventieth birthday, we played Radio City Music Hall--and this was a surprise that Ringo was completely unaware of--at the end of the show, Joe Walsh came on and Paul McCartney came out and we did "Birthday." I thought, "I can't believe it, I'm on stage with two of The Beatles!" It just blew me away.
MR: Awesome. You also were on William Shatner's album Ponder The Mystery. Were you with him during the recording of that?
EW: Nope! Same situation. It was sent to me and I got to work with that one. It's amazing how much you can do with computers today. They are an amazing tool. When you have the session, you can listen to the individual parts, mix it exactly the way that you want to, and re-record examples of things that you might want to change. There is interaction to the extent that you can pick up the phone and make suggestions and email things back and forth. That one was really a lot of fun for me to work on. I liked it because it was really atmospheric; it had a mood that I really liked. That's what I tried to do with the song melodically. Rather than just playing a typical solo I wanted to get a melodic hook that would exemplify that mood. That was my direction on it.
MR: Are you working on a new Edgar Winter album?
EW: Yes, I am. Since you bring up the question, I'll just tell you what I'm up to these days. First of all, I have a book of poetry that actually started as lyrics that I had and had not written music to. But as I was on the road, I just started getting really interested in poetry as opposed to music. My wife Monique and I have been married for thirty-five years. Without her, I don't think I would have survived all of this. She's really the love of my life. A lot of times, I would be out there on the road and I would think, "I'm going to write her a poem." I'd done that for three or four years and I realized, "Wow, I've got over a hundred of these and put together with some of these lyrics, it would make a nice book." So I decided to title it The Songs That Never Were. I found this amazing sense of freedom. There is a real formula to writing music, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. It's very formulaic. The subject matter that you can address in pop music is somewhat restricted. It just doesn't allow that same emotive quality that you can put into poetry. It was really a liberating feeling for me, so that's one thing that I'm doing.
Then I have a musical comedy version of "Frankenstein," a Broadway-style show that I've been working on, where the doctor is a posh Park Avenue plastic surgeon. He would've done Michael Jackson and all the guys. It's sort of a social satire. That's something that I have in the works. Also I have some short stories that I've been writing that occur in this mythical realm called The Shadow lands. They're sort of fantasy sword and sorcery works and I have some music that's going to go along with that called Shadow Dance. When I release the short stories, they'll have some music to go with them. I've been doing Shadow Dance musically, but I do have all kinds of songs. I have always more than enough songs to put an album together. Rebel Road, the last album that I did, was sort of inspired by how we play a whole lot of biker shows. We did the Sturgis Buffalo Chip thing, I did the Love Ride when Jay Leno was doing that. I think rockers and bikers have a lot in common as far as disregard for the authority of the powers that be. We're definitely not nine-to-fivers. The idea of that is just basically I'm not going to be told who I am or how I'm supposed to live.
I've always considered myself something of a musical rebel. When I did "Frankenstein," the record company said, "Now you can do 'Dracula' and 'Wolf Man' and we'll call the whole thing Monster Rock!" and I said, "No, that's not going to happen, I'm not going to do that." I kind of enjoy defying categorization. I love music in and of itself. I love the beauty of harmony and rhythm. You'll never hear Edgar Winter talking about a farewell tour! I come from that old blues man mentality. I'm in it 'til the end. I'll die with my boots on as they say down in Texas. The thing that has been so inspiring to me over the years is to exercise that freedom. Honestly, I just like to play whatever it is at the moment that's meaningful to me. I've never thought of music as a career in the commercial sense for very long. When I put together The Edgar Winter Group, I did Entrance, which was an interesting experimental album. Then I did White Trash, which was really all the guys that I grew up playing with, doing gospel R&B. I said, "I'm going to put together the quintessential All-American rock band." I had a lot of fun doing that, but I didn't want to continue doing that forever. That's the key to the whole thing to me, that's what keeps me inspired and interested in music, being able to exercise my freedom to do what I feel at the time.
MR: Edgar, what advice do you have for new artists?
EW: I would say to follow your heart and play the music that really means something to you. The perfect example of that, I think, is "Frankenstein." That was something we really worked up as a live song, really a vehicle for the synthesizer, and it was a riff I had written a long time ago when I was playing with Johnny. I wrote that back when I was playing with Johnny as a walk-on. Nobody even knew I existed. He would say, "Now I'm going to bring on my little brother Edgar," and I would walk out and they'd say, "Wow, there's two of them!" I played Hammond B-3 and did a sax solo and a drum duo and we did a very primitive version of the song. We used to call it "The Double Drums Song" back then. But anyway, the point it being advice to new artists is that song was a song we worked up just to feature the synthesizer when I got the idea of putting the strap on the keyboard. We never even intended to record it. We just evidently had long versions, like fifteen or twenty-minute jams of that song. Back in those days, one of the other things that made the seventies so magical was the fact that bands would go into the studio with two or three songs and actually create an album.
All of that changed. As the record companies became more obsessive about that stuff, they demanded that you submit demos of everything. You had to have everything approved before you get into the studio. Back in those days, it wasn't like that. We had these versions of what were just calling "The Instrumental" and then Rick Derringer said, "We could probably edit that into something to put on the album." I thought, "Uh, that's kind of crazy, but we do play it live enough and I like crazy ideas," so it was a great excuse to get even more blasted than usual and have a big editing party. We figured out how to do it eventually. We all thought that "Free Ride" was the song with real single potential. We released that one and it really didn't do anything, didn't go anywhere. Then about the third or fourth single in, "Frankenstein" was a B-side and it just started getting underground FM radio play. All of a sudden, it was a huge number one hit. Then we re-released "Free Ride" after that and it became a big hit. The point that I'm making is that was a song that we did with no commercial intent. It was just for fun, it was a song that we played live. That's my advice, just do the stuff that you feel is fun to play and means something to you.
MR: Nice. "Free Ride" is another song that's been immortalized in pop culture. And think about how it was used in Dazed & Confused. That re-immortalized that song.
EW: Yeah, and it was also in Air America with Mel Gibson. And of course "Frankenstein" was in Wayne's World 2. It's great to walk into a theater and hear one of those songs on a soundtrack.
MR: Good for you, man! So have I forgotten anything to badger you about?
EW: [laughs] Before I go, I want to take this opportunity to thank all my fans out there for following my career as well as that of my brother Johnny. It means the world to us to be able to do what we most love and see you all out there rocking and having a great time. I look forward to seeing you all out there on this tour, and keep on rocking!
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne