Don’t Stop Believin’: Steve Perry On Fame, Journey And THAT Song
Sitting in a suite at the upscale Corinthia Hotel, hard by the Thames in Central London – £560 a night, would you like a receipt? – Steve Perry wants to talk about Bay Area punk rock. What is it, he wants to know? Who are the bands, he asks? Are Green Day one of them? Yes, comes the answer. “No!” Yes! comes the reply. “Wow, so they’re a legit punk band, are they? Cool.”
When it comes to the rich musical heritage of the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, Steve Perry is as much a part of the fixtures and fittings as is James Hetfield or Billie Joe Armstrong. During his tenure with the band Journey, for which he will be forever best known, the now 69 year-old guitarist, singer and songwriter mined a seam of melodic hard rock that in the 1970s and 1980s knocked America bandy. With albums such as Departure, Escape and Raised On Radio, the group’s domestic ubiquity was so all-conquering that they rarely made the – ahem – journey across the Atlantic to perform for European audiences. As such, the band’s status in the UK was restricted to a sizeable constituency of swivel-eyed cultists that could sing each of their songs backwards and would do so without being asked.
In the 21st century, this all changed. As TV shows such as Glee and The Sopranos began to utilise the song Don’t Stop Believing, the band planted a decades-old earworm into a whole new continent. Oddly, the re-emergence of Steve Perry’s music belies the fact that he left Journey some 20 years ago – the band continue to tour to this day – and has been entirely silent for almost a fifth of the 21st century. This changes this week, though, with the release of Traces, its creator’s first piece of recorded music for 22 years. A patient and elegant collection of adult oriented rock – one might even call it ‘yacht rock’ – the 10-song set politely declines to turn its head toward the music of yesterday and instead forges its own forward path. Regardless, the name Steve Perry carries a cache, and today he is entertaining a constant stream of journalists, of which Kerrang! is one. Best we get started, then.
Photo: Myriam Santos
Tell us about growing up in Northern California…
When I was growing up, the Bay Area was deeply into the San Francisco scene. I was about 14 or 15 and my band, which was a group called The Sullies, had participated in a battle of the bands at Frog Jumping Jubilee at a county fair. And one of the prizes for winning this competition was that you got to play [legendary San Francisco venue] The Filmore, and you got a recording contract with Fantasy Records, which was a new label starting up in Berkeley… So we won the battle of the bands and I got to play at the Filmore. I was only 15 or 16 so my mom had to go with me, along with my stepdad, and I remember that the opening act that night was Steve Miller Blues Band with Boz Scaggs and the headliners featured Janis Joplin. It was amazing to play in that kind of environment. That’s where it kind of started for me. And later I met [Journey mainstay] Neil Schon, and we roomed together in Denver where we wrote our first song, which was called Patiently, which is on Journey’s Infinity album. Straight away I was in the band.
I’m not sure that people in the UK realise what a phenomenon Journey became. How was that from the inside?
I think it was something that I sort of felt, but I was too motivated by what the requirements of performance and songwriting were at the time to really be able to feel it. So from the inside it was a deep commitment and dedication to what the challenges of this newfound opportunity of being a singer-songwriter entailed. That was my new environment where there wasn’t really any time to look at it from another angle. I felt it from time to time when performing live, but the studio was my laser beam.
But presumably when you stepped onstage at stadiums such as Candlestick Park and The Oakland Coliseum, you were aware of it? What are the best and the worst aspects of that kind of success?
The good things are being in front of so many people and getting them so riled up and excited, and singing and playing songs that they seem to love and that they want to sing along to. Some of the bad parts are the fatigue and the lack of privacy that resulted from that.
Even back then?
I think it may have even been worse back then.
It was such a look-see business. You had MTV indoctrinating everyone with images, for one thing. Before the internet, there was that; before YouTube, there was that. And I think that that was much bigger for it’s time than anything we have going on today. There’s so much information right now, from social media to Instagram and Facebook and God knows what. Back then it was MTV and record stores, so it was very concentrated. And there was the radio. It was very enormous. Also, back then the record business was an enormous industry unto itself. So in perspective I think it was a little bit more intense.
Like everyone from The Grateful Dead to Green Day, Journey were part of the Bay Area’s musical firmament. Do you think you get the credit you deserve for that?
That’s an interesting question. I always thought of Journey as being separate from all of that. We were branded as being sort of a corporate rock band back in those days, and I always had arguments against that. I said, ‘What do you mean by corporate?’ And the answer was that we were like a corporation, to which I answered, ‘Well so were Led Zeppelin, and so were The Beatles. What are you talking about?’ It’s about not giving all your money to taxes, that’s all it is. It’s about writing off your expenses. It’s just a business. That’s the reality of that part of it, so I never quite understood what that charge meant. I thought that we were unique unto our own sound. We were lumped in with groups like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon, which I never understood. Looking back now, I don’t think that we sound like those bands.
What is your relationship with the song Don’t Stop Believin’, which this century has been hummed by everyone in the world?
Well, one of the reasons I had to stop was that my passion for all of the songs was diminishing, which was really frightening, whether the song was Don’t Stop Believing or Lights In The City, or anything else. I was having an emotional emptiness to draw from. It’s like having a sponge that was drawing out. What am I going to do? And at that time, we all were starting to get into…well, I’ll speak for myself, into bad behaviour to try and replenish the sponge. That’s not the solution. So my solution at that point was to stop, which is what I did.
What was the beginning of the re-emergence of Don’t Stop Believin’?
Here’s where it started. [Director] Patty Jenkins wrote the movie Monster, which starred Christina Ricci and Charlize Theron. The song had already had its moment, but she gets hold of me and starts to procure the idea of using it in a scene. I get the tape and look at the scene in question and it’s really a beautiful use of the song. So I call her up to talk to her, which was a big surprise to her because she’s heard all these rumours that I’m a recluse and that for me it’s all about the money. The idea that it was all about the money, by the way, came from the fact that I was getting all of these bad scripts to which I’d say no, so people thought that my motivation was money. It wasn’t. The truth is that I loved her film, and we gave her the song for next to nothing. It was an independent film and it was great. So we gave it to her and she used it. That became the beginning of the resurgence of the song. Then it went to the [TV show] The Real OC, then to sporting events, and then to Glee. And it ended up in the final scene of The Sopranos.
By this point, were you listening to Don’t Stop Believin’ almost as if it wasn’t your song?
It certainly reached a point where I could listen to it with a different perspective because it felt like I was on the outside looking in.
Without being vulgar, you must have earned a fortune from that track…
(Laughs) I didn’t miss any meals, that is for sure!
Traces is your first album for 24 years. What on earth have you been doing?
I’ve been kind of just living life and hanging out with friends. I guess you could say that I’ve been a gentleman of leisure, but I’ve also been watching other people be creative. I’ve been watching Patty Jenkins be creative. I’ve been watching friends of mine who direct television, because I love directing. I’ve been watching a friend of mine who directs music for television. I’ve been watching other people make music, like watching The Eels [who Perry joined onstage] rehearse for a tour. I’ve been watching movies and going on vacation. There was a time when I almost lived in Hawaii because I spent so much time there. Really I’ve been living as far away as I can from it all in the hope that I can find some peace of mind on my own without the adoration of other people. I wanted to be at peace on my own.
Did you not have peace of mind, then?
Toward the end of my period with Journey, I started to become deeply uncomfortable with my role in making rock’n’roll music. You can’t hinge your sense of well being on those areas. And I was doing that, which of course everyone does. And I was getting more empty, so I stepped away.
I suppose one of the pitfalls of fame is that you start evaluating yourself in accordance with how others see you.
That is true. And I went back to my hometown, after I left the group, and people there were treating me differently, so that was strange. It took time to move away from that kind of thing.
So when it comes to Traces, I’m guessing that you wouldn’t put it out unless you thought it was something worth hearing.
What you hear is whatever came to me. I hadn’t written in such a long time that whatever music kept showing up, regardless of what kind of music it was, I was determined to complete with all the emotional commitment that I have. I wanted to finish it on its own terms and not make into anything other than the thing it was. And that’s what the record became, just an honest expression of where I am right now.
Journey were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, and also inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Do either of these things validate you in any way?
Well I almost didn’t do the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Actually, it was a little bit annoying. There were one or two radio personalities, who will remain nameless, who were trying to manipulate the fans to try and get my number. Somebody actually gave them my cellphone number, which was upsetting. So these two personalities called me and I heard them say their names, at which point I quickly hung up. I thought, ‘Fuck off, what are you doing?’ But they wanted to be the ones who talked me into going; they wanted to have the credit for that moment. They wanted to be the ones that got me there! The kingmakers! No, why don’t you go fuck yourselves and leave me alone. If I was going to go it was going to be on my own terms. And I didn’t tell anyone that I was going – I didn’t even tell my attorney! I told no one. I hired a private security firm, on my own, and we simply showed up. No one knew that I was going to go. I was asked by everybody, and my answer was that I wasn’t going. I even said that to my accountant. I just didn’t want to be boxed in, and because I wasn’t when I showed up I enjoyed it very much. And that goes the same for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Journey spent their summer on a U.S. co-headline tour with Def Leppard that grossed a hundred million dollars. How are you going to promote Traces?
I don’t know. Talking to you is a start.
The point being is that you don’t seem to be in the nostalgia racket. If you tour, will you be happy playing all your old songs?
I’ll play all the songs that people want to hear. I’m all about making new music, but onstage I will play my old songs and be grateful that people want to hear them.
And are you going to tour?
I don’t know. We’re talking about that. All I know is that I’m on this promotional tour that started in Minneapolis and which has now brought me to London, and then we’re going back to New York for the release of Traces. After that, I believe we’re probably going to have conversations about touring, after I’ve taken a little bit of a break.
Steve Perry’s album Traces is out now through Fantasy Records.
Words: Ian Winwood
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