Lead Vocalist of Journey
By Chuck Speake
Voice Magazine March-April 1980
The San Francisco Bay Area has spawned its share of innovative rock groups. In such an environment it was not surprising to find the top Columbia recording quintet Journey, homed-based. Formed in 1971, Journey was well along to becoming a top draw when changes to personnel occurred.
In 1977 George Tickner and Aynsley Dunbar left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. They were replaced by Steve Smith on drums and Steve Perry as lead vocalist. They melded well with the remaining founders of Journey, Gregg Rolie (keyboard, vocals), Neal Schon (lead guitar), and Ross Valory (bass). The chemistry was obviously right, for the next Journey album, Infinity was their biggest yet. CBS Records' Mike Jensen said, "The addition of Steve Perry to Journey has made them a platinum act. Their sales have been most encouraging. They have bucked the trend at the height of the record recession, having sales surge after sales surge."
Last fall Columbia issued Journey's three pre-Perry albums in one single set called In The Beginning. This all in prelude to the Departure album scheduled for release in March.
It was when Journey was rehearsing for the Departure sessions, that we were able to get together with VOICE Editorial Advisory Board Member Steve Perry long enough for an interview. After sitting in on a rehearsal for the band, Steve and I repaired to a restaurant on San Francisco's Pier 39, a few blocks from his apartment, to talk vocal music.
To start at the beginning, what is your background?
I was born in the small California town of Hanford in the San Joaquin Valley. When I was fourteen we moved eight miles to Lemoore, California. I went to COS (College of the Sequoias) in Visalia, California for two years. I played in bands all through school, actually I was a drummer-singer. I decided to get off drums; my voice was improving more than my drumming was, although I felt, and still do, that I play and sing quite well. There is a certain feeling I like about sitting in that position. The diaphragm is in a different position. Anyway, I moved to L.A., started getting into rock bands and tried to make musical statements. It seemed like every time I turned around, I would run into people who would get in my way. They were not serious. There was a period in my life that I was not too serious either.
What do you mean by people who were "not serious"?
Their minds were not career-oriented. They were partying musicians and not thinking any further than that. Every time I turned around, they would be late, not show up for rehearsals, that kind of thing.
How did you become involved with Journey?
I was working with a band I had put together called The Alien Project. This was before the movie. CBS wanted to sign the band. Just before we were going in to do some serious talking about contracts, the bass player was killed in a car accident. CBS told me Journey was a good band, a successful band, with three albums behind them, and they wanted to make a musical change. They wanted to get more vocally and tune-oriented. CBS liked my influence in the band that I had, and though we would be a good match. So I met the guys, hung out, and it has been rolling ever since.
Have you done a lot of studio work?
A lot. That is one thing, I love studios. For a long time, when I was down and could not find work, I was a second engineer at Crystal Studios in L.A. That was a long time ago, but it kept me alive for a while. I found it was taking time away from what I was doing musically. I had hoped I would be around the area where I could jump onto something. However, the people coming in to record were already together. You would have to be, to be able to record in the first place. I did get exposure to what was going on. I thought that was better than nothing. But I was sort of spinning my wheels, so I got out of that.
Did you have any formal musical training privately or at COS?
At COS I was in Band, Choir and Speech classes. Choir was a lot of fun. I was a first tenor. I have to say that did help, in retrospect. We would warm up everyday, do scales, etc.
Do you read music?
No. When I was younger, my parents were so mad at me that I never learned how to write and read music. But I write songs, working by feel. I get the main ideas coming out of my mouth.
Had you always planned to go into music?
Yes. My father, Ray Perry, was a singer with the big bands. Not 'big' big, but he was in bands that would do songs by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, that kind. He is a great singer. He and I plan possibly in the near future to sing a tune or two together, if I can put together the time. He is a crooner and I am a tenor. I don't know where the tenor voice came from. My mom had a great voice too until they took her tonsils out.
You use a type of falsetto in your singing.
I use a kind of operatic falsetto, a round tone.
Is it a hard thing to do without destroying your voice?
Yes. I try to do everything I do with the least amount of effort. I try to think the sky is the limit on range. A song we do called Wheel In The Sky, when the solo is going on, I am up there doing these angelic things. I use the least amount of effort to pull out these ideas. If I am using the least amount of effort and they don't come out, then I don't go for them. Nine times out of ten, they come. There is that point, the threshold, where the normal voice crosses to falsetto. There is a way in which you make an edge on your voice the higher you get. The trick is to get so you can bridge the upper register of your normal voice to the lower register of your falsetto. I use silent H's on the vowels sometimes to get across that bridge.
Do you follow a particular regime while on the road? Do you vocalise every day?
The vocalising every night is enough. I do at least a half hour warm-up every night before I go on. I have to.
Earlier today you went through a full four hours of vocalising and rehearsing in the studio. Is there anything special you do before or after a session like this to prepare or relax your voice?
No, not really. Rehearsal is early in the morning and it is so difficult to sing in the morning. It is like waking up in the morning to answer the phone, you sound like a frog. I take it real easy until about one o'clock or so, and by then it is loosened up. I give it minimum effort when I know the later time period will give me what I want. If it is not there, I am not going to do anything else but wait for it to come. On the road it gets into achieving consistency. So if that means not speaking for a day, because I felt the night before I was getting a little ragged, or if we have worked six or seven nights in a row, then I do have to make up for it by not speaking, and drinking more water.
I have a little preparation I make that works very well for me. It is glycerine, like you buy at the drugstore, half glycerine and half fresh lemon juice. What I do is gargle with it, and aerate to get some moisture to the chords. Then I do not talk. Between the lemon making me salivate, and the air sending it back, hopefully I will get some extra lubricant on those chords. Which is what they need. If they go dry, you start to get into nodules.
You know you talk about drying your chords out and all that. Liquor is very bad, and smoking. I do not smoke - not pot very much anymore, or cigarettes. That is direct. The smoke is as hot as the flame and it goes right across your chords. What better drying agent than hot smoke and flame.
I just had my voice and ears checked, and the doctor said they are in extremely good shape. He said I must be singing right. So I am doing good.
Before I knew what I wanted to do vocally, I used to rag my voice a lot. Trying to get that rasp in it that at the time I thought was so cool. I started gong, "Wait a minute, this is wrong," So I told myself, "I am not going to do anything that is going to make me unable to sing." I am only going to sing things I can sing. I would get into some placement of what I do know, and not try to do things I could not do. That is what I started shooting for. I said to myself, "I am not going to do anything that would hurt my voice." That thinking narrowed me down to certain sounds. That is what I am getting now.
You have to be very self-disciplined. It is easy to parallel your lifestyle to an athlete's. I think perhaps the vocalist has more of a physical cross to bear than any other musician.
Yes, a guitarist can be sick with the flu and go out and play. The singer can't go out and buy a new voice or strings. You have the voice you came with and that is all you are going to get. Of course, there are kinds of surgery these days, you will never be the same, though. You are better off keeping what you have, and making sure you have it for a while. That takes discipline and it is frustrating. I enjoy going out partying and drinking with the guys as much as anybody. There are times I just have to go out and have a good time.
You mentioned ears. Since you are in the high energy music field, do you use any type of ear protection?
I fight all the time for lower volume. I do use headphones in the studio and at rehearsal as you saw earlier.
What about performance?
I can't. I have to hear myself. I do not use the monitors well, I will use one once in a while for reference, if for some reason I just can't hear, I will have to monitor off to one side, and I will have the lead guitar coming in. I think I have good pitch, almost perfect pitch, but it is still so relative when you are dealing with other instruments. We keep the stage volume down. We can hear our voices better and the quality of the instruments is much better. The volume is always consistent, as we play more intensely, it gets louder. Then we have to go "Hey, it's getting kind of loud," and we bring it down. We work with our sound mixer, Kevin Elson, like that. We want to give the best out front. That is the bottom line.
How often do you perform while you are on the road?
At least six times a week. Sometimes we do three days on, one off, four days on, one off. It depends. My problem on the road is dealing with the hotels we stay in. We stay in really nice new hotels. The problem is, I would rather stay in an old hotel. At least in an old one you can open the window. You go back in the South, in the summertime, the air conditioners in the hotels are terrible. Talk about drying agents. It is horrible, it strips the moisture our of the room and out of you. I take a humidifier with me all the time.
The human voice is probably the most compelling and the least understood instrument in the world.
Yes, you know, I can't even be in the musicians' union. The way I understand it, to musicians I am not a musician, because I do not have an instrument. Therefore singers have to belong to AFTRA (American Federation of Radio and Television Artists). This goes into what you are talking about. They do not think the voice is an instrument. Now wait a minute, what do you mean it is not an instrument?
Right, it may not have a valve or strings.
I don't know; I think that's really something. In the business I am in, there are so many singers and a lot of them sound alike. A lot of them are offshoots of someone else. I have my influences. I really admire a lot of people from Sam Cooke to Streisand. I want to make some kind of musical statement, to the state-of-the-art of a singer. It takes time. When I get in the studio, I get pretty temperamental. I want it right, every little inflection, every syllable. If a line is delivered right, in feel and structure, but the tone quality is off, then I have to go back and catch all of it. Then there are people who have absolutely no voice, in my opinion, but have much more of a style. There are some people who do not really have much control, or much of anything except a definite identity. They open their mouths and you know it is them. That is worth more sometimes than anything else.
You mentioned there were people who influenced you?
I know this is hard to understand, but I would have to say everybody. A lot of my writing comes from the music of the late and early fifties, that musical simplicity, just more emotional. The early fifties vocalists were really good. Jackie Wilson was incredible. That was back when they were running a one or two-track tape machine. There were no vocal overdubs. Keeping this in mind, these singers were just incredible. I was extremely influenced by the use of echo techniques by Sam Cooke. His tonal qualities he had incredible tone. It would take hours to name everybody. Marion Reynolds and Diana Ross I thought were great. A lot of women singers I thought had tremendous voices. Dee Dee Sharp and Aretha Franklin; she still does. On the other side, I was never fond of Elvis' voice, though I liked Hound Dog and some of the semi-offbeat rhythms were great. I remember buying those records. I even have some old Chuck Berry 78s. Remember the song Green Door? That was a favourite of mine when I was small.
Then the sixties came along. All the surf stuff here comes that falsetto The Beach Boys and Frankie Valli, Lou Christy, Light and Stars Again. Intermingling with all those were all the Motown artists, Aretha Franklin, Sam, Marvin Gaye, Joe Tex, Diana Ross, all that. Then in the later sixties the English groups influenced me. Jack Bruce of Cream was a creative and dynamic singer, for what they were doing. Melding the falsetto into the harmony above it, in a hard-rock format, that was fantastic. Now it has become so sophisticated that I want to get back to a more basic approach.
Where do you feel the whole thrust of contemporary music is headed?
I do not want to say backwards. I will say it is reaching back to its roots. A lot of the old songs are just being rejuvenated, with a new attack to them. Groups like The Knack are doing Beatle-type things. Rock has become so refined. We have gone so far in mechanical perfection in recording. Rock is not going to go backwards. But a singer will reach for a feel of a song, going back. You have groups coming out with incredible production perfection. I am going back to some of the simpler roots. In other words, a vocal performance that has a feel to it, and not necessarily total perfection.
The sophistication you speak of is indicative of a comfortableness within the art form. Rock has grown and spread into many diversified areas. Do you think because of this there is on the horizon a breakthrough group or performer who will come and take rock music in some new direction?
I do not know if there is going to be a certain group. New groups break all the time. It is not uncommon for someone to appear out of nowhere on the first album. For instance, Boston released one album, the first album from them ever. It was a mammoth thing, a mammoth sound, a different sound. Everyone was going, "Wow, these guys are going to turn it around." What ended up happening was, that album got so saturated, they came out with a second one, and that one just nothing. It turned out that they are just another band. They are fantastic, but they are just another really successful band. We are in that group too. We are just another really successful band, but we are trying to make statements at all times.
As far as another Hendrix or Cream or something like that to turn the whole thing around: If I knew, I would be there. But I do not see it happening, I think the music is just going to continue to do what it is doing now.
The Chuck Berry type of rock and roll was dying out and then disco jumped in. What is does is make the rock fans livid. Now there is a social war going on. We played in Chicago, where they were blowing up disco records in Comiskey Park. Because of disco, we are reaching back to even more radical rock. I do not think disco hurt the art form, just like punk has not hurt the art form. They have left their own sort of stains. Now there is rock music that is more danceable but still is rock. Because of punk music, rock is not only more danceable but more aggressive. So they are leaving their marks. In this business, no matter what comes up it leaves its trail.
You talk about rock being more and more diversified. There are so many kinds of rock and roll. Today we played three different kinds of rock and roll songs. We have many others that are melodic. We have vocal and acoustic parts that go into electric parts. So it is very symphonic, very dynamic that way. One thing that keeps rock alive is that it is very wide.
Something I would love to do, I would give anything to sing with a symphony, pick some really nice melodic contemporary songs there are a lot of them and do them with a symphony, use a lot of strings that would be an experience.
Disco has dominated the airwaves, and has not allowed people who have a true statement to be aired, it has put people out of work. A lot of these things are fabricated by a little computer, or they use some scab musician, just overdub a bunch of junk and they put it out under ghost names. They throw this into the marketplace and the marketplace is just eating it up. There are no disco stars. There are disco producers. You mentioned record producers.
It is interesting, the rise of the record producer to the position of the creative artist.
It is sickening. They carry so much weight and the record labels play right into their hands, because they know the producers will deliver the product. I have seen record companies go out and literally sanction a producer. He does not care what they do with it. They are flooding the airwaves for people who are trying to make a definite musical statement. I think that is bad.
You are starting your new album soon?
We start November 5 tentatively. It will be called the Departure album. We named it that because there is going to be a little bit of a musical change. We are departing from some of our roots and keeping some.
How much artistic influence does the producer have in where you are going?
A band is capable of doing most of it themselves, if they are responsible. The reason the job "producer" ever comes into play is, lots of the groups are flakes, or else can't organise their time correctly in the studio. They can't organise themselves to the point of what should we do first? So a record label, as an insurance policy, gets a producer who has a good track record. They pay him a nice percentage to bring a record in under, or at least on, budget. That is all we are talking about, dollars and cents. So the guy sits there and says, "That sounds good, sing a little harder, sing a little softer, we'll have to deal with that " The producer is thinking, "I've got to get this album done." That is where a lot of them are at. So producers are record companies insurance policies that a record will be turned in on budget, and on time, and is literally organised. They feel most groups are not capable of organising themselves.
Plus certain producers have the mystique of "having their own sound" and they do. Some producers get you in studio and use recording techniques that will actually alter the sound you want.
Does that present a different set of problems for you? For instance, when you are on the road performing?
Not us. We play the best we can to sound the way we are. If you saw me today, I was talking with the guys, I have a three-part vocal harmony on Lonely Dreamer. Since I did the vocals on the last album, I am hoping we can do it live. So that is why I was asking, "I have a three-part thing, let's just go over it a little bit." I wanted to check out the feasibility of it being played live, before we lock ourselves in the studio. This is something some groups never do. They just do not think. We sound better live than we do on a record.
I was impressed with the professionalism and the seriousness of the band in rehearsal.
Oh yes, every day. We are a business. That is why I like the band. When I saw the guys, I realised they were not flakes.
How much are you rehearsing when you are not on the road?
A minimum of four hours every day except Saturday or Sunday. We usually take one day off at least. At least five days a week, sometimes six.
Did you audition for Journey?
Vocal auditions are difficult. I actually auditioned for the band, but it was on a tape.
Auditions are pretty tricky. They tend to get your voice a little tight. Singing is a very relaxed thing. Your voice will give you away. When someone is nervous and they are talking, you know they are nervous.
How much out of studio work do you do in preparation, before you go in to record?
It depends. As things get closer to the day we go in to record, of course we do extra work. For instance, last night I hung out at Neal's (Schon) and we worked on a song together. The tunes come real easy. I hope Neal and I can keep writing these things. It is easy to write. Plus I write basically very, very simply.
You do not do any of the lead work?
I do not play any instrument in recording. We have talked about doing double drums with Steve Smith, but we have not gotten to that yet. I play bass and guitar but I do not play in the album. I am not qualified with them. When it comes down to it, they are the ones who play their instrument. They would not ask to sing something I could sing better.
Have you had a clear view of what you have wanted as you have gone along?
The main thing I want to do is make a statement to the state-of-the-art. Words are where rock and roll is going. Rock-and-roll careers tend not to be too long, and I do not want to subject myself to that. So I try to do things that will acquire a standard status. I want them to last, with a quality that will stand the test of time. That is why we spend so much time in the studio. If we do it now and get it right, I know it will stand up in the years to come. I have my goals, my vocal direction, everything in sight, and it is still in sight.
© Voice, Issue #1, March-April 1980