Ross Valory, bassist for Journey, is looking out his funky-but-chic suite in New York's Gramercy Park Hotel. The suite is in the back wing that few people know about; to get to it you ride up in what looks like a freight elevator. The room also looks neglected; the ugly, dark-red carpeting has cigarette burns, and a window blind is falling to one side. Despite the less than glamorous conditions, this is one of New York City's most popular hotels in music business circles.
Across the street is Gramercy Park, which is about half a city block long, with trees, benches, flowers and narrow paths. Since it is one of New York's few private parks, only neighborhood residents have keys to the tall black gates. The Gramercy Hotel is one of the few hotels in New York with a view of anything besides taxicabs and buildings.
"I'm an outdoors person," says the blond, attractive, 28-year-old Valory. "I grew up in a country situation. Because Journey tours for about nine months a year, I'm forced to be a touring nomad, which is contradictory to what I'm used to. I'm actually a person who likes to stay in one place."
Valory turns to the window again, and I wonder if what he's actually seeing is the house and property he shares with his wife in Contra Costa County, just east of San Francisco. A successful rock band must perform concerts around the world; prior to the U.S. tour, the group spent two weeks touring Japan. There is little time left to enjoy a home.
Two years ago, there was a sudden windfall of gold and platinum records for Journey, after the San Francisco-based band traded in its jam-oriented hard rock for a smoother, more song-oriented approach. This was a radical change for a group known primarily for its fine musicianship and won them far more recognition than in all the six years they'd played together. The induction of Steve Perry, a new singer with wide-ranging vocal pipes and rock-star looks - in addition to the short, concise songs on last year's pivotal Infinity album and its recent follow-up, Evolution - made the band a force to be reckoned with. The current line-up, with Perry, Valory, guitarist Neal Schon, keyboardist Gregg Rolie and drummer Steve Smith, looks particularly strong.
In recent talks with Grooves, Valory and Schon spoke about the new sound on Infinity and the success it has brought the band. But they seemed to speak less enthusiastically of Evolution. The new album was neglected as the conversation skipped from the significance of the Infinity LP to vague ideas about the next album, which the group won't be recording for many months.
"Infinity opened a totally new door, and Evolution closes the door to Infinity," explained Schon over the phone from Portland, Maine. He was stuck in the hotel after missing the early-morning fishing trip Perry and some of the others had gone on. "It's like an extension of Infinity. The next album will have a totally new concept. You'll recognize things that you've heard on both Infinity and Evolution and our earlier albums. I think it's going to have both extremes very soft music to very hard, loud music. But I think it's going to be a little harder than it's been before. With this mixture, I think we're going to come up with a really good album."
A few days earlier, in New York, the soft-spoken, ultramellow Valory had said about their albums: "Infinity was a new adjustment. We'd added a fifth member [Perry] to the group, who contributes so much to vocals, songwriting and arrangements. Evolution marks another adjustment. We had our new drummer, Steven Smith, so there have been quite a few transitions. I would imagine the next album will be even more unified in sound and feeling - most likely, it will take a larger step from Evolution than Evolution did from Infinity.
"A few days ago we were talking about approaching the next album in a rock opera or story form. It's a new approach, a new concept, new for us, and certainly not anything that's too old for the public. It's a matter of how we put it across."
Journey is a good name for this band. What started years ago as an informal jam went on to become one of the Bay Area's two hard-rocking success stories (the other being the short-lived Montrose). The Journey, Look Into The Future and Next albums turned Journey into a celebrated headliner in northern California and a strong support act elsewhere. At that time, the emphasis was primarily on brilliant, tasteful, instrumental interplay particularly between Schon's stinging, livid guitar runs and Rolie's rolling, imaginative keyboard leads. The decision to turn to shorter, lyric-oriented material and to incorporate Perry resulted in a more accessible sound but was met with resistance from drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Dunbar, a well-known, well-respected English skin-pounder who'd played previously with John Mayhall, Frank Zappa, David Bowie and now holds the beat for the Jefferson Starship, was finally asked to leave.
Concerning Dunbar, Valory said "Aynsley got bored with the simplistic style of many of the songs in Infinity and Evolution. He's very self-challenging, and he wasn't happy when we decided to support the song rather than the individual musicians."
The members of Journey have only good things to say about Dunbar and his musicianship. They are well aware of the less-than-king things that Dunbar has been saying about the split, but Journey won't pick a fight. Still, they are obviously happier about playing with the more cooperative Smith.
"Steve Smith is giving us a different feeling in the rhythm section," said Valory at one point in our discussion. "We can go into areas where we couldn't go with Aynsley."
What does he mean?
"Smith has more of a rock and roll feeling than the fusion-experimental approach - it's a more earthy, more funky rock and roll style." Valory is speaking very slowly, searching for words. He stops. "It's pretty hard to describe," he says.
Is he saying that Aynsley wasn't earthy or funky?
"In some areas, yes," he admits.
"This kid is really heavy," Schon says of Smith. "Some of the newer material lets him shine because he's a fusion drummer. I've written some heavier rock stuff, stuff that almost sounds like monster music, where he gets to open up and play."
In concert at the Palladium, Journey unleashed sparkling musicianship at megavolume. In center stage, Smith banged away, keeping a steady beat with a variety of drums and cymbals. Rolie's keyboard runs gave the music a thick, full sound, while Schon took the spotlight with biting, uncompromising guitar riffs. Valory, posing like a handsome blond model, held the bass line, and Perry paraded around the stage, singing his soul out.
Over the wire a few days later, Schon asked me if I hadn't observed the difference between Dunbar's and Smith's playing. I hadn't, which I told him, reminding him that while he plays with the same musicians at least nine months a year, even the biggest Journey fans only see the group in concert once a year. Quite frankly, both Dunbar and Smith sounded good.
The veteran Journeymen are just as pleased with their recently acquired vocalist. Several years ago, when Perry had expressed interest in joining the band, they weren't interested in him. Later, when Journey was considering adding a front man to work the audience and help out on harmonies, a demo tape of Perry's found its way into the right hands. Meanwhile, Journey tried to work in Robert Fleischman as their new singing member, but it didn't quite work out. After scrutinizing each other carefully, Perry and Journey joined forces.
On record, Perry's far-reaching vocal range has an unusual intensity - particularly in the higher octaves. On stage, his performing skills enhance the band's visual presentation, charging the audience and offering a tasteful balance between vocals and instrumental breaks. Long-time Journey fans at first resented the concept of a front man and the new approach in Journey's music, but now both old fans and thousands of new ones have not only found that none of Journey's integrity has been lost, but that Perry is adding something positive. Nothing lost, something gained.
"The band is fairly settled now for the duration of its career," said Valory. "We don't feel we need to make any more personnel changes in order to continue." Schon says that he too is satisfied with the band the way it is now.
And apparently, so is the public. In Chicago and elsewhere, Journey played multiple shows to sold-out, cheering audiences. Many major cities responded well to Journey's performances on this year's coast-to-coast and back-to-coast again American tour, but the group gained an even larger following by playing every backwoods town with a concert stage. Valory laughed knowingly at my observation that you've got to respect a band that plays every armpit in America.
"I would tend to think that, on average, our stage performances are better than the performances on the albums," said Valory, when quizzed about the importance of the live dates. "Anyone who writes a song and freezes it on a recording will find that the song continues to grow on everybody [in the band] and tends to become more unified and better performed. You could say that the performance end is a moving picture and a recording is a still. So I'd say that, for Journey, performances are better and more exciting than recordings. Journey has relied heavily on its performances, and performances are better representations of us than songs on albums."
Slickly produced albums like Infinity and Evolution, which have lots of overdubs, with separately recorded tracks lined up side by side, seem almost out of character. Earlier albums featured music that grew out of jams - pure live performance - with comparatively few overdubs. Obviously, their approach to recording has changed, but Schon says that their creative process in composition is coming around full circle.
"It's basically the same, you know," Schon said thoughtfully. "I guess you get an idea, and you try to get everybody else hearing the same thing you're hearing. We used to just sit down and jam. We'd improvise. We're getting back into that. We're going to cut a bit more live on the next album, instead of cutting basics and then doing guitar solos and things like that. When we first go in, I'm going to play all the solos and everything. If I want to put rhythm [guitar tracks] on them later, I'll do it then. You get a lot more fire that way, and a lot more interplay with the band.
"In the last two years, our work has been more thought out than what we did previously. We trimmed passages so that we could get more songs on the LP. It was a different concept altogether, and it was a good one. But I also miss what we had before, so that's what we're going to get back now. It's not that we don't have it. We have to put it together in the right vein. We're definitely growing; we're just starting to find out who we are.
"[Journey is] in the middle of crossing over from where we were in Infinity. Then Journey was totally different than what it started out to be. It turned out that people liked it, and we ended up liking it too. I wasn't so sure at first, because it was such a change, but then I really liked it. Evolution has more rock than Infinity, and things like acoustic guitar and vocals and heavy rock sections in the middle. We have some heavy ballads and some heavy rock tunes. Now we're playing more naturally."
"As a business, and more importantly, as a family, Journey intends to last as long as possible, " offered Valory. "We've made all our decisions and all our moves in terms of long-range plans. Musically, we're flexible enough not to get trapped into a recorded sound or bag. And Journey is a family, more so than many other groups. Our success comes from spending so much time together."
Has the group thought about releasing solo albums?
"Yes, but it's not something that would be advantageous to the energy of Journey," theorizes Valory. "I think if you start to hear solo albums, it will mean a decline in the group. In the meantime, we're putting aside our individual aspirations in favor of promoting the image of the whole group."
The family that plays together stays together.
© Grooves Magazine, December 1979 (transcribed by Kate)