With the release of their last two albums (Infinity and Evolution), Journey has risen from almost total obscurity to national prominence. There are several reasons for that success. Some point to the addition of lead singer Steve Perry, a talented vocalist who also writes great tunes, like their current hit "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'." Others credit the shift from their earlier instrumental music to a more accessible, tune-oriented style. Whatever the cause, Journey's time has definitely arrived.
Steve Smith is the latest addition to the group, chosen to replace former drummer Aynsley Dunbar who left Journey after it had become apparent to all concerned that he and the others were moving in different directions.
The first time Smith ever saw Journey was in 1978 when he opened their Infinity tour as a member of Montrose. "During that time everybody in Journey watched me play, and I watched them and we got to know each other." Says Smith. At the end of the tour Smith was asked to join the group.
How did he feel about fitting into someone else's shoes? Calling from his Mill Valley, California home, Smith explained that it's only now, with the new album, that he feels he's able to bring his own personality into the music. "When I first joined the band I had to learn all the old music that Aynsley had played, I had to learn all his parts and kind of adapt my style a bit to go with what he was doing. That was the hardest thing for me to do. Now that we're writing the music as a group with me in the band, it's much easier because I don't have to try to be somebody else.
HP: How is being part of a rock band different from playing with Jazz groups? (Smith played with Jean-Luc Ponty, among others.)
Smith: When you play with a jazz leader you're just a side-man and they hire you to go on tour with them. You're not actually in the band. In that kind of situation I'd be working for someone else, they tell me what to do and I have to do it and if I don't do it, I don't stay in their band. With Journey I'm not really working for someone else, all five of us are working together.
HP: Is this more fun?
Smith: I think so. I like the rock and roll audience because they're just so wild, they're really enthusiastic. Playing in a rock band is real rewarding because I get to contribute my share, everyone listens to what everybody has to say they don't say just be quiet and do what I tell you to do.
HP: What did you think of Journey the first time you heard them?
Smith: I thought they were great. It was my favorite band, that's why there was such good rapport between us.
HP: When you listened to Aynsley, did you think "I could do better"?
Smith: I used to watch him every night and I would think about that what it would sound like if I was playing but that was back then, while it was happening nobody mentioned it, nobody even though of it. It wasn't until much later, after that tour was done that my joining the band came about.
HP: Were you surprised when they asked you?
Smith: Yeah, I really was. I was visiting my folks in Boston and I got a call from the manager (Herbie Herbert) it was August 1978, and he asked me if I was into joining the band and I said yes. I was completely surprised.
HP: Was it a dream come true?
Smith: Well, it was exactly what I was looking for, so yeah. Then in September, we started rehearsing. I had to rehearse all the old material that they had done before because we had to go out and do some shows I had to learn all the old music in one month. They wanted to see if I would really work out, you know, and then we did the shows and it worked fine so we started working on "Evolution". I feel like I was part of "Evolution" because I was on the record but not so much as this record (Journey was getting ready to record their 6th album when this conversation took place.) because a lot of those songs were already written when I was in the group so it's much more a personal statement of the five of us right now. It's more of our personalities coming through.
HP: Where are you going to record?
Smith: We're going to record in San Francisco because everybody lives around here. We've been going to Los Angeles to record but we've been on the road so much if we went to LA to do this record we wouldn't be home at all, maybe two months out of the year. We've just finished rehearsing and now we're going to record.
HP: Is Roy Thomas Baker producing again?
Smith: No, Geoff Workman is going to be the producer. (Workman engineered Journey's last two albums.) Our live sound engineer, Kevin Elson, is going to be the co-producer and we're going to produce too.. Everybody's just going to be in there equally, putting in his share. It will probably take us about three months to do the album. We've rented the studio for 24 hours a day so we can use it as long, or as little, as we want. On the last record we worked 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, real steady, and this time we'll try to do something like that maybe even more because we don't have just 8 hours. We can go in for 5 hours and take 2 hours off and then go in for 5 or 6 more hours.
HP: Is it going to be very difficult (difficult is the word used in the interview) from "Evolution"?
Smith: Yes, there's more instrumental music on it, not so much instrumental songs, there are no instrumental songs, but there's more playing on it. The last two albums were vocally dominant, now it's kind of evening out. The songs are different from anything Journey's ever done before. It's impossible to describe in words we're going to continue in the areas that we're real strong in, that people enjoy hearing us do, but we're also going to go into some different areas, some lighter areas where we play more subtle tunes. We're going to play some more hard rock too. It's going to develop in all kinds of different areas we haven't gotten into before.
HP: Have you already picked a title?
Smith: Right now the tentative title is "Departure", to signify that we're going off in different directions, not to signify that we're leaving, as some people think, ha ha ha.
HP: What about the new stage show? I hear it's going to be spectacular.
Smith: Well, I haven't seen it yet, so I don't know. Nobody's seen it yet, but we hear it's going to be great.
HP: What do you think sets Journey apart?
Smith: Well, I think some of it has to do with the musicianship of the group everyone really plays well. Steve's voice is very unique, there's nobody that quite sounds like him and it's really exciting what we do in live performances, we really generate a lot of energy. All those things really help. Our office really helped too they've built up a really good rapport with all the people we work with so people enjoy working with us. That turns over and we get a lot of work, we get to play a lot. It's hard to say exactly what one thing it is, there are all kinds of reasons for our success.
HP: Whose idea was it to include all those "thank-you's" on the record sleeve? (The band thanked just about everyone from the people in the San Francisco Bay area to the concert promoters.)
Smith: It was probably our manager's. He presented the idea to us and everybody agreed and thought it was a good thing for us to do because people really enjoy seeing that their work is appreciated.