Carlos Santana & Neal Schon: Journey to the Center of the “Music”

By Rod DeGeorge

Photography Courtesy of : MARYANNE BILHAM

Originally Published in our Guitarist Issue

Carlos Santana and Neal Schon recently reunited, along with many of their original bandmates, to record Santana IV, 45 years after the release of Santana III. Listening to their latest offering, you are reminded of the magic that this group possesses. All of them, stellar musicians possessing a deep sense of musicality. Santana IV is a fresh, vibrant and intense recording sure to be a favorite amongst fans. Carlos and Neal were kind enough to sit down with us and discuss how they got to where they are and what keeps them going.

Guitar Connoisseur: The two of you have a rich history together, can we briefly go back to the beginning and talk about how it all started? For example, Carlos, what was it that you saw in a 15 yr old Neal, that you thought was the right fit for you at the time? And Neal, can you then describe what it was like to go from high school to touring the world with these world-class musicians?

Carlos Santana: Go ahead, Neal.

Neal Schon: Ok, wow, man. Well, I was just completely blown away, it was just an unbelievable experience for me, definitely one of the best experiences that I probably will ever have in my lifetime. You know, I’ve been lucky enough to have another chance to play with these amazing musicians again, and Carlos and I, you know, I always love playing with him. I think that we bring out the best in each other, and so, it was an amazing to play on the last record, the Santana IV record again after so many years. But, I mean, coming out of high school and jumping into Santana, was the last thing that I thought would ever happen. And it was just an amazing experience. I loved how we traveled all over the world, and that was pretty much a lot of the root connection with me growing up in this world. You know, playing for everybody all over the world, it was amazing.

GC: Yeah, I can only imagine that would be an otherworldly experience for a 15-year-old.

NS: Definitely, and you know, the band at the time, was really big, I think that there was nobody bigger worldwide than Santana. It seemed like everywhere we went, the band was just so looked up to and the music conveyed in every place we went.

GC: That’s amazing! And Carlos, can you talk about what it was that you saw in Neal?

CS: Oh, it’s just one word you know? Brilliance. Neal always plays with brilliance, grace, and power. But brilliance in a sense that it was very shiny, you know? As soon as he put his fingers on the frets of the guitar, and you hear that sound, it was very luminous. Also, at that time everywhere I looked, every band that I loved, whether it was Eric Clapton with Duane Allman or Peter Green with another guitarist, it seemed like everybody had two guitar players all of the sudden. The Allman Brothers had two guitarists, you know? I said there must be a reason why this is happening. So, it really worked out well when Neal and I got together on the third album because, by the time we did songs like Jungle Strut, which, takes a harmony, two guitar playing in harmony, it really worked out well.

And Neal is correct about the frequency of Santana at that time. You know, certain things were unfolding, and certain scenes have already peaked. Like the Beatles have already peaked with the biggest album at that time, which was Abbey Road. But, to me, if you put Abbey Road, next to Santana Abraxas, or the third album, or Marvin Gay’s What’s Going On, you know Santana would hold its ground, right along with Led Zeppelin, and all those. This is not the Olympics, it’s not about competition or comparing, but it’s about complementing. So, all I’m saying is, that we were holding our own frequency of excellence, and not cute, clever, or not, you know, not a girl/boy band, not that that kind of thing. We aspired to be in the same presence with Weather Report, Miles Dave and Jimi Hendrix and all that.

So, we were in the quest with a lot of thirst for greatness, because everywhere we saw it, the people that we love, from James Brown too, like I said, Led Zeppelin or Hendrix or Cream, you know, and Peter Green. So, it for me was natural to absorb the idea that with Neal in the band, we were able to take our vision into a place where we could be in the same arena as I said, with Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, you know, like that.

NS: Ferocious. You know, the band can be ferocious at any moment, and there was like, no stopping it. I was reminded again when I most recently went back in the studio. that with this rhythm section, you know, and when everything gets going, there’s just no stopping it. It’s a steamroller that is just… gone. And you just take the ride, and it’s an amazing ride and the band truly has this chemistry. When we got back together, there is truly some chemistry. To where we didn’t have to really over-rehearse things, and we kind of walked in blindly a lot. You know, Carlos would play an idea, or we would bring in an idea, and we talk about it, and then it would go completely somewhere else, but it always came out like, so centered, like all of us were in the same place.

GC: Yes. One of the first things that struck me while listening to Santana IV, was the energy. This is a fresh, vibrant, tight and intense recording. It sounds like everyone was firing on all cylinders, there’s no just “going through the motions” on this one. Can you talk about your thoughts on that, and how everyone still achieves this level 40 plus years later?

NS: You know, for myself, I think…, you know, Carlos loves to play as much as I do, and I love to play, like every day. And if you go to take a sound check with Carlos, I was once again reminded, that he likes to play for a couple hours in a sound check and rehearse with the band and ad sections. Ones that might not happen that night, but you’re learning all these sections, and at any given moment you could go there. Maybe even not the night that you rehearsed it on, but maybe the next night. And so the spontaneity, and listening, is like, key. That’s something that he taught me, and the whole band did. Because that where it all comes from, is everybody listening to one another and not like off in your own world, or looking at a piece of sheet music. It’s all coming from within. You know, it’s heart and soul and you have to really listen to be connected, and we just had had some great experiences recording-wise.

GC: Yeah, it definitely sounds it!

CS: What I try to do to be consistent in the studio, or a sound check, or doing the gig, is to get three things going, the right tempo, the right mood, and the right feel. Because when you get those things, two things disappear immediately, time and gravity. All of a sudden you don’t feel the weight of your bones, or the weight of years on your body. And time for me, well, when you see Neal with his lady, you can just tell that the time is not important, you know? When you see Cindy and me, you can tell that time is not important, we make time stop and disappear.

Because all you see with Neal and his lady and Cindy and I, in our eyes, it’s just pure loving, without even touching, you know? I happen to have another plus, that she’s on stage playing with me. Those are the pluses that I have (laughs). The reason I’m saying this is because I don’t practice things like a robot, to practice and play it exactly on stage. You know it’s like taking a photograph of a ghost that doesn’t like to pose, you know what I’m saying? So, when we rehearse at sound check, we want to capture something that is invisible and make it incredible. And that’s the groove, the feel, and the tempo, you know if we missed the bridge, or we went too early to the chorus, it doesn’t matter because the groove is so delicious, it doesn’t matter.

GC: That’s great! Now, Carlos, you have been very open and non-hesitant, speaking about the spiritual nature of things, seeing and reading energies etc. Can you talk about how and when this all started for you, and the effect it has on your life and music?

CS: Well, it started when I was born and also with my Mom and Dad, but it really got crystallized to a whole other level of intensity and clarity when Michael Shrieve turned me on to Miles (Davis) & (John) Coltrane. Then Marcus Malone took me to his house and then he had to leave the room for a while. He left a big joint on the table and then he put on a Love Supreme by John Coltrane, and as soon as I took one puff of that joint and listened to a Love Supreme, then I knew the spiritual can be very profitable and very tangible. It’s a language, you know? When you see Usain Bolt run, the way he runs with that intensity, and that velocity, and you see the fire in his eyes, that’s Neal and I and this band. We don’t crawl, we soar you know?

NS: Amen, I loved that.

CS: You know what I am saying? So, if by any chance, somebody who reads this article, they say, well if it is what Carlos is saying, and what Neal is saying, then I’m going to invite them to open up for the Rolling Stones, or Roger Walters, or a Paul McCartney, watch out! Be careful what you wish for! You know, because this is not about nostalgia, this is about energy like Usain Bolt.

NS: It’s now. Right now

GC: Yeah, that’s the thing, when I listen to Santana IV like Neal just said, it’s NOW. It’s very fresh, & vibrant, full of energy. And that brings up the question, how do you guys still achieve this level, of not only the musicianship but the enthusiasm, 40 plus years later?

NS: I know that Carlos and I, and the rest of the guys, we are like, real true musicians, that aspire to get better day by day. We don’t rest on our laurels, you know? We don’t look at all the gold and platinum records and awards all over our walls, and on shelves and go oh, that’s me. I don’t have to do anything more. I look at it like I’m an only as good as the last day I played. You know, I want to play every day like it’s my last day. And so, I have a true love, like Carlos does for music and exploring it, and it’s endless. There is no ending to it, it goes on forever. There’s so much to be learned, and so much to enjoy. You know, you were asking how do you keep that fire. It’s enthusiasm within, aspire to get better.

GC: Can you both talk a little bit on your personal take on the power of music, and when you first really felt it on a deep level?

NS: Well you know, I started playing when I was ten, and after I’ve been playing for two years, I had really developed a love for blues and R&B. I was listening to a lot of Eric Clapton, and I was listening to a lot of B.B. King and Albert King. Michael Bloomfield, at the time, I was really into, when I was very young. And you know, I’ve developed such a feeling for the blues, in my heart and soul and I could go see Aretha (Franklin) at the Fillmore West, and I just, you know, all the hairs on my arms and all over my body just stood up. And I didn’t quite understand at the time what was going on, but I was being so deeply moved by what I was hearing. You know, when music touches you in that kind of a way, it’s truly a force, a beautiful force, that cannot be denied. It overwhelms you, your body and everything that you ever thought you could be. It’s a universal language and universal healer as Carlos and I both believe, you know? It can do no wrong, you could only do good when you were coming from a real place and you’re feeling it.

CS: Very few musicians can do this, and I’m going to give whoever is reading some clues, because certain things you can’t learn at Berklee School of Music, you know? But, you can access it from within. One is that, if you learn to make one note from your fingers and the string, on any guitar, any amplifier, any set of anything, but it is you, and if you can make one note sound like a legion of angels, then that’s what I’m talking about! You know, when you listen to Whitney Houston as she sings that note in I Will Always Love You, and she hits that note high, that’s a legion of angels high. Buddy Guy has that note, Buddy Guy is that note, Jimi (Hendrix) is that note, Otis Rush is that note, Neal is that note, I am that note. So it’s not the pedals, it’s not the speakers, it’s not the wire or even the guitar, you are the conduit and if you don’t learn to do that, then you’re putting a lot of mask on your face, and people cannot see your true face. Because your true face is your sound, your true face is your sound that you were born with.

Sometimes I just plug-in, many people have invited me to jam with them and I’m like, oh shit, ok, don’t think, just trust. I look at the guitar, I don’t know this guitar, it is not my lover. I don’t know who this stranger is, but as soon as I grab it, and as soon as I step in it, people say wow, how did you make that guitar sound like you? You know? And Neal has the same thing. So that’s most of the clues that I would give to musicians who are aspiring, learn to make one note, Alpha, and Omega, a legion of angels, one.

And here is the other one, here is a big clue. Very few people can play fast and deep. Most people when they play fast, they go really shallow, you know? And so Otis Rush plays really, really, really, deep, deep, deep. That’s why you have Stevie Ray Vaughn call his band double trouble after one of his (Otis Rush’s) songs. Eric Clapton will tell you, I love Albert King, Freddie King or B.B., but Otis Rush, you know, that’s the sound of deep. And that album with John Mayall, the first one that he did, you know a lot of the fellas are from Otis Rush. And so this is the clues that I give to other musicians. If you really want to learn to, like Neal says, give people chills, and I was thinking about this about half an hour before this call, I was thinking about how real musicians, they assault your senses. They go inside your pores, and then inside your skin, all the way to your heart. And once they hit the center of your heart, you start laughing, and then crying, and then dancing, and then you’re free. Very few musicians can do that to other people. They release people from the illusions of their own inadequacy, you know? So, when people dance, like in a revival, that’s not a show, that is really happening, it’s like a spiritual voodoo incantation happening. It is like, wow, what is happening with that guy, he’s laughing and crying and screaming and going bananas, but he’s got the holy ghost. So Neal can bring the holy ghost, Neal is an antenna, that can receive and transmit the holy ghost, and so am I. And that takes music to a whole other level beyond the notes and chords, you know? I just thought I’d passed that information to whoever can use it because those are accessible to everyone, not just to Neal and I.

GC: That’s great! Thank you.

NS: Yeah, I totally agree with Carlos. You know, there’s Berklee School of Music, where so many young kids go and they develop such chops and ability, understanding theory, this and that, but I think honestly, I’m glad that I didn’t go, and I’m glad that Carlos didn’t go. Because what we learned is how to be us. And what we did was we listened to everyone that we really truly loved, and continue to love, and anybody that is inspiring, we listen to. You know, I love hanging out with Carlos because he’s always got so much new music all the time with him, that he’s playing me, you know? I’ve never had a friendship with any musician, or friends ever, like Carlos where, man it’s like it’s better than school! I hated school, and when I joined the band, I loved the band, and I loved him. Because he was giving me an education every day on music from all over the world. I think that’s how you come up with your pure style, is like, you know, not emulating people. I mean, sure you did that in the beginning when you’re first learning, figuring out where your fingers are going, and you take your favorite players like I did, and you sat in your bedroom with a record player, and you’d have to slow it down, and slow it down, so you could understand what the pattern is and the progression. But I think that this time spent alone as well with like an amazing band like Santana, that is where you find yourself. You do find yourself there because it’s such a different band musically. It’s not about Pop, not about Rock, it’s not about just one thing, everything you could imagine, you know? It’s like that Santana Cajun Soup.

CS: Yeah, you know, the thing that I love to turn Neal on to, is something that he already is. To some extent, it’s just revising it, you know? He already is those things, he already has those things. But what happens is, the same thing that I mentioned to Eric Gales, this incredible guitar player, and also and Gary Clark you know? I said to them, when you hear my band, it is going to blow your mind. You’re going to salivate and you’re going to wish that you had this thing that we have, and I want to tell you how to get it. You have to expand your Rolodex and your portfolio. You can’t take me and my band as a one-trick pony. So, you have to listen to Marvin Gaye as much as (John) Coltrane, as much as Django Reinhardt, as much the Segovia, you know, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, and so when you hear Santana, and when you hear Neal, you see a whole vocabulary of string benders that you go, WOW! All in one note.

GC: I imagine everyone must have been stoked about the CD and the live DVD, how did you feel about releasing it in today’s industry, where it is a totally different landscape? And do either of you have any thoughts on the state of the music industry today?

CS: So for me, Santana is very tangible proof that you don’t have to lip sync to get it going. I never learned how to lip sync, you know? So, in today’s bands, where they practice everything, I mean every single pose, every single note. They practice it and they go on stage and they just regurgitate that, over and over and over, and I’m like, no, I don’t want that at all. I want first time ever, everything, with a whole lot of virgin-ness.

NS: Okay, so, when are we doing Santana five Carlos?

CS: Okay, I’m ready man! I want to get together with you and everybody, maybe Monday or Tuesday on a phone call. So we can talk about how to get beyond all of that stuff (schedules etc). So we can get to it!

GC: Awesome! You heard it here! (laughter)

(Carlos got called away for another scheduled interview, however, Neal was kind enough to stay on and continue)

GC: Neal, do you have thoughts on the state of the industry?

NS: Well, you know what I think the main problem for myself and many musicians is, well you know, the whole digital domain of downloading stuff, way back with Napster. It was the beginning of the end. You know, to be able to make a living, making new music. I mean, really, you know, hardly anybody sells records. With Carlos and this last record, I was astounded, I got a check the other day! (laughter)

You know, that’s like unheard of in this day of where the music industry is. But, I think the thing that could help is a great manager and you know I have one, that’s working on it right now with YouTube and everybody else. Irving Azoff, you know, going after streaming, going after YouTube etc. I think that there needs to be new laws laid down for the Internet, all over the Internet. I’m not even just talking about music, I’m talking about there needs to be new laws period. Congress has to get their fucking act together.

I mean we’re living in a New Age World, where people are getting away with murder you know? No pun intended. It’s like it’s like completely crazy! Some kids are killing themselves over what other kids are posting of them. it is so stupid man. It is really out of hand, you know? I mean I’m just going wow, when is somebody really going to get a grip on this thing in Congress and make new laws for everybody for the Internet. I mean, the Internet can be a really amazing place, for myself I was able to find Arnel (Pineda), so that Journey could continue. Rather than flying people from all over the world and having a two hundred fifty thousand dollars debt, for flying in people, that you know after two seconds of hearing them, that they’re not going to be the real deal. And that’s happened and I’ve done it before, and I was really happy with discovering YouTube. But you know, people when they first started, it might have been an enhancement for musicians to get their music out there, but now, you’re paying for it, people are paying for it, and they’re not really paying anyone. And they are saying well, we’ve built you up to here, no you didn’t! You know, you may have helped a little bit, but yeah…

Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve, Neal Schon, Carlos Santana, Michael Carabello

GC: That’s right. I also think, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but I think it now tends to be more about a celebrity type thing, rather than an artistic thing. I think that affects the quality of a lot of the new music that comes out now. Could you comment on that?

NS: Yeah you know, there’s a failure there. There’s pretty much nonexistent radio, very little radio. You know, radio used to be that thing for bands that were a little bit off the cuff and not just writing hits for AC you know, adult contemporary. And, you know, AOR radio and Rock radio and, you know, in Europe a lot of it still exists, and in Canada. But just in the United States man, kids can’t learn if they can’t see it and hear it. The best thing that I can say, and I’ve been saying it when people ask me, “how do you do win in a day and age like this?”, you have to play as much as you can, and be seen as much as you can, like, in person. You know, making a record is a beautiful thing, but nobody can assure that people are going hear it.

GC: That is true. Well, I truly appreciate you taking the time today, both of you have been a big influence on myself and so many other musicians, it means a lot to us. Thanks again for being so gracious with your time and openness while talking about everything.

NS: Oh, thank you man, thank you for spreading the word!

GC: Our pleasure! We look forward to what’s coming next from you two.

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