Why Journey Was the Hardest Thing Narada Michael Walden Ever Did
For a brief moment, Journey had an "army of drummers." That's how legendary drummer and producer Narada Michael Walden terms the time he spent playing live with the San Francisco-bred rock legends. As he told UCR, it was also one of the hardest things he's ever done.
Walden had crossed paths with various members of the group throughout his long career. But he linked up with Neal Schon to help produce and co-write material for the guitarist's Universe solo album, which was released in 2020.
They never left the studio – and before he knew it, he was helping the members of Journey craft their first new studio album in over a decade. Freedom arrived in 2022, an expansive double LP with fifteen new songs that the band wrote with Walden, who co-produced the effort with Schon and Jonathan Cain.
He played a series of high-profile concerts with Journey in 2021, including a headlining performance at Lollapalooza. The shows marked a further evolution for the group, who welcomed Deen Castronovo back to the ranks – and performed with both drummers for a brief period. But Walden eventually decided to step away.
In the past couple of years, he's been working on a variety of projects, including Euphoria, his latest solo album, which will be released on Nov. 17. He'll preview the set with a new single, "The More I Love My Life" on Nov. 10. The energetic single features Sting, Carlos Santana and Stevie Wonder and proves that Walden hasn't lost a bit of his zest for making music.
During a conversation on Zoom, he discussed a variety of topics, including the new album. In the first part of the interview below, he digs into his rocket ride experience with Journey and why he decided he needed to leave.
You had worked with Neal Schon on his Universe album, but you were also coming in after Steve Smith left Journey, so there’s a number of different things that happened leading up to you doing the Freedom album with the band. How did it all unfold from your perspective?
I did the Universe solo album with Neal and we broke a lot of love and a lot of soul on that record, here in the studio, live. It was such a loving project [for both of us] that when COVID came around, it shut everything down. We couldn’t go anywhere. We were stuck. So somehow or another, it was suggested, “Why don’t we just do a Journey album?” I’m not sure if Neal suggested it or I suggested it or how it came down. But it was like, “Maybe I could just join up and do it with Journey and make a new album.” That kind of thing. It was very organic and natural, how it kind of fell into that. Neal was on a high, creatively speaking. He brought in his keyboards and his amplifier, which we still had from the solo album, set up already. He brought in a few more things that he wanted to get into.
I said, “Why don’t I just help you channel your vision for what you think that Journey should be doing at this time?” That’s what I did, I just kind of helped him have babies. He would go on the keyboard and just hear it, what he felt and what he loved. Then, we would immediately track that idea on guitar and live drums. No bass. We might do that for the first four or five ideas and then send it out to Randy [Jackson] in L.A. to put bass on. [Then we would] send it out to Jonathan Cain to do some keyboard work and then write some lyrics. When I’d get the lyrics back from Jonathan, then I would connect on Zoom with Arnel [Pineda] in the Philippines. I’d come in on the night shift with Jimmy Reitzel, our main engineer and say, “Hi, Arnel!” He’d sing it on Zoom and we’d record it on the album.
It just snowballed. There were so many songs done like that. Neal caught a fire and idea after idea kept coming. Now, we’ve got a double album. There was so much material that it became [that]. Everyone just had a good time giving to the project. Bob Clearmountain stepped in and did some mixing. Before we knew it, he mixed an entire album. Like I said, we had time on our hands during COVID, so we just used our creative juices and got busy. One thing led to another and before we knew it, we had a double album up in here.
READ MORE: Journey, 'Freedom': Album Review
Did you think you were going to go out on the road with the band? All of the sudden, you’re in the group.
Yeah, I liked the idea of playing the classic hits. I love some of their classic hits. Neal had asked at one point about me doing…he had kind of a Journey band [Journey Through Time] that does more of the jam side. I wasn’t interested in that. I may have said to him along the way, “You know, I’m a fan of Steve Smith and I like a lot of the things he’s played with you cats and I like your hits. So maybe at some point, if Journey ever tours, maybe I can help on that side.” Because I like the hits. Then, that happened. [Laughs] That happened, man. Where I actually started learning the material.
After COVID, we did some shows in Chicago. We went up there to rehearse and we did [a show] at the Aragon Ballroom. It was probably the most high [of the shows we played]. I’ll never forget my drum solo on that first night playing with Journey. I actually lost consciousness, I went that high. I don’t even remember what I played. I got out of the body. On the last night we were in Chicago, we did a massive show called Lollapalooza, for 125,000 people outdoors, during the tail end of COVID. It was still going on. But they didn’t care. They wanted the rock, so we brought it, man. We brought it hardcore.
The way it all unfolded, when I went to Chicago to rehearse with the band, it was so much music. Like, I learned the first 11 songs. And then, they gave me, maybe another 13 songs. Also, I must say, they wanted to play the live versions. Not the record versions, but the live versions. Everything that Steve [Smith] had done live. Which is a lot of drumming. To memorize all of that [was a lot]. In the fifth day of rehearsals, Neal said, “We want to do more than these songs you’ve learned. Playing the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, we want to be able to draw from the hat of older material.” Early Journey with Aynsley Dunbar. [Laughs] So he said, “I suggest we bring in Deen [Castronovo], who knows that music too. You can learn from him.” I said, “Great!”
So in came Deen and he was shocked, looking at me. I’m looking at him and there’s a Roland drum kit there and there’s my drums. We started playing together and like that, we locked – with what he knew and what I knew. I started realizing that what I knew might be a little bit different than what he was playing. So I had to kind of be on my toes to lock in with [us having] two drummers, really play the groove strong and go with what I knew. That’s kind of what we did. We did another five days of rehearsing with what he knew from all of the years of touring with Journey and what I had learned in learning the recordings with Steve and whatever else. We kind of found a mishmash of the best of both worlds. It sounded like an army of drummers. It sounded just huge. I mean, even Neal was like, “It’s an army of drummers!” He was turned on by it. We all got turned on by it.
For the live shows, like Aragon and Lollapalooza, the sound is massive. It’s like Journey times two. Me and him together, going at it. It was massive. We went back and did some more shows [after that]. The last show was in Pennsylvania and then God said that was enough. But I did my share, to really help [them] coming out of COVID, bring a new life back to that band. They had a new double album. But I’m gonna tell you something, man. Journey music is no joke. Because Steve Smith – let me tell you – he is a beast. It’s funny, back in my [early] life, after the Mahavishnu Orchestra and working with Jean-Luc Ponty, Steve Smith came on the scene and started playing with Ralphe Armstrong and [Ponty]. I knew about him. He was a great, young cat on the scene.
When I came out here to San Francisco, Steve took a few lessons with me, actually. I showed him some stuff I’d learned from Steve Gadd in New York. I was sharing with him stuff I’d learned and he would share with me. It was fun, to be kind of friends. We had a band together at one point with two drummers, called Take That. We’d do battles together, just kind of going at it. So I became a real friend to Steve. But it’s a different thing to learn what he played with Journey, note for note. He played a lot of music, man. A lot of fills, a lot of stuff. A lot of chops – and I had to really learn all of that stuff. Man, it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life. You see, because [playing with] Mahavishnu Orchestra, although it’s hard, it’s open to interpretation. It’s open to spontaneity. You know, you join Tommy Bolin, you can play whatever. But it’s opened up, there’s a lot of room to do stuff.
That’s not the case with Journey. Journey was like playing a Broadway show. It was like stepping into definite fills that people have grown to love and expect. If you don’t play those same feels, it doesn’t feel like Journey. So that’s what I had to learn. It’s not as open to interpretation as one might think. It’s really like, play the book that we’re used to hearing – with new gusto – but play the book. Because if you change it around too much, the fans don’t jell, like it’s Journey. When you play those exact drum fills, it’s like, “Whoa, this is Journey.” Because there’s a lot of imitation bands out there, which I didn’t think about that much. You know, there’s a lot of imitators doing their own thing. So when Journey shows up, they’re expecting Journey! [Laughs] So that’s what I had to learn. It’s a lot of music, man. Oh my God, it’s a lot of music.
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I appreciate you sharing all of that, because I think folks have been really curious about why you stepped away. It was a special moment having you in the lineup. I’m glad it was documented with the Lollapalooza release.
Thank you, brother. You know, I had a lot of tension in my life. Like I told you, I’ve got three young children. I couldn’t be gone that long. And Journey, man. I kind of knew they toured a lot ... but you know, whatever. No. No, they tour. They’re beasts. They’re touring beasts. I mean, it’s nothing for them to be gone all of the time. Major tours – and then all of the corporate gigs on top of that and then more major touring. It wasn’t good for my life. But Neal became a really close friend. Jonathan Cain is a very gifted cat, as you know, Randy Jackson did not tour with us, but he played tremendous bass. Marco Mendoza was with us on bass when I was touring with them. He was another beast. Deen coming back, stronger than ever – he was all cleaned out and just strong, just singing and playing [his heart out]. It was cool to lock with him. He brought that brother spirit out. There was a lot of love going down and a lot of intensity.
I became really close with Neal’s wife as well, Michaele. She’s a spearhead in the band, really driving with Neal and just focused on Journey and how they can keep it going and have the ownership they deserve and get it to where they feel good about it, so they can go for another 25 years! They’re really driven, man. I’ve really got to take my hat off for the amount of love they’re really trying to preserve [with] Journey, as people. It’s like going back into time warp. People hear this music and they remember where they were when they heard that music. They get excited. The whole place gets excited. I mean, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is not just a song. It’s an anthem. People get chills. They get caught up in the fever, the religion, the spirituality of it. I gotta tell you, man. It’s like a religion. Journey’s like a religion. A good religion or spirituality. It’s a high that people look forward to when they hear the music.
“Mother, Father” – the whole catalog, man. It will just beat you up, because you go, “Damn, I love that song! Damn, there’s another one!” It just keeps going like that. And Neal’s like a beast. He’s bringing it. Note for note. Bringing it. You know, when you ask me about that kind of stuff, I feel passionate about it. Because I knew there was a lot of love in it. Even though they may fight sometimes. You know, because they’ve been together [for a lot of years], they’re like brothers. When the music hits on the stage, it’s like BAM. It’s otherworldly. I mean, working with Journey, I’m going to tell you, man. It was otherworldly for me. I knew it would be a big to-do. But I didn’t realize it would be that big. It’s a big experience. It’s like stepping into anything that you know and love through the years and you want to treat it with great reverence. That’s what I tried my best to do is treat it with great reverence.
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Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso