Interview with Maine Music News – written by Christopher Joles
Neal – Shortly after the conclusion of the 2008 tour when Tom Scholz asked me if I’d like to participate on a track or two on the upcoming new BOSTON release, I jumped at the opportunity. From the very beginnings of the band, Tom has taken great pride in charting his own course in respect to releasing albums. The story of how the first recording contract and debut album came to be is now legendary and I think set a core philosophy on how the band would work in the future. Whether it be performing live or in the studio, Tom is very passionate and particular about how he wants the music to sound. Tom writes, arranges and records all of the instrument parts himself in his home studio. As the songs take shape and lyrics/vocals are the next layer to add to the construct, he’ll bring in the vocalist he wants for that specific track. The sessions I did with Tom that made it on to Life, Love & Hope were just he and I working on background vocal tracks. It was a very cool experience, and it gave me a bird’s eye view of how a BOSTON release comes together. I’m grateful that my vocal performance made it on to the title cut.
MMN – The 2014 tour has just started as of this conversation. Tell us about being out of the road for the summer and what fans can expect if they are lucky enough to see the show.
Neal – First, I don’t think I could find a “cooler” summer job. With that being said, it isn’t what the general public might think. Most often when I’m asked about the experience people want to know about the glamorized vices that accompany the stereotype. I take the job seriously. I place expectations on myself to perform and perform to the best of my ability as the pressure internally and externally demands it. I can’t go up on stage for thousands of people each night, who know exactly what they should be hearing- and not deliver. To that end, I take care of myself both physically and mentally. I work out, ice down after every show to avoid injury, eat healthy (easier to do as we have our own chef- which is super cool!), get as much rest when I can (not easy when the bus is rolling mind you) and continually review my past performance. I’m always rehearsing parts, whether it be in the hotel, on the bus or backstage prior to show time. It is a huge amount of hard work, and doesn’t leave time for much else. On a day off- I do like to get out and see and hear the sites and sounds of where ever we might be- and I particularly try to hit historic points of interest for my own interest but also to add to my teaching curriculum back home. Lastly, being a husband and dad, being on the road away from family is tough. It is lost time that can’t be reclaimed- and it continually reminds me of what is most important in life. I am grateful for the support from my whole family so that I can continue to follow a childhood dream. There is nothing sadder than giving up on a dream, and the fact that my nuclear and extended family sacrifices much to let me do this means more than I can convey here.
With respect to the band and what fans will see: BOSTON has always prided itself on giving the best performance possible as organically as possible. You’ll never hear prerecorded tracks flown in during a live performance. What you hear at a concert is what is coming from the musicians on stage. To promote the new album, several cuts are in the set list early in the show, and the rest of the set is rounded out with the classic BOSTON cuts that have become mainstays on rock radio. Visually, the light show only continues to get more impressive as the technology improves- and the band now utilizes a LED video wall where live close-up action footage is intertwined with video segments matched to the theme of a particular song. Finally, as a group- there is a healthy amount of interplay between the musicians during the show, and it definitely adds to the overall experience. Some of the coolest moments during the show for me happen when we all interact with one another- and the crowd reacts and responds positively!
MMN – We often hear fans bemoan when classic rock bands no longer have all the original members on stage, and that sentiment seems myopic. From the perspective of a professional musician, how important is it that bands are still touring, that the music is still played live? Please share your thoughts on this.
Neal – It is a fair question, one in which I’ve pondered over quite a bit myself, especially considering the nature of how I came to be a part of the band’s storyline. The best answer I can provide is that the music is what truly matters above anything else. As long as I’ve been with the group- the fans I’ve met and spoken with after a show are always so appreciative of the fact that they can still go somewhere and listen/see BOSTON perform live and have it deliver at a high standard. I know of very few things that haven’t changed drastically in 40 years- yet the fact that the music remains timeless and strikes such a resonant chord with so many after all these years, symbolizes something much larger than a collection of individual notes on a recording. Music heals, music soothes, music moves. As long as the artist is moved to perform it, and the audience is moved to listen- it would be tragic for that moment not to happen. Period.
MMN – BOSTON is an icon in American rock and roll music, and Tom Scholz is legendary in his precision in the studio and production. That has to be a lot of pressure. What is your secret to staying cool and performing at the level needed?
Neal – I think anytime one gets to work with a person or enterprise whom has established a name and reputation for themselves it can create a lot of pressure for the outsider coming in, but that is to be expected. You don’t get to the top of something and stay there by happenstance. Sure, there is pressure, and there should be, but the pressure is also something I place on myself. As I mentioned earlier, taking care of myself is key- and there is no shortage in preparation. I’ve said it many times; you can’t be prepared enough. I need to physically know how my four limbs and voice are going to pull off what I’m demanding of it in an almost two hour long show. Knowing you’ve done your homework creates a sense of confidence that trust me….is tapped in to when you are up on stage. When muscle memory takes over, that is a good thing- but it doesn’t happen by itself.
Mental preparation is also just as important. Sometimes pre show I might have a guest or family member that will swing in to see me, and I’m notorious for not being mentally present- I’m there physically, but I’m already mentally switching over to performance mode. Jokingly later I might see that guest after the show and they’ll say something like, “hey, do you remember what we talked about earlier?” and I won’t have a clue! Those that know me, get it. I’m not being a jerk, I just don’t want to be an embarrassment to them!
Playing sports all my life has been a huge piece of the equation here. Much like taking a free throw in basketball- there is a ritual to what I do pre-show that doesn’t waiver. It helps calm my mind before I play and get me in the zone. I’ll get my heart rate up, get a sweat going, stretch, practice the trickier parts of the performance on a practice pad, warm up my vocal chords, then take a couple quiet moments somewhere where I just try to purge my head of anything extraneous and do some deep breathing exercises. I also try to visually see myself playing and playing well, I am a big proponent of positive visualization. If your mind can see it, your body can do it.
MMN – Mainers will be glad to know that a hometown boy is the drummer for BOSTON, and has been since 2002. Tell us about being discovered and working with the band for over a decade while juggling a career as a soccer coach and teacher.
Neal – Well, the discovery tale is straight out of serendipity- a total right place, right time moment. Back in 2002, I was playing in a cover band called Punchbug that was doing the local club and resort circuit- real weekend warrior stuff, when unbeknownst to me- on one particular night at Sunday River at the old Bumps Pub- BOSTON founder Tom Scholz was in the audience. He came up to me in between one of our sets and introduced himself, complimented me on my playing and singing and offered me a shot at auditioning with the band. I was floored. We spoke for a short time, I gave him a business card and then we parted ways. As cool as the moment was, I honestly didn’t think much would come of it, as it was just so surreal, but a few days passed without hearing anything and I followed up with an email to the band’s web master, which was the smartest move I ever made. I learned later that Tom had misplaced my business card and my sending the follow up email was the only way for anyone within the organization to reach me. That night upon returning home from work I had multiple voice messages saying “call us to set up an audition”. My life became distinctly different from that point forward.
I’m glad you bring up the “juggling”- because this is where I need to give credence to many around me who without their consideration, understanding, support and patience none of this would be possible. I am asked often by people I meet who know a little about my story why I wouldn’t just choose one thing over another. If they understood the full story- they might be more inclined to understand. The short answer is really quite simple: I love music, I love teaching, I love sport and coaching. Philosophically speaking, how can I not be anything but a sell-out to my students if while trying to inspire them to follow their dreams I can’t or won’t follow my own?
It is through my active participation in all these facets of my life where I feel connected to the larger world and the close-knit community around me. It gives my life meaning and purpose. I can’t imagine having to fully choose one over another. I would not be completely happy. With that being said, there are times where the weight of juggling it all does feel heavy, but regardless, I am grateful for that these last 10 years, I’ve found a way to juggle the sometimes intersecting schedules and that those people who had the power to say “no”, empowered me with the ability to make it happen. There is a kaleidoscope of players here: family, friends, school and the band. I admire, respect and love them all for their support. As time goes on and the dial on the kaleidoscope changes, the image undoubtedly looks different, but it is colorful and attractive none-the-less. I want to keep looking through it, and helping turn the dial, as long as I can.
Lastly, Maine is a great place to live. At this stage of my life I see myself as an unofficial ambassador, and I take the role seriously. I’ve travelled around enough to know that it is a great place to live- my roots are here, my family has always been from here. I can’t think of a better place to raise my own family. I appreciate living somewhere where time and the four seasons have a distinctness to them, and where people are real and will look you in the eye and say what they mean. I look forward to coming home and playing for those people.
MMN – Thank you, Jeff Neal, for taking the time to chat with us about your work with BOSTON. You are an inspiration to a lot of people – following your dream and making it happen through all of life’s commitments and challenges. If it is possible, we are even more excited for the show!