So why exactly did I interview the current lead singer of Journey recently? As you may have heard, the Filipino singer Arnel Pineda is the subject of a new and truly fascinating documentary called DON'T STOP BELIEVIN': EVERYMAN'S JOURNEY, covering his life story until the present day on tour and recording with a band he admired greatly (and covered) when he was in his previous band, The Zoo, a cover band that acquired a certain level of fame in the Philippines in the mid-2000s, in no small part because of Pineda's uncanny ability to sounds exactly like the singers whose songs he was performing.
In addition to being able to duplicate the voice of former Journey singer Steve Perry, he also did incredible sound-alike performances of songs by The Police, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and so many more. In 2007, when Journey's previous singer lost his voice, the band went looking on YouTube for anyone they thought could fit the bill--with the range of Perry but just enough of their own voice to be more than just a cover singer. And just when founding Journey member Neal Schon was about to give up the search, he stumbled upon Arnel and The Zoo singing "Faithfully," and the rest is music history.
Arnel was met with a surprising amount of resistance (most of it of a very racist nature) by many of the band's fans, but after the detractors heard him sing, most of them were silenced. And before long, the band was played to audiences bigger than they had when Perry was the singer, and their touring schedule has been almost never ending since, with occasional breaks to record new music, including some that Arnel has contributed to.
DON'T STOP BELIEVIN' is an honest look at the initial negative reaction to Arnel's hiring, to what it was like to take a man living in third-world conditions to making him the singer of a rock band, to the exhaustive pace of touring and meeting fans, to Arnel's long and painful life in the Philippines before making music his profession. When we spoke, Arnel was in Melbourne, Australia, in the midst of Journey's Eclipse tour. He was still many hours away from performing, but he was cautious about talking for too long and weakening his voice. He's a grateful and really sweet man, whose outlook on the fortunate events that led to his current life is refreshing. Please enjoy my talk with Arnel Pineda…
Capone: Hi, Arnel. How are you?
Arnel Pineda: Good. How are you doing?
Capone: Good. I understand your voice is not doing so well, so I’ll try to be brief here.
AP: No, it’s not that. I’m just trying to preserve it, because I do have a show tonight. I’m sorry, really.
Capone: Sure, it makes complete sense. I saw the movie, which shows us that your voice is pretty sensitive. When I was researching for this interview, I saw some of the videos of you that were up from the ones that Neal Schon had seen, and you were singing songs, not just Journey songs, but Police songs, Rush and Aerosmith.
AP: I’m pretty much a cover singer, not a tribute singer.
Capone: Right. Did Journey have a particular special place in your heart, or were they just one of the many bands that you’ve covered?
AP: Of course it has. I mean I remember back in the '80s, me and my band mates, we would travel to Subic Bay from Manila. It’s a three hour ride. If you remember, there was Sony Walkman back then.
Capone: Oh, yeah. I had one.
AP: Yeah, the whole tape would be all obscure songs of Journey, and me and my friends, my band mates, would listen to it and would analyze it all, with how Steve had sung it, how Neal does his leads, how Jonathan [Cain] was doing his piano, and we would just be so amazed at how good they had recorded the songs.
Capone: Of all of the other bands that you’ve performed at the time, was there another maybe stuck out as one of your absolute favorites, besides Journey?
AP: Oh yeah. Led Zeppelin. Also, I think you could consider me as one of the biggest fans of The Beatles. Yeah, a little of Jimi Hendrix, Scorpions, Metallica, Heart, U2, AC/DC…
Capone: Much of what has happened to you has happened in the last few years. And in the movie, you say that you were on the verge of considering not being a singer anymore. What do you think you’d be doing if you hadn’t gotten that email from Neal asking you to be in the group? Or do you not think about that sort of thing?
AP: You know what, Neal got to me just in time. We had been preparing to pack up, me and my wife, and we were planning to get married and go back to Hong Kong, because I’m a permanent resident there. I can go back to doing gigs with bar after bar, and my wife can apply for other work, because that’s the privilege that I have. If you get married, she with have the same privileges as me, and I can do other jobs too. That was pretty much the plan before Neal got to me.
Capone: Just in time. In the film, you express a concern in the beginning about letting your own voice come out and not getting lost trying to sound a little bit like Steve Perry. Now that you’ve recorded albums with Journey, contributed new music and singing new songs, has that part of you been fulfilled to a certain degree now that you can get your creativity out there?
AP: I’m hoping so, but you know what? Personally, I’m still not satisfied. I think we still have something that all of us need to feel after we throw out the towel, if you know what I mean. There are still a lot of things that we need to do to finally cement the deal that “Hey, we’ve began as something and gone to another thing,” you know? From one thing to another, we became like that. So I’m hoping that we do another album, that this album will be the one that will really say that, “Hey, Arnel was really able to contribute to Journey’s legacy.”
Capone: I love that scene after the first show that you play with the band in Chile where the tour manager tells you not to dance and move around so much, but it looks like you’re still doing that, so I guess you didn’t follow all of their advice.
AP: [laughs] It's the stubbornness in me. It’s how I feel. You know what? For me, the way I see it, their music is about a good time and positivity, and for me it requires action like that. So that’s what I did, you know? In my mind when I did it, I was like, “I don’t care if they fire me after this.” No, really. It was, “At least I get to perform with them.” After all, this is what I dream about, just five shows with them, and I’m okay. I’ll go away, okay? And I can tell my friends, “Man, I did a show with Journey.” Not a lot of singers out there can say that. But hey, it became five years, and what more can I say? I can’t complain.
Capone: The first time I ever saw you perform was a show that was filmed in Manila that ran on VH1, and I was blown away by it. Tell me how important that show was for you to play in front of your fellow countrymen and women.
AP: It was nerve wracking, of course, and me, I’ve been performing in the Philippines before Neal found me for 15 years, before I went to Hong Kong and then back. I know them, you know? The Filipino audience is one of the hardest people to please.
Capone: There were a lot of people sitting down in the audience.
AP: Yeah, but this is the key. When they watch foreign acts, they're different. They try to be foreigners. Do you know what I mean? They became wild, because that’s how some people in America, people in Australia, will react with the band. So that’s what the Filipino does when they see a foreign act come to the Philippines and do a performance in front of them. But when a Filipino audience watches their own fellow performer up on stage, they're different. I’m telling you, it’s just weird.
It’s like, “Okay, do I need to bleach myself for them?” I guess that means that, “Hey, I look like an American too!” But I’m not trying to make it sound like it’s a bad thing, but it’s just how they are. I guess it’s 100 years of influences. We have become like you guys, in a way, with a western influence. But besides feeling like it was nerve-wracking, there was a lot of pride in the air. I’m so happy. I’m just too overwhelmed with a lot of emotions. I’m so grateful with Journey, because at last I was able to put my mark on my own country. They will acknowledge me forever as this guy, this little man, of their own becoming the singer of the most loved American rock and roll bands in the world.
Capone: Absolutely. I’m curious if there was a particular song that was especially hard to master when you were first rehearsing with the band.
AP: A lot of them.
AP: A lot of them. So many, I can't enumerate. Most of them, because back in the day, I was just covering “Don’t Stop Believin',” “Separate Ways” and “Faithfully.” Those were the songs that I can close my eyes and sing with them without worrying about “Oops, where am I now? What’s the arrangement? Okay, what’s the lyrics?”