Glenn Hughes

SOUL SIRKUS
World Play
Warner Brothers Records
an interview with Jeff Scott Soto

The birth of a supergroup can be rich and inspiring or overbloated and frail. Expectations ran high, when it was announced that Neal Schon (Journey, Hardline) and Deen Castronovo (Journey, Bad English) would be paring with Jeff Scott Soto (Yngwie Malmsteen, Talisman, Rock Star 'movie') and Marco Mendoza (Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy, Ted Nugent). Would they deliver the goods?

It’s important to clarify that this super group stemmed from another high profile proposition. At the end of 2003, Schon started writing songs for a possible project with former Montrose/Van Halen alum Sammy Hagar. Friends for 30-years, and band mates from HASS (1984), the two finally found the opportunity to work together again when both were on hiatus from their respective bands. Hagar brought in Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony to join Castronovo and help beef up the rhythm section. The union formed the well-hyped Planet Us.

When Van Halen reformed in 2004, both Hagar and Anthony were out the door leaving Schon home alone with a stack of tapes and half a band. He recently told Classic Rock, “Sammy was too busy so I found someone else.” That someone was Jeff Scott Soto a rock veteran of 20-years having showcased his pipes for Yngwie Malmsteen, Talisman, Kuni, Eyes, Axel Rudi Pell, Takara and Boogie Nights as well as his own solo outings. Most recently Soto can be heard on the Rock Star (movie) soundtrack as the original Steel Dragon vocalist. The match was instantaneous and the sound ferocious.

In December a rough mix version of the Soul SirkUS debut was available through the band’s website. Since its release, the record has been reworked, remixed and mastered for maximum effect. Original drummer Deen Castronovo left the band for family reasons and has now been replaced by Virgil Donati. Songs have also been added for a more complete vision of the band. An ecstatic Schon describes the band’s sound as “melodic with plenty of edge “

The record was written and recorded in San Francisco at Jonathan Cain's studio. It was produced, written and arranged by Schon and Soto equally and reflects a union of their strengths. Says Soto, “Soul SirkUS is a great melting pot. It has all our influences from Journey to Queen to James Brown.” Much of the record reflects Soto’s background. See our review under “News” on this website.

A Brooklyn native, Soto moved to California at age eight. His first musical inspiration was found in Soul, Funk and Motown. In high school his brother formed a metal band pushing Jeff under the spotlight as lead singer. A year later he was asked to join former Alcatrazz guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s first solo band. The pairing lasted three years and just as many records. Soto spent the ‘90s engaged with a number of bands including Eyes, Talisman, Axel Rudi Pell and Takara. The past few years has seen him at the forefront of melodic rock releasing a string of high-caliber solo outings including Prism (2001), Holding On (2002), Live At The Gods (2002), Queen Live (2003) and Lost In Translation (2004).

Though admired from afar, The Cutting Edge has never been able to catch up with Soto until one blustery March morning. After a night of Soul SirkUS rehearsals a fortnight away from their US tour Jeff rang. The following is our very open, candid and honest interview with one of the greatest singers of our time.

The Cutting Edge: After all these years Jeff, what is it like to finally catch the media’s attention?

Jeff Scott Soto: It’s nice to have somebody recognize us.

TCE: Did you think it would take this long?

JSS: Of course not, but I wouldn’t necessarily change a thing along the way.

TCE: No?

JSS: Not only have I learned so much in everything that I have done. But, it’s all given me experience. Had I not gone through everything that I have, I might not be able to put my influence into this project. If I had some of the successes of the ‘80s or early ‘90s behind me I might not be noticed or recognized.

Neal and Journey got past all that. They were above and beyond that “has been” stage. Neal’s been there, he’s done that - he’s bounced back again. If they had gotten certain people, maybe more recognizable from the ‘80s, and involved them with this project critics would have been more skeptical.

Luckily I’m not really type cast or stereotyped which ended up being a great thing for my role in this band.

TCE: Taking into consideration the caliber of musicians that you’re playing with now – you had to be up to that level.

JSS: Actually that is a concern for me. There is a professional level in this band that is almost scary. Everyone is so talented and has such a legacy that I hope I match that level.

TCE: Your voice has a classic almost timeless ring to it - and at times can sound close to Steve Perry. In the mid-‘90s when Perry left Journey (for the second time) and Neal was looking for a new singer, did you consider trying out?

JSS: Honestly, Neal didn’t know anything about me until the NAMM 2004 show. The only real education he had on me was what he was reading on MelodicRock.com. It was because of all the recognition and notoriety I was getting on that website that led him to actually get in touch with me. When the Planet US thing folded he decided I was the guy to check out.

Next thing I know, Neal was watching the movie Rock Star and he heard my voice and he decided that was the voice he wanted to work with. He saw my name in the credits – there I was again – he couldn’t escape me. So instead of running from me he decided to track me down.

TCE: Location wise, you live in southern California and Neal lives in the Bay area. So it wasn’t that hard to get together.

JSS: Absolutely. He already had Deen (Castronovo) on board, so when he got to the NAMM show he met Marco and myself. Basically the nucleus of the band was structured that weekend. It all seemed to fall into place. Now that Virgil’s on board (Deen left due to Journey commitments) he lives just a few miles from me so we are all in the same time zone. It made it real easy to work.

TCE: Deen left due to commitments to Journey, is that correct?

JSS: Yeah, he was trying to do both and be with his family and it was killing him. When I first thought of joining this band I was real excited about working with Deen. He is not only a tremendous drummer but also an amazing singer. I was looking forward to us touring together and having that strength behind me. I’ve never been in a situation where I had another lead singer behind me where I could just look over my shoulder and swap lines with. I’ve always looked forward to something like that. However, I do have that with Marco who himself is an amazing lead singer.

TCE: Your schedule has been extremely full over the years. You seem to be involved with as many as three bands or projects at any given time. You have a thriving solo career, you’re voice was in the movie Rock Star – sold out tours in Europe, headlined the Gods Festival. In twenty years you have recorded over 45 records in various projects and the list goes on and on…you need to buy an entire record store to get all the CD’s you’ve been on.

JSS: Ha, ha, ha. Because I love to work and keep busy its hard to say “No” to certain projects. The other part of it is survival. This is solely what I do for a living. I need to keep the projects going to keep a decent monetary flow. Twice in the past 20 years I’ve had to go out a get a real job until something else panned out. I feel very fortunate that it was only twice. I consider myself very lucky in that I’ve had the fortune of making a decent enough living, even living out my dreams so-to-speak, while not having to quit because I couldn’t afford to do it anymore.

TCE: Do you think Soul SirkUS is the one that’s going to put you on the map?

JSS: Ha, well I don’t know. I never say anything is. I never put all my eggs in one basket. I’ve been in this business way too long to think that anything is going to pop and be the next big thing. I try to keep it real.

TCE: Certainly this has increased your profile to be put in the same league as Neal, Marco and Deen. I’m sure people are looking into your back catalog because of that.

JSS: I’m sure that is true, but the music and the band need to stand on their own legs as well. That’s why I’m looking at this as a great stepping-stone but also realizing that we need to go out there and make some noise. No one is going to hand it to us just because we’ve got great recognizable players in the band. But that’s the best part of it – it keeps it exciting.

TCE: And to do that you have both a US and European tour. 15-18 dates on both sides of the Atlantic correct?

JSS: Yes – both tours are more of a promotional tour. We’re not going out for too long.

TCE: Will the record be out by then?

JSS: In Europe yes, but not in the US. However it can still be purchased on line (soulsirkus.com). Because were going out so soon we weren’t able to get everything in place with the record label for the US. Once we were done with all the remixing and remastering there was no time to go out there and get the deal locked in. With Neal going into rehearsals with Journey our time was limited. The best we can do at this point is release it our selves and have copies available at the shows. It will be officially released very soon – probably while we’re touring.

Trust me, it will be worth it. The new CD will blow you away – it sounds incredible. Since the rough version was released in December we were able to spend more time with the actual tracking of it. For instance the drums sound amazing now. We’ve added some extra songs, redone the artwork – it’s like a whole new album. It’s much stronger now and that’s because we’ve all jelled together. It’s a real band now and the sound on the new disc reflects that.

TCE: How did the writing come about with Soul Sirkus? “Highest Ground” has an uncanny resemblance to Hardline. Did Neal do all the writing?

JSS: All these songs are new. Some Neal was working up for Planet US. When that didn’t play out Neal reworked them for this record. It’s interesting Neal played with Sammy (Hagar – original vocalist for Planet US) in Vegas a couple weeks ago. He made a kind gesture in expressing to Neal that he liked what I did with his song in the Rock Star movie.

TCE: Sammy’s vocals can still be heard in “Peephole”.

JSS: Yeah, it would be great if somewhere down the road we could meet up and put the two worlds together again.

TCE: What about Journey songs. Is that something you might include in the Soul SirkUS set with Neal?

JSS: Yes we’ll be doing some Journey songs and we’ll be doing songs from my solo career. We got all kinds of fun stuff lined up. However, I want people to know what I’m about and who I am but without having to do it on somebody else’s past. So it’s going to be well rounded.

TCE: What about your past songs with Talisman – would any of those songs make the set? I am a big fan of the Humanimal album.

JSS: Without giving too much away we plan to do the Talisman cover of the Seal’s tune “Crazy”. Let’s not kid ourselves; the majority of the audience will be Journey fans. So to do a Talisman song wouldn’t make sense because no one - or few would get it. The Seal cover is a song everybody knows. We just do it a bit more rocked up. I’m a sucker for groove and totally into soul and funk music – all that kind of stuff. The Humanimal album is where we started more of the groove side of Talisman. It eventually became our sound. I really loved that album. We’re considering a couple songs.

TCE: And your solo work. You just released Lost In Translation. Might this give you the opportunity to showcase that?

JSS: With Lost In Translation I wanted to go a little heavier. People responded to Prism (2002) thinking I was going into the Adult Contemporary market. Some were accusing me of softening up now that I was getting a little older. On the contrary I wanted to show them “Hell No!” - my balls are still as big as they were 20-years ago.

What I love about Soul SirkUS is that I’m able to round up everything that I’ve done and I’m able to put it in one stew, one pot. People have asked me, “What is it about Soul SirkUS that’s not like anything else you’ve done?” I tell them that Soul SirkUS is basically everything that I do. It’s got everything from my Journey influence to James Brown and Gospel, to Queen and Prince. It’s the melting pot of everything I’ve done in the last 20-years.

TCE: Getting back to the writing – is it 50/50 then?

JSS: Everything stems from Neal. It’s all built around his guitar ideas. He brings those in and we build from there. However, it’s still very collaborative. From the get go he’s given me the respect and the freedom to do whatever I want. A lot of that has to do with the way we worked together on the first few songs. I think Neal was surprised or relieved that he didn’t have to hold my hand through the song writing process. I think I blew him away with my involvement and the ideas I was presenting.

He also has this confidence in me that I will keep the ideas focused and not take it in a direction he doesn’t want to go. We were born with the same work ethic and it shows here.

TCE: The past few years you have been playing outside the US, primarily in Europe. Are you excited to be playing in front of a US audience again?

JSS: You don’t even know. It’s so nice to be playing at home. The last time I did what would be considered a tour in the US was with Eyes. We did a short run from LA to Denver, before that was in ’86 or ’87 with Yngwie. So it’s been a long time. I am so ready for this. There is going to be a lot of songs. Were going to pull together from our past and present to make it really special.

Soul SirkUS tour dates:

APRIL
05 Tuesday Allentown, PA - Crocodile Rock
06 Wednesday Washington D.C. - Birchmere
07 Thursday New York, NY - B.B. Kings
08 Friday Philadelphia, PA - Trocadero
10 Sunday Boston, MA - Sommerville Theatre
12 Tuesday Detroit, MI - Magic Bag
13 Wednesday Chicago, IL - Martyr's
14 Thursday Minneapolis, MN - First Avenue
17 Sunday Boulder, CO - Fox Theatre
19 Tuesday Phoenix, AZ - Martini Ranch
20 Wednesday Los Angeles, CA - House of Blues
21 Thursday Santa Ana, CA - Galaxy Theater
22 Friday Las Vegas, NV, CA - Boulder Station
24 Sunday San Francsico, CA - Fillmore
26 Tuesday San Diego, CA Belly Up Tavern
27 Wednesday Ventura, CA - Ventura Theater
28 Thursday Lake Tahoe, NV - Harrahs

MAY
07 Saturday Bradford, UK - Firefest -formerly GODS Of Rock Festival (Town & Country Club)
08 Sunday Wolverhampton, UK - Wulfrun Hall
09 Monday London, UK - Shepherds Bush Empire
10 Tuesday Sheffield, UK - Corporation
12 Thursday Zoetermeer, Holland - Boerderij
13 Friday Munich, Germany - Metropolis
14 Saturday Pratteln, Switzerland - Z7
15 Sunday Milan, Italy - Transylvania
17 Tuesday Barcelona, Spain - Bikini
19 Thursday Madrid, Spain - Macumba
21 Saturday Roeselare, Belgium - Schwung Classic Rock Festival
23 Monday Stockholm, Sweden - Nalen
24 Tuesday Gothenburg, Sweden - Tradgaarn
25 Wednesday Malmo, Sweden - Kuturbolaget
26 Thursday Copenhagen, Denmark - The Rock

Website:
http://soulsirkus.com

Our special thanks to Amanda Cagan for setting up our interview and to Jeff Scott Soto for his time and above all his musical pedigree.