Sonic Ranch is the Santana and Journey co-founder's first solo album in 18 years
Gregg Rolie is a busy guy. The two-time Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer has been on the road with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, reuniting with members of Santana and Journey — both of which he co-founded as singer/keyboardist — and also touring with his own outfit, the Gregg Rolie Band. So you’ll forgive him if nearly two decades have passed since his last solo album, but now he’s back with Sonic Ranch, a 13-track collection that blends searing originals with new reimaginings of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and Journey’s own “Look Into the Future.” Recorded at the legendary titular studio in Tornillo, Texas, the record includes guest appearances by co-founding Journey guitarist Neal Schon, former Santana rhythm section Michael Shrieve and Alphonso Johnson, as well as Rolie’s All-Starr buddy, Steve Lukather of Toto.
Though the album has only been out a few weeks, Rolie, 72, is already hard at work on new music with son Sean, former Journey drummer Deen Castronovo and bassist Marco Mendoza, and Yayo Sanchez, the so-called “Kiss Guy” who achieved viral stardom after climbing onstage with the Foo Fighters at a 2018 concert in Austin. All told there’s plenty of new music in the works. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Rolie says with a laugh.
Today PEOPLE announces his latest single, “Give Me Tomorrow,” the soaring album opener featuring an incendiary guitar solo from Lukather. We also had a lengthy talk with Rolie, covering everything from his first meeting with Santana as an up-and-comer in San Francisco to his recent inspirations.
Sonic Ranch is your first studio album since Roots in 2001. What made you decide that now was the time after 18 years?
I certainly didn’t plan it! I just got busy. One day I got a phone call from Ringo and suddenly it’s seven years later. When they first called my answer was, “You sure you got the right guy?” [laughs] I’d never done anything like that before. Any music that I took ahold of — outside of my own writing or my band — I had to make my own. When Santana did “Black Magic Woman,” we didn’t write it. “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va,” they were outside songs. We just did them the way we did them. We didn’t want to copy what somebody else did. So, with Ringo, I was going, “I don’t know what you want.” I play a B3 [organ] and there’s not a lot of B3 on this stuff that I was looking at. So I just went after it. I told him, “You know, I don’t do this.” Seven years later, I told Ringo, “Apparently, I do!”
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “What About Love,” which has a very Ringo vibe, lyrically. What was the genesis of that?
First of all, it was just the music. We jammed it with Ringo first. When we go up to a sound check, we always play something. It was something I brought up and I started playing. He liked it. Then it just went by the wayside and I got home and I figured out the bass line off the Yamaha Motif keyboard I play. There’s a sound on there that’s just incredible. I picked that up and it inspired me to do the whole thing. I had the lyrics to it, which are really inspired by Ringo, by his message of peace and love. It’s his mantra forever. You go back and look at pictures, man, he’s throwing peace signs forever.
So I just made it a little stronger. My message is a little more cowboy. It’d be like, “Anybody listening? Is anybody hearing what this guy’s saying?” I know there are, but I’m like, “Come on, wake up!” I approached it like that. It was fun and the song is fun and simple and all that stuff. Everybody loves a shuffle. That was kind of it. It really got started at a sound check with the All-Stars.
I love watching you and Steve Lukather play together. I love your interplay. What’s it like playing alongside him? I know he’s on the album, too.
He’s an unbelievable guy. I love him. We’re almost like kindred spirits. He’s part of my family, I’m part of his. Playing with him is a groove. He can play anything. He can make his guitar — a regular guitar — sound like a pedal steel. I’ve never seen anybody do it in my life. It’s unbelievable. He’s just so gifted at this stuff. He doesn’t play loud, he doesn’t kill anyone. He’s got all the tone. He’s just very serious about it and always has been. I’ve talked to him many times about it. Since he was 16, he had to have a bag of tricks because he played on all these records. There are hundreds of them. You’ve heard him when you didn’t even know it was him. He’s just an amazing guy.
Plus, he’s just a great hang. The whole band is. Just a tremendous hang. I describe it as a voted club that travels around and sleeps in great hotels, eats really good food and plays music throughout the world for people and gets paid to do so. It’s a pretty good gig. I look forward to it. One of the best things that ever happened in my life. I’ve already told Ringo he’ll have to fire me. And, of course, he probably came back with, “Well, that can be arranged…” [laughs] I look forward to it every time. I’m playing music I probably would have never touched, so I learned a lot. I learned a lot about people, as well. Ringo’s a great leader. He’s so quiet about it, but not weak. Just quiet. He’s not shy, I’ll put it that way.
At what point did you get used to playing with Ringo? Did it ever become normal?
Two years. It took two years for me not to turn around and go, “Still can’t believe I’m playing with him!” Because truly, if it wasn’t for the Beatles, I probably would have been an architect. That’s where I was steering my life. I mean, I liked music, but it was just side note, being a kid at 15, 16 years old. Then [the Beatles] came out and I got bit by the bug. “These guys are tremendous!” I remember going to see them play at Candlestick Park and I really wanted to hear them. Back then, the sound equipment was just not adequate to handle that many people. You could hear it sort of except for all these screaming girls. And it drove me nuts! I was like, “Man, shut up! I want to hear these guys.”
It dawned on me while I was sitting there. I was going, “This isn’t such a bad idea.” People that frenzied over what you’re doing? That’s pretty amazing. So I changed my mind, but I remember sitting there like, “Geez, you’re not hearing any of this!” It didn’t matter, they were out of their minds with them. I think it was part of the reason why they had to finally just stop [touring], because nobody was listening to what they did. And you couldn’t hear over the screaming.
But I remember going there and sitting there watching them and you know, being blown away by how many people were there. They were doing some of those big shows before anybody really did. They changed the world, musically. They changed it universally. Not like a couple of states, they changed everything. When you look down at their list of songs and the amount of time it took them. I’m not a complete historian on it, but it was something like seven years. Everybody knows almost all of those songs. It’s pretty amazing.
Speaking of amazing rock standards, I loved your gospel-style version of “Don’t Be Cruel” on Sonic Ranch. How did that come to be?
I was watching this TV show late at night and they used a version of “Don’t Be Cruel” done by Billy Swan from 1975. It was a little more pop but it was slow. And I went, “What a cool idea.” So I just made it a little more gospel. Still kept the tonality of the tune, but it’s just slow and it’s with a quartet. Just piano, bass, and drums and guitar, that’s it.
I had a quartet and we would close the show with it. Instead of people coming out with, “Okay, now we’re really going to snap to it and give you this encore that will knock you out!” I went the other way. We played that and the audience were stunned. It actually worked well. I love that.
What kind of impact did Elvis have on you as a young artist?
I got the same feeling [as the Beatles]. I remember my dad watching Ed Sullivan or Steve Allen on the TV and yelling to my brother and I, “You better get out here!” And it was Elvis Presley. I geared up towards his earlier stuff. “Jailhouse Rock” is my favorite one that he ever sang. There’s plenty of them. I like “Love Me Tender,” too. Me and two million other women, right? [laughs] I actually did a version of “Jailhouse Rock” that was pretty cool. It never got anywhere but it was fun to do.
Is there a track on the album that you’re most proud of?
It’s impossible. I mean, it really is. Thank God it’s impossible, that means that I like a lot and it’s not like, “I’ve got this one, forget about the rest of them!” But I always steered myself towards having songs that I wouldn’t be embarrassed about in 10 years, you know? Somehow it has to ring true. And I’ve only had a couple where I go, “Man, oh well….” I got this line from Billy Joel; I don’t know if he actually said it but I heard that he said this. He goes, “When you start writing something, you just go after it and if you don’t like it, well, then there’s a bad idea I won’t have again.” I applied it to myself. I’ve got a ton of stuff where it’s like, “Nah, it just didn’t quite make it.” I have to like the music that I’m doing, but most of all I’m doing this for people. This is for other people to get ahold of and love and want to have. But I have to like it, too. I’m not going to just do something where you’re just playing notes. I don’t want to do that. I really steered clear of doing that all my life.
You’ve done so much — Santana, Journey, the All-Starrs, you’re in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice. Do your goals as a musician shift? What keeps you striving for more?
The only way I can answer that is that, to me, a musician is like a mountain climber. Mountain climbers climb mountains because they’re there. You write a song and you live with that for a while and you think, “Man, I love this. There’s another one in here somewhere, right?” And you just keep going. Hopefully, it comes. And while you’re prolific, take care of it. Because it’ll stop one day. It’s like a writer who’s writing a book. Sometimes you just get stumped in the middle of it. It happens. While it’s moving, let’s keep moving. And right now, that’s how I feel. I’m so energized by all the stuff I’m doing.
What is it about the B3 organ that drew you to it?
First off, it was Jimmy Smith. I had to be about 11 years old or something. I didn’t even know what a B3 was, but I loved the way it sounded. It’s just beefier, And it was like the first synthesizer too. You could move the draw bars and make sounds and do things differently. That’s what took me initially: “Walk on the Wild Side” by Jimmy Smith.
Then music grew. Paul Revere and the Raiders had a Vox organ like everybody had. Then the music changed and the whole world of music became more blues slanted and more exploratory. That’s when FM radio came out. Changed everything. That’s when I started looking at a different way. Then Carlos [Santana] and I met in the tomato patch.
In a tomato patch? I don’t know if I’ve heard that story!
This was after I played with William Penn, which was the band I was playing with [in the mid-‘60s] that was like Paul Revere and the Raiders. Incidentally, that was where I found out I don’t play other people’s music well if I have to play exactly what they do. It just doesn’t interest me. Anyway, this friend comes to my house in Palo Alto, 30 miles south of San Francisco. “Man, this guitar player up in San Francisco at the Fillmore was playing with congas and he was incredible. I’m going to go find him.” I said, “Okay, go ahead.”
So he went and found him. Carlos was working in a hamburger stand called Tick-Tock, on Columbus Street in San Francisco. We found him, brought him down to what Shoreline is now, which was nothing but farmland back then with little farmhouses all over. We jammed and had a little intake of marijuana. Back then you could really get in trouble for that. The police showed up because of the noise and I turned to Carlos — I didn’t even know him at that point. “We got to get out of here!” All I saw was his ass and his elbows and he was running through a tomato patch. So I followed him and we hid in the tomato patch. That’s when I met him, and that’s how things started for us.
Then I got a B3 after that and got to do stuff the way it was supposed to sound. The songs I had been listening to had a B3 in it. I’m like a frustrated guitarist. I can’t play one, but I can emulate in my head what I think it would do as I play it on an organ. I’m not particularly fond of just an organ band. I think the organ is a great instrument within a band but I think it’s there to support everything. That’s how I played. I always told these guys, “If I take my hands off of this thing, the band’s going to get small. Even though you may not hear what I’m doing, it’ll just get smaller.” That’s how I approached it.
[Santana members] Michael Shrieve and Alphonso Johnson are on Sonic Ranch, too. What is it like to play with people for more than 50 years? It must be almost like telepathy at this point, right?
Yeah, it’s kind of that. Michael is a very prolific drummer. Much like Ringo, he plays to the song. He’s not throwing a bunch of chops because he can on certain songs when you don’t need it. It’s there but he really is all about the song. Alfonso Johnson, I can’t say enough about. Every note this guy hits, whether it’s up on the neck or down low, it’s big and round. And it’s hard to do. He’s just really, really something. I even asked him, “What are you doing playing with me for 10 years?” And he goes, “You have no idea how great this is because, first of all, when you say something’s going to happen, it does. Second of all, I get paid on time. And most importantly, everybody’s happy.”
And that’s it. As you get older in this business, or probably any business, that’s important. We’ve all talked about it before. Lukather and I have talked about it many times. It’s about the hang. If the hang’s bad, the whole thing goes sour. Just play, smile and have a good time. It’s where it’s at. The hang is everything as you get older in this business. It’s just so important. And that’s what’s going on right now, for me. It makes it joyful. Shouldn’t it be?
Your son Sean produced the album. What’s it like working (and hanging) with him?
It’s awesome. He’s very talented guy. I told him, “Protect your ears.” He can sit there and produce and he’s listening to it back and he goes, “The vocal’s got too much 2500 on it.” Like, what? He just has all his own tricks as a producer and an engineer. He’s been working on it since he was very young. He would do his homework while I was recording something and I’d need somebody to punch in a vocal for me. So he was about 12 or something: “Hey buddy, come in here and help me do this.” And he learned how to punch in a vocal where it sits. Then he got into his own band and started recording all this stuff. He asked me, “Would you help us with this?” I said, “No, I won’t because I’ll give you ideas that are old. I’m listening to what you guys are doing and it’s all young and fresh and you should go there. Just do it.” So he learned everything from the ground up and I can’t say enough about him. It was just fun to play with him. He’s got great ideas and he’s about the only guy I know that can go, “I don’t think so, Dad…” He’s just really, really good at it. I’m pretty proud of him, it’s pretty awesome. He’s got the same energy I do when he plays. It’s not perfection, it’s energy. And I love that first. It’s got to be good but really, you’ve got to have the energy of what you’re trying to portray. It’s really important. More than a lot of chops. My manager from Journey used to say, “Chops belong in the butcher shop.”
I think my best work ever is my family. I’d say, “My job is to make you a good person, and what you do with that is up to you. If you’re good people, it’ll probably work out.” I quit Journey to start a family and everybody goes, “Oh no, it’s because Steve Perry took all those singing duties.” I’m like, “Oh, for God’s sake.” I was there, I know what I’m saying but you get these people on Facebook going, “I know the real reason.” You don’t know anything. I did it to start a family. I was getting to that age and I had to make a decision and that was it. So, I quit Journey to do that.
Thinking of all the good energy that you’ve put out through your music over the years, what is the greatest compliment that you’ve received for your work?
Oh, man, I don’t look at it that way. But I’d have to really think on that one. There was one incident where this guy had a Journey belt buckle. It was in Saint Louis and he was messing with a shotgun and it went off and the belt buckle saved his life. His mom was the one that brought it up. I was like, “Holy s—! Are you kidding me?”