(Journey, the legendary American rock band formed in 1973, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last April 7, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, along with the equally prodigious Pearl Jam, Yes, Tupac Shakur, Elo, and Joan Baez. It marked the first time that ex-Journey lead vocalist, Steve "The Voice" Perry, has ever been on stage with his former bandmates since he left the band in 1998. In his speech, Perry made special mention of the band's current vocalist, our very own Arnel Pineda, exclaiming: "I must give a complete shout out to someone who sings his heart out every night, and it's Arnel Pineda. Where are you, Arnel? Where are you? He must be backstage. To Arnel, I love you. Woooo!" Though he wasn't part of the honorees, Arnel was ecstatic because he finally met his idol, Steve Perry, for the first time. "Waited 35 years for this moment," he says in an Instagram post recently of the experience. In celebration of Journey's Hall of Fame induction, relive Arnel's rise from YouTube star to Journey vocalist in this classic FHM feature from June 2008.)
Once in a while, a film comes out of Hollywood that eerily resembles real life. Watching it, you get goosebumps and you blurt out (if you’re the kind of guy who blurts), “Oh, shit, ako ba yan?” Ignoring the fact that the guy onscreen you identify with is closer to Man-God than Turd on the Macho Scale, you continue to watch, transfixed by the brilliance of the screenwriter: “How could he have known I’ve been going through that?”
Back in 2001, such a flick came out unknowingly mapping out the destiny of one Arnel Pineda. He didn’t realize it then, of course. Nobody did.
The flick: the Mark Wahlberg-starrer Rockstar, about Chris Cole, a copymachine repairman who also fronts his cover band, Blood Pollution. Cole idolizes Bobby Beers, the frontman of the heavy metal band Steel Dragon. After being booted out of his amateur band, Cole gets a call from Steel Dragon who’s looking for a new lead vocalist to replace their temperamental old one. They fly Cole over to their studio to do a voice test and a recording. And, snap, he gets the gig.
Switch Chris Cole with Arnel Pineda and Steel Dragon with Journey (that American rock band that’s been around since bell bottoms) and you pretty much have the real story down pat. Except that Pineda wasn’t a copy machine repairman before becoming a rock star—he’d been rocking and rolling with several Pinoy bands for 25 years before becoming frontman of his “idols from birth.” And, unlike the fictitious Chris Cole, Pineda wasn’t kicked out of his band before signing a contract with Journey.
Middle of 2007, Guitarist Neal Schon plucked him from YouTube obscurity (where a friend posted a video of Pineda and his band, The Zoo, performing Journey’s “Faithfully”) and flew him to San Francisco for a weeklong audition. In December, it was made official with the press that Pineda would ascend to the throne that was once occupied by the legendary Steve Perry.
On February 21, 2008, Pineda went onstage in Vina del Mar City, Chile, with the rest of Journey for their first show together. Chris Cole says it for Pineda when Cole tells the audience on his first concert with Steel Dragon: “I was just a regular guy who grew up with posters of these guys on my wall.”
Arnel Pineda’s one of them now.
The stage is dark but trills from the guitar and keyboards fill up the darkness. And then Pineda, still faceless, shouts out, “Hello, Chile!” Wild cheers greet him. It’s Journey’s first concert with Pineda on vocals. They’re at the Quinta Vergara Arena during the festival of the city of Vina del Mar.
Pineda struts and dances around the stage performing their first song, “Separate Ways.” He doesn’t quite own the audience yet. That will come in the next few songs when he has gotten the hang of performing in front of thousands of people who came, he’s told conveniently after the concert, as rabid Steve Perry fans.
“This is my first time,” Pineda tells them, but not apologetically. “So go easy on me, okay?”
Pineda’s sincerity comes through. You can’t help but like him. Besides, the guy has talent, objectively speaking. Says Nicolas on the Entertainment Weekly online forum (EW.com), “I was drawn to check [out] the new guy out of curiosity. I was skeptical at first, but almost floored by his rendition of “Faithfully” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.’ Uncanny and scary. He brought a different dimension to the band… Very few can sing…with authority, emotion, passion and can [bring a] stadium filled [with] people to a frenzy. Genius!”
As he warms up, Pineda becomes more comfortable onstage. Pretty soon, he’s all over it—running, jumping, dancing, shaking hands with frantic fans. Pineda holds the audience in his hand, and the rest of Journey—Schon on guitars, Deen Castronovo on drums, Jonathan Cain on keyboards, and Ross Valory on bass—looks proud of how Pineda handles his baptism of fire.
Pineda’s is one case of talent plus technology plus luck plus hard work equals international success and recognition. That reality seemed so far away, though, when Pineda was growing up in Quezon City. It was a difficult childhood for him and his three brothers. Their mother died when Pineda was 12, leaving the family buried in debt with unpaid hospital bills. Their father, a tailor, couldn’t feed and clothe his four boys anymore so he kept the two youngest and left Pineda and his younger brother to deal with it on their own.
In time, Pineda and his brother got separated, too, and Pineda house-hopped from relative to relative, friend to friend, ending up in Luneta Park. The relatives would accommodate Pineda for a few days at a time, leaving him to fold himself on a small bench at night to sleep outside their house. Friends would feed him, give him clothes, find him other friends to stay with.
Pineda later on found a job sweeping up metal scraps at the pier, which paid P8 a day. The turning point came when a friend, hearing him sing, convinced Pineda to audition for a local rock band, Ijos. He did, and though he had a hard time getting his timing right, the band allowed him to sing bits and pieces at their gigs at Ali Mall and New Frontier in Cubao. He earned P35 a gig then, courtesy of an impressed Farmers Market stall owner.
“Saling pusa lang ako nun,” says Pineda. “Ayaw pa akong bayaran nung banda kasi hindi raw ako marunong pumasok sa kanta. Sanay kasi ako, pagita-gitara lang sa tabi-tabi.”
Obviously, Pineda got over this quickly. He realized he did, after all, have skills in the “minus-one” department. He mastered his timing and went on to win as Best Vocalist in the 1987 World Band Explosion in Japan. After Ijos, Pineda did frontman duties for another local band, Amo. Next came the band New Age, which took Pineda to Hong Kong clubs for about 13 years. Back in the Philippines, Pineda formed The Zoo, which did, among others, covers of Journey songs.
The Zoo would be the last band Pineda would sing for before joining Journey.
In July 2007, Schon logged on to YouTube in a last ditch attempt to find a replacement for Journey’s former vocalist Jeff Scott Soto. He found it in a clip of The Zoo doing a cover of Journey’s “Faithfully” (which, as of this writing, has close to 2M hits). Pineda’s skill took many awestruck minutes to sink into Schon, who immediately sent an email to Pineda. On the phone with Pineda, there was a Hi-I’m-Neal-Schon-yeah-right-we-want-you-to-audition-for-us-yeah-right exchange until Schon finally convinced Pineda of his authenticity.
This was what 40-year-old Pineda’s 25 years in the music industry had built him up for. Less than a month later, Pineda had his work visa and, with his manager (veteran TV director Bert de Leon), flew to Marin County in San Francisco to claim that audition.
“They didn’t make me feel awkward at all so I wasn’t completely star-struck,” says Pineda of his new bandmates. “They didn’t act as if they were rock legends, which they are. Grounded sila. Wacky, especially Dean and Ross. Sina Neal at Jon ang pinakaseryoso sa banda.”
Pineda was tested right away. Although the four existing Journey members were convinced that Pineda was The One, they still put him through a rigorous weeklong “audition session.” Pineda sang three to four hours for them every day for a week, even recording old hits with the rest of Journey. At the end of the week, says Pineda, “They told me I got the gig.” It was a triumph of sorts, too, for Journey, who felt they’ve found a diamond in the rough in Pineda. “We feel reborn,” says guitarist Neal Schon. “I think there’s a lot of chemistry among the five of us… Everyone’s so stoked about it. We feel very fortunate to have found Arnel.”
Two months after securing its lead singer, Journey began recording its new album, Revelation (which will be released on June 3 in North America). The album, a three-disc CD and DVD package, consists of 11 re-recorded classics, 11 new songs, and a live, in-concert DVD.
“It was very intense, very hard work. We recorded the album in a month,” says Pineda. “Bibigyan nila ako ng demo nung kanta, tapos dapat the next day alam na alam ko na. They did explain to me how I should sing each song, though I very well understood what the songs meant.”
All the songs in the new album were written pre-Pineda but in time, Pineda is sure of artistic collaboration with the band: “Neal told me he hoped I’d get used to being in America because he wanted to write songs with me,” says Pineda.
The album still has traces of the old Journey flavor but, says Pineda, “It’s not Steve Perry anymore. Arnel Pineda na. Andun na yung bagong sound namin.”
Kevin Shirley, who produced Revelation and two previous albums of Journey, says the following on his blog about producing Journey’s new album: “Sometimes you just know when there’s history in the making. I was stunned at Arnel, who is a monster vocalist. He is the real deal. Just phenomenal. I am always in awe of Jonathan as songwriter-producer and together with Neal, who adds the rock element, they are one of the great songwriting partnerships. They don’t always see eye-to-eye musically, but their combination is magic. You have to hear them ignore their egos and me and just play as Journey.
“I am always cognizant of the space [Steve] Perry and [Steve] Smith occupy in the sound and legacy, and won’t let that be underplayed, [but] Deen and Arnel are brilliant musicians, and with a little focus the entire band has found their place again. This is stronger than Trial By Fire and sounds like Journey, but state-of-the-art. I think Arnel is ‘the business!’ The guy can really sing! He handles the ballads with SO much heart, and belts the rockers as hard, and melodically, as anyone I have heard.”
All this publicity going on about Journey exposes Pineda’s neck to wolves, though. He’s aware of Steve Perry fans who may see him just as a Steve Perry-sound-alike. And Pineda, the band’s fifth lead vocalist, is quick to soothe them.
“Masyadong malaki ang legacy niya,” says Pineda of Perry. “His voice is incomparable. Hindi mo puwedeng sabihin sa kanya, ‘O, natalo ka na ni Arnel.’ That’s not going to happen. Journey will just take on another path this time.”
The impact of seeing brown-skinned Pineda onstage may also raise the hackles of diehard Journey fans who want Journey to stay an all-American band. But Pineda is also ready for them.
“I’m expecting a lot of discrimination in the South of the US, the purists who are unhappy to see a brown-raced rock star rocking-and-rolling with this legendary all-American rock band,” says Pineda. “I know hardcore Journey fans will always be there to scrutinize me. But that’s part of the package that I took. I know they might hate me. And I can take that, as long as they don’t hurt me physically. Because if they do, I will fight back.”
Perhaps, anticipating a racial reaction to Pineda’s exotic appearance, and in an attempt to soften the blow, Schon, had suggested “height enhancers” to Pineda, who stands 5’4”. “But I don’t want to [use them]. I like my black Chucks. I’m not going to wear elevator shoes. I’m not here to boast about my height. I’m here to sing. If you want a tall person, go to the NBA. Magsawa kayo sa mga matatangkad doon.” True enough, on their Chile concert, Pineda wore his trusty black Chucks.
All this talk about rabid fans heating up Journey concerts sets Pineda on a patriotic course. Short of wearing a barong onstage (“Hindi pa kasi ako nakakita ng rock star na naka-barong. Pero kung puwede, bakit hindi?”), Pineda has taken his nationalistic role to heart. “I’m a small guy but I’ll be the biggest supporter of Filipinos,” says Pineda, a nature lover who goes on road trips around the Philippines to unwind. “Masyado na nating niyayakap ang kultura ng West. Sana yakapin din natin ang kultura natin. Ang galing-galing ng mga Pilipino kahit saan sa mundo.”
Photography Charles Buenconsejo for Grafiksalad
This feature originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of FHM Philippines.
Minor edits were made by the FHM.com.ph editors.