Stuck for a new singer, veteran rockers Journey found their man on YouTube – a once-homeless Filipino. Alexis Ong hears the extraordinary story of Arnel Pineda
Like Fleetwood Mac and Iron Maiden, iconic rock band Journey has seen its fair share of personnel changes. In 1998 lead vocalist Steve Perry (hardcore fans remember him as ‘The Voice’) split due to medical problems, followed by longtime drummer Steve Smith, who wasn’t interested in a Journey without Perry. Two replacement singers came and went, and the band’s future looked grim. Then along came YouTube, and a chance viewing that would change everything.
Arnel Pineda may not be a household name yet, but fans of classic rock will be hearing about this charismatic Filipino star for years to come. Pineda, who turns 41 next month, joined the band after Journey guitarist Neal Schon logged on to the video-sharing website last year and discovered footage of him belting out ‘Faithfully’ and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ as the frontman of rock band The Zoo. Pineda is unfazed by Journey’s tumultous history – ‘Just because Journey have gone through several singers doesn’t mean the position is “cursed”.’ Since his amazing debut at the Viña del Mar festival in Chile in February, it’s hard to imagine that Pineda was once homeless and depended on ex-bandmate Monet Cajipe’s family for scraps. Even after such tough beginnings, Pineda sees his new life as ‘a job that needs to be done. Although it’s kind of glamorous, it is still a job. We all know that the rags-to-riches thing never happens overnight. It still takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to achieve it.’
Nonetheless, Journey’s man of the hour is humbly aware of the neverending comparisons to ‘The Voice’ and snide comments about his foreign roots. ‘Whatever colour or nationality I am and whatever I do…some people and media will not stop pigeonholing me…so all I can do is what I love doing…singing.’ For this man, comparisons to his hero are nothing short of an honour. As for The Zoo, they’ve been wonderfully supportive of their friend, though Cajipe initially took Pineda’s departure ‘as a challenge’ until the arrival of new singer, Reujen Lista. Formed in 2006, the band enjoyed modest success on the Filipino rock scene, jamming out pitch-perfect covers of Heart and Toto standards at Manila’s Hard Rock Café. It was Pineda and Cajipe who laid the groundwork for their debut album Zoology
(2007). ‘The early part of the songwriting was done by Arnel and myself,’ explains Cajipe. Offstage they describe themselves as laidback guys fond of hanging out and playing pool. Bassist Emil Bondoc remembers their first gig as one of ‘instant chemistry… all the pieces seemed to fit and we were just rocking and having fun.’
Somewhere between all that rocking out and having fun, The Zoo evolved into a technical powerhouse capable of nailing the most arpeggioheavy, falsetto-filled rock ballads ever written. Schon was thrilled when he heard what Pineda and The Zoo could do. ‘The hair stood up on my arms,’ he tells GQ
. ‘I got up off the computer and told my girlfriend, “No way – this guy sounds too good”.’ After recovering from the shock of finding a man who could channel the sound of golden-era Perry, Schon called his bandmates to tell them he’d found ‘the one’, all the way over in Manila. Their response? ‘Great – so you found a singer who can’t speak English.’
After clearing up that linguistic misunderstanding, Schon emailed Noel Gomez, the fan responsible for posting the videos, who helped him contact the starstruck singer. Schon arranged for Pineda and manager Bert de Leon to fly to California for a two-day audition. But Journey’s great Filipino hope almost didn’t make it, as incredulous embassy staff didn’t believe his reason for travelling to the US. His visa prospects looked shaky until he was asked to sing ‘Wheel in the Sky’. When Pineda obliged, the officials’ doubts instantly evaporated. Upon learning the news, Cajipe ‘had mixed emotions about it…I was happy for him but at the same time I was worried for Zoo and the band’s future.’ Thankfully, there isn’t much to worry about; The Zoo is busy working on their next album with newcomer Lista. As for their old bandmate, Bondoc reveals that classic rock’s Johnny-come-lately hasn’t lost touch with his roots: ‘Arnel jams with us every time he comes home…it’s like he never left.’ Pineda claims that his kids are ‘not that ecstatic about the whole thing…they are more worried about [me] spending less time with them.’ What about a Journey double bill with The Zoo? ‘Arnel and The Zoo in a big reunion concert would be really, really cool! Or Zoo as Journey’s support act – totally cool!’ enthuses Baruelo.
The moral of the story for budding YouTube musicians? Don’t stop believing… (Don’t act surprised, someone had to say it.)