MANILA, Philippines - ?I never stopped believing that someday, somehow I would make it. But I never thought it would be this big! My biggest dream was that I would make it with my band Zoo, and that someday we would be as big as Bamboo. But God had other plans for me.?
For someone with such a powerful voice onstage and on record, Arnel Pineda is remarkably soft-spoken on the phone. Maybe he?s just trying to save his throat for the next concert. Calling from a hotel somewhere in Pennsylvania, there is more than a trace of road fatigue in his voice. It?s been more than a month since he embarked on his first world tour with his new band, megaplatinum arena-rockers Journey, supported by their ?70s-?80s album-oriented rock cohorts Cheap Trick and Heart, and the road is clearly taking its toll on the 40-year-old Pineda.
?It?s very, very physically demanding,? he admits. ?I have to preserve all my energy for the concert, and I need all the sleep I can get. It?s not easy because you?re in a bus, then you?re in different hotel rooms. Matinding stress, matinding pagod (Too much stress)."
?I?m living like a monk now, as in walang good time,? he adds. ?Water, vitamins, health foods, vegetables and trying to get all the sleep I can get.?
But Pineda is nothing if not a pro. He?s been a working musician for 25 years now, and back in the day thought nothing of playing five hours a night, every night?par for the course for a working Olongapo musician. Despite the fatigue, the pressure of being the headliner?s front man, not to mention the added pressure of still being "the new guy" in Journey, Pineda says when he hits the stage, it just kicks in.
?Basta ginagawa ko lang s?ya (I just do it),? he says. ?It?s hard to explain. Parang schizo?nag-iiba ang persona ko once I hit the stage. Sometimes I would psych myself before a concert: ?Heto gagawin ko ngayon.? But once I hit the stage everything I?m doing becomes spontaneous. Nag-iiba na ang energy ko. Before I know it, I?m doing it and I?m performing like a pro every night. Before I know it, tapos na ang concert (the concert?s over)."
Pineda?s efforts have not gone unrewarded. By all accounts, Journey, a band which has been around since 1975, has gotten a new lease on life since signing Pineda last year to replace their departing lead singer. It?s not only the novelty of having a new voice and a new face that has given Journey a much-needed shot of adrenalin, but the fact that Pineda is Filipino. Overnight, Journey gained a huge following among overseas Filipinos, for whom Pineda has become a symbol of racial pride like Manny Pacquiao, a ?little brown brother? who could, and did.
?Grabe ang support ng mga Filipinos,? admits Pineda. ?Our kababayan in America, the Middle East and Europe, naglabasan sa lungga nila when they heard about Journey. (The support of fellow Filipinos has been tremendous from all over.)
When I venture to suggest that they might be Arnel Pineda fans rather than Journey fans, however, he modestly disagrees.
?I think they?re old fans of Journey, lalo lang na-awaken ang love nila for Journey when I became the singer.?
He might have a point. Back in the Philippines, old Journey chestnuts like ?Don?t Stop Believing? and ?Faithfully? have been jeepney ?slow rock? staples since they first came out, and if Arnel?s voice seems eerily familiar, Filipinos need look no further than ?Foolish Heart,? a huge local hit for erstwhile Journey vocalist Steve Perry and still on heavy rotation in local ?mellow touch? stations, thanks to Nina?s acoustic remake of a few years back.
Not all Journey fans are happy with Pineda, however. Not a few diehard fans have taken exception to the band ?outsourcing? their lead vocals. Many are dyed-in-the-wool Steve Perry fans who believe that his is the only true voice of Journey. Some slam Pineda for not sounding like Perry, others for sounding too much like him.
But there are also distinct undercurrents of racism in some of the anti-Arnel sentiments voiced in the band?s online fan forums. Some make fun of his accent, traces of which can be detected if you listen closely enough. Others are more bluntly bigoted.
?I don?t entertain those comments,? says Pineda. ?For me it?s negative energy, and I would rather dwell on the positive comments. Those negative comments make me work harder. They give me balance.?
?Besides, I can?t blame them,? he adds. ?I understand where they?re coming from. Even me, I?m a diehard Steve Perry fan, so I would be very, very critical of someone else doing the lead vocals for Journey.?
Clearly, however, there hasn?t been this much excitement around Journey in a long time. Originally founded in 1975 by Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie, two former members of Santana, Journey?s first incarnation aspired to the kind of progressive art rock that was all the rage in the early 1970s. Their first three albums sold poorly, however, and the band?s management prevailed upon them to hire a vocalist named Steve Perry. Not only did Perry have the kind of high tenor that mainstream rock fans loved, he also had a knack for writing hits.
It was during Perry?s tenure that Journey became the classic rock monster that most audiences remember, either fondly or derisively, depending on where they stand on the operatic power ballad. Perry eventually launched a solo career in the mid-1980s, however. Since then Journey has had to make do with various lead singers, most of whom suffered from unfavorable comparisons with Perry. Until now.
The band?s current world tour is in support of their new album ?Revelation,? the band?s 14th and the first to feature Pineda on vocals. ?Revelation? debuted at a surprising No. 5 on the ?Billboard? charts, sold a whopping 107,000 copies in its first week and is now poised to go gold in the US. It?s a premium package with one disc of new songs, a bonus disc featuring remakes of the band?s greatest hits with Pineda singing lead, and a DVD.
(Another DVD, titled ?Journey with Arnel Pineda live in Chile? and featuring Pineda?s photo prominently on the cover, is already a brisk seller in Quiapo?s pirate stalls?an indication of the singer?s newfound status in his homeland.)
?When was the last time an Asian singer joined an American rock band?? asks Pineda. ?I expected that some would freak out, some would get angry. One reason our concerts are sold out is that Americans are very curious how I?m going to pull it off, how I?m going to sound live.?
?Covering the greatest hits is a medium to prove that I can do the greatest hits as well as the new songs,? he explains. ?Not to embarrass Steve Perry?for me he?s still the voice of Journey. But since he?s gone, Journey has to move on. The diehard fans have to realize that if they really love Journey, they have to be happy that this phenomenon happened and has opened up an exciting new path for Journey. It?s a new era for (the group).?
There is something of the fanboy still in the 40-year-old Pineda, a former Manila street urchin whose one-of-a-kind voice proved to be his ticket out of poverty. He is clearly still in awe of the rock gods at whose altar he worshipped back when he was fronting cover bands in Olongapo, Manila, Hong Kong and Singapore as a journeyman musician.
Only now, he?s one of them.
By now, everyone should be familiar with Pineda?s back story: it?s been told and retold enough times, not only in the music press, but in GQ, Vanity Fair and even Time, a modern-day parable of faith and perseverance rewarded.
Born in 1967, Pineda was thrust into Manila?s mean streets at age 12 when his mother died of a heart condition, and the family was left adrift. His younger siblings were taken in by relatives, but Arnel was left to fend for himself. Often going hungry, he slept on the streets, in Luneta, and in a neighbor?s backyard, and worked odd jobs collecting scrap and selling newspapers just to survive.
Music provided a way out when, at age 15, he joined his first band, Yjoz. Throughout the ?80s, Pineda sang with a more professional outfit called Amo, covering FM staples such as Heart?s ?What About Love,? Queen?s ?Bohemian Rhapsody? and Journey?s ?Separate Ways.? Amo won several ?Battle of the Band? contests and played long stints in Olongapo and Manila.
In the ?90s, Pineda fronted various incarnations of Amo, recorded an album, and spent much of the decade as a typical working Pinoy musician in the Asian circuit, enjoying long stints in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. He briefly got into drugs, which nearly cost him his voice. He went home, cleaned up, and resumed work. He even recorded an eponymous solo album which, unfortunately, went nowhere.
In 2005, Arnel formed the Zoo, which promptly became one of Manila?s top cover bands, doing everything from Air Supply and Kenny Loggins to Aerosmith and, yes, Journey. Zoo released their first album ?Zoology? in 2007 (since re-released in the wake of Arnel mania). Meanwhile, a diehard Zoo fan started posting videos of the band?s live performances on YouTube.
The rest of Pineda?s story is something out of the movies. In fact, it?s already a movie: 2001?s ?Rock Star,? in which Mark Wahlberg plays a journeyman singer plucked out of obscurity to replace the temperamental lead singer of a megaplatinum metal band called Steel Dragon.
Last year, after lead singer Jeff Scott Soto left Journey, the band found themselves scouting for a replacement yet again. Guitarist Neal Schon was surfing the Internet when he came upon Arnel?s YouTube videos. Reportedly, hearing Arnel for the first time made the hairs on his arms stand. Within days he had tracked down Pineda, who at first refused to believe that it was the Neal Schon on the phone inviting him to audition as Journey?s new vocalist.
Of course, Pineda nailed the audition, and life has not been the same for him since. Not only has he been on the road from day one, but a lot of the attention is focused on him.
?I don?t let it go to my head,? he tells me. "That?s why people are amazed, saying that I don?t have a trace of ?LSD??Lead Singer?s Disease?yung egoistic, mayabang talaga (really conceited). And I don?t have any plans of getting there. It?s just work at the end of the day. What?s important is to make people happy, and to get through a show without making mistakes, although of course sometimes I do make mistakes. I?m only human.?
So far, he adds, he hasn?t succumbed to the temptations of the road either.
?I?m over that,? he says. ?Maybe if this happened when I was 20 years old, I would be high right now talking to you. But as I said, I?m living like a monk now.
?Besides, I?m very committed to my partner back home,? he adds, referring to the mother of his three-year-old son. Pineda?s family has chosen to remain in the Philippines, where they keep largely out of the limelight.
?I?m more of an OFW than a rock star,? he says of his current situation. ?I?m just like you guys?I?m working.?