Interview: Aerosmith Guitarist Joe Perry (2010)
Originally published in Guitar World, September 2010
They crashed hard in 2009, but Aerosmith have pulled themselves back together to launch one of their biggest world tours ever. Joe Perry tells how they reconciled with singer Steven Tyler and talks about the plans for their long-awaited new studio effort.
“There are times I just want to get the fuck out of this.” It’s early in the morning on a perfect spring day in June, and Joe Perry, black coffee in hand, is relaxing outside at his New England home. He’s reflecting on his long musical past, and contemplating—just maybe—a future that has a decidedly different focus. “Because I’ve done it all,” he says. “I’ve been going long enough to prove what I wanted to prove, to get the girl I wanted to get, to make the money I wanted to make, to drink all the beer I wanted to drink. I’ve played—not exactly everywhere, but I’ve played enough places.” Perry pauses, and gazes out over the lush green expanse of his surrounding property. “So sometimes I’ll sit here and think, What the fuck am I doing? Because really, I could just be doing this every day.”
It’s hard to argue with the man. Indeed, Perry has, at least musically speaking, done it all. Across four decades with Aerosmith, one of America’s longest running—and, without a doubt, finest—rock and roll bands, he’s powered some of rock’s greatest tunes, like “Walk this Way,” “Same Old Song and Dance” and “Sweet Emotion,” sold more than 150 million albums worldwide and influenced generations of axmen (Slash, for one, has often credited the ‘Smith’s classic 1976 platter, Rocks, with setting him on his own musical path). Along the way he’s been firmly established as a guitar icon of the highest order: a raven-haired, granite-jawed, stone-cold gunslinger whose every move—and riff—drips with attitude, style and effortlessly cool confidence.
Which is not to say that it’s been an easy ride. Perry and Aerosmith’s history is littered with the detritus of years of rock and roll excess: drug addictions, rehab stints, interband battles, members leaving, health scares, and periods of commercial decline and financial woe. Yet they’ve not only survived but continue to thrive at an extraordinarily high level, a fact that is not lost on Perry. “It seems like we always manage to get through by the skin of our teeth,” he acknowledges with a grin. And so while the guitarist could easily ride out his days here at home, enveloped in bucolic suburban bliss, “there’s something about the band that’s really enticing,” he says. “It’s really addictive. And I’m kinda curious to see how long it’s gonna go. So it’s like, Well, let’s stick with it for a little while longer.”
Recently, however, there was a moment where it seemed as if Aerosmith—or at least Aerosmith as we know it—would not go on much longer. This past year in particular proved to be one of the most tumultuous of the band’s long career. A 2009 summer tour with ZZ Top was plagued with setbacks: guitarist Brad Whitford and bassist Tom Hamilton took separate leaves of absence to deal with medical issues, and several dates were canceled early on after singer Steven Tyler suffered a leg injury. Then, at the group’s August 5 show in Sturgis, South Dakota, Tyler tumbled from the stage mid-set, sustaining head and neck injuries and a broken shoulder, and forcing the band to scrap the remainder of the tour.
Things only got worse from there. While Aerosmith sat idle through the fall, rumors began swirling of a rift between Tyler and his bandmates. After the singer pulled out of a planned South American tour at the end of the year to focus his energies on building what he described publicly as “Brand Tyler,” Perry announced that, almost 40 years after their inception, Aerosmith would begin looking for a new singer. “The band wasn’t going to sit around and wait,” Perry says today. “If Steven was gonna do a solo thing, or go be a judge on American Idol for a year or whatever, we weren’t going to do nothing. We’re a good band, and the four of us can go out and play.”
As a result, what played out in the press across the final months of 2009 and into early this year was high rock and roll drama. After hinting at solo activity to come, Tyler abruptly shifted gears and checked himself into an undisclosed rehab facility to deal with an addiction to painkillers. Perry, meanwhile, busied himself touring across the U.S. and Europe in support of his recent solo album, Have Guitar, Will Travel. All the while, the rumor mill churned, with high-profile names like Lenny Kravitz, Paul Rodgers, Billy Idol and Chris Cornell, among others, being floated in the press as possible replacements for a frontman that many thought irreplaceable. (During this time it surfaced that, in 2008, Tyler had secretly auditioned to fill Robert Plant’s shoes for the aborted Led Zeppelin reunion tour.)
However, the world will never know just what, say, Aerosmith + Paul Rodgers might have sounded like. This past February, with major 2010 tour dates looming, Tyler and the band laid down their weapons and made amends. “We all got together with Steven and his manager [Tyler retains management separate from his bandmates] at our rehearsal space and hammered things out,” Perry says. “And everybody was pretty optimistic. After going through all the bullshit and all the gossip and all the other stuff, we knew where things were at.”
Despite the fractured nature of their relationship—at one point, attorneys for Tyler threatened legal action against the band if its members didn’t “cease and desist” from talking to the press about replacing the singer—Perry says now that he never doubted Tyler would return to Aerosmith. “I knew he would come back,” he says. “I just didn’t know when. But I’m glad it was sooner rather than later.” Which is not to say that all the discussion of bringing in a replacement was designed as a means to push Tyler’s hand about going solo; rather, Perry insists the band’s intentions were genuine. “I was just looking at it as working with somebody and jamming, as a temporary thing,” he says. “I mean, someone filled in for Tom [Hamilton] for a while, you know? And people were flipping out, like, ‘It’s not going to be Aerosmith.’ Well, no shit. You don’t have to tell me that. But who knows what could have come out of it?”
With Tyler now back in the fold, it’s a question that remains unanswered, though it’s not the only one: Perry can’t explain just what it was that brought the singer and band back together. “I never really talked to Steven about why he shifted gears,” he says. “He was all gung ho about doing this and that. We’d hear everything from his becoming a talk-show host to playing Vegas with a big band—just all kinds of things. But if you look at all these gigs we had lined up, the South American shows and all the European festivals, the reality of not doing those was pretty daunting, I guess.”
As it turns out, 2010 is shaping up to be a banner year on the road for Aerosmith. The current Cocked, Locked, Ready to Rock world tour, which launched in May in South America, is no small undertaking: the jaunt takes the band through more than a dozen countries, including a headlining slot at the Download festival in the U.K. and Aerosmith’s first-ever dates ever in Greece, Peru and Colombia, before returning to the U.S. for a late-summer swing through outdoor sheds. After that, Perry says, “We’ll probably take some time off and then do the record.”
“The record,” as Perry refers to it, remains perhaps the biggest elephant in Aerosmith’s room. The band’s most recent studio album of new material, Just Push Play, was released back in 2001, so even if work on a follow-up begins immediately after this summer’s tour, a full decade is likely to have passed before we see a new Aerosmith studio effort (the 2004 collection of blues covers, Honkin’ on Bobo tenure with the band, which lasted from 1970, aside). Put another way, this encompasses a longer span of time than Perry’s entire first to 1979, during which they peeled off such classic discs as Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic and Rocks in quick succession.
Aerosmith’s inability to produce a full album of new material over the past decade is a particular sore spot for the guitarist, who on his own has released two solo efforts during this time. Adding to his frustration is the fact that, as he readily admits, he is no great fan of Just Push Play. “I wasn’t really happy with the way it came out,” Perry says. “I was a lot happier with Honkin’ on Bobo. I wish we had done Just Push Play the way we had done that record. It was live and raw, and that’s basically what I think Aerosmith is.”
That said, he continues, “Some of the other guys in the band liked Just Push Play. I didn’t. So what the fuck, you know? I liked a couple of the songs on it; I just wasn’t happy with the way it was recorded, in bits and pieces and glued together in Pro Tools. It left out the biggest asset Aerosmith has, which is playing live. And then there are some songs that I can’t even believe we did. A song like ‘Trip Hoppin’ ’ is not a song I would…I just don’t see us like that. But you get deep into recording and you lose sight of what you’re doing sometimes.”
In point of fact, Aerosmith have been working on the follow-up to Just Push Play for several years now. But as Perry explains, “We’d get started in the studio, and at the same time we’d have a tour looming. Then the record would get bogged down for one reason or another, and we’d have to stop and hit the road.” A few years back, in an effort to move things forward, the band brought in AC/DC and Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien to rein in the project. “We set aside three months,” Perry says, “but one thing led to another, and all of a sudden it was the same thing: ‘The tour starts in three weeks, and we’re going to have to put the record off again.’ ”
Presently, Aerosmith are sitting on a handful of tunes that have been worked up during these aborted sessions over the years, though Perry says at this point he doesn’t know if any of this material will surface on the eventual album. One thing he is adamant about, however, is that he would like to see the new disc—the last in their contract with Sony—recapture a greater semblance of the band’s bluesy, rough-and-tumble Seventies sound, an element starkly absent in the polished pop of recent hits like “Jaded” and “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” But while Aerosmith’s glossier material is generally credited as being the work of Tyler (and his predilection for utilizing outside songwriters), Perry isn’t so quick to write these songs off entirely. “Playing some of the songs Steven’s wanted to play hasn’t exactly hurt us,” he admits. “But we used to write songs that we figured would play well in front of an audience, instead of jumping all over the place trying to write hits. People spend their careers trying to figure out what makes a hit single. But I learned a long time ago that you can’t anticipate what people want, because it’s always going to change. So fuck it. Play what you want to play.”
It should be noted that what Perry has wanted to play has also served the band well over the years. It was his distillation of the sound and style of British heavy blues rock pioneers like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green into something more riffy, accessible and, essentially, American that was in large part responsible for launching Aerosmith into the stratosphere in the Seventies. And if Steven Tyler has always been recognized as the face—and mouth—of Aerosmith, Joe Perry is no doubt the band’s rock and roll soul. Throughout the band’s history, Perry’s unflappable, perennially cool guitar-god persona has anchored Tyler’s extroverted live-wire act to great effect. He’s the dark, dangerous and slightly enigmatic axman perfectly content to let his guitar do all the talking.
Not surprisingly, then, Perry is understated about his role in the band and even his own skills, going so far as to call himself “not that great a guitar player.” “I basically help lay the bed down,” he says. “I just concentrate on the songs. And most of the stuff I play I don’t plan. A lot of people, I notice that if they play a lead, they can go back and play it again. Most of the time I can’t. Once I’ve done it and it’s over, I really have a hard time doing it the same way. Because it doesn’t come from any sense of scales or technical know-how. It’s all just attitude.”
He’s considerably more effusive when discussing his co-guitarist of almost 40 years, Brad Whitford: “He thinks musically,” Perry says of his less-lauded bandmate. “He knows a lot more about music. He’s a great lead player, and he’s got a really good style. I remember back when we were doing the Pump record, he was ripping up some solos, and I was like, ‘Man, where are you getting that?’ He still does that stuff, only he just keeps topping himself. I always learn stuff from Brad musically, because I don’t have a very good ear. There’s a lot of times I’ll forget what I play, and he’ll show me. There aren’t many people who can play the way he can and still work with four other guys like us.”
Perry goes on to cite classic Aerosmith tracks like “Last Child” and “Kings and Queens” as among his favorite Brad Whitford contributions to the band’s canon. When asked what he considers to be his own shining moments, however, his choices are decidedly more esoteric. “There’s a song on the Joe Perry record [from 2005] called ‘Can’t Compare,’ where the notes I’m playing just speak and tell a story,” he says. “And then I really like ‘Wooden Ships,’ the instrumental on my most recent one [Have Guitar, Will Travel].” As for his best work with Aerosmith? “It’s probably on a song that hasn’t come out yet,” Perry says. “It’s called ‘Meltdown.’ And I think the solo that I put on there is pretty close to what I would consider just right. I nailed it. It’s one of our new ones, and hopefully we’ll be able to use it on the new record.”
According to Perry, the upcoming album, Aerosmith’s 14th studio effort of new material, will finally be completed next year. But right now, the band is enjoying just being back out on the road together. “With Steven coming back, he’s probably happier than I’ve seen him in a long time,” Perry says. “And he’s healthier, stronger and singing better. It’s amazing. So we’re gonna tour at least through the summer, and then there’s talk about Japan and the Far East and some other places. I think now that the band’s up and running again and sounding good, we should stay on the road as long as we can. There’s been so much starting and stopping over the last couple years, I’d like to feel like we finally did a full tour. After that we’ll do the record. And then, we’ll see.”
And so the Aerosmith train just keeps a-rollin’. “It’s funny,” Perry continues. “There were times in the Seventies when people would see us and go, ‘They’re not gonna live another three months.’ But for some reason we’ve always managed to keep going. And I wonder about how we’ve been able to do it. So sometimes I just have to shake my head. Because there’s not many bands out there who have been around for as long as we have, and who still have all their original members, and that are still doing new and bigger things the way we are. So it’s kinda like there’s no template for what’s to come.”