Interview: Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry Discuss Their New Album, 'Music From Another Dimension!'
"It seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Joe Perry is discussing the title of Aerosmith’s new album, Music from Another Dimension! “We were just throwing titles around and that came out. The name floated around for a long time, really, before there were any songs. But I think it led us to touch on a lot of different types of music—different ways we could attack rock and roll than Aerosmith has in the past.”
The first album of new, original Aerosmith material since Just Push Play in 2001, Music from Another Dimension! lives up to its name in many ways. It’s an epic disc that includes 15 massive tracks, many of which exceed the six-minute mark and feature ambitious song structures that include pre-choruses, pre-pre-choruses, post-choruses, codas, strange interludes and overdubs up the yin-yang. And of course there’s no shortage of killer guitar solos and crunchy, classic rhythms as only Aerosmith can bang ’em out.
A special deluxe edition of Music from Another Dimension! is laden with even more tracks and videos to boot. Throughout the whole shebang, the sound attains a kind of psycho-acoustic intensity and blockbuster cinematic grandeur. Monster ultra-compressed bass frequencies squoosh across the stereo field like some seismic eruption, and guitars whoosh and whiz past your head like alien spacecraft.
“We really wanted to give it the feel that you were in the room with the band,” Perry says. “Especially with headphones on. That’s how you get your best sound and have an intimate kind of experience. But loud, and rocky! I think there are a lot of different atmospheres on the record.”
“It truly is music from another dimension,” insists Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s over-the-top lead singer, Perry’s longtime “toxic twin,” lifetime musical collaborator and frequent sparring partner. “It’s from us and it’s from our alter-egos and psyches and our greatness and our fucked-up-ness. It’s just really a piece of who we all are.”
Tyler himself has always been quite a piece of work, and so, in a way, is Music from Another Dimension! The album skews schizophrenically between schmaltzy over-produced Tyler ballads and plenty of the bone-crunching hard rock hookiness that’s been Aerosmith’s most glorious asset ever since they first came out of Boston in the early Seventies. And perhaps more than any other member of Aerosmith, it is Joe Perry who carries that classic rock tradition with all the requisite attitude and swagger. At age 62, he remains very much the archetypal rock guitar god.
“Joe Perry?” Tyler demands. “If you want to hear rock and roll at its finest, just listen to Joe’s song ‘Oh Yeah’ on the new album. Then go listen to ‘Out Go the Lights.’ I haven’t heard anybody do anything like that in a while. Put that up against anything on Rocks or Toys in the Attic. I think it stands up.”
“We made the record that I hope people have been waiting for,” Perry says. “All these years, they’ve been saying, ‘Why don’t you make a record that sounds like the old stuff?’ But like anything that’s been around for 30 years, the classic Aerosmith stuff has acquired a certain patina. You can’t just instantly recreate that. You can’t go back. But you can certainly take that influence and use it when you’re doing new music. And that’s what we did.”
But Music from Another Dimension! is an album that came very close to never being made at all. The band was hobbled, literally, by a series of injuries all too inevitable for men entering or already in their sixth decade of life and still pounding rock and roll stages. Joe Perry underwent knee replacement surgery in 2008. Brad Whitford suffered a nasty knock on the head in 2009 that required surgery to relieve pressure from internal bleeding. That same year, Tyler fell off a stage, broke a shoulder, got addicted to painkillers as a result and had to undergo yet another stint in rehab. Then, in 2010, Tyler brained Perry with a microphone onstage. Rock and roll is a rough game indeed.
There was a point circa 2009 when it looked like Tyler might quit or get kicked out of Aerosmith entirely. He seemed to be distancing himself from the band via a variety of side and solo projects, most notably a two-year run as a judge on American Idol. But then all of this is nothing new for Aerosmith. Perry quit the band in 1979 and Whitford walked out in 1981, both eventually to return to the fold. Drama, among other barely controlled substances, is what has always fueled Aerosmith.
“How fucking amazing is it that we came up with this great album after so many years?” Tyler says, certainly with no sense of false modesty. “Is it because we haven’t been in the studio for a while? Or is it because we fought, and everybody in the band laid their dumbest shit on the table for a few years? Whatever the reason we were fighting, it was the dumbest shit on the planet, and maybe that tumultuous moment caused the electricity in the studio when we did get together. I’ll tell you, when we laid down [the lead track] ‘Legendary Child,’ I looked at Joe and said, ‘Joe, we’re back.’ It was a very epiphanous moment. It was like we stepped out of the Record Plant in 1974 and, instead of stepping onto the street, stepped right into the studio here.”
Still, as far as Joe Perry is concerned, Music from Another Dimension! should have gotten made way sooner than it did. “By all rights, this album should have come out three years after Just Push Play,” he says. “But we’ve been touring constantly over the past decade. We tried to make this record three times—literally, officially, as far as record company accounting is concerned. And then there was a third time when we sat around the table and said, “Yeah, let’s get started on a record. Let’s talk to some producers…’ But it never came to pass.
“So it took a while to get everybody rollin’, everybody onboard, everybody feeling right about it. The upside of that was we had started to stockpile a lot of material. And that’s usually the backbone of a new record to start with.”
Perry discloses that bassist Tom Hamilton’s bonus track contribution, “Up on the Mountain,” dates back to the Nine Lives period, circa 1989, as does Perry’s composition “Something.” “Or at least the guts from those songs were from around then,” Perry says. And then there were a couple of riffs that I used to pull out of the hat live when we’d be onstage jamming. Every song has its own story of how it developed and where it came from. The opening riff from ‘Legendary Child’ dates from around the time of Pump . I had just gotten one of the first Korg guitar synths at the time when we were working on that album. I remember picking it up and that riff came out—the opening anthemic kind of riff.”
But Perry bristles at the suggestion, made by some, that Music from Another Dimension! is an album of leftovers, retreads and reject riffs. “That certainly wasn’t the case,” he says. “Those ideas were part of the overflow that happens with every record. Every song on the new album was recorded fresh. All the basic tracks were recorded last summer at our studio in Boston.”
That would be Aerosmith’s own Vindaloo Studio. But work was also done at the Boneyard, Perry’s home studio in nearby Duxbury, Massachusetts. “I wanted to do a lot of the guitars there,” he says, “I have certain pieces of old equipment that we don’t have at the other studio, and I really like the guitar sounds I get at the Boneyard.”
Indeed, the Boneyard is a guitarist’s dream studio, endowed with not only the finest analog recording equipment but also all the best in vintage and cutting-edge contemporary guitar gear. “Originally,” says Perry, “I just wanted to build a place where anything I laid down on guitar would be technically as good as it could possibly sound. That evolved to where I have all kinds of stuff lying around. I have a little collection of old Maestro stuff, the old Gibson effect boxes. It’s so easy to plug any of that stuff in.”
But there’s more behind the album’s massive sound than just primo vintage guitar gear. It was recorded using the Endless Analog CLASP system. The acronym stands for Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor. Basically it enables the user to sync vintage analog 24-track tape machines to Pro Tools, hitting the analog tape before the signal is digitized.
“So you get that tape warmth that everyone craves, wants and remembers so well,” Perry notes. “It’s almost like using the tape machine as a piece of outboard gear. The signal chain literally goes from the microphone to a vintage mic pre right into the tape machine, and then right from the tape machine into the computer. So when the computer gets it, it’s getting that actual tape warmth in the analog sound. And, of course, when we mixed the album down, we mixed down to a half inch [Ampex ATR] analog tape machine.”
Even the greatest gear, however, is only as good as the human being(s) running it. And in this instance too, Aerosmith had the best. Legendary record producer Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, Slash’s Snakepit) had produced some of Aerosmith’s most revered albums, including Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, Rocks and Draw the Line. Douglas has been in and out of the Aerosmith fold ever since then, and he reunited with the band in 2004 for their blues cover album, Honkin’ on Bobo.
Still, Tyler claims credit for talking Douglas into producing Music from Another Dimension! by claiming that it will be Aerosmith’s last album—an assertion that neither Tyler nor Perry will confirm when the point is pressed. Still, the move was magnanimous of Tyler. Douglas is one of the few people on earth who can face down Aerosmith’s notorious mouth that roared.
“The other guys really love Jack more than I do,” Tyler concedes. “Because Jack puts them together in that space of drums, bass, guitar and…I mean I love him dearly but he gives me so much shit that I fight with him constantly. And that’s why the album is produced by me, Joe and Jack.”
Douglas is also the narrator heard on the album’s Twilight Zone pastiche opening and closing. Perry credits the producer with pushing the band in a way they hadn’t been pushed in quite some time.
“Jack’s attitude is, ‘Get in there and play it again, and give it some more this time!’ There was none of that thing where the producer or engineer says, ‘Okay, we got two pretty good takes. I can put something together.’ It was like, ‘Do another take, another take…let’s get the great take.’ And that’s from old-school analog recording, where you couldn’t edit as readily. And the other part of that is that we approached this new record with an attitude of, ‘How is this song going to go down when we play it in front of an audience that’s never heard it before?’ When we worked on records in the Seventies, that was always the perspective. And I think it’s something that’s different than a lot of the records we did in the late Eighties and Nineties.”
Early sessions in the Boston area then gave way to recording, overdubbing and mixing in L.A., principally at Swing House studios. The move was essentially undertaken to accommodate Tyler’s American Idol schedule—a minefield of a topic if ever there was one. The drama went public in early 2010 when reports hit the media that Aerosmith were auditioning new lead singers, although both Perry and Brad Whitford say that not one single audition ever took place.
“Oh, we never,” Perry avers. “There were no auditions. The farthest it ever got was probably a conference call with the three other guys in the band talking about different options of what to do about Steven’s time with American Idol. We weren’t really sure what our options were going to be. I thought about reviving the Joe Perry Project. But on the other hand, Aerosmith was sounding great and we wanted to be able to go on playing live. So we said, ‘Maybe we should think about bringing somebody else in to fill the spot until Steven gets back.’ And that was about as far as it got. Then the rest of it kind of snowballed in the press. It’s as simple as that.”
For those who need a recap, Perry was aggrieved that he had to find out about Tyler’s American Idol deal via the internet, along with all the punters. And when Tyler got wind of alleged auditions to replace him, he also got pissed off.
“On the other hand,” Perry pushes back, “Steven went off to audition for Led Zeppelin. I didn’t find out about that until actually three or four days after he got back.”
Relative peace was restored when it turned out that Tyler’s American Idol schedule allowed him sufficient time to go into the studio with Aerosmith and finish off the album. The singer could effectively have his cake and eat it too. For which, to his reckoning, his bandmates should be grateful.
“No one in the band wanted me to do Idol,” he says. “I was taking another job, et cetera, but I would imagine it was the kind of thing that saved their lives.”
Like it or not, he has a point. Coming up in the early Seventies, Aerosmith just missed out on the era when great rock bands like the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds and their peers had to do hokey mainstream TV variety shows—sandwiched, quite literally in some cases, between a mouse puppet and a tap dancer. But now that rock no longer dominates the music market as it once did, Aerosmith are indeed quite lucky to have a member with a willingness, and indeed a genuine talent, to shuck and jive on the 21st century equivalent of The Ted Mack Amateur Hour. Perry, for his part, acknowledges that it’s a different world these days.
“Classic rock means bands that have our heritage,” he says. “They have songs that were big in the classic era, from the Seventies and Eighties or whatever. But for it to be brand new, there’s not really a slot for that. ’Cause there are so few of us out there. Some of the new album sounds fresh and new—and it is. And it certainly echoes back to some of the early stuff. But there’s no playlist for that kind of stuff.”
So can one blame Tyler for playing the pop game? Rock music in the 21st century has become a subset of pop, which in turn is a subset of “entertainment,” which itself is a subset of “content.” And while an Aerosmith, ZZ Top or Bob Dylan will long be able to claim their little slice of the pie, the overall taste is quite different these days. Let’s just say there are a lot more corporate GMOs in the batter. Tyler is simply a guy with a clear sense of that, coupled with some strong survival instincts. While reality TV was never much of a stretch for aging rockers, Tyler is one of the people who made it okay for legitimate rock stars to do TV’s variety talent show format.
“I wasn’t sure about Idol either,” he admits. “But I jumped in with both feet, and if I get in trouble, I’m already in the market. I’m not one of those guys that goes, ‘Oh, I’m afraid of that market.’ I wanna be in everything. So I took Idol, and it turned out to be a great thing. And it brought Aerosmith’s catalog out after some cheap shots from some of the band members that what I did is like Ninja Turtle or something. [Perry indeed made an unfavorable comparison between American Idol and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.] “But it worked out to be great.”
But still, where does one, um, draw the line? Some of the ballads on Music from Another Dimension! impart a clear sense that Tyler has perhaps been listening to a little too much of that American Idol music of late. Ballads, of course, have always been a part of the Aerosmith package from day one. We entered the era of outside songwriters and formulaic power ballads during Aerosmith’s post-rehab comeback of the Eighties with albums like Permanent Vacation. But some of the ballads on Music from Another Dimension! cross outside the rock domain entirely, no matter how many guitar overdubs the band piles on. “All Fall Down,” penned by pop tunesmith Diane Warren, is particularly painful. One must usually enter a supermarket or dental office to hear songcraft of this caliber, although usually the singer is a little better at hitting the high notes.
“I definitely took a major left turn on ‘We All Fall Down,’ ” Tyler says. “And I did on ‘What Could Have Been Love’ and ‘Another Last Goodbye.’ ”
In recent years Tyler seems increasingly to be operating in his own private universe, one that crosses over into Aerosmith’s reality only on occasion. For instance, his bandmates didn’t find out about his duet with country star Carrie Underwood on “Can’t Stop Loving You”—one of the album’s better ballads—until after the vocals had been cut. The tune’s country flavor had been a sore point from the start, according to Tyler.
“It kind of irked some of the people in the band,” he says, “and some of the guys wanted me to re-sing it. But I thought, No, I wanna leave it like that. I’d always seen the song as a duet; it was kind of fuckin’ obvious. So I called up Carrie. I’d worked with her a lot on awards shows and things like that. Carrie was just about to leave L.A., but I said, ‘Come on over, quick.’ She came over that night and sang it within an hour. I didn’t even have time to mention anything to the band. Of course, that came with its own luggage.”
“Can’t Stop Loving You” is one of several ballads on Music from Another Dimension! that Tyler co-wrote with longtime Aerosmith collaborator and song doctor Marti Federiksen. Quite a few of them boast the kind of saccharine pop/R&B chord modulations that tend to induce nausea in nine out of 10 rock fans, but to the rest of the world scream, “...and the Grammy goes to....” Tyler, in fact is already fantasizing about a Grammy night duet with Adele.
“My vision was to sing with Adele at the Grammys and do ‘All Fall Down’ or ‘Another Last Goodbye,’ ” he says. “Because they’re very much like that, but also very much Aerosmith. So we’ll see how all this shit flies in today’s world.”
The corrupting influence of Hollywood, however, has always been sweetened by its sunny allure. There are worse things in life than a sojourn in L.A. While in town to work on the Aerosmith record, Perry also had an opportunity to connect with old friends, do a bit of networking and showbiz glad handing of his own.
“It was great just knowing that Slash and Waddy Wachtel are right down the road and I can see them, and talking with a lot of the movie soundtrack people,” he says. “L.A. was just an inspiring kind of place to be. It felt like going to Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. Everybody’s there. Everybody’s hanging around. Everybody’s talking about music. So it was a very creative time. The album would have taken on a different flavor otherwise. I’m not saying better or worse. But for me L.A. was, and is, a very creative place to be.”
Working in L.A. enabled Tyler to rope in several celebrity cameo appearances on the album, including a backing vocal contribution from Julian Lennon on the song “LUV XXX.” It also brought Perry in close proximity to the area’s many high-end luthiers and boutique amp guys. Perry is particularly fond of Echopark guitars, made by SoCal luthier Gabriel Currie.
“What Gabriel does is rummage around old furniture shops and find old wood,” Perry explains. “Literally, antique furniture pieces that are unfixable. He’ll find some wood that’s 150 years old and build a guitar around that. He built a few guitars that I ended up using on the record, and he’s building some more new ones for me. His guitars aren’t that fancy looking, but he starts from the inside out. He starts with the sound of the wood itself.
Once he’s got the guitar together, he’ll go to his pickup winder and they’ll talk and put together the right pickup for it. There have been a couple of times where he’ll walk into the studio with a guitar case, open it up, and all I’d have to do is give it a little tune-up tweak and plug it right in and use it. He’s a real artist.”
Being away from the Boneyard did put Perry a little outside of his comfort zone when it came to having ready access to vintage guitar gear. “I came out here to L.A. with basically my road gear,” he says. “So I had to borrow a few of those more esoteric pieces.”
L.A.’s network of music equipment rental facilities came in handy, as did a few local friends like actor Johnny Depp. The actor ponied up a gorgeous Thirties-era Gibson L00 parlor guitar from his own drool-worthy vintage collection. It is heard on the track “Freedom Fighter,” to which Depp also contributed backing vocals.
“Johnny knows Jack Douglas from way back when,” Perry explains, “back when Johnny was in bands in Florida. And so there are some mutual friendships going back a ways. And Johnny’s a musician. There’s no two ways about it. He’s a musicologist. He loves blues. He’s got one of the finest acoustic guitar collections of anybody I know. And that’s where I got that old Gibson acoustic. I went around the usual places looking for one, and I couldn’t find one that had the right sound. So I called Johnny up and asked him if he had something I could borrow. Let’s just say he has very good taste in acoustic guitars.”
Perry estimates that “Freedom Fighter” might be the album track with the most guitar overdubs. But despite the disc’s massive sound and highly polished production, Perry says that the guitar overdubs weren’t really that excessive.
“‘Freedom Fighter’ was originally going to be a hard rock acoustic song. We built up some acoustic guitar tracks with the acoustic capoed at different frets and everything. But it just didn’t deliver the drive and energy that I felt the song needed. So we ended up putting on some more electric guitar stuff. I know I put a lot of overdubs on that one. But then a lot of stuff was left out of the mix because we didn’t need it. We tried to have one guitar do the job, when, say, in 1995, we would have put down six guitars.”
Depp’s L00 is also heard on the deluxe-edition bonus track “Oasis in the Night,” a rare Perry ballad, penned by the guitarist as a Valentine’s Day present for his wife, Billie. The track may not be Grammy material, but its Zeppelin-unplugged feel will appeal more to rock fans. “Maybe you could put it out there that I don’t have a built-in dislike of ballads,” he says. “That was kind of the reputation I had back in the Seventies. But I’ve come around. Ballads have become something of an acquired taste.”
Perry also seems to have made his peace with American Idol. He performed “Legendary Child” with Aerosmith on the program and also played “Happy Birthday” for Tyler on air, a Kodak moment if ever there was one. But the guitarist also acknowledges a debt of gratitude for the program for helping keep Tyler in fighting form during album sessions in L.A.
“Sometimes Steven would go right from the set of American Idol into the studio,” he says. “And he would be cranked up from doing live TV. So that had some benefit to it—he was already all warmed up.”
“Idol is a seven-hour show,” Tyler adds. “I took the energy from having my way with whatever I said on the air and being in front of 30 million people a night, and I’d bring all that to the studio. And it was magical. I’d leave Idol at seven o’clock or so, and I’d go to the studio and we’d work until 12 or one or two. Plus, I was staying at the Sunset Marquis [West Hollywood’s rock and roll hotel of record]. So I’d go back there and write some lyrics. It was a labor of love and something I hadn’t done in nine years. And when I sat down to write lyrics, I realized what was missing. That little piece had been missing from my life.”
And so a kind of equilibrium was restored—once again—in the Aerosmith camp. “It’s like a family,” Perry says of the group. “Disagreements and misunderstandings are a natural thing. The main thing is, we’re a band and we’re always gonna be a band. It’s not gonna break up. So there’s only one way to go. You gotta deal with the misunderstandings. Live with whatever new paradigm there is.”
Obviously, not every song on Music from Another Dimension! will be to everyone’s taste, but in the final analysis Perry says he’s pleased with the album’s mix of styles and sounds. “At the end of the day, with everybody throwing in a riff here and there, it kind of balanced things out,” he says. “It’s almost like for every ballad there’s a hard-hitting rocker. To me, it kind of feels well balanced.”
But will Music from Another Dimension! indeed be the last Aerosmith album, as some of the advance hype and Tyler’s semi-coherent hints have alleged? Tyler remains cagey on this point.
“You never know,” he says. “Might be.”
But Joe Perry certainly isn’t ready to hang it up. “No, this definitely isn’t the last Aerosmith record,” he states. “But one thing I know is you can’t plan things out and say, ‘This is how it’s gonna happen.’ All you can do is make your best plans and hope for the best. I look at every record, and every performance, like, you know, a lot of things can go wrong between now and the next one. We go day to day. We’re setting up the next leg of the tour we’re currently doing and planning on going out on the road next year and doing a world tour. And who knows after that? We may carve out time to do another record. The way the band has been feeling, how we’ve been playing and writing, it’s felt like it hasn’t felt in a long, long time. This band’s really in a good place.”