Joe Perry: Traveling Man

Originally published in Guitar World, January 2010

Joe Perry takes a second solo flight with Have Guitar, Will Travel, and hits the road with the Joe Perry Project.

For Aerosmith fans, these are confusing times, indeed. This past November 10, Joe Perry announced that singer Steven Tyler had quit the group. Later that same day, Tyler joined Perry's side project, the Joe Perry Project, onstage at the Fillmore New York and announced "I'm not quitting Aerosmith."

So which is it? Only time will tell.

"Aerosmith are kinda like a family by choice," Perry says. “And as with most families, the people who make it up are not always on the best of terms.”

However you spin it, it’s certainly been a tumultuous few months for the group. In June 2009, Aerosmith embarked on a tour that was beset by cancellations due to various health problems. Guitarist Brad Whitford injured his head and had to miss several dates. Upon his return, bassist Tom Hamilton had to leave the tour to recover from noninvasive surgery. Tyler, for his part, injured his leg on June 28, requiring the cancellation of seven shows. Then, on August 5, the singer sustained head and neck injuries when he fell offstage at a show in Sturgis, South Dakota, forcing the group to cancel its remaining tour dates.

Tyler, who retains his own management and legal representation separate from Aerosmith, has been out of contact with his bandmates for much of the time since his fall, leaving them uncertain of his future plans. In early November, prior to performing with Perry's Project, the singer told Classic Rock magazine he was planning to put time into working on "Brand Tyler".

And now comes a new solo project from Perry: Have Guitar, Will Travel. The disc was written and recorded during downtime after Tyler's injury. The band had originally planned to work on an album during that time, but Tyler pulled out, claiming he was suffering from pneumonia. Says Perry, “There were two and half months booked to do the Aerosmith record, and I knew I could do a solo album in that time if really put the pedal to the metal.”

Ironically, all this happens as the resilient Boston five-piece prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Guitar World sat down with Perry for a candid talk about his new album, the latest incarnation of the Joe Perry Project and whether or not Aerosmith will fly again with, or without, Tyler.

GUITAR WORLD The future of Aerosmith seems to be a hot topic at the moment. What’s happening between you guys and Tyler?

JOE PERRY After his fall, he sent out an email through his managers, which he got because he didn’t want the band’s manager working for him anymore, saying that he wanted to be left alone to rest. I think he really wants to go off and do some other projects. I don’t know for certain because he’s never come to me and said, “Look, I wanna do a solo record.” We’ve never had that kind of conversation. I’m just picking up everything second hand. I know he loves to play with Aerosmith, or at least I know that’s what he used to love to do. But the way I see it, if Aerosmith want to be viable and deliver to the fans what should be delivered, we need to do a studio record with some new material and do a tour behind it.

GW You must have ambitions outside of Aerosmith?

PERRY Well you’re seeing it happen now with the Joe Perry Project and Have Guitar, Will Travel. For years I’ve wanted to find some guys that I could work with, because I realized a long time ago that I can do a lot of things other than Aerosmith. When we first got back together [during their 1984 reunion], it was a full-time job rebuilding the band. We were dead in the water, and I had to turn down a lot of things that would have been fun to do. Now that Aerosmith are on a break, every day I’m getting requests to do stuff.

Slash asked me to come out and play in Vegas recently, and it was very timely. It was interesting talking to Slash, because he went through similar stuff when Guns N’ Roses took their hiatus. It’s kind of funny, because everybody knows that he was inspired by [Aerosmith’s 1976 album] Rocks, and now he’s leading the way. So it was a really good time for us to talk. We’ll see what comes out of that, because I’ve wanted to do stuff with Slash for some time. He’s a class act.

GW Aerosmith have been together for almost 40 years, with various internal disruptions along the way. What is the secret ingredient that’s kept the band together thus far?

PERRY I think taking time away from each other—that’s really the biggest thing. If you can plan to do that, it’s certainly a lot better than having it come about by accident, due to a bullshit-, ego- or drug-driven act of stupidity, like it did for us in the late Seventies. We should have taken a break. In those days we constantly put out records and toured. We were on a treadmill. We should have just said, “Let’s take a year off,” with everybody laughing and walking his separate way. Instead, it was more like, “Fuck you!”

GW So why did you leave?

PERRY It was a lot of things. First of all, after everything we had done and all the places we had played in the Seventies, our managers said that we all owed money for room charges and things like that. And we were like, “What are you talking about? We’ve made you millions and millions of dollars!” None of us had, like, four houses and 20 cars or any of that stuff. I mean, we spent our share of money on drugs, but certainly not millions. At the same time, the band was going through its upheavals, and I thought, Okay, I’ll put a band together, go on the road, have some fun, and I won’t have to put up with this bullshit. That was it. If we were saner at the time, we would have taken a break and then sued our managers.

GW Is it true when you left the band in 1979 that you nearly joined Alice Cooper?

PERRY Yeah. I was in the process of writing some songs with Alice.

GW At that time, your record company made it sound like you had gone underground and could be found sitting in a room with a crack pipe. They said [Perry’s previous incarnation of] the Joe Perry Project couldn’t tour because your singer was wanted in various states for unpaid alimony.

PERRY Not every state. [laughs] That was our first singer, Ralph Mormon, and I learned about that afterward. That was probably one of the biggest things that led to his demise as a member of the Project.

GW When you look back at the drugs and the lifestyle, do you have any regrets or do you think you wouldn’t be where you are now if it wasn’t for those experiences?

PERRY Yeah, we wouldn’t be where we are now, wherever that is, if it wasn’t for going through everything we’ve been through. But we certainly weren’t the only ones getting fucked up.

GW In your second incarnation you became poster children for sobriety. Was that your intention, or was it a management decision, and how do you feel about that now?

PERRY We really took a chance going straight, because we were known as a party band. We thought that maybe fans wouldn’t like us anymore once we we’re straight. But then we decided that our fans would rather hear us play straight than play shitty knowing we’re drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels. At the time, obviously, we needed to do it, otherwise we were never going to be able to reach our potential. We knew that, but we didn’t know what to do about it. Fortunately, we had some good people around us that were able to help us. But we really had to prove to the industry that we were back and that we were accountable. I mean, we couldn’t get bookings because we cancelled so many gigs and had to stop playing in the middle of shows because we were so screwed up.

Making it public was about proving to people that we were back. Also, we were one of the first bands to come out and say we were burnt out. We realized that a lot of people were having that problem, and not just musicians. A lot of people just about survived the Seventies, and we provided a kind of role model for that. People could see that you could actually come through some pretty horrible times and have some sanity in your life again. So that’s how we became a poster band. But it started to wear pretty thin after a while. It got to be old news, and we just wanted to be known as Aerosmith. But in the beginning, we didn’t realize what a powerful example we were setting for a lot of people that needed help.

GW The latest incarnation of the Joe Perry Project consists of yourself, Hagen Grohe [vocals], David Hull [bass], Marty Richards [drums] and Paul Santo [keyboards, percussion]. Tell us a bit about the current lineup.

PERRY Well, we’re all from Boston except for Hagen, who’s from a small town in Germany. He’s still kind of pinchin’ himself that he’s working with us, and we’re sensitive to that. The other guys are more seasoned. Marty’s been around the world eight times; his biggest gig has been, with J Geils. He has R&B/blues/funk thing in his genes, which is why he and David lock up so well. David was playing with Buddy Miles when he was 19, right after Buddy played with Jimi Hendrix in Band of Gypsys. And if that isn’t a testament to his funkability, nothing is. David played on the first two Project albums, so now it’s like wicked déjà vu. Paul is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer. He’s incredibly talented. The band is definitely coming together.

GW How are the live shows going with the new band, and how are the audiences reacting?

PERRY Well, I’m still discovering what the band can do, how the rhythm section works and how Hagen sings. We’re hitting some grooves where I’ve almost stopped playing because I couldn’t believe my ears. I’ve never heard anyone get that close to the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section. I was like ‘Holy Shit! I bargained for a bobcat and I got a tiger. The audiences have been unbelievable in their loyalty and support. There are even some Joe Perry fans out there calling for tunes from the early albums. We do songs like “Rockin’ Train” [from the Project’s 1980 debut, Let the Music Do the Talking] and “East Coast, West Coast,” from the second Project album [1981’s I’ve Got the Rock’n’Rolls Again], which I know at the time the record company did everything it could to bury. I got it from the horse’s mouth that they figured if they didn’t put anything behind my solo records I’d eventually starve and go back to Aerosmith. I knew the first two records were good enough and should have done better than they did. I couldn’t get a handle on it; I wasn’t straight then. But I had a vibe that something was going on.

GW It’s understandable when you consider that Aerosmith are one of the biggest-selling rock bands of all time.

PERRY What brought us together was a vision to be as good a band as possible on whatever level we were at—whether it was competing with other local bands for gigs, auditioning for a record deal or trying to make the best record we could make.

GW What’s the difference between playing with the Project and Aerosmith?

PERRY Over the years, when you’re in a band with a catalog like Aerosmith’s, you accumulate a lot of instruments to duplicate those songs. Like, I wouldn’t be able to do “Back in the Saddle” without a six-string bass. So that automatically means I’ve got to bring two with me in case one breaks. It gets really frustrating to change guitars all the time. Even in the solo sets, so many songs come from so many different eras, but I gotta do what I gotta do. On Have Guitar, I really wanted to be able to play everything on one guitar. It also made me write songs in a different way, which was also another inspiration.

GW You’re using some unusual guitars in the Project, including a left-handed Telecaster.

PERRY When I started the Project in the Eighties, I wanted to change the vibe. At that point I was using Les Pauls, Strats, the [Supro] Ozark, which is my slide guitar, and the [Dan Armstrong] clear body. But I wanted to change things up, so I put this mongrel left-handed Telecaster together with Barcus Berry pickups, which I haven’t been able to find another set of. It’s a guitar that shouldn’t really sound as good as it does. I started using it in the Project, and it became the main guitar. When I went back with Aerosmith, I put it away, only to use it for the occasional session. I didn’t really use it until the recording of my [2005] solo record. When I went back out on the road with the Project, I decided to make a duplicate copy. I put some Joe Barden pickups in it, and it sounds pretty close to the original.

GW You’re also using a guitar that looks like something that came out of the old American west.

PERRY That’s my “Bullets and Bones” guitar, which was inspired by old firearms. I collect firearms, and I’ve got a Winchester, an Indian rifle. It has tacks for every warrior that was shot, like notches on a pistol, and it’s got feathers and beads hanging off it. It’s like a work of art. So with this guitar I thought, Let’s do something with a lot of detail, similar to that Winchester. For the neck and body I picked walnut, which is the wood that the rifle is made of.

And then I took a bunch of pictures that showed all the detail of the weapon, and I sent them to RS Guitars. Their forte is replicating guitars down to the last nut and bolt. They’re all a bunch of musicians and have their own line of guitars, too. For this guitar, I asked them to build something from the ground up, and a couple of months later this guitar came back, and it was way beyond what I could have imagined. They used antlers from an elk for the knobs and capped them off with the ends of spent rifle cartridges. They put splits in the wood and repaired them with sinew and used different kinds of leather to hold the guitar together. They incorporated this with some of my favorite pickups. There’s a Lindy Fralin P90 in the bridge and Joe Bardens in the other two positions, plus a [Chandler] ToneX [variable-center-frequency bandpass filter] in the tone knob. I got what I wanted—an amazing guitar.

GW What kind of game plan do you have for the future?

PERRY Five years after Aerosmith got back together, I realized how fragile we are as humans. There was a time I thought we were bulletproof, but then things happened and I came to the realization that I had to play every gig as if it was my last show. You have to start thinking that way, because you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s like the old saying: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

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