Here's our interview with Aerosmith guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford from the March 1990 issue of Guitar World. Click here to see all the GW magazine covers from that year.
"Last night I looked at some pictures of us in the old days and I looked dead. I looked really dead. And I felt dead. I remember that." -- Joe Perry
Call it luck, fate or happenstance, but Aerosmith has survived. They side-stepped disaster and came back with a vengeance to reclaim their old turf and more. The group's latest album, Pump, is a deranged plunge into sex and the big beat that flips a bird at the slick, generic rantings of their youthful competition.
Unabashedly raw, rude and cocksure, Pump is more than Aerosmith's best album since ... ." It's Aerosmith's best album ever. Better than Rocks, better than Toys in the Attic. And better than any Aerosmith's Greatest Hits anyone could buy or sequence.
But the Aerosmith that created Pump is an altogether different animal than the classic version of the mid-Seventies.
Back then, the group was a non-stop rock 'n' roll party machine, living on the edge 24 hours a day and roaring into town in search of your sisters. They were Van Halen before there was Van Halen.
That Aerosmith is a memory, preserved only in the lust-heavy lyrics of singer Steven Tyler (the first songwriter to make a sexual metaphor of the FAX machine). The new, just-say-no Aerosmith kicks ass way, way harder than the old incarnation ever did. Bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Krammer have developed a sledgehammer attack that could anchor a battleship in a hurricane. But the heart of this band is where it's always been -- in the bump-and-grind guitar rush of Joe Perry and Brad Whitford.
The old Aerosmith went down the toilet when Perry and Whitford -- both of whom were integral to the band's sound and chemistry -- split from the group (Perry departed in 1979, as Night In The Ruts was being finished; Whitford left in 1981, during preproduction for Rock In A Hard Place).
Their reasons for departing were typical: drugs and alcohol, burnout, slave-driving management and creative, personal and financial tensions, the last despite a decade of sellout tours and hit albums.
"We were being told we owed money," says Whitford. 'You're in arrears of $80,000 or $100,000.'”
“They were even saying my room service bill was really high," adds Perry, who claims his solo deal came about when management said he was broke and needed the bucks it would bring in. ''Now, I used to have a lot of room service, but certainly not that much. I started counting the money we made in past years on my fingers and said 'Something's wrong here."'
Perry and Whitford rejoined Aerosmith in 1984 on the condition of a complete housecleaning. "No old management, no old road managers, no old coke buddies. None of the old shit," says Perry. "From getting ourselves clean to sweeping the whole business clean took years."
The decidedly mediocre Done With Mirrors reintroduced the group with a yawn, proving little more than that the band was alive and could actually produce a record. Rhythmically and lyrically leaden, its best feature was the reversal of all copy type on the sleeve -- a visual pun on the title.
The infinitely better followup, Permanent Vacation, yielded three Top 20 hits. Still, half the album sounded as if it could have been recorded by any pro rock band -- good product, but nothing extraordinary. Then came Pump -- stripped down, rock 'n' blues jambalaya. Definitive Aerosmith.
Guitar World met with Perry and Whitford at Aerosmith's cramped Boston rehearsal space. Signs of the band's new health consciousness were everywhere. Instead of empty beer cans, Crystal Sparkling Mineral Water bottles littered the studio. Two 100-wafer bottles of chewable vitamin C tablets sat atop Joe's amp. Still, some old habits die hard. At the foot of Steven Tyler's scarf-draped mic stand sat a crate full of raunchy, low-grade porn mags -- the kind with few words and titles such as Young Chicks and Motorcycle Sluts (to be fair, such reading material was scattered throughout the studio. But this placement appeared a little suspect).
Perry and Whitford looked fit, alert. Apart from their rock 'n' roll attire and faint New England accents, they appear to be exact opposites. Blond and recently bearded, Whitford speaks slowly and thoughtfully. Perry is the sharp fast-talker. Dark and lean, he radiates the benefits of his recent workout obsession. Both come off as extremely regular guys, lacking any rock star pretensions.
We retired to a quiet room and spoke among a crew of roaming cats.
GUITAR WORLD: Did things change a lot when you got back together?
BRAD WHITFORD: We did a lot of house cleaning during Done With Mirrors, but we hadn't swept our brains out yet. We were trying to use the same songwriting process we used in the mid-Seventies. We'd start with four or five songs and try to write the rest in the studio.
JOE PERRY: There were only eight or nine cuts on our records because that's all we would have. That worked for Rocks and Toys In The Attic because we were playing live a lot. We tried the same approach on Mirrors, but the ideas were not there. We realized by the end we were not happy with the record's quality.
WHITFORD: By the time Permanent Vacation came, we were in such a different head space. Suddenly we were much healthier and the music was flowing like it did in the early Seventies. Pump was written in the same way the first album was. We did tons and tons of playing and woodshedding -- just letting ideas flow.
What about changes in terms of guitar competition?
WHITFORD: We thought a lot about that, but Aerosmith's beauty is that it is an incredible band. I don't have to be concerned about being a virtuoso.
PERRY: I definitely felt some heat when the West Coast surge started. We were originally influenced by the English. They had a stranglehold -- if you had an English accent, chances are you were fucking happening. By the end of the Seventies it came around to having kneepads and striped guitars. We could feel that shift when Eddie came out with his classically based style. He put his guitar through an Echoplex and it was killer. I felt some heat, but it's a matter of focusing on what you got.
When Permanent Vacation hit, I was surprised how you guys were seen as very current -- not at all musty or old.
PERRY: The only negative thing I remember hearing was that some of the real hard core head-hitters accused us of "selling out." They were saying things like, "I don't know why you're doing a song like ‘Angel.'" I would counter with, "What about 'Dream On'?" The difference between us and a band like the Stones is we keep changing. Every album has a different texture. We're always re-upping. It doesn't seem too stagnant. I think we'd all be fucking bored if we put out an Eliminator and then came out with an Afterburner. That isn't how we do things.
Yeah, a lot of bands who have a successful record say they're not going to repeat it, but they do. Pump sounds like you guys said, "Hey, we just had a big hit. We can do anything we want." Then actually did it.
WHITFORD: We never sit around and say, "It's gotta be more like that," or "We gotta be careful we don't do that." What's done is done.
Does it get harder to put out rock records as you get older? Does it affect you that your peers might not listen to rock anymore?
WHITFORD: Not really. It's got to clear with me first, and then I don't give a shit about anyone else. It's the same for everyone in this band.
PERRY: We're going to start getting some shots about our age, I'm sure. But who gives a shit? People like the music, and that's all that matters. I don't see anyone avoiding the Stones because DJ's make jokes about them being a part of the Geritol set. All it does is make the DJ's look stupid.
But do you ever reach a point where you say, "Hey, I'm playing to kids half my age"?
WHITFORD: It's wonderful it translates to so many people. I was reading this thing yesterday about Dr. Porsche. Back in the Forties he built this car because nobody else was building a car he liked. His theory was, "If I build a car I like, maybe some other people will appreciate it." That's what we've always done – played the music we like. It so happens that a lot of other people appreciate it. So I never had a problem. I really like what we do and I really like rock music. I like it so much I just produced a record for a Boston band called the Neighborhoods. I just love sitting in a control room working with guys playing guitar rock. That's still really where it's at for me.
What do you think of Permanent Vacation now?
PERRY: Some songs are real high points, and I think they get close to what Aerosmith is about. On other cuts I think we kind of went in the wrong direction because we were like trying to change our songwriting. After Mirrors we were ready to try anything. We'd been writing together for years and years, so it was good to have somebody come in and go, "Why don't you just try this?" People put us clown for that, but I wonder how an AC/DC record would sound if they'd pull somebody like Jim Vallance into the songwriting process. Would they get another one-song record with "Heatseeker," or would you get a whole album that was that cool?
In my notes, I wrote, Vacation good songs, good players, very professional, but a lot could be done by other bands."
WHITFORD: Vacation showed off all our influences -- a Beatles cut and "Heart's Done Time," which is what we were really all about. But then it drifts away from that. "Girl Keeps Coming Apart" is almost funky and dancy. We were searching.
PERRY: "Girl Keeps Coming Apart" was fun and a great workout. When I started playing the riff, that's exactly what I envisioned -- something funky and wild with horns pumping away. But when we played it live, it went right over our fan's heads. Phshew! We played our hearts out on that song, and it went right over their heads because our audience is not like that. They wanna hear rock 'n' roll. That's what Aerosmith is -- a rock 'n' roll band. So we found ourselves with our clicks in our hands on a lot of those songs. You can't do that. But I think they're good songs and everything was performed well. Except for one song, every thing was done to the max.
WHITFORD: What song?
PERRY: "Simorrah." It doesn't go anywhere. Where did it come from and where does it go? But you got to do that stuff -- you can't not try. So if I'm an Aerosmith fan, sitting there six months later, I'd say some of Vacation washes and some of it doesn't.
It's a long record. I guess "Simorrah" doesn't make the cassette you make for the car.
PERRY: That's exactly it. By the same token, when you put a bunch of songs on the record, sometimes things like "St. John" get overlooked.
WHITFORD: On Pump, because we had had more time to write and woodshed, that f1uff and stuff burned off. If you go in and play things for a few days, invariably you end up getting down more to blues and real street level rock. We didn't have to rush. If something was a bit fluffy it went out the window after five or six days. Pump is really more about Aerosmith.
It's great how you achieved such a loud, full sound, yet one that's relatively uncluttered. You can really hear individual parts, as opposed to Vacation's wall of sound.
PERRY: That whole wall-of- sound is the worst thing about Vacation.WHITFORD: We hated that. When you see us live there's a guitar here and a guitar there, and that's the way we like to keep it in the studio. It keeps a record listenable.I notice that when you guys are really on, it's as if no one is actually playing the beat -- it's just there. It's when everybody tries to hammer the beat that it's lost and things feel too heavy. PERRY: As far as rhythm goes, all these notes going up and down are just an excuse to build the rhythm. The ultimate thing is the rhythm track. The snare drum is what fucking happens. That's the primal thing that holds it together. I think it's what Aerosmith is -- how five guys get that rhythm locked in their minds then add stuff, adding color to make it interesting.Maybe the feel I'm hearing is that suggested rhythm? Or maybe it's the way things are kept sparse. WHITFORD: It's all part of it. Creating a feel comes from experience and experience only. You have to play a long time or practice a lot. You also have to be able to listen. Did you ever see any of those old clips of big bands from the Thirties and Forties on David Sanborn's “Sunday Night Live” show? The whole band is sitting there with smiles on their faces, holding their horns. There's not a lot happening but, man, the groove is deadly.They swing. WHITFORD: Yeah. These guys stand up and blow their solos, sit down, play their part and everybody's got these shit-eating grins on their face. You just go, "Wow!" All of a sudden you know why they're smiling -- because it's just so locked in. That takes a lot of practice and experience and study. A lot of bands miss the mark. They just hammer away.PERRY: That's where a lot of metal bands lose me. It's really important to be able to swing. Steven was the one who turned me on to picking apart songs and figuring out why. It's easy to put on a Deep Purple record and say, "That sounds great." But why? Part of it is individual practice, but by playing together, a talent of meshing happens. There's a talent Aerosmith has when we're all playing together -- it's really special. Like when you hear the Beatles playing together, it's always better than when they're apart, ya know? Not to say we're as good as the Beatles,
but ...It's funny you mention the Beatles. You guys always took flack for being the American Stones. But listening to your records, the thing that stands out with Aerosmith at its best is sort of a hard rock extension of the Beatles’ last few albums – very song-oriented rock 'n' roll. PERRY: I think people who wrote the Stones comparison stuff did it because of the way we looked and that's all. We never really sounded like the Stones. We're in the business to make music, not fashion statements, but that's what they picked up on. The Beatles had a lot more to offer, musically. If you listen to some of the heavier John Lennon things, you can hear where Zepplin got a lot of their stuff. I mean, there was some heavy shit in there. I know Steven's really influenced by the Beatles. We all are. And regardless of all that stuff about the Stones, the Beatles were nastier in a lot of ways. A lot of their music got glossed over because of their image -- another case of image. But listen to the sound of “Revolution.” Man, that is a fucking monster.And most of the stuff on Revolver. PERRY: Yeah. Distorted guitars and fucking nutsiness.WHITFORD: Some of the best guitar tones ever were by the Bettles, on old ZZ Top records and, of course, the Hendrix records. But the Beatles had some killer, killer guitar sounds. That's another Beatles comparison. Pump has amazing guitar tones. There's none of that "Let's plug in the distortion and crank it" stuff. You actually hear different guitar sounds. WHITFORD: We try not to let the amplifier get in the way too much of how the guitar sounds. A lot of times, amplifiers will kill you. You get on stage, crank up your amp and think that's how you sound big. In the studio it's exactly the opposite. If you go in the studio and put your amp on 10, the guitar is gone. Then you start with "Let's double it and get it to sound bigger." Then it's gone twice as bad. Now I bring in one of my favorite Marshalls and, instead of running it at 8 or 9, I run it at 1 or 1.5. Suddenly, the amp's out of the picture and the guitar is in the picture. That's how you do it. Miking techniques are really important too, but basically, you've got to have a good guitar -- and if you can play it, that helps too. But you can't let the amplifier get in the way.What were your basic setups for Pump?PERRY: I mostly used a ’57 Strat for my rhythm parts with a Hiwatt or a Marshall or a Soldano through a 4-x-12. I found the Soldano was pretty cool for really quiet volumes. Live, as soon as you crank it to get some volume, they completely over-amp and make noise.WHITFORD: I used my gold top Les Paul a lot.Kind of a reversal from what people expect from you two. WHITFORD: Well, way back, on the first record, I used mostly a gold top with P90's, and Joe played his black Strat.You got all those different tones with that gear alone?WHITFORD: I brought many guitars but a lot of them turned out to be useless. I love the part of making a record where you scrutinize and really find out if a guitar sounds good. My gold top just turned out to have a terrific sound. Some of the Strats I had worked a little bit, but not too many other guitars I brought were happening.Joe, did you use any of your Guilds? PERRY: Yeah, I used the T-250. It's shaped like a Tele, has EMG pickups, and is real, real clean and twangy. It's got a triple Hipshot stringbender on it, and I used the Supro for slide.Let's roll through the tunes and get an idea of who's doing what and what's going on: "Young Lust." PERRY: Both of us are playing rhythm. On almost all the songs we're both playing rhythm. Brad's on the left and I'm on the right, just like when we're on stage. I do the short lead on a Spector going through an Eventide 300 Harmonizer."F.I.N.E." PERRY: Not really any leads. There's a slide thing over the bridge."Love In The Elevator." WHITFORD: We trade off on the first lead break. I start it, then Joe plays the whole breakdown section."Monkey On My Back." WHITFORD: I did the rhythm acoustic on an old Gibson with a few different tunings. Used a Nashville stringing. I remembered it from Keith Richards’ interview.They do that on a lot of metal records to double lead lines. WHITFORD: Yeah, they gotta do that because they record with such distortion.PERRY: I do a slide solo, plus a slide rhythm track. We weren't even sure we were going to put "Monkey" on.WHITFORD: It was on our "B List." Pretty good for the B List. PERRY: We had all this extra material, and it wasn't just a bunch of licks. On Vacation we had a bunch of licks and then we had the songs we finished. This time we literally had an A list and a B list of songs and the B list had five or six tunes three quarters done. "Monkey" was completely done, but it was really basic. That's one of the reasons we're so proud of it. We played it live in the studio, just laid it down -- even the lead is live, and it's really raw. I think the only overdubs were Brad's acoustic parts. And Steven did a cool thing on a Korg M1 synthesizer.Are we going to hear the rest of the B List stuff? PERRY: We want to put out an ep in the summer or fall.WHITFORD: We have out-takes from Vacation, and there's some things from earlier than that. Sometimes, it was only by the skin-of-its-teeth that stuff didn't make a record. But I think it's cool and it'll be interesting to hear.PERRY: It'll probably have eight or nine tunes on it because we want to give people their money's worth. But we don't want to call it an album because it'll take on a whole different aura. All it's supposed to be is a scrapbook of our shit, you know? A little side thing -- just a part of what we're all about.You guys seem to work well with such a loose attitude. PERRY: We did Pump for ourselves, just to have fun. Basically, it was real selfish. It's great to make money – I like that part – but fortunately, that's not why we're in it. Otherwise, I'd get a fucking ulcer for sure."Janie's Got A Gun." WHITFORD: That was layered. I bought a new Tele and it had a great sound right off the rack -- a Fender American Standard Telecaster. I just recorded some swells in the beginning. Then I did some rhythm work in the chorus. Joe did the solo and a lot of other little things.PERRY: Things I will never remember when we play it live. I played the solo on a Chet Atkins electric acoustic. That piezo pickup is so hot. When you plug that in, all you can do is turn it on. After that it's all distortion, and it just gets wilder and wilder."The Other Side." WHITFORD: I don't think I played on that. Joe played the rhythm with my gold top.PERRY: We recorded with the whole band and the horns and stuff, but we just couldn't get the feel Steven was hearing with Jim. We ended up tearing the whole thing down, keeping the drums, bass and horns."My Girl." WHITFORD: I think I used a Roy Buchannan Tele. It's pretty neat. Joe's doing a "not-quite-the-same-rhythm" on the other side of the mix. This is a good example of how we play rhythm together really well. It's almost like a counterpoint rhythm. It's not quite the same, but we're working along the same lines. But we don't do it the same and we don't throw any extraneous bullshit in there.PERRY: I think I used my Guild Tele. We really wanted to do a rock 'n' roll tip of the hat to the Kinks."Don't Get Mad, Get Even." PERRY: Just an excuse to play loud, that's all. I play some leads in the background, but there's really no leads per se. I came up with that song on one of those days ... I was bummed I didn't have a track to play because every day we'd go into the studio and try to come up with a cassette. That's how we do it. Come home, put it in the cassette player, and show your wife you were really at rehearsal. I didn't have anything, so I put "Rag Doll" on a quarter-inch track backwards and it inspired that kind of chord change. Steven came in and said, ''Sounds angry to me. Don't get mad, get even."I was kind of surprised it even ended up being on the record. It’s such a simple statement. But then we started playing it together -- it's just so fucking powerful. It turned into a monster. But I didn't think it was going to be anything other than just a blast."Voodoo." WHITFORD: Joe played a rhythm track. I played a solo track with that new Kramer Sustainor Guitar. It's a fun guitar to mess around with. I laid down two tracks the first just fucking around. Then I did another. Then I tried to get one for real, but we had it on the first two takes."What It Takes." WHITFORD: It was a keyboard song to begin with. Somewhere along the line we knew it was special, so it had to be approached in a different manner. And that's where Joe did that really cool Leslie solo.PERRY: It started off sounding really country western. We didn't want to write a song like “Angel," and for Desmond (Child), that's where his heart and soul is. He's into big, dramatic ballads. But we wanted to do something different. So we kept playing it and Steven started singing with a twang in his voice. I'm playing the Hipshot guitar going, deeow. Then it was just too on the other side. I was afraid of another "Girl Keeps Coming Apart."Great song, but country stations aren't going to play it. So we made it a little more rocked out. The thing that made it for me was when the guy put an accordion on it. That gave it the flavor it needed. Otherwise it would have just been nice chords and nice changes.I get the feeling you guys let nature take its course when working out guitar parts. PERRY: Very rarely does the situation crop up where we don't come up with something that way. Obviously we have to talk about it, but for the most part it just flows.Do you ever have to stop and ask, "Hey, what are you playing over there?"'WHITFORD: Sometimes I'll tend to drift away or make it too busy. When I keep it simple - -that's when it really works.Any disagreements about parts? PERRY: Nah, there's plenty to argue about with Steven!WHITFORD: We don't have too many differences.PERRY: There's lots of space in the band. Because we both play everything, it's not like, ''I'm the lead guitar player, I've got to do all this." I love to play rhythm guitar, but on this record I did more leads. On the last record Brad did more leads. The next record will be different.Do you start thinking about the next album the minute you finish the last one? PERRY: Things happen as you go along and play the songs. You listen to the album and get response. You get tired of the record and figure out what's wrong with it. It's just pop music.After a while, no matter how much you love any pop song, you're going to get tired of it. That's the way it is with any entertainment. It's good when you first hear it or see it, you like it for a while, then it gets old. It gets chewed up and spit out and it's done. So there's a point where I feel, "The last record is done. Now I want to hear some new Aerosmith music." Then you start the whole process again. But right now I'm just ready to play the shit out of “Don't Get Mad, Get Even."