When Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry goes downstairs to his state-of-the-art home recording studio, he gets dressed up in full rock star regalia. “If I don’t put on some rock & roll clothes before I go down there, I’m not as creative,” he told me. “I have to get my head in that place where I’m imagining I’m on stage and then I just kind of let it rip.”
He has other ways to get himself into a creative state of mind. He’ll listen to old blues or some of his favorite rock & roll. He’ll even play guitar while watching sports on television. All he needs is some kind of recording device—nowadays it’s an iPhone—and a pad of paper for jotting down ideas for lyrics. “That image of a guitar player laying on the couch watching TV is actually true,” he said.
The goal, he says, is to occupy the conscious mind so that it doesn’t get in the way of his creativity. ”It’s usually because you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing,” he said. “Your creativity is taking off on its own.”
In the early days of Aerosmith, Perry and lead singer Steven Tyler used to write by talking about non-music topics while they played. Tyler, a drummer by training, would play the drums while Perry played guitar, and the whole time, “We’d be yakking about whatever is going on that day,” Perry said. “And I’d find myself playing things that I hadn’t played before. So we always had tape running because inevitably, as I’d be playing, things would come out.”
Back then, drugs were another way to sidestep conscious interference. It was, according to Perry, a shortcut to the creative subconscious. When he first sobered up, Perry worried that getting off drugs would hurt his creativity. But now reflecting back on decades of sobriety, he doesn’t think that getting off drugs made him less creative—it just made him figure out other, less self-destructive ways to get to that place. “Some of the best stuff that I’ve done I did in the ’80s and ’90s and even now. I’ve gotten better technically. I have a larger palette to work with,” he said. Most recently, Perry released a Four-Song Christmas EP, Joe Perry’s Merry Christmas.
One thing he and the rest of the band learned was to change up their writing process to shake them out of routines and comfort zones. This became especially relevant as the band matured to prevent settling into a mindless routine. They’d go into the studio and say, “Let’s write a song that’s got a country vibe to it” or “Disco is happening, let’s write a song that has that beat.” They would go in and break their own rules. At some point they also brought outside songwriters to “help move the creative landscape,” according to Perry. “All you have to do is tilt it a few degrees and all of a sudden you’re learning from somebody who is a songwriter and they may throw in a word or two, and that’s enough and to change the whole thing.”
What does hurt creativity, according to Perry, is what in the Aerosmith camp they call the “Red Light Blues”: the debilitating effect of the pressure to give a perfect performance as soon as the recording light goes on in the studio. “When the red recording light went on, that meant you had to be playing at your best and maybe creating even more—when you’re playing a solo adding something more to it rather than just playing the same riff over and over again.”
Perry found that the focus on giving a good performance actually lead to worse result in the studio. His experience is consistent with research in the field of education, which finds that students do better when they focus on learning rather than results, maybe because doing so frees them up to take risks.
In Aerosmith, Tyler was the one urging his band mates to create hits, putting on the pressure of performance early in the writing process, according to Perry. This made for a tough dynamic that Perry discusses at length in his new memoir, Rocks. “The temptation to want to come from that place is really strong once you’ve made it,” Perry writes. “You really have to sit back and figure out ways to disengage your desire to write a hit from your creativity.”
The pressure to put on a great performance on stage every night can also hurt in-the-moment creativity, which Perry sees as essential to a great Aerosmith show. “What I like about rock concerts and bands like Aerosmith is that you go out there and there are certain things that you plan, obviously the majority of the fans want to hear pretty much what’s on the record,” he said, “but there’s got to be a certain amount of spontaneity to make the energy more dynamic so the show turns into an interaction between the fans and the band.”
Tyler, on the other hand, is a perfectionist who wants consistency night after night, says Perry. He wants to rehearse each and every detail so that audiences at different stops on the tour all get the same high-quality show. “We knew that we each had those opposing views right from the start,” says Perry. “When he first saw my band play, he realized what that’s what was missing from the band he had been in. And vice versa.”
The tensions in Aerosmith between spontaneity and perfectionism, improvising versus rehearsing, working to be successful versus working in an open of a state, focusing on the outcome versus focusing on the process are tensions faced by many work teams across diverse occupations and industries. They are healthy tensions that are best managed rather than avoided. Research suggests that creative teams do better to maintain competing tensions, keeping both kinds of motives at play in a complex negotiation, than to simplify and let one set of motives dominate.
For the most part, Aerosmith, the second-highest selling American rock band of all time, has been able to do just that. They have successfully managed these tensions to sustain their career, tumultuous as the ride may have been, for almost 45 years, with the same five musicians. Perry says the way the band has managed these tensions has led to the unique Aerosmith sound. And he says that the focus on delivering a great live show keeps the band on the same page. “We’re all there to help support the song and that’s the main thing,” he said. “That philosophy has stuck with us through all of the years, through all of the changes, from punk to the disco years to the hair band years, the MTV era, all of that stuff. The one touchstone that has stayed the same has been that we’re going to have to get up on stage and play these songs live.”