Joe Perry On The Big Business Of Aerosmith

Musician Joe Perry, left, Dave Berryman, President of Gibson Guitar, center, and Peter Leinheiser, Senior Director of GIbson Entertainment Relations. (Matt Sayles/AP Images for Gibson Brands)

Imagine you start a little mom and pop business that grows into a billion-dollar business. That is, of course, the dream. Anything we undertake we want to be successful. But there are sacrifices that come with that success; among them, being much more heavily scrutinized and it’s much harder to be spontaneous as you have more people to answer to.

So of course you are thankful for the success, but every once in a while you dream of what it would be like to start over with a new venture, give yourself a new challenge, one with more freedom. That is kind of the position Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry nicely finds himself in as he explained when I met with him at the NAMM (National Association Of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, California.

Aerosmith, which started as a garage band in Boston in the early ‘70s. has gone on to be the bestselling American rock band of all time, with over 150 million albums sold worldwide and over 70 million just in the U.S. So as he understandably says, “Without a doubt, Aerosmith is a big machine.”

He still has the machine, which he calls the “mothership,” and which is heading out on tour in May. But he also has the start-up band with supergroup the Hollywood Vampires, the band he founded with Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp. Perry spoke to me about the contrast between the two bands, the guitarists whose licks he borrows and the early days of Aerosmith.

Steve Baltin: What does it mean to you to be getting an award named after Les Paul?

Joe Perry: It’s like anything that has to do with Les Paul. He’s arguably one of the most influential inventors of this last century, right up there with Leo Fender. He’s just an amazing guy, to be a musician, performer and technician, just brilliant. So anyway, the fact that’s got his name attached to this award, believe me, I never thought that would be possible. Cause you think about these things, especially when I wrote the book and I’m thinking back to when I first saw a Les Paul, first heard a Les Paul, and, to me, that was tantamount to an electric guitar, that was it. It was like the gold standard and finally, when I was able to have one in my hands, the same vehicle that I saw Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page using, first thing you do is realize, “I’m playing the same guitar,  how come .I don’t sound like that?” There’s a lot more that goes into it. Again, Les gave us a tool that gives us a voice so to get an award with his name on it it’s a real honor. Steven [Tyler] and I have a joke, we talk about it all the time, being the last band standing. I think it has to do with being the last man standing.

Baltin: Are there moments where you found yourself getting close to that Jimmy or Jeff sound?

Perry: I learn from everybody, I learn from watching my kids play, I learn all the time. And it’s pretty early on, to me anyway, that I realized it’s a journey. I’m constantly striving to reach some kind of level. But I know one of the things in Aerosmith and Steven was like, “Gotta get a gold record.” And that’s what drove us through the hard times. And when we got our first gold record it was like the next thing. “We got the gold record, now what? We gotta do it again.” And then it dawns on me, everybody deals with this, where you have some kind of success and you realize it’s about the journey, it’s not about the destination. It’s nice to get those things, like this award, but tomorrow if I want to keep doing this I have to sit down, spend two or three hours playing my guitar and try discover something new in there. Maybe steal another lick here or there from Jeff or Jimmy or Robert Johnson, whatever. That turns into another song sometimes, you never know.

Baltin: How much fun is it for you then to do all of these projects?

Perry: Aerosmith is really the main force, but after a while you need to do these things out there. And it’s not that Aersomith suffers, you bring something back to the party. You come back with new ideas, fresh things. Playing with other people not only do you get to see the minutia, the day to day stuff of how other people do it, but you’re always learning about new music cause a lot of the times you’re on the same path. We all know the song “Train Kept A Rollin’,” but Alice hears it one way and Johnny hears it another way, so when we play it it’s an amalgam of all those things. So that you bring back to the party, to the big band.

Baltin: Do you also get a new appreciation for Aerosmith taking a break from it?

Perry: Aerosmith is like a ship, to steer it, to make it move, it’s a big deal. There’s five of us and it’s always been a democracy, so very often it’s not as fast on its feet as an outfit like the Vampires. At the drop of a hat, somebody says there’s a gig tomorrow night, we can be there and that’s one of the great things about that band. Not only is everybody road dogs and we’ve all done it we do what matters and that’s the music. And the rest of it will work itself out. And it’s totally a different thing than in Aerosmith, where there are so many things, there are riders and all this other crap. But hey, there’s a certain amount of comfort you want if you’re gonna be able to be consistent in your performance.

Baltin: What are the Aerosmith songs you go back to again and again? For me, with all the hits it’s still “Kings And Queens.”

Perry: That’s one, I think albums are a mirror of what’s going on in the band at any given time. I look at it like it’s a river and the water is always changing, but it’s the bucket that you take out and look to see, it’s like a little statement to where the band is at. So those albums were when we were learning how to be recording artists and not just a live band. Those couple of records, Toys In The Attic and Rocks, were the records where we moved to that next level. We learned how to use a studio, how to write songs in the studio, cause by the time the second record was done we pretty much used up all of our repertoire of music that we had written and played and played and played and did these albums that were already done. So that was the first record, Toys In The Attic, and then every record after that it was like, “Gotta make another record.” We didn’t have any material and we had to write it. And then learning how to use the studio and figuring out, “Okay, we really don’t want the drums to sound like Led Zeppelin, we really don’t want the guitars to sound like Jimmy Page,” cause we managed to have our own sound and let’s do more of that. Those were the records we were trying to figure out what it was, it was really what Aerosmith was.

Baltin: What is one song you haven’t done yet for Vampires you’d love to do?

Perry: The list is enormous cause we’re basically a cover band, so there are so many. I don’t know what the theme will be on the next one, I don’t know if we’re gonna go to that same well, just cover songs from dead people, there are so many bands that are not the original band, so they’re not the same band, it widens the scope. I would like to play a couple of AC/DC songs, they’re alive and well. But in honor of Bon [Scott] not being here I guess we can get away with that. That’s one band and maybe a couple more Hendrix songs and some Zeppelin. There’s no Zeppelin anymore.

By Steve Baltin for Forbes