Joe Perry shares his no frills, all thrills approach to touring

We spoke to the rock legend about how the band keeps things fresh after all these years.

Most bands don’t make it past the 10-year mark—and even if they do, they rarely hold onto all their original members for the duration. But Aerosmith are not most bands. With more than four decades of history under their collective belt, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton, and Joey Kramer have overcome struggles—like management disputes, rehab stints, and injuries—and grown their live show into a thunderous, big-production event. Nowadays, Aerosmith’s members split their time between personal projects (Tyler’s currently prepping a country album) and playing live, where their ability to captivate an audience is earning them a whole new legion of fans.

Earlier this year, Aerosmith embarked on their Blue Army Tour, which gave the Boston-based rockers a chance to perform in lesser known cities for fans who hadn’t had the chance to get up close and personal with them in years. During the tour’s California run, we caught up with Perry to discuss Aerosmith’s strategy for conquering new regions, their secret for connecting with fans, and how they recovered from a $500,000 mistake.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

What was the thinking behind hitting smaller and unexpected markets on the Blue Army Tour?
As we’ve gotten older, we’ve had to cherry-pick a lot of the dates so we can hit the most fans. We can’t do five shows a week anymore at our age, and we can only go back to the major markets so many times. So this next year or two, we’re going to spend playing secondary markets—some of the places that we played back in the ’70s and some places that we never played because they didn’t have a big enough venue at the time. A lot of these places now have venues that we can play at and it’s been great. It’s a lot of fun for us because we have millions of people that have seen us only one time or have never seen us.

The band has had so many stage setups over the years. What’s been your favorite?
The second stage we had during the [Just Push Play Tour] with lawn lawn seats. I thought, ‘If we could get up there, I guarantee, more people would want to come to the shows.’ I remember trying to figure out how we could physically get to the lawn; do we put on robes and hide ourselves or do we sneak around the back? Then my thought was, ‘Why not make it part of the show and have it be an event of us walking right off the front of the stage, right through the crowd, and going up to that second stage?’ Ideas come from everybody in the band, whether it’s the title of the record or whatever.
It took a while to get through to the management, and also the other guys. I got into a fight with my manager because he was saying, ‘Well it’s going to cost you this… We’re going to have to bring in another bus. We’re going to have bring in another set of gear.’ But I said, ‘Yeah but people that are that far up on the lawn are actually going to get to see us 10 feet away!’ The guys were like, ‘What’s entertaining about that?’ I said, ‘Well. Just watch. Let’s just try it.’
So we went through the whole thing and we walked out there. It felt dangerous. We were totally surrounded by guards, but we were getting pulled at. We couldn’t even bring our guitars with us because we were afraid that they’d get out of tune, and we needed our hands to protect ourselves. Once we got up on stage, it was quick. We played the songs that seemed appropriate and then we made it back. On the way out, we had the cameras up on the screen showing the mayhem of us going out to the stage—that’s what made it entertaining. The audience was watching us go out there and getting grabbed and pulled. I would have liked to have seen it, but I was too busy protecting myself.
After that first time, when we made it back to the stage I was thinking, ‘The other guys are going to kill me.’ But everybody loved it. The guys thought it was great because we could play to the lawn seats and high-five the fans on the way out. Within two weeks, we started to see a jump in ticket sales on the lawn seats because word got around that we would go out there and play.
That was one thing that I really believed in and I pushed and it ended up working out well. I would love to do it again. You kind of have to do it over the whole tour to make it work, because you are bringing the extra trucks, the extra lights, and all the equipment. That was one of my favorite tours without a doubt.

Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Getty Images

Are there any stage arrangements that you guys tried over the years that just didn’t work?
We were one of the first bands to have a movable lighting truss. It’s become standard now, but back then we were one of the first ones to do it. When the band got back together in ’84, we spent all this money to have this moving truss that was bits and pieces and they were all supposed to come together and then form a big “A” over the stage at the end of the show. I remember we spent so much money on it, there was so much custom technology, and at the pre-production, when they actually had showed it to us, it took like five minutes for it to happen. The thing was on a truck back home in two days. It was such a bad idea. It was a $500,000 mistake.

Aerosmith has such an extensive catalog and so many generations of fans. What’s the secret to appeasing the older fans while also holding the attention of a younger crowd?
We put a setlist on the wall from the last time we played the venue, a setlist from the last show, and a setlist from the rehearsals with songs that we might want to play—and then we debate. If somebody suggests a song at the [pre-show] meet and greet, for instance, we may end up doing it. Then, there’s our backbone set—songs we know we have to play; I think that we have to play “Dream On” every night. And we don’t mind because we know the fans love it and most people would be disappointed if we didn’t play it. We get as much information as we can from the internet and social media.

Have you ever make a game-time decision to toss an older tune into the mix in the middle of a show?
There are some that we’ll just do right off the top. We’ll [also] change the set of the show. It’s great to be able to start off playing a riff and hear your audience react to that and then the rest of the band joins in. That’s what we do. We don’t have fireworks, we don’t have lasers, but we do go out there and try to make some magic with the guitars and the vocals.