In an extensive interview, the legendary guitarist opens up about the dynamics that drive the band and why making a new Aerosmith album might not be in the cards.
There have been precious few constants in a musical landscape that has undergone seismic changes over the past several decades, from the birth of the larger-than-life rock star to the advent and eventual death of the MTV era to the digital revolution that has made it much easier for fans to hear music – and much less likely that they’ll buy it.
Aerosmith, the rock band that sprung from New England in the early ’70s and amped up the boozy, bluesy brashness of The Rolling Stones into an arena-ready brand of hard rock, is still standing through all of the changes and challenges, from the ups and downs of the music industry to the group’s own highly publicized internal turmoil.
At the heart of Aerosmith is the prolific and sometimes volatile relationship between frontman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry, a duo dubbed “The Toxic Twins” at the height of their drug-addled debauchery. Those days are long behind them, but Aerosmith, now well into its fifth decade, does not appear to have any intentions of winding down its legendary career anytime soon. The group is currently on its “Blue Army” tour, which will wrap up in early August, and on Sept. 4, the band will release “Aerosmith Rocks Donnington 2014,” a DVD that captures the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ performance at the iconic British rock festival. Factor in the side projects, like Tyler’s impending debut country album and Perry’s involvement with the Alice Cooper-led Hollywood Vampires project, and you get the idea.
With all of this as a backdrop, Perry recently took the time on a day off from the tour to chat exclusively with HNGN about what keeps the band and its fans going, the concert DVD, the possibility of a new Aerosmith studio album, Tyler’s reaction to Perry’s 2014 autobiography, “Rocks,” and his admiration for Johnny Depp.Younger bands play like they have something to prove. When Aerosmith takes the stage, do you feel like you have to prove that you’ve still “got it”?
Well, ya know, the fans have basically already spoken and given us a career that says “We think you got it.” We always had the confidence that we had something and we were filling a slot that, at least for me, that I wasn’t hearing from other bands at the time. It’s the fans, and even though we kind of came up in a strange time, even though we get put in the classic rock category with a lot of the bands from the late 60s, early 70s, I mean that was a generation before us. I can remember driving around in my mother’s station wagon and hearing the first Zeppelin record for the first time, and I was still just being able to put three chords together in a row. We were a couple years behind those guys. At this time in rock and roll history we’re really happy to be on a playlist back to back with the Stones and Zeppelin and Lou Reed and all the greats from that era, and we’re kind of in that genre, so to speak, but I’m still in awe of the Zeppelin records and The Stones records and all the early blues stuff that I learned from. So it’s kind of a unique thing. I’ve fortunately been able to become friends and acquaintances with some of those guys that were influences on me and also that I felt Aerosmith should sound like, so it’s been a great trip, if nothing else, to be able to become friends with a cat like Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck and so on.
What can you tell us about the upcoming DVD and what do you remember about your set that was filmed at Donnington?
Every time you decide to film a show, there’s so much that goes into it on the technological side – extra cameras, the booms, cherry pickers. It’s not a small thing, and you roll the dice hoping it’s going to be a great show. And we’ve had a real positive history playing Donnington so we figured, hey, let’s do it, and as it turned out we felt like, I felt like, it was a really good show and it was worth the risk. I know the first couple times we played there we were pretty nervous, again, because it’s got such a history, especially playing in England, the English bands were the ones that get the extra…if you’re having a bad night the audience is going to be a little bit more forgiving and actually help turn it around, which is what fans do. If you run into a few things, whether you’re breaking guitar strings or amps are blowing up and it’s throwing your whole rhythm off, the audience can be really forgiving and help turn the show around and fortunately this wasn’t one of those shows. We hit the stage like a ball of fire and we were really looking forward to it. We’ve had some great shows there so it was definitely worth the extra effort and I’m glad it came out the way it did.
Are there plans for a new Aerosmith studio album?
We’ll see how the touring goes and just see how that plays out. The main thing is still getting out on the road and then we’ll figure out if and when we’re going to try to come up with a new record that’s worth doing. Frankly, a lot of the hardcore fans want some new music, but I’d say the majority are looking forward to the next time we’re playing live and playing some of the old standards, and some of the old standards can mean a song that came out 20 years ago, and to some people those are new songs that they never heard before.
At this point in our career – like Billy Joel said, “I’m not going to make new records, why should I spend the money, why should I bust my ass when all people want to hear is ‘Uptown Girl?,’” and he’s got a point. There’s always the chance that you can have a hit, you just never know. You could pour your heart into every track and the record will just lay there and then there’s other times people hear a song and think it can be a No. 1. That’s part of the excitement of doing a new record to me, but at this point I know we’d like to do another record, I just don’t know when. There’s too many places to play live and I’d frankly rather spend [the time] on the road, playing Dubai or Singapore than locking ourselves in a room for X amount of weeks or months putting out an album that may or may not have any impact, when you really look at it. The last record, I think about half of it was a real classic Aerosmith record but it just didn’t make much of a dent. That’s just how the business is and maybe the songs weren’t as good as I thought they were. Why bother when we’ve got “Train Kept A Rollin’” and “No More No More” and all the songs off the first three or four records right up to the songs in the ’90s that people want to hear and never heard us play live? We’ll just see.
You published your memoirs, “Rocks,” last year, and when you were being interviewed at a book discussion in New York, you said, “Steven’s up to Chapter 4, the easy part. We’ll see if there’s a tour next year.” There is a tour, so does that mean Steven read the book and there was no fallout?
I don’t know. I’ve heard different things. I’ve heard him say that he never read the book, and then I heard him say “I really like the book but you said a couple of strange things in there,” and then, “I really liked the pictures a lot,” and then we had a laugh. So I really don’t know. I bet that he read the book, either that or he had one of his people read it and circle all the parts where I said something bad about him (laughs). I really couldn’t tell ya.
Maybe you’ll find his copy with all of the circled parts.
Yeah (laughs). That would be funny.
Is creative tension something that you think is needed for a rock band to keep its edge?
I think if it’s in a positive way, yeah. I think you have to have difference of an opinion to kind of like give it that extra bump, because if you’re both thinking the same way…Obviously you have to be inspired by the same kind of music, otherwise you wouldn’t be in the same room, but then there’s how you go about laying that song out, telling the story you want to tell, whether musically or lyrically, then you need to have some difference of opinion, otherwise it’s not really a team that’s going to give something extra. If you both agree on everything you might as well be one guy writing a song. There’s all different ways it works and I’m sure that there are times that songs just come right out of the hat and you both agree on everything, and that can be a great song, but I have to think that the majority of it, you kind of want to have a little bit of that “I think it should go this way” and it can be a very positive thing, it doesn’t have to be “that motherf—er doesn’t know what he’s talkin’ about.” Maybe back in the very first go-around, but believe me, that kind of a songwriting team isn’t going to last long. You’re both working toward the same goal and that’s the main thing, but I think you got to have the same goal in mind but different ways of getting there.
Both you and Steven have released music outside of Aerosmith, and Steven is gearing up to release his debut country album. How do you think that will impact Aerosmith?
I’m hoping he has some success with it because whether it’s an Aerosmith song, a solo song or whatever, we’ll play it live. In fact I told him, “Hey look, do you want to put your new single in the set?” and he really didn’t seem excited about it, but I think that either way it’s still a side of Aerosmith, whether he did it himself or with someone else. It’s really kind of like a debate, is it really a solo thing? If he writes a song with three other people, between that and a song that he wrote with two or three people and it goes on an Aerosmith record? But I think that being down in Nashville he’s getting different influences and he loves all kinds of music, so it just seemed like a natural thing. We’ve all got friends that work down there and write down there so it didn’t surprise me that that’s where he went to get some different inspiration. So we’ll see. It’s kind of backed up; he was actually planning on finishing it before this tour, so I think we’d have more to choose from if we were going to play some of his stuff, because the band’s played some of my stuff on stage during the tour, so it’s, like I said, it’s all positive. I don’t see it taking away from anything, in fact I think it adds.
Do you feel that the “rock star” – the kind in the posters that kids put on their bedroom wall like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and The Doors – is a dying breed?
Yeah, I think it is. I think we’re seeing the end of an era. With the Stones as a symbol, they’re still out there playing and I have a feeling that they’ll keep playing as long as they can, but I think that overall, just the way the industry has changed, the way we get our music, the technology, all of that, you’re seeing the end of an era. I was fortunate enough to be old enough to see The Who in a 500-seat club before Woodstock, and I was part of the Woodstock generation; I didn’t go to Woodstock but that was like a watershed, and God, half the bands that played at that event became superstars, and we saw this whole thing grow, and then the music industry grew, the records became so important.
And then we had MTV and the videos came out, and the videos became almost as important, if not more, than the albums. Of course there’s the musical trends that went along with it. A lot of it was guided by MTV, so we saw MTV go through its changes until they realized that maybe a reality show got more viewers than the videos. I mean we were there right at the start of the MTV thing, in fact we produced our first video because we didn’t like the idea. We thought it was going to take away from the value of the song, because you write a song and everybody’s got a different image in their mind of what the song’s about, but when you do a video you’re kind of defining it and it takes some of the magic away from the songs. So we went through that phase, and then the videos started to mean less and less, and then Napster came along and so the changes have been dynamic and profound. We’ve seen it all happen.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that the fans like to go see the music live, whether it’s a classic band like, again, like The Stones or like Aerosmith, any one of us that’s still around and able to play those songs, the fans want to see it and the rest of the music business is just crawling its own way. Everybody thought, “Why not? If I can get it for free, why pay for it?” That, I think, came out of an era when people used to bootleg albums. I remember when you’d put out an album, and the radio station would say, “OK, everybody set up your cassette players, we’re going to play the whole Aerosmith record from front to back, so hit record at 8 o’clock,” and very few people would do it. The quality also wasn’t that good, so it didn’t really effect how many people bought the record. Now, the quality is almost irrelevant. Somebody can get the song and send it over to you, email it or whatever, and it sounds just as good as it’s going to sound if you bought it. So that changed the whole thing. That end of the business has pretty much died out, but at the same time the fans are still out there and they want to see the music, they want to hear it, and it’s been really interesting. I’m sure that there will be a lot of books written about it over the next few years, because things change so much.
Johnny Depp has played guitar with you guys a few times. What type of musician is he?
The kind that’s born to play. I don’t think he could go more than a week without playing a guitar. He’s a great guitar player. He was in a really good band before he started his career as an actor and I really like playing with him because he can play that Django Reinhardt stuff. He’s a brilliant musician and I don’t think people realize that. The best example I can give is that movie “Chocolat” that came out a few years ago, it was a great movie, and he played the water gypsy, and he’s playing guitar and he’s playing that kind of Django Reinhardt kind of stuff, and that’s really him playing, and that’s not easy stuff to do. As far as how hard it is, you can pick up playing the blues pretty well if you stick with it, but playing that style that he gravitates to just as another way to play the guitar, it takes a lot of work and he’s put the time in. In fact that’s how we became friends. We were talking guitars and he’s got an incredible collection and he’s had the chance to sit in a few times and play together and jam, and we’re actually doing this project called Hollywood Vampires with Alice Cooper and Johnny and a couple other names, and we’ve only got a couple gigs lined up, but who knows, I’m hoping that we can get some more under our belts because it’s going to be a rockin’ band.
How do you spend your down time when you’re out on tour?
Well, I like to travel by bus. The band, obviously, has a plane, but that’s kind of a democracy how it’s going to go, when it’s going to leave, where they’re going to stay, and I kind of like having the freedom of going on the bus and going off the big highways and visiting different towns and stopping at different places and going to antique shops. So I do a lot of that when we’re on the road, visiting some of the places that I’ve discovered over the years, so that’s pretty much what I do.
I see your son is on the tour doing social media?
Yeah, he’s taken over and he’s really hit that like a ball of fire and he’s doing a really good job with it. We’re all excited about it because he’s able to bring stuff to us right way, in fact, a good friend of mine, he’s on vacation in Kaua’i, and a couple of days ago we were doing a soundcheck, and he texted me and he said, “Man, I really dig your sound, you’re really nailing it on this tour.” He was listening to the soundcheck in Hawaii, how many thousand miles away. He was listening to me play my guitar, and it was like, “Holy shit, this is amazing.” It’s just really cool to not just get the compliment but the fact that he could see it in real time, so that’s the kind of thing that Aaron, my son, is bringing to the party. It’s working out great.
Are you the type of musician that seeks out new stuff to listen to?
I’m always discovering new old recordings of blues. I heard some bluegrass yesterday that just knocked me out and I might have to do a little digging there. Mostly I go back and listen to the old stuff because I always believe you got to look back to go forward because that’s where the stuff starts. I listen to like the different trends in pop right now and that kind of thing but chances are I’ll listen to it once and then I’ll move on except for a band like, say, The Black Keys, some of those guys that are deep into the stuff. I always keep my ears open.
Outside of the Aerosmith tour and DVD and the Hollywood Vampires project, is there anything else you’re working on?
Actually a couple of things I’m doing that I can’t really say yet because it’s not etched in stone, but there’s been some talk about a very interesting project that if it comes together you’ll hear about it because it’s going to be way out of leftfield. If that doesn’t come together, I’ll be doing some Project stuff this fall.
By Michael Lello ([email protected] ) for HNGN