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Interview: Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Brad Whitford Let the Music Do the Talking

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Interview: Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Brad Whitford Let the Music Do the Talking

Photo by Ken Settle

What do you get when you combine nearly 40 years of grade-A American rock ’n’ roll, seemingly never-ending internal squabbles, and some of the most downright anthemic riffs ever? Why, Aerosmith, of course.

From the outside, the last decade or so has been pretty slow for the boys from Boston. Since the release of Just Push Play in 2001, not much original music has emerged from the Aerosmith camp. The tabloids were quick to blame everything from the typical lead singer/guitarist infighting to Steven Tyler’s (almost) solo career and even American Idol. But the band came together this year and is touring full force with a new album in tow. Music from Another Dimension is an album, for better or worse, that touches on everything Aerosmith is known for: big riffs, lush ballads, and plenty of production.

That production is fingerprinted by Jack Douglas—the man behind much of the group’s ’70s output. The old-school ethos that populated Aerosmith classics on Rocks and Toys in the Attic come back to life in the grit and attitude of “Out Go the Lights” and the bluesy snarl of “Street Jesus.”

Right at the center of this rock tour de force are two of the most revered and respected guitarists ever to strap on a Les Paul: Joe Perry and Brad Whitford. Much like Ronnie and Keef or Malcolm and Angus, the Perry/Whitford partnership is equal parts oil and water. On paper it might not line up exactly, but the proof is in the pudding. We recently caught up with the guitar duo the day after a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden to discuss the band’s somewhat tumultuous creative process, discovering new guitars, and what tones inspire them.

The struggles over the last few years within the band have been well-documented. How does it feel to finally get this album out the door?
Joe Perry: We tried to make this record probably—well, legitimately—three times. We set up some phone calls with Rick Rubin and talked with him about possibly doing the record. After that, we got together with Jack Douglas with the intention of coming up with a new studio record but the vibe wasn’t right and people weren’t in the right headspace. There was a tour coming up and we had time to work in the studio with Jack, we just didn’t have time to play everything from scratch so we decided to do a blues record, the Honkin’ on Bobo record. Then we got together with Brendan O’ Brien and spent some time with him and that ended quickly. In between all of this the band was still touring. It wasn’t like the band was sitting on vacation and trying to decide if we were going to make a record. As the years kept going it was really frustrating to not have anything new to play. It was time.

Brad Whitford: Yeah, long time coming. The last couple of years, it just seemed like we were ready. It was almost two years ago, we got together to do some writing and putting ideas together for the album and that was a very creative session. We felt like the light was finally green and we could start working on it. Especially after we had the initial session. The ideas were really flowing.

Even with all the personal setbacks, did you ever feel the band was at a creative lull?
Brad Whitford: We had a lot of personal issues—people going through stuff in their lives. Yeah, different issues going on for certain members of the band. We just weren’t very good at being a band for a while. We got past a lot of that stuff and started to get more interested in being serious about seeing if we could get something done.


Photo by Ken Settle

Joe Perry: We had a lot of material from all those different sessions and even jamming onstage. We would jam and then tell the sound guy to mark the tape and some of those riffs ended up in songs. We certainly could have done another record two or three years after Just Push Play, but the time just wasn’t right. The good side of it was we had a lot of good material to pick from.

Is there an example on the album that you are particularly proud of?
Brad Whitford: That “Street Jesus” song. It’s funny, a majority of that song I have been kicking around for years and years and years. Sometimes, that’s how these things happen. These songs just fall out of the sky on your lap and other times they are years in the making. It was something I just kept bringing to the table for years and never really could find a home for it. I never really knew what it was going to be or what we were going to do with it. When we started on this album, I put it on the table again and it just took off and caught fire. That’s another thing—if you have a good idea and you believe in it you have to be a bit persistent. Find a way to make it work and make it into something that the other members of the band can really sink their teeth into. But everybody has to be into it.

Does the creative process differ between bringing in a riff or a sketch of a song and a fully formed demo?
Joe Perry: It’s all the same. The way Jack Douglas works is that he wants to be as transparent as he can be, as far as what the song sounds like. He wants to pull everything he can out of the band. For example, on this album there were a few ballads written with Steven and Marti Frederiksen and Marti produced them. People use different producers for different songs sometimes and Marti is the kind of producer that writes songs and then produces. Jack is the kind of producer that really lets the band be what it is and Aerosmith, coming out of the era we came out of, is all about playing live and cranking the energy up and entertaining the audience. That thread—that fire that runs in our veins that started it back in 1970— that’s still there and Jack recognizes that and knows that the best way to record the band and to get the most out of the band is to get us out there and playing. Whether I come walking in with a complete and finished song, warts and all, or if someone has two riffs that work together and the band hammers it out and turns it into something—just as long as they end up songs. And that’s how Jack works. On “Freedom Fighter,” I wrote everything in a day. It was like 5 in the morning and I wrote the lyrics and then I have this studio, so I wrote the music for it. It was basically a finished song when the band played on it.

Brad Whitford: Yes, I really do think that Jack has an understanding of what this band is trying to do and has always tried to do. He gets it in a very intimate way and understands it and how it works. When it’s working at the highest peak he is able to analyze it and understand it. He can put his finger on it and is able to bring the best out in everybody—it’s just the way he works and his personality. It’s almost like he is a member of the band. So, it was great to work with him and a lot of fun. He is such a fun-loving guy, he is very upbeat, so we laugh a lot. We keep it light, but very serious. We work hard.

When we caught up with Joe’s tech, Trace Foster, this summer he mentioned that different combinations of amps, pedals, and guitars inspire you from night to night on the road. Was there a specific combo that inspired you during the sessions for this album?
Joe Perry: I use a Klon [Centaur] pedal. That’s my go-to drive pedal and has been since we first got ours. I think the guy was in Boston and gave both Brad and I some of the early ones. There’s just something about them, they seem to give that extra push but without getting in the way of the sound of the amp or the guitar. It’s just a really good all around pedal. It’s also a matter of if you are in the studio or live. In the studio you have a lot more freedom to fool around with single-coil pickups because of the hum problem, the RF, and all of that. I have a Stratocaster that I use almost exclusively for my Strat-type stuff. It’s a ’57, but it doesn’t sound like any other Strat I‘ve ever heard, but it has a hum that you can’t deal with live. You might find a building once in a while where it works, but most of the time when you start getting it up to the volume you need it to be, it just hums like a bastard. I also have a couple of bastardized Jeff Beck Strats that work really well. The other thing I would do is go direct into either a Neve preamp or a Spectrasonics preamp. When you use them live, there’s so much hum and the way that they were built, it’s almost like the sound or tone disappears. But, when you plug them directly into the board you don’t have to deal with the amplifier thing and you actually get the sound of the fuzz tone or whatever it is. Very often I would split the signal and go into my amp, or combo, and the board.

Brad Whitford: I suppose there are probably several of those. Over the years I have managed to put together a few little amplifiers that really guarantee a great sound and that helps inspire you. I have this really ancient Marshall cabinet that is in decent shape but I would be afraid to take it on the road. First of all, I wouldn’t want to lose it. But it is one of the best-sounding guitar speaker enclosures I’ve ever heard. It has the original Greenbacks. It’s probably a mid-to-late-’60s-era cab. It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain but is unbelievable. I will always use it in the studio—or almost always, depending on where I am.

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