Joe Perry on Aerosmith: “We were the garage band that really made it big – the ultimate party band”

The guitar icon tells us how Boston’s Aerosmith have sailed through 30 choppy, controversial and hit-packed years in the business and still wear the crown of America’s Greatest Rock ’N’ Roll Band.

aerosmith joe perry

Image: Kevin Mazur / WireImage

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This interview was originally published in 2002.

“Joe Perry?” ponders Slash.

“He was a huge influence on me. In fact, it was Aerosmith that inspired me to start playing guitar in the first place… Hell, they even distracted me from the hottest chick in my junior high! I’d finally gotten over at her place after chasing her for months and she put Rocks on. It was the first time I’d ever heard it and I totally forgot about her. I ignored her completely and just kept playing the album over and over. She eventually walked out of the room and I split. that’s how much of an impact Aerosmith had on me.”

Aerosmith have had a bit of an impact all over. they were recently inducted into the prestigious Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, MTV has crowned them ‘Icons’ and Disney has built an incredibly popular rollercoaster ride around them. They’ve done TV adverts for Gap; the press considers them to be America’s finest-ever rock band; their peers respect them, the public loves them and they’ve sold tens of millions of albums. they’ve experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of the music business, they’ve been around since 1970 and are still going strong.

aerosmith joe perry 70s
Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton, Joey Kramer (drums), Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on Midnight Special, June 1974. Image: Jeffrey Mayer / WireImage

Guitarist Joe Perry has his own unique style. “He’s a great riff writer and has a wonderful head for catchy licks that are always different to what anybody else would do,” Slash continues. “Joe also comes from that school of ‘beat the shit out of your guitar’. The only two guys who have ever put out a record that has that kind of fuckin’ cruelty to an instrument are Joe Perry and Pete Townshend – they both have a real sense of aggro that I really dig. They’re both really great players who just instinctively know how to throw all the fucking sloppiness in the right places.

“Granted, Joe’s gotten a little more fine-tuned over the years, but in Aerosmith’s early touring days during the mid 70s, there was a lot of brilliant noise coming out of them and a lot of it was due to his ‘wham bam’ guitar style,” Slash concludes. “Plus, all things considered, Joe’s still the coolest-looking guitar player around! He’s always had the coolest image.”

What it takes

Praise indeed, especially coming from a fellow rawk-axeman of Slash’s high standing. This summer Aerosmith released O, Yeah! Ultimate Aerosmith Hits, a double ‘best of’ CD that celebrates their incredibly long and successful career. On the eve of commencing a huge, enormo-dome tour of America (with rap pioneers Run-DMC and Kid Rock) to promote the album, we cornered Mr Perry to pick his brains on a few points.

For a start, as you may already know, there are currently five ‘Best Of Aerosmith’-type offerings available – seven, if you include the Live Classics pair. So does the world really need another Aerosmith hits compilation? As it turns out, it does, because, believe it or not, up until this one, the band has had no say whatsoever in the track selection. “As strange as that might sound, that’s true… I mean, I didn’t even know Young Lust existed until a fan asked me to sign a copy!”

Even though the double-disc format of O, Yeah!… allowed the band to squeeze 30 songs on it (28 oldies and two brand-new tracks, Girls Of Summer and Lay It Down), when your back catalogue consists of 13 studio albums, the choice of which tracks to include couldn’t have been an easy one.

“Thank God for fax machines!” Perry laughs. “Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. We’ve been having a much tougher time putting the new setlist together for the tour… We originally wanted to make the album just 12 songs and then we were ready to pull our hair out, so 30 songs made it a little easier. The record company put together a wish-list that had something like 40 songs on it, so we went down it and compared it to our setlists from the last couple of years and everything kind of became clear.

“There were a bunch of songs that were the obvious ones and then we just basically looked at our setlist and said: ‘What songs are considered Aerosmith hits by our fans?’ And sometimes they’re not necessarily ones that were Top 10 singles – or even released as singles – but they’re still definite hits from the live point of view. “The inclusion of Seasons Of Wither [from Get Your Wings] is a good case in point. It was never really that big of a radio hit, but when we play it live, everybody responds to it. That’s why, to us, it’s a hit.”

aerosmith joe perry steven tyler
Image: Fin Costello / Redferns

Vintage vibe

Aside from the sheer quantity of bona-fide classics that Aerosmith have under their wing, one of the most impressive things about O, Yeah!… is just how well the old and new material stand side-by-side from a sonic point of view.

“While we’ve certainly experimented with technology, I still haven’t lost touch with the fact that a Les Paul through a Marshall still sounds pretty good,” Joe says. “I’ve heard some players that have supposedly refined their sound by using guitars that were custom-made for themselves or using new amps, and then I listen to some of their early recordings and I go: ‘What are they thinking now? Where are they going with this?’ And the only thing I can think of is that their sound has lost some of its edge in their quest for more musicality, or because they’re thinking: ‘We did that last year, we’ve gotta move on’.

“With me, though, I’m always trying to get back to what the first record sounded like! That’s why I go around collecting old bits of studio gear, old microphones, old amps and using them in the studio. So, even though we used Pro Tools on our last studio album, Just Push Play, we still went through the old Neve board and I used old Fender and Vox amps, plus the Gibson GA-30 amp that is basically a hot-rodded AC30. Basically, I try not to stray too far from what I thought was a great guitar sound when I was 17.”

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Perry with a Gibson and a B.C. Rich doubleneck in 1978. Image: Ron Pownall / Corbis via Getty Images

So would it be safe to say that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is the Aerosmith motto? “Kind of, yeah,” Joe replies. “I mean, you always want to experiment and I definitely think my palate has broadened over the years. I mean, I’ve certainly gone out and used a lot of different kinds of guitar to help wrap it in a different package and help make it new. But I do like sticking close to those original things that turned me on in the first place… that’s why there is kind of a linearity to our sound.”

Joe once described the hard-touring Aerosmith of the 70s as: “America’s band; we were the garage band that really made it big – the ultimate party band. We were the guys who you could actually see. Back then in the 70s, it wasn’t like Led Zeppelin was out there on the road in America all the time. The Stones weren’t always coming to your town. We were. You could count on us to come by.”

Some three decades later, Aerosmith are still clearly not jaded when it comes to touring. What drives them to hit the road as often as they do? “It’s the only thing you can control,” the guitarist insists. “You can’t control the varying tastes of MTV or VH1 or pop radio… but you can control how good you play that night. And that’s what I tell bands that come up to me and go: ‘What’s your advice to a new band? What’s your advice to somebody starting in the business?’ Rock ’n’ roll is, at its best, a live medium. And, of course, coming up like we did, before all these other avenues like MTV, the internet and all that stuff, you either played live and you played good, or you didn’t have a career. So, that’s what got us going.

“Nowadays, maybe someone would be inspired to be an internet songwriter and that’s certainly one way to go, but thankfully, there’s still nothing like the feeling and the sound of a live electric guitar. And that’s why I think we’re seeing another whole generation of kids who are turned on by that. “They go out there and they rock out live and they’re cocky, they strut their stuff and they play loud. They’re out there and their bands sound good. I think it’s a case of function over flash, y’know?”

Capturing inspiration

Along with his partner in crime, vocalist Steven Tyler, Joe Perry is responsible for penning a goodly portion of the material that has kept Aerosmith at the top of their game. How does he remember new ideas when they come up?

“I have every kind of recording device in the world in my basement studio, but a cheap little cassette player with a built-in microphone has proven indispensable,” Joe admits. “The only change I’ve made over the years is to go from cassette to MiniDisc. Nowadays, I have a little MiniDisc player with a microphone in it and I always have to know where that is. At any given moment of any given day, I have to know exactly where it is in the house because that’s my catch-all, y’know? I’ll never remember the stuff otherwise.

“Very often, I’ll be walking from one room to another and I’ll just start singing a riff or I’ll think of some kind of hook in my head. As soon as that happens, I grab a guitar and put it down on MiniDisc. Usually, when I get to the point where I have two or three of those things recorded, I go downstairs in the studio with the guy who engineers down there, Paul Caruso, and we lay some things down with a basic drum machine. I know it’s a little extravagant having my own studio with an engineer in my house, but that’s what I do, it’s my hobby. Other guys have hobbies like racing boats or cars. This is mine and I love it.”

Though an idea will often inspire Joe to pick up a guitar, sometimes the reverse is true and picking up a guitar will inspire an idea. “Definitely,” he enthuses. “It’s funny, because in my collecting of guitars over the years, I’ve found that every guitar is a little different – and some of them are a lot different. When you pick them up and play them they all have a different voice, and sometimes something that seems mundane and ‘everyday’ on one guitar might have a whole different light on it if you play it on something else. So that’s one of the things I’ve found: by searching out odd guitars, sometimes riffs come out of them.

“They don’t have to be guitars that are dear, either,” he adds. “Sometimes you can pick up a $200 Supro or something and it’ll have some kind of a voice to it. Maybe it was played 20 or 30 years ago and somebody left some spiritual essence in it and it’s just got a riff in it ready to pop out. Sometimes when it comes to writing, it’s good to take a break from playing for a while – it’s easy to fall into a well-worn groove, so it’s important to take a rest sometimes. Some of the best riffs I’ve come up with have happened when I haven’t touched a guitar for a couple of weeks, so sometimes I put the guitar down on purpose for a while, to see what comes out. I just have to make sure I have my MiniDisc recorder with me when I go back to it, mind, so I can catch whatever comes out!”

aerosmith joe perry
Perry in 1980. Image: Paul Natkin / WireImage

One riff to rule them all

Talking of riffs, of all the ones he’s spawned, which one is Joe’s all-time favourite on the
O, Yeah!… CD? “That’s a tough one,” he muses. “I really like Draw The Line myself. It’s in a fairly common open tuning,” – open G (DGDGBD, from low to high) – “that’s been made famous over the years by some pretty amazing players like Ry Cooder and Keith Richards and to try and wrap a riff around it that’s a little different is always exciting, y’know? It’s a simple riff to play, but it’s loud and powerful.”

And the ultimate rock riff of all time is…? “There’s so many of them,” Joe says. “But, I guess if you go down the ‘less is more’ path, I think that Whole Lotta Love is the one. I mean, that opening thing – it’s almost a non-riff. It’s so primal that almost anybody can play it… but it’s so powerful. To me, that is the epitome of simplicity and it hits the very roots of the sexual aspect of the rhythm. And, as I’ve said, technically, it’s nothing. Jimmy Page can play just about anything and it really speaks of his genius that he was able to go: ‘Okay, this is what people want to hear’.”

Talking of Mr Page, Joe has often waxed lyrical on how big an influence Jimmy was on him, so how did it feel to jam with the man at Donington and then at the Marquee Club in 1990?

“I always have to pinch myself whenever I’m within 10 feet of Jimmy, because over the years, he’s become a good friend,” Joe says. “Sometimes, we’ll be sitting talking about kids or whatever and then I realise that this is they guy that did The Song Remains The Same from top to bottom and then I’ve gotta go: ‘Wow, this is really amazing’. It’s funny – I remember being in my mother’s station wagon listening to the radio and hearing that first Zeppelin record and going: ‘Oh my God, this is incredible’. Then, 25 years later, I find myself playing on stage with the guy. It’s an amazing path, that’s all I can say.”

A great deal of attention has been focused on Aerosmith’s booze-and-drug-addled years in the 70s and 80s, the period which caused their dramatic descent and split in the late 70s/early 80s. This said, despite the fact that the band has been clean and sober for well over a decade, Messers Perry and Tyler still can’t shake the ‘Toxic Twins’ nickname they earned in those bygone days.

Does the fact the tag still lingers bother Joe at all? “No, I just have to chuckle when I see that stuff,” he replies. “It’s old news.” Some of the stories have developed lives of their own and have become urban/rock legends, such as the $80,000 room-service bill story. “That wasn’t just one night, like some people try and make it out to be,” Joe protests. “That was added up after a whole tour. I was pretty famous for room-service bills because my room was usually party central, so stuff usually came up by the case.”

aerosmith joe perry
Perry with his ‘Billie’ guitar, a customised BB King Lucille with an image of his wife painted on its maple top. Image: Donato Sardella / Getty Images for John Varvatos

Cleared for takeoff

By the time you read this, Aerosmith will be well into a lengthy US trek… but when can we expect to see them on this side of the Atlantic? “We’ve been talking about doing a very bluesy, roots-kind of record over the winter and then hopefully, we’ll come to Europe next summer,” Joe replies. “I don’t think we’ll make that record in the Boneyard,” – the name of Joe’s home studio where a good deal of Just Push Play was recorded – “Instead, it’s probably gonna be done old-style with just the whole band in a good-sounding room with microphones on.”

Will outside writers be involved, as has been the Aerosmith way since 1987’s Permanent Vacation? “I don’t think there’s gonna be a process on the next one,” Joe states. “I think it’s just gonna be everyone blasting away with a couple of chorus lines and that’s it.”

aerosmith joe perry
Image: Ron Pownall / Corbis via Getty Images

With The Rolling Stones currently celebrating their 40th anniversary, what are the chances of Aerosmith still being around in 10 years time? “I dunno,” Joe laughs. “10 years is a long time, but you can definitely count on us still being around in five.”

Finally, let’s settle a long-standing office water-cooler debate – namely the meaning of Aerosmith, and where the name came from. “There’s not much of a story to tell, really,”
Joe shrugs. “As with a lot of bands’ names, it was the one that nobody didn’t like! It was okay, y’know. It’s kind of a torn-up version of Arrowsmith, I guess – that’s where Joey [Kramer, drums] got it from, because he had a band called Arrowsmith, named after the book,” – a novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1925. “We changed it because we were hoping we were gonna fly some day…”

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