TO ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FANS, Joe Perry’s half the front line of the dynamic band Aerosmith, a position he’s held since co-founding the group with Steven Tyler in New Hampshire in 1970 and moving to Boston to find fame. To Aerosmith fans, Perry’s the group’s rock ‘n’ roll soul – a strong, silent, guitar slinging badass who has always let the music do the talkin’.
Perry recently spoke about his debut solo album, a slide-fueled slam-and-soothe affair with the no-frills title Joe Perry that comes out on May 3. Nobody’s going to call him the new Dylan after hearing its dozen numbers, dominated by love songs and instrumentals, but the power and craftsmanship of his playing are undeniable and transfixing.
Holding court in his well-appointed home studio the Boneyard, in Duxbury, Massachusetts, the soft-spoken Perry talked about guitars, songwriting, romance, album-making, Aerosmith, and his newly discovered true singing voice. Perry’s always sung harmony with Tyler and he took the lead for a few vocal tracks on Aerosmith’s 2004 blues tribute Honkin’ on Bobo, but when he last stepped outside the group – from 1979 to 1984 with his Joe Perry Project – it was with vocalist Charlie Farren. This time Perry not only sings all his lyrics, he plays everything on Joe Perry except drums and keyboards.
Q: Given Steven Tyler’s proclivity for writing smash ballads and being in the spotlight, many Aerosmith fans thought he’d be the first band member with a solo album.
A: He’s talked about it, but I’m always in the studio writing and recording. In fact, the song ‘Ten Years’ I wrote 10 years ago for my wife Billie’s and my 10th anniversary. That’s how far back some of these songs go. A lot started as licks that were recorded and sitting on a shelf saying “Finish me!” Sometimes those licks are run by the band and end up being the basis for an Aerosmith song, but out of 20 ideas we might use three and the rest sit there.
I have favorite ideas and riffs that I’ll drop on a mini disc so I can take them with me. And when I get a spare minute, I’ll come down here and bring one of them up to the level of a song. Two or three years ago I realized I had a big pile of instrumental music I’d written that never got used for songs. I thought, “If I run off the road on my Harley and I’m dead, Billie’s gonna have nothing to put out – just a bunch of guitar licks. I should finish some.” Because they’re not really songs until you get a vocal on them. I write stuff that has room for vocals.
So I had all these cool licks and rhythms I’d developed and was carrying around a CD with 20 ideas for songs. I had three or four songs finished that were potentially for [2001’s] Just Push Play. There was a bunch of blues stuff I had worked up as ideas for Honkin’ on Bobo. I’d play them for friends and they’d say, “Wow, you’ve got enough for a solo record. Are you ever going to put another solo record out?”
I’d say, ” Someday.” When you get to be my age, someday is a lot closer than it was when you were 32. When the band took a year off it felt like the time to finish this stuff. And when I got back from playing Japan and started mixing, what was written six months or a year ago felt more immediate to me. So I wrote ‘Shakin’ My Cage’ and ‘Push Comes to Shove’ and ‘Lonely’. I put the last guitar tracks down in December. When I wasn’t down here getting it done, Paul Caruso, my engineer, would send me mixes.
Q: You’ve always been a band player – someone who feeds off the energy of other musicians to get inspired. What was it like playing all the tracks yourself?
A: Paul, the engineer, was also the drummer, and we brought a keyboard player in for some overdubs for about three hours, but otherwise it was me. It’s funny, because we have a “making of” video in the CD package, as well as a Dolby 5.1 mix on the B side and two U-Mix-It cuts, ‘Push Comes to Shove’ and the instrumental ‘Mercy’, that fans can remix on their computers. Paul and I worked together so long that it got kind of boring, so we had to do little things to liven the video up. We used home movies from the road and I did a bit where I played both parts of a band fight.
For most of the songs, I’d have an idea for a riff and Paul and I would work up a drum loop I’d use as a springboard for working out the arrangement. Then I’d usually put bass down to flesh it out, then a vocal or a guitar. Once I figured out where the vocal would go and have the chorus worked up, Paul would play real drums and I’d get deeper into the guitars.
There’s a certain feel that happens when musicians do all their own tracks. I could hear it when McCartney did it or when Stevie Wonder played drums on his own songs. I noticed I played the bass with the same kind of attack I have on guitar. It’s like you’re in a band and have tremendous rapport. “Wow! I can read the other guy’s mind! It sounds like I’ve been playing with him for 45 years,” since I started playing when I was 12.
Q: There’s a lot of layer guitars on this album. What possibilities did Dolby 5.1 surround sound and U-Mix-It open up for you?
A: U-Mix-It really lets fans get involved. We felt there were so many guitar parts in ‘Mercy’ it would be fun to rip that apart. And ‘Push Comes to Shove’ has a drum loop, so you can do a dance mix. You can also drop the guitar out and jam along. But the most exciting thing to me is the 5.1 mix. Until I heard it I thought, “Well, it’s a cool new way to hear the music.” But when I discovered we could add more guitar tracks that we had to leave off for the stereo mix, that was exciting. Mixing in stereo, guitar, keyboards, and vocals are fighting for the same space. The real art in mixing is getting the important things to speak. The 5.1 has space to spread every instrument out. The rockers you want to keep closer to the stereo mix, but the midtempo numbers and ballads really benefit from the space, and the arrangements even changed a little bit. ‘Pray for Me’ in 5.1 is pretty much an acoustic song for its first half, because it’s so cool to hear it wide open like that. Then the drums come in about half way through.
Q: If there’s any sound that’s a signature on this album, it’s ripping slide guitar. How did you get into playing slide?
A: The first time I saw anybody play slide was Jeff Beck, who played in standard tuning. The guy I really saw rip it up in open tuning was Johnny Winter. He had his big Firebird going through four Fender Twin Reverb amps and it was great. He’s always been a big influence. I’ve studied Ry Cooder and Muddy Waters. Ron Wood is a great electric slide player. They’re all part of my vocabulary. I love to play slide and lap steel. I’ve had a few goes at pedal steel, but it’s a hard instrument. I’ve even had a pedal steel made with just six strings, but it’s a whole different animal.
Q: Is that a lap steel on ‘Ten Years’?
A: No, I play a Telecaster with a Parsons-White style B Bender. It’s attached to the strap and you push the neck of the guitar down to get that steel-like sound.
Q: Did you record on analog to get such warmth in your guitar sounds?
A: Two songs were done on tape and the rest on the computer with ProTools. I’m not gonna say which two. With ProTools, there’s a danger of homogenizing everything, because it’s so easy to pick apart and tweak the tracks. But when you record on ProTools it just captures what you put in. So if you’ve got a good guitar sound and good microphones set up right, it’s there. We mixed in ProTools and then threw the tracks over to tape, so we got some natural tape compression along the line. In the end it’s all going to a16-bit CD anyway. But somehow you hear the difference.
I’m not an equipment snob at all. A good song is a good song and I know what my ears like. I have a small vinyl collection left over from the old days and listen to old records so we compare state of the art mixes coming out now and the stuff we loved from the old days, like AC/DC, Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green. We want to make sure we don’t leave out any bottom or warmth. Those classic LPs still sound great – especially when you’ve got the imports. Somehow in England they were able to cut the groves deeper. I remember we’d get the new Jimi Hendrix record from England and there would be two extra songs on it and somehow it would still sound richer because they cut the grooves deeper. Any vinyl sounds better, but it scratches, you know.
Q: Most of the tunes on Joe Perry are love songs. After all these years of hard-knuckled rockin’, are you really a romantic at heart?
A: I’m a big believer in romance, and I’m lucky to be living it. Love is the topic of some of the heaviest rock ‘n’ roll. Even if it’s head-ripping, it’s still often about love. I’m in love, so it works for me. And there are a couple songs that go down other paths. But my main inspiration is my muse and partner in life, my wife. When I started playing ‘Ten Years’ for other people is when I started getting comfortable opening that side of myself. At the beginning I was all straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll, but I learned to appreciate ballads – especially working with Steven, because he’s such a great ballad writer. I don’t know if I would have been comfortable putting a song like ‘Pray for Me’ out 10 years ago – either with my vocal performance or with letting that side of my emotions out. Maybe it’s all the therapy!
‘Pray for Me’ was fun to record, though. It gave me a chance to open up the guitar sounds. The acoustic guitar is a $20 Silvertone with a crack in the back. I also bought an old ARP keyboard I found in the Want Advertiser. It’s from the ’70s and has cool sounds, so I thought it would be fun to write a song around it. I remember Pete Townshend writing songs around synths early on, like ‘Baba O’Riley’. So I built a chord progression around a percussive keyboard figure and started playing a modal scale on top of it. I always carry a notebook with me, and I had the sketch for an idea using “pray for me.” And that’s where that came from.
Q: It’s a challenge for most guitarists who decide to sing to get accustomed to their own voice. How were you able to make the transition from guitarist to singer-guitarist for Joe Perry?
A: All the tunes can’t be instrumentals. Even I get bored listening to guitar instrumentals after a while. You’ve got to write lyrics to wrap things around. I’ve come to consider myself a vocal stylist more than a singer per se. In my own head, for years, I’ve been trying to compete with Steven. I’m in a band with one of the best rock ‘n’ roll singers in the world. If I only had that range, but my range is… I just can’t get up there.
Billie helped me with that, too. I was upstairs complaining that I couldn’t find inspiration, and she suggested I go downstairs to the studio and just cover some songs. Some of them turned out pretty cool. ‘Crystal Ship’, which is on the album, is one of them. I thought it was in a low enough key for my vocal range, and sure enough I didn’t cringe every time my vocal went by on playback. Billie heard it and encouraged me to try to sing more in that more relaxed fashion. It just opened up a new world for me.
Q: You seem to be blending more electric and acoustic guitar textures on this album.
A: There’s no plan. It was just whatever worked for the song. The acoustic part for ‘Pray for Me’ I tried electric, but it sounded too harsh. The acoustic with the echo on it and the little harmonics really gave it texture. It’s trial and error. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a sound and other times it’s experimenting, like the solo for ‘Talk Talkin”. I tried to put in a blues guitar solo and it just sounded too nice. I tried different amps, different approaches. I tried playing with two fingers. A lot of times I play without a pick because it makes me work a little more and it sounds cruder. It makes me think differently. Or sometimes I’ll use metal finger picks. I tried all of those things to try to get a sound, but none of it worked. Then I put the slide back on and went for a Muddy kind of making that thing talk – and that worked. I wanted that song to feel like we were all sitting in a room and jamming. That’s why I edited in the voices of people talking. I always liked that slower version of Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ – the one where he’s with his friends and they’re all shouting at him. So that’s what I wanted to create with ‘Talk Talkin”.
I have a lot of instruments at my fingers tips here at the Boneyard. They all have sounds that are part of my palette. There are so many different textures and atmospheres you can get using different guitars and effects. But I did open up my acoustic guitar playing more. Another alternative for getting a cool sound in ‘Ten Years’ was to use another synthesizer I have that’s monophonic: you can only play one note at a time. So to make chords we had to multitrack it. There are a couple places where the notes aren’t completely accurate so the chords bend. In a couple places it sounds like a Telecaster or pedal steel or an E-Bow. I didn’t want to put strings on the song, so this was an alternative.
Q: What is that gorgeous guitar on the album cover, by the way?
A: It’s a Gretsch SynchroMatic. It’s a great sounding guitar. The lines are so elegant and sexy it’s unbelievable. And the quality that Gretsch has now. Gretsch has always had great looking guitars, but I’ve found them kind of spotty. Sometimes they didn’t use the best glue or wood. I’ve seen a lot of differences in the quality of the early ones. But now the consistency of the workmanship and the sound is excellent. I was really glad to be able to use that photo for the cover.
Q: The instrumental ‘Mercy’ – it’s a really potent blend of guitar tones and textures. How many guitar tracks are on it?
A: So many! The guts of that song is a Casio synth guitar. It’s one of the best tracking MIDI guitars I’ve ever played, and they sold it at places like Toy R Us. You always have a problem with time lag when you plug your guitar into a MIDI module because it takes it time to generate the signal. But you could plug this into a good sound module and get great sounds out of it. The best thing was getting one of the hairy distorted synth sounds and blending that with a straight guitar sound, since it has two outputs. So I got an artificial feedback kind of sound blended with the guitar sound, also distorted. It sounds like a pitch shifter modulating up and down, and everything else is slide guitars coming in and out.
I’ve played that for Steven a bunch of times, because it’s really catchy. But it was almost like there was no space to sing over it, so it turned itself into an instrumental. It has a cool loping rock feel and would have been really interesting to sing over if there was room. The recording went about 10 minutes long, so we edited it down and really mixed it to get the best sounds in there to work.
Q: It seems like the perfect late-night studio project – a composition you could work on forever.
A: And that’s how it went. It evolved over years. The mixing was really the trick, because a good instrumental should have a hook that speaks to you. ‘Twilight’ needed the same attention. That has a lot of guitars on it. In the 5.1 mix they all work really well, because you don’t need a lot of power coming from one place to hold things together like you do with a fast song, and there are a lot of guitars answering each other from different speakers. It sounds like you’re sitting in the middle of a bunch of guitar players speaking to each other. That probably is my favorite song in 5.1
Q: At the opposite end of the spectrum is ‘Vigilante Man’, the Woody Guthrie song you turn into a stomping, spare roots rocker.
A: That’s one of the few songs Paul and I played drums and guitar on together. The lyrics are so strong. The way Woody sings it there’s a lot of anger and angst in his voice, but the accompaniment is finger picking. The electric guitar really supports those lyrics, which are timeless – really applicable to what we’re seeing in our government and world today.
Q: That seems to be the one track that continues in the spirit of the last Aerosmith album, the blues tribute Honkin’ on Bobo. Aerosmith had been talking about doing a blues album for more than a decade. Why was 2004 the year?
A: It was kind of on deck since we first signed with Sony [in 1991]. We said, “We’d really like the first record to be a blues record.” But ultimately we felt we had too many of our own songs to do. We saw it as a side project at that point, so we went on doing our studio records.
The time we had allotted to work on Bobo was between tours. I don’t think we’d have done it if we had time to work on a regular Aerosmith studio album. I was already doing the homework because I was recording covers and working on a lot of the songs for my album. But it was a combination of us having it on our to-do list for a long time and having four months off between tours that made us feel it was the right time for a blues album.
Everybody had different levels of enthusiasm, because nobody knew how it was gonna come out. I thought, “Why would I want to listen to a bunch of songs that were done better by the original artists? I’d rather hear Muddy Waters do ‘I’m a Man’ than Aerosmith.” But once we all got down and started playing and hearing where it was going, we realized it was valid. After all, ‘Train Kept a Rollin” started as a swinging blues from the 1930s, and then got filtered through the Johnny Burnette Trio and the Yardbirds before us. We figured we’re not gonna lose anything by trying, and everybody came in with ideas. Steven came in with ‘Road Runner’, which he’d always wanted to do. And we studied the Bo Diddley version and the Pretty Things’ version. We had a riot. That album was a lot of fun.
Q: Steven sounds really powerful on harmonica on Bobo.
A: He really let loose. He’s not a technical player like that guy [Jon Popper] from Blues Traveler. He’s got no pretensions about it. He just lets it rip and he’s great. Ripping is what we do best. We weren’t playing for blues aficionados. We were playing for ourselves. Luckily my musical tastes are the same as a lot of other people. I figure if we had fun listening to it, others will, too.
Q: For a generation that only knew Aerosmith through the big radio/hit ballads, it may have been a shock to hear the band rock that hard.
A: For the people who come see us live it’s no secret that we’re a hard rocking band, but there are people who think of [1987’s triple platinum] Permanent Vacation as our first album. That’s a fact. I’m hoping we’ll carry over some of that rock ‘n’ roll energy into our next studio album.
Q: You’re hitting the age that some of your blues heroes were when you first heard them. There are kids coming up with guitars who now think of you as the same kind of musical touchstone.
A: Well, I think I’m a late bloomer. The Stones are getting ready to go out again. I saw them on their last tour. A couple of shows they sucked and a couple of shows they were great – not unlike in 1968. The nights they were great they were the best band on the planet. Who’s the best band in the world on any given night? There could be a dozen of them. So, who knows when the end is gonna be when you’re a musician? As long as you feel it and you’re having fun and not walking through it, then you keep doing it.
Q: What’s your relationship to Boston these days?
A: It’s funny because the rest of the world sees us as this band from Boston, but we’re so seldom here. We love the community and we love Boston. We grew up here. We love Newbury Street. That’s where we recorded our first record. We rehearsed on Newbury Street. I wish I had more time to spend with my friends in Boston, but I think people understand.
When you’re on the road, where do you really live? If I see where I’ve mostly laid my head on a pillow over the last three years, it’s been on my tour bus. It just hit the news that we bought this place up in Vermont. It’s only another hour away from Boston, so what’s the difference? I don’t live in Boston now. We have a place in Florida and spend a lot of time there. We also spend a lot of time in New Hampshire. We’re going to stay here in Duxbury at least until the end of the next Aerosmith album. Maybe longer. We’re not leaving any time soon. But Aerosmith will always be a Boston band.
Q: Will you tour behind Joe Perry?
A: With another Aerosmith tour coming up the last thing I want to do is climb on the tour bus and spend two months on the road and then climb back on the tour bus. I would love to do a regular tour, but right now I’ll be happy getting this record out and doing a couple high-profile gigs.
© Ted Drozdowski, unpublished, May 2005