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Classic guitar interview: Joe Perry, June 2004
2012 will see Aerosmith release a new studio album, so it seems fitting to cast our minds back to 2004 when the band last committed raw rock 'n' roll to tape...
Thirty-five years ago, Steven Tallarico and Anthony Joseph Perry formed a band based on a love of rock and a desire to roll. They had plenty things in common, but one of the most significant was a passion for British Invasion bands with an R&B slant - The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac - all of whom's songs peppered their early live sets.
Soon after, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry - chemical brothers, The Toxic Twins - were better known as the kingpins of Aerosmith, crowned as America's own Stones. Ironically, Aerosmith's 14th album is just the sort of record the real Stones might have made in the sixties, based on fiery reworkings of blues stompers by the likes of Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sonny Boy Williamson.
It works on two levels - first, by putting the Boston quintet back in a room as a band after a string of studio-slick albums with a surfeit of Diane Warren-written ballads; secondly, by paying tribute to the artists who inspired Aerosmith's own favourite bands.
Taking a pre-lunch interview in his Dallas hotel room (Aerosmith are on a 40-date tour with support from Cheap Trick), Perry reveals that this 'roots' album has been in his sights for years.
"We just had to take a leap of faith and get in the studio... see what happened."
"You know I've been talking about it for ages," he nods. "It was always just this 'side project' we'd come back to... until we changed our mind when we were promoting (2001 album) Just Push Play. The band hardly played together in the studio on that record - it was just all bits and pieces, guitar overdubs and extra drum parts one at a time. I realised then that what I really wanted to do was a record with the band playing live."
This latest record isn't a strict blues album per se, as was suggested when recording commenced last year but it still connects the band with its birth."We started off calling it a blues record because that just seemed to give us more scope than simply saying we were going to cover our favourite rock songs," admits Perry.
"It felt like more of a challenge too. It's tough, because we don't want to misrepresent ourselves as some sort of blues crusaders - y'know, we reveal the real blues band who happened to make it as a rock band! There's none of that. We're a rock band, we were inspired by the electric hard rock that the English bands brought over, that's the cloth we're cut from.
"But we appreciate our roots - even though they wove their way from the Delta to Chicago to London and Liverpool and back here to America. That was the roots record we wanted to make, and none of us really knew what it was going to sound like. We just had to take a leap of faith and get in the studio... see what happened." What happened was Honkin' On Bobo, quite possibly the rowdiest Aerosmith album since 1976's Rocks. And that's exactly what Joe Perry wanted.
Individually, you all obviously had favourite blues or R&B songs: was there a lot of educating each other about the final tunes you chose for this album?
"There was a lot of talking but there were also a couple of favourites that everyone wanted to do, partly because we played 'em back in our club days. Steven really wanted to do Roadrunner because he's a big Pretty Things fan, and Baby Please Don't Go we all remembered from the Muddy Waters version and the (Van Morrison-led) Them version. We figured we should have a recording of it because everyone else does."
You must have been conscious that many of these tracks had been recorded by rock bands before: the Stones covered You Gotta Move, The Who did Eyesight To The Blind...
"Yeah, but I wanted to do You Gotta Move because it's one of my favourite Mississippi Fred McDowell songs - I don't really love the Stones' version. We also wanted something on the record that had that Bo Diddley beat on it. We put those two things together and it turned into this pretty mighty rock song. We put our own musical slant on it - that's all we could do.
"Baby Please Don't Go was played by every club band going in the sixties but there's a whole generation of rock fans who've never heard it. A lot of younger Aerosmith fans will probably think this is the first time it's been recorded."
A lot of your own favourite bands - The Beatles, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac - began their careers with covers and then developed their own songwriting, whereas you started off straight with original material...
"I guess, but they were different times. You listen to (The Animals') Eric Burdon talk and he'll tell you he was on a blues crusade. I did an interview with Jimmy Page recently and we talked about how he really studied blues back then. The Stones did too, especially early on, and have always covered a few of these songs.
"On what is possibly their watershed record, Exile On Main St, nearly a third of those songs are covers and you add all their covers together and you'd have a couple of albums. So I guess we're just making up time - we're due this record! And it was the right time to get back together in a room and just play."
Is it fair to say you were the main instigator of the band making this album?
"I think everybody in the band knew that it would be good for us to play like we did in 1972, '73 and '74. Not everyone was so enthralled in using blues as a vehicle to do that. Some initially thought it was a step sideways, that it might sound like an artefact, or that we'd just look like poster boys of the blues because it's trendy this year.
"But I just wanted to expose the essence of what Aerosmith is - a good rock band that has been together for 30 years and who have learned how to play really well together."
A track that's obviously close to your heart, because you sing on it, is Back Back Train - one of two Fred McDowell songs on the album. What's the specific attraction of McDowell, because he's never been crossed over outside of blues circles?
"There's a feeling that I get when I hear him play that I don't get anywhere else. The few bits of video recording that I've seen, and the sound of him on record, I just find really primal, really rootsy.
"He was a bit too Delta to really fit in with the Chicago guys, a bit older too than John Lee Hooker, Muddy and BB King - guys who actually got some radio singles - so he was never really famous. He was too folk, too backporch for the radio. But so was Son House. The only reason they had success in the sixties was because guys like the Stones and a lot of English bands brought their songs to the forefront."
You've always been something of an Anglophile, and been generous about British bands' influence on Aerosmith...
"Well, Peter Green is one of my all-time favourite guitarists. I went to see Fleetwood Mac a lot live when they played in Boston and I even knew Green Manalishi, Oh Well, all those songs, before their release. They were a great band and that's where I got a lot of my blues education.
"The Beatles just changed everything right across the aboard. They just had that right combination of clean-cut good looks - a cute band - but under that they had a real rock 'n' roll thing going on. They did a few of these songs we're doing now, but had plenty decent ones of their own (laughs).
"And The Stones were real cool. There was a show here called Shindig and the Stones wouldn't go on that show unless Howlin' Wolf was on. So the Stones played a big part in exposing the blues in the States, they did an amazing thing for those cats.
"When they came here they didn't give a shit about meeting Ed Sullivan, they wanted to meet Muddy Waters! They were smart enough to make sure the money and popularity and screaming girls came (laughs) but, really, they started the whole resurgence of the blues in the sixties. They kicked down the doors for bands like Fleetwood Mac and Them and The Yardbirds, who also helped reinterpret this American music."
But, as a teenager, did you particularly pick up on the blues roots of those bands?
"I don't think, looking back, that we cared about who wrote what. I certainly noticed that this guy Willie Dixon wasn't in the Stones, but at that time we weren't too interested in going back. The homework has been a more recent thing."
Do you find it tough working in a more finite style than usual, or do you think it makes you a better guitarist because you have to get more from a limited palette?
"It's tough to work in such a finite space and do something new and interesting. I guess that's why there aren't too many fresh new blues songs. But you can't be afraid to try it. I think Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the best guitarists to get something new out that space. He knew his chops, obviously, and he'd paid his dues too, but he also wrote a lot of cool songs that crossed over into rock-land.
"Stevie played the blues but he also wrote hits, and that's a cool thing. Jack White from The White Stripes is doing the same thing now. He'll play songs in concert and I guess a lot of fans won't know what it is - it's Son House.
"But to go back to the question, it can involve a lot of discipline to play music like this, but if anything outside of that box doesn't appeal to you, it gets easier. Y'know, I don't like jazz much. I'll put it on once in a while and listen, and I'll appreciate it.
"I appreciate what Steve Vai does on the guitar - I'm sure he's an underrated genius - but it just doesn't hit where I live, y'know? There's something about that primal beat of blues, early rock, that just gets me.
"AC/DC is a prime example of taking that blues rock thing and just living in that world. They only really move the furniture around a little on each album but it still works."
That world's pretty appealing, isn't it? AC/DC are again a hugely influential band, The White Stripes have made blues riffing 'cool' again...
"It's fun, that's what it is, it's a party. It was when Robert Johnson was on a street corner back in 1933 jamming on a riff with a friend and people were throwing quarters in his cup. The pop trends are always gonna be there, getting bigger and bigger for a short while, but this music won't ever really go away. A steak always tastes good, right? A good steak'll be just as in demand in 2010 as it was in 1933."
In terms of the recording process, making Honkin' On Bobo must have been very different to other recent Aerosmith albums?
"There's a lot of freedom in recording in bits and pieces, like on Just Push Play, because you don't have to put up with everybody's attitude all the time. It's a weird thing because everybody gets to be creative but only on their own - they don't get to face the other guy in real time.
"I'll come in and hear what Brad (Whitfield) did with his guitar part and work around that, and vice versa. Then, together with the vocal melody, we'll work up the main parts of the song. In a way, that's a lot easier than getting together in a room and rubbing elbows eight hours a day with guys you've known for 30 years.
"But when you make yourself do the latter, there's a dynamic and energy that happens that you can't get any other way. It doesn't matter whose songs you are doing, whether it's a Dianne Warren song or a Steven Tyler/Joe Perry song or a Howlin' Wolf song. To play together you've really gotta be comfortable with the parts."
Would you say recording this album revitalised Aerosmith as a band?
"I think we know how to make a song sound better more quickly than we ever did. We know a lot more about dynamics. I'm not so concerned about whether there's enough space for my guitar solo or not, because I've learned that the main thing is the song.
"I'll be honest and say that our egos are a lot bigger now than they've ever been, but I think we have a little more practice at leaving them at the door. Or at least being able to deal with them without getting into fist fights."
Is Steven still complaining that your guitar playing is too loud?
"Well, you'd be surprised at how close the dynamic of the band is to when we first started. The same old stuff still comes up!"
As Bobo was recorded at your house, you surely got the final say?
"When we started it we'd just finished two big tours so no-one was interested in leaving home to record anyway. They certainly weren't interested in recording at my studio, because it's a basement. We've recorded a few tracks there before but we'd never done three months.
"We decided to build a studio room at our office up the street and, while that was being done, we started to rehearse at my house. And, as the other studio was taking a long time, soon we were rolling tape.
"Jack (Douglas, veteran Aerosmith producer) turned up, Joey (Kramer, drums) had his old Ludwig kit, Brad and I had small combos, so did Tom (Hamilton, bass). We had a couple of gobos around Steven so there wasn't too much leakage and it started to sound good. We even did the guitar solos live and Steven was singing his ass off! The real work was just mixing it."
What, on the album, are you most proud of having given the Aerosmith stamp?
"There are a few places we wanted to cop a certain feel that really attracted us to the original. I'm Ready has this scary kind of atmosphere on the Muddy Waters version. I don't know what it is: perhaps it's majors over minors, a certain amount of echo, but I knew if we could capture that and also make it sound like an Aerosmith rock song, then we'd have done it service. And I think we have."