Q&A with Joe Perry of Aerosmith
Photo by Ross Halfin Joe Perry, right, and his Aerosmith brethren, between hospital visits.
In Rolling Stone's list of the greatest guitarists of all-time, Aerosmith's Joe Perry placed 48th -- a ranking capable of slackening the jaw of any true rock-and-roll fan. This former Toxic Twin has penned one indelible riff after another over nearly four decades, as anyone who's tried to play along on the band's signature version of Guitar Hero can attest. And the continuing ubiquity on classic-rock radio of tunes such as "Walk This Way," "Sweet Emotion" and many more testify to his tunes' staying power.
Not that Perry or any of his mates are physically invincible. Indeed, much of the interview conducted for our profile advancing Aerosmith's Saturday, August 1, performance at Fiddler's Green alongside ZZ Top centered on the various health problems from which the assorted rockers have suffered of late. Click "Continue" to give the complete Q&A a thorough check-up.
Perry runs through the roster of ailments at the outset: singer Steven Tyler's muscle pull, which caused the cancellation of several dates on the current tour; guitarist Brad Whitford's head injury, which happened as he climbed out of his Ferrari; Tyler's previous bout with pneumonia; and Perry's knee-replacement surgery, undertaken not once but twice due to a troublesome infection. Perry goes on to talk about his forthcoming solo album, recorded during his recuperation; his solicitation of record titles on his Twitter feed; several outside-of-music projects, including his development of a new macaroni-and-cheese brand; the way in which the aforementioned Guitar Hero game actually broadened the group's current set list; and his determination not to let his storied catalog get in the way of his adding new songs to it.
Which he'll continue to do as long as he -- and his body -- are willing.
Westword (Michael Roberts): What's going on with the tour. I know some dates have been postponed....
Joe Perry:Well, everything was going really well, and we'd gotten five or six gigs into it, and then at Mohegan Sun [an arena in Connecticut], Steven pulled a muscle in his upper thigh. It was a really bad pull, and we've had to postpone some shows. We're actually waiting to hear daily from the doctor to give him the okay to get back on stage, so we're kind of in a holding pattern right now. We've missed about five shows so far. We're postponing them and putting them back on at the end of the tour. He would get out there in a wheelchair if the doctors would let him, but they told him he really had to lay low, so that's what we're doing. But that stuff happens. It's life, you know?
WW: You guys have had a series of health-related issues over the past year or so. For one thing, you had knee-replacement surgery. How long was the recovery time for that?
JP: I've been putting that off for the last three tours, and it was pretty rough. It was really badly damaged. It actually started almost twenty years ago. I jumped off a platform on stage, and it's just been getting worse. I've done one band-aid operation after another, and finally, they said, "Look, if you don't get this done, it's going to go out on you." So I went in going on a year and a half ago, and it was almost healed. And then around Thanksgiving, it got infected and I had to go back in and they had to do the whole thing over again. So I had a pretty lousy winter. At least I was able to be in the studio after they'd let me get up and move around. But that's nothing now. I'm fine, I'm moving really well. It was Brad who really blew our minds. He never gets sick, and for him to have that thing.... Again, it's just one of those things. It can happen to anyone.
WW: From what I've read, his injury was so fluky. Did he really hurt himself that badly from hitting his head getting out of his car?
JP: Yeah, that's pretty much what he can remember. He doesn't really remember any other time when he did anything. You bump yourself how many times a day? Everybody does that, and you don't remember every one of them. But that one, I guess it hit him just right, and when they checked him out, they said, "Get in there." He was in the hospital that afternoon, and luckily, he came out of it okay. It's just a matter of resting. I know he was probably up and around like a week after it happened, but they really wanted him to lay back until they were sure it was fixed. But he's back now. He's ready to go. When we start the tour back up, he's going to be back on stage with us.
WW: Getting back to your knee problems: My daughter recently tore her ACL playing basketball, and after the surgery, they had her in a machine that continually flexed her leg for four or five hours a day. Did you have the same kind of thing?
JP: Yeah. I've worn out three of them (laughs).
WW: What did you do when you were stuck in that thing? Did you play guitar? Watch TV?
JP: Mostly read and watched the History Channel. And I wrote a lot of lyrics. It was kind of uncomfortable playing guitar with that thing on. I did a little guitar playing, but mostly writing and reading. I love to read, and it gave me a chance to catch up on a lot of things I hadn't had time for. So that was it.
WW: Well, you've got both an Aerosmith album that I know has been delayed because of health issues, too, and also a solo album on the way. So you had to come up with a lot of new material.
JP: Yeah, but I'm always coming up with new material anyway. I'm always in the studio. That's why I built it in the house. I don't have far to go, and I was totally focused on working on the Aerosmith record. And again, there were some health things, and finally, when we were just about ready to go, Steven got pneumonia, and they said, "You won't be able to sing for three weeks." And that was at the worst time. We had the songs all rehearsed and we were ready to go. That was really a drag, because we had it all set up to do the record and have a record under our belts before the tour. But I had so much pent-up energy, studio energy, that I just went in and started finishing up the solo record. I didn't have any plans of doing one for a while, but I had all the Aerosmith stuff in a pile, and stuff for future use in another pile. And the future is now, so I went ahead. Aside from auditioning drummers, the whole thing took about 47 days from front to back. We worked around the clock, through the weekends, and we're mastering it now, as we speak. I get the songs over the Internet, listen to them, make comments, and then my engineer tweaks it and we'll have the thing ready to go probably in the next couple of weeks.
WW: How do you decide what's an Aerosmith song and what's a song for a solo project?
JP: There are some things I write lyrics for right away and they're just too close to my heart to have anyone else sing them, and then there are others.... I don't know, there are only so many records you can put out, and so many songs. And we had a ton of Aerosmith songs ready to go for the record. Like I said, I had a pile of things, and I suppose some of them could be massaged into Aerosmith music. It's not much of a jump. After all, I write how I write on the guitar, and stuff comes out pretty raw. Like I said, because we had so much stuff ready to go for the Aerosmith record, it was pretty easy to pick some other ones and write some lyrics and have it go. This'll be the second solo record in two years, I think.
WW: I know you've asked people on your Twitter feed to suggest titles for the album. Has anyone come up with some good ones?
JP: There actually have been some pretty good ones, especially after we put the names of the songs up. It's pretty hard to name a record without hearing the music or knowing anything about it. But people were game. They were sending a lot of different things. And then, when I put the names of the songs on, it really opened the door. It gave people more places for their imaginations to go, and we've gotten some pretty good suggestions. The door isn't closed yet. We're still waiting, but we're closing in on it. We do have a short list.
WW: A few months ago, I came across an interview where it sounded as if you weren't sure what the hell Twitter was. But now it seems like you're really into it. Is that fair to say?
JP: Yeah. My wife started doing it, and she taught me how to do it. It's not really anything different than making a phone call or sending a text message. It's pretty easy to do. But I was so wrapped up in the music. She does a lot of Internet stuff for me with the business, so it leaves me time to sit with headphones on and be downstairs working. But she said, "You've got to check this out." So we went on there. It's called "Admiral Perry." That's what they used to call me in the Project in the '80s. It's kind of resurfaced again, and that's the deal. It's been fun hearing from fans. It's a really cool thing.
WW: Twitter's also really good for marketing, and you guys have a lot of business interests. Aside from your hot sauce, I understand you're going to launch a macaroni-and-cheese product called Rock 'N Roni. Is that right?
JP: Yeah, that's what's next.
WW: So what do you do to make macaroni and cheese rock?
JP: It's just to make it taste great, you know? And if you really want to make it rock, put some of the hot sauce on it (laughs).
WW: So it's not going to be pasta shaped like guitars or anything like that?
JP: No, that stuff falls apart. It turns to mush. We thought about doing something like that, but really, it's got to be good from beginning to end. It's not about what it looks like, it's about how it tastes. That's what the hot sauce is about, and that's what the Rock 'N Roni is about. I just think about how many boxes of that stuff we made over the years for the kids, and we thought, well, why shouldn't we put one out? We wanted it to be the best things we like about all the different ones that are out there now.
WW: Aerosmith's also been involved in a signature Guitar Hero game, and I understand the set for the tour is broader than it probably would have been because you included some songs from the game that you either haven't played for a long time or might never have played on tour.
JP: That's exactly true.
WW: Any songs you can name?
JP: Let me see. I think "Combination" is one. That's off of Rocks and it's in the game, and we've been playing that. It was like launching a record. It was amazing. I have kids coming up to me now that may have heard a couple of our songs on the radio and not really put it together what the band was. But when this game came out, it was amazing. Young kids coming up and naming songs we considered album cuts from long ago. It was almost like putting out a new record in a lot of ways. And it looks like one of the new ways people are going to be getting their music, new music. I can see bands putting their records out as games. It's just a whole other way things have changed.
WW: Another way things have changed is doing exclusive deals with major retailers. And there was one comment you made in an interview that made people think Aerosmith might be going into business with Walmart like AC/DC did with Black Ice. Is that the case?
JP: We've talked about it, we've definitely talked about it. And it's not just AC/DC. It's become pretty common for bands to do that. So I don't know. Who knows? The way the business is now and the way it's changing from month to month. Even three years ago, this Guitar Hero thing.... I don't know when it came out, but before then, who would have thought of it. When I walked by my son playing it, it was actually in Phoenix, in the hotel, and I think he was playing a Jimi Hendrix song. I walked by and saw the controller and the whole thing was like, "This is amazing. We've got to get a couple more of our songs onto one of these games." And as it turned out, we got our own game. A whole game (laughs).
WW: You've written so many classic riffs over the years. Is there one that might be a favorite of yours, but it was on one of those album tracks you mentioned, and people might not know as well as "Walk This Way" or some of your other huge hits?
JP: Well, there are songs like "No More No More" where once in a while someone will come up and ask me how I played it. Most of my stuff is pretty easy to figure out off the records. That's what makes them catchy, I think. That's why they call them hooks. I don't know, I think "Walk This Way" is probably the one that comes up the most, and I think it's not just a straight rock-and-roll song. It shows a lot of influences that Aerosmith has. I think that's probably the one that gets the gold star as being the riff people know us for.
WW: You've set such a high standards for yourself. When you're writing a new song, do you think, "I've got to match the level of these other ones"? Or does that get in the way of creativity?
JP: That's the death of creativity right there. I've written some songs that I think of, for myself, as good songs. I don't know what anybody else thinks, but for myself, I think I've written some good songs, and set the standard for what I think is a really good riff. And to sit down and go, "How am I gonna top that?," you'll just end up sitting there. You end up with a blank tape by the end of the day. So you have to pretend you haven't done anything before. After people have heard the song, it's there, but they want to hear something new, and try to get that same kind of vibe. That's why it makes it harder to write new songs and keep it going. But if you sit there and think, "I've got to top this," you're really asking for trouble.