Aerosmith's Joe Perry recalls over two decades south of sanity

Miracles don't happen often these days, not the way they were said to have happened a couple thousand years ago or so. Yeah, every once in a while you might hear of a dog calling 911 or a four-year-old writing a dissertation on nuclear physics, but that's about it. Then again, there's a modern-day story of rather biblical proportions about the survival of a band called Aerosmith. "It truly is nothing short of a miracle, unbelievable," admits guitarist Brad Whitford. "Being here twenty-seven years down the road can only have been through some divine intervention."

Much can happen in three decades, and, in Aerosmith's case, there isn't much the band hasn't seen, from death-wish drug addictions and bitter break-ups to legal harangues, a drummer who nearly spontaneously combusted at a gas pump (thank you, Spinal Tap!), and nasty rumors of new drug addictions. But today, after weathering many a storm, the bad boys from Boston are back; back on the charts, back on the radio, back in sold out arenas, back and better than ever. Their re-emergence is a rock 'n' roll miracle, a "comeback" -- though they'd never really left-the size of which we rarely get to see in these days of flash-in-the-pan pop. Joe Perry, founding guitarist with the steadiest rockin' band in the land, gives us the dope. Isn't it incredible how well you're doing these days?

Joe Perry: It is truly amazing. We may not always be the trendy thing, but it will always be about a good song. People were writing us off when we got back together saying we'd never get back on the radio. But it's always gonna be about a good song. Our fans are still comin' to our shows. They wanna rock. Has there been an evolution in your sound as a player?

Perry: First, I want to say that it's not the hardware you surround yourself with, it's the software between the ears. But yeah, there's a huge evolution in sound. We started off playing horrible PAs and monitors and the guitars were really loud. It's been a slow learning process of getting good sound and the levels right onstage. I've found that the best amps are generally the smaller ones. When you start going for volume you sacrifice tone, so you try to reach a happy medium. I definitely need volume for it to sound good above the din of the rest of the guys. The drums are always gonna be as loud as they can be. Joey [Kramer] doesn't need huge monitors behind him to hear anything. These days, though, I don't have to fight with the drums to get some guitar level. I don't have to worry about overpowering [vocalist] Steven [Tyler] through the monitors because he's using his own ear monitors. It must have been crazy in those early days, fighting for your sound.

Perry: In the past it was always a battle. "My guitar's gonna be the loudest thing on the stage!" I used to think that the vocals were just something to take up the space between solos. Of course, I've changed my opinion on that! In the last 15 years, I've become more sensitive to what Steven [Tyler] needs. If he says my guitar's too loud, I believe him. I know my guitar's getting pumped into the house, but he's just skin and bone. He's having to scream and it's not serving me, the band, or him. What was it like in 1975?

Perry: In 1975, we were playing hellbent for leather. I look at the 50 amps I was using, including four Music Man amps at 130 watts with Electro Voice speakers up to 120 db. I could never figure out what it was people were coming to see. We went out there with our attitude and all this energy but we were self-consumed and it showed. We burned out. We never cared about how our songs sounded. What are you like as a studio guitarist?

Perry: When I'm in the studio, I think in terms of new riffs and songs. Then whatever's called for, I move into it with my guitar. I'm not the kind of player that sits around and tries to think of the newest riff. I try to come up with melodies that drive a song. I'll never be the poster boy for a guitar magazine. Eddie [Van Halen] does it great. Not me. I have to ask you, who's behind the Aerosmith ballads?

Perry: Steven has always driven the ballads. I just figured you gotta have a slow song in there somewhere. Not all the girls like blues and hard rock, so over the years I've developed a taste for them. It's another way to play some tasty guitar. On songs like "Ain't That a Bitch," I'm proud of the guitar work, and it gives people a breather from the harder stuff. Clearly, the ballads get us on the radio. And if it gets people to buy our album then great. I'm not gonna sit here and tell you "Angel" is the best thing we've ever done, but it served a purpose. I'm an entertainer and when I see how entertained people are when we play that song, my job's done. You and Brad [Whitford] have made an awesome team over the years. What are your thoughts on his playing?

Perry: Brad doesn't ever get the due he deserves. Guitar players are notoriously ego-driven and he's nothing like that. It's phenomenal to work together with someone they way we do. If there's an easy way to play something, I do it that way. But he has a background at Berkelee and he explores every angle. He comes in and adds real depth to what I do with a voicing or a different place to play it and he fills it out in such a good way it's a natural thing. We have the same taste but our styles are different. It's really cool. What's your motivation these days, Joe?

Perry: Maybe to keep me from having to go back to a real job. If I wasn't doing this, maybe I'd be playing, maybe not; maybe I'd still be trying to make it. I have friends that are still trying. All's I know is that when I hear a Chuck Berry song I still get chills down my spine, and that kind of feeling never goes away.

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