Guitarist Discusses the Band's Endurance, Legacy, and Impact
by Ken Sharp
Since their ‘70s breakthrough, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry have received the lion’s share of attention from fans and press alike – and that’s just fine for the band’s guitarist Brad Whitford.
An immensely talented guitarist and gifted songwriter, Whitford is more than comfortable away from the glare of the white hot spotlight but when it comes to the essence of what drives Aerosmith, his standing is irrefutable, his contribution immeasurable.
After years of in-fighting between Tyler and the rest of his band mates, a new CD, Music from Another Dimension and a brand new DVD – Rock for the Rising Sun - the Bad Boys of Boston are clearly back in the saddle - much to the delight of their loyal “Blue Army” fan base.
Brad was kind enough to speak with Rock Cellar for a new interview, which you can enjoy below. Rock Cellar Magazine:
The new DVD Rock for the Rising Sun was filmed while the band was touring Japan in the fall of 2011, months after a tsunami, earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, which devastated the country. In essence by playing that show you were offering a way for people to forget their problems all in the name of loud rock and roll. Brad Whitford:
That’s exactly what we were thinking. We thought the Japanese people needed a little spirit-lifting. The opportunity came up to play shows in Japan and we felt we owed it to our fans over there to show them that despite all the tragedy, let us come over and play for them. Japanese audiences are so great anyway. Our Japanese fans are very unique. When we first went over to Japan in the mid ‘70s it was a very unique experience at that time because the audience was unlike any others we’ve ever experienced .
They would settle down and be just stone quiet and wait for a song to start and listen very intently while we played and maybe they’d sing along. And then they’d graciously applaud at the end of the song and then go quiet again when we kicked into another song.
They did this because they didn’t want to miss anything so that was unlike any concerts we’ve ever played because there wasn’t the usual background din of noise that you get in those big buildings. It was just remarkably quiet. (laughs) RCM:
Playing for a Japanese audience under those conditions must force the band be at the top of your game because they’re really listening. BW:
Oh yeah, you really do have to up your game a little bit because you get the sense that they are really listening and want to hear the music done really well. So that’s unique and I think that set the tone for our relationship with Japanese audiences through the years. That’s reflected on the new DVD too. You can sense how much they appreciate the music and that makes you feel great. They really have a different level of appreciation than other audiences. RCM:
Looking at the set list for the new DVD, it’s not a greatest hits jukebox tour, you’re dipping into some quality deeper cuts like S.O.S. (Too Bad) and Rats in the Cellar. Does that keep it fresh for you? BW:
Yeah. That’s the primary motivation behind doing those deeper cuts. Part of it’s about keeping us on our toes, “We’re gonna do this one, do you remember it?” Then someone might say,”How’s that one start?”
When you haven’t done a song for a while, the first time you play it it’s kind of like the first take in the studio.
You don’t start to over think it. You just dive into it and that’s usually when you get great performances. So yeah, it helps keep our set fresh and a little more interesting. Almost every night when we’re touring we’ll have a basic skeleton of a set and we’ll throw different songs in to change the energy for ourselves. We’re only playing a fraction of our library in our live set so it’s exciting to pull out some of these album cuts that we haven’t played for many years. RCM:
Are there any songs that the band has never played live that you wish you would perform? BW:
Yeah, there’s some that we talk about those kind of things but we still haven’t pulled them out of the freezer yet. (laughs) We always talk about doing Round and Round from Toys in the Attic
We play the song Somebody from our first album—we always do it in rehearsal and it just kicks butt–but it never makes it to the stage. I think we’ll continue to break out more obscure songs because it’s a lot of fun to play them. A lot of times it’s a challenge to play those as well because you go, “Oh my God, I haven’t played that for a while, how does that one go?” (laughs) RCM:
I’ve always felt that a band of Aerosmith’s caliber should do a tour incorporating the performance of an entire classic ‘70s Aerosmith album. Has that topic been broached? BW:
We talk about it all the time. A couple of tours ago we almost had the whole Toys in the Attic album down pat but the band collectively kind of lost interest in the process. I think it would be a very interesting way to do a show that would set it apart from anything we’ve ever done before. We talk about it, but we just haven’t stepped up to the plate yet. RCM:
Compared to the band’s Seventies heyday, is the 2013 edition of Aerosmith better as a live entity? BW:
I think we’re playing far better than we ever have. It’s really incredibly fun to plan an Aerosmith show now because we do it so well, if I say so myself. (laughs) I think the musicianship in the band has gone up quite a bit and I think with everybody playing a lot better and being a lot more accomplished at their instruments , it’s easier to bring back sort of that original attitude.
Just go out there and play it like you’re playing it for the first time and don’t worry about getting right, it’ll just happen.
RCM: In November of 2012, Aerosmith launched the new studio album, Music from Another Dimension!, with a free show outside of 1325 Commonwealth Avenue, the site of the apartment you shared with the band in the early ’70s. When you think back to those struggling days, what are your most vivid recollections?
BW: I think it was just the struggle. We were committed. We were a committed group. We were living from one show to the next and unable to pay our rent and we were barely eating. The level of commitment we had was great. I see some new young bands that are that way and that gets me excited, it’s like, “Aw man, just go for it!”
That’s what it’s all about. It’s about jumping into a station wagon and driving all over the country.
You just want to play your music. Although we struggled in those early days, I look back really fondly at that period of time. They were great times. We never questioned that we weren’t going to make it. That didn’t come into play in our minds. We were just going for it. We didn’t think about not making it. All we thought about was expanding our audience and just rocking.
RCM: With all the tumult happening a few years back with Steven Tyler wishing to pursue a solo career and band the looking for lead singers, were you worried that Aerosmith was going to fall apart?
BW: I think about that probably on a weekly basis and probably have from the first day of being in Aerosmith because it’s always been a tenuous situation with this band.
It’s volatile and that’s what makes the music so good. It’s all that volatility.
RCM: Did the press amplify the enmity happening within the band when it was reported you were holding auditions for a new singer to replace Steven?
BW: I think the press had a bit of a run with it. We seriously were talking about it. Steven was a little bit tired and fed up with the way things were going. But we just felt like we couldn’t just let the band fall apart. It never went any further than kind of talking about it. We spoke to maybe one or two singers about the idea but that was about as far as it went.
I don’t think anybody in the band was terribly keen about getting in a new lead singer. I think we were all just thinking about survival at that point. We weren’t ready to give up on the band.
RCM: What turned things around for Steven and the rest of the band?
BW: I’m not sure if there was a defining moment. Maybe after the American Idol thing, we did some shows and felt a renewed sense of energy around the band and a new level of commitment. We had a feeling among us of, “We’re gonna do this!
This is a great band. This is what we’re meant to do” kind of thing. It was just pretty obvious we needed to stick together. We felt we had plenty left in us and there was no sense in doing anything else. We’ve had different experiences with people off doing some of their own music here and there and that was fun but it doesn’t come close to the Aerosmith experience.
We realized that our chemistry is so huge. You can’t explain it or put your finger on it, you just know that it works.
RCM: Let me throw out a few Aerosmith songs you co-wrote and allow you to share a story behind their creation. Let’s start with Last Child.
BW: That was really a lick that I had. Steven and I wrote that together. He sat down behind the drums. He’s a drummer and he liked it. That’s where it started. He likes some oddball things sometimes, kind of out of the way riff. This was kind of a funky riff and he sat down on the drums and in short order we created Last Child.
RCM: How about Kings And Queens from the Draw The Line album?
BW: I think I came up with some parts of the basic chord structure. A bunch of us sat down and worked on that. Our producer, Jack Douglas, was a writer on that song, too. I think it’s a classic tune. It’s a very interesting tune. It certainly blows away a lot of other songs, not our songs, but a lot of other material that was created in that era (laughs). It stands heads and shoulders above a lot of other stuff that was being recorded at the time.
RCM: When Aerosmith reunited in the mid-Eighties, how confident were you that it wouldn’t self-destruct again?
BW: Oh I didn’t think it would self-destruct. I don’t know why. There were certainly some incredible low points. But it just seemed like somehow we would get through this. All that stuff then was really just all about getting out of the drug lifestyle. That was really what was in the way at that point. A lot of the creativity just couldn’t happen because people couldn’t think. Your brain has got to be free, you gotta be alive to be able to write and perform music. You’ve got to be healthy. That was dwindling at different rates for each individual (laughs). So it was that process which took quite a while to finally deal with and go through. But somehow we were doing it. We were just doing it. We were doing what we had to do to just try and keep the band together and be able to perform.
RCM: Discuss the unique guitar interplay that exists between you and Joe Perry.
BW: It’s always been second nature. Joe and I never sit down and work out a part. We literally create the parts on the fly. Joe will come up with something and I will build something around it and that’s pretty much how it’s always worked. It might take me a while to find the right part but I usually find it. So it’s always been this kind of organic approach to it. We still surprise each other.
There are things we do on the guitar that just keep getting better. A lot of that happens live, the spontaneity of live performance. We create some spaces in the show where we have a lot of improv going on, especially with the guitars. It’s never the same so it makes it a lot of fun.
RCM: When learning to play the guitar, was there a guitar solo that you aspired to master and said, “Man, if I can ever learn to play this solo I know I’m on my way to becoming a good player?”
BW: Sunshine of Your Love by Cream, was one. Even to this day, every time I hear (Eric) Clapton’s solo, it’s just awe inspiring to me. Another one is Communication Breakdown by Led Zeppelin or any number of Hendrix songs. Also, anything that Jeff Beck ever even thought about doing. (laughs) We have a love and appreciation for that stuff, I guess it gets worse. The affliction continues to grow. (laughs) Maybe getting close to at least being able to sound like you knew what you were doing (laughs). We were so inspired by all of that British hard rock and we never really lost that foundation with players like Jimmy Page and all those guys. We just kind of continued to perfect what we were perceiving in our heads as to what they were doing.
RCM: It’s well documented that during the ’70s the band was in the throes of major substance abuse; Steven and Joe are labeled by the press as the “Toxic Twins”. Looking back, do you think the drug use enhanced your creativity?
BW: I would say that some of that stuff written until the influence was definitely creative but the majority was not.
RCM: So the creativity happened in spite of the drug use, it didn’t enhance creativity?
BW: I think it was much more of a detriment. Like a lot of bands from that era, we got so busy becoming avid drug users and the music was falling into second place. That’s just backwards. It’s not what happened when you’re 12 or 13 years old watching your favorite bands on TV. We weren’t sitting home in our parent’s houses doing drugs and watching TV. It was totally pure and drugs got in the way of that pureness. I think there’s a side of it where you think it’s more fun—I guess it’s just the rush of it all.
In this business you can tend to get hooked on rushes, the rush of an audience and all the things that kind of go along with it. But then you realize, I’ve gotta limit those, I’ve got to keep it to the music and the performance and the rest of it just takes away from that.
It doesn’t add anything to what you’re doing.
RCM: Away from touring and recording, what occupies your time?
BW: I did a lot of driving, go kart racing and stuff like that which was a similar adrenaline rush to performing. But I don’t find a need for that stuff much anymore. It’s more about finding quiet time and then that leads to the creative space.
RCM: You have a nice collection of guitars. Hypothetically, you’re broke and you have to pawn them all and only save one, which do you choose?
BW: At this point it would be a Stratocaster because I’ve just found it to be the most versatile tool in my collection. I’ve managed to make it sound like all of the things I needed it to sound like and it does it so well. I love Les Pauls but the Strat is just more versatile; you can do more with it. I have this ’54 Stratocaster that if it was on a rack in Guitar Center you’d think it was brand new. It’s that pristine. So I would probably have to hang on to that one. (laughs)