By Martin Popoff
So, while getting ready to talk to Aerosmith’s oh-so-polite and forthcoming guitarist Brad Whitford (man, he should do more interviews), I began to ponder the band’s latest studio effort, “Music From Another Dimension.”
Are seven good songs enough, along with five ballads (of which two, maybe three are non-housewife-y and pretty valid) and a new country song? I’d say, sure, ’cause it’s a long album with a lot going on, as well as, a lot of fast-paced rockin’. Sure, but not emphatically. More like it’s a big step in the right direction, “Music From Another Dimension” is adequately stuffed with value, but alas, not what we were led to believe might be coming (to save the world). Of course, saving the world, much like writing music, can be a work in progress.
“Some of these are licks we’ve had for a long time,” Whitford begins. “We just bring what we have, bring it to the table, and say, ‘What have you got?’ There’s licks from the past that just never got past grade school, and we bring them in and say, ‘Cool, let’s play with this a bit; let’s see what happens.’ And, of course, many of them were brand-new ideas.”
Brand-new ideas, fine. But much of the production wound up being frustratingly new and shiny as well. And as for what was provided by Jack Douglas …
“We liked the live recording that he does,” Whitford explains. “We just went in the studio with some of this stuff and cut it live, did it jamming, old school. But then there are definitely compromises. What we got worked out fine. But my choice would’ve been no ProTools at all, and just do the whole thing analog. But I lost a lot of those arguments to the producers. Producers can get hooked on ProTools, because it makes their job easier. I would’ve preferred to go direct to tape. But we did use something called a Clasp system, which is tape and ProTools at the same time. It’s got that tape saturation, so it’s a nice compromise.”
“I just like it old school — pure, vintage tones, basically plugging in with not a lot of effects. My reference points are Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, people like that; I don’t like it very colored. Just give me a good, clean tone, something that’s as good as I can possibly get. I love that tonality of the Les Paul Gibson, Fender Strat—it’s not rocket science. I like bands that basically plug in and don’t use a lot of effects.”
But don’t let Whitford’s preference for simpler sounds fool you. Aerosmith as a whole makes some pretty complicated music, a progressive rock of arrangement rather than anything else, track upon track upon track.
“I don’t know if it’s difficulty we’re after,” he said. “Certainly, I wish we did more things outside of 4/4 (time), which would make it interesting, add some intensity. But there’s also a real beauty in what Nirvana did. You know, it’s nothing complicated, so fresh and straight-ahead. Like Tom Petty. Those songs are simple, yet they’re so f***ing amazing. You play them in the context of a band, and you find out how complex those songs can be.”
So just who in Aerosmith pushes the layers?
“We all do. My reference is to try to be old school, but it’s incredible when we get in the studio,” Whitford says. “We create a lot of music, put a lot into the songs. We like coming up with stuff that you can put headphones on, that just makes you go, ‘How the hell did they get that sound?’ or ‘Holy shit! Where did that come from?!’”
As to the drama — the well-reported squabbles in the band and trying to keep Steven Tyler focused?
“Not a lot has changed,” Whitford replies, surprisingly laid-back in the eye of the storm. “Certainly, you have to get comfortable in the studio. We have that idea that this stuff is going to live on in history. What you lay down is forever. That can freak you out, but you settle down, and that’s what we try to capture. Whether it’s myself and Joe writing, or myself and Steve, we work very organically. It just happens. You get in that zone. We find we can be very creative. But anybody tells you that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t a business must be just so well off that it just doesn’t matter. Believe me, not everybody is that well off. But we just have such a passion for doing what we do. We just love to play. And we have a vehicle called Aerosmith to do this, and you just can’t say no to it. It’s like a beautiful mistress.”
Given Whitford’s love of organic rock and roll sound, you’d think he’d pick live work over time in the studio, no contest. But things are not always so black and white.
“They both have their moments,” Whitford explains. “I do take a lot of pride in performance. We feel good about it, and that takes practice; you really have to be ready to do it. We work at it. You have to stand up and be committed to it. But we do move between them. They are two very different venues. Playing in front of people … you just cannot top that.”
And when you want to play in front of people, it never hurts to have new material waiting in the wings. But considering the months-long Mean Girl-esque media fights between Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, there were plenty of people — including Whitford — who doubted whether “Music From Another Dimension” would even happen
“Many times. Since ‘Just Push Play,’ which, is what, 11 years ago? And then there’s the blues record. But we tried to start this album a couple of times, and it just turned into a disaster. So there were serious doubts, yes. Every day around here seems to be a roadblock …”
But in Whitford’s eyes, the finished record holds its own in the Aerosmith catalog.
“It’s a typical Aerosmith record,” he explains, “in that it has a combination of many elements we like, from that country thing we did to hard rock, beautiful ballads, rhythm and blues. In that respect, it’s not much different from the other records that we like. But it’s very fresh, very current, for whatever reason; who knows? We certainly aren’t current (laughs). But we have the passion to make records, so we do it.”
And Whitford’s passion extends well into the writing process.
“Yeah, ‘Street Jesus’ was a riff I had for a good 15 years, jamming around with that, and finally we decided to get serious with it. With this band, ideas, you play around with them, and these are just some I’ve had for the past few years. It’s kind of what we do. Me and Joe are just an encyclopaedia of guitar ideas, and we’ve learned that historically, one great lick can turn into a whole song. So we’re constantly cataloguing things and coming up with stuff.”
And, despite media reports to the contrary, Aerosmith continues to keep it together and keep producing rock and roll.
“I don’t think there is anything anybody can throw at this band and we can’t beat it and come out the other side,” Whitford says. “We’ve gone through everything a band can go through. We’ve gone to hell and back many times and survived. You have to just get out of the way or get on board (laughs).”