Aerosmith still flyin'

(Update 08.24.2009: A lot has changed since I did this interview in the spring. This story comes from yesterday's Boston Globe.)

(Update 11.10.2009: End of the line for Aerosmith?)

When Aerosmith played Alpine Valley for the first time more than 30 years ago, the group wasn’t yet headlining material and the rock critics were hardly paying them any attention.
Social networking was done best in a club after work, or by picking up your land line phone and making a call. And the terms mp3 and iTunes could have been taken as droid names in a “Star Wars” film.

A lot has changed in the music biz since Aerosmith’s first stop at Alpine Valley back in 1977.

The band has since sold more than 150 million albums, earned countless awards — four Grammys, eight American Music Awards, six Billboard Awards and 12 MTV Awards, been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and they have a video game built around their music, “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.”

On Saturday, the quintet featuring vocalist Steven Tyler, guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer will be returning to Alpine, the second show in a three-month tour that will pair them with 3 Doors Down and ZZ Top for parts of it.

A few weeks ago, I got to talk with Hamilton on the phone from his home outside Boston. We talked about the highs and lows of Aerosmith’s tenure as “America’s greatest hard rock act,” the band’s new studio album and how they’re reaching out to fans in this technological age.

How is the band doing? Are you guys ready to go?
We’re getting ready. Our first gig is June 10 and Alpine Valley is the second. Alpine Valley is a venue we’ve been playing for a long time. It’s sort of a homecoming venue for us. I always associate it with all the fun of when we first started. We weren’t headlining and the way the audience looks from the stage there is incredible. It’s massive.

I think we probably played there in the mid to late ’ 70s. It was one of the first, at that time, of that kind of venue we knew about. There was Pine Knob near Detroit. That’s a Nederlander (referring to the Nederlander Organization, which built the outdoor amphitheaters in the 1970s). That’s what our manager told us. ‘A Nederlander?’ We’re like, ‘What’s that?’ He says, ‘Oh, that’s a cool place.’ A family that owned a lot of these theatrical places. So we felt like we really made it because we were playing at a Nederlander.

We’re really looking forward to it and getting going again. We haven’t done a tour in a couple years. We’ve been working on a new album and now we’ve got that to where we can tour, then go back and start working on it again.

How’s the album looking?
It’s looking cool. I can’t say we got through everything that we’re going to try out. We did pre-production for the first 10 tracks. We’ve got another 10 to consider. We won’t record all those, so we have a ways to go.

Is there anything you can tell us about the sound of this album? Are you guys doing anything differently?
I’m hesitating. I’m not seeing something that’s so consistent. I can’t say it’s this album or that. It’s definitely going to have a little hair on it.

How did you get interested in music?
I had an older brother that I looked up to very much and he used to be in all these bands with his friend. He was a teenager and I thought ‘that’s really cool!’ One time, he and his friend went into some studio where you could pay 50 bucks and record a track. I think it was like ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ or one of those songs you learn in the first 10 pages of a guitar book. I thought, ‘aw, man that’s incredible, a recording studio!’ I was fascinated with it. …He got a brand new fender stratocaster, he taught me my first chords and he would tolerate me sneaking into his room and fooling around.

I love the music side and I love the gear side. I love both. I was into tape machines when I was a teenager. I was one of those kids that was watching ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and watched the Beatles when they performed their U.S. debut. I was blown right off my chair. At that time, I was into an instrumental group called The Ventures. They did these really cool guitar versions of some of the hits that were on Top 40. Then, I saw the Beatles and I was self-conflicted. I thought I was being disloyal to a band with no vocals. Then I would drive friends out of the house because I would buy the new Beatles singles and play it like 20 times.

There was just a flood of new, cool, very interesting music coming from England and the West Coast of the United States. You had this whole psychedelic era in places like Greenwich Village, and all these interesting bands coming out of England like Cream, and the Yardbirds, the Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin. It was just an endless stream.

I think there’s a lot more young people into that music now. Maybe that’s one of the things that’s going to be great about this new downloading era. We’re established, we can tour whenever we want. But I think of all the kids that are working really hard on writing their songs. Do they get their dream of recording their record or do they wind up on salary at an advertising agency? It’s a lot of high quality rock music now. Back then they didn’t use rock music on commercials. That would have been to destroy your product. Now you can’t even look at a tampon commercial without hearing a rock song.

I’ve also read you wanted to be an actor. What made you stick with music rather that pursue acting?
I was in drama club in high school until I got kicked out. Senior year I applied to a couple schools. That was the plan but then we got to the end of my senior year in high school, Joe and me started talking more and more about how cool it would be to play in bands.

Right, you were performing in a band with Joe Perry when Steven Tyler found you guys.
I lived in New Hampshire for grades seven through 12. Joe Perry and I were in bands, and Steven Tyler would come up in the summers and the place would turn from a hick town to a rocking place that had all the enthusiasm of the flower child era. Steven was getting fed up with people he’d been playing. He liked wild abandon.

He took an instant liking to Joe, and Joe and I moved to Boston ready to go with Steven whether he wanted us or not. We said ‘let’s try it.’ My father said, ‘Don’t come back in five years and expect me to put you through school.’ And I said ‘I won’t.’

Joe and I used to go see his bands play when he would bring them up to New Hampshire. (Tyler’s) year-round home was New York. He was a legend already. His bands were good. They had tight vocals, perfect clothes, Beatles equipment, the whole package. We finally managed to go see them at this one big gig at a ski area there. You knew he’s going to be star.
Every year he would rearrange his bands. He was ready for a change.

Do you think you could fit in Steven Tyler’s mouth?
There’s been times I’ve wanted to climb in there. That’s one of the things that makes him such a powerful singer is the infrastructure he’s got in there. He’s got such a huge mouth.

The press and radio kind of overlooked you guys at first. Did that have any effect on you guys?
Before we had a record contract we were dying to have a record contract. Then you get that recording contract, you think you’re going to be rich and famous and you feel like, ‘oh my god, we’ve made it. We’re in the big leagues now.’ We thought, we are going to be part of the rocket to the top.

We couldn’t get radio stations to be interested. The recording company told us if it didn’t happen on the next record they were going to opt out. So we decided to all move-in together in the same apartment and live and breath the next album. We made the “Get Your Wings” album during that time and in between we were doing a lot of touring. Management was taking much more of a we’re-going-to-sell-the-band-on-the-road approach. So we built our fan base that way.

What about when Joe and Brad left the group for a time? Did you think it was over then?
The band had been touring a lot and everything that goes with it. I think we were all just stressed out and massively hung over. We were starting to make money. You could go to your own house and hide there. We kind of lost some focus in ’79 where we had recorded the “Night in the Ruts” album with no vocals. For the first time ever we had to go back on the road with an album that wasn’t finished. We were extremely stressed out.

It was mutually decided that Joe should leave and he wanted to leave. I thought that source of conflict was gone now, everything would be great. But it wasn’t. You get the idea that you can just replace band members and continue on but you can’t. In the beginning of 1984, we knew our careers separately weren’t going to be anything near what we had, so we put the band back together.

What do you think has helped keep you guys together this long?
It’s just wanting to be part of it. We really feel that we got a lot of other people out there that like our music. We get inspired by that, but we also want to prove ourselves. You want to get out there and show you’re still in the game. There’s still a lot of new things to accomplish and new things to try and new ways to grow as musicians.

Any thoughts on how much longer you’ll be doing this?
People have been asking that question for so long I don’t want to answer it. I don’t want to jinx it. Either way, I love to go into my studio and just go into that daydreaming musical world and wait for those riffs to come up and develop them into songs.

What are you guys most proud of so far?
Just getting to the point where we can go anywhere in the world and we know we’re going to be good. We know how to play good. Really we know we’re going to be good up there. We’re proud of our history. We’re proud that we’re going to keep fighting.

What’s your favorite song to play after all these years?
Living On The Edge.” It’s an ethereal, powerful dramatic song. It’s one that has a lot of dramatic, loud, powerful parts and then there are parts that go quiet. Plus it’s in the key of D, which is my favorite. You just milk that emotion. It’s epic.

How about “Sweet Emotion?” That’s got to be a fun one for you to play.
It’s a pretty awesome moment (when the band plays it). I look back to where I was at, to where I was when I came up with those ideas and I look back at those pictures and I say, “Look at those little shits.” There’s still people that are out there that anticipate that moment and wait for it. That’s another one that’s quiet and then it comes crashing back in. “Back in the Saddle” is another one.

Is there a song you’re sick of playing after all these years?
I’m fed up with “Cryin’.” But whenever I say that I get yelled at. It’s fun to play. It’s got a lot of changes and a lot of opportunities to think of fills.

You guys have the video game now. Are you into things like Twitter and Facebook and all the social networking that’s happening now, too?
We definitely get into having a presence on the web where spontaneous stuff. On AeroForceOne (the band’s fan site) we had this thing called “Tom’s Big Box.” That’s an example where I had one of the guys from the office over at my house, doing bits for the Web site, telling little stories. We were going up to get this big box that I had to get to the band’s warehouse and we got this idea to do this silly little Tom-Abuses-the-Crew. (You can find the video by doing a Google search of “Aerosmith Tom’s Big Box.”)

It’s an example of where you can have an inane idea and instead of going through the process where it has to be perfect, it has to be planned in 50,000 friggin' meetings and you have post-production, you can have an inside idea and be looking at it within a couple days. It’s the goal of being able to do it and put it up there.

What we’re finding on any given day is there’s a huge number of people who want Aerosmith information. Facebook and Twitter are becoming a huge part of how we reach people.

Who do you like among the bands that are coming onto the scene these days?
Kings of Leon. I think their new record is friggin’ awesome. I was really into their first album, although most of the time when you think it’s their first album, it’s usually their second album. I was like, here are these guys, they’re playing this music that has such deep roots and they’re 20 years old! How do they know to sing like that? How do they know to play like that without living in those eras? Their music is so wild and pure.

What is the significance of his scarves on the mic stand?
This is probably some bullshit story, but Steven is an adorner. Every thing that he sees or he has, he decorates. So it’s his natural artistic response not to take what it is, but to embellish it. Sometimes it drives us nuts, but he sees an object and figures out how he can make it more fun to look at.

So what can people expect on the tour?
We’re really hitting the classic rock stuff a lot. We’re touring with ZZ Top for a lot of the tour. I’m psyched about that because their roots go way back. They started as a blues band. They’re really incredible guys and that goes back to the Hendrix era so we’re looking forward to that.
We’re looking forward to seeing everybody out there. Everybody comes to a show thinking they’re seeing us, but we’re seeing them and it feels really good.

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