Even for rock stars, dressing rooms can often feel like a college dorm room: A bright, white-walled box with clothing strewn everywhere and a handful of items slapped on the mirror in a desperate attempt to add personality to an antiseptic room. So one of the many nice things about a lengthy Las Vegas residency is that it gives the artist a moment to settle into their backstage area, knowing they won't have to pack everything back up in less than 24 hours and start all over again.
Sure enough, Joe Perry's dressing room at Las Vegas' Park MGM – where Aerosmith are holed up for their raucous Deuces Are Wild residency – has a lived-in quality that brings to mind a rocker's pop-up living room. There's a couch, a carpet, a massive wardrobe and an assortment of guitars. Perry is taking one of his axes out for exercise when I walk in on a Tuesday afternoon, but he politely puts it away almost immediately, grabs a seat and gives his full attention to our sit-down chat prior to a fan meet-and-greet (which, in turn, precedes the evening's scorching run-through of Aerosmith hits and history).
Streaks of grey in his wild mane tip to his years, but his open vest reveals a tan, toned chest that most men half his age never come close to achieving. At 68, he's still one of the sharpest rockers around – hell, you have to be to be as busy as Perry. He's in the midst of Aerosmith's first Vegas residency; he's part of Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; and he's prepping to release Rise, his second album with supergroup Hollywood Vampires (Perry, Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp).
Taking a break from his busy schedule for a chat with Billboard, Perry touched on everything from selecting a guitar for the Met exhibit to why he's surprised he's not bored out of his mind in Vegas. Here's what he had to say.
Aerosmith has enjoyed a storied live career. What made you guys decide a Vegas residency was the next move at this point in time?
Over the last few years, we've talked about coming in and doing some kind of residency. And then we were hearing about the pop acts doing it, and finally, it got to a point where we didn't feel like doing another album, and we wanted to do something different. This seemed like the natural thing. We went down the short list of "what do you do?" We've played Europe, we've played the far east; it just seemed like a really cool thing. And we said, "look, if we're going to go in and do it, let's do it in a way no one has for a rock band." Let's bring in that production. We wanted to take a giant step beyond that.
Will everything in the show come along when you bring Deuces Are Wild to the east coast?
When we finally said, "Let's go" [on the residency], we were getting the dates we wanted and there was the opportunity to open some of these east coast casino shows. So we thought, okay this is a great chance to bring the vibe of this show – because it certainly has a different vibe from a regular Aerosmith rock n' roll show, whether it's a small place or arena – [to the east coast]. You're immersed in Aerosmith's world when you come to this show, and that's the difference. It was important to us to maintain the hardcore, garage band feel of what Aerosmith is and try to bring in the big show element of a Las Vegas show. We're on the same stage as everyone from David Copperfield to the Cirque shows. We wanted to have a taste of that in there, but with the energy of what an Aerosmith show is. I'd like to think we found that balance. When we go east, obviously the venues are a little different, we might not be able to bring some of the physical elements, but the actual content and energy and vibe will be there. All of the screens, which is most important to us, and the preshow film [that Giles Martin worked on], which chronologically shows the story of the band [will be there]. When we showed that film the first couple times, people were actually crying in the audience. "I remember them when they played there!" or "I remember when I first heard that song" or whatever.
What did you think of it the first time you saw it?
We've done two or three books, documentaries, whatever, so we're used to seeing some of that old stuff, but to see it in that package was like … holy shit. It was really amazing. It put the 50 years in a good package — like a yearbook, but for 50 years. Again, we didn't know how this thing was going to go over. We didn't know if we'd get slammed for giving something up or pandering to Las Vegas, or like "okay, at least they got a great rock n' roll show, they didn't need all this or that," but so far the response from the audience [has been great]. It seems to be working.
Every night I just hold my breath. I thought I was going to be bored doing this by now the way everybody was talking about it. You know "you don't have to travel every day, it's all automated, the lights, moving stuff." Well the bottom line is, when we go out there, it's a new audience and it's like a whole different show. It's not that much different from being on the road except you don’t have to travel every night. You have to go out there and win them over. If you have a night where everything was great, you still gotta do another great one tomorrow. You gotta try. You're always starting from zero every time you walk out there. So that part is exciting. Frankly I haven't been bored yet.
The Bladerunner you played in the "Walk This Way" video with Run-D.M.C. is in the Play It Loud exhibit. What is it like to have one of your guitars in the Metropolitan Museum of Art right now?
I was really honored to think a guitar I played would have enough gravitas to make it into the Met. There's a thousand great guitar players out there who have contributed to the last 50, 70 years of rock n' roll. To be asked to have even one guitar in that display is a real honor. The guitar I picked — I'm sure there are plenty of Les Pauls and Stratocasters and those guitars that have played a big part in my career in the studio and on the stage — but that guitar was in a video that was pretty pivotal.
We didn't see it was going to be that, we just wanted to go in, have some fun, meet those guys. The music they were making, I saw it as being the next step from blues. It's blues, hip-hop and rock – it's elemental and rhythm-oriented and the lyrics are talking about day-to-day stuff. To me it was a very logical leap from the blues to hip-hop and rap. And then to work with the guys who were right on the cutting edge of it was exciting to us. We got the phone call from Rick Rubin. They were a little skeptical about it, I know they were using some tracks of ours just as they were using other rock tracks – Zeppelin, whatever – to create their beats. But it was another thing to cover a song by a hard rock band. Rick Rubin had said in an interview a couple months before that he thought "Walk This Way" was proto rap. And we were like, "wow, okay, thank you." We never thought about it like that, but I guess you could see that. And when we got the phone call it wasn't totally out of the blue, but it was "well let's try it, we'll see." They didn't even know if they were gonna put it on the record. "Let's go into the studio and see what comes from it." I brought my guitar, we put some stuff down, and Rick said, "You know, we should really get some bass." And I said, "I can play bass on it, I just need a bass." And one of the cats who was hanging out said "I got one back at my apartment." He went back to get it, and it was one of the Beastie Boys, because they were hanging out with Rick and watching what was going on. So I used his bass, put it on the track and that was it, it was fun. We went back on the road and got a phone call not too much later — "well we really like the song and want to do the video." I figured, again, this is not supposed to be just us [in the video], but any garage band, any rock band, to signify that's what's on one side of the wall. I figured at that point in rock n' roll, some of the most popular guitars were the pointy guitars, and the Bladerunner, you couldn't get any farther away from the classic Les Paul or Stratocaster look. It's got holes in it! It's oddly shaped. Oddly enough, it's a good guitar to play. It's fun to play, once in a while I take it out and use it in the studio. But visually, it's a statement.
When was the last time you played a Bladerunner on stage?
I think I might've pulled it out on the last tour. It's a little different sound than what I usually like, but it's got a good neck on it, it's a well-built guitar. I actually went online and I couldn't find one. I don't know how many they made; the guy who gave it to me from the Guild said it was a prototype. I had another one duplicated from a guitar-maker friend of mine, so I have two, just in case something happens to the original. They're very rare, I don't know how many they made actually.
The residency is called Deuces Are Wild, named after your song "Deuces Are Wild," which was a No. 1 Mainstream Rock Songs hit. But it's not on the set list – did you debate whether you needed to include it?
Looking at the set list, at least during the first run, we didn't know who was going to be in the audience, what was going to be the demographic, and we certainly wanted to give the audience what they want. So we really pulled out all the big guns and played all the popular songs that we've played over the years. The next leg I know we'll be switching it up, bringing more of the old album cuts we get requests for all the time. "Deuces Are Wild" is one of the songs we've rehearsed all the time but somehow never play it. I gotta think, the next one we're gonna have it in the show. I really like it, and every time we play it in the meet and greet, I look at Steven [Tyler] and he looks at me and we go, "we gotta play this song." It's definitely at the top of the list of the next round.