Nearly 40 years ago, I was standing within spitting distance--literally, as it turned out; Steven Tyler spit on a guy beside me--of Aerosmith at the Richmond Coliseum.
Guitarist Brad Whitford prowled our side of the stage. At one point, he turned and the cord (remember those?) came unplugged from his guitar.
Brad didn't turn. He didn't look down. He just stood staring off into the distance as a roadie scampered out from behind the amps, slid to a stop by his feet, and plugged him back in.
Brad tossed his head to move his hair from his face, stood motionless for a few more seconds, and then started to play.
"That's a rock star," I thought.
And I still do.
Brad has been in Aerosmith for 45 years, except for a short break in 1981 when he released an album with then ex-Ted Nugent guitarist Derek St. Holmes. Thirty-five years later, they're back with a great new album, Reunion, and just kicked off a national tour that runs through the summer.
I talked with Brad about music, the music business, and working on a project, Whitford/St. Holmes, that is much more like a startup than the corporate behemoth that is Aerosmith.
Every organization has leaders, and every organization has quiet leaders. In Aerosmith, you're in a band with two outspoken and public leaders, so how have you found your place within that to help shape the direction of the band?
Being in a band is very much like any group of business people that need to work closely together--the same threads exist in both situations.
It's very hard to get a group of guys together that are really like-minded, and Aerosmith is a very rocky terrain. There's a lot of compromise that has to go on, a lot of give and sometimes very little take. I've had to compromise a lot of my ideas and the way I do things just to kind of keep things moving forward. That's a very rocky road.
The difference is quite dramatic with this band. It's a fairly new project, but we have a group of guys that are very like-minded. We think alike and all seem to end up on the same page. It makes for an entirely different experience. We're very work-focused but at the same time it's really fun.
That is pretty much the exact opposite of Aerosmith.
Now let's flip it around. How is leadership different with this project, since it's basically the you and Derek show?
Derek and I--and Chopper and Troy and Buck--are guys that have all played supporting roles. We're all coming from that same place, and in this environment, we get to do what we've all wanted to do, which is focus on the music and none of the bullshit.
It makes it a really great place to do that. It's very rewarding for the mind and the soul.
There's no such thing as a bad idea--it's that kind of environment. And I hate to say it, but it's much more professional. It's neat that it can be professional and fun.
In fact, it's a bit of a revelation. To work in one situation for many years and know in your head that things could be done in an easier way, and then to get with a group of people and have that feeling become a reality ... I want go back to Aerosmith and say, "We can do this a lot more efficiently," but forget that.
I can't change anybody else. I can only change myself.
In a way, this is like a startup. It's your time, your effort, your money. That has to be both exciting and a little scary.
I haven't found it to be too scary, because we don't have anything to lose. We're having such a good time doing it, and it's a very creative space for it, so it fills a lot of gaps and so we really have fun with it.
Whatever comes will be gravy. We're already really satisfied within the context of the band.
When you're writing, do you consider what the audience might like? Or do you just try to please yourself and hope others like it too?
I try to please myself. The best music to me is about that: just being honest with yourself, musically and lyrically. Those are the things people can relate to best.
When you try and manufacture hits, well, they've been disasters in Aerosmith, because that music doesn't come from any place real. It's bullshit from the start.
People see and hear it.
You write a song, you record it, you play it live--you share it with people and put yourself out there. That takes a serious amount of confidence.
That's especially true for lyrics. This is the first album that I've written a lot of lyrics for. Derek really encouraged me to do that, and gave me a lot of positive feedback, and he was able to adapt his singing to the song so quickly.
I'm very interested in hearing what people think about these lyrics. I was writing a lot about experiences in Aerosmith, stuff that's going on with me--it's all very honest.
I found in the right environment, working with these guys, I realized that, wow, I can actually do this.
Plus it's fun when people take lyrics to a place that means something to them. That even happens to me. The song "Flood of Lies," there's something about the lyrics, it takes you places. Every time I listen to it, it takes me to a different place.
There's an old startup cliché that says eventually you just have to ship. How do you know when a song is "done"?
You can play with a song for a long time. Some are done almost right away, and others just need a little more time.
We have a couple of tracks on this record that were more than six minutes long, and we started thinking about turning them into four minutes, and we just played with that idea. And we had good success with it.
Sometimes, it just takes a little time to make it work. But ultimately, you know.
Let's talk about collaborating. Say Derek has an idea and you're not a fan. How do you handle that?
We'll have five or six ideas and we'll naturally gravitate to the one that's calling us. If an idea doesn't sit well, so what? I don't attach any ego to my ideas. If something is really strong, Derek knows it. We know it.
That's one of the reasons we write really well together. We both love the same kind of music, and we're generous with each other when we're putting our music together.
In Aerosmith, you have a front man who works hard to be the focal point. With this project, you'll be stepping forward more. Do you like that?
I do like it. The thing that seems to work well for this band is that we have so much fun doing it. It's very relaxed. It's easy to get in front of a crowd, and we talk to the crowd, we have a nice rapport, so I feel pretty relaxed doing it.
People have said, "Wow, I've never heard Brad talk so much." I don't have the mic in Aerosmith, so people don't get to see me in that context.
How much time goes into thinking about the performance aspect of playing live? It is, after all, a show.
The more intimate the setting, the easier it is. You're so much closer to your audience, and it feels more intimate. It feels more friendly, more like a living room, so it makes it more like a party.
It's a different mindset. Instead of being a traveling circus, this is like the good old days, like a band of troubadours.
My favorite Aerosmith song is "Nobody's Fault," but I also love "Round and Round." You co-wrote both of those, among others. The music business has changed; do you still make any money off songs you wrote?
Not really, no.
It's interesting you mention "Nobody's Fault." Lots of people have really gravitated to that song. Kurt Cobain said it was his favorite Aerosmith song. So has Jeff Beck.
Your sons are both musicians. That has to be fun for you.
My oldest, Graham, is in Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown. They're opening for AC/DC. These guys don't need any help from me; they're just a fantastic band.
His younger brother Harrison is a guitar player and singer-songwriter. He's a phenomenal talent. He lives here in Nashville. He plays with a lot of different people; it's sort of a brotherhood of musicians all around the same age that he works with.
Ryan Adams has recorded him; he's very prolific. You'll be hearing more of him in the future.
In a band like Aerosmith, there are so many people involved that in some ways success gets defined for you. This is much more personal--so how do you define success?
It already feels like a total success because of the nature of the band. We have the right people. It's so much fun to play in the studio with these guys, to play live with these guys, and I know that just doesn't happen very often.
We've already hit it out of the park in that respect. So we don't don't have anything to lose.
We just get to have fun with it--and really that's what success is all about.