When Aerosmith played the Download Festival in 2014, the veteran act was approaching their 45th anniversary as a band. The set appropriately ran from bow to stern of the band's career, highlighting cuts like "Mama Kin" and "Dream On" from their 1973 debut to guitarist Joe Perry getting his moment behind the mic on 2012's "Freedom Fighter." The set was just released on home video as Aerosmith Rocks Donington 2014, and to mark the occasion we got on the phone with guitarist Brad Whitford to talk about the breadth of the Aerosmith catalog, particularly a few of the songs he had a hand in writing, as well as how he fights to get deeper cuts added to the setlist and the heavier influences he feels he's brought to the band over the years.
AllMusic: The new DVD opens with you all individually walking to the stage. What's going through your head in that moment?
Brad Whitford: I don’t have any stage fright or anything like that, typically. Just a little bit of anxiousness: “Let’s get this show on the road.”
AllMusic: For a band at your level, does the cliche of "23 hours of boredom and one hour of bliss" still apply?
Whitford: You try, you’re constantly battling that, what to do with your time, and being on the road, I’d say it’s typically a little bit of a struggle. I’d like to be playing more when we’re out on the road, I’d be up playing every night, but we don’t do that. So you have to find some way to entertain yourself out there.
AllMusic: The live show is pretty long at this point, the new DVD is over 100 minutes. As you've gotten older, are you glad you were never the guy expected to be running across the stage?
Whitford: I’m perfectly happy with my place in the band. For me, it’s the joy in getting to perform and play my instrument, that’s what does it for me. Fortunately, I have someone like Steven out in front of this band, and he’s the ultimate showman, so he covers all those bases that I don’t necessarily have to, because he’s out there, connecting.
AllMusic: What keeps some of the songs you've played over 2,000 times interesting for you?
Whitford: To play some of these songs, they’re such great songs, so it’s always fun to play them for a new audience. I went through a period, years ago, “Not this one again…” But something changed and I came to appreciate being able to perform the songs. They’re great tunes, so it’s easy, it’s a pleasure.
We typically take one or two songs and change them up every other show or something, and that tends to keep it fresh, when you play something that you haven’t played in a long time. So that keeps you on your toes: “Do I remember this song?” But once you hit that first chord, it all comes back. That helps keep it fresh and keep the excitement level up for us, just throw a little challenge out there for us.
AllMusic: Do you try and fight for any particular deep cuts to get mixed in with the hits?
Whitford: Yeah, there’s a lot of them. We have so many songs that we don’t typically play that I’m always trying to get the band to revisit. This last tour, we got a little more into it, we had the intention of doing more songs than we ended up doing. When we rehearsed before the tour and revisited some of the older songs that we hadn’t been doing, we got them ready to play, and then they never made it to the show. I don’t know why, maybe people got cold feet or something. But there’s a bunch of them, there’s a lot of songs off of some of the early albums that I always want to do that we don’t get to do. We’re always fighting for that. “Come on, let’s do it, let’s do it!”
AllMusic: When you play "Last Child" on this new DVD, it opens with you playing the intro and Steven singing with his arm around you. You two wrote the song together, is that a special moment when you share the spotlight?
Whitford: Yeah, it’s always fun to do that, to play a song that’s near and dear to your heart and soul. We love that tune, and we don’t always play it, but almost all the time. That's a very special song for us and for Steven and I.
When I’m playing it, I try and stay very open in my mind. Typically I do a bit of a solo at the end of the song, and it’s always completely improvised, so I have to be relaxed and at ease and just let it come out, let it flow. If you’re thinking about it, that tends to get in the way. I want to be very open, just trying to listen to what the other guys in the band are doing and listening to the groove and letting the music flow through.
AllMusic: With as dense of a catalog as you have, fans can discover new things about the music all the time. Are there any bands you love that you're still noticing new things about?
Whitford: Yeah, it’s funny you should say that, I was working in the studio last night, and when we finished up, our keyboard player had these multi-track recordings from Led Zeppelin, and these things are all out there now, you can listen to the individual parts that everybody played, you could listen to Robert do his vocals or to Jimmy’s guitar track or the bass, so we were sitting there listening to things, and I heard stuff last night from Zeppelin that I’d never heard before. I’d been listening to it for years and years, but when you hear it without the context of the song, just the individual performance, it’s really amazing. So they do keep on giving. I have the same thing with some Hendrix stuff, where you can listen to individual tracks, and it’s really interesting.
AllMusic: And with a catalog that extensive, do you mentally put different songs in different buckets?
Whitford: I would say that’s true, some of the earlier stuff, we were basically a garage rock band, kind of a hardcore rock band, and then once we moved to Geffen Records and we started working with our A&R guy, John Kalodner and with some different writers, all of the sudden we had songs that were getting out on the radio and MTV was huge, so when we say different periods, it’s like the rock period, the more poppy stuff, and so in a sense, I feel like we have two buckets that we’ve grouped songs into.
AllMusic: "Kings and Queens" is a song I've been listening to a lot lately, and you had a hand in writing that one. It really stands out from the band's other songs, and I've been trying to figure out why. Do you have any insight for me?
Whitford: I’d attribute some of that to my influences, I was always coming more from the heavier side, so I was always looking to do more heavy-handed sort of approaches to some of the songs, and I came up with a lot of the chord changes and stuff on that tune. Maybe it’s more my personal influence coming out in that one.
AllMusic: Who on the heavier side, someone like Black Sabbath?
Whitford: I came a little more from being a huge fan of Clapton and Cream, I was really into that sort of heavy rock stuff, that heavy-handed approach. That came from Cream and Hendrix and bands in the early days, like Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer, so that always comes out in a lot of stuff that I do, it’s just a little more of that heavier-sounding rock, it always got to me. Whenever I get a chance to emulate that, I’ll go for it.
AllMusic: When you're playing a massive show like the one on the DVD, do you get a chance to step back and look out at the crowd and take it all in?
Whitford: It’s kind of a daily appreciation for me, to still be doing this, this many years later. It seems a bit miraculous to me, we’re at Donington, all these great bands are playing. Before we went on, we went over and watched Deep Purple doing their set, and that was spellbinding. Sometimes you just say, “Wow, we’re playing, and Deep Purple was just on, but we’re going after them,” a lot of “holy shit” moments still happen for all of us, we still can’t believe we’re able to do it, and that people still come out and want to hear it. It’s a great gift.
AllMusic: That said, you guys dress better than Deep Purple does these days.
Whitford: They’re not too concerned about that, apparently. “Does this t-shirt and jeans look OK?” I look past that, I’m more using my ears and not so much my eyes and just appreciating the mastery of what some of these musicians are doing, it’s just amazing, it’s really fun.
AllMusic: You wear a lot of hats these days. What's your criteria for picking a good hat?
Whitford: The mirror. I have a huge collection of hats. I got tired of seeing my shiny forehead in the lights and looking so much older than I think I feel, so when I put the hat on, I don’t have to see that ugly balding head of mine under the lights. That’s the criteria, really, I look in the mirror, do I like this, and then I buy it. I have a huge collection of hats.
AllMusic: It seems like a healthy habit.
Whitford: Yeah, yeah, it’s better than some of my previous lifestyle choices.
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