To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, there’s more than a “touch of grey” gracing the features of Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford and on and off Ted Nugent vocalist/guitarist Derek St. Holmes. But if you close your eyes and listen to the duo’s new album Reunion [Mailboat], all that grey just melts away.
The new album—which dropped 35 years after the only other Whitford/St. Holmes release in 1981—is loud, rude, powerful, exuberant, edgy, impassioned, ferocious, and chock full of meaty and thrilling guitar work. It’s an album of youth—rather than music created by two musicians who put their first AARP cards in their wallets before some of the contestants on The Voice were even born. In a year where even the oft-maligned Monkees can deliver a critically acclaimed album that reached number one on the Amazon music charts, it appears that “mature” artists can compete amidst the swirl of pop-music youngsters. That is, if they have the right attitude…
You guys are playing and singing your asses off on this record. I thought I was listening to some new band with a bunch of 18-year-olds in it.
St. Holmes: I get giddy every time somebody says that [laughs]. Brad and I don’t drink, we try to eat reasonably healthy, and we try to stay in shape. So at the age of 63, to be out there singing like I’m 20, and playing guitar with Brad in a fun rock and roll band—it doesn’t get much better than that. So if a young artist today can learn one lesson, it should be: “Take care of yourself, because this body is all you have. Keep yourself together.”
How did the creative process unfold for the new album?
St. Holmes: It’s a very Lennon/McCartney kind of thing. Brad will come up with 75 percent of something, and I’ll finish the 25 percent. I’ll come in with 75 percent, he’ll complete the rest. Or he’ll bring in 50 percent, and I’ll bring in 50 percent. We just love all the freedom we have with each other, because we can’t really work that freely with our respective bands. So we’ll toss everything against the wall, and all we need to do is ask ourselves, “Is that up to our stature?” We’ll look at each other and go, “Well, yeah, it is,” or “Nope, we can do better than that.”
Whitford: I’d say we’re very generous with each other. We let every idea fly, and if something doesn’t work, we just move on. We really focus on the tunes—it’s not about the guitar solos—and the process is pretty natural and organic. We’ll work out some chord progressions or riffs, and those will speak to us and dictate the song’s direction. But, for the most part, we just create stuff we like. It’s honest, and I’ve always found that was the best way to approach any music, you know. That’s what Aerosmith did in their early days. If you’re being real, it translates to people.
St. Holmes: I almost hate to say that we look to our peers. We look to what got us going when we were younger—the era Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. There are certain guitar tones and chords that do something for us, and we kind of try to recreate that, because it’s fun for us. You carry all those little nuances in your pocket—which, for me, might include merging my Detroit music influences with the British invasion—and you save them for when you need them. But those things are just a flavor—you never want to get close enough to them to plagiarize anything. On this album, for example, we certainly gave a couple of nods to Keith Richards, the Yardbirds, Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith. Steven Tyler could have sung with me on any of these songs [laughs].
Whitford: I ended up writing a lot of lyrics for the record. I’d be listening to the tracks in my car to get ideas, and, all of a sudden, a lyric would come to me. I’d record it into my phone while I was driving, and, later on, I’d sit down with Derek to build up the lyrics. But he was able to take my ideas and turn them into vocal melodies almost instantly. It was bizarre.
Reunion really jumps right out of the speakers—or earbuds—at you. How did you record the tracks?
Whitford: We like to record live. We went in the studio and recorded the basic tracks in the first two days, and, in the next 12 days, we did the vocals, guitar solos, and additional overdubs we wanted to put on. Everything was done in the first or second take. We didn’t double-track the rhythm guitars or anything. We wanted single performances for every part, and we did those parts quickly. That’s where all the live energy comes from.
St. Holmes: We have five songs in the can already for another album. We have all this stuff in us, so we’re just gonna get it out. In the old days, it was a financial thing that held you back. Going in and recording ten songs cost too much, and you needed a label for support. Well, we don’t have that problem anymore. We just look at each other and go, “Hey, let’s just hit the studio tomorrow, lay all these tracks down, and see what happens.” Recording time can be cheap or free if you do it on your own, and there’s absolutely no pressure from a label, because Brad and I are the bosses.
What was the main gear that made the album sessions?
Whitford: There weren’t a ton of gear changes. The main guitars were a Les Paul, a Strat, and a Telecaster—all strung with either a .009 or .010 set of D’Addario NYXLs. Those strings seem a bit more pliable under your fingers and they have a nice sound. For a lot of the album, I plugged into a 3 Monkeys Sock Monkey amp [Editor’s note: Whitford is one of the founders of the company.] That’s kind of a bedroom amp, really. It’s just 18 watts, and it sounds great without messing with it. There’s a little bit of a 50-watt Friedman and a hand-wired Vox AC15 on some tracks, as well. I didn’t use a lot of pedals—everything is pretty straight-ahead—but I went with a Mojo Hand FX Rook Royale for some overdrive sounds and solos, just to push the front end of the amp a little harder. The Rook is very neutral—it doesn’t color the tone a whole lot.
St. Holmes: All Les Paul-driven for me. What’s funny is that Brad has an arsenal of vintage guitars. I mean, name the year, he’s got ’em. But we used new Les Pauls on the album because they sounded just as good as the vintage ones. I used the Vox AC15 a little, but we mainly stuck to our 18-watt Sock Monkey amps. There was really no need to go past that. We got everything we needed out of those little amps. They sound huge.
Derek, what’s most inspiring to you about Brad as a guitarist?
St. Holmes: He is so out-of-the-box. I mean, he’ll play something, and I’ll go, “There’s absolutely no way I would have played something like that!” But I always love the way it sounds. Sometimes, because I’m a melodic player, I’ll go, “Is that line he played really as melody-driven as it could be?” But upon further listening, I usually say, “Damn if he didn’t hit that perfect!” We’re two totally different styles of players, and I think that really works for us. We never get in each other’s way—even if we’re soloing at the same time.
I have to say that, back in 1975, Aerosmith and Ted Nugent were managed by the same company, so we played together a lot, and I had many chances to watch Brad play. I just thought, “Wow, how much fun would it be to play with that guy?” And I was right. It’s really easy to play with Brad—certainly versus all the times I’ve tried to stick parts in and around Ted Nugent, to kind of smooth him out a little bit, and add some rhythm and blues to him. Plus—and this goes far beyond the album—our friendship drives the whole thing. I totally love the guy, totally respect him, and I totally love the way he plays. It’s even fun for me to sit and listen to him tune his guitar!
Brad, may I ask you the same question about Derek?
Whitford: Gosh, I’m always learning from Derek. I’m a pretty old-school, straight-ahead player who uses Clapton as a benchmark for what I like to do. You know, fluid. Not a lot of pyrotechnics—which I can’t do anyway [laughs]. Derek is definitely more melodic than I am, and I try to get a better feel for what he does and incorporate it into what I do.
St. Holmes: You know, a lot of your readers will learn something if you put this in there, but many people think Joe Perry played all those really cool Aerosmith solos throughout the years. Go see Aerosmith live, however, and you’ll find out it’s Brad. He can be sneaky about what he brings to the table. For example, there was a moment after we finished all the tracks for Reunion when I said, “Brad, there’s not one song where you actually burn it down like I think everybody would love to hear.” And he goes, “Derek, what I played on those tracks is what I wanted to play. That was my message.” And I went, “Yeah, you’re right,” even if I still wanted to hear him just burn. But, a week later, I listened again, and I went, “Ah man, he did play exactly what the song needed.”