Aerosmith’s Russ Irwin Talks About His New Album + Life on the Road With Rock Legends
Aerosmith keyboardist Russ Irwin has a pretty good gig. As he quips, he’s been “looking at Steven Tyler’s ass for fifteen years” and getting paid for every second of that. It’s nice work if you can get it.
He also remains a music fan, something that he illustrates by telling a story of meeting his childhood heroes Rush in recent years, a moment in which he became unashamedly, a “total fan.”
Irwin has been doing double duty this summer, touring with Aerosmith as they prep to release their highly anticipated new album 'Music From Another Dimension' this fall and separately, he’s also been promoting his own album ‘Get Me Home,’ which is his first solo release in 20 years. His first solo disc, produced by Billy Joel producer Phil Ramone, was released in 1991 and although he scored a Top 40 hit, the album sales didn’t match up with that success.
As we found out in our interview with Russ, it was a challenging road for the musician to navigate from that point forward, but he has done quite well, playing with a number of artists and bands in the past 20 years, including Sting (another early influence), Bryan Adams and Paul Stanley of Kiss. Production and songwriting work found him in cahoots with Meat Loaf, Foreigner and the Scorpions.
‘Get Me Home’ is an interesting mile marker on the heels of all of that. Recorded mostly live from the floor in upstate New York, Irwin’s new album brings to mind the alley cat swing of some of Leon Russell’s best work. The foot stompin’ title track zips through the speakers with some heavy assistance from both Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots guitarist Dean DeLeo.
Steven Tyler also drops in to add his trademark vocals to two tracks, but all of these guest appearances go far beyond star studded cameos - the story here is more about a bunch of friends who got together to make some music and have some fun. All of that comes through in the songs that made it into the final mixes of ‘Get Me Home.’
On one hand, It’s an easy explanation to look at how busy you’ve been, but what was the real element that finally got you back into the studio twenty years after your first album to do another one?
You know, there was a producer friend [Kenny Seigal] of mine who I wanted to work with. I’d spent a lot of time on the road in 2010 and when I got off the road, I really just wanted to have something to do when I got off the road. I wanted to create a project for myself, so I just decided to go into the studio with this producer and with some great musicians and just record something from scratch, completely, like a blank slate. We were really just going to demo a few ideas and the vibe was so cool that it just turned into a record. But really, it just started out as let’s try to do something cool.
As a songwriter, it would seem like you probably have a stack of songs that you’re always looking to place somewhere. Did this album come out of a scenario like that, having a stockpile of songs that were too good to sit idle....
No, actually, what happened was that it was the exact opposite. Everything that ended up on this record came from scratch. We did record a few songs that I had lying around that I’d always wanted to demo and ultimately, I ended up not using those songs on the record, because I just felt like they weren’t part of what was happening currently. It was interesting, I wanted it to be a fresh start, you know? And [I wanted] it to be a new idea and a complete idea, if that makes sense.
It totally does. Let me ask: it’s a very live sounding record, although there are a few songs that are a bit more built up. Did you have to dial things back at any point, as far as resisting perhaps the urge to toy and tinker with too many sounds and layers?
You know what, yeah - it was interesting. We intentionally didn’t overproduce it. It was very live and most of the record was done without clicks. I tried to keep the basic performances intact and I fixed a couple of mistakes here and there, but for the most part, I wanted the record to be created like an old record. All of my favorite records from the ‘60s and ‘70s, they didn’t have computers, they didn’t have drum machines - they didn’t even use tuners, really. They were just tuned to each other. We did it like that. The piano was kind of out of tune. There was a lot of interaction between the players and I think you can really hear that. So yeah, I tried to keep it very, very organic.
It’s funny to hear you use the word “organic,” because everybody is there with a purpose. For instance, you don’t have Steven Tyler on a song just to have him there - he fits in really well on the songs that he’s on.
No, it was a very conscious thing. I could have asked a lot of people to play on the record or do whatever, but it wouldn’t have made sense to do it, regardless of who they are, unless it felt like it was going to really make sense that they were doing it.
Dean DeLeo is a monster guitar player and he features on a couple of tracks on this album. How did you come to know Dean?
Dean was in a band that opened up for Aerosmith many years ago called Talk Show. I was a fan of Stone Temple Pilots, but when I really got to meet them and hang out with them and realize what incredible musicians they were, I really took to them. I started going back and listening to their records again and then I really understood on a much deeper level, what sophisticated and amazing musicians they were and they became really one of my favorite bands ever.
Dean and Robert [DeLeo] are just incredible. Robert’s one of the best bass players in rock ever and I think Dean is one of the best guitar players in rock ever, period. I can’t speak highly enough about them. To have Dean on the record, it’s just amazing.
I love the ragtime feel of the piano sound that you got on this record.
The piano was an old baby grand from the 1920s. We recorded upstate at this studio called Old Soul Studios. It’s an old house. The whole place has all of these old keyboards and [gear]. I knew that piano and I wanted specifically to use that piano which is part of the reason why I flew east to use that studio and to use that piano. It had a very unique sound. The whole record, all of the basics were done on that piano with the same drummer and bass player and they were all done live at the same time. That’s why there’s that cohesive feel to the record which I think doesn’t happen a lot anymore.
Looking at the pictures of the studio in the album liner notes, it’s a very comfortable sounding record and I think that comes through when you look at the environment where it was recorded. I saw that you compared the sessions to the way for instance Elton John and his band recorded the ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ album.
It was completely conscious. When I saw the documentary on how they made ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ I said, “That’s how I want to make a record.” And that’s what we did - I mean, we were all in this house for a week [Laughs] and everyday, we just fleshed out some tunes.
People don’t really think these days about what a lost art that is, the way Elton made albums like that there and at places like Caribou Ranch, where Chicago also recorded.
It’s such a great way to make music, man. I’ll tell you, because I’ve made so much music in my studio, by myself at a computer, that I realized how....you know, music’s is an interactive art form. There’s a human communication that goes on between musicians that you just don’t get that when you’re just sitting in front of Pro-Tools. And that’s exactly what we tried to do, with great players.
Besides ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ what were some other albums that were important for you in the formative years, in the way that they were written and constructed?
For me, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is the one that really sticks out in my mind, that just seemed like a great way to make a record and that was how I wanted to approach this record. When I made my first record 20 years ago, which was with Phil Ramone, that was how I wanted to make the record and then Phil was like “well, why don’t we just chart out the records with drum machines and some keyboards” and then we’ll go back and replace it with instruments.
But we actually never went back and replaced anything, so there’s almost no real piano on that record at all and there’s a lot of drum machines. When we went into make that record, I specifically said “hey man, I want to use my drummer and I’m playing piano” and the record ended up being completely the opposite of how I wanted it to sound. So to me, this record is exactly what I wanted to do that I wasn’t given the chance to do 20 years ago.
And really, that was what I wanted to do [with this album]. I just wanted to have some closure on that whole experience and finally be able to make a record the way that I wanted to.
When you contrast how that experience went down at the time with where things are today in the music industry do you think it’s good that you had that experience of maybe not becoming the superstar artist that everybody thought? It seems like it pushed you in a different directon.
Yeah, you know, there’s good and bad that came out of it, to be honest with you. I learned a lot, but it was a really hard experience. It wasn’t pleasant at all. I don’t really look back on that experience with a lot of fond memories. It’s just sort of something that happened. There was a lot of disillusionment. For a while, I thought I would not play music anymore. I went back to college and I was so heartbroken and it was tough.
The title track on this album is a great driving rocker.
Thanks! We were just doing a video for it yesterday and the video is going to be really frikkin’ amazing and Brad Whitford from Aerosmith is in the video. It’s really cool, man.
You co-wrote a song, 'What Could Have Been Love,' on the upcoming Aerosmith album, which has been really highly anticipated.
It’s the next single, actually. It will be released in two weeks, I think.
From being in the trenches, what can you tell us about the record? What was it like working with Jack Douglas?
Jack’s amazing. He’s really an old school producer and he’s just a great guy. I played on a couple of tracks that he was producing and then the song that I wrote, was actually produced by Marti Fredrikssen, who I wrote the song with.
The song was written many years ago when me and Marti first got together and started working together. Steven heard it and loved it and then gave it his own twist on it. It was a very heartfelt song with a lot of real genuine honesty in it. It’s not like just a “happy to be happy” song, it’s kind of dark, but it’s a really cool tune. I think people will dig it.
These guys are one of the original rock band templates who wrote so much of the book on how it’s done. As a musician, it must be quite an experience getting to share the musical interplay with these guys on a nightly basis.
Oh yeah, it’s amazing. They really make magic, this band. When they all play together at the same time, it’s Aerosmith. Just to be able to be a part of that is incredible. I’m very lucky.
What was it like coming into the band as a player and joining the band. How did what you experienced on stage measure up with what you might have expected coming into it?
You know, I was a fan of the band before I started working with them. But when I started playing with them, I became an even bigger fan. I realized why they were so great. Live, it’s really I think where they shine. They’re such a great live band. They epitomize what’s great about rock and roll, they really do. I’ve learned so much from them about how to take things to the next level and really get in the zone, for sure.
The different things you’ve done, both with Aerosmith and others, is there a point where you saw yourself make a big change as a player as far as your approach?
It’s funny, when I was growing up, I really practiced a lot and I was playing classical and jazz. I think one of the things that I’ve actually learned from Aerosmith is to not be too precious about things, to be able to shoot from the hip, to let things just happen and not beat yourself up if you f-ck up. It’s kind of one of the cool things about rock and roll, you know? I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel - I’m not trying to be the greatest ever at my instrument. It’s just about doing something cool and getting in the zone and I think that was what I really got out of working with them particularly.
I know that you’re a Rush fan and played some of their stuff in bands when you were growing up. Were you an Alex guy or a Geddy guy or a Neal guy? Who was the one you geeked out about?
Well, I was a drummer first and I was listening to Rush, so I was a Neal guy. And then a few years later I started playing guitar and then I played all of the Alex stuff. I actually never focused on bass enough to really get into Geddy, plus Geddy’s so deep. I really love Rush, man. I really got back into them recently when they put out that documentary. It’s such a great movie and I actually started buying their records again and realizing what an incredible band they are. Rush was a huge band for me, Billy Joel was a big deal for me and then Sting and the Police and then later when I got older, Frank Zappa became a big deal for me.
What else is coming up for you? You're going to play a solo show or two, right?
Well, we’re going to do a show at the Rockwell on September 12th and we’re trying to schedule a couple of other things. We’re doing a live video. We did a live show at the Bitter End in New York City and Chris Botti got up and played and we filmed that, so we’re editing that now. And then we’re just doing the ‘Get Me Home’ video and then I’m supposed to go back out on the road with Aerosmith in I think, October, for a couple of months.