Watching Aerosmith perform, you’re likely not thinking about the band’s famous feuds, or about singer Steven Tyler’s stint on American Idol.
What you probably are wondering is how, after forty years, their drummer can still rock so impossibly hard.
It might be a cliché to call the drummer the engine of a band, but no description is more apt for Aerosmith’s hard-charging locomotive, Joey Kramer. The ’Smith train keeps a-rollin’ because the man still delivers the goods like a youthful firebrand, demonstrating the kind of pure rock joy and stamina that drummers young and old can truly be inspired by.
Kramer and his bandmates have been doing the hard work of rocking for forty-two years. And despite the fact that their career has seen its share of creative and commercial troughs, the bad boys from Boston have shown no sign of slowing down, recently releasing their fifteenth studio album, Music From Another Dimension!, and touring the world behind it to ecstatic response.
You’ll find all the classic Aerosmith elements on the recording—nasty guitar riffs and searing leads from Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, rump-shaking command of the low end from bassist Tom Hamilton, ageless vocal acrobatics from Steven Tyler, and, of course, the powerful groove of a physically and emotionally rejuvenated Kramer. “For some reason, the band is playing the same way that we did in the 1970s, when we first started,” Joey says. “It’s a joy to go on stage every night, and I have such a good time because everybody’s playing so well.”
Kramer recounts his tales of woe—and his rock ’n’ roll triumphs—in a very personal 2009 autobiography, Hit Hard: A Story of Hitting Rock Bottom at the Top. “I wrote about everything that happened to me up until that point in my life,” the drummer says, “including what went on in the band, my drug addiction, alcoholism, depression and anxiety, how my father’s death affected me…. I wrote about it very openly and honestly.” Through it all, somehow, Kramer’s playing has remained on the right path, and we can learn much by analyzing his forceful style.
There’s a reason for Aerosmith’s ubiquity on classic-rock radio. There’s a reason why so many School of Rock programs include the group’s material. There’s a reason why, on any given weekend, a local cover band is doing its best to nail “Sweet Emotion” or “Walk This Way.” Is it just Aerosmith’s dogged will and longevity? Is it Tyler’s recent high-profile exposure on reality TV? Or is it that the quintet has the not-so-secret weapon that all iconic rock bands need—a powerful engine?
MD sat down with the rocking railroad engineer to discuss the key to his staying power, and to that of his notorious band.
MD: It’s hard to believe you’ve been at this for forty-two years.
Joey: I’ve been in this band my entire adult life. I joined when I was nineteen years old. I’ve been doing nothing else, and when you’re doing something that long, it’s got its ups and downs, like any personal relationship. But we’re probably more appreciative of what we have now than we’ve ever been. I’m just enjoying the ride; you never know what’s going to happen.
MD: You recently played in front of the apartment where the band lived together in the early ’70s. What was that experience like?
Joey: We returned to 1325 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which is where the band was born and lived for the first couple of years. Steven [Tyler] and I shared the smallest of the four bedrooms in the back. We never played inside the apartment; we just stored our gear up and down the hallways between gigs. To go back to see the building and play was a thrill and pretty cathartic for me. We played in the street and drew 35,000 people.
MD: Aerosmith’s latest, Music From Another Dimension!, features your first songwriting credits since 1987’s Permanent Vacation. What made you start writing again?
Joey: I’ve been writing all along, but in this band, with five personalities, only the strong survive. You have at minimum the main songwriters, who are Steven and Joe Perry. And if Steven takes a liking to something I’ve written and decides to work on it, that’s the main touch, because he writes the lyrics.
At first we were going to use stuff for the record that we had in the can, but we didn’t want to rest on our laurels. It was our first record in eleven years, so we wanted new stuff. Some of my credits come from a group effort. Tom Hamilton, Brad Whitford, [coproducer] Marti Frederiksen, Steven, and I were at Marti’s studio, and we came up with ideas together, which is not something we normally do. The song I wrote with Marti, “Closer,” I’ve had in my hip pocket for a while. For whatever reason it just didn’t happen before. Finally Steven put some new lyrics to it and breathed life into it, and there it is on the record.
MD: The new songs are to the point and generally pretty short. Most of the production was done by Jack Douglas, who worked with you in the ’70s. Was that his influence?
Joey: You come full circle. We wanted to do something along the lines of [1975’s] Toys in the Attic or [1976’s] Rocks, when we were at the beginning of our prime. That thing comes naturally to us. The record is new material with the same old Aerosmith energy from the old days. By virtue of having Jack produce, it brought a lot of those things to the table. One of the most important things was the fun factor. He knows how to get the best work out of us, but he also knows how to have fun, and when you’re having fun doing something it usually comes out pretty good.
MD: Has anything changed in your recording process? Were you using click tracks?
Joey: It’s a mix of click and free playing. Jack is a purveyor of ideas. If you come up with something off the wall, he’s the first one to try it. And like those previous records, everyone was in the studio playing live. It wasn’t about getting the drums done and then piecing it together afterwards. We were in the room, playing like a band. That’s why the record sounds like Aerosmith, because that’s what it is. And I don’t do a whole lot of playing—I do a lot of timekeeping, because that’s what being a drummer in a band is all about. Making a song feel the way it’s supposed to feel. I’m a feel player. I’m a street guy. I have no formal education as far as what I do. I come from a very emotional point of view.
MD: “LUV XX” has a cool chorus with no downbeat crash, just a rolling tom pattern. Your idea?
Joey: A lot of times Steven and I will work on stuff together. He used to be a drummer, and I’ve learned an awful lot from him over the years. He’s a very musical guy, but he’s very drum oriented. It’ll usually end up what I want it to be, but we’ll try a lot of different things before it comes back to what I was initially playing, because you have to be a chameleon, you have to be open to everyone’s ideas. If you’re not open-minded, it kills the prospect of what a band is all about. I can also suggest a rhythm guitar part I hear in my head to Joe or Brad. That’s just how we work. And like Steven always says, if you don’t have a good drum track to begin with, you can just pack it in.
MD: The chorus in “Beautiful” is a half-time power-ballad thing.
Joey: At the beginning that chorus was just a big open feel, with no time. It wasn’t too difficult to come up with the rhythm part, though, because it just seemed like that was supposed to happen there.
MD: “Out Go the Lights” and “Legendary Child” are classic Aerosmith riff rockers with loud, heavy drums. Those tracks could have been on Rocks.
Joey: That’s stuff I’ve come up with that I’ve used time and time again. That’s just what Joey does.
MD: “Street Jesus” has a propulsive snare pattern. Is that the first thing that comes to mind when you initially hear the guitar riff?
Joey: I don’t think I’ve ever played something like that. It just drives the song home.
MD: “Lover Alot” has the trademark Joey Kramer “lean into the ride bell” 8th-note attack. How does it always manage to sound like only you?
Joey: I don’t know. People sometimes ask me how I do stuff, but I have no idea, because I just do it. My feet do it and my hands do it. I don’t take notice of it, and it just comes out the way that it does. I don’t try to analyze stuff—I just let it be what it is.
MD: In the live setting, what are you experiencing behind the kit after so many years? Any challenges?
Joey: I don’t really feel any different now than I did twenty-five years ago. I have a strict physical routine that I do. I work out and try to eat and sleep right. I take care of myself, and that’s the key, because most drummers who do anything near what I do are half my age. I enjoy my playing a whole lot more now than before. I’m a lot more forgiving to myself—I’m a lot freer and more accepting. I’ve changed as a person over the last six or so years, and it’s really reflected in my playing.
MD: Is it a purely emotional thing? Or is it also physical, like the equipment is different or the sound on stage is better? Can you point to something specific?
Joey: That’s a really good question. I’ve never really asked that question of myself. I think it’s all within me. Everybody is sober now. We’re aware that all eyes are upon us because of who we are and what we’re doing and how old we are. I don’t think there’s a band out there that does what we do, really. I’m just grateful for what we have and what I have. I’m proud that we can still be making music and bringing as much joy to people as we do.
MD: How do you keep yourself from being bored with songs you’ve played every night for decades? Do you think about it being a kid’s first Aerosmith concert?
Joey: I always want to give a hundred percent. I try to keep it fresh on my own. It’s definitely a challenge, but you have to come up with different stuff to play here and there without getting so far away from the song that it’s unrecognizable. You’re playing for everybody else, but you have to play for yourself as well. My tech on stage is also my son, Jesse. [See sidebar on page 50.] He’s an accomplished drummer himself, so he’s always watching me, checking out what I’m doing. He’s learned a lot from me, I’m sure, but he’s also playing percussion live with us on several songs, so we have a lot of fun together. With the percussion and teching, he’s pulling double duty.
MD: In terms of keeping things fresh, do you find that you’re restricted on up-tempo tunes but you can really work out on slower groovers like “Last Child”?
Joey: I think it’s the opposite of what you just said. In “Last Child” you’ve got to pin it down and make that pocket stink. You can’t be playing too much. And I’ve always found it easier to play fast than to play slow. If you’re getting bored or tired playing these songs, there’s something wrong.
MD: Do you ever get looks from the other guys on stage when you’re improvising something?
Joey: Only if it doesn’t come in on time! [laughs] Everybody is really conscious of the groove, because that’s what we’re about. The consistency of playing—especially the drums—can’t stop. If it does, it’s no good. So whatever you’re doing has to be within the context of what’s happening to begin with. You can’t make the song trip; it’s got to keep walking.
MD: How is it hooking up with Tom Hamilton after all this time?
Joey: Tom and I make mistakes together. I don’t think it gets tighter than that.
MD: In terms of the identity of your playing style, I think of you as the shuffle king. The shuffles on “Same Old Song and Dance” [from 1974’s Get Your Wings], “Big Ten Inch Record” [Toys in the Attic], “Critical Mass” [1977’s Draw the Line], “Rock in a Hard Place” [1982’s Rock in a Hard Place]—all different, all slamming.
Joey: One of my favorites is “Stop Messin’ Around,” from [2004’s] Honkin’ on Bobo. I don’t know if people think of me that way, but as far as I see it, it’s one of those things a good drummer needs to be capable of. There are at least a dozen ways to play a shuffle, and you have to be sensitive to whatever way fits the song.
MD: What would you say are your most famous drum parts, and who were some of your inspirations coming up?
Joey: The end of “Sweet Emotion” [Toys in the Attic]. Maybe “Nobody’s Fault” [Rocks], which was inspired by John Bonham. That’s what I was listening to at the time. I don’t know a drummer who’s not inspired by the guy. He changed the face of drumming singlehandedly. I’m not sure anyone’s come along and done the same thing in quite the same way that he did. “The Crunge” is probably my favorite, and “The Wanton Song.” But a lot of guys have inspired me. Mitch Mitchell, Clive Bunker from the original Jethro Tull. A big one for me was Dino Danelli from the Young Rascals. And Clyde Stubblefield from James Brown’s band.
MD: The Live! Bootleg album has an early-’70s performance of JB’s “Mother Popcorn.” You’re very funky on that.
Joey: My roots are heavily implanted in rhythm and blues. James Brown was a big influence on me. Years ago I played in a band called Unique 4. At one time they were called Chubby & the Turnpikes, and later they became Tavares. There were five guys out front singing, and I played in the backup band. They taught me a lot of stuff and took me to the Sugar Shack in Boston and the Apollo in New York to see James Brown.
They’d always say, “Watch the drummer,” because the drummer would accentuate the choreography of the singers. That’s where I got turned on to that feeling that I realized I really liked, which was Brown and Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire. And when I met Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton and these guys, they were all coming from the Stones and Zeppelin. That, together with what I was already listening to, is pretty much what I’m all about. That’s really what I bring into the mix.
MD: Lots of different flavors there.
Joey: Everybody has different roots. Tom loves the Byrds and the Beatles, and Steven loves the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the Yardbirds. Joe was listening to Ten Years After and Jeff Beck, and Brad was into Jimi Hendrix. It’s a combination of all that stuff that makes up what the band sounds like. And forty years down the line, I don’t think any of us is comfortable being mentioned in the same kind of company as the bands that influenced us. When people talk about us in the same way they talk about the Stones or Led Zeppelin or the Who, I feel like I don’t relate to that.
I think that’s part of the reason why we still have the ability to do what we do—we still see ourselves as what we were back then, and we try to hold true to that form. When we go up on stage, no matter what kind of drama is going on in our lives, it all pretty much gets forgotten when we do what we do. The one common denominator is that we all love to play, and that’s responsible for us being the way that we are.
MD: That’s a humble way to look at it, but you’ve been creating classic music for a long time. Otherwise, you would have gone away after Night in the Ruts or something in the middle period there.
Joey: I know! This band is just as much a miracle to me as it is to anybody else! That’s why I try to make myself available to fans and to people who are respectful and can carry on a conversation without being affected by who I am. That’s fun, and it’s one of the ways that I’ve changed over the past six years. I owe that to my wife, Linda. She’s really helped me open up as a player and as a person. She made me realize that the fans love me and I should be grateful for this. She turned me on to communicating through social media, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive response from it.
MD: In terms of your heroes and their influence on you, how has it changed over time? Do they sound different to you now? I know that as a drummer, I always think that if I get better, the gap between my abilities and my heroes’ playing will close, but it’s the opposite—the more I learn, the deeper they seem.
Joey: What I love most about it is that it hasn’t changed. All the guys who I identified with—Clyde Stubblefield, Clive Bunker, Dino Danelli—it was about how it felt. And it feels the same way to me now as it did back then. I can maybe understand it a little better now, but it still feels the same. If it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t matter. You can be playing the most complex, technically difficult figure in the world, but if you can’t make it feel good and it doesn’t groove and it doesn’t stink, it’s useless.
The one guy I know that has the ability to play the kind of stuff that I like to hear a drummer play, and who also makes it feel really good, is Dennis Chambers. He and I are pretty good buddies. You can put Dennis behind a jazz band, or a salsa band, or a soul band—he’s comfortable anywhere. One of my favorite bands ever is Tower of Power, and there are clips on YouTube of Dennis playing with them. As much as I love David Garibaldi and how he plays with TOP bassist Rocco Prestia, Dennis did a different thing. Garibaldi is very busy and it gets a bit consuming, while Dennis is little more open. I watch guys like that and I think: It’s really interesting that these guys are playing the same instrument I play! [laughs]
MD: You’ve also gone back to Ludwig drums after a long tenure with DW.
Joey: Yeah, a couple of years ago I got hipped to Ludwig’s Legacy Classics, and they’re manufacturing those drums the same way they did in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which is when I was with Ludwig for a long time. And that was a time when anybody who was anybody was with them—Ringo, Bonham…. If you were a drummer and anybody knew your name, you played Ludwig drums. I recently bought a Ludwig kit and was so impressed that I went back with them.
MD: Let’s talk about your book.
Joey: It’s an interesting story. I worked on it for four years with my good friend Keith Garde. Unfortunately for me, the book was released the day after Michael Jackson passed in 2009, and it got lost in that media shuffle. But it keeps coming back to me. People are always coming up and mentioning it. The main thing I wanted to do was help out other people, because I knew there were a lot of people suffering from depression and other things I went through. The thread that runs through the book is the confusion between love and abuse. All of us fight with that now and again in our lives.
Now people say, “Wow, your book saved my life.” There’s really no shelf life for a book, so it’s still out and about. People are bugging me to write another one, which I’m beginning to think about doing. The book is what it is, and it’s the real deal. If it helps as many people as I’ve been made aware of, well, then my mission is accomplished.
MD: It’s a different kind of thing having people come up to you to discuss that as opposed to drums and music.
Joey: I’m out there doing what I do. If it helps somebody out, that’s great. I enjoy the rapport with the fans now. I’m just grateful for what I’ve been able to do for the last forty years. I’m grateful that I’ve been sober for the last twenty-five years. I have gratitude for what I’ve been able to do in life, what I can do and what I will do, and I’m taking advantage of it now.
I even have a new line of coffee called Rockin’ & Roastin’. I’ve always been a coffee connoisseur. When I get to the gig in the afternoon, I have a couple of cups of real strong coffee, and it keeps me going until I hit the stage, at which point my body goes into that mode that my brain is so familiar with. It’s unfortunate that you have to get older before you appreciate so much of what you have, but that’s the way it goes.
MD: So, in all seriousness, what’s the more famous part in “Walk This Way”—the guitar riff or the drum part?
Joey: I think you know the answer to that! [laughs]
MAKE THOSE DRUMS CRY FOR MERCY
Jack Douglas on Joey Kramer
Jack Douglas has engineered and produced Aerosmith recordings since the ’70s, including the albums Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, Rocks, Draw the Line, Rock in a Hard Place, and Honkin’ on Bobo. He’s even been called the sixth member of Aerosmith, due to his close relationship with the band. “No one hits harder than Joey,” Douglas says. “No one. He seems set on beating his snare to death. His bass thuds a low cry for mercy every time he kicks it, and his cymbals seem ready to explode like panes of glass as he strikes. His toms have a look, like, I hope we’re not used in this song, and at the end of a take they look sad and beat. And he does all this damage with the preciseness of a Swiss watch and the subtlety of a B-17 bomber. There is no other drummer on earth that makes me jump and makes my eyes blink when I’m within fifty feet of him. God bless Ludwig—they can make a snare that stands up to his punishment night after night.”
Douglas continues, “Joey is such an integral part of the power of Aerosmith. There isn’t a drummer who could take his place and have the band still sound anything like itself. Songs are written with his character in mind, as in, ‘This is going be great when Joey gets his hands on it!’ While recording Music From Another Dimension!, Joey was always ready to go the extra mile. Move the drums three times in a day? No problem— if it’s going to be cool, he’s into it. No attitude and no grief, just a smile and a great sense of humor. And he always comes to the sessions in great shape. He gets a good workout in because he knows it takes stamina to work as hard as he does.
“Let me put it this way: We all agree that Joey is the guy you want next to you in a foxhole—as long as he doesn’t bring his sticks.” Billy Amendola
AS SOLID AS EVER
Marti Frederiksen on Joey Kramer
Marti Frederiksen has worked with Aerosmith since the mid-’90s, producing the band’s 2001 album, Just Push Play. He’s also cowritten several of the group’s hit songs over the years. “It’s always the same working with Joey,” Frederiksen tells MD. “It’s always great! Every time I go into the studio with him, we go in alone and knock it out. Joey loves to focus and really get the right drum parts to make the song. Joey Kramer is undeniably as solid as ever on the drums.” Billy Amendola
Double duty is double the fun for Joey’s son, Jesse.
MD: As if adding live percussion to classic Aerosmith tunes isn’t enough, you’re also your dad’s drum tech. How does that work?
Jesse: It’s got its moments. My plate is full as far as what I’m doing during the actual show. I get there and I set up Joey’s kit and the percussion rig. Joey and I have always had a great relationship, so as far as working and the father/son thing—those two things went hand in hand and it was really smooth from day one. It works to our benefit. Joey gets the upper hand in some situations, but sometimes I’ll suggest things to him—it works both ways.
MD: You’ve grown up with this famous dad, and now you’re on stage playing with the band, directly involved.
Jesse: Growing up, seeing them play my whole life, I’ve always loved and respected their music, and it was the blueprint of how I approached everything from musical decisions to business decisions, though the majority of the music I made wasn’t rock ’n’ roll—it was a lot of hip-hop, soul, R&B, jazz, and funk. I got into hip-hop through graffiti when I was in boarding school. J Dilla changed my life. So playing-wise I came from a different place when I started playing percussion with Aerosmith.
It sounds like it could be easy, but…. Like Steven Tyler or Joe Perry would say, “You play drums—just hop on there and play percussion!” [laughs]
MD: What if you’re playing percussion and a cymbal stand falls over? Is there a third guy to take care of that?
Jesse: No! [laughs] That’s why my plate is full. I’m playing, but all eyes are on Joey.
MD: What kinds of parts are you writing for the tunes that didn’t originally have percussion on them?
Jesse: Less is more with Aerosmith in terms of percussion. A sprinkle here and a sprinkle there is really all it needs to give it something special. I don’t need to overdo it. They never had it, and I’m imagining what’s it’s like for someone in the crowd who’s been seeing them for forty years, so I want to do it justice. In terms of the parts I’m writing, I’m trying to use my intuition as a musician and producer and just feel it. I had the opportunity to tech for the incredible percussionist Pablo Batista, and he dropped some knowledge on me in terms of what I should do. I was hesitant to do it, because I’m really a drummer.
I’d say I’m playing percussion on about 60 percent of the show. There’s a bit of pressure on me because the band trusts me to play on what I feel like playing on, but some songs don’t need it. Steven Tyler really pushed for me to do the percussion, and his choice would be to have me up there for the whole show.
MD: What are some of the highlights each night?
Jesse: When Joey goes into his solo, he does this Clyde Stubblefield type of groove and I jam along with him on the congas, just locking something in the pocket. Something as simple as that can really get the crowd going. “Lover Alot” and “Sweet Emotion” are high points. I also like “Combination” [from Rocks]. I lay down some timbales and play my rig, which, along with congas, timbales, shakers, and tambourines, includes the 12″, 13″, and 16″ toms from a set of Vistalites.
MD: You played on a couple tunes on the new record as well.
Jesse: I co-wrote “Lover Alot” and play on “We All Fall Down.” I was in the studio setting up and getting sounds, because I know how to hit the drums with the same velocity as Joey. So I played through the track a few times before Joey came in. They let me take a crack at it, and the final version has me on the second verse, when the drums kick in, and Joey on the choruses and bridge. That’s the band paying me respect in the highest form possible.
MD: What’s on the horizon?
Jesse: I was in a band for a long time called Destruments. And I’ve been focusing on my art career, painting and doing commissions. I collect a lot of vinyl and I create and produce beats. That’s most of what I do every day. My art and music are created under the name SeasOverSeas. I’ll have a new record dropping soon. I have so many outlets—graffiti, hip-hop, acrylic canvas painting, skateboarding. If I didn’t have those, my drumming wouldn’t be what it is.
Jesse Kramer’s setup includes vintage Ludwig Vistalite toms; LP timbales, congas, and percussion; custom-made shakers; and Zildjian DIP Z4A sticks.
Drums: Ludwig Legacy Classic in custom red/gold finish
- 6 1/2×14 Joey Kramer Signature series snare
- 9×13 tom
- 16×16 floor tom
- 16×18 floor tom
- 18×24 bass drum
Sticks: Zildjian DIP Z4A
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare and tom batters and Clear Ambassador bass drum batter
Hardware: DW Airlift throne and 9000 series bass drum pedal, hi-hat stand, and straight cymbal stands
- 14″ A Mastersound hi-hats
- 19″ A Custom crash
- 18″ Armand Medium Thin crash
- 21″ Z Custom Mega Bell ride
- 19″ A Custom Projection crash
- 14″ A Custom Rezo auxiliary hi-hats
- 20″ A Custom crash