For the better part of two decades, Russ Irwin has been the touring keyboardist for Aerosmith, and besides not tiring of seeing Steven Tyler's ass over that time, he's also managed to carve out quite a career as a songwriter, producer and session musician.
Along with Aerosmith, Irwin's played with Sting and Bryan Adams, and had his songs recorded by Meat Loaf, Foreigner and the Scorpions. In anticipation of Aerosmith's performance Saturday night at the American Airlines Center, Irwin talked about getting to play with his childhood heroes and how he doesn't mind spending time watching The Real Housewives of New York City.
What have been some of the weirder moments while on tour with Aerosmith? Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything weird that has happened. Nothing sticks out in my head, to be honest with you. It's a great band. Maybe it's weird how incredible the audience responds to the band from the beginning of the show. It's wild to see so many people waving in unison. That's incredible, I think.
Where you a big fan of the band before you became a touring member? Yes, I was. I really loved the band. I am a big fan of classic rock. I love Zeppelin and the Beatles. I also love the Police. Aerosmith was one of those bands I grew up with.
What is your favorite Aerosmith song? "Dream On" will always be a special song for me to play. I learned to play that on piano when I was nine years old. I joke with Steven about that. I played it at nine and now I am playing it in my forties.
Besides Aerosmith, you've also done live work with Sting. Were you nervous working with these acts? Well, yes, when you first start working with people like that there is a certain anxiety. That just goes along with it. You eventually realize that they are regular people and great musicians. You develop a mutual respect and a great working relationship. I have been so lucky. And I am incredibly grateful.
You are a singer/songwriter, keyboardist and producer. Is there one of those you like better than the others? It depends, really. It depends on the project I am working on. I don't think I like any one better than the others. It's all music. Whether it is an instrument I am playing or whether I am writing a song or producing, it's all about making good music.
Who is your favorite keyboardist? Who do you like outside of rock and roll? I like to listen to many who don't play rock because I want to understand their style of playing. I want to learn from them. I love Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Those would be my favorite piano players. Monty Alexander would be the biggest influence on my style of playing. I also love Keith Jarrett. I got to see him about six months ago and he was great.
You've recorded two solo records, but they were released 20 years apart. Why was that? I never really stopped recording. I just never got around to making albums. I recorded songs during that 20-year span, but my newest album [Get Me Home] was a fresh project. All the songs were written within a month of the first session. I was going to go into the studio and record some songs, something fresh, and work with some new people. I thought it would be a couple of tunes, but things went so well that we continued doing it and it became a record. It happened by accident.
The new album has a very urgent feel to it, just the title alone. There was an urgent vibe as we made the record. A lot of passion and soul-searching went on while I was writing that record.
Songs like "War Machine" and "Mother Earth" have a New Orleans feel to them. All rock and roll is rooted in the blues and I listened to a lot of old rock and roll records. "Mother Earth" is a cover song from the '40s or '50s. I was listening to a lot of Ray Charles and Little Richard while we were recording this record. We wanted to have some influence from that style of music.
Steven Tyler appears on your album. Did you simply ask him if he would do it? Most of the people on the record were people I knew personally. I was surprised everyone I asked said yes. I was playing the demos for people and just getting feedback. Steven heard a song and he said, "I want to sing on that tune." That was crazy. It all happened very organically.
You have worked with a very diverse group of musicians, from Clay Aiken to Meat Loaf. And some of your songs have been done by Foreigner and the Scorpions. Is there a method to appealing to artists of different styles? To be honest, I think all of them are related to each other. They are all based in classic songwriting, in both pop and rock. It wasn't like we were doing an R&B record or an electronic record. Even the Clay Aiken song was a cover. Most of those bands are classic rock bands.
One of your songs was used on The Real Housewives of New York City. You don't watch that show, do you? I don't hate it, actually. I've only watched it a couple of times. It's kind of entertaining.
Aerosmith performs with Cheap Trick on Saturday, July 28, at the American Airlines Center.