Just Because: An interview with Jane’s Addiction Drummer

Stephen Perkins

Part I

How many bands can take credit for starting a full-on movement in rock music, recording two albums that influence thousands of bands, inventing a groundbreaking alternative rock music festival, doing enough drugs to kill a herd of elephants, breaking up, and reuniting for a tour that sells out every venue? Then, a dozen years after the release of its final album, imagine that this band records a new album that stands up to its formidable legacy? Not many bands could pull that off, but Jane’s Addiction did it. With the addition of Chris Chaney (Alanis Morrisette, Methods of Mayhem) replacing original bassist Eric Avery, Jane’s Addiction founding members Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, and Stephen Perkins spent a year in the studio with legendary producer Bob Ezrin to record and release its long-awaited comeback album, Strays. A stellar return to form, the fury and bluster and beauty that is Strays make it one of the best rock albums of the year, basking proudly in the glow of Nothing’s Shocking and Ritual de Lo Habitual, Jane’s two previous, staggeringly brilliant albums.

Shortly before the release of Strays, and prior to 2003’s re-launch of the Lollapalooza tour that Jane’s Addiction made famous, I spoke with drummer Stephen Perkins on the phone for an hour and a half. Stephen schooled me in the history of Jane’s Addiction, revealed what it took to make this new album, talked about how the band survived the dark times, got all the way down to describe just what goes into the tribal sound of his insane drumming style, gave props to every bassist he’s ever played with, and had a giggle talking about what it was like to play drums for Tommy Lee’s Methods of Mayhem. Jesus, what a great interview.

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In an old interview I read, you said that when Jane’s Addiction first dissolved, it was because the band felt incapable of fulfilling its creative impulses – that there was no “next album” in the band to make. What was the impetus for deciding to make a new Jane’s Addiction record?

At that time, maybe if we’d had a great manager, he could have told us, “Take a year off from each other, do your thing. Then come back and make a record.” But after we toured eight months on Ritual… we were just so burned out. We had a great writing spurt right before Nothing’s Shocking and during the tour for that album. Then we toured Ritual for a year almost and… we had to split up. After Lollapalooza, after that whole thing, there was no chance of going into the studio and having that communication. We lacked that open feeling, where you can paint on a canvas together and one guy goes with the blue sky and another guy starts adding gray, and you have to melt into each other – you can’t fight it. At that point, we were fighting it. I felt like there was no steam left and no one gave us – we didn’t give each other – a chance to refuel.

Perry and I were really hungry to work, and I joined Infectious Grooves immediately for a little tour. I was so depressed with what had just happened, I had to get back on the road. Dave and Eric went immediately into Deconstruction, Perry finished the Jane’s movie, Gift, and I went on tour with Infectious Grooves.

And then you and Perry started Porno for Pyros…

Exactly. As soon as I got home from that tour, Perry and I started ‘Porno.’ In reality, I was supposed to work with Dave and Eric on Deconstruction, that [album] was coming out when Rick Ruben’s label was under Warner Bros. Warner Bros had Jane’s Addiction and they were feeling a little strange that all three members of Jane’s Addiction were making a record without Perry. They were trying to get Perry involved and I thought – you know what? – my playing drums with Deconstruction is going to make this whole political problem. I decided to bow out and do Porno For Pyros.

You know, we did some great stuff; we traveled to Tahiti, Fiji and Mexico, all these wonderful sports, and we wrote the record that turned into Good God’s Urge. “Tahitian Moon,” “Bali Eyes,” all that stuff was written in those spots. It was a wonderful, great time, but we never really toured much. We never worked that hard or got that busy as far as doing live shows. It was more of a kicked-back situation than Jane’s, which was constant work. Jane’s was actually together for six years, the same length of time as Porno, but Jane’s did a lot more damage.

I remember reading about Jane’s Addiction in the LA Times, I think before Nothing’s Shocking even came out. You could just tell at the time that here was a band that would really change things.

Yeah, we had a moment in 1986 when things were ready for a change and – you know what? – we were happy to do it. Not only were we putting on our own shows and staying away from the typical Sunset Strip clubs, we were also throwing our own parties in downtown LA that didn’t start until one or two in the morning. The band was just part of the party, it wasn’t like just going to a club to see a band; we had a nice little scene happening. That scene allowed us to explore musically. David and I were just eighteen when Jane’s started. Perry was twenty-six and Eric was twenty-three or twenty-four. They were into different types of music and they were out of high school for years, while Dave and I had just graduated. We were into more of a hard rock, Led Zeppelin-heavy sound, and we had been playing that type of stuff in our high school years. Then Dave and I met those cats, they were more into Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees and Bauhaus. I think that was the sound of Jane’s Addiction; mine and David’s electronic craziness – you know, we loved to do little flurries, fast drum fills and guitar fills – and Eric and Perry’s slow, deep, dark sound.

At that moment, the scene had, in LA at least, a lot of the glam rock with Ratt and Motley Crue and other bands that sounded like them. Many of the people I knew were not going for that, for whatever reason. Then, all of a sudden, there was a big scene that happened and there it was; Jane’s Addiction had the chance to lead it. We took it seriously, too.

In that way, and this is something I just flashed on with hindsight, you guys had a Nirvana-like impact at that moment.

It was a lot of fun, because we toured in our little van. We played the Metro in Chicago and Smashing Pumpkins opened up for us. They sounded a lot different [from us]. Jimmy (Chamberlin) says that the day after they opened for us, they all went and bought Marshall full stacks, to pump it up a notch [laughs]. The same thing happened when we went to Seattle. We showed up in 1987 and played two or three nights there. A lot of the local bands [at that time] turned into Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam, and of course, at the time there was Mother Love Bone. Krist Novoselic and all those cats were at the shows.

When we played the 9:30 Club in DC, Dave Grohl was there when he was seventeen. I still talk to Dave and he said he came up to me at that show and was like [imitates a teenage Dave Grohl], “Do you like John Bonham? Because I’ve got a tattoo…” He’s got the three rings [Bonham’s person symbol from Led Zeppelin 4].

I remember that Jane’s was making a scene in LA, then taking that LA scene and bringing it all around the country. It was influencing people, because there was a lot of passion to our music and what we were doing. I guess, when you have all that flurry of passion, and then you tour and tour and then there’s more passion, it finally runs out…and that’s why we broke up. It was just a very hot fire and the oxygen just ran out. That’s why Porno was more like, “Let’s go to Mexico for two months and Tahiti for a week and Fiji for month. Let’s enjoy this and write songs on the beach.” We went for a whole other approach, on purpose. That attitude also had an influence on our work ethic. You didn’t see too many Porno shows, but we were having a great time. It was the complete opposite of what Jane’s was, which was a beautiful thing; working out of a garage and writing all the songs and touring in the van. Porno was just about enjoying the tour and enjoying ourselves immediately. We took advantage of it and it was a lot of fun.

There’s an excellent new documentary film out now called Three Days, which chronicles the Jane’s Addiction reunion tour of several years ago, when Flea joined the band. How did that reunion happen?

As Porno released Good God’s Urge, our guitar player, Peter (DiStefano), got sick. He’s doing great now, but he survived cancer. Martyn had quit a little before that, and Mike Watt did some touring with is. When Pete got sick, Dave Navarro and Flea started helping out the band. All of a sudden, Porno for Pyros was Peter, David, Flea, Perry and I. We did the Howard Stern movie, and we did a concert for him in New York. At the moment we did “Mountain Song” on stage, we looked at each other and kind of felt like, okay, the stone is starting to turn. That’s when we decided to do the Jane’s Addiction tour in 1997, with Flea on bass. Peter had to stop touring; he had to go home and take care of himself and get healthy. That turned into what started up Jane’s Addiction [again]. We did maybe twenty-five shows and it was awesome, but at the end of the tour, it got a little weird. Dave and Flea split up. That’s when John Frusciante rejoined the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave continued to finish his solo record.

How does that bring us to where you are now?

I started a project called Banyan with Mike Watt, Nels Cline, and a trumpet player called Willie Waldman. It was like Miles Davis meets King Crimson, all instrumental. I started Banyan, Perry released his record and Dave released his record. In 1999, someone approached us to do a big concert and we asked Martyn from Porno to play bass. That big concert turned into our Jubilee tour, right after September 11th. That was kind of weird, but it was really needed, because we brought a lot of happy music to happy people who were excited to hear it. It was pretty intense, but we did it. After that tour, we decided to try to make this record, go on tour and commit ourselves to Jane’s Addiction. Who’s up for it? That’s when we started with the record that became Strays.

You had Bob Ezrin come in to produce Strays, and of course he is such an amazing, legendary rock producer. What did he bring to the project?

Bob is the shit! We had the best time with the guy. He’s really good at capturing what everybody is good at playing, you know? He knows how to pull out what we all do best. He’s also the greatest musician, and he understands songwriting and phrasing of the lyrics and the drum sounds, technique and all that stuff. You’ve got twenty or thirty years in the making of Bob Ezrin. To me, we captured the energy of Jane’s Addiction with the positive, electronic spark that was (imitates Perry’s voice from the song “Ocean Size”) “Three, Four!” Smash! That is right on, but it’s also a new sound quality, sonically, and the progression of being ten years older, smarter, better on our instruments, and having all of the different stuff you can use at your fingertips in the studio now. All that shit goes into the new Jane’s Addiction.

How else has the band dynamic – both personally and musically – changed in all this time?

It’s just completely on fire – dynamic and psychedelic and quiet…and everything that Jane’s is. To me, we’ve done it, and now we’re more focused than ever. It was never that focused with Lollapalooza back in 1991. Things were running out of steam after touring for eight months and losing focus on who wanted to do what with the band. Now I feel like we’ve got a way to drive.

How do you think Strays stands up to the two previous Jane’s records?

It’s way harder; twice as deep and dynamic and heavy. It ain’t kinder and gentler; It’s heavier and faster and more furious. We’re pissed off! You can listen to “Whores” and you can listen to “Had a Dad” or the end of “Ted Just Admit it” – [sings] “sex is violence!” – all that. You can put it right next to what we’ve just done, and it’s just fucking right there. It’s just like, Uh! We knew, as Jane’s Addiction, we could do anything we want, but if we’re going to call it Jane’s Addiction, we know we’re driving a Porsche or Ferrari. Jane’s Addiction is putting your finger on fast – and not fast as far as tempo but fast as far as what we’re doing. We’re hypersonic!

I like what’s happening in music, to a point. Most of it’s crap, but if you dig deep you can find some gems out there. Definitely, there are some gems. As far as the hard stuff and as far as the new electronic music and, of course, the influence of hip hop on everything, I mean, there’s some great stuff out there…but how many bands are crafting great songs and tapping into that energy? Not many. A lot of the musicianship is going down hill because of ProTools. You can get an ‘okay’ take and the producer can say “I’ve got it, we’re happy. We can fix it, we’ll make it work.” All that crap has completely brought the level down, along with the songcrafting, you know?

I sure do. So this has really been like a true homecoming so to speak – after each of you had your own journeys apart… that sort of thing.

It’s an amazing thing, because we love each other and kind of deserve each other. When I listen to our music – and I’ve been playing with Dave since I was fourteen and playing with Perry since I was eighteen, and I’m thirty-five now – we’re all just intertwined musically and we’re friends. It’s all there. It goes back so far that it’s easy to do this together. That’s why I feel great about Chris, because he’s a brand new ingredient, and these old friendships are being sparked by his new friendship and the way he looks at it. Chris went to Berklee School of Music and he’s got this whole other idea of theory and stuff that Dave and Perry and I take into consideration, but we don’t know that much about it. I don’t know much about music theory. Chris does and it’s really cool to have that kind of angle. He’s one of the band members, but his playing, his chops and his technique have nothing to do with the feel. The feel is all fat, round and groovy, but what’s behind all that is really schooled. He’s an amazing musician, to have all that together. He’s played on many records also. He’s the type of bass player that can learn sixteen songs for Michelle Branch, fly out and do a show as part of her band, then come home and finish the record with us. It’s a great additive to Jane’s as a band, because he’s an inspiration for us. Everybody’s pushing off each other, with new friendships like Bob Ezrin and older friendships. We’ve captured what we know we do best. I know what makes Jane’s bounce and sound tribal.

Yeah, your playing is definitely very tribal.

When we did the record, I went right to that. It’s like, “I’m going to the toms for this part.” I’m going to exactly what Jane’s Addiction is, but I’m doing it better because we can do it better now – and we can record it even better. Like I say, if you’re driving a Ferrari, make sure you drive fast. That’s what we’re doing. I know exactly what gets these songs going, to be the Jane’s sound, and so do Dave, Perry and Chris. Bob and our engineer, Brian Virtue, who helped us to the point where he’s just like another producer; everybody’s threw their ideas in there and made this great sound.

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On to Part II of this interview…

Jane’s Addiction:

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