Interview: Stephen Perkins

Stephen Perkins is the drummer for the hugely influential alt-rock band Jane’s Addiction, which formed in Los Angeles in 1985.

The band’s first studio album, Nothing’s Shocking, was released in 1988, and consists of songs ranging from the hard rocking “Ocean Size” and “Mountain Song”, to the funk rock “Standing in the Shower… Thinking”, to the dreamy, psychedelic “Summertime Rolls”, to the disturbing “Ted, Just Admit It…” about serial killer Ted Bundy, to the delicate junkie tale “Jane Says”.

In 1990, Jane’s Addiction released the follow-up album Ritual de lo Habitual, with songs including “Stop!”, “No One’s Leaving”, “Ain’t No Right”, “Three Days”, and their biggest hit “Been Caught Stealing”. Unfortunately, tensions between band members led to their break up, but not before the first Lollapalooza, which was created by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell as a farewell tour for the band.

After the break up, Perkins worked with Farrell in Porno for Pyros, and did guest appearances on Rage Against the Machine’s debut album and Nine Inch Nails’ album The Downward Spiral. Jane’s Addiction has reunited several times, and in 2011 released the album The Great Escape Artist.

The following interview with Perkins was for a preview article for the Jane’s Addiction concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl on 10/21/12. It was done by phone on 10/11/12.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming concert in Santa Barbara?

Stephen Perkins: Actually, we’re really looking forward to playing up there. I think this will be maybe the third show that we’ve done up there. We did an incredible show back in ’87 or ’88 at the college. It’s just been always fun to play Santa Barbara. It’s only two hours from our hometown. So we’re looking forward to it.

You know, what you get from Jane’s Addiction is the authentic urge to get onstage and play for you. Because if we’re not feeling it, we’ll break up. And that’s basically what’s happened a few times. If it doesn’t feel real good and authentic, let’s not fake it. Especially for the fans. So when we’re together, and we’re onstage, it feels like it did in 1987, 1986. You know, that aggression and that testosterone, but it’s not violent. There’s a celebration to our music, but at the same time it’s just got a lot of energy.

I always think about Jane’s Addiction as that one moment when Perry [Farrell] says “three, four”, BAM! If you ask me, that’s what you get. You’re getting that moment for an hour and a half, you know? It feels like that when me and Dave [Navarro] and Perry and Chris Chaney get together. It just feels right. And like I say, if it doesn’t feel right, we feel it, and we’re like, this is not working for whatever reason, so let’s not fake it. So when it feels right we go on tour. And we don’t do too many shows in a week. We like to kind of save it up a little bit. And we’ve been off for six weeks. A lot of energy and creative juice stirring in all the bandmembers, getting ready to get back onstage.

Halfway through the tour you get into a rhythm, and the songs are sounding completely tight. But when you start a tour, there’s a sense of danger onstage, not because it’s not tight, but because it just seems fresh again. You’re not halfway through a tour, you know, show after show after show. So there is this sense of getting back to it, as well. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I was actually talking to my drum tech Kevin that one day on a tour is like a week at home. You meet so many people, and you see so many new things, and try new foods and restaurants. Everything gets squeezed in. It’s like a funnel of life. And then you put it all onstage that night. You let it all out again. And that, to me, is touring, it’s really absorbing what’s around you, and playing in the moment.

Of course, you’ve gotta think, “Mountain Song” was written in ’86. We’re gonna play it, but how do you make it feel fresh for the band? How do you make it feel alive and relevant? You have to take your experiences from that day, from the week, what happened around you, global events even, and put it into the performance. I think that’s how Jane’s Addiction sounds and stays fresh and relevant. It’s because we do pull from what’s around us, and the environment. You can hear that in the songwriting, you can see it in the show. If we’re playing in New Orleans outdoors at 1:00 in the morning, it’ll be very different than playing in New York City in a small club at 1:00 in the morning. Something different happens. So, I think, we pull from the environment and each other, and then you get this manic explosion.

And, of course, there is the dynamic of Jane’s Addiction, the quiet, the psychedelic, the folk moments, and all of them have to be just as urgent as those hard rock moments. And if you can make “Classic Girl” or “Jane Says” sound dangerous and urgent, then you’ve got it.

JM: The 25th anniversary of the album Nothing’s Shocking is coming up next year. Do you have any reflections on that particular album?

SP: Absolutely. Actually, backstage we have our little jam room set up because we like to play for an hour or so before we hit the stage, so we have a full set-up. Halfway through the tour, about a month ago, we actually played the whole record in its entirety backstage, and it was chilling. I really felt something about the piece of music as a 48 minute piece of music, and the journey it took me on as a listener. As a drummer in a band, I love being in the band, but I do miss being part of the audience. You know, to put on a record of your favorite band and get into it, it’s hard for me to do that for Jane’s Addiction because I’m in the band. But I love knowing that people got married to “Summertime Rolls”, or one of our songs meant something to them. And that whole record is still like one big piece of music to me.

Making the record, and even Ritual [de lo Habitual], was basically taking our live show and bringing it into the studio and putting mics up, and a little bit of post-production. But that’s what we sounded like onstage. We just put the mics up and played, and there’s Nothing’s Shocking. And the same thing happened with Ritual. When we got to Strays and the new record, we weren’t such a live band that we could just go in and make the record. We had to go in and, almost like the new technology forces you to, kind of piece it together in a way. But back then, we’d just play it, put the mics up, and then listen back. It was all one take. Everything was one take back then. So what you hear with Nothing’s Shocking, and the feeling I get from it is magical enough.

Of course, the ripple effect and the impact, you know, I can only sit in the band and look at what happened, but I almost feel like you take a large glass of clean water, put a tiny drop of blue dye in the water, and the whole cup turns blue. Jane’s Addiction, we didn’t do much. We did one or two records, but the little drop changed the whole environment. We threw a small pebble into a big lake, but the ripples are still going.

What I appreciate about the band was really not the sound that we gave to other musicians, but really the attitude and the philosophy. You know, the punk rock attitude with some flashy playing. The attitude is do it yourself, make it original. But we had the players to back it up, and to go in many different directions. That’s what you hear on Nothing’s Shocking, that imprint. I’ve heard Billy Corgan, and Tom Morello, and a bunch of cats bring up our records as, those were the moments when they thought it’s possible really to not try to replicate what we’re listening to, but be original. Just like Bowie did. Take everything. You’ve really go to absorb.

Me, Dave, Perry, and, back then, Eric [Avery], we all had different record collections, and different friends, and we dressed differently. We were just different people. And that’s what we brought to the sound. That’s why the record goes in so many directions. And still does, all our music. We’re just different guys. You know, I mean, I love Metallica, but I think they probably have the same record collection, all those guys. That’s great. But you cannot find anything that Perry owns in my collection, and vice versa. It’s not going to happen. That’s the sound of the band, and that’s always been it. So I think that that realization for other musicians, like anything goes, just make it honest, make it urgent. And you can move forward.

It was a great scene in L.A. on the [Sunset] Strip at that time, when Nothing’s Shocking was being made, but our scene was after the Strip closed at midnight. Our scene was downtown L.A. with the Chilis [Red Hot Chili Peppers], and Fishbone, and X. Henry Rollins was around. It was separate from the Strip. The Strip ended so early, and those cats would come down, and you’d see G’n’R [Guns ‘n’ Roses] and Faster Pussycat and all that kind of stuff at our little scene, because our scene was so late. It was a late night party.

We actually had this incredible community, really, of what was happening in L.A. aboveground and underground. And Jane’s Addiction really was in that moment. You can hear that in the lyrics and in the music. Now, 25 years later, I look back at the making of that record, and I’ve got a few funny photos of us making it. That was the first time the band had any money, so we went in there and rented timpanis and church bells. We just went for it. It was just a great experience to have the time and the quality engineers, and the producer Dave Jerden was there, and Ronnie Champagne. These guys worked with us, and really created a piece of art. We listened back, and just like any artist, you can always change things. But you have to say, OK, it’s done. This is the piece of music, this is the art, and move on.

I don’t listen to the record very often. I don’t listen to any of my records from top to finish. I love to hear a song or two, here and there. But to play the record, like I say, a month or two ago, was just really exciting for me as a drummer. The way the songs have grown onstage, I took all that out and edited that, and played the record exactly as I played it on the recording, you know, that backstage thing. We all did that, me, Dave, and Chris. That was different too, because the songs have taken on another life. After 150 times they start changing. You listen to the record. “Oh, that’s the way we did it. OK.” So you replicate that, and it’s exciting to actually go back there.

JM: I first heard that album when I was a college student in Iowa in late ’88, early ’89. When did you realize that even college students in Iowa were listening to you guys?

SP: Well, our first road crew was from Burlington, Vermont. When we realized that they were into it in the little town of Burlington, which is a great town, you know it was obsessed with Jane’s Addiction, we realized, yeah, The Pixies are doing it on the East Coast bringing it west, we’re on the West Coast bringing it east. That was a great time in music, to see a change. Of course things changed as you go on. I mean, I can’t believe the Chili Peppers are still together twenty records later. They had two albums out before we even started. So to see if you stick to it and how you can become one of the biggest bands of all time like the Chili Peppers, you know, it was a brilliant time. To see what was brewing out of L.A., and it was, like you say, going nationwide and across The Pond into England, and into Europe, Australia, etc, Asia, things really started to spread. Like I said, that ripple effect was just a fantastic feeling.

You know, when you make your music, you just always think – I mean, why put it out if it isn’t – this is gonna be original, a life-changing experience for listeners. You know, that’s our goal [laughs]. Our goal wasn’t to sit there making music for each other, just to make a tape to bring home in our car. We just wanted to have something that really changed things, stirred things up. It was nice to actually know that it was doing its job. But I think that the environment that we started the band into, that feeling and that philosophy and that interest in stirring up art, was everywhere. We just kind of blew a little sand off of it. Here it is.

When you put on Bowie or The Talking Heads, you think, “Holy shit, this is possible!” You can be intelligent and sophisticated, and still rock somehow. That’s exciting to me. You know, Van Halen could never come out of New York. They’re below the waist California boys. But it was so interesting to hear what was coming out of the East Coast, more of the artsy stuff. And of course what was happening in England, that second wave, with Bauhaus, and Joy Division, Siouxsie [and the Banshees], and Echo [and the Bunnymen], not flashy players but really interesting players. There was a lot to pull from for Jane’s Addiction.

You know, me and Navarro were only 17, 18 when we started, so we were still into the flashy, let’s see how fast we can play mode. Eric and Perry were already ten years, maybe eight years above us, and they were over into that testosterone rock, and a little more of the mellow, if you consider Siouxsie and Echo mellow. So that was the combination of the band, the sound, and to me, you have to have a bunch of guys that are into different things to make it eclectic. You can imagine The Talking Heads, they were all very different people. I can’t imagine they were all into the same thing. I love to know that this band that I’m in and started back in the day had that kind of influence. Maybe we didn’t sell millions and millions of records, but we sold a handful of records to a handful of artists. And they went on to make art. And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s what I feel Nothing’s Shocking did. It ended up in the hands of some great musicians.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

SP: Just like any artist if you sit there and sketch, you sit there and paint or sculpt, at first you want to replicate the greats. That’s all you know. There has to be a time when you get you technique together, and you have your arsenal, your fingers on the fretboard, or your hands on sticks.

Once you get to that point when you can play, you’ve got to throw the book out the window, and you’ve got to find yourself. A lot of people consider my playing a personality. That’s what it is. You have to find your personality. My favorite players are not the technique guys. They may have it, or they may not. But it’s their personality. Mike Watt. Stewart Copeland. I don’t know the guy, but I feel like he’s got an attention problem, just by listening to his drumming – he’s everywhere! So I think that anybody who picks up an instrument, make sure your personality comes first, and bring that to the surface. Because it’s art. And that’s what you’re there for. You’re out there obviously to pay the bills, you’re out there to show off. All of that goes into your playing at first. I can make money, I can meet girls, whatever it is. But it’s really about the art, and being alone with the drum, or guitar, or piano, and trying to find what turns you on.

I used to play to every Zeppelin and Rush record over and over, until I found Babatunde Olatunji, the African drummer. I’m like, holy fuck! This has nothing to do with Western music, or rock music. But this is hitting me. Then my drumming became like African tribal, then I found my sound. It wasn’t imitating [Rush drummer] Neil Peart and [Zep drummer] John Bonham, even though fucking I wanted to, and I wanted to be that good. That was my goal when I was 14 in 1983, but then I found Latin and African records, and thought I can find my own personality. And I can play African beat and tribal stuff, that’s just who I am. I just feel more comfortable using tom toms and exploring my sound.

So I guess my advice is to get your shit together at first, but make sure you throw that book out the window. Because everyone’s buying the same book, and you’ve gotta get that out the window. If you’re too schooled, and if you know too much theory, you’re not taking chances. Music is not a math problem, even though it can be perfectly set up because there’s music theory, but you have to separate yourself from what’s right and what you feel. That’s really the key to being a happy musician. Successful is happy. I don’t want to be a rich drummer and hate my music. I’d rather be struggling and just fucking love it. This is what I’m doing, it’s different, it’s me. It’s breaking ground. If you don’t like it, fine, but at least I know I’m doing something that’s moving me.

When I heard Mutemath and that drummer, I was fucking into it. I’m like, this is turning me on. I don’t know if it’s just because he’s a great drummer and the music follows, or the music’s first and I love the drumming. But I finally heard a band that kind of made me feel like a kid again. It was Mutemath. And they reminding me to go back in my room and start practicing, not to practice like him and do what he does, because that’s not me, but practice more of what I do, inspired by him.

I guess that’s it, as a musician you’ll take that inspiration around you, but never ignore that inner sound or inner flight that you’re on. Because I can go, cool man, here’s a cool drum beat. It’s kind of Bonham-y. And everybody’s like, fuck yeah! What’s the point? What’s the point of playing that beat? Maybe I should come up with something that’s more me, and make everybody else feel, fuck yeah, that’s a good beat. Bonham died in 1980, man. What’s next?

I appreciate the new musicians, because what I had to draw from, jazz and rock and I guess whatever I dug up, now cats are getting drum beats that are made on an iPad with somebody’s fingers. And on a drum set they’re using their limbs to replicate it. Pretty exciting what the new musicians can pull from. I envy the young guys. If they stay hungry, and they stick to their guns, take all that stuff, that arsenal… put it in your pocket and then go be yourself.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about Jane’s Addiction?

SP: You can never know really how people see you, how people try to dissect the band or the relationships. But I’ve known Dave since I was 14. I’ve known Perry since I was 17. Lifelong friends. I met Chris Chaney in 1994. Porno for Pyros and Alanis Morissette did some shows together. Taylor [Hawkins] and Chris were the rhythm section, so I’ve been friends with them for a long time, too. Tommy Lee and I in Methods of Mayhem, Chris Chaney was on bass.

To me, the goal and the secret to this band is the friendship. People are wondering why we break up and get back together. It’s because if the friendships aren’t solid, we’re not going to fake it. And we’re not going to stay together, even though they’ll say there’s two million dollars for touring for the next twelve months. No, fuck it. I’ll be in a bus with you guys for the twelve months, too. All I can say about the band is that when the friendships are strong, we’re together. And it’s a unique experience.

Like anybody knows, with a very hot relationship with their girlfriend or their boyfriend, it cools off, and you’ve gotta realize why was it hot, and how was it hot? What made it so hot? Maybe we can get back to that. But you really can’t force it. It’s got to be a natural thing. Jane’s peaks and valleys and ebbs and flows of our work ethic and career have been, maybe looking back, not the best business decision. But emotionally and spiritually, the right decision.

I’m happy that we spoke. Like I said, I’m really excited about the SB Bowl. I’ve got a bunch of friends from L.A. coming up. I play better when my friends are there.

JM: One last quick question. Where are you speaking to me from?

SP: I’m in my house in Los Angeles. I’m a domestic motherfucker for now. I’ve been home for six weeks with my wife and son, riding bikes and doing stuff around the house. And I dig it. You know, I have my little drum set and a studio, and me and my little man play together. But I am hungry for a little more rock.


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