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Jane's Addiction's Stephen Perkins on breakups, makeups

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Jane's Addiction, with Perkins at back right - SUBMITTED PHOTO

Jane's Addiction is notoriously turbulent. Reunite, break up, scramble members, repeat. The hard rock band formed in LA in 1986 and alternates between constant touring and being completely unable to stand one another. Drummer Stephen Perkins has been there since the beginning — since meeting guitarist Dave Navarro and singer Perry Ferrell in the early '80s, Perkins has crafted not just Jane's signature tribal rhythms but also drums for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Porno for Pyros, Infectious Grooves, Hellflower and Methods of Mayhem.

Perkins described the intense sense of community that compels him in both his personal and professional life — which are constantly intersecting. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to talk to him openly about Jane's multiple breakups, but Perkins volunteered the information happily, summing it up with, “If [we're] having a good time and can jump in the ocean together and have dinner and have a laugh, [we] can definitely get on stage. If we can enjoy each other, than I think we can enjoy music forever.” Read on for more about his inspirations (including his favorite African artist, Babatunde Olatunji, his bar mitzvah and his new light, his two and-a-half year-old son.

NUVO: Good afternoon! Are you on the West Coast?

Stephen Perkins: Yes! I'm at home actually. I've been home for about a month. We've got a few weeks left before the last leg of the North American tour starts in August.

NUVO: Yes, and you'll be at Bunbury [Music Festival in Cincinnati] and then in Indianapolis pretty shortly after, so we'll see you twice in a fairly short time.

Perkins: Nice! Yeah, I've been looking at all the dates and we're doing some really smaller shows, [like] in Omaha. We did five or six shows in Florida and four or five in Texas. It's been a while since we've done this many shows through the states. We're having a great time with it. It's really interesting to be this band still, and get to these spots. It's like Ray Charles said: they don't pay you to play, they pay you to get on the bus and travel all the time.

NUVO: That was one of my questions — how do you put up with the relentless touring after all of these years? How do you stay balanced?

Perkins: Well, there is an insane anxiety starting right now. It's the countdown, getting back on the bus and leaving my wife and son. And once you're out there, you know, it's a boys' club. It's a fantasy land. You can do whatever you want and no one can find you. So, you know a few days into it, you're going down the road 80 MPH and you think “I'll get to the gig sooner or later.” But right before I leave, I get anxious and you know, kind of sad. But I get to play drums for forty or fifty hours and be backstage hanging with Dave and Chris — we have a little jam room — but that's the payoff: playing.

Technology helps, Skype and iChat and etc. It's definitely helping to stay close with the family. It's tough though. You make yourself comfortable at home and then you pack up and split.

When you're 25-26 years old, you think, “Man, there's nothing better.” Than when you're my age, you think, “Man, there's got to be something better!”

NUVO: You're ready for a much bigger bed [than on a tour bus].

Perkins: Yes! But you know, I love playing drums. I've wanted to play ever since I was eight. And every time I get on a kit I feel, I'm at home, I'm a hero, I've done it. I can die now, it's all perfect. The payoff is the drum set.

[Jane's] music is timeless, the lyrics are timeless. It's all about the performance and what happens that day. “Mountain Song” was written in 1986 and the new record was written a year and a half ago. You don't want to rely on what you used to do [when you were writing]. So you've got to pull from the moment. When the music was written, we were pulling from the environment. You have to do it on tour.

That's when I get to a town and I'm totally burnt, I go to check out the town. I go for a walk. If there's a cool walk, or fountain or punk rock area where people hang out, I go do it. That way, when you're done, you can look back at the last four weeks and think, “I did experience some cool things. I met people and tried new restaurants and listened to some new records.” That's how you keep the balance.

You get in a rut if you stay in the hotel room or on the bus day after day, if you have some time, and you don't get out. You start getting into that, and it gets dangerous. You go out to the gig and then come back into your little cubby hole. That's not living. That's like a factory worker. I really want to go and enjoy it. I like to taste the flavor. If I'm in Maine, I want lobster. If I'm in New Orleans, I want jambalaya. And I think that helps with the performance.


Inside The Great Escape Artist

NUVO: It helps ground you to where you are.

Perkins: Absolutely. You don't get out at the sheet and see New Mexico and say, “Hello, Albuquerque!” You have to feel New Mexico. You feel the red dirt, you saw the sunset. You got the breeze. And then you can feel it and be authentic. That's why I think Jane's Addiction has always been really real and authentic. Because if we're not, we break up. If we're not feeling each other, we can't fake it in front of people, even though there are obviously money and contracts and deals in front of us. But if you're not getting along, you don't want to be on a bus for 18 hours, or even in a studio. The studio time is the creative time. It should be the best time in your life. The bus time is the hang time. You want to be with the people. And people go through changes.

I envy The Chillies [Red Hot Chili Peppers] and Metallica. They go through changes and never break up. But Jane's, we really needed elbow room from each other to become better people. Back in the day, all we had was Jane's. Our pie was Jane's Addiction. Now, we've got a slice of Jane's, and other slices. My life is full. It's nice to bring that full life to the music, and bring the music back to my life.

NUVO: After so many years — over 30 playing the drums — and so much music, what's interesting you musically and creatively now?

Perkins: I love it when I hear or see a new band and something stands out. It's not about the chops, it's about the personality for me. I'm a big fan of the drummer for Mutemath. I just really love his playing. It's inspiring for me to see how this guy approaches the kit. I've got to study this. Not to rip him off, but to get behind my kit and get some fuel. He's good, man. What's he doing? I love personalities. I love musicians, I really do. Music can really change the tempo of my life. I'm listening to Slayer and I'm eating? I'm going to finish that meal really quickly. But if I have Brahms on? I'm going to relax and eat it.

Music really dictates my world. Growing up, it was jazz and rock. And then, as a drummer, I needed to experience other rhythms, Indian and African. African really stuck with me and I lean on African records for inspiration as a drummer.

NUVO: What are some of your most inspirational African musicians?

Perkins: Babatunde [Olatunji]. He just passed away maybe four or five years ago. He has records called the Drums of Passion. He actually would hollow out trees, 30-40 foot trees and turn them into drums. There's something very attractive about it. It's very primitive and simple, but it's really about the pulse and what it makes me feel when I hear it. Like I say, I put Slayer on and I feel a certain way. You put on a suit and you walk a certain way. When you put on Babatunde, I feel really good about myself. Just like when you hear “Satisfaction” by the Stones. African music can do that to me, just like rock and roll. Just like gospel can for some people, but not me. Or bee-bop can turn someone on, but not me.

Fela Kuli is amazing, but that's more of a James Brown funk thing. But Babatunde is like a true African shaman drum leader. Fortunately I was able to see them. Mickey Hart brought him out with the Grateful Dead, and I was able to see and experience that. There's something great about the simplicity of it. It brings me back to my favorite drummer growing up, Gene Krupa. He's a very African drummer, even though he's in a swing band with Benny Goodman. He wasn't your normal swing player with [sings swing rhythm], he's all African and tom-tom and cowbell. He had a sense of humor. He would make you smile with his drumming.

And that's the way African drumming is. Latin's more serious, and Indian [drumming] is like a conversation. But the African drumming, which is also very social and conversational, it's very tongue-in-cheek. You see African guys playing djembe and they're having fun and playing off each other. I love listening to “Mountain Song” where I really infused African drumming into the parts. And I can feel exactly what got me off on those records.

Jane's Addiction at the Rolling Stone Super Bowl Tailgate Party - KATHERINE COPLEN
  • Katherine Coplen
  • Jane's Addiction at the Rolling Stone Super Bowl Tailgate Party

It's also about today's global happenings. My friends, my experiences, what I had for lunch. I'm trying to infuse both the joys and sorrows in life and put that into the fuel of drumming. My canvas is a silent room. When I walk in there, how do I feel? I'm a talkative, hyper, bubbly person. So my drums usually sound that way. You can get my personality out of my drumming. And I think that's important. My favorite guys are personality players, not the chops. They've got chops, but they don't spray them all over you. They hold them in their pocket, and it's a personality performance. You've got to go live and pay attention to what's going around you.

As a kid, it was all about the speed. The machine gun. Look what I can do. But I have that in my pocket and I can break it out. But I know now, it's more about the sniper. It's the one shot that you need.

When I go practice, sometimes I'l spend like half hour just doing rudiments. How are you holding the stick? How do you bounce the drumstick off the head? Then, I'll get really dreamy and come up with esoteric rhythms that would really make sense to anyone in the room but me. Sometimes I'llget athletic and go double bass for 20 minutes and start to sweat and my heart's about to burst. The drums can give me so many different feelings.

And on stage, not only am I connected to the music and moment, but I'm thinking of all the people talking and breaking up and making up and fighting and flirting during my show. That's exciting to me. I'm just a backdrop. They've got a life going on, and Jane's Addiction's up there playing music but something is going on with them too. I think that's pretty cool. That's why I appreciate the really big shows because there's so much shit going on out there. When you play a festival, you can see a ferris wheel in the background.

NUVO: And see four or five other bands playing on other stages around you.

Perkins: Exactly! I love that I'm a part of that weird, psychedelic day. That's important to me. You're not up there, just being a craftsman, playing your part and going home. You're one of the few and one of the lucky because we get to be creative. It sucks, because sometimes you've got to do one song over and over, but actors do one play over and over and they can't change a word. No painter wants to paint [the same thing over and over].

NUVO: What song are you tired of playing?

Perkins: That's what I'm saying. It's not really getting tired of it. It's looking at the set and saying, “Eh,” but getting on the drums and thinking [as if he's starting a song], “Three, four, bam!” It never fails. When you're writing the setlist and you're in a room and it's quiet, does it sound exciting? Maybe not. Maybe you've looked at the tempos and thought, this is good to intro the band, this works in the middle, etc. But it's more exciting to play it than look at it. Looking at our [discography] is wonderful, but when you're on stage.....it's living in the moment. ”Mountain Song,” you can't mess it up. A part is a part, so you've really got to pull from the moment.

You see me play, and I enjoy the other three guys. I'm looking at them and laughing with them and making them laugh. Even though we're on stage playing full blast hard rock music, we still have our inner-circle jokes. It's like sitting at a dinner table. Even though you're eating and having a meal, you still want to communicate. And we do that when we're playing. That's why breaking up is good for us. I hate seeing bands that don't even look at each other. They've been doing it too long. At least Jane's Addiction, we've taken enough breaks to say, “Cool, we're on stage right now. Let's enjoy it.”


Jane's Addiction at Lollapalooza - Full concert

NUVO: Where do you think Jane's will be in ten years? Will you be broken up? Will you have reunited? Will you be broken up and reunited two times?

Perkins: [Laughs] Well, we just got the news that we're getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. So, you know, ten years ago I could never say that we would be back together with a star. We weren't even talking. The band and the friendships go hand in hand. If we can be friends, we can be a band. If you can unite as a friend you can unite as a band.

My best memories are in Jane's Addiction. I met Dave when I was 14 and Perry when I was 17. These guys are life-long. And Chris Chaney's been in the band longer than the original, Eric Avery. I was in Methods of Mayhem, Tommy Lee's band [with Chris], for instance. There's really long friendships here. I think that's the trigger. If you're having a good time and you can jump in the ocean together and have dinner and have a laugh, you can definitely get on stage. If we can enjoy each other, than I think we can enjoy music forever. We're all very different people with different friends and record collections. That makes it hard to be in the band, but it also makes it very original.

NUVO:
Could highlight a single moment from each decade with Jane's that sticks out for us? The '80s, the '90s, the aughts, the 2010s, whatever it is we're going to call them.

Perkins: In the '80s was when the bands first started and there was a downtown show. There was the Chili Peppers and Fishbone and X and believe it or not, everyone was there. The Sunset Strip and downtown scene was starting up a little. There was a moment when I was just a kid from the Valley, and the next day I was in the band that was leading the scene. And I felt confident. It was really right. The Chillies and Fishbone, they already had a record out. We were just starting. And there was a moment when everyone was like, “You guys are what the voice of LA is.” And I felt it, and I believed it. That was the pebble that we threw into the still lake and the ripples are still going. And that was a gig in downtown LA in 1986 called the Belive. There was maybe 20 great musicians there. That was a great night.

In the '90s, I would say that was Porno for Pyros at Woodstock. It was one of the weirdest, sickest shows we put on. Navarro was in the Chillies, and he was there on the side of the stage. Porn for Pyros is one of the darkest experiences I've ever been in. even though Jane's is known for darkness, Porno....was one hundred times darker. Also, they put us between The Allman Brothers and Bob Dylan. Very strange night.

In the decade before this one was, of course, Jane's reuniting with Eric in 2009. It was something that felt like an old shoe, but it also felt like we were stepping into the future. It was that moment when I really felt like there was a chance for the original band.

People said, were you surprised when he quit again? I was actually surprised he stayed that long. There are challenges it takes to be Jane's Addiction; it takes a lot of energy. And I knew he wasn't ready to bite that. Me and Perry and Dave had been doing that for so many years. But I could see, even with Duff and other cats, it's not easy to join this band. We have so many eclectic and weird ideas.

And my son was born two and a half years ago, so that's been the highlight of everything. Now that I have a boy in my life and a family, I look at music in such a different way.

NUVO: How so?

Perkins: I always thought, I make people happy with my drumming. And that's important. But now I realize, to make our son happy and somehow make all these strange people and acquaintances happy too, I loved that. I loved being there for them. But now I want to be there for my man. My little guy. I'm not going to say no to Omaha, not say no to Cincinnati. But that hour on stage, I'm really going to go for it. Because I'm away from my son for that hour. The only reason I left for three days was to play for that one hour. I look at music at this really important thing I need to do. I need to stay focused. And then I take that lesson to my son. Be in the moment with him. Because, two and half, then three, then he's ten. Life goes on. My time has come and gone and now it's his time.

Music was my whole pie. Now it's like a slice. But it's a very important slice that feeds me and my son, and my son feeds that too. I want to play for him and have him see me play. And have him see people move their asses to me.

NUVO: Tell me about collaborating with Dave Sitek [of TV on the Radio].

Perkins: I called him Sitek the Shit-tek because he's so awesome. I love his music because they're such a strange band. He shows up with basses and guitars and keyboards, turntables, amps, pedals. We just made noise for like three months and didn't worry about songwriting, me him and Navarro, the two Daves. We had that expiration that's lacking in a lot of young bands. People put them in a studio and start slicing away. That's how “Into the Live” came about and “Irresistible Force.”

The way he looks at drums and rhythm [is insane]. He would say, “Here's the bassline I'm working on,” [sings bassline], and I would say, “Here's my beat.” And he would say, “What about this?” And he would write a beat on a drum machine that I would never think of. And I would make a hybrid, or take that as inspiration. It was always new ideas being thrown into the pot. And he didn't care, because he wasn't Jane's Addiction. He was there as a sub in a weird way. He was like, “Use the idea or not, I don't care.”

Everyone in the band has ideas for the drummer. And that's okay. If you write a guitar riff, you may hear a beat that I don't hear. I'm not an ego guy.

Sitek was one of those brains that brought rhythm and melody and danger. He was urgent and in your face, which is what we needed. He was a great button pusher for both me and Dave, because we have old habits. We've been together since we were 14! I love working with him. Hopefully with Jane's or another situation. He was good for the band, good for the drummer, and all around an interesting, weird guy. Different record collection. He had stuff I've never heard of and I had stuff he'd never heard of. And of course there was disagreements in sound, and that is important. He went back to his band and went on tour and said, that's everything I've got, I've got to go. Chris Cheney, who's a great bass player, came back and heard everything we worked on. Sometimes he would let Dave Sitek's bassline stay, or imitate it, or come up with something new.

NUVO:
I'm going to let you go, but I have one final, kind of weird, question for you. You have an amazing Wikipedia biography. Have you ever read your own Wikipedia?

Perkins: [Laughing] I have not. How do you come up with amazing?

NUVO: It's almost kind of mystical. I'll read it for you. “ According to Perry Farrell's comments during a Jane's Addiction show in Tel Aviv on Sept. 1, 2011, Steven, who's Hebrew name is Shlomo, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on Aug. 31st 1980. The next day, he got his first drum set. The date of the show marking the 31st anniversary of Steven playing the drums.” It's almost like the beginning of short story — that tying of getting the drums and “becoming a man.”

Perkins: It's weird, but the connection that me and Perry have with Judaism — it's deep. The fact that we were both bar mitzvah'd and went through this ritual together. You know, there aren't that many Jewish rockers [laughs]. Well, there are a handful of Jewish rockers. I definitely feel like I needed to be a drummer in this lifetime. It felt like, when I got the drumsticks, it was about the spirit and capturing what it felt like to make people happy. That was a really good fuel, and I know Perry recognizes that. I love to play and I love to have people watch me play. Thanks for noticing. It's a honor for you to interpret it that way. I definitely think it's a spiritual instrument. They all are, but the drums are below the waist. They get you moving. Without sex, we don't go on as humanity.

NUVO: And that ties in with your love of tribal and primal rhythms.

Perkins: Exactly!

Special thanks to Joey Shepard for his contributions to this article.

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