Stephen Perkins, drummer of Jane’s Addiction is a show in himself. He is an animated avalanche faster than God on a skateboard, loud as a tsunami with the power of a nuclear blast, but has the dazzle, blaze and sparkle of fireworks on the 4th of July. The backbone of the band, Perkins becomes one with the drum kit. Eileen Shapiro interviews.
“The passion for techno is older than techno itself. The passion for drums is older than their invention. And the time will come when the reason for both surpasses them”……Dan Van Casteele
LTW: We’ve had several conversations regarding Think:EXP however I never asked you how you got to this space?
Let’s back it up a little… I found the drum set a piece of art when I was 10 or 11. I would stare at a drum set and it would look like a sculpture to me. It wasn’t only a musical instrument, but it sparkled. It was loud. There was this magnet pulling me – even though I didn’t have any chops or a serious understanding of what to do with a drum set.I just loved looking at it and getting close to one. When I was around 10 or 11 or 12 my parents ended up giving me drum lessons here in Los Angeles. It was on a practice pad. I didn’t have a drum set at home, so I practiced on pads and pillows for about two years. I would put on a Stones record or The Beatles or Jackson 5 and I would play on pillows. I would find a rhythm and a different type of response from each pillow surface and try to get into this at home. It wasn’t till I was about 13 after my Bar Mitzvah that I was able to afford a drum set with my Bar Mitzvah money – I went and bought a drum set and it was an awakening. It was loud, it was noisy, the response was different to the pillows. I had to re-learn and kind of re-digest what hitting the surface was and what the response was and the sound that came out of it. That was almost like a rebirth of drums for me. But now I had a musical instrument that had melody and the sound of cymbals that resonated three or four seconds, maybe even 10 seconds. I would have to reflect on that as a drummer.
LTW:What kind of music were you first influenced by?
My first love for drummers was jazz drummers. They were so musical, and they all sounded so different from each other. I loved Motown and rock but the way I interpreted drummers, they all sounded the same. With jazz drummers everyone sounded different. I wanted to be a jazz drummer, so I started swinging and playing jazz records. But no one in Los Angeles at my age was buying jazz music or playing it. I couldn’t find a trumpet player or saxophonist or even a pianist, it was really all about bass and guitar. Everybody was playing bass and guitar and learning Sabbath and Zeppelin. I started to realize the kind of rock drummers that I was attracted to were actually jazz-influenced. Ginger Baker was swinging, and Ringo and Charlie and Bill Ward from Black Sabbath were really swinging back there: they were influenced by jazz guys like I was. But being surrounded by Marshall guitar rigs and Ampeg amplifiers you’ve got to play harder, you can’t lay back you’ve got to step on the gas. The experience I had at age 14 and 15 was exploring the rock drummer and how to play hard and powerful and not lose that swing: kind of like when Tarzan goes up one vine and is flying through the air before he grabs the other vine. That’s how I see the drum set. You’re steady, you’re holding and then you let go, and then you look for the next one. That’s how the drums are to me, like a big wave on a ship – you go up and down. You’re safe on the surface but you definitely feel the movement and it’s not consistent. It’s different. A big wave will take you up higher and a small wave will bounce you small, and that’s how I kind of see the role the drums have in rock ‘n’ roll and in jazz.
So, I was able to find great players but not fantastic musicians at 14/15. I found guys that would enjoy playing the rock ‘n’ roll stuff, but the easier stuff like the Ramones or AC/DC. I kind of started playing rock ‘n’ roll on the simple side of drumming in a sense, but still very athletic. At 15/16 I met Dave Navarro. Dave was a master on guitar and I thought “this is a guy I can play with.” Most guys weren’t obsessed with their instrument as I was and Dave was a natural. So finally, I met somebody that I could play with and explore some of the harder stuff, like some of the more progressive bands that still rocked – but we were thinking out of the box, there were some real chops going on. That expanded our pallet, there were more colours. We weren’t just black and white players, we had orange and blue and yellow. So at 16 we started a metal band called Disaster. We actually gigged the Troubadour, the Roxy, the Whiskey and at the same time Motley Crue, and Ratt, and Poison, all these bands were playing there. So, I got to hang out with Tommy Lee, I got to hang out with Stephen Pearcy, the singer from Ratt. Even though I was 8 to 10 years younger than those guys I felt like I could do what they were doing. They were just up there having a good time, wearing make up and ripped up T-shirts, and that’s what I decided to do. It seemed possible, it didn’t seem out of reach. When you were a kid you looked at people like Led Zeppelin and you thought to yourself that you could never be like that, they were from another planet. But on the strip you met all of these guys hanging out at the bar, and then getting on stage, and then hanging out down the street at the army surplus store buying spiked boots. They were just one of us and we were one of them. You just had to step on the gas and find yourself a good team that was all in the same state of mind and then it was all possible. If you had one weak link you were going to fail. We realised that Disaster was a good stepping stone. But we needed to start something new, a little bit more concentrated. So, in the summer of ’85 me and Dave were looking for a bass player to do a power trio and my girlfriend at the time had an older brother who was in a band with Perry, the singer for Jane’s. They were in a band called PsyCom, Psychological Communication.
LTW: Great name.
My girlfriend told me they were starting a new band and looking for a drummer. Perry was 26 and the bass player was 24 and I was only 17, so they weren’t looking for a teenager. They tried out a bunch of drummers maybe 10 or 15 drummers their age and my girlfriend suggested they try me. I showed up, they gave me an audition, and with the very first song they said “oh shit this is what we should sound like.” I told them “I have a guitar player, my buddy Dave who is just like me, he’s on fire.” It took about a week or two before I convinced the guys that my buddy Dave was going to be a better fit then Ed the guitarist they had in the band. Ed was also 25 or 26 and didn’t have the fire or the hunger that I had. We brought Dave over and just like my audition they chose Dave. This was Jane’s Addiction. The sound at that moment was really what you hear through the whole career, an electric, sensitive, dynamic band, paying attention to the poem. Perry wrote great lyrics, not about cars and girls – he wrote a song called Had A Dad, about God and losing your faith. These were real lyrics. I could take the lyric and get emotional – not only the baseline and the guitar solo, I was connected to the words. Then we started writing songs around his words. His words weren’t lyrics. He didn’t say the same things four times, he said one thing and then he moved on. It’s was a poem. The music had to conform to the identity of the lyrics and the placing, the way he would place the syllables. The poems and the electricity that me and Dave brought, the bass player Eric was a 180 degrees from me and Dave. He just liked to write baselines that just repeated itself. That’s all he did. That’s when I started realising the power of the rhythm section. I kind of thought of it like my favourite artist MC Escher. You have the white duck and the black duck – you don’t know which one you’re looking at, but it’s a pattern. That’s kind of what the rhythm section should be. It fits together and one without the other doesn’t make sense. You can’t have the white duck without the black duck – they fit together. That’s how Escher put it. I started to see the bass line and the drum part as this union. We had great poems, we had a lot of electricity with guitar, and a lot of sensitive topics that Perry had brought to the table to sing about – it wasn’t about getting laid or paid – there was something deeper than that. We had this great moment with the music and the lyrics and the combination – we all had different record collections, we all dressed different, we all had different friends, we were inspired by different music, art and books. It wasn’t like four of the same guys, it was four different guys. That was in 85/86 and the post punk thing in LA hit the ceiling. Some of the bands weren’t going to get any bigger. They did it, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, they were all there. But there wasn’t anything growing bigger than what they did. We already had Fishbone and Chili Peppers, they had some records out. It seemed like the strip was coming to an end. This strip was getting signed and most of it was crap. There was this urge and moment when heavy-metal and post punk both hit the ceiling. There was nothing left.
LTW: And then?
Jane’s Addiction. We would play these late night after-hours parties that started at 1AM. The strip would end at midnight so at a Jane’s Addiction party you would see all the cats from the strip – Poison and the others needed a place to go out all night. The post punk guys were putting on the party and we were the band. Jane’s Addiction was the house band. We had an audience full of an eclectic, colourful LA scene full of movie makers and film directors, rock and rollers, punks, artists, and I was only 17 years old. Most of these cats were in their mid-20s. I felt a little intimidated hanging with these older cats. But then again with what we were bringing to the table, they wanted to hang with us. Where is this energy coming from? Where is this excitement coming from? For our first show the Chili Peppers, X and Fishbone, were all there. They put us on their shoulders, they said, “You guys are mixing it up!” Everybody in LA wanted music to succeed. They said “let’s make music and change the world.
So, the Jane’s moment was just the perfect storm of punk and metal coming to an end in a sense. Something new needed to be stirred up into the blender. Eric and Perry were listening to Joy Division, New Order, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Echo And The Bunnymen, Iggy. Me and Dave heard of these bands but we were more obsessed with Iron Maiden and The Scorpions. So they opened up our eyes and gave us a whole other record collection. As a drummer in a parallel world I was obsessed with jazz and rock but then I got a little antsy and started buying African records, and Indian records. I would think what about an African beat to poem. So, I started to find my own voice as a drummer hybriding all these influences. I was around guys that accepted and encouraged it. I would always take cues from Perry. If he was singing about something evil, I would think evil. If he was singing about something beautiful I would think beautiful. I would let the lyric drive my emotional and organic drumming performance and not just be the Motown clock, which I think is important but I’m not that. I didn’t grow up in Detroit. I didn’t have a funk background. I grew up in LA where there were drum circles in Venice with half naked people playing drums and smoking weed. So it was a little more Grateful Dead, organic, social music in a sense. That was really the storm of Jane’s Addiction. Our first record we did live at the Roxy because we didn’t want anyone to step on us or try to produce us. After that we had a bidding war which we thought we deserved but now looking back…wow. We had Capital, Geffen, Warner, and a bunch of labels. Like I said everybody on the strip had already gotten signed, so we thought as you get better you get signed. That’s the MO. But they weren’t looking for the blonde haired David Lee Roth singer, they were looking for what was next.
LTW: And you were what was next.
Geffen offered us an amazing deal, but they had just put out Appetite For Destruction, the GNR record, and they kind of wanted to have the West Coast rock scene. We didn’t want to be produced and put together. So, Warner Bros were fantastic in the sense that they let us produce our own record, our own artwork. “We just want to show the world we are part of LA.” They told us to make our best record and they would put it in every record store. They were willing to give us choices of managers and agents. Warner Bros was going to have to work harder because we weren’t a Warner Bros band: we weren’t the Doobie Brothers, we’re not Van Morrison, we are a punk band. Warner had to rearrange the world a little bit to make it work for us. They didn’t care how long the song was, if there was cussing, they just wanted to know what we were doing and how to get it out there. So, looking back now, wow how lucky! There was a perfect marriage. So that was the first Warner’s record called Nothing’s Shocking, the second record was Ritual. It was kind of more progressive like Genesis and Yes and Rush. It was more of a progressive playing as opposed to punk rock because we’d been on tour for two years and we knew how to play. We really had a great live band. The Ritual record was basically just putting the mics up and doing in the studio what we had been doing on stage for the last two years. That probably was the best we could be. The friendships were strong, the recording session was great. The memories from the tour, the museums we went to, the bus, this all went into the Ritual record – you could hear friendship and a bond. Then we toured for another year and we started to diffuse. I think a great manager would’ve said “Take a break”. We had a good manager and he said “keep going.” The good manager wanted to get it done, the great manager would’ve seen the future. We didn’t have a great manager and we broke up.
LTW: That’s sad.
Everybody asked us what we were doing. We had just had Lollapalooza, we had just coined the phrase ‘alternative music’. We had just told the world that this is relevant and we could go into Madison Square Garden and sell 20,000 seats. Echo and the Bunnymen couldn’t. Everybody was in shock, but we didn’t know any better. We did five years of the same thing, with the same people. Suicidal Tendencies opened up for Jane’s for about 2 weeks so I was already friends with them. They had made a record that I played on and they showed up for the last show in Hawaii, and I was heartbroken. The day we broke up they told me that they had been offered to open for Ozzy for two months on the No More Tears Tour, and asked me if I wanted to come with my band Infectious Grooves. So that was the way to heal my broken heart from Jane’s Addiction. This was a metal scene and I was just rocking the alternative scene for five years. So now I’m on tour with Ozzy and surrounded by all these metal heads, so I made new friends with all these cats. It opened up a whole new door in the social type of heavy metal scene. There was Zach Wylde on the guitar for Ozzy, one of the greatest guitar players ever, there were just some great metal guys. So, I was out there for a year with them and the whole time Perry and I were talking about our next band Porno for Pyros. Perry needed some time off. He wasn’t interested in being on tour like I was. I am an athlete. Perry was like “Oh cool we just broke up I’ll call you in a year.” A year went by and we prepared to do Porno – we knew we’d never find another Dave Navarro but we had a great guitar player name Pete Distefano. So, we thought let’s write Porno songs around poems and rhythm. So, the Porno record really brought my drumming to another level. I stripped the regular drum set and I brought bongos and chimes and all these weird instruments that were percussion but less of a drum set. I was able to explore more of those Latin Indian type of rhythms. That’s how the Porno record came together. The first Porno record was written day after day at my house. The second Porno record we travelled the world with acoustic guitars and bongos. We went to Fiji, Bali, Tahiti and Mexico.
The second Porno record was more song driven and the first one was more of a rock record. The band went through a big change which was exciting. The work ethic wasn’t there like Jane’s Addiction. We weren’t obsessed with getting on a bus and a van and playing everywhere. I think that even though the Porno music was so deep and fantastic the band itself wasn’t a workhorse. During that whole time, I really wanted to play more drums so I started a band called Banyan. I decided let’s not have a singer so I didn’t have to step on the poem or get in the way of the poem. We just played. We made three Banyan records wth EMI which were mostly instrumental with a couple of vocal moments. But that kind of gave me a chance to spread my wings as a drummer. Porno broke up – not officially, we just stopped playing. Banyan kept rockin’ and then in ’97 we had Flea and Navarro and started doing Jane’s shows called The Relapse Tour. We did about 40 shows. It was amazing – what a tour. We made a movie out of it called Three Days. The movie kind of taps into the weirdness that was happening then. We really didn’t have any plan. We just wanted to go on tour, so we did about 40 shows and that was about it. All of a sudden I heard Tommy Lee was looking for a drummer. He had a band called Methods of Mayhem. I called Tommy and asked him how could he be looking for a drummer? He told me he wanted to get on the guitar and sing and that he needed a drummer. Fuck yeah, I said “I’m your man.” I love Tommy. I love his drumming and his work ethic is unmatchable. So, we would join together around noon and play together for about 2 hours and the band would show up from 2 to 6 and then at six he would say “Perkins you and I are going all night.” Tommy wanted to play for hours upon hours. He was almost like my workout coach. Then we went on tour with a whole other group of musicians, the new metal musicians. Through the years I’ve been fortunate to have punk rock, nu wave, and heavy-metal hard rock musicians around me. I still strive for jazz players. I kept thinking one day I’ll meet a trumpet player or a saxophonist.
When I got to hang out with Scott Page that was kind of like full circle, getting back to those instruments that really speak to me.”
LTW: This is an amazing story.
I’m just hungry to play. I just need to play. Then about two years ago Norwood and Scott approached me about doing Pink Floyd music which has grown into what we know as Think:EXP, and the power of what Derek Day brings and Kenny Olson. It’s just obviously top quality players. My love affair with Derek Day is what I’ve always had with players. I love brave. I love groundbreaking and rule breaking players. As a drummer you can’t break too many rules because you want people to move their butts. But I love being around people that are trying and are brave and are courageous on their instrument. I’m 52, Derek is 26, Scott is 60 something and it doesn’t matter. We’re just playing music. Of course, if you’re an athlete one day you have to put your glove down because you can’t keep up with 20-year-olds. But a musician never has to. So, the whole time my drums are my love and my backbone. Then of course meeting my wife Cindy and having Eden gives me so much more to play for, so much more food for the creative side. To show Eden, my kid what’s it’s like to get on stage – show him the power and the glory that you get from seeing other people enjoy your music. That to me is the reason to do it: to make people happy. It goes back to when I was eight or nine. I saw a movie and it was the Benny Goodman Story. They had the real drummer from Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa in the movie. They show Gene doing a drum solo in the movie and the camera goes to this conservative couple. The husband is tapping his hand on the table and the wife says, “Can’t do that, we’re conservative.” Then they go to her feet and she’s tapping her foot and I thought “that’s for me.” You can’t stop what drums do to you. My favorite thing about drumming is seeing people react.
LTW: I’ve watched you play and you’re a show.
It’s just coming from the heart. It’s not planned, it’s not premeditated, it’s happening. It’s going to be different tomorrow and it’s different than yesterday. Just be in the moment.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.