Modern Drummer Online caught up with Stephen Perkins while he was prepping for a clinic tour and some dates with Jane’s Addiction, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the group’s watershed album Ritual De Lo Habitual. Just like when you drop the needle on that record, a talk with Stephen is a hyperactive but insightful ride through Los Angeles; his excitement for music and life is tangible half a continent away.
by Stephen Bidwell
MD: Thankfully I wrote up some questions before Prince passed; like many fans, I haven’t been able to think about much else since. Did you ever get to see him live?
Stephen: Years and years ago, but I wish I saw him more. There’s so many stories of all-nighters where the songs kept coming, and obviously the players he worked with. Just like Bowie, he understood that great players bring the level of a performance up, and the competitive spirit. Surrounding himself with great players made the music come alive in different ways with different line-ups. Iggy and Bowie changed their lineups constantly, but it works because they find the right guys to play it. There’s something to be said about a sound, and to really hear Prince, once in a while you wouldn’t realize you were hearing Prince because he went so far out. Then some of the time you would know exactly what you were getting. It was saturated with whatever his background was—rock, dance, R&B, psychedelic, it was all there and yet it’s really all inspirational jazz music in a way. It’s a bummer to see who’s going, but it’s great to see Ringo and McCartney and Keith and Mick and to think about what the drummers have to go through, like to think of what Charlie Watts has to go through just to pull it off. It’s crazy! Think about that.
MD: He’s still playing a three-plus-hour show.
Stephen: It’s incredible, just thinking of his hips, back, sciatica, or any of that can come into play. I saw Elvin Jones play a year or two before he passed, and he was still just going for it—finding rhythms, destroying and dissecting them, and playing with heart.
I did a really cool drum duet with Tim Alexander at the Guitar Center Drum-Off two years ago. I was telling him before we played, “There’s no way our best playing is going to be in the next five minutes onstage in front of a thousand drummers. It’s usually going to be in our room when we’re alone and we pull something off we wish everyone else could see or feel.” So I always think to myself, just think about the best you can be in this moment, and don’t be bummed out if you don’t reach that potential that you know was there. You’ve got to live in the moment, if you think ahead or behind, you’re not in it. You’ve really got to believe in yourself and have no fear, and that’s what I take from great musicians and artists like Prince. If you watch Vinnie Colaiuta play or see old footage of Buddy Rich, you see that fearless attitude. That’s what I think is the essence of any great artist or any person doing what it is they want to do with their life, if you can get ferocious with it and dedicate yourself.
MD: Let’s talk about this twenty-fifth-anniversary tour for Ritual De Lo Habitual. I saw you play the whole thing last fall on FunFunFun Fest in Austin, but I also heard you play most of it twenty-five years ago on the first Lollapalooza tour, and once in between around 2004.
Stephen: I was just having this conversation with some players yesterday, how it’s great to have old songs that still have room to interpret in the moment. [Singer] Perry [Ferrell] is so playful on stage and doesn’t like to stick to any arrangement per se. If something happens, he reacts, so the arrangement also has to react. The songs can stay alive in that spirit, and [guitarist] Dave Navarro and [bassist] Chris Chaney and I can also react in the moment and bring the songs to…maybe not the present…but make the music as if it’s the first time for us. These are experiences, really poems with music, [and our job is] to increase the emotion of these poems. Nothing’s Shocking was a great punk rock record, and it had these great riffs, but by the time we got to Ritual we were arranging around the poem and letting the music become a more emotional experience, on “Three Days” and “Then She Did,” for instance. So I think we can still do that with Ritual, to bring those great poems to light every night surrounded by whatever memories or feelings you had when you first heard it back in ’89 or ’90 or whenever.
I really enjoy with Nothing’s Shocking when Perry counts it in: “Three, Four!” BAM! It still feels good to play that record. With Ritual, as soon as you hear the intro, with the Spanish flare of the girl’s voice and the hand-jive guitar riff…there’s this celebration of L.A. with the Latin influence, and kind of what the Beach Boys and Van Halen were going for. There’s a happiness to L.A., and you cannot help but say, “We’re half naked on the beach and we’re having a good time.” It’s not New York or the East Coast, where things are more intense and the music reflects that. The music has always reflected what we’re doing in our lives. Of course we’re different now and we have different lives, and we try to take the music in to today.
And in my drumming, I’m always changing the drumkit. It’s just a thrill for me to put the floor tom next to the hat, and then next week put a timbale there. Or put the ride above the hi-hat and then move it back to where it used to be. That just stimulates my creativity. When we started getting ready for these Ritual shows, I looked at the old kit that I used then, which was basically a 1988 Drum Workshop with 8″, 10″, 12″, 14″, and 16″ toms but in a different order. Before that I always had a Ludwig kit with 12″, 13″, and 16″ toms. Then I went to DW and they told me, “The 14″ is the first floor, you’re going to love it!” All the changes with the melodic possibilities really took me to another level. After we made Ritual, Dave Jerden left my kit up and used it for Alice in Chains’ Facelift album and Social Distortion’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. So brand new from the factory, my first DW kit did those three records all in two months.
MD: Do you still have that kit?
Stephen: I’ve still got the kit, but the 16″ went up in flames. I let the drummer from Love and Rockets and Bauhaus [Kevin Haskins] borrow a bunch of drums when they recorded at Rick Rubin’s studio in Laurel Canyon. There was a house fire where they lost a bunch of stuff, including some of my original Ludwigs and DWs. That was a heartbreaker, but I love Kevin Haskins so much in Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, it was a small sacrifice. He ended up buying me a 1954 Gretsch as a replacement gift, so that was very cool and sweet.
So on this tour I’ve got DW cherry shells in similar sizes—8″, 10″, 12″, 14″, and 16″ toms—and two cherry timbales as well. I tuned them up a little hotter than usual. I broke out the coated Ambassadors in place of the clear Emperors that I was using last tour, to bring back out that lively “Jane’s 1991” sound, tuned them a little higher for maybe more of an African effect when I’m doing tom work, for “Three Days” and some of the songs that are quite busy and tribal. It’s been a lot of fun to explore.
I also had five cymbals up and I went down to three; I wanted to be a bit more exact where I exploded with those, and try to lay down the pocket and the feel, and also figure out how to apply what I’ve learned in the last twenty-five years without stepping on everyone’s toes. Technology is ever-changing, but a drum set, you can use an old 1950s kit and it still sounds great, but you’ve got to be careful just by updating. I remember when Jane’s got our first bundle of money, we went to Guitar Center and got all this gear, and the next day we just sounded like shit. Navarro had his original Marshall and he went and got all Mesa Boogie stuff, Eric [Avery] had his Ampeg and got a Trace Elliot rig, I had all these cracked Zildjians and I went and bought all new Paiste 2002s…and we sounded terrible! It wasn’t us anymore, it wasn’t our gear, and we had to go back to our old crap. So there’s something to be explored, how cool we sounded then and what we’re using now.
MD: As I was preparing to talk to you, I rediscovered Perry Farrell’s movie The Gift.
Stephen: Of course; [producer] Matt Hyde and I did the soundtrack together.
MD: There’s a studio scene where Perry calls his girlfriend after a take and tells her, “We just got ‘Three Days’ in one take.” Did it go down anything like that?
Stephen: There’s an amazing story, which was a recreation of what did actually happen. We did do “Three Days” in one take. The studio was called Track Record in North Hollywood, which just went up for sale about two months ago. We started Ritual and about two weeks in Dave, Eric, and Perry were not in the mood and wanted to go straighten their minds out a little. Me, [producer] Dave Jerden, and [bassist] Ronnie Champagne continued to jam for two or three weeks without the band, and we recorded these sessions. It was great for me to get drum sounds and figure out what was going to work on this new DW kit. While this little hiatus was a bummer at first, I had time to explore and it actually helped my playing. The band was so good live on stage that all [producer] Dave Jerden really had to do was put up mics and document the noise. That was how “Three Days” came about; it was a twelve- to fifteen-minute jam that we did every night.
MD: It had been in the live set for while at that point, right?
Stephen: Exactly. “Then She Did,” “Of Course,” and some of those songs were written closer to the recording of Ritual, but a lot of them were written during the Nothing’s Shocking period. We just had to caress the song parts into place. Anyway, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, and Roberta Petersen from Warner Brothers Records came down to see what was going on with their band’s new record, and we did “Three Days” in front of them and recorded the take that’s on the record. There were some overdubs, but basically what you hear on the record is what they heard. It wasn’t an experience like with Nothing’s Shocking where we said, “Let’s go rent timpani, and tomorrow a grand piano!” We said, “Let’s play these songs like we do live: tight, fast, hard. Then we’ll do salt and pepper afterward, add a little sauce where we need it; a jet plane taking off, a poem, or some exploration in the mix.” We wanted to grab what was happening on stage, which we thought was a “ritual,” you know, and let the music be the soundtrack for your experience. We didn’t use a click, we didn’t use the idea that different takes or tempos would make it better; it was about the attitude. Mixing was that psychedelic experience—find where everything sits, then make it sound lush. It was really documenting our live show with high-quality mics and pre-amps, and catching the vibe.
MD: That record really does have a strong sense of place, very much a picture of L.A. circa 1990. When I saw you last fall, I was good and close, and it felt like maybe there was more of a “breath” to the time. You said you’ve listened back to the records—do you think you have a different approach to time now?
Stephen: I definitely understand the interplay between musicians better now. I listen to how I wrote the drum parts, and they were run by the poem. Perry would say something and I would react and almost ignore Dave and Eric for a minute, and then come back. I’ve learned how to open my ears up to everyone all at once, in a more harmonious way. Harmonious in the sense that I understand the how and the why of everyone’s part and maybe focus on how to make it all more “secure,” so to speak. So I think I can see music better now, and it’s not so much about reaction. It’s got to be urgent, it’s got to mean something at all times, but you’ve got to understand the power of not playing or when to back down and how powerful that is.
Rhythm is not just hitting things, it’s the absence of that. So I think I’ve become a better listener, and maybe a mathematician in a sense, in terms of how to dissect these equations. And I understand mix and frequency better. When I record, I think, “What would this be like for someone to mix”? So whoever that may be will have more room.
MD: Last time we spoke, you made me fall out of my chair when you talked about go-go music, because I’m from D.C. and I suspected for a long time that maybe you had checked it out. How are you pulling that stuff off live these days, like on “Been Caught Stealing”?
Stephen: Yeah, some of those songs, like “Been Caught Stealing,” “Standing in the Shower,” were written when I was really hot for go-go music. It had a lot for a drummer to explore. I have cowbells and timbales on the kit, and I try to use my left hand as a percussionist, and let my right hand play the hat and the snare pocket. An important thing is to talk to your mix engineer about how this all fits in the mix, and I guess that’s where my approach might change. I’ll have my tech go out while I play all the drums, and if I get the right tone I’ll be able to be playful and not just come up with a cowbell part, but to be playful throughout the song and use it when I’m feeling it, but make it work musically.
That fun factor that you get from go-go and funk, I’m bringing that to the kit every time I play. I didn’t realize the quality of the drumming in straight funk growing up, but go-go was in your face and showed off a little more, you didn’t have to be a drummer to hear those kinds of drum parts and how African they were. If you think about James Brown’s band, and took away his band’s instruments and gave them cowbell, shaker, djembe, and tambourine, it would be an African band. [Stephen sings parts from “Super Bad.” ] You can take his music and just turn it into drums, you’ve got an African drum ensemble!
MD: Everyone in his band was a drummer…
Stephen: Exactly! They were just playing different instruments. If they were playing drums it would have been an African conversation. But to bring that upbeat happy go-go feel, and to learn those triplets leading into the downbeat [sings go-go beat emphasizing triplet pickups to beat 1], it’s almost a different way of playing your whole drumkit, and you have to support that attitude. If you took out Navarro’s guitar part from “Been Caught Stealing,” with those jazz chords, and added a keyboard, it could be a go-go song. It’s really an odd tune, with Perry’s poem about a story that actually happened.
MD: So outside of Jane’s activity, what have you been up to of late?
Stephen: Lots going on, really. I’ve been playing a lot with Dhani Harrison, George Harrison’s son. Musically it’s been such a great exploration, he surrounds himself with great players. I’ve been working on his record and doing live shows with his band the New Number Two and backing up a girl singer he works with named Mereki. The spirit that he brings, and the spirit around him, and the conversation and stories…. His “Uncle Eric” is Eric Clapton, and he talks about going to see his first Star Wars movie with Ringo!
I’ve also been working with these two girls, the Okai sisters. We started a band called Tabitha. They’re two sisters from Tokyo, amazing guitar and bass players. They’re also both virtuoso piano players, and they teach piano here in L.A. I saw them steal the show at one of those Hollywood jam nights, doing Deep Purple’s “Burn” and “Highway Star.” We did a gig where we had Taylor Hawkins sing a song with us, and another one, and got three studio offers. We need a singer, but their work ethic is incredible, they love to play and work.
I’ve also got a bunch of clinics coming up this summer to correspond with the Jane’s tour. I’ve been hanging out a lot at Dave Grohl’s studio, 606, working with this funk combo; they’ve been making a record for the last two years with sixty or seventy different musicians. They have so much content, I’m not sure what they’re going to do, but it’s called the Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown. I’ve recorded with members of Earth Wind & Fire, Fishbone, Parliament, the Meters…the list goes on. That’s not really my project but it’s been a great inspiration for me. I’ve just been really busy with different sessions. [Bassist] Michael Devin from Whitesnake is also doing a new record that was recorded at 606.
I like to help other musicians. I don’t like to have a fee that puts someone out of budget, because I like to play. If someone has some money and it’s a good song, or if they don’t have money but they can get my drums there and it’s a nice studio, we can get it done. I’d rather play on any given day than just kick it. I’m constantly getting my hands into different things just to keep influential musicians around me. Just like a tennis player, you have to have someone to play with, and I’m constantly looking for new players.
MD: If you could talk to yourself circa 1990, and pass on one bit of advice, what would it be?
Stephen: I would manage Jane’s Addiction and tell the guys, “Let’s take a year off, let’s not break up. Let’s take a break.” If we could make another record, what would the next record be? I love the first Porno for Pyros record, and I love what Dave and Eric did with Deconstruction, but I always wonder what that next Jane’s record would have been.
MD: I think a few million people regularly have that same question.
Stephen: [Laughs] You know, you can’t change what happened, and you learn from that, but it sure would be a great world to live in to see if we could make that next record back then. But I think as a band, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. You can see on paper how we ebb and flow with our work ethic, but I guess it did work out for the best to keep us together this long, I guess that was the path we needed to go down.
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