His eternal smile and energy are impossible to forget, and whether he’s playing just a shaker and a pair of bongos or bashing home the finale of one of Jane’s Addiction’s more heady epics, his drive and feel are inspirational.
When Stephen Perkins made his recording debut on Jane’s Addiction’s self-titled 1987 album, he brought a highly distinctive style utilizing elements of punk, funk, world music, and arena rock. His approach continued to evolve on the next two Jane’s albums, as well as in his work with Infectious Grooves, Porno for Pyros, and his own Banyan collective.
Perkins started playing at eight years old and bought his first real drumkit in 1980 with bar mitzvah money. Most of the standard drummer rites of passage followed: Stephen took private lessons, with Jim Engle of the Pro Drum Shop in Hollywood, who helped instill a strong work ethic; his cousin Joel Gallant was also a drummer and hipped him to Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones; and he played in his high school drum line, with future bandmate Dave Navarro. Perkins absorbed the sounds of classic rockers like John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Mitch Mitchell, the punk energy of Earl Hudson of Bad Brains, and seemingly every other type of drum influence he encountered.
Over the course of his career Perkins has amassed a houseful of percussion instruments from his travels, and he remains a voracious listener of music from all over the planet.
For many, Jane’s Addiction’s early performances were a religious experience. Examining a set list from a 1991 Lollapalooza show reveals the breadth of feels that Perkins pulled off night after night, guiding the roller-coaster ride that was a Jane’s show. There’s the expansive, rolling triplet feel of the mostly instrumental opener “Up the Beach,” the rocking two-handed ride work of “Whores,” the 16th-note funk workout “Standing in the Shower…Thinking,” and the tribal tom pummeling of “Ain’t No Right.” Meanwhile, slower numbers like “Up the Beach” and “Summertime Rolls” showcase the roundness in Perkins’ time; like Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, Stephen rocked out but still had a swing to his playing.
While the inaugural Lollapalooza tour of 1991 was supposed to be Jane’s Addiction’s farewell trek, Perkins didn’t remain idle for long after the bus dropped him off in L.A., joining the Suicidal Tendencies offshoot Infectious Grooves. In fact, for a brief period you could catch him funkifying the band’s collaboration with Ozzy Osbourne, “Therapy,” on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, and then see him channeling Earl Hudson on “Punk It Up” on 120 Minutes.
Perkins’ drumming approach can be likened to that of Keith Moon or Elvin Jones; he focuses on the entire kit in a very unified way, giving equal attention to all of the components. In 1992 he began working in a new project, Porno for Pyros, with Jane’s frontman Perry Farrell, and in this setting he furthered his concept by incorporating the timbales, bongos, blocks, bells, and timpani that he’d added to his setup. Perkins’ innovative style can be seen in the video for the hit song “Pets,” where he rides quarter notes with his left hand on a timbalito while playing a steady backbeat between his signature cracking snare and a very wide-open kick drum.
Another example of Perkins’ multi-timbral approach is his kitchen-sink pattern on the verse of “Packin’ .25.” Listen carefully and you can pick out cup chimes, blocks, bells, splash cymbals, and a descending timpani glissando played with sticks. The chorus follows with a go-go-like bongo funk figure that you’d assume is the product of overdubs—but Perkins is playing the groove in one pass.
Stephen’s’ long-running Banyan project, which features the legendary Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, Wilco guitar genius Nels Cline, and trumpeter Willie Waldman, provides a more experimental setting for the drummer’s signature rolling momentum. A YouTube search finds the band tearing through original freak-funk assaults like “Oh My People” from the album Live at Perkins’ Palace, as well as a fiery reading of Funkadelic’s cosmic blues classic “Maggot Brain.”
No matter what project he’s focusing on at any given time, Perkins has always been up for the chance to contribute to the music of his peers, and he’s tracked drums or percussion with No Doubt, Peter Murphy, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Broadcast, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and Tommy Lee’s Methods of Mayhem. But the opportunity to reconvene with his mates in Jane’s Addiction is always something he’s made room for. The group staged a comeback tour in 1997 and again in 2001, after which it released the album Strays. The reunion didn’t stick, though, and in 2004 Perkins and Dave Navarro started the group Panic Channel. Jane’s did reunite once again, however, in 2008, and in 2011 the band released The Great Escape Artist, which it’s been touring behind.
As Perkins once said in an MD interview, drums are “for anyone who can get enjoyment or healing or spiritual power from them,” and he’s taken this sentiment to heart by facilitating drum circles for disabled children and co-designing the LP Go-Jo Bag mutable shaker, which is intended for use by music therapists and percussionists in general. In a sense, such activities are really just an extension of Perkins’ inclusive worldview, which is always defined by his ability to feature as many styles and sounds as his playing can accommodate. It’s perhaps this sense of inclusion and exploration that best defines Stephen’s contribution to modern drumming.