Modern Drummer, vol 17, no 3, March 1993
“Stephen Perkins: Drum Addictions”
by Matt Pieken
When Jane’s Addiction dissolved early last year–prematurely, in most fans’ eyes–Stephen Perkins probably was the only person alive who saw the bigger picture.
Perry Farrell talked about filmmaking. The band’s followers felt cheated. The greatest art-rock band since the 1970s called it quits after just three records. A fourth, regardless of its content, would have been huge.
But Perkins says that that was a part of the problem. The band could do no wrong in the eyes of its fans, though the players themselves hadn’t felt collectively right in quite some time. Simply, as a unit, Jane’s Addiction became incapable of fulfilling its own creative impulses. To Perkins, it was like swimming for the surface with an anchor on your ankle. Despite–and maybe because of–their best intentions, there was no fourth album in them to make.
Perkins resurfaces this past year on the funk-rock offering from the band Infectious Grooves, a spinoff of Suicidal Tendencies. But Perkins still had a grasp of the bigger picture; it just took him a while to get it in focus.
“Perry went to one of the Infectious Grooves shows,” Perkins recalls. “I saw him out in the crowd, and he looked at me, and it was like this unspoken thing, like, ‘Hey, we should be up here playing together.’ The Infectious thing was cool, but I knew where my heart really was, and that was with Perry, making great music.”
Porno for Pyros, the Farrell/Perkins reunion venture, didn’t happen overnight. Finding the right guitarist and bassist was painstaking. Once it happened, songs flowed easily. Some are so Jane’sy that it’s hard to tell the difference. (A couple actually were born during Jane’s Addiction rehearsals.) Others reach musical territory Jane’s either wouldn’t or couldn’t attempt. Farrell’s lyrical slant and dissonant voice are immediately identifiable. So is Perkins’ playing. When you hear his drumming with Porno, it’s easy to understand the intangible magic behind the Jane’s’ success.
At just 25, Stephen Perkins already has his own sound. His snare carries a signature crack. He’s pure bombast at one turn, passive the next, but always in touch with the emotional side of music. And nobody simply enjoys drumming more than he does. Myriad percussion instruments line his Reseda, California home–a talking drum, a steel drum, congas, a tabla, and other drums of unknown name and origin. He watches TV from behind a practice kit. A Buddy Rich/Max Roach drum battle gets as much stereo time as old KISS records do. Drumming friends around town or on tour stop by and jam.
But Perkins, who seemingly always wears a smile, is directing all his attention these days to Porno for Pyros. Like Jane’s Addiction, his new band goes against the gain, even of what’s considered “cutting edge” or alternative rock. His kit is streamlined, but carries more oddities than before–bongos, timbales, a timpani. Behind it all, though, is the same Stephen Perkins, happy simply to be playing no boundaries music.
It’s good to see you back in a band like this. It seemed like Jane’s Addiction was the perfect outlet for you, but it kind of died of unnatural causes.
There were a number of reasons why we put an end to Jane’s Addiction, and Perry is the one who first brought it up. It’s kind of like having a relationship with your girlfriend that’s gone bad. You’re not getting along, you still love each other, and someone’s got to say it’s time to take a break. With Jane’s, it was like, “Well, we’ve done everything we can with each other. Let’s find some other people.”
Did you really think you’d done everything that could be done with Jane’s? I think a lot of people felt you were just hitting a stride with the last record [Ritual De Lo Habitual], artistically and commercially.
Musically we weren’t finished, but personality-wise we were. We couldn’t go past a certain point because we had personal problems. Sometimes those can be worked out, but there was this negative seed, where we couldn’t make positive music anymore. With Porno, everybody is so positive and likes each other. It’s very refreshing. Another problem with Jane’s was that we had to keep playing the same songs over and over because that’s what people wanted to hear. We never got to write new songs.
But isn’t that going to be just a natural part of life with any touring band?
Yeah, but it’s like painting the same thing over and over. You paint it once and you can let people enjoy it, but then you should paint something else. We did our paint job on the record, and we loved playing it live. But we wanted to move on, and we got locked into something we didn’t want to get locked into–it just felt spent. Jane’s kind of went full circle, to where if we went back into the studio, we would have tried to make a Jane’s record–like, “What would Jane’s Addiction write?”–as opposed to what’ really coming out of us. With this band, we want to make this record, put it aside, and make another record; just keep going like that. We’ve got a studio at my house now, so we can rehearse and write songs any time we want to and just push the record button any time anything new comes up. We don’t want to depend on any set of songs to get us through our career. We want to create songs and move on.
Are you surprised that you wound up playing with Perry again?
Not really, because every time Perry and I played, I always felt something really strong with him. It’s a love for music that we both share. We both loved playing live, which was the best part about being on tour–that hour on stage. But we both like making records, too. We had that in common. Dave [Navarro, guitarist] and Eric [Avery, bassist] loved music, but they didn’t want to do it as much as I did. We all had a good time on stage, but everything that led to getting to that point each day was a mess. They didn’t love the whole ordeal. They loved that one hour on stage, but they didn’t like the other twenty-three hours.
Dave said in a Rolling Stone article that drugs had a lot to do with it.
Yeah, that’s true–not so much that anybody’s doing drugs was a problem itself, but it changed the people involved and made them negative. It got to the point where they were more concerned with where they were going to get their next score than with the gig that night. Then on stage, I kind of felt like I was the glue holding it all together; everybody was looking at me for direction. And I didn’t mind that, but the circumstances of it weren’t good. The audience couldn’t tell there was a problem, but the four of us could.
But Jane’s Addiction wasn’t always like that. When did these problems start?
After writing all our songs and making our records, we got stuck on a major tour. It seemed like eight to ten months solid, where we were always with the band, always on a bus–showering with the band, eating with the band, and sleeping with the band. It became unnatural. Now with Porno, I can’t wait until the guys get into town so we can just hang out or go swimming or whatever. I’ll call to see if they’ve checked into their hotel yet. It’s like a new girlfriend: “Let’s go to the zoo, let’s go anywhere.” With Jane’s, we already did everything. We went to Australia, we went here, we went there. Going back into the studio with Jane’s just didn’t feel right.
What’s the difference between Porno at this point and Jane’s at the same point in it’s career?
Perry and I know so much more about making music and making records, keeping the band together and doing the things you need to do to make it all work. We’re just more mature as people and we’ve brought that to the other guys in Porno. The other three guys in the band see us and think we know what we’re doing, whether we really do or not. [laughs] We were all just so young when Jane’s started, and, as for the music, it was “three…four…crash!” Everything would be a blow-up, all you could put into it. Porno likes to stretch things out, pull back a little and then climax–maybe. Jane’s was getting to that point with the third record; the music was very dynamic and sot in a lot of places. So Perry and I have kind of brought that over into Porno.
What did you do with your time between bands?
Perry and I were talking in Australia, when we knew Jane’s was dissolving. We had some good ideas and we just took our time with them. I joined the Infectious thing when I got out of Jane’s, mainly because I felt I just had to keep playing. I was home and I didn’t know what else I was going to do at the time. But Mike Muir called me up and said he had a tour with Ozzy Osbourne lined up for a month and asked if I’d do it–40-minute shows, done by 9:00 p.m. I’d met Mike from some shows Suicidal Tendencies had done with us, so it sounded like a quick thrill where I could keep my chops up. And I met a lot of cool metal players, like the guys from Metallica and Queensryche. I did percussion on the whole Infectious record and played three songs on drums, but it was just a thing to do for fun while Perry was relaxing. Perry was putting the finishing touches on his movie, Gift, and we knew we’d get back together for something serious later on. When we finally did, we both had a lot of ideas, plus there were so many songs that were in the air from the Jane’s days that we never really worked out. We fooled around with them at rehearsals, but the interest of all four members wasn’t there to just dig in and make these parts amazing, like the other Jane’s songs. Perry and I decided we’d pull those songs aside and just wait for our next project.
How did you find the other players for Porno?
That was a pretty tough one. The guitar player, a guy named Peter DiStefano, turned out to be a surfer buddy of Perry. They’d been surfing together for years, and Perry never even knew he played guitar! Meanwhile, we’d been auditioning guitar player after guitar player, and we met a lot of good players. But one day Peter picked up an acoustic and was just shredding, so Perry was like, “I think we found our guitar player, who just happens to be my best surfer buddy!” And then we put an ad out in the L.A. Weekly for a bass player and got hundreds of calls on it. One night, we did an audition of about thirty guys, and the last one was a guy named Martyn Lenoble, who we ended up asking into the band. He’s a really clever player from Amsterdam. European players have a little different approach than American rock ‘n’ rollers, so I found myself really listening to what he was doing and trying to play along with it. The thing about his parts is that they’re not overwhelming or something that will take over the song. Perry, Peter, and I are more thrashers, whereas Mark is very controlled, and I had to learn how to take my thrash into his channel.
Do you and Martyn try to lock in with each other or play more off each other?
There’s some of both, depending on the part of a song. There are some parts where there are sparse, easy guitar strums with busy drums, like this song. [Stephen plays a taped cut of the song “Porno for Pyros.”] I’m using my bongos a lot as part of the basic rhythm.
You did the same type of thing with Jane’s, but now it seems like you’re more in the pocket with it.
Well, I did do that with Jane’s, but now I think I’m a lot better at it. With Jane’s, I’d do that, but then I’d lose my focus on where I was. Like on “mountain Song,” where it’s all toms–it was great if I just did that over and over. But if I thought of some weird fill, I’d lose the rhythm and it screwed things up.
I think most drummers would be like that, though.
Yeah, but with Jane’s, I would be willing to screw things up. [laughs] I was young and didn’t care. With Porno, I’m just concentrating more. I’ve got one crash cymbal, a couple of drums, and that’s all I need. I just want to play the part and not fade off into something else.
What made you get more disciplined?
I just felt I was gradually moving to that point as a player anyway. I was listening to some of the old tapes and I was thinking, “Wow, the drums are great, but they’re going off too much.” It wasn’t in a bad way, but now that I’m getting older, I’m finding more pleasure in keeping to the beat. It can still get very complicated and intricate, but I just want to do it over and over and lock it in right. Like I said before, with Jane’s, it was “Three…Four…everybody explode!” We just wanted to put it in everybody’s faces. With Porno, we already know we can do that, so we’re just holding it back a little and only letting it go once in a while, like a rubber band. And I love playing like that. I feel more in control; I guess the word would be “sexier.” I know what I’m doing, I’m here to do it, and I’m not going to screw around with it. I loved Jane’s and the busyness of the music, but it’s time to go in a different direction.
How do you think that will translate to people familiar with your previous work?
Musicians will listen and get it, but I don’t really play for anybody else except the other four guys. Like when I see Perry singing, I tell myself I have to be the baddest drummer–because that guy’s the baddest singer, and I gotta make him happy. But I think people will have to listen to it a few times before they really understand it and see it for what it really is. and that’s the kind of music I like, where you have to listen to it before you really get into it. Like when I first heard Pink Floyd or Zeppelin, it was kind of weird at first and I didn’t know if I liked it, but then I started to understand it. With Bon Jovi, anybody can get it on the first listen. I’d say our stuff is a little more intellectual and that you have to think about it. It’s complicated in a subtle way.
From what I’ve heard from Porno so far, the songs actually seem a little more structured than Jane’s songs were, which lends more accessibility to them.
“Structured” is a good word. Perry and I have gotten to the point where we’re slicing off all the fat. Let’s get trim and make the song. We thought, “This is just bass, drums, guitar, and vocals. Should we produce it?” But why? If it’s a good song, let people hear it as it is. With Jane’s, the songs were great, but we were new in the studio and tried to tinker with little toys to spice things up. But Porno is bare bones, just the five musicians and that’s it.
Is it easy to create songs with the new group?
The songs are coming very easily. It does take work, though, to make some of the complicated parts sound the way we heard them in our heads. But it’s such a positive attitude that it just went by really quickly, and now that we’re done recording this record, we’re going to put it away and start writing for a new record, even before the first one’s out. We want to write more songs because they’re in us. We don’t want to just tour on these tunes. We love writing songs and recording them. I don’t like the idea that a band like Metallica makes one record every five years. I mean, I love Metallica; I bow down to them. But I gotta create more than ten songs every three years. Jane’s only did thirty songs in six years. And all the Jane’s tunes were written at the same time, which made things even worse.
But then you run into the danger of all your songs sounding the same. Over a couple of years, your style is bound to change.
That’s true, but each song with us sounds so different. That’s the way it was with Jane’s. You couldn’t tell they were written at the same time, but they were. “Three Days,” which is a ten-minute tune, might have been written on the same day as “Had A Dad,” a three-minute song on a different album. But we definitely want all the songs to sound different.
I’m sure it helps to have a kit like yours. Where did you get the idea to make bongos and timbales important parts of your set?
I grew up playing to AC/DC, and I love it, but nobody ever taught me how to play Latin music, which is what real percussion is. Now I’m discovering you don’t need the kick and snare to make meter. You can imply the meter and play other drums. For cymbals, all I have is a crash, a ride, a China, and a couple of ice bells. I had a zillion cymbals with Jane’s, but now I’m forced to hit them only when I need to. Cymbals interrupt and blend into guitar frequencies, so I told myself that instead of doing a hi-hat beat, do it on the toms or timbales, make it more drummy or percussive and less like a trapkit. I was teaching my sister’s friend how to play drums, and instead of the normal kick-snare things, I taught her a Latin beat first. and now she’s onto this new vibe and it’s awesome! I was taught the conventional way first, and I don’t mind playing it like that. But that’s what everybody else is doing; it’s already been done. So I’m having to teach myself new things. I’m looking now into having this guy make me a customized African drum to take the place of my bass drum.
Who has given you guidance in this direction?
Just other band members and Perry, mainly. Perry’s a great drummer. Technically, he can’t shred, but he can get back there and think of some crazy beat that you or I would never think of. A lot of people don’t realize that Stevie Wonder played drums on a lot of his old records, and he came up with some groovy beats. The guy’s a keyboard player, he wasn’t taught kick/snare, he was just taught music. A couple of our songs don’t have very much melody with the guitar or bass, so it’s up to me to use toms, bongos, and timbales to make up a melody line. Instead of just rolling down the toms for a fill, I try to use them as part of a song. And I just bought a timpani that I set up to my left, and I’m tuning it to the song. That takes a little more work, but it’s a fun drum. I’m just trying to approach it all like a new instrument and it challenges me to come with something new. And the guys in the band pull that out of me.
I’ve been getting into Airto. He doesn’t have a drumkit, he has a percussion kit and plays music by himself. That’s something I’m trying to do and something I think real drummers can pull off. I love Metallica and bands like that. I like playing to their records; I get off on that. But when I’m making my own parts, I want to go beyond that and make it my own thing, my own character. I want people to know that it sounds like Stephen Perkins.
Does that individuality drive you to be publicly recognized for your work?
Not to be known as Stephen Perkins, but known as a drum sound. Not the tone of it, but the feel of it. Like the song “Infectious Grooves,” I wanted to do something funky to it. The demo they sent me was all right, but pretty straight. But I said, “Why do you have to have the snare on 2 and 4? Put it somewhere else and just make people think it’s on 2 and 4. Screw with it a little. That, to me, is my character. I don’t want to be known for just a sound; I want people to listen to me and think, “Wow, that’s a musical drummer.” If you take the bass, guitar, and vocals away and leave just the drum part, I still want it to be musical and have melody.
It sounds like one thing hasn’t changed, in that you and Perry get bored easily with what you’ve created.
It’s just that we want to keep creating. And I see Porno as evolving constantly. We’re thinking of things all the time, like putting a marimba on my kit. Then I’d really be able to play a melody. Kick, snare with one hand, and melody with the other hand. It might be hard, impossible maybe [laughs], but why have a floor tom and not have something that plays actual melodies?
I want to get to the point where I can make music completely with my kit. I’ve looked into electronics and I bought a couple of Roland pads. I use them once in a while, but I never want to use them for a drum sound. Why put a snare in a pad when you’ve already got a snare? I find that pads are good for practicing and good for the studio if you want to come up with a weird sound or noise. But I want to hear real drums, and it hurts me to hear samples.
Aside from the percussion instruments, is there anything else that’s unconventional about your setup?
Well, I guess you could say the position of my snare is different. I tilt it forward now because for five or six years, I used to get bruises on my leg from it being in the wrong position for me. I ended up moving it around until I found the place that was most comfortable, and that turned out to be tilting it forward. And I crank the snare tension on it really tight. By itself, it sounds obnoxious, but with the whole kit and the rest of the music, it fits right in there.
Are you very particular about the exact notes or sounds coming from your drums?
I’m very much into tuning my drums correctly and getting a good sound straight from that and going with it. Engineers usually hate me because I don’t put anything in my kick drum, just the two heads. It’s loud, but if you tune the heads right, it only rings as much as a floor tom would. When I bought my first drumset, all it came with was the two heads and a felt strip, so I learned to tune it like that. An engineer might want me to at least put a pillow in there, but then you have these nice, resonant toms and a “thud” for a kick. Then the biggest drum is the softest instrument. It doesn’t make any sense. I’ll tell an engineer, “Why don’t you just put a microphone in front of the head, let me tune it, and if it sounds good on stage, but not in the speakers, tell me what you need me to do–whether it’s too ringy, too dead–and I’ll tune it.” That, to me, is the way you should make music. But you get to the point where engineers say, “We could use an electronic kit and it’ll sound just as good, Steve. We could plug it in–no tuning.” But that hurts me. I feel like the drum is there for a drum reason. If you know how to tune a floor tom or kick drum, tune it. People are taping and muffling because they can’t get the overtones out of drums. But you’re the drummer, you should know what you want to hear, so learn how to tune your drums. I’ll spend an hour, sweating, frustrated over it, only to find out one of the heads is busted! but I’ll just get a new head and work it out. And I never like the feel of hitting a drum with something in it, like there’s something in the way. That’s why with Porno, we got our keyboard player/sound effects guy [Matt Hyde], who’s also an engineer, to do the engineering for the record. He’s on our side, and he knows the songs, so when you hear the kick drum, it’s big. But it’s a 16×20, so it’s not much bigger than a floor tom, and by tuning it right, you don’t get any ring.
Is it hard to be musical as a drummer, in the way you’re speaking of, and not get in the way of what the other players are doing?
There’s a fine line, when you have to ask if it’s working. Ask the bass player if it’s working with a cool tom-tom thing you might be doing. It takes a lot of work and good communication, but we’ve got it down, or at least we’re getting better at it. For instance, we did ten songs in the studio and we were kind of bored, so we wrote another one right on the spot, called “Venice.” So it was like, “Wow, we’re really starting to figure each other out.” It’s fun because we are learning about each other every day and we’re making things up on the spot and pulling them off. When there’s 3,000 fans screaming it makes you do weird things sometimes. But then when you listen back to the tapes, you realize how cool it sounds and that you have a new part to play.
Do you record yourself and listen back often?
I’m the tape master! Especially with the drums, I like to go back and listen. I don’t want to settle, even with the parts I’ve put on record. I listen to the Jane’s stuff and I think there are some parts I could have played better, and it feels good to get better. I started getting into recording our shows in the early Jane’s days. Perry would always do something different or say something weird in a monologue every night, and it was like, “Wow, this is never going to be said again.” And the guitar solos and drum solos were different every night, so I’d take the tape and pop it in after the show and pick up on those things. But I also use the tape as a reference point. I’ll go back to shows from a few months or a year ago and see how I’ve changed. I have a room full of Jane’s, Porno, and Infectious tapes. To me, the music I make is my whole life, and it’s worth saving.
Listening back to your tapes, how do you think your playing has changed?
I’ve just become more aware of other players in the band. When the singer’s singing, support him, don’t show off. Sometimes I’d forget he was singing and I’d think of something bad-ass to play. But people want to hear what someone’s singing and they don’t to hear a drummer going off at the same time.
When it’s my turn to take off, I’ll do it. And reading the lyrics helps me do that better. If there’s a sad verse, I’ll play it a little differently than I did the last verse. That’s important to me. Lyrics may not mean much to a lot of people, but Perry’s lyrics truly mean a lot to me, and I have to support him. That’s what makes this band; it’s more like an ensemble.
This band challenges me to be a better player technically. With the bongos, tombs, and snare going back and forth, it takes a lot more concentration to keep these intricate parts going. Some of the parts call for something jazzy, so I put pressure on myself to make them jazzy every time, because I know I can do it. So I press myself to loosen up, so I can pull of things–like a seven-stroke roll–when I need to.
This new band has forced me to become more interested in the consistency of what I’m playing. There’s a Porno song called “Cursed Female,” where I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done before, where I just play solid groove the whole time. The song needed a big drum beat that you didn’t have to keep thinking about. It needed to be constant, hypnotizing–a beat to me that just feels like sex.
Do you practice your parts a lot on your own?
Not the parts so much, but I definitely play every day. I’ve got a little kit set up in my house, and I really get off on playing; I have to play. I’d rather be sitting behind my set than doing anything else at home. Sitting outside in the sun, reading a book, or watching a good movie is all right, but creating music is just so much more exciting to me. Sometimes I’m not motivated or inspired to come up with anything special, so I just work on my chops or on something syncopated, and then I start to loosen up and get inspired again. I feel blessed that I made enough money with Jane’s to soundproof a room so I can play twenty-four hours a day if I want to. It’s strange, because the first few weeks after doing that, I’d play for hours upon hours a day. As the weeks went by I didn’t play as much, but I feel so comfortable behind my kit that I still go in there and sit on my throne just to eat dinner; I’d put my dinner right on my snare. So even when nothin’s coming out of me that day or I’m just suckin’, I still like to be back there and thinking about drumming. Even before a gig, I’m thinking about it and trying to focus; and that, to me, is practicing. If you lose that discipline, once you get behind a kit, you’re just playing on image and you’re not facing yourself. And if I don’t pull something off one night that I know I should, damn if I’m not going to pull it off tomorrow. I don’t do it just to make myself happy, but to make the song better. But still, it’s something inside me that wants to do it right. And I get the same feeling playing drums in my bedroom as I did when Jane’s sold out Madison Square Garden, which was amazing. I mean, I had 20,000 kids hearing my kick drum. But the feeling is still the same when I’m the only one hearing it.
But how important is it for you to play in front of that many people? Jane’s reached a level of popularity that Porno might never hit.
It’s fun to have 20,000 fans out there, don’t get me wrong. But it’s more important to make good music. We could have made another Jane’s record and played in front of 50,000 people at our next gig, but inside it wouldn’t have felt right. It would be, “Dudes, we just fooled 50,000 people tonight.”
Your new band is kind of in an enviable position of being able to make its own rules. You can make records whenever you want and do isolated shows whenever you want, without the drudgery of six or twelve months straight on the road.
You’ve hit the spot right there; that’s exactly what the plan is, to stay away from the conventional tour. Everybody goes to The Ritz to see a band, and we say, “Screw that, we’re going to do something else.” We just want to find a cool space in a city, like a park, rent it for the day, and throw a party. Just a good outdoor vibe. We don’t want it to be the same old thing, a show at The Roxy, five bucks for parking… We want to make it a day, like the Lollapalooza atmosphere, except with just us and maybe some side act–and not even a rock ‘n’ roll band, but maybe a mariachi band.
And what about you personally? Where do you see yourself in the future?
Just playing drums and making music; that’s where I’m happiest. I’m not sure where I’m headed or who it will be with. You know, the music with Jane’s Addiction was such a great part of my life, and I’ll listen to those records and love them forever, but now I’m doing something new. There’s a new saying we have in the band–instead of “So far, so good,” it’s “So far, so great.” Jane’s was great and this is greater. You can question how long it will last, and Perry and I asked ourselves how many records we could make with Porno–two, five, ten? But we said, “Hey, we’re ready to make some more music, so why even question it? Let’s just go back to my house and write more songs.” Maybe it’ll be our last batch, maybe it won’t. But if you keep thinking, “Oh man, we have to go make more records,” that’s when your thinking is off. I sacrifice a lot of things for music, like deep relationships. But the way I look at it is that somebody has to sacrifice to play drums ten hours a day so it might as well be me.