Perry Farrell on being a solutionist, an innovator and that time he freed slaves in Sudan
Perry Farrell vowed he’d wait until the age of 60 before penning his memoirs. The prospect is a thrilling one, of course, and sure to yield a raft of jaw-dropping tales if the Jane’s Addiction frontman’s revelations to K! over the years – involving SWAT team busts, epic orgies, and herculean drug use – is anything to go by. And that’s to say nothing of the fact he popularised the touring festival with Lollapalooza, and single-handedly saved Coachella when the hipster-favourite found itself close to financial ruin in the early 2000s.
“I’ve gone to the music biography section and they’re always good reads, but some of these guys are trying to tell us about their life and they don’t even have a wrinkle on their face,” he says now. “What can they really talk about? I can sure fill up some pages.” True to his word, when Perry reached his seventh decade in March 2019, and with the outbreak of COVID-19 clearing his schedule by halting touring plans, he sat down and began raiding the memory banks, and before long had a manuscript of more than 500 pages, which, he says, caused his editor to “shit a brick”.
In the quest for something more manageable to be going along with, Perry decided to produce a slimmer tome, providing commentary for the many images from his 35-year career, which was included as part of a lavish retrospective of his music and art outside of Jane’s Addiction and Porno For Pyros. Perry Farrell – The Glitz; The Glamour is a must-have for fans of the man dubbed ‘The Godfather of Alternative Rock’, featuring offerings from his first band Psi Com (a post-punk outfit heavily indebted to Joy Division and Siouxie and the Banshees) as well as Perry’s debut solo album, 2001’s Song Yet To Be Sung, released the same year he freed 2,300 women and children from slavery in the Sudan.
Things are brought up to date with the inclusion of Perry’s more recent musical ventures, Satellite Party and Kind Heaven Orchestra, both co-fronted with his wife and muse Etty and charting his emerging fascination with immersive performance. As well as reflecting a breadth and ambition, the set boasts a dazzling array of A‑list collaborators, including his Jane’s Addiction bandmates Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers John Frusciante and Flea, Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt, and Joy Division/New Order legend Peter Hook.
It’s an impressive roster, to be sure, but not nearly as colourful as the contents of K!’s conversation with Perry, which encompasses his Jewish ancestry, the Mayan calendar, The Second Coming, Bono, and everything in between. It confirms what his fans have known for years: that Perry Farrell is a rock star like no other.
Do you say ‘glitz’ and ‘glamour’ are the hallmarks of your career?
“It’s an interesting title. The terminology originates out of Galitzianer, where half of my family was from, which became Russian-occupied Poland. From Galitzianer came the term ‘The glitz; the glamour’, so it’s an homage to my family. The reason they coined that term was because burlesque, vaudeville theatre and cabaret were developed there, as well as in Germany and England, before the Europeans brought those traditions to New York.”
Why did you release this retrospective now?
“The charge was actually led by my management, who went back and listened to the work I’d done and said: ‘You’ve never been fully realised, and we think it’s time that you put this work out in an organised manner.’ They went looking for everything that I’d done, including my first group Psi Com. Somebody actually found the masters for Psi Com in the trash and retrieved them. That’s how little I was paying attention, shall we say, in those days. Back then my attitude was: ‘What I’m about to witness is for my eyes and ears only, and that will make it really valuable.’ That sounds naïve, but in the long run it worked out that way. Psi Com wasn’t heard by a lot of people. We made the record for $500. It’s great to have it now, though, as a way to connect with my past.”
Some artists can be self-conscious when sharing their early musical forays. Is that something you’ve ever felt?
“I’m not ashamed of Psi Com at all – I’m very proud of it! I liked where I was coming from. Desolation Center [a documentary included with the set] fills in the scene around Psi Com in downtown Los Angeles during the early ’80s. We’d congregate in desolate buildings, which we’d fill with artists and musicians, and throw underground parties. When we got bored of that, we’d go out into the California desert and throw the first desert parties, which featured performances by Minutemen, Sonic Youth and Einstürzende Neubauten. We were wild and free and under the radar.”
How do you feel about the tag ‘The Godfather of Alternative Rock’?
“It’s a nice title, right? I’ll take being called The Godfather! As well as working on my own art and music for 30 years, I’ve been trying to establish that beautiful silk road for musicians to travel around the world and have fantastic audiences wherever they go with Lollapalooza, so I do feel I have a responsibility to the younger generation – and all generations – of musicians.”
Your debut solo album, Song Yet To Be Sung, was released the same year you went to the Sudan – one of many examples of your humanitarian efforts. What are your memories of that time?
“At that time I had a friend, who we’ll call Aaron the high priest, who came to see me at my house after I’d be partying for several days and told me what was happening in Sudan. People were entering villages on horseback there, setting fire to them, killing the men, and capturing the women and children. I said I would help, of course, so I put Jane’s Addiction back together, put a surcharge of $1 on every ticket, and ended up with $100,000 or more. I changed that money into Sudanese currency and we flew into south Sudan, where the people were enslaved. We traded currency there for human lives with slave owners who had machine guns. I ended up under a tree with a few thousand people, who thought I was their new slave owner. I brought a boom box with great music on it, and the people didn’t really know what I was doing until I handed them the mic and they broke out in celebration. Later we returned the women and children to the chiefs of their villages.
“Aaron got hold of [U2 frontman] Bono, and then Bono, [Radiohead’s] Thom Yorke, Bob Geldof and I flew to Germany to speak to… I don’t think it was the G7 as not everyone was part of it then, but it was that same organisation… and we asked if they’d forego the debt to the world’s poorest countries, which they did. That’s what the premise of Song Yet To Be Sung was. When the slaves were led out of Egypt by Moses and reached the other side of the Sea of Reeds [The Red Sea], Moses’ sister began to sing this wonderful song to god. They were promised there would be another occasion in the future when they’d all be free, so that’s where the title came from.”
You shared a remix of the Kind Heaven track Let’s All Pray For This World, which feels even more pertinent than when the original version was released in 2019…
“What we have today, I believe, is a situation where we’re crossing the messianic threshold, when we’re promised a messiah will return and the world will become a wonderful place where we’ll know God without any middleman. I started thinking to myself: ‘How can we actuate that and what are the problems we have to solve?’ I think of myself as a solutionist, so I started thinking, ‘Why don’t we pray together? We should build a temple of man – a place where everybody can go and make music together.’”
Your music has grand ambitions, but this retrospective also highlights some impressive personal achievements. Psi Com were influenced by Joy Division, so it must have been gratifying, for example, to have Peter Hook play on Satellite Party’s 2007 album, Ultra Payloaded?
“Knowing where I started and where I’m at right now puts a big smile on my face. I used to work as a graphic artist, and my job spec was to shoot type or images for other graphic artists to the size spec that they wanted. I spent the whole day in the dark room listening to Joy Division. I was being radicalised as a goth back in those days. I hate to sound like a giddy kid but man, Peter Hook is one of my favourite musicians of all time and Joy Division influenced me so much. My sons are beginning to be musicians, one is playing guitar and the other bass, and they’re learning the Ramones and Tom Petty, but I told them to listen to Joy Division and sure enough they’re getting it down (Perry starts singing the bassline and lyrics from Joy Division’s Transmission).”
You’ve worked with many amazing musicians over the years. What criterion binds the likes of Peter Hook, Nuno Bettencourt, Taylor Hawkins, John Frusciante and Flea as a Perry Farrell collaborator?
“If we were likening these people to artists, then they’re fine artists. Fine artists have a different sensibility, creating things that you might not automatically understand but affects you. I wanted people who are virtuosos with their particular instruments, who I’d ask to interpret things and I knew I’d get genius back from.”
How did you feel about the news that John Frusciante was returning to the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
“I was a little sad for Josh [Klinghoffer] as he’s a great guy, but I completely understand. John is a great guy. To me, the best people are the kindest people who don’t have to hide behind an attitude or an ego. The guys I like to hang with are funny, talented and don’t have a guard up at all, because they like who they are. It shows in everything they do.”
What has putting this retrospective together taught you about yourself and the way you create?
“That if you stick with patience and quality, I don’t think you can go wrong. That when you give away your art, you want it to somehow affect the universe in a beautiful way.”
Live music has been put under threat by the outbreak of COVID-19 – as a self-confessed solutionist, how do you think it will weather the storm?
“Kind Heaven cancelled shows here in LA, which stung, and Lollapalooza got cancelled around the world, so we came home and began to work on beautiful songs with amazing artists. I believe live music will weather the storm because it’s all about adapting. A week before I was supposed to go out with Satellite Party, I went back to speak to the record company because I hadn’t heard from them and there were tumbleweeds in the parking lot and locks on the doors. Nobody had told me they’d bailed out of town. It was not a stillborn, though, because I got on a bus and went out and performed what I could until I ran out of the money I was sinking into it, just to have the privilege of performing in front of people. I did it again with Kind Heaven… I lost so much money that my wife was mad at me. Live music will endure, and I want to put together the best party to make people happy and entertain them. It doesn’t always have to be a gigantic spectacle either. If you put together a quality gathering, it guarantees you eternity.”
Perry Farrell – The Glitz; The Glamour is out now.
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