Perry Farrell: “You Can’t Write A Great Song If You Don’t Have A Great Life. If Your Life Is A Bore, You’re Going To Write About Some Bullshit”
Even at 60, Perry Farrell is discovering new things about himself. The Jane’s Addiction frontman is known to the world as a singer, songwriter, festival doyen and philanthropist, but having recently entered his seventh decade – a milestone he celebrated by playing beer pong with Post Malone, among other things – Perry wants his two sons to have a better grounding in where they came from.
He’s long known his family were characterised by creativity. His father had been a jewellery designer. His mother made both sculptures and dresses, including her own wedding gown. His older brother, meanwhile – a member of a biker club – specialised in leather goods for Harley-Davidson. But there was a revelation to come.
Perry’s cousin recently sent him a picture of his grandfather, Moses. Turning it over, Perry noticed his grandfather’s surname, and therefore his own, was different to what he thought it was. Perry, born Peretz, had always believed his surname was Bernstein, but it turns out it’s actually Baerenstecher, which fittingly translates as ‘entertainer’. “Generally speaking, I’m an artist. But all added up, I entertain people,” he tells K! “Although my kids would say I’m a rock star.”
In the past, Perry has told K! anecdotes about SWAT team busts and orgies involving rappers. He’s also gone off on some spectacular flights of fancy. In 2016, when asked how he felt about Jane’s Addiction playing Download Festival for the first time, the frontman instead used the opportunity to discuss the merits of the ice cream breakfast he was having, before extolling the virtues of the “antiquated” sport of darts.
Today, with his wife Etty gently heckling in the background – “You’re the only rock star who wanted to be a DJ!” – Perry is on similarly verbose form, his thoughts wafting around a multitude of topics like exhaled smoke. During the course of our fascinating two-hour conversation there’s many an attention-grabbing line. “If musicians had a greater role in the world, we would have peace on Earth,” he chimes at one point. “Good lovers make the best leaders,” he purrs at another. Perhaps this bombast is a deterrent, the conversational equivalent of a submarine firing off countermeasures to evade an incoming torpedo. That certainly seems to be true of his answers regarding the troubled periods in Jane’s Addiction’s career, which come heavily front-loaded with detail about the broader context of the time before arriving more directly at the point. That’s because if you stick with Perry’s unique lines of thought, he will inevitably arrive at some beautiful and painful truths, including the tragic death of his mother and its lasting effect upon his life and art.
Ever the pioneer, Perry is continuing to push the envelope of that art. His new solo album, Kind Heaven, is the first step in a multimedia direction, which will culminate with the opening of a venue of the same name in Las Vegas next year. If this immersive experience is half as gripping as a conversation with Perry, visitors are in for one hell of a ride.
How does it feel to be 60?
“I’m having the time of my life at 60! I never thought that I’d be so happy at this age. I’d have thought I’d have been miserable, with my youth and my career behind me, but that really isn’t the case. My life as a musician has never been more solid and focused, and I’ve never had as much interest in life as I do now. I’m awake and available for my wife, my kids, my partners at Lollapalooza, Kind Heaven Orchestra and Jane’s Addiction.”
The lead single from your new album Kind Heaven is called Pirate Punk Politician. Which of the three best describes you?
“I’d have to say pirate, because they have a way of navigating around the oceans, taking whatever suits their fancy, and they’ve got style. I love punk, too, but there’s something about the danger and seriousness of a pirate going up against governments on the high seas that appeals to me.”
What was your relationship with your father like, and has it informed your role as a dad?
“Growing up I really wanted my dad’s love. I know that my dad loved me, but he didn’t spend time with me. I would work to get his attention. I’m always trying to hang out with my kids, but they don’t want to have anything to do with me. Even at Lollapalooza, when I’m trying to show them stuff, they don’t want to go with me. Kids don’t want to hang out with their parents when they get to be teenagers, but I don’t get it because I don’t see myself as a typical adult.”
Your children’s upbringings are markedly different to yours. Do you think there’s anything they’re missing out on as a result?
“I look at my children and I want to protect them, but they don’t have that one thing that causes them some struggle, which you need to be passionate and expressive. So as much as I want to protect them, there’s a side of me that thinks I shouldn’t be coddling of them – let them go out, make mistakes and get punched on the nose by a guy who’s bigger than them. They’ll have better stories, a different perspective and a new type of respect for life.”
The Jane’s Addiction song Then She Did… deals with the death of your mother, who took her own life when you were three. How much do you know about what happened?
“I think she died in 1962. I don’t even know if she made it to her 40s. She already had two kids when I came along – my brother was 12 and my sister was 10. You didn’t divorce in those days, especially if you were a woman who’d had a child relatively late. My father got another woman pregnant and was going to leave my mother. That’s what caused her to be so desperate as to take her own life.”
What impact did that have on your family?
“They all went running when my mother died. My brother and sister left home, leaving me there with my dad and this woman I came to discover was the one my dad had got pregnant. She’s the woman who raised me, but she was an ass to me every day.”
What’s been the lasting effect on you?
“Every day there is some moment where I’ll go back to what happened. But then I fast-forward to the present day and I wonder whether that whole period of trauma was what caused this fire and passion in me. As a result, I treat my wife with such dignity. I am faithful and dutiful as a husband and a father. You should try to take the worst thing that happens to you and use it as an inspiration in your life.”
There’s a song on your new album called More Than I Could Bear, which is about a more recent ‘encounter’ with your mother…
“In 1993 – 94, my mum spoke to me through my girlfriend at the time. When my girlfriend had fallen asleep, my mum spoke to me through her for five minutes. I asked my mum why she’d taken her own life, as I couldn’t understand why she’d go as far as that when she had children, and her answer was, ‘I was desperate.’ It was more than she could bear.”
What were your other early interests, aside from music?
“In high school I was the undefeated New York State wrestling champion. I was only wrestling kids who weighed about 113lb, but I was beating their ass. After I won the championship, there was nowhere else for me to go, because I certainly wasn’t going to become a professional wrestler. You look at yourself in the mirror and think, ‘It’s fine if you can kick the ass of kids your own size, but there’s a lot of men out there bigger than you, so what are you going to do instead?’”
Is that when you considered being a musician?
“I thought I could be a frontman because David Bowie and Mick Jagger were skinny guys like me. I could certainly move and groove. I was a good singer, too. Even as a little boy I wrote songs. Do you want to hear one? (Perry sings an early composition called Alabooni.)”
Were you encouraged in this pursuit?
“No. While some kids were sent to music school to help them develop, I wasn’t. I had a friend, Kenny, who had a drum kit, and another friend, Mitch, who had a guitar, but my parents didn’t want me to have an instrument because they didn’t want the noise.”
What made you realise that it was a viable option?
“When I started out I idolised Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. It was very important that as a songwriter I lived a life worthy of song. My attitude was that a great songwriter writes about their own life and what they know, but you can’t write a great song if you don’t have a great life. If your life is a bore, you’re going to end up writing about some bullshit you’ve never experienced.”
How wild were the early days of Jane’s Addiction?
“We called ourselves Jane’s Addiction, inspired by our roommate Jane, who partied with us. We would all score dope and bring it back to our place on Wilton [in Los Angeles], this crazy two-storey place. I brought musicians from different bands to be my roommates so that we could afford the place, and we made a rehearsal studio out of the garage that we would take turns using. Those were humble beginnings.”
You recorded your debut in a live setting. Was that to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the band at the time?
“We were tough and courageous, and I knew there was a beauty to the youthfulness of what we were doing. We were taking on the world, declaring ourselves, and we were fucking freaky. We had a ton of energy and I didn’t want anybody – a producer or a record company – to get in the way. You’ve got to surprise people and introduce some danger that they can live vicariously through. It was unadulterated, honest, raw power.”
You used the word ‘danger’. With the recent resurgence of interest in serial killer Ted Bundy and as someone who wrote the song Ted, Just Admit It… on 1988 album Nothing’s Shocking about him, what are your thoughts?
“One of my wife’s passions is watching investigative shows about murders. I don’t mind watching them, but I tend to get creeped out when I’m about to go to bed and I’m looking at images of someone being bludgeoned. It’s human curiosity that draws people to these dark subjects. I don’t think I’d have chosen Zac Efron to play Ted Bundy [in the film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile]. That was an odd one.”
The making of 1990’s Ritual De Lo Habitual was an odd time for Jane’s. Accounts of the making of the album characterise it as fraught and resulted in the band splitting. What are your personal recollections of that period?
“Around that time, the world wide web was established, Michael Jordan won his first [NBA] championship, and there was the first Lollapalooza, too. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were becoming popular around the music scene then. Being mind-altered has always been a part of the artist community. I feel an artist has a certain licence to be mind-altered in creative moments, but of course you don’t want anyone to get hurt. At one time or another, all of us lost our shit. I had no parental guidance, but certain members of my group who had parents on that side of the country managed to get out into rehab where they got clean and sober. That’s all great, but I was not a clean and sober guy then. I am elated for people who want to get their lives together and not be a fuck-up, but I personally think the answer is moderation – although that’s my answer. We became adversaries as a result of those different points of view.”
How would you describe your relationship with the other members of Jane’s today?
“I consider them my family. However, I have no relationship with the original bassist [Eric Avery] because he publicly talked shit about us [after leaving the band in 2010, having rejoined in 2008], which I find really distasteful. I’m never going to talk badly about any member of Jane’s Addiction. I love to create with Jane’s – I will do it again when we meet again up the way; and I have some grand ideas for the future of the band. I love those guys and I know that they love me. I’m enjoying Kind Heaven right now though, because I don’t have the pressures that come with being in a band.”
Tom Morello has said that you were the original choice for the guest vocal spot on the Rage Against The Machine track Know Your Enemy on their 1992 self-titled debut, but you didn’t turn up to record it and Tool’s Maynard James Keenan sang the part in the end. What happened?
“I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on that track! So maybe I either forgot, or I was never asked, officially (laughs).”
Kind Heaven is essentially a solo record. Your solo debut, Song Yet To Be Sung, was released 18 years ago. Why was there such a sizeable gap between the two?
“I wanted to put time into Jane’s because we were approaching the 25-year milestone. I look at Jane’s as this beautiful vehicle – like a classic car. It might not be this year’s model exactly, but when you see it you go, ‘Wow!’ As a professional musician – a lifer – I can tell you that it’s good to give your main project a rest sometimes, because you will find you get extra respect for being able to keep it together through all the hardships.”
If Jane’s is like a classic car, what kind of vehicle is Kind Heaven?
“It’s a car that can lift up and fly over traffic like a helicopter. It’s a new, unique experience that’s more than just music. Around a year from now the doors will open in Las Vegas. We’ve recorded and mixed the album using the same production techniques they have for movies. We did that because we’re going to bring it into a building that’s like a museum, complete with art installations and improvisational actors, and a storyline to the whole thing.”
Aside from your accomplishments with Lollapalooza, you’re cited as the man who saved Coachella, having reformed Jane’s to play in 2001 when the festival was struggling. Do you accept the accolade?
“I love those guys [from Goldenvoice, the organisers of Coachella], they’re my old friends. They got in trouble, so they asked me if I would put Jane’s together, but not only that, they asked if they could borrow $20,000, which I loaned them. Essentially I paid to play that gig (laughs)! I don’t take credit for their success at Coachella, because they knew what they were doing a long time ago.”
The name Perry Farrell is a play on the word ‘Peripheral’. Is the periphery where you still prefer to operate from?
“It’s where I’ve felt most comfortable. I like my privacy, so it’s taken me 60 years to come out and say hello to you. For 60 years I’ve liked being in the underground because I could hang out with the people I really liked and say what was really in my heart. I couldn’t grow up too fast, so now that I have maybe 10 really energetic years left, I’m coming out from the periphery to the centre to do something fun and exciting by way of art.”
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