Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction: 'I consider myself a late bloomer'

He invented Lollapalooza, fronted one of America’s most influential bands – and, at 61, the flamboyant alt-rock guru is still thinking big

Sitting cross-legged in his garden, at 61 Perry Farrell still has a jawline so jutting it looks chiselled out of the mountains above the Sunset Strip. His hair remains a thick clean wave, scarcely flecked with grey. The Jane’s Addiction frontman and founder of the Lollapalooza festival looks as if his former tour-mate, Iggy Pop, taught him the secret of avoiding the ravages of drug abuse, ageing and follicular woe.

In 1993, fond of “speedballs” of heroin and cocaine, Farrell seemed considerably less immortal. Formed in 1985, Jane’s Addiction had become a multi-platinum juggernaut that reshaped alt-rock into something debauched and flamboyant. By the time Farrell’s next venture, Porno for Pyros, topped the US modern rock chart with the psychedelic banger Pets, Rolling Stone described him as Rock Star Most Likely to Die in the Next Year.

Yet here he is, three decades later, sipping micheladas in Santa Monica while his pet shelties frolic in a grove of lemon trees. “I understand now that you can’t be a father and be completely fucked up all the time, so you dial it back,” says Farrell, who has three sons, Yobel, Hezron Wolfgang and Izzadore Bravo. “There’s a certain time of life to experiment because you have the energy, you’ve got the mind. But I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I don’t want anyone to die. I’ve lost loved ones over it, but I can’t lie to you and say I haven’t benefited from it either.”

His sartorial flamboyance is comparatively muted compared to his snow-cone hair and violet suit days, but there is still attention to detail in today’s ensemble of slim-fit jeans, navy jacket and tropical silk shirt worn open to reveal a silver raven pendant. “Take your time,” he says, offering aphorisms about his long career. “Make sure that everything you do is quality and done with the right intention. Make sure it’s done with love. Don’t be in a rush to be famous or popular. Do [art] because you must; do it because it’s fun. You never know – 35 years later, it might bloom. I consider myself a late bloomer. Here, I’m at almost 62 … I took my time and made sure I had had fun, and I understand that the world is a very funny place.”

Perry Farrell with guitarist Dave Navarro, 2003
Farrell with guitarist Dave Navarro during Jane’s Addiction’s performance at Lollapalooza in August 2003. Photograph: Eo/Keystone USA/Rex/Shutterstock

Farrell’s paradoxical and iconoclastic vision of the world is on full display throughout The Glitz; The Glamour, a nine-record box set that anthologises his 35-year solo career from his pre-Jane’s band Psi Com to last year’s Kind Heaven, a collaboration with his wife Etty Lau Farrell, co-produced by Tony Visconti. But rather than offer misty-eyed rhapsodies to the good old days, Farrell seems most enlivened with ideas about how to fight for a better future.

Over a 90-minute conversation, he unspools his dreams for Middle Eastern peace (“I would go into Palestine and Israel with Lollapalooza and the world’s greatest musicians, and we would have a celebration, we’d break bread, make music and plan for the future”), how to redress the inequities of the music industry (“We need to work with all the musicians and get them together to say, ‘Let’s start our own Silk Road distribution network, because to make $5,000 for a million streams is pathetic”), and how to mitigate mass incarceration (“I would make all drugs legal. People are doing it anyway and the drug war is a ruinous, destructive mess that doesn’t work”).

Perry Farrell with his wife, Etty Lau Farrell
Farrell with his wife, Etty Lau Farrell. Photograph: Walid Azami

There are artists who speak in pithy quips and those who give Mount Sinai-style declamations. Farrell is in the latter category, this afternoon dropping allusions to the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl, the real history of the ancient Jewish leader Judah Maccabee, and his past conversations with the spirit world. It is this maximalist idealism and ambition that turned him from Peretz Bernstein – a Florida teenager who bought a Greyhound ticket to California with just $90, art supplies, a surfboard and a little bit of weed – into Perry Farrell (a riff on “peripheral”), godfather of grunge and one-time honouree on Maxim’s 10 Coolest People to Ever Be Bar Mitzvah’d list. The son of an emotionally remote jeweller and a sculptor mother who killed herself when he was a toddler, Farrell navigated a passage between Led Zeppelin and Bauhaus, Van Halen and the Velvet Underground with Jane’s Addiction. But, first, he had to conjure his inner character into existence.

“I used to look into the mirror and imitate Mick Jagger and David Bowie. But I knew that I could really sing too,” Farrell remembers. (You can hear the notes of his son’s band covering Tom Petty, out of sight in the nearby garage.) “I moved to Hollywood and got turned on to the world of post-punk. Everybody had a spin on fashion: what they listened to affected what they looked like. ‘OK, you’re a rockabilly kid, but you also like goth and punk. You’ll cross in through the Misfits or the Cramps.’”

Psi Com spawned from this fertile underground scene, blending post-punk and goth in the vein of Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Farrell studied everything from the Bhagavad Gita to the Book of Mormon; in a nod to the tribal spirituality that has coursed through his life and career, he was already writing songs such as Ho Ka Hey, rooted in a Cherokee mantra about the medicine wheel.

Farrell eventually moved into an overcrowded and ramshackle Victorian house near the Melrose Avenue district of Los Angeles, then at the apex of its combat-boots-and-nylon chic. He began playing music with bassist Eric Avery, teenage guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins. A mercurial and substance-addicted roommate named Jane moved in, complete with an abusive dealer boyfriend named Sergio, giving Farrell’s band their name.

While LA was dominated by “hair metal” bands such as Mötley Crüe, Jane’s Addiction crafted a scuzzily subversive blend of funk, industrial, post-punk and classic rock. Farrell penned songs about serial killers, junkies, and, in their anthem Been Caught Stealing, shoplifting. The band’s first two studio albums, 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking and 1990’s Ritual de lo Habitual, are alternative classics. Every generation gets the Jim Morrison it deserves: Gen X got Perry Farrell.

“I feel a tremendous responsibility to carry on the great shamanic spirit of Los Angeles,” Farrell says, in the spirit of the Doors frontman. “I want to show that we speak truth, we are courageous, we are fearless and we are heavy. We dive deep into the inter-dimensions of our own hearts to try to extract the truth and then put it out into the world.”

The band’s impact remains undeniable. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers called Jane’s Addiction “the most important rock band of the 80s”. Chris Cornell cited their huge impact on Soundgarden and grunge. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine once said that it was Jane’s Addiction, not Nirvana, who led rock out of the hair metal wilderness. Meanwhile, the modern US festival industry arguably stems from Lollapalooza. Conceived as a touring version of British festivals such as Reading, Farrell turned Jane’s Addiction’s 1991 farewell tour into a major event with Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Ice T sharing the bill, along with sideshows such as the Jim Rose Circus – Farrell’s vision of an “alternative nation” writ large.

In conversation, you sense he considers his extra-musical achievements as significant as his music. He has a philanthropic streak that has taken him everywhere from a 2001 trip to the Sudan to purchase the freedom of 2,300 people enslaved by militias, to 10 Downing Street to discuss global warming with Tony Blair in 2007.

Perry Farrell at a Downing Street reception with Tony Blair
Farrell at a Downing Street reception in 2007 with the then prime minister Tony Blair. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

“The trick is getting every [nation] co-ordinated to say, ‘We want the Earth to be so nice that wherever we go, there’s a fresh stream of clean water that I can go to,’” Farrell says. “‘I don’t have to stay there, it doesn’t have to belong to me, but I’m welcome there.’ That’s the way of musicians. We travel, we entertain you, and then you say: ‘This is fresh food from local farming, and you’ll never get a hot pepper like this.’ You go: ‘Man, thank you so much. Now we’re friends, and you come over to my house next time.’”

For all the heaviness plaguing life in 2020, it is easy to be seduced by Farrell’s positivity. He is one of the few who not only survived, but actually made it, and seems legitimately determined to help as many people as he can. He is a scholar of the Old Testament and esoteric texts, but he has no evangelical streak; he is just someone looking for signs of divinity and content to find them in the mundane.

“There it is,” Farrell says, gesturing widely to the garden, as though he were in the last pages of Candide. “It’s the universe and what I don’t know … wormholes and the unfathomable. What I can grasp is what I can see with my own eyes right now. I love dogs and I love trees and I love people and I love music. Everything is provided here. He, she, it, and everything else – God is everything added up. What’s so beautiful is we’ve been able to see what chaos looks like, and it’s a fucking art piece.”

The Glitz; The Glamour will released on 6 November


Jeff Weiss

The GuardianTramp

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