It's tempting to think of Stephen Perkins as Jane's Addictions' answer to Derek Smalls, the unassuming Spinal Tap bass player who stood between "fire-and-ice visionaries" Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins, "kind of like lukewarm water." After all, the seemingly low-key drummer is fronted in Jane's Addiction by two of rock's biggest attention whores: pansexual pied piper Perry Farrell, frontman, festival founder, and activist; and bad-boy guitar hero Dave Navarro, Penthouse magazine sexpert, reality TV reprobate, and ravisher of renowned hotties.
"I think I see what you're stepping in," Perkins says when presented with a reporter's rather gingerly worded question about his relative position in the band. He's on a break in the action from the band's current Theatre of the Escapists tour, in support of their latest release, The Great Escape Artist.
"But seriously, I've always let the music do the talking," he says of his virtual invisibility, at least in the media, as compared to his garrulous bandmates. "When I was an 8-year-old, I saw Gene Krupa. And what I saw was that more than anybody in the show, the drummer got people moving. He's the one who got people excited, who sent people home f--king, the center of the whole thing."
What's more, it does Perkins a grave disservice to juxtapose him with the hapless and hopelessly mediocre Smalls because—in spite of his low profile—he's a surpassing drummer and probably the band's best musician, Navarro's white-hot licks notwithstanding.
And he really is a talker, holding forth cheerfully and voluminously when called upon for an interview. He says he just doesn't seek out publicity the way the higher-profile Farrell and Navarro often do.
And that's okay. Because after 26 years, Perkins says the odd dynamics of their individual preferences and personalities have finally settled in a comfortable mesh that allows the band to continue with everyone functioning according to his own dissident game plan.
"I don't want decisions about money or the media to get in the way; those are distractions to me," Perkins says. "They get in the way of my drumming. Other people can take that bullshit and feed the fire of their instrument. Perry can do that, and Dave as well. They can take that public life and put it in their music. Everyone respects everyone else's role. I don't want anyone else's role. It takes all these pieces of the puzzle to make Jane's Addiction."
Perkins says the making of Escape Artist was a necessarily long, slow process, one that began back in 2008 with a reunion, the first with original bass player Eric Avery since band's initial split in 1991. After Avery played on a couple of studio sessions with the band, produced by Trent Reznor, he departed once more. In the ensuing years, the band worked with Guns N' Roses veteran Duff McKagan and TV on the Radio guitarist Dave Sitek before finishing the record with both Sitek and Chris Chaney on bass.
But being in the band that started it all, for better or worse—the outfit that was perhaps, more so than any other, instrumental in dragging '80s alt-rock out of the somber ghettos of college radio and into the fulgent light of day—weighed heavy on the minds of Perkins and company. The drummer says they were hard-pressed to carry on the band's majestic postpunk tradition while still breaking new ground.
"When Dave Sitek came in we knew this would be different," he says. "Then we brought in turntables and drum machines and pedals and everything; then we'd send the tracks over to Perry for lyrics and melodies. That's when we realized, ‘Hey, this is going to take a while.' Not like the old days when we just put a mic up and recorded the band."
The Great Escape Artist is the band's most eclectic record yet, still imbued with that hard-charging hard-rock spirit, but reflecting it through music that's more textured, ambient, with a broader dynamic range. It's as if a postmodern, 21st-century Led Zeppelin had made a record like III or Houses of the Holy, only using turntables and keyboards instead of organs and mandolins.
"Wherever the music goes, there's still that personality that's us, that force that you can hear that is Jane's Addiction," Perkins says. "You can still hear the urgency, [in a dead-on Farrell voice] ‘Three, four…' and bam!
"Since the old days, our individual records don't sound like that. But when we get together it sounds like Jane's Addiction, and it can't be stopped. It was never about a sound or equipment or a certain kind of production. It was about a commitment to each other and to bring each song to its fullest potential."