Drummer Stephen Perkins saunters down New Orleans' Canal Street on Nov. 1, 2009. He makes his way down sidewalks that are bustling with people on their way to the Voodoo Music Experience in City Park. Perkins, who performed at the three-day music festival the night before as a member of Jane's Addiction, appears relaxed on this Sunday morning. He approaches St. Louis Cathedral and stops to check out a marching band that's set to perform. While on his walk, no one approaches him — except yours truly, who compliments him on the previous night's music.
"I remember that," Perkins says. "If I'm not exhausted, I check out the town. Sitting in a bed is not fun. I want to experience things because that's why I'm on tour. As a drummer in a band that has two popular front men, it keeps things really simple for me. Jane's is just one slice of everybody's pie."
Reality shows involving guitarist Dave Navarro and singer Perry Farrell aside, it's the music that has also kept Jane's Addiction in the spotlight for more than two decades. The California quartet has endured countless bass player changes over the years, fueling continuous reinvention. Formed in 1985, yet feeling like a new band, Jane's Addiction is touring in support of 2011's The Great Escape Artist, making a stop at Ovens Auditorium on May 23.
The years have been a roller coaster ride for a band that changes bass players as often as Spinal Tap changes drummers. After the band's 1991 breakup, Flea joined for 1997's Relapse Tour. Martyn LeNoble joined for a 2001 tour and was later replaced by Chris Chaney until the band split again in 2004. Jane's Addiction reunited and toured in 2008 and 2009 with Eric Avery before he, again, quit the band. After a brief stint by former Guns 'N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan and working in the studio with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, Chaney rejoined the band.
"Each time we get a new bass player, we introduce ourselves as a new band," Perkins says. "There's a new sound when you have a new player. It feels like you're working for it again. There's nowhere to hide out on stage. There's nothing better than just seeing what happens between band members. In the studio, life's too short if it's not the right time to be in the studio with these guys.
"We tried to recreate the original Jane's Addiction in 10 days in the studio with Eric, but it didn't work," Perkins adds. "I was surprised that he stuck around for 50 shows, not that he left. I think the timing wasn't right for us to make a new record together. It was too forced. You have to break new ground and that's a violent thing — you have to break it."
Despite the changes, the band has showed diversity within its style over the course of four studio albums, though it's the live show where the music truly shines. Through guitar effects by Navarro, jazz-influenced drumming by Perkins and vocal effects by Farrell, each band member finds his own niche within a song and unleashes his own unique spin that takes the music in new directions — and things never sound the same twice.
"With Jane's Addiction, we never want to repeat what happened the night before," Perkins says. "The live show is even a mystery to us because we all like to improvise, even Perry. We all like to change the phrasing and dynamics of a tune, especially the longer ones. You don't want to play the same shit over and over. You keep to the rules, but you get to express yourself, too."
One of Jane's Addiction's first shows in L.A. in the '80s involved hot rods, a transvestite dance revue and other "eye candy" to go along with the band's brand of alternative rock. The current tour incorporates a number of visual elements that harken back to those early days — dancers and other art aspects are worked into each night's performance. "I think the music calls for it — it's cinematic music," Perkins says.
As for what's next, Perkins hope all the new energy that has been sparked on tour will carry over into the studio. While the schedule is tiring — he's been home for less than two weeks since touring started this year — he wouldn't give it up.
"I'd love to explore this last year that we've been touring and go back in the studio for a serious brotherhood record," Perkins says. "I'm not complaining because it's a fuckin' great life to be in Jane's Addiction since I was 18. I still get excited knowing the tour bus is pulling up and I get to escape reality."