STEPHEN PERKINS – Drummer Extraordinaire by Edmund Barker

Rock

If you know anything about funk metal you’re familiar with Jane’s Addiction and their pounding beats and basslines. I talked to the group’s drummer Stephen Perkins about his greatest passion.

Edmund Barker: Hello?

Stephen Perkins: Hey, it’s Stephen Perkins!

EB: Hey Stephen, nice to meet ya! I’m Edmund.

SP: And how’s your day, Edmund?

EB: Oh, it’s nice up here in Seattle, it’s uh…you never know what you’re going to get. There was mild sleet yesterday and chilly temperatures, but now it’s like a May or April day, very sunny and warm.

SP: Good! That’s beautiful.

EB: We’re all over the place, but I’m assuming it’s sunny enough down in California?

SP: Oh, it’s a perfect day—it’s my wife’s birthday, we went for a nice hike near the Hollywood sign. And my son’s back on campus, so we’re, you know, trying to make it feel like normal…as normal as can be! [laughs]

EB: As normal as can be, there’s the words for it.

SP: No problem. Do you work with Eileen [Shapiro] a lot?

EB: Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve interviewed her before as well.

SP: Cool!

EB: Spoke to a lot of interesting people through her connections like Howard Bloom and Leland Sklar more recently.

SP: Yeah, Leland’s great, man. He told me he never cut his beard after high school.

EB: I can believe that.

SP: I know, isn’t that wild? Heh.

EB: Yes, I was joking with him; he said he was selling merch for the first time ever with his bearded face on t-shirts, and I said to him, “Well, does anyone mistake those for ZZ Top shirts?”

SP: Oh, exactly! You know what’s great, it’s Dusty and Billy [of ZZ Top] that have beards and then Frank Beard has no beard. I mean, come on! Go figure.

EB: False advertising.

SP: So you recording this?

EB: Oh yeah, on my phone so we’re good. I was wondering, what’s hiking up by the Hollywood sign like? I love hiking up here in the Northwest but I’m not as familiar with SoCal.

SP: There’s a lot of deer and rabbits and lizards, and some cool people to say hello to…pretty mellow, actually. And such beautiful houses, you know that every house up there has such great Hollywood history. With some of them you’d hear, oh, that was Warren Beatty’s house, that was Madonna’s house and etcetera. And then some just have a mystery like, ooh I wonder who this is? That’s a cool place! It’s been great, I’m born and raised in Los Angeles, a lot of my friends ended up in the business—either in the music side or writers or photographers or filmmakers. It’s a nice place to grow up and with so many places to gig, like in Seattle, as a musician. If you want to play—pre-COVID—four or five nights a week, you can find something to do here. I’m anxious. I mean, I’m 53; I’ve been playing gigs ever since I was about 16. My first gig, actually, I was thirteen here at The Troubadour on Santa Monica. It’s unusual to not have gigs right now, but I’ve practicing the old drums. I was telling somebody, I feel like I’m a basketball player just practicing free throws. I never get to play the game, I’m just keeping my hand-eye coordination together, and the romance of bouncing a drumstick off a drumhead is still there for me. So that’s cool, I still love playing—I just can’t wait to do it with people and for people!

EB: Yeah, it’s like a basketballer in a year-long NBA hiatus.

SP: Yeah, exactly, man. Truth is, it’s gonna, in a sense, wash out some of the people who have to get a day job…it’s unusual to kinda balance my savings account against my income and what my monthly nut is, but it makes you realize how important the music business. Like, what can we learn from this mess? But I really think at the end of it, when North America opens up and the rest of the world…there’ll be a such a beautiful sense of creativity, with so much to sing about and so much to play about. Almost like how, pre-Vietnam, the rock and roll of America was quite happy, you know. It was “Splish Splash,” “Rock Around the Clock,” and all that…

EB: “Surfin’ USA!”

SP: And of course, in England, they were still in WWII rubble and the streets were a wreck, so the music that came out of there was so dark and heavy. It really wasn’t until Vietnam that you got The Doors, and The Grateful Dead…these bands that took those experiences of their friends not coming home and put it into music. I have a feeling that the music, and the art, and the films of tomorrow are going to reflect this dark time, but also have so much depth and layers in them.

EB: I get what you mean by an artistic renaissance of the future, where everyone’s glad to be out and together again but still shook up.

SP: Absolutely, man. The divide—politics aside—the huge divide of the last three or four years, and the realization of what people believe in, or don’t; or the freedom they give to hate or love…it really is an eye-opening experience of the people you thought you knew and, when you dig into their politics, really didn’t know at all. That doesn’t mean it loosens up their artistic visions, because I remember hearing some things about Salvador Dali and great artists from Spain where I didn’t wanna know their politics because I loved their art—I just didn’t wanna know! That’s kinda what’s happening now, it’s better to sometimes keep the thought to yourself or draw the line…me, I was born in raised in Los Angeles, I just want people to have the right to do what they like, when they like, as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. But there is that fear of differences, be it not liking same-sex marriage or waving the flag of the wrong side of W2 or the Civil War…you really don’t wanna know what people think. As a drummer, especially in Los Angeles, I grew up at Venice Beach with these drum circles, and I heard this jungle pattern, and I’d get closer to it. I was a little shy, and I wouldn’t always join the drum circle, but I’d get close to it, and feel a relaxation, a looseness. I always thought drums were not only a musical and athletic instrument, but a social glue, you know. Like someone signing a folk song at Greenwich Village back in the sixties, it would make people think. I really think it’s kinda the opposite for drums, it makes people stop thinking and just dance. And I love that option of being a technical, intellectual drummer; but also just being a straight-ahead gatherer of rhythm getting people to move their bodies together up and down and not understanding where or why they’re from but it doesn’t matter ‘cause you’re all dancing together. And that, to me, is the responsibility that you have as a drummer—that you can’t wait to somehow bring people together again with my rhythm. There’s something great about those huge festivals when there’s three days of bands and not everyone is there to see your band, but they cannot get away from your band because you’re playing at six to eight o’clock and they’re gonna hear you even if they’re half a mile away in the bungee jump, or Ferris wheel, or getting food. They still hear your band, I love that—and that competitive spirit where each band wants to out-do each other, that’s good for the audience and the customer because each band is bringing their a-game since a great band just went on and another one is about to. So, what are you gonna do with this time on stage? And it’s quite different from doing an intimate show at a club, where everyone there knows every lyric and every moment of the song, which is a great unity. But it’s also such a great challenge and a good time to play these festivals where they don’t know your music and they haven’t come to see you, but you’re making people loosen up like those drum circles I went to.

EB: Especially when you’re traveling to festivals in foreign countries, I was just to talking to a bassist about Roskilde in Denmark.

SP: Oh, absolutely! You know, you play Pukkelpop, or Roskilde, in these places where people might not speak your language, but obviously music is like math, you don’t need to understand the language to know that two plus two equals four. I was explaining to my eleven-year old who plays guitar that in the art world, two plus two can be five, it’s just interpretation and a mirror reflection of what you’re feeling. You can hopefully put that onto paper and into music, and people can either respond in a positive or negative way, but you can be yourself in art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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