Ctrl. Alt. Repeat: Perry Farrell - The Music Week Interview

Ctrl. Alt. Repeat: Perry Farrell - The Music Week Interview

Be it his influential work with Jane’s Addiction or founding the legendary festival Lollapalooza, for decades Perry Farrell has played a crucial role in bringing alternative music to the masses. As he releases his solo career-spanning collection The Glitz; The Glamour, Music Week joins a true maverick to get his thoughts on artistic control, major labels, the future of live music, and making contact with the spirit of Jim Morrison (first published November 2020)... 

Recently, the thing that has defined Perry Farrell’s storied career left his body. Temporarily, that is.

“I had discs replaced in my neck, and they had to go through the front and remove my voice box,” says the singer. “They put it on a table to work on me then put it back in. It was a little spooky. I was just happy that the sound was there for me when I woke up. What if it would have made me sound like…”

At this point Farrell emits something like the squawk of a bird of prey: RRRRAAARRRK! A big, cheeky grin spreads across his face. Talking to Music Week from his home, Farrell tells us that his voice is something he’s been giving a lot of thought to during 2020. This month, he releases The Glitz; The Glamour, a sprawling nine-LP collection which includes signature solo songs, rarities and remixes – all housed in a boxset that comes with a Blu-ray, a hardcover mini-book, a bandana, plus two exclusive prints by the artist Zoltar. A retrospective release like this is, he says, long overdue.

“The project began from a sense of just being scattered and completely spread thin,” says Farrell. “I had music over there that was really wonderful and I had worked very hard on. Then I had music over there that I had forgotten all about. And then I had music that I had bought back from record labels, because I was just upset at the shit job that they had done, so I bought my own music back. It was a great suggestion that I collect my entire discography. It’s only been 35 years, but finally I’m organised and ready to go!”

While The Glitz; The Glamour bypasses his Jane’s Addiction and Porno For Pyros material, it features his solo albums Song Yet To Be Sung and Kind Heaven, plus his work with Satellite Party. It also includes unearthed recordings of his very first group Psi Com. One day a man contacted him about them. They were in the bin.

“They were throwing all these masters away and he asked would I be interested in buying them?” Farrell recalls. “So I said, ‘Yeah, man, why not?’”

Revisiting his past has been an interesting experience for the star who says he got into music by virtue of “being a wild character”. A wild character, that is, with huge goals.

“Once I started performing, I wanted to be as great as David Bowie or Iggy Pop,” he says. “I thought it was possible because my life was shaping up to be like theirs – it was another world that people didn’t really know about, a world that people were intrigued by and that was somewhat dangerous, but was absolutely freeing and exciting. That was originally my ambition. Then, when Jane’s Addiction started, I thought, ‘I want to be in one of my generation’s great groups.’”

This he certainly achieved. Much more than simply notching up platinum sales, Jane’s Addiction were one of the great forerunners of the alternative scene that would dominate the early ’90s, inspiring countless bands in their wake. Farrell’s impact only grew when, in 1991, he founded Lollapalooza and forever changed the way festivals could operate: the eclectic travelling festival drawing some of the most iconic acts and bands of all time. Indeed, the Perry Farrell story is one of the most unique and beguiling in rock – should it ever be turned into a Hollywood film, few would believe one person could be at the heart of so much action. Courting controversy. Encounters with SWAT teams. Addiction. Orgies. Accidentally sharing David Bowie’s private email address with 200 people. Travelling to war-torn Sudan to buy freedom for 2,300 enslaved women and children. Almost single-handedly saving Coachella during its financial straits in 2001 by reforming Jane’s Addiction and playing for a deferred fee. The list goes on and on. And on.

A conversation with him is one in which tangents beget sub-tangents. Across 50 highly animated minutes he shares everything from the ideal length of a gig (“Today, I don’t necessarily want to hear anybody more than 45 minutes – sorry, Bruce Springsteen!”) to the time he and Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello helped out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (“We cleaned up this old jazz cat’s backyard and an old VW Beetle had swept into it!”). Then there are the injuries he’s sustained from decades of playing live.

“I can’t tell you how many operations I’ve had,” he smiles. “I’ve torn my stomach lining three separate times, I’ve had three hernia operations, discs replaced, torn my meniscus and literally heard my calf muscles snap like a giant rubber band! I’ve fallen off of stages 10 feet tall right onto my ass. I’ve lost my voice; it’s going to be raspy for the rest of my life.”

Still, nothing is quite as striking as the story of one of the centrepieces of The Glitz; The Glamour: the presence of Jim Morrison. Back in 2007, Farrell’s group Satellite Party released their only album Ultra Payloaded, which housed a song called Woman In The Window featuring unreleased vocals by The Doors’ iconic frontman. Not only is that included in the boxset, but so, too, is another unheard Morrison vocal passage. Where is he getting these priceless gems from, you may ask? It all started with a phone call.

“OK, very strange story,” begins Farrell. “One night, I received communication from someone in Israel that said they communicate with Jim Morrison, and they have recordings of his that he wants me to have. I believe in the spirit world and, of course, anybody would be intrigued enough to say, ‘OK, let’s check them out’. Sure enough, they sent files over the internet and it was Jim. Imagine someone that you loved all of a sudden speaking to you again when you know they’ve passed on. That’s just the feeling; I still get that feeling all the time. It’s quite something, it bring tears to your eyes.”

The problem was that the recordings belonged neither to him, nor the people in Israel...

“They belonged to Jim’s family and estate,” he continues. “So I played them for The Doors’ manager, Danny Sugerman, who was dying of cancer. I went to Danny’s house literally two weeks before his death. We sat around listening to these tapes and it cheered him up. He couldn’t figure out where it came from.”

Perry Farrell got back in touch with his connections in Israel.

“I said, ‘I think we can do something with these tapes, but where did you get them?’”

Farrell started to ask them questions to pass on to Morrison. He proceeds to mimic the whispered conversation he heard on the other end of the phone that day. 

“So I started thinking, ‘Alright! Jim is alive and he’s living in Israel, he’s gotta be, right?’ I still don’t know.”

The exciting end result is this: The Glitz; The Glamour contains Vast Visitation – yet another unheard recording of Morrison set to new music by Perry Farrell.

Communing with people from beyond the grave is but one of Farrell’s projects. Before the pandemic, he was also making some incredibly bold moves in the live space. When touring his 2019 solo album Kind Heaven he began playing intimate shows that were not just about bands on stage. More than extraordinary sounds, he desired events with sights and smells. He still wants to bring that to fruition, and that isn’t even his loftiest goal. That would be world peace.

“I’m sorry, we’ve given politicians thousands of years to get their shit together in the Middle East,” he explains. “And I bet you anything that if you put it in the hands of musicians and artists, we’ll get it done. My ambition grew from wanting to be in one of the great groups, to wanting to work with musicians from around the world and, together, unite and spread this message of peace, music and joy. That’s my ambition now for the rest of my life.”

Farrell, it seems, is hearing a ticking clock in his mind. “I don’t have that much time left,” he says. “I just turned 60. I’ve got like, what, 20 years left? I want to see things go down, man. I want to see peace. I want to party.”

Without further ado, then, it’s time to jump into the mind of a true music visionary. Buckle Up…

The Glitz; The Glamour contains your first recordings with Psi Com.What do you remember of yourself around that time?

“It was cool to make a record myself back in 1984, it really taught me a lot. The first thing I learned was how to sell, distribute and market a record. I did just what Chris Blackwell did when he started, I had records in the trunk of my car and I would drive to record shops as far as a tank of gas would take me to the better stores. They wouldn’t buy the records outright, I would consign them, and then I would drive back the next week and say, ‘Hey! Did we sell any records?’ And they’d be like, ‘No!’ [laughs] The records would get warped, too, and I was panicking, like, ‘Oh no, what am I going to do, I can’t sell them!’ So I tried to unwarp these records, putting them under stacks of books. And that didn’t work...”

From there you go on to become hugely successful both on the recorded music and live side of the industry. What was the key to juggling the competing sides of art and business?

“Well, the first thing is you’d be shocked how poor of a businessman I am. I’ve lost millions in my life, but I guess the secret to it all, to be honest with you, is I don’t give a shit about money, honestly. I care so much more about how good the art is. There’s always going to be a desire to hear great music, great music is healing. And so I just put my concentration on being consistent and great in whatever platform of art I’m involved with. Today, more than ever, is the greatest time for the artist. At first social media was, well, to call it a pain in the ass is to put it mildly, but the truth of the matter is, if you really pull back and look at it, we’ve never had such great platforms to spread our message. I love being free, and free of major labels.”

To play Devil’s advocate, though, major labels in the ’90s also signed really compelling bands like Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, Pearl Jam…

“Right. But you know, what happened is, like anything, they were desperate and then corrupt. So they go, ‘Let’s hit the little kids up, they haven’t learned yet.’ Major label pop sucks – it’s all written by the same people using algorithms on what’s popular. That’s why you hear a lot of garbage. If you [as an artist] go that route, you come in, they use you for a few years, and then you’re out. And then they’re on to the next one, just like a guy who’s always looking for a younger, prettier wife. You know what I mean? [laughs] That’s how they would like to do it.”

You’ve previously rejected the idea of yourself as being the ‘godfather of the alt nation’…

“Well, what I meant was, I’m a reluctant leader. I don’t lead because I want to boss people around, I don’t feel comfortable, to a fault, telling people what to do. Who am I to tell anybody what to do?”

Would you at least concede that you’re the architect of the modern festival?

“I would concede that [but it was after] studying the great Bill Graham and the people that put together Reading and Glastonbury, there were some really great promoters. The promotion game? Oh, boy, it’s changed so much. But my ambition has grown. I would like to create a global touring route for, not just legacy people, but young people as well, that’s still called Lollapalooza. I want to add to that legacy by working with the musicians and recording with them. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle. Let’s take Starcrawler, a really great young group from LA. We reached out to them and we wrote a song together that’ll be out on The Glitz; The Glamour. And so, if next year things open up, Starcrawler will go on Lollapalooza and then we’ll have a song that we can do together.”

You’ve said that it should come naturally to festivals to book diverse line-ups and yet, time and time again, they’re not. What’s going wrong?

“It’s too much analytics. I mean, it’s OK to have some analytics – I’ve worked off of no analytics and lost millions of dollars, so maybe I shouldn’t be talking [laughs], but also it was music I believed in. I believed in it, I guess not everybody else did. But here’s the thing: you’re playing for the present and you’re also playing for the future. You know that you have to get a certain amount of people in, but once they’re in there? I always think, ‘I’m going to give you something that you didn’t know about!’ so it becomes that memory of like, ‘Man, I really dug going there and part of the reason is because I got turned on to something’. You can afford a couple of spots.”

Before the pandemic, you seemed to be moving towards live events that were less ‘band goes on stage’ and offer more of a sensorial experience. Do you think the live industry had failed to evolve?

“Yeah. It’s hard, but it’s no different than any other business. You have to be fluid, or people will get very bored. Covid caused us to stop and take a second look at it and see where we can improve. If I told you about a club and there’s a stage and a dance floor, too… That sounds alright. But what if I told you about a place that is really wild, and there’s improvisational actors walking around and certain rooms you can access that have these really interesting performances? [People are] looking for a new experience. So, you look at it and you think, ‘Well, do I need to create a new model, or can I just keep on my leather pants and keep doing the same thing?’ [laughs] And I think you absolutely have to take off your leather pants, man. Take a chance. Take off your pants.”

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