Jane's Addiction's new album, "The Great Escape Artist," was still a work in progress last May when the band appeared on an outdoor stage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Jane's was the musical entertainment at an exhibition opening for director Tim Burton's work as an artist and filmmaker, and singer Perry Farrell was dressed for the part, wearing the Mad Hatter's Victorian top hat and coat from Burton's reimagined "Alice in Wonderland."
During the short set, Farrell poured wine into plastic cups held up by fans and took deep sips from the bottle. "The most important thing in this world is to live a truthful life," he shouted. "Are you with me?"
The crowd, of course, was right there with him. The bigger question: Was the band on board? Jane's broke up in 1991 at the height of its popularity and fought during several failed reunions over the next two decades. In fact, the band's new CD is only the fourth studio album for these godfathers of alternative rock. With such a tumultuous history, it's no wonder that today Farrell's mind is on the future. Or what's left of it.
"Time's a wastin' for us," Farrell said of Jane's Addiction recently over lunch on the Hotel Shangri-La's rooftop overlooking the ocean off Santa Monica. He's a healthier, more polished provocateur now, decades removed from the sometimes emaciated, wild-eyed frontman he was in the boho '80s, but Farrell remains dependably blunt and enthusiastic. He's also a husband and dad, and during the interview, his wife, Etty Lau (costar in the E! reality series "Married to Rock"), and two young sons sat at a nearby table. "We wasted so much time fighting and doing other things. This is a critical period in our life. We have to focus laser-sharp, define who we are, the music that we make, the show that we produce. If we do that, we'll set ourselves up to be where we always belonged in the world of music."
The band meant to get here sooner. Since reuniting again in 2008, Jane's Addiction has been increasingly active, touring and playing local shows at a pace reminiscent of its early days as a fast-rising underground rock band in Los Angeles. But plans to record another album were delayed as a series of bassists rolled in and out, beginning with a short-lived reunion with founding member Eric Avery, followed by six months with former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan.
With Tuesday's release of "The Great Escape Artist" on Capitol Records, those delays are finally over, and the album's first single, "Irresistible Force (Met the Immovable Object)," is already enjoying heavy airplay on the influential KROQ-FM (106.7).
The core Jane's trio of Farrell, guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins appears more united than ever, long past the youthful tensions that caused its original breakup. "It's good," says Farrell, 52, describing unprecedented mutual respect among them. "It only took us 25 years."
Between reunions, Navarro spent much of the last decade on non-musical projects. He hosted an Internet talk show and a radio show, released an autobiography, became co-manager of adult actress Sasha Grey and even directed an adult film starring her, "Broken," in 2007. After the short life of the post-Jane's band Panic Channel, Navarro's playing could most often be heard at the local live shows of Camp Freddy, an all-star cover band.
"We've stopped a number of times," Navarro, 44, says of Jane's. "And every time I reflect on what those reasons were, all of those reasons are insignificant now. I've had to be bashed over the head with learning that lesson that everything passes ultimately."
The new album is a smooth departure from the original Jane's Addiction sound, layering the essential elements of modern hard rock and the searing, eccentric vocals of Farrell with electronics and atmosphere. On the track "Splash a Little Water on It," the band unfurls an emotional wall of sound, as Farrell sings a dark tale: "What was she thinking trying to keep up with you, every habit you have? Oh, it's 'cause she loves you so, don't tell her she's not looking so good."
There are some intense moments of guitar on "Words Right Out of My Mouth," which closes the album, but far fewer of those grand gestures elsewhere, which Navarro welcomed. He's been listening to a lot of Massive Attack and Pink Floyd, and found himself drawn into a more minimalist approach.
Another key influence was the presence of Dave Sitek, of the acclaimed Brooklyn art-rockers TV on the Radio, who arrived to play bass and collaborate as a songwriter, without becoming a member of the band. Sitek was the suggestion of Rich Costey (Muse, Interpol), who produced the album.
Before the full band worked with him, Perkins met with Sitek in a rehearsal space at SIR Studios in Hollywood to experiment for a couple of days. "I wrote to Dave and Perry telling them I was excited: This is reminding me of playing with Mike Watt. It's dangerous and relentless, always searching, like Coltrane," recalls Perkins, 44. "He's a fun guy to spark ideas for music. He said … 'Let's jam for a month!' His personality on the instrument is always pushing."
Sitek was also a forceful voice in the room, weighing in on sounds and direction, but with none of the baggage a full band member would carry. Without turmoil in the bass position, the band may never have collaborated with Sitek, whom Navarro calls "an abrasive Baltimore dude who says what he thinks."
"He was instrumental in helping me not over-think things," the guitarist adds. "We had very similar desires musically, and we also butt heads quite a bit, which is fun and brotherly. We rode each other a little bit. It was nice to have that relationship in the studio."
Sitek was later invited to tour with the band, but passed and returned full time to TV on the Radio. Back in bass position is Chris Chaney, who played on 2003's "Strays" and was in the band when it broke apart that year. Navarro brought him into the studio at the end of sessions for "The Great Escape Artist" to add a ribbon of cohesiveness on bass from track to track.
"That was the missing piece," Navarro says.
The album was recorded at Eldorado Studios in Burbank, on the same consoles used for the band's first two studio albums, 1988's "Nothing's Shocking" and 1990's "Ritual de lo Habitual." Tracks were then sent to Farrell to record his vocals at home in Santa Monica. The album's first single, "Irresistible Force," began on acoustic guitar and drums, then was amplified with a swirl of keyboards and brooding effects, fueled by the Joy Division album Navarro was listening to that day.
The song was then emailed to the singer. "A day later it comes back to us with the very vocals that are on it today," says Navarro. "A song like that came together in three days. It was such an exciting process to work like that."
There were signs of that excitement during their LACMA show earlier this year. The band's traditional encore of "Jane Says" was a surprisingly warm close to an otherwise stormy set of raw psychedelic rock and punk attitude. Perkins, bent over his steel drums, tapped out a tropical rhythm and sang along like a fan. Navarro was on acoustic guitar, and Farrell walked over to put an arm around his shoulders, a band of brothers at last. It's a unity that can now be felt throughout Jane's new album.
"Over the course of time, it just adds up to me that this is a great band," says Farrell. "We understand how fortunate we are to be in this position. We lucked out, man. All we've got to do is be great. " He laughs. "Not so easy, but definitely within our grasp. That's what this record was meant to do."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun