Reunion albums are typically the last place to look for musical surprises. Usually, they're nothing more than a hollow piece of product on which to hang a nostalgic -- and lucrative -- road trip. Thus, when Jane's Addiction re-emerged this July with "Strays," some 13 years after their landmark "Ritual de lo Habitual" album was released, expectations were somewhat muted. After Jane's had defined the "alternative nation" (and its commercial possibilities) in the late '80s and early '90s with two classic albums and hundreds of unforgettable live performances, the individual members had been having a bit of a tough time creatively.
Perry Farrell's work as a solo artist and DJ as well as in Porno for Pyros had been interesting, but hardly impactful. Guitarist Dave Navarro's stint with the Red Hot Chili Peppers resulted in that group's lamest album to date, and his 2001 solo album didn't exactly dominate the charts. Drummer Stephen Perkins kept busy with the exploratory Banyan (with Nels Cline and Mike Watt), session work and live gigs with Tommy Lee. And original bassist Eric Avery chose to continue playing bass for Alanis Morissette rather than be a part of any of the reunion tours. (Jane's first recruited Flea, then Porno for Pyros bassist Martyn LeNoble, for the two tours.)
With a dozen-plus years of rather inconsequential history behind them, and two -- yes, two -- reunion tours preceding "Strays," it was hard to imagine that the group might actually have something to say to a Clear Channel-programmed youth culture other than "Hey! We're Jane's Addiction. Your older brother likes us!"
Somewhat surprisingly, in the middle of the sessions for the album, the band got that vibe too. Even though they went in with the best of intentions -- "We weren't just going to put some guitar riffs together and call it a record," says drummer Perkins -- the band's first trips into the studio weren't quite as magical as they had hoped.
"This record was being recorded with headphones, between glass walls and a lot of the energy that makes us Jane's Addiction was getting lost," says Perkins of the initial sessions for "Strays." He readily admits that, despite the high energy levels present on the 1997 "Relapse" tour and the 2001 "Jubilee" tour, those feelings weren't translating into the studio. Realizing that the electricity that powered early Jane's was generated by live performance, the band headed out for a quick two-week jaunt through Korea and Japan to get the juices flowing.
"About halfway into the record, Bob [Ezrin, producer] and everybody decided it would be good and healthy to get out of the studio and experience some of the songs live in front of an audience. That's how all the other songs in the '80s were written, and that's how a lot of those songs got so stretched out. The spirit that Jane's always had was produced with an audience."
Despite this brief respite from the studio, the energy still wasn't right when the group again donned their headphones and reconvened behind the glass walls. At the time, LeNoble was playing bass and, unfortunately for him, it was decided that he was the problem. Recruiting Chris Chaney (with whom Perkins had played on tour with Methods of Mayhem and, ironically enough, was in Alanis Morissette's band) proved to be the spark Jane's needed. After a trial-by-fire initiation that put him on European festival stages ("Fucking big shows," laughs Perkins) after only two weeks of rehearsals, Chaney recut previously recorded bass parts and added his unique energy to some new songs. The result, according to Perkins, was "a B-12 shot in the middle of the record. The songs were beautiful and the experience was beautiful. We wanted a great player to join the band, not just some great player to come in and make a record."
The record the band made turned out to confound everyone's expectations. For those thinking there was no way Jane's Addiction could make a good record in 2003, "Strays" managed to combine a full-bodied rock & roll attitude with that peculiar loopiness that could only come from Perry Farrell. Yet those people that expected Jane's to simply revisit the sound that defined them a decade ago were equally confused, if not disappointed. "Strays" is the sound of a band with a very different outlook than it had over a decade ago. Preferring polished bombast to druggy spasticity and solid structures to chaotic explosions, it's thickly produced and thoroughly modern. Producer Ezrin might have had something to do with it, but it's more likely that the newfound personal and professional maturity of the band members was more decisive. While certainly not a calculated album, the glistening textures and rock power of "Strays" come from a place quite different than the frenetic dick-worship of "Standing in the Shower ... Thinking."
"We did a lot of editing and a lot of arrangement changing," says Perkins. "People's attention spans are so short, it's not like it was with Led Zeppelin where you can play for a minute and a half before you get to the vocals; at a minute and a half now, you've had three choruses. I get to play jazz with Banyan, with Jane's it's a lot more direct. We realize that it's a piece of art, but also that it's a piece of art in 2003.
"We get to stretch the songs out live and take them in all new directions, feeding off the vibe of the audience," he says. "It's great to see the songs' true nature come out. That's what I'm hoping for on the next record: to write some songs, play the shit out of 'em live and then go record 'em to capture that. The spirit on this record is incredible, but I also like what they're turning into in the live experience."
After a rocky restart, it looks as if Jane's Addiction is back to stay. Despite disappointing sales figures for "Strays" and a lukewarm radio response to the singles that have been promoted, Jane's has successfully repositioned themselves somewhere between "tired old legend" and "brand new band." The effort that went into Strays is paying off in live shows that easily demonstrate the future possibilities for the band: Soundchecks are turning into jam sessions which turn into new songs. Concerts -- as tightly scripted as they may be in this day and age -- still find the quartet moving into uncharted territory. According to Perkins, it's all new, but it's all the same.
"We're all different people now, and we've all had so many different experiences to pull from, whereas back in the day, all we had was Jane's Addiction. The chaos in the world today and the chaos in our personalities and friendships ... that's always gonna be there. Things don't change that much."