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As frontman of Jane's Addiction and founder of Lollapalooza, Perry Farrell has done plenty to cement his place in the history of alternative rock. Simultaneously a shrewd self-promoter and a shameless provocateur, Farrell has continued to openly court commercial success while retaining significant credibility as an activist and an adventurous musician. But the success of Farrell's latest project, the dance-oriented rock act Satellite Party, may require more hard-sell than usual, because the band's debut album, Ultra Payloaded, is entering a record-buying market that increasingly eschews the values and sounds that Farrell's generation made popular. (And which, perhaps ironically, drove a previous generation of rockers off the charts.) Farrell recently spoke with The A.V. Club about what Satellite Party is, who it's for, and whether he thinks he can still move units in 2007.
The A.V. Club: How would you describe Ultra Payloaded?
Perry Farrell: The term I use is "sedimentary rock," because it was built in layers. Sedimentary layers of sound, beginning with electronics and subsonic sounds and programs, and moving through to the enthusiasm of rock 'n' roll and rock 'n' roll instrumentation. Layered on top of that, we have unisex choruses, males and females. And on top of that, we've got a 30-piece orchestra. So it's a hybrid of sound. It's very modern, however, because the BPMs were set at hip-hop speeds and house-music speeds, so we could get into club rotations. I felt that rock 'n' roll wasn't being played in clubs any more, so it was a part of this musical adventure, to bring rock music back into the clubs.
AVC: Why is that important to you?
PF: Because today, people go out to clubs, and what they listen to mostly is hip-hop, pop, and R&B. And that's a shame, because there are some amazing rock musicians. The problem is that rock musicians never consider BPMs when they write their songs. They don't consider a club's house systems, because they're playing live. If only they'd consider those two aspects, a DJ would be able to get their cut, get their track, and spin it in right after Jay-Z.
AVC: Are you so interested in getting played in clubs because you're not sure there's a place for this album on radio today?
PF: Actually, I do think there's a place. I'm just not exactly sure where. The formats have changed so much, and even if you look at alternative music today, most of it isn't really that alternative. It's just good, strong, modern music. We've been getting lots of adds, and we've got one of the hottest new singles in America right now, so obviously program directors are picking up on it. But you never want to be exactly right with everybody. You want to be slightly ahead, and force a change of style.
AVC: In the early days of Jane's Addiction, there wasn't much commercial alternative-rock radio. How much do you think the existence of bands like yours caused that format to come into being?
PF:. Well, the big rock groups of the '70s were getting played, and the hair-metal guys, too. That really wasn't us. We came from post-punk, and we created the alternative nation. And it was very healthy for a long time. I don't know where radio is right now. Maybe they're looking for something new. That's why I'm saying, "Let's create something. Let's put some enthusiasm into the sound." There are lots of familiar elements to what I'm doing now, but it's like a child that comes from two different nationalities. It's just a beautiful new being.
AVC: Are you disappointed that the '90s radio revolution didn't last very long?
PF: Am I disappointed? Yeah. The reality of alternative music is, there aren't that many stations playing it any more, or so they say. And the perception is that young people don't care about it. But it's a false perception. If I can trade hats for a moment and be the owner and creator of Lollapalooza 150 groups play my stages over the course of three days every year, most of them alternative-music groups, and last year we had close to 180,000 people attend. This year, we're expecting close to 200,000. There's definitely an audience. I can only imagine why songs end up on the radio today, and who's putting them there. But as far as I'm concerned—and I'm going around the world, looking and listening—guitar music is very, very strong in Europe and America. So we'll see what happens. I don't know. I sometimes wish I had a radio station, but I don't.
AVC: You could get on XM.
PF: Y'know, I've asked, and they've offered me a station. But I like the idea of a live feed. I don't like the idea of something canned. And a lot of the satellite-radio formats, it's canned DJs. So I'm thinking even past the idea of radio, and going into webcasting. That's where my interest is, and that's what I'm working on putting together right now. Something that doesn't necessarily play into radio formats, per se.
AVC: Do you miss the days when Lollapalooza was a touring entity, as opposed to a stand-alone festival?
PF: I do miss those days, but you have to understand, it wasn't my decision to put an end to the tour. It was really a response to the very poor environment that touring festivals had developed into over the last 10 years. The live concert industry has become corporate-ized. I couldn't see a way—and I still don't, really—to bring a fresh festival around the country, when I'm dealing with one major corporation that's going to price-fix and put me into really sterilized environments. It doesn't sit well with me. And so we made the decision that we had to go and set up in one location where we were still owners and had the final say and could go in there and dress it and bring our own sponsors in, and we would have our quality back. So I miss it, but guess what? Don't count us out yet. I'm always working on concepts and ideas for the future. It may not be long before Lollapalooza's wheels are turning.
AVC: Back in the touring days, were there ever any acts that you booked just because you wanted to hang out with them for a summer?
PF: I love that idea. I mean, gosh, my first tours I ever did were with the Ramones and Iggy Pop and Love & Rockets. I was a gushing young musician who looked up to these people, and they were my heroes. To get on a tour with them was a dream come true. And then at the original Lollapalooza, when The Butthole Surfers and Nine Inch Nails and Henry Rollins and Ice T All those guys joined forces. I was looking to tour with my musical peers, and I wanted to hang with them, sure.
AVC: Back in mid-'80s L.A., Jane's Addiction was struggling to get noticed alongside Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and meanwhile, the city was also hosting a thriving metal and hard-rock scene. Was there a clear sense of division between those bands and "your bands," or were you all trying to play the same venues?
PF: No. There was a huge, wide gap. We didn't associate with the hair-metal guys. We kind of laughed them off. We would drive down Sunset Boulevard at the time when Sunset Boulevard was chockfull of them, and we'd kind of heckle. They were not part of the underground. They were very much a part of that corporate rock that we were Y'know, we were like The Weathermen. We were trying to blow that shit up. We would put our own parties together. In those days, in that scene, they'd really make groups pay to play. They were running scams on Sunset Boulevard. These kids were desperate to play music, and they'd come in from the valley, and the clubs would make them pay $500 to purchase a stack of tickets, and they'd call it a rental fee, for the microphones and the amp and the PA system, which was their in-house system anyway. And these poor kids would get money from their parents and try to sell as many tickets as they could, and they never could, so they'd end up actually paying the club for the right to have that night. And it was pathetic.
Number one, we couldn't afford to do that. And number two, we thought that scene was dry. If we could find a hot-dog stand that would let us hang out in the parking lot, we'd play there. We'd play downtown with a lot of the gay artists, and the gay community opened their hearts and doors to us, and we were part of that scene. And sometimes we would take it out into the desert, and sometimes we'd take it out onto a boat that you could rent. We had a lot of fun putting together parties that were interesting, and they were journeys. We supported each other, too. Every night, we were out supporting. We all lived among each other, so you went to check out your roommate's group. You got in free, because he's your roommate. That's how it went.
Unfortunately, the scene died off in Los Angeles. There's no live-music scene like there used to be. People don't come to Los Angeles necessarily to get signed. Groups do it the old-fashioned way. If they come to Los Angeles, they're trying to get on American Idol.
AVC: Or Rock Star.
PF: [Pause.] Yeah. [Laughs.]
AVC: Better not talk about that.
PF: Yeah, thanks. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is Satellite Party mostly collaborative, or is it mostly you?
PF: It's absolutely collaborative, but I am the chief solutionist. It's my record. I'm the producer. I'm looking to evolve the concept of the new renaissance artist, taking the world by storm through the art of public display and demonstration, with technical savvy, using cell phones and computers. We can market a better world, and change the world for the better using art. And I need all the help I can get. I'm aligning myself with organizations like Global Cool, a kind of hedge fund. My allies are the world's leading authorities on global climate change and global warming, and they're also philanthropists and investors. They're allies, and we don't stop there. We're continuing to ally ourselves with people who are like-minded and powerful.
But you want to know the thing about this great movement? It is going to take the many to accomplish our goals. So the individual solutionist is really the most valuable form of capital we've got. Human capital. People making better choices is going to be what inevitably gets us to where we need to be.
AVC: Is it hard to try to maintain that kind of idealism and also be in the music industry, which in many ways is morally bankrupt?
PF: Yeah, but just try to stop us. We're going to love. I don't wait on the music industry to qualify me or give me my paycheck. I go about my business as an artist and I believe that my value is in my product and in my art form, and that's why I can't be stopped, because I began producing this record by myself, without a record company. A record company heard it and liked it a lot, and I was very happy to work with them. I do enjoy working with Columbia Records. They're good people. But I also realize that simply selling records isn't going to make a career today, and musicians need to understand that they've got to get out there and get their chops playing live. That's where it's at.
You've got to look at yourself as what I call a lifer. You're going to be out there playing music your whole life, in a live situation. That's what sends me out into the world, and as I see this beautiful world, I want to do more and contribute more, and stay in a position to do more and contribute more. Having started in 1990 doing Lollapalooza and working with non-profit organizations and environmental groups back then, I know it feels good to help people. I find now in the last eight to 10 years, my head has come around to really loving life and loving people and loving the world. It's something that I find comes quite naturally, as a man. I enjoy it.