Jane's Addiction: Calamity Jane's no longer

They've ditched the drugs (more or less), they're on an eco-crusade and they're more popular than ever. Jane's Addiction are cleaning up, they tell James McNair
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Few bands have a back-story as colourful as the one that Jane's Addiction have accumulated since they came to prominence in late-Eighties Los Angeles, when the combination of their art-metal rock and flamboyant front man, Perry Farrell, quickly got them noticed. Their first manager prostituted herself to help to finance the outfit, and Farrell and his guitarist, Dave Navarro, have battles with heroin addiction behind them. The group's lyrics and artwork have also provoked controversy, not least the furore caused by the release of their 1988 album Nothing's Shocking. The problem, US censors felt, was the album's cover photograph, which shows a papier-mâché sculpture of naked Siamese twins by Farrell and his girlfriend of the time, Casey Niccoli. The two girls sit on a huge rocking chair, and their heads are alight.

Crucially, none of that overshadowed the band's innovative music. Acknowledging such disparate predecessors as Led Zeppelin and the Velvet Underground, the Jane's sound, with Eric Avery on bass and Stephen Perkins on drums, augmented the traditional hard-rock palette with steel drums, Spanish spoken-word, Eastern European fiddle and more. When the group emerged from the Los Angeles underground scene, they made their poodle-rocking peers look passé. A key component of Jane's Addiction's power and potency, some argued, was the bond that Farrell and Navarro had forged out of their shared personal tragedy. Navarro was 15 when his mother was murdered by a jealous ex-lover; Farrell just three when his artist mother committed suicide.

"Frankly, it's not so easy to speak about," the singer told me in 2001. "I still mourn, and it hurts, for sure, but I don't feel I'm any different from the next guy." Asked about his special bond with Farrell, Navarro had been more forthcoming: "We'd be on stage, and before we played 'Then She Did', Perry would grab me and say, 'Let's do this for our moms.' I still get chills when I think about it."

Perry Farrell is now a healthy-looking 43-year-old - perhaps surprisingly so for someone who spent a long time on his own personal death trip. Facially, he looks like a more handsome Mr Punch. A tattoo of a praying mantis adorns his muscular right arm. Today, he and the rest of the reformed Jane's Addiction are in London to receive Q magazine's "Inspiration" award. It will be presented by Christina Aguilera, who is long-term fan of the band. How strange is that?

The group are staying at the Metropolitan hotel in Park Lane, west London, and are here to talk about Strays, the much-lauded comeback album that finds Jane's Addiction in purge-and-tone-for-world-domination mode. Pointedly, Farrell still shies from describing himself as drug-free but, mindful of the welfare of his young sons, Yobel and Hezron, he is evidently no longer the arch-hedonist once described as "the rock star most likely to die within the next year" by Rolling Stone magazine.

"Basically," Farrell says, "I now have to make sure I can get up in the morning to feed my kids." Watch him perform, though, and he still channels Jane's music like a shaman, any air of cosy domesticity left at the stage door.

Born Perry Bernstein in Queens, New York, Farrell tells me that he is currently studying Abraham Cohen's book of Jewish wisdom Everyman's Talmud. "I like to increase my knowledge on how to be a good brother for the brotherhood of man," he says, and, given that not so long ago, his practical and financial involvement with the US charity Christian Solidarity International helped to liberate 6,000 Sudanese slaves, it is no empty boast.

The nasal-voiced singer comes across as a complex, fascinating and slightly camp figure; a big-hearted maverick who has mellowed while retaining his edge and mystique. One minute, he is expanding on the environmental themes that run through Strays; the next, he's telling me how a visceral new song, "To Match the Sun", gives him "a certain little tingle that's like sexual intercourse". Ask him to unpack the song's lyric, moreover, and Farrell happily displays his shamelessly romantic bent.

"'To Match the Sun' is about a fellow who travels," he says, "and that fellow is me. My wife, Etty, is always crying before I have to leave, so I told her, 'Let's go check out the sunset together' - we like to do that because we live on Venice Beach. I said: 'Let's watch the sun go down and set our hearts to it. And tomorrow, even though I'll be somewhere else, we'll watch the sunset and know that we're in tune and feeling each other.'" The archly romantic, poetic quality evident in Farrell's work has always happily co-existed with songs about serial killers ("Ted, Just Admit It"), and a heroin-bolstered ménage à trois ("Three Days").

Now seems as good a time as any to mention that Etty Farrell is a go-go dancer who sometimes performs with Jane's Addiction. When I spoke to the singer on the phone earlier this year, he asked me to hold while he kissed Etty goodbye. He was gone for a good 30 seconds.

Nothing's Shocking was followed in 1990 by Jane's Addiction's best album to date and their commercial breakthrough, Ritual de lo Habitual, only for the band to implode on the brink of stardom. Farrell put together the travelling rock festival Lollapalooza as the band's farewell tour. The festival is still going strong; in fact, Jane's Addiction headlined it this year. After Jane's demise, Farrell busied himself with Lollapalooza and Porno for Pyros, the outfit he formed with Avery. Navarro, meanwhile, released a 2001 solo album, the unremittingly bleak Trust No One. He then joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a four-year stint in 1993 - replacing John Frusciante, who was, ironically enough, himself succumbing to the excesses of drug abuse.

These days, the diminutive, if impressively sculpted, guitarist is just as loved-up and perky as Farrell, but perhaps that's what comes from being engaged to the former Baywatch actress Carmen Electra. Or maybe it's the liquid oxygen that has reportedly become a favourite tipple. Stroking his demonic-looking black goatee, Navarro talks excitedly of recording an acoustic version of the track "Just Because" at Abbey Road studios the previous evening. He has a yoga lesson booked, so he can't chat for long. Asked how he has changed since the last time he played with Farrell, he says: "The main difference is, I don't have a needle hanging out of my arm. I'm also able to create out of gratitude, rather than misery. And the misery I was creating before was self-induced."

Navarro maintains that he and his fiancée's mutual celebrity strengthens, rather than challenges, their relationship. "I'm in music, and she's a sex symbol and an actress, so we're not in competition," he says. "I see friends whose wives don't have their own world going on, and that always looks uncomfortable to me, because one party is always waiting around for the other. Carmen and I don't have that. There's a lot of room in our relationship, and that's part of the reason we've been together for three years and are getting married in November."

Produced by the esteemed knob-twiddler Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd's The Wall, Lou Reed's Berlin), Strays was an expensive album to make, mainly because large chunks of it were written in the studio. Having noted the lucrative comeback of their close friends the Chili Peppers after a cleaned-up John Frusciante returned to the fold, Jane's reasoned that they could follow suit, and so it has proved. In the US, Strays debuted at No 4 in the Billboard Top 200, selling 110,000 copies in its first week.

Navarro describes his and Ezrin's relationship as being a bit like that of magnets, "sometimes with reverse polarity and sometimes attracting", but concedes that the producer was largely responsible for getting Jane's Addiction back in the same room and talking again.

Perkins is obviously an Ezrin fan, too. "These days, the producer is normally the guy lying on the couch ordering Thai food," he says, "but Bob's work ethic was incredible. One of the best sessions was on my wife Cindy's birthday. Bob knows everybody, and he got Paul Stanley from Kiss to come down and sing 'Happy Birthday' to her. Then Gene Simmons turned up to show us his latest merchandising idea." But you wouldn't want to leave Gene alone with your wife, right? The drummer doesn't miss a beat: "Not for too long, no."

"The Riches" is one of Strays' many aces. Packing artful ferocity and a magical waltz-time denouement, it was partly inspired by an encounter Farrell had on an aircraft. "I was sitting with a poetry book, trying to do a bit of a cabbala on language," he says. "Crazy attracts crazy, I guess, because this woman sat down next to me and asked what I was doing.

"I explained that I was trying to write a song about the riches of the Earth, and she said: 'I have a song that I made up to sing to my kindergarten group. It goes: "I'm happy that the sky is blue and that the earth is green/ And that there's lots of fresh clean air sandwiched in-between."'" With the woman's permission, Farrell appropriated her lyric for "The Riches", promising that he would do something to help the environment in return. To that end, he has gathered about 15,000 handwritten petitions highlighting the polluting and destructive effects of fossil-fuel consumption. The singer is also utilising text-messaging networks with a view to organising peaceable "flash mob" protests.

"Before I leave the planet, I'd like to see us go alternative energy and renewable fuels," Farrell says, clearly excited at the prospect of cleaning up the planet. "People say it would take 20 years, but if we really made an issue of it, I believe it could be done in seven to 10 years. The Earth is very much alive, yet it has no voice. We, the proprietors, have to speak up for it."

The single 'True Nature' is out on Monday on Parlophone. Jane's Addiction are about to tour the UK and play Brixton Academy, London, on 31 October. The concert performance DVD 'Three Days' is released by Sanctuary on 3 November