Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Nothing Shocking’ at 30: Dave Navarro Looks Back
On Aug. 23, 1988, Jane's Addiction released their second album, Nothing's Shocking. The four-piece band (singer Perry Farrell, guitarist Dave Navarro, bassist Eric Avery and drummer Stephen Perkins) were a different kind of rock band. They were heavy, but they weren't metal; they had a punk rock attitude, but were unconfined by the genre's rules and restrictions. They combined the power of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath and the Doors with the goth vibe of Bauhaus and the Cure with tribal drums that sometimes recalled the Grateful Dead, sometimes Bow Wow Wow. They drew from reggae, funk and even a bit of jazz. There was an air of danger and unpredictability to their shows, which were legendary (their 1987 self-titled debut was actually recorded live; Nothing's Shocking was their first studio recording).
Nothing's Shocking was Jane's Addiction's breakthrough and led the way for other loud, oddball bands like Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Faith No More and Nirvana, to get mainstream exposure without compromising their sound or their principals. Powerful but sensitive, sexy but romantic, loud but never dumb, it set a gold standard for a new era of classic albums by heavy-leaning alternative rock bands.
We spoke to guitarist Dave Navarro about the album. "I haven’t heard it in a long time," he says, but was happy to reflect on its recording and the aftermath. He discussed how Perry Farrell influenced his guitar playing, how the band ended up getting one of the coolest horn sections of all time on "Idiots Rule," and he also shared the story behind "Thank You Boys."
I remember seeing the Nothing's Shocking album cover before hearing any of the songs. Obviously, a lot of other rock bands used women in their imagery, but they tended to objectify them. I felt that the Nothing's Shocking cover deified women and that Perry Farrell wrote about women in a way that was very different from his peers.
Perry was definitely a more romantic writer than what was happening at the time. I think that his ability to put into words where he was coming from emotionally, while still leaving things open to interpretation ... the way he did that was brilliant. I’m really proud to have been a part of something where our singer focused on the whole human condition and didn’t focus on one aspect of the quote/unquote “rock and roll lifestyle,” because we really weren’t a part of that scene.
That was the era of the hair metal scene. In a lot of ways the hair metal scene lyrically was not dissimilar to what the hip-hop scene went through, which is talking about how great everybody is and what they have and what they can get, and we were talking about things that we saw as social injustice or about being heartbroken or grieving, loss and love.
The band sonically was really powerful, but I think that on a lyrical level we were able to really get to the core of what makes people tick. Those are emotions and conditions that have always been there and that will always be there, and I think that’s one of the reasons why that record has stood the test of time.
We all came from a similar place in terms of sensitivity. We all came from a similar place in terms of our love for the arts and certainly fine arts and even the classicists. When we would be on tour back in those days, instead of going to the club, we’d go to the museum.
You guys had a diverse audience: there were metalheads, goths, punk rockers and even some Deadheads and classic rock fans. I recall seeing Jane's Addiction t-shirts at so many different shows by other bands in the late '80s and early '90s.
When we did Lollapalooza in 1991, and we had an opportunity to play in front of Living Colour fans and Siouxsie and the Banshees fans and Butthole Surfers fans and Nine Inch Nails fans, that first Lollapalooza was really special because it was really eclectic and artsy and underground and kind of a fluke. Not one band was similar to the next.
The concept of having all these different genres and styles of music together on one stage really suits Jane’s Addiction, because we kind of embody that. I was a die-hard Grateful Dead follower in the ’80s and would follow them around. Me and Stephen Perkins, actually, went to a lot of shows together, so we definitely had the community sensibility with us. There are bands that you’re a fan of, and then there are bands where you’re part of a community, and we wanted to be the kind of band where it was a community, it was a collective.
So yeah, I did notice that we had black fans, we had female fans. All types of t-shirts were looking back at us from the front row. I’d see a Smiths shirt, I’d see a Bad Brains shirt, I’d see a Dead Kennedys shirt and I would see a Led Zeppelin shirt, and I’d think, “Wow. We are attracting the right crowd.” These are all people who take what they listen to very seriously, and we were super grateful for that.
Nothing's Shocking came out when metal was starting to go on a bit of a decline; your music was really heavy, but wouldn't really be classified as "metal." It was a true alternative.
It’s funny you bring up heavy metal because heavy metal was my training. That’s what my roots were, and that’s where I started. I started playing listening to Hendrix and Zeppelin and the Doors and bands that preceded my time. Then I got really into heavy metal primarily, because of the musicianship and the aggression and the sound of the guitars, of course. So I had that toolbox to access and to possibly draw from, but I didn’t take out every tool.
I also had other toolboxes that I’d learned from becoming a fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees or Bauhaus or Love and Rockets or other bands that were a little bit more understated coming from the guitar, in the guitar space, and I’m really grateful for that because it really allowed me to expand my musicianship.
All of us went through different musical journeys. Perry really got into reggae for a while, and Perkins still is a die-hard Deadhead, and Eric Avery was big into the punk rock, post-punk scene and also was really influenced by classical music. So we would all come to rehearsal off of whatever the last record we listened to was, and then we would all try to bring those influences into the room and kind of make it work.
It didn’t occur to us to join bands with people who had the same sensibilities as us. In fact, we had very dissimilar sensibilities. I think that’s what [producer] Dave Jerden saw in us, and that’s what he pulled out of us on Nothing’s Shocking. You have this very romantic soul at the microphone. You have a bass player who’s super inspired by Peter Hook from Joy Division [and New Order] with repetitive, hypnotic, rolling bass lines, and Stephen Perkins doing tribal drumming that, believe it or not, was heavily influenced by Adam and the Ants back in the days. Then I was coming from more of a straight-ahead rock background and more of a "guitar hero" background. There were times I had to pull back the reigns -- I think we all did -- and just let things breathe a little bit. We tried to take a cue from some of the English bands that we loved because space is just as important as playing. There was a sense of experimenting and creating something new and something different from us.
The other thing I was thinking about Nothing’s Shocking, and [1990's] Ritual de lo Habitual, which is pretty important... [usually] people go into the studio and write songs, which is great. When I joined the Chili Peppers, that’s what we did. We went in the studio and wrote songs, but for those records, we toured those songs for like two years before we recorded them. We didn’t even know what songs were gonna be on the record. In fact, most of Ritual was written when we did Nothing’s Shocking.
One of the things I really respect Perry for -- among many things -- is that he knew that he wanted to save "Three Days" for the follow-up. He knew he wanted to save “Stop” and “Ain’t No Right” for the follow-up. We had stronger material or more refined material, but [we should] save it so we have something better after this. At the time we were like, “No, we should do these songs now, because they’re great now.” But as it turns out, he was right, and we were able to put those songs on the following record, and those, among a couple of other newly-written songs, made Ritual. He had a really great sense of timing, and that was vital for us.
I remember in an interview, you were asked about your biggest influence on guitar, and you cited Perry because he got you out of what you described as your "blues box."
That’s interesting. There was one time, in particular, I can remember when we were recording “Ocean Size.” He was sitting right next to me, and I was playing a bunch of stuff, and it was sounding good, but it was sounding "rock and roll"; it was sounding like a guitar player playing a solo, and he looked at me, and I remember specifically ... I’m not gonna say her name, but there was a girl that I really had a tumultuous relationship with. Let's call her "Stacy" for the sake of the story. He looked at me, and he said, “Do it one more time, and think of Stacy," and I was like, “Fuck that girl!” He’s like, “Think of Stacy, think of Stacy!" Then I played, thinking of that girl. He taught me how to take my anger and put it into my playing. So that’s kind of what I mean when I say the dissonant notes and the out-of-tune stuff and the raunchy, not perfect, just in-the-moment type of playing -- I attribute a lot of that to him.
He's a little older than you guys, and he had already recorded an album with his prior band, Psi Com. Was he like a mentor to you guys in any way?
That record [Psi Com's 1985 self-titled EP] to me is one of the greatest records of all time. If you listen to the song “Xiola,” it’s just so haunting. He’s so fucking good on that record.
That song is just insane. The vocal performance on that is insane, but yeah, he definitely was at the helm. He definitely shaped Jane’s Addiction; he shaped us as players, and I definitely owe a lot to him for that. I think that we, in turn, shaped his sensibilities quite a bit too. I think that’s how it should organically work. The record we came out with, I haven’t heard it in a long time, but after this conversation, I might give it a listen.
A lot of your peers seemed uncomfortable with the idea of playing to huge crowds and putting on big shows. You guys never seemed restrained by any of that.
We wanted to make our shows like a ritual, like a celebration, like the receiving of some kind of sacraments. So in order to do that, you have to have an altar, and we would build an altar onstage, and I think it left an impression.
There’s a difference between hiring a bunch of smoke and fire and lights and stringing your set with Christmas lights that you got down at JC Penney. We did that stuff on our own. We put the shows together by ourselves, and many times me and Perry were standing in line at Home Depot with something that was gonna be a stage prop. So our philosophy was we have to make this a memorable, beautiful experience where it’s a ceremony, and that’s what people were attending. Frankly, we’re asking them to pay money to see us; let’s give them something to look at, but the stage sets we did weren’t quote/unquote “rock and roll stage sets.” They were weird garden statues and Christmas lights and there were Santerian ceremony candles being lit, it was almost like a voodoo church.
That wasn’t a statement against anybody who didn’t do it. We just did our own take on it, because at the time, rock and roll stages had pyrotechnics and smoke. We didn't want any of that stuff. We wanted it to feel like a very intimate ceremony, and I think that that really made a difference because it also looked like we tried, but it didn’t look like we tried too hard.
I love thinking back to those days just so I can find some gratitude in how far we’ve come because the fact that we’re still a band is kind of mind-blowing to me.
Talk about the decision to use horns on "Idiots Rule."
Well, that’s Flea [from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on trumpet] and [Fishbone's] Angelo [Moore, saxophone] and Chris Dowd [trombone]. Those were our guys back in the day. We hung out with the Chili Peppers, we hung out with Fishbone, and we were all, I guess, part of this scene of musicians that weren’t doing what was going on. There was not a big ska movement in L.A. at that time, and there was certainly not a big funk movement in L.A. at that time, so all of us were out of the box, and so we were all kind of pals.
"Idiots Rule" was like a modern-day James Brown kind of thing. The idea was, "Let’s get horns in here," and I think Dave Jerden was going to try to call a horn section, and we said, “Well, wait a minute. We know some of the best horn players in the world.” We called our buddies down, and they came in the studio and knocked it out for us.
I’m super stoked to have played with all of those guys on our Jane’s Addiction recording. Fishbone to me are one of the most underrated, unsung heroes of that time, of any band that was around. They were the best performers, they had the best energy, they were the most musically gifted. They were amazing singers and songwriters and players and technical players on their instruments. The fact that they didn’t get huge is nothing short of shocking to me. They definitely have their following, and they’re definitely a well-known band, but they should’ve been the biggest thing in the world.
All of the songs on Nothing's Shocking had an epic feel, and then "Thank You Boys" was like this funny interlude.
To me, that is the sarcasm and humor that was in the band that often gets overlooked. “Thank You Boys” was simply a little jazz progression that we would play: me, Eric and Stephen, every once in a while at rehearsals and whatever, and we all thought it was kind of funny because it was so lounge act-sounding.
A microphone would go out, or a speaker would break, something would happen, or there’d be an injury in the audience or whatever -- whenever we would need to take a minute onstage because there’s dead air, we would play that, and what that ended up being was filler for when something goes wrong onstage. The die-hard fans that knew us back then, knew that song.
There’s a song that Trent [Reznor] used to open with called “Now I’m Nothing.” He never recorded it, and it’s never been released, and it’s become one of those things. It’s like, “Where can I get that? Where can I hear that? How can I find that?” It’s one of my favorite Nine Inch Nails pieces. Not that this is comparable to a Nine Inch Nails track, but what I’m saying is, it’s a secret tipping of the hat to the fans that really knew.
So, what is next for you, and for Jane's?
It seems like I always have something next. I’m in Chicago for a screening of my documentary, Mourning Son [read more about the documentary here]. Then, yeah, there’s a bunch of Royal Machines shows coming up. There’s talk of Jane’s Addiction shows. I don’t know if they’re confirmed. Then I go back and do season 12 of Ink Master in January. Season 11 premieres Aug. 28 on Paramount. Other than that, maybe some more Jane’s stuff. I’m not exactly sure. I’m living day to day, as it goes.
Are you planning on doing any new music?
I have plans to do a bunch; those plans involve other people, I don’t wanna "out" them, but I’ll be working.
Will you do any more Above Ground shows [Navarro and guitarist Billy Morrison organized a benefit concert in L.A. where they, and a huge cast of guests, performed The Velvet Underground and Nico and Adam and the Ants' Kings Of The Wild Frontier in full; the show raised funds for MusiCares]? What would the next two albums be that you'd cover?
I can’t say, but we are doing it again. We were considering bringing it to New York. I’m not sure yet. We have one of the albums decided. I’m going back and forth with Billy on the other. He wants one, I want a different one. So it has to be something that resonates with both of us. Dude, that was the biggest undertaking of my life, musically, just in terms of putting it together, reaching out to people and preparing the stage. We have production changes in between albums, rehearsals. Learning those records is no easy feat. I loved it; it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I’m really looking forward to the next one.
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