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The Original Alternative: Perry Farrell On Lollapalooza And The Art Of Making A Scene

21 years after he started Lollapalooza, Perry Farrell is drawing a record number of fans to the music and culture event. Here, he talks about the heart of the show, international expansion, and creating a new scene with immersive theater.

Back in 1991 Perry Farrell started Lollapalooza as a farewell tour for his band Jane’s Addiction. A couple of decades later, Jane’s are out on summer tour and Lollapalooza is a global pop cultural phenomenon. This is not to say there haven’t been some bumps along the way. After a few years of dormancy and rebranding misfires, in the mid-2000s Lolla was transformed from a national tour to a weekend-long event held every year in Chicago’s Grant Park, with international offshoots taking place throughout the year. Jane’s did actually break up in ’91 … then reunited in 1997, then broke up again, then reunited in 2008. Still, one could argue the Lollapalooza brand is as powerful as ever. This year’s festival drew a record 100,000 attendees and coincided with the announcement that next summer the franchise will expand to Tel Aviv, Israel. We sat down with Lolla founder and rock icon Farrell to discuss how he’s managed to transform youthful rebellion into a global business.

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Image: Flickr user Jeremy Farmer

Co.Create: You just wrapped up yet another successful Lollapalooza. How did this year go, in your eyes?
Perry Farrell: It was a little unsettling because we grew. We had 100,000 people this year. But as far as production, everything went off without a hitch. We had an electrical storm that came in and we literally evacuated 65, 000 people within 45 minutes. That went off perfectly. We just went a little later into the night. We’re also doing these after-parties now and they went splendidly. My friends were high and happy and healthy and in love and walking around relaxing and letting the music absorb into their bodies. Everybody left thanking me and feeling excited for next year.

You already host Lollapaloozas in Chile and Brazil. Why is Israel next?
A few years ago I had the desire to do more Lollapaloozas, to travel more. We can’t really travel around America because Chicago is such a jealous lover. There’s this unspoken thing where if you’re going to do it don’t do it in your own backyard so we take on our lovers internationally. I have so much love to give and so much to share with people, so we started to speak to international promoters. The prerequisite for whether Lollapalooza was right for that country or that city was first and foremost they had to be music lovers. When people ask me why Tel Aviv it’s because people love music in Tel Aviv. And they love music in Sao Paolo. They love music around the world but some of these cities and countries they don’t have a festival and they’ve got the love and they really want the international community of musicians that is Lollapalooza’s musical family.

And why is the timing right?
As Thomas Friedman said, the world is flattening. Everyone is listening together to the same music. They love the music. They get to download it on their iPod and they listen to it driving and in their office. But many of these artists they’ve never seen in Tel Aviv and in Chile. We want our patrons to feel happy and relaxed and enjoy the day but we also want the same for the musicians. We love taking musicians with us to beautiful places where they’ve never seen them before and they’re so respectful and nice to us. That makes the world go round, it really does.

Many festivals think of musicians as hired employees. Why is it important to you that the musicians are enjoying themselves as well?
First and foremost it’s great for the show. When a musician shows up and is happy to be someplace–they feel welcome, they feel respected, they feel that they’re important–they’ll come through because it’s what these people live for; they live to entertain, they live to lift spirits. I’ve been a musician for 30 years and I made my career on performance. We’ve got great records but it was Lollapalooza that really made a name for Jane’s Addiction. The road can be somewhat of a miserable experience. You’re away from quote unquote home. So what is the incentive: money? Money is one incentive but I’m telling you, musicians–we’re a slightly different breed of people, we also need love, we also need to feel cared for. So I try to find extracurricular things for our musicians to do. In Chile we have a deal going with the ministry of tourism. Last year I took Bjork to Easter Island. The Chilean government is willing to take musicians to Patagonia. I’ve got a date with Patagonia–we’re going to go up there and I’m going to bring my family and show them that part of the world. For a musician, your gig these days isn’t so much selling records, no, you are an international good will ambassador. That’s your job.

Image: Flickr user Chelsea

You mentioned building out the idea of the after-party at Lollapalooza. This year Jane’s Addiction and Franz Ferdinand played the event’s signature after-party, which you’ve described as an incubator for a new idea in live performance: immersive theater. What is immersive theater?
It’s when the patron is within the experience within the show. He can touch the show and the show can touch him. You can breeze by one another. Here’s the way I look at it, music creates a scene: the dance music scene, the punk music scene. I’m trying to create another scene, another experience. If you’re going into a club, nine times out of ten you’ve already experienced it. You’ve already sat at the table with the bottle of vodka, blah blah blah. You’ve got to change the environment in which these people are coming in. So when your friends say, hey I’m going to do this, you say, hey you know what? I’ll wash my hair. But if I told you, it’s immersive theater. You’ve never experienced this before. That’s what I’m shooting for. As I get older you really have to come up with something good to make me want to go out, you know what I mean? Cause I’ve already done it all. And I think everybody feels the same way. That’s what I’m going to be working on over the next few years. We’re going to change the look the sound the feel of the scene. That’s what we do. We’re scene makers.

How has Lollapalooza evolved as a concept, as an idea, over the years?
The root of it is the musicians. It’s exciting to hear that Lollapalooza’s coming, but when I tell the name of the performer then they start to get a visual, they start to see themselves there witnessing it. What we really are is a vehicle for the great musicians of the day, and that vehicle becomes an ultimate party. You have politics, you have business, you have computers. That’s not Lollapalooza. It’s the polar opposite of all that. It’s I don’t care who is calling me on my cell phone, I wish I didn’t have the damn thing. It’s I’m looking at people, I’m outside, I’m actually talking to people, not into a cell phone, I’m actually outdoors, Not in an office, not in a building, not in school. I’m dressing cute and I’m looking at what everybody is wearing. I’m looking around to see who is attractive and who is looking at me. It’s all ancient communal party. Everybody’s there and they all know they’ve got time. Time is our most precious commodity, right? And guess what, you have time, here it is.

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And that’s what Lolla has always been to you?
The essence of what I’m describing is what it’s always been. Now, I said it’s a vehicle, right? Well, it’s the 2012 model. We had a great intention. That’s the most important aspect of anything. We had good intentions from the beginning. Now those intentions are still there but we’re more organized. And instead of being happy 10,000 people showed up, now 100,000 people show up.

You are planning to bring these good intentions to Israel next year. How do you handle bringing Lolla to foreign and in this case politically fraught locations?
When I discuss Tel Aviv or any place that we go–as I said to you and I really meant it, the prerequisite for Lollapalooza is you’ve got to really love music. When I was in Chicago this last time Rahm Emanuel was standing on the side of the stage watching Florence and the Machine. I walked up to him to shake his hand and say hello and thanks for coming. I said, so you’re a music lover and he said oh yeah! And he just started to rip off names of artists. He had his kids with him. And I said to myself it’s nice to do business with anybody but it’s great to do business with music lovers. That’s what I’m looking at. Tel Aviv is a city that loves music, loves night life. This time it’s Tel Aviv, next it could be some place else.

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