Eric Avery (Jane’s Addiction, Polarbear) Talks Selling Out

Jane's Addiction's original bassist discusses squaring his youthful punk ideals with the realities of eeking out a living as an artist.

In spite of being raised in a household financed by a struggling actor, I didn’t learn anything useful in my young life about the challenges of living on an artist’s unreliable income. In my adolescence, punk rock taught me that you never sell out. Ever. Of course, things like selling out were entirely theoretical at that point. No one was trying to pay me a salary to make music — I couldn’t even yet imagine it. Just a few years later, though, I was able to leave my last day job selling Dr. Martens boots at a small store called NaNa’s. The surprising popularity of my band, Jane’s Addiction, and the money we made in spite of the fuck-all attitude of our decision-making, enabled my youthful, uncompromising artistic worldview to extend far beyond my adolescence. I hadn’t yet found a replacement that incorporated both the creative life and its newly acquired dimension of regular employment. Artist, not yet artisan.

Growing up, my father was an actor — which meant he bussed and waited tables, sold perfume and jewelry on the pavement outside department stores, drove a limo, worked for a catering company, parked cars. I could go on. My mother took jobs here and there — teacher, secretary — while raising my sister and I. The assumption was that my father’s acting would eventually financially support the four of us. Until then, we would continue to live as hunter-gatherers. It was feast or famine. He found small roles in a couple of big films — The Graduate (1967), Sleeper (1973) — and did a little dinner theater, television shows, commercials. I was daily experiencing first-hand the tumult of small triumphs and compromises that define living on an artist’s wage. But this experience was mostly lost on me when I discovered punk rock. It was easy, as a teenager with a problem attitude and some punk self-righteousness, to dismiss the hard work of my folks. Why not? I dismissed everything else. I took my newfound punk moral code and combined it with my limited, somewhat sheltered preadolescence and sculpted it into a little ball of hate for doing anything just for money. Ever. Because you were then simply just another Businessman. You were a sellout.

As a 17-year-old amongst punks, post-punks and new wavers, I believed that I had found a place in the world populated with folks who celebrated the distance I had always felt from life’s ordinary pursuits. I felt, for the first time, that perhaps I didn’t find fit in the world because it was the world, not I, that was misshapen. We listened to Public Image Ltd and Black Flag because we rejected the hollow pursuits of our parents’ generation. My teenage feelings of alienation suddenly slotted into a purpose. That I found no home in the world was no longer a problem with my character, it was a mission statement. We reveled in the fact that we were Us and the rest of the world were Them.

Up to that point, music, mostly ’70s rock, had been about wildness — ditch school, go hiking with a portable tape deck and smoke pot. My new bad blue-patch hair-do signified something different — it wasn’t just wildness. Music was no longer a passive choice between what was on offer from a radio station, it was an active investigation into obscure record bins, and every band was an expression of who I aspired to be or what I believed morally. It was the beginning of making real, informed decisions about what I listened to and, by extension, about what I thought was right and wrong. If Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra was right and “punk means thinking for yourself,” this is where I began to think for myself.

Seventies rock music began to look like a collection of clowns that perpetuated the bloated excess of any big business. Punk pushed back. Punk was the little guy. Punk meant picking up the nearest guitar and starting a band with your friends. Fuck music school. Fuck the idea of needing some sort of qualification to make music. Just get it done. It was just plain fun, but it was also an act of revolt. Punk was a statement that I reject the mores and values that my parents’ generation seemed to hold dear — corporate consumerism.

Somewhere in my youth, I combined two quotes I heard, one from the actor James Dean (the observation of a man dead before his 25th birthday) and the other from Joseph Campbell’s book on human myths, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I don’t remember either quote, but the synthesis of the two became the idea that it is the Artist’s (Hero’s) duty to explore the outer reaches of human experience and then to report back on what is found there. I took this to heart as a young man. It was my internal task and my constant compass. Back then, I took “outer reaches” to mean places that people generally fear to go, the exploration of which leads mostly toward places too dark to be inviting for most folks — often involving Schedule I narcotics. That particular brand of exploration is a young man’s game, but I do still consider my current life to be similarly directed — only adjusted for age. As an older man, I try to apply a quieter steadfastness to my observation of the human experience. I want to investigate my human story by welcoming the experience of it as it changes — gets quieter, more subtle, more complex.

But as one ages, how does one subsidize this pursuit? I was fortunate as a young man to have Jane’s Addiction’s early success do that for me. I misunderstood that early financial success as proof, as young folks often do with early positive procreative effect, that my simple, youthful worldview was indeed correct — if you follow your creative intuition, then others will too. An oversimplification that seemed, with little scrutiny, to be supported by my experience. As a band, we did many things that would be perceived as bad business ideas, but we made money anyway.

One of the enduring strengths of our diminishing legacy is that we were, during that first run many years ago, truly what people thought we were — free creative spirits. We could have made considerably more money if this had not been the case. We didn’t “play ball” with aspects of the industry that we would have been wise to court if we had been primarily concerned with making money. We were asked to do an MTV show called Unplugged and the rest of the band was OK with it. I wasn’t. At the time I saw MTV as an evil. I thought that it was one thing to create a music video and have them distribute it — much like how a radio station would play our music — but I saw going into the belly of the beast as something different. The other guys didn’t feel this way about MTV, but, to their credit (especially our singer, Perry Farrell), when we sat down with our manager, the guys said, “Eric doesn’t want to do it, so we’re not doing it.” MTV was the big machine at the time. If you didn’t play nice with them, it meant you were risking a great deal. This is just one of many instances where we did what we believed in with a predictable cost to our career. That spirit is truly how a lot of Jane’s Addiction decisions got made — with some measure of young men’s hubris, yes, but that lack of fear set free our passion and daring.

I declined many offers to join other bands after Jane’s Addiction broke up in 1991. For all the “right” reasons, I declined to join acts that were often both lucrative and creative positions. I was intent on following my singular creative spirit, for lack of a better word. But those decisions that started with those young and more noble connotations began to change over the years. At some point, it became that I was no longer saying no because I was following a driven inner voice — I was simply saying no. It was a reaction rather than an answer. I had been learning some related lessons from living, but I was not listening to them. Lessons that whispered to me that my uncompromising artistic worldview was too simple to be applied to the large and varied world that incorporates, but extends far beyond, the music world. I didn’t want to hear that. Something was changing, but I didn’t want to hear the news. My uncompromising creative vision had become an unexamined dogmatic belief. Somewhere I had crossed an invisible line, but I hadn’t noticed the crossing. Dogma in any form can be pernicious. Beware.

I feel a duty to the relationship that exists between artist and fan base. I know well the power and importance of music. I remember how potentially life-defining that relationship can be as a fan myself. I try to bear this in mind as I do work as a for-hire bassist. I am an artisan as I play bass for other artists. I feel a responsibility to do what I can to support the integrity of the relationship between those artists and their fans. And I generally find at least some small measure of personal satisfaction supporting their efforts.

My participation in Jane’s Addiction is very different, because my contract with the fans of Jane’s is a very different one. Here I am not an independent contractor outside the primary relationship. I entered into a covenant directly with the fans of Jane’s Addiction, and we agreed on our roles. It is a bond I still feel. It informed me as I tried to re-establish it in 2009 and it informed my decision to leave again — with the integrity of our relationship still mostly intact, I hope. I simply felt I could not hold up my end of the bargain with the fans if I remained.

It seems music will always be inextricably tied up with what I believe are moral questions. Art and commerce cannot help but comingle when you’ve been fortunate enough to make (er, lately eke out) a living from making music. People who work closely with me have sometimes been surprised by how willing I am to make practical compromises. Their perception of me had been that I am strictly uncompromising. But for me, what happens to my spirit when I make creative/monetary decisions is a practical consideration. My moral or ethical beliefs inform my decision-making, but they do not dictate it. It is a shifting path that I am trying navigate. It is crossing a river over exposed rocks. I’m always trying to make the best choice with the given intel. My heart is my guide, but sometimes my head has to make the call for me. My record is no longer perfect, because perfection demands rigidity. I believe that part of life as a professional artist, by definition, involves practical decision-making about money, but it does not follow that I then cast aside all concerns of traditional integrity. I think much of what is reprehensible about mankind has greed as a root cause. Culturally we default to wanting more of everything at all times, and that, left unchecked, is corrosive. It cannot be satisfied.

If you make one concern a priority, it does not mean that you have to abandon all other considerations. I do prioritize creative decision-making. The first order of business as an artist is to create something that is beautiful or compelling. But that is almost never my only concern. If the very best idea will make great art, but no one will see it and it will make no money, what would the next best idea look like? How many more folks would it reach, and would it make a mortgage payment? Have I accumulated a fiscal bump in the bank account enough to do a project for love only? I know this is slippery territory here. I feel uncomfortable writing it. But if you make no consideration, where does that lead? Do I have my integrity intact if I spend my days selling shoes again and not making art because of my uncompromising decisions about creativity? I think that not addressing these questions in a real way means you are likely to make a poor decision when you are forced to — all of us lucky enough to be called a professional artist are forced to at some point.

I have a friend who was much more punk than I was (for me, it was a brief phase that morphed quickly into a more lasting “post-punk”) dismiss his youthful beliefs because he “has kids to feed.” In 1971, my father was acting in a small production of Victory Canteen at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood. This meant he was supporting my family — my mother, my sister and I — on $60 a week. We always went to the same local restaurant because my folks could each order soup that came with a side of cornbread for a total of $1. We then shared that amongst the four of us. I mention it here because I think it’s instructive that the only memory I have of these times, as a boy of seven, is how much I loved that cornbread slathered in honey-infused butter. The burden of those lean times was borne with some measure of grace by my folks, apparently, because it was unknown to me. I simply looked forward to the meal.

I think we can get lost chasing safety or stability. Those are phantoms. There is inherent instability in being alive. I try to keep this in mind. How much am I willing to give up looking for an assuredness that does not exist when I risk losing sight of myself and what I believe? Today I enjoy a complex, rich, moral worldview. It varies and is educated by changing circumstance. It is no longer rigid. It allows room for understanding the difficulty of getting the job of living done and how different folks find different ways of doing that. I will continue to navigate through dense fog. I will ask both heart and mind to inform my decisions. I will stumble. I will learn. I am shaped by who I’ve been and will continue to be guided by who I am.

Born, April 25, 1965 in Los Angeles, California, Eric Avery spent his youth surfing in Venice, failing out of high schools and figuring out how to play music by tinkering for hours alone (something he spends a good deal of time doing still). He fronted the band Polarbear, has played bass for a number of bands (most recently, Garbage), but he is primarily known as the bass player and co-founder of Jane’s Addiction. You can follow him on Twitter here.