Ex Chili Pepper guitartist John Frusciante is exorcising his demons these days with the paintbrush and a bevy of musical side projects. Jamie O’Shea drops by the studio.
John Frusciante’s life after quitting the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1992, due to touring stress and rumored personality clashes, wasn’t a pretty picture. Everyone knew what he was doing locked away in the Hollywood Hills mansion that rock stardom had built. He was a big boy fucking up in the privacy of his own home. It was a time that saw a sharp transfer of power between John’s artistic demons.
“After I quit the band,” he explains, taking a slow, deep breath, “I was much more interested in painting than playing music. I’d stay up painting for three days in a row and fall asleep with my face in a painting. I wasn’t playing music at all, but then I got side-tracked singing along with records while I was drawing, and picked up my guitar again just to record stuff at home.” These were the sometimes brilliant, fiercely anti-commercial works that were to make up his first solo album, Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt, released in 1994. It was a compilation of songs that shocked the hell out of anyone expecting to hear another installment of Chili Pepper funk.
Frusciante’s paintings and four-track recordings, including his latest album, Smile From the Streets You Hold – an offering laced with tortured, often incomprehensible singing and inspired strands of guitar, especially present in the seemingly autobiographical “I May Again Know John” – reveal perhaps more about his artist’s soul than any aspect of his career. Intensely personal, John’s paintings, layered with scrawling coats of acrylic paint and fat grease stick swirls, are like haunted children’s drawings that channel a deep, resonating presence. Like an exorcism of the demons haunting him alone in that house to put to canvas.
“With painting, man,” Frusciante enthuses, his now excited voice picking up to a frenzied pace, “you just never know when something fuckin’ scary’s going to happen. You could be happy doin’ it, and all of a sudden, you’re bombarded with spirits that don’t understand anything about privacy,” he says with a laugh.
Eventually, the ghosts that made their presence known in John’s paintings gave way to the ones guiding his nether-worldly guitar playing to help construct much of Smile From the Streets You Hold’s new material. “I can’t do both of them [music and painting] at the same time.” John explains. “You have a different form of ghost telling you what to do. With music you can just receive energy from other dimensions, but with painting, you have ghosts coming from the other dimension right into your reality. They demand all your attention when they’re there.”
The resulting recordings, which mingle with older material (including a song recorded at age 17 – just before he joined the Chili Peppers), form a disturbing stream-of-consciousness set that transcends the parameters of rock & roll. “John’s [new] music seems to go beyond music, doesn’t it?” muses his friend Stephen Perkins, Porno for Pyros drummer and member of The Three Amoebas, a jam band featuring himself, Frusciante, and Flea. The group has been recording as a side project since the later days of Jane’s Addiction and has borne witness to some of Frusciante’s funkiest playing since his stint as a Chili Pepper. “I feel like I’m being pressed between two magnets when I play with those guys – the vibe is so intense,” says Perkins. “John’s right hand is like a rubber band, he’s just got that incredible rhythm hand. It always comes through.”
In addition to the music Frusciante is planning to record and release with a band tentatively featuring close friends Chris Warren of Thelonius Monster and Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher (the duo that made up John’s supporting band on the recent Nuttstalk ’97 tour), the freeform Three Amoebas jams may also reach record stores in the near future.
“Steve and I are going to work on putting that stuff together to release soon. It’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever done…I’ve got about 30 songs that I’ve been saving to record with a new band that doesn’t sound anything like my last two albums,” Frusciante explains. For John, recording music with his friends seems to be the inspiration in his new approach to playing. “I’m excited to be playing with a band, working on songs I like. Stuff I can play for my friends,” he says.
It’s good to hear him excited again. The past year has seen one of John’s most productive periods in a long time. From playing impromptu sets at L.A.’s infamous Viper Room and Small’s, to doing the seemingly impossible after leaving the Chili Peppers – John Frusciante appears to be on the path to elevating himself above the realm of the overly-talented junkie rock star cliche’.
Though he skirts the topic of his heroin use in conversation (If I do something like drugs, it’s just for fun….”) it’s clear that John’s still being chased by some intense personal demons. Maybe because he’s their perfect channel.
“There are few people,” says Stephen Perkins, “that can go to the spiritual places John does – and come back to tell you about it. He’s a good piece of magic.”