Over the years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been accused of a lot of things (and even convicted of a few). But one charge that has never been leveled at the band, in any of its incarnations, is that the Chili Peppers are shy or retiring.
Whether onstage or in the studio, the quartet has always been in-your-face aggressive. From their early days as sock-wearing funk punks in L.A. to the well-tooled chaos that accompanied their 1991-92 BloodSugarSexMagik tour â€“ a marathon which included a headlining sting on the ’92 Lollapalooza Festival â€“ the Chili Peppers have come on like a full-time frat party, all sweat, noise and hormonal exertion.
For a time, it looked as if the party would never end. With â€œUnder the Bridgeâ€ giving the band a bona fide pop hit, the Chili Peppers seemed unstoppable, chugging along even after guitarist John Frusciante bailed a few months before Lollapalooza. Nor did things slow down with One Hot Minute, cut in ’95 with former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. Hell, these guys were so animated they even did a video with Beavis and Butt-head, remaking the Ohio Players’ oldie, â€œLove Rollercoaster.â€
For the last three years, all has been quiet on the RHCP front. Although there were individual sightings here and there â€“ bassist Flea joined Navarro for a Jane’s Addiction reunion tour; drummer Chad Smith jammed with Stephen Perkins’ band, Banyan â€“ the band as a whole has been so quiet that industry gossips began whispering that the Chili Peppers had split.
â€œRight,â€ scoffs singer Anthony Kiedis. â€œI once heard a rumor that I was a flamboyantly gay man who was dying of AIDS.â€ Needless to say, and far from breaking up, the Chili Peppers just completed their hottest album in a decade, the gloriously funky Californication.
â€œThere was a time when things were, you know, kind of in a weird space, and we weren’t getting a lot of work done,â€ admits Flea. But rumors of the band’s demise were greatly exaggerated. â€œIt’s not like we ever said â€˜we quit’ or anything,â€ he insists. â€œWe just weren’t doing anything.â€œ
Nothing at all?
â€œLouis?â€ says Kiedis, turning to manager Louis â€œMake It Soâ€ Mathieu. â€œWhat the hell did we do?â€
â€œPlayed golf,â€ comes the answer.
â€œLouis went golfing,â€ says Kiedis, laughing. â€œThere wasn’t too much activity to describe. Flea and Dave went out and did a Jane’s Addiction tour, the reunion tour, and when they came back, it just seemed like the time was right to have a change. And John was back in the picture.â€
Just how Frusciante wound up reclaiming his spot from Navarro is, like the details of what Kiedis was up to, left vague. All Flea will say is merely that, â€œThings got weird, and we parted ways with Dave. Which was a sad thing. He didn’t quit, and we didn’t fire him; it just kind of went that way.
â€œAnd because of that, we ended up getting back with John. We got in my garage and started playing, and it felt really natural. Really good, un-forced and uncontrived, and fun.â€
â€œFun,â€ apparently, had been in short supply before the break. â€œFor me, the band had started to become like a job,â€ admits Flea. â€œIt became less about â€˜Let’s get together and play because this is a blast, and really fun and creatively exciting,’ and more about â€˜Well, let’s do what we have to do to keep this juggernaut going.’â€
Flea stopt short of suggesting that this sense of careerist obligation was what led to the band taking its break, but he does think the down time was ultimately a good thing for the Chili Peppers. â€œI think that we needed to get to that spot in order to get to the spot where we are now,â€ he says. â€œWhich is a place of vibrant creativity.â€
Flea’s assessment is borne out by the new album. From the randy overdrive of â€œGet On Topâ€ to the thrashing, muscular funk of â€œAround the Worldâ€ to the amiable amble of â€œRoad Trippin’,â€ the album plays to all of the Chili Peppers’ strengths. Califonication delivers everything we expect of the band, yet somehow makes it all sound fresh in the bargain. Any doubts we might have had about the band’s vitality are quashed with a single listen.
But from the band’s perspective, the best thing about Califonication isn’t that it sounds like a hit â€“ it’s that the four of them had so much fun making the album and playing together.
â€œWe wrote a good record, and everything is really, really good for us,â€ says Flea. â€œIt’s a happy time. I would say this is one of the best chapters in the band’s history.â€
Such joyful enthusiasm comes in stark contrast to how things were in ’92, when Frusciante checked out. â€œWe had gotten to a point where any sort of communication between us that was positive would have been forced, because so much bad vibes had accumulated over the course of the tour for BloodSugarSexMagik,â€ he says.
That’s not to say Frusciante had bad feelings toward the band as a whole. â€œI was talking to Flea the whole time I wasn’t in the band,â€ he says. â€œOur friendship was fine. Anthony â€“ we didn’t really talk much for the last year that I was in the band. And once I guit, we didn’t talk to each other at all, until one occasion, about three years after I quit.â€
Then, almost a year ago, Kiedis approached Frusciante again, and suddenly it seemed as if all the problems of the past were behind them. â€œI saw that there was a possibility for friendship there that I hadn’t realized was there before. We got a long real well. All that’s necessary for me to enjoy being in a band is for all the people to be enjoying each others’ company and be able to be friends with each other.
â€œAnother reason I was real excited about playing with them is that, as a musician, I look around in the world and see all these people playing music for reasons that don’t make any sense, or that I just can’t relate to. I don’t see what it is that they feel is the purpose of music, you know? In this band, we have this thing where each one of us has our reasons for playing music, and they somehow all fit together. I mean, the reason I started playing music was because of punk rock and new wave. And the reason that Flea started playing music was because of Louis Armstrong and jazz people. But because of what he’s grown into and what I’ve grown into, we’re playing music for very similar reasons. When we each hold our instrument, we’re trying to do a very similar thing, but in a different way. So when we’re all getting along, we’re capable of making really good music.â€
â€œWell, why do I want to play music?â€ asks Anthony.
â€œYou wanted to play music to have a good time with your friends?â€ says Frusciante.
â€œYeah,â€ says Kiedis, laughing. â€œI wanted to play music because I was inspired by the funk, and I wanted to do something with my friends, who I saw being very creative, and make music that made me feel great.â€
The free-flowing, funky creativity that first moved Kiedis to sing was very much in evidence as the band convened in Flea’s garage. There is no Lennon or McCartney in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, because this is not a sit-down-and-write-a-song kind of band. Instead, the Chili Peppers are a jam band in the George Clinton sense of the term â€“ one that uses improvisation as the basis for composition.
â€œThere is no one way that the songs start,â€ says Smith. â€œWe just get over to Flea’s, sit down and start playing. Just jam. Lots of songs come out of that, and that’s something, I think, that was lacking when we were working with Dave. He’s more of a reactive guitar player â€“ he puts parts to stuff that already exists.
â€œWith us, it’s just the chemistry between the four of us, and there’s never any one way that it happens. Like, Flea might have been sitting at home, and he’ll come up with a bass part. So he’ll say, â€˜What do you guys think of this?’ And we’ll fall in and start playing. Or John, the same thing.
â€œThere are no preconceived plans, no â€˜We’re gonna write a funky song today.’ Or a slow song. Or a fast song. It’s just however we’re feeling that day, that’s what comes up. It’s the most natural way to do it, and a big part of why the album sounds the way it does is because it’s not forced.â€
â€œI think that we’re conscious of what we need to do to make each song work,â€ says Flea. â€œSome of the songs we play behind the beat, some we play ahead of the beat, some we play dead in the center of the beat. It’s really about feeling the dynamics of the song and what serves the song the best. I think that with a lot of the â€˜youth culture’ bands who are playing funk-oriented music, what they’re really about is doing this perfectly in-sync, matching-up-to-computer type of music. But that lends itself to one spot, which is right square on the beat. You know what I mean? It takes the emotion out of the music.
â€œI’m not saying that there’s not some amazing music that is done that way. But in general, there are very few bands â€“ very few that I can think of â€“ that have an original sound or original style. I think everyone is just like copping the same shit. Okay, Beck did a great job of having the Dust Brothers do beats, and putting human, organic sounds on top of it. But how many bands are gonna copy him and do the same thing? Fifty billion?â€
Who does Flea consider original? He mentions Tricky, Fugazi, Radiohead, P.J. Harvey, Unkle and the last Wu Tang Clan album as current faves, while Mingus and Black Flag top his oldies list. (Smith tends more toward Marvin Gaye, James Brown â€“ particularly the period with bassist Bootsy Collins and drummer Clyde Stubblefield â€“ and John Lennon.)
But for overall inspiration, Flea says, nothing tops the music of the late Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
â€œI listen to Fela like crazy,â€ he says. â€œAll day long.â€
Fela’s hectoring, politicized lyrics and driving, hypnotic groove made the singer and saxophonist a legendary figure in the Seventies and Eighties, when his music was considered such a threat to the Nigerian government that, in 1977, troops attacked and destroyed his Kalakuta compound, outside Lagos. Over the years, Fela’s music has been imitated or praised dby everyone from Talking Heads (who drew heavily from his Afrobeat sound for Remain in Light) to Paul McCartney.
â€œI have a greatest-hits record that I really like, which has â€˜Gentleman,’ â€˜Lady’ and â€˜Kalakuta Show’ on it,â€ says Flea. â€œAnd I’m listening to Zombie , He Miss Road , Coffin for Head of State  and Expensive Shit , which is an incredible fucking record.â€
Frusciante is also a rabid Fela fan. â€œI play along with these records,â€ he says. â€œI do it every day. If I’m going to be playing guitar all day, I start with that, because just playing one groove over and over â€“ the songs are usually between 10 and 15 minutes long each â€“ that’s the best kind of practice you can do.
â€œWhen I was a teenager, I used to figure out the saxophone solos and stuff,â€ he adds. â€œBut that’s not as valuable to me any more as just playing the four- or five-note patterns that he picks for one of the guitar players, and just playing those notes over and over and over. By the end of practice, I’m more in the groove, and it’s good to get into a groove where you feel like you could be playing with them, you know?â€
Frusciante also likes to listen closely to the other instruments while remaining locked into that four- or five-note vamp. â€œWhile the horn solo’s playing, I’ll often picture what the notes are in my head,â€ he says. â€œEven though I’m playing the rhythm guitar part, I’m following the solo and imagining where those notes would be on guitar.â€
Listening to others while holding up your end of the groove is an essential part of playing funk music, and the fact that Frusciante falls into that habit even when practicing helps explain why the Chili Peppers write and play the way they do.
â€œIt’s a really communal thing,â€ says Flea. â€œA lot of bands have leaders, one guy who’s the main creative force. With us, it’s a real four-way effort. Basically, we get together and start making noise, and when it feels good, we call it a song. You know?â€
Because the interplay between the four is so intuitive and emotional, it’s often impossible to reduce a Chili Pepper jam to a simple process of cause and effect. â€œIt’s not like listening to another guy and hearing what he’s playing, and saying, â€˜Oh that’s bitchin’. That’s gonna make me do this,’â€ says Flea. â€œWhen it’s at its best, there’s no thought involved. It’s just like energy in the air.â€
Inevitably, the band will go back to the best bits of a particular jam and try to develop them into a song. â€œWe all kind of know when it feels good. So if it feels good, then we’ll record it,â€ says Smith. â€œWe’ll make little tapes, then Anthony will go and listen to them in the car. He’ll come up with an idea, and he’ll come back to us. It kinda goes around like that.â€
â€œThe reason this record came out so good for me is because the music sort of told me what to sing,â€ says Kiedis. â€œI didn’t have to think too much about it. The music definitely implied what the vocals should be. All I had to do was close my eyes and I could hear what my parts were. Which is a huge difference from how it had been for a while, where either my head had been closed off or I wasn’t as inspired by what I was hearing. But when John came back, things just flowed.â€
Ironically, even though things were rockin’ when the four played together in Flea’s garage, life outside rehearsals was just plain rocky. Kiedis and Frusciante were in the process of getting sober after dealing with long-term drug problems, while Flea and Smith were going through romantic difficulties, with Flea suffering through a painful breakup and Smith dealing with divorce.
The Chili Peppers don’t subscribe to the â€œyou gotta sufferâ€ school of music-making â€“ â€œWe don’t have to be tortured to make good music,â€ Smith says flatly â€“ but neither do they deny that there was some exceptional emotional energy at play in the making of this album. â€œI listened to it the other day, and I thought, Wow, it really is a pretty relaxed record,â€ says Flea. â€œAnd considering what we’ve been through, I would have thought it would be more edgy or something. I know for myself, a lot of times when we were recording the record I was feeling so much emotional pain â€“ hot and cold flashes and stuff. But it really is relaxed.â€
For a moment, Flea is at a loss to explain how the album could feel so comfortable when he and his bandmates were in torment. Eventually, he suggests that what we’re ultimately hearing in the album is honesty â€“ the sound of four guys who aren’t afraid to be open to one another. â€œBeing true to yourself is about being relaxed,â€ he says. â€œSo I guess, even though you don’t even realize it at the time, wen you’re like in romantic pain or some kind of pain like that, by feeling that pain and not running away from it, you’re being honestâ€¦ I guess you’re relaxed when you’re really being yourself. Even though you might not feel like it at the time.â€
For his part, Kiedis was feeling awash in affection while the band was making music. That’s reflected to a certain degree in the album’s lyrics, which are far more romantic than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am attitude found in early Chili Peppers songs like â€œParty on Your Pussy.â€ It’s one thing for Kiedis to come off all warm and fuzzy on ballad fare like â€œPorcelainâ€ and â€œThis Velvet Glove,â€ but there’s even a sensitive, romantic side to uptempo funk-rockers like â€œAround the World.â€
Funky But Chic
The history of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Talk to the Red Hot Chili Peppers about how they make music, and they’ll asure you that every member of the quartet is an equal. Talk to the band’s fans, though, and you’re more likely to hear about Anthony Kiedis and Flea than you are about John Frusciante and Chad Smith. Obviously, some of that may have to do with the energetic stage presence the singer and bassist have maintained over the years. But it may also be because those two are the only guys who have been Chili Peppers from the beginning.
The two met as students at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Both were transplants. Kiedis grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before moving to L.A. to live with his actor father; Flea â€“ born Michael Balzary in Melbourne, Australia â€“ had grown up in New York before moving to L.A. as a teen.
When they first hooked up, Flea was playing in a band called Another School, with drummer Jack Irons and guitarist Hillel Slovak. Kiedis signed on as the group’s M.C., but the group fell apart after Flea got an offer to join the seminal L.A. hardcore band Fear.
Flea’s involvement in Fear didn’t last, though, and in 1983 he and Kiedis played their first gig as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their sound was unlike anything on the L.A. scene, while their stage show â€“ which sometimes saw the band taking the stage wearing nothing but strategically placed tube socks â€“ made them a must-see. Within a year, the group, which also included guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez, was signed to Enigma, and cut its first album. Produced by Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill, Red Hot Chili Peppers (1984) was built around the funk-punk fusion that would become the band’s hallmark. But the sound was too raw and unfocused to have much commercial impact, and the album stiffed.
Sherman and Martinez left and were replaced with Slovak and Irons, who ad been playing in a group of their own called What Is This? Deciding to focus on the funk side of their sound, the Chili Peppers hired P-Funk mastermind George Clinton to produce their second album, Freaky Styley (1985). Although the album never cracked the charts, its approach was much closer to the mark, as the Chili Peppers let their funk flag fly on such down-and-dirty numbers as â€œBlackeyed Blondeâ€ and â€œCatholic School Girls Rule.â€
By 1988, the band seemed on a roll, as The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987) finally earned a place on the charts. It wasn’t a very high place â€“ the album peaked at No. 148 â€“ but then again, radio stations weren’t exactly eager to get beind a band whose signature tune was something called â€œParty on Your Pussy.â€ Still, the Chili Peppers’ blend of instrumental energy and conceptual audacity (the album also included a rap-style remake of Dylan’s â€œSubterranean Homesick Bluesâ€) was quickly building the band an audience.
The group almost lost everything in June of 1988, though, when Slovak died of a heroin overdose. Irons, worried that Kiedis’ drug problems would result in a similar end, bailed, leaving the Chili Peppers for Eleven (he eventually wound up drumming with Pearl Jam). P-Funk alumnus Blackbyrd McKnight was brought in to replace Slovak, and Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro filled Irons’ chair, but that line-up fell apart before the band could get into the studio.
Dispirited, Kiedis accepted an invitation to audition for Thelonious Monster, wound up meeting Frusciante and eventually recruited the guitarist for a reformed Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Smith was hired through auditions.) Heading into the studio with producer Michael Beinhorn, the Chili Peppers addressed Slovak’s death and the evils of addiction in the powerful â€œKnock Me Down,â€ which earned the band its first major MTV play. But it was their powerful, punk-edged remake of Stevie Wonder’s â€œHigher Groundâ€ that finally gave the band the hit it had been hoping for.
In 1992, the Chili Peppers signed to Warner Bros. and released the Rick Rubin-produced BloodSugarSexMagik. Finally, it seemed, everything was going right; between the rap-driven â€œGive It Awayâ€ to te Hendrix-flavored ballad â€œUnder the Bridge,â€ the band had finally made its mark commercially.
This is where things get complicated. Just as the Chili Peppers were poised to headline the 1992 Lollapalooza festival, Frusciante told the group, in Tokyo, that he was leaving. Zander Schloss, whom Kiedis and Flea knew from Thelonious Monster, joined the Chili Peppers for Lollapalooza but was replaced by Arik Marshall (Formerly of Marshall Law) after the tour. Marshall toured with the band for almost a year before quitting in 1993; his replacement, Jesse Tobias (from the L.A. band Mother Tongue), barely lasted a month.
Finally, ex-Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro signed on, and played on the 1995 album One Hot Minute as well as a version of â€œLove Rollercoaster,â€ which the band cut for the soundtrack to 1996’s Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Despite the success of One Hot Minute, Navarro and the Chili Peppers at some point apparently became dsenchanted with each other and enacted a mutual decision to part company. The band began jamming with John Frusciante, who ultimately returned to the fold. The Chili Peppers entered the studio in 1999 to begin recording what became Californication.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ gear
John Frusciante’s principal guitar for Californication was a ’55 Stratocaster, but he also used a ’62 Strat and a ’65 Telecaster that’s â€œsimilar to the kind of guitar that Syd Barrett used to play in Pink Floyd, and also similar to what Jimmy Page played in the Yardbirds,â€ says Frusciante. â€œThose are two of my favorite guitarists.â€
Matthew Ashman from Bow Wow Wow was another inspiration. So when Frusciante saw a 1955 Gretsch White Falcon like the one Ashman played, he had to have it. â€œThat’s probably the most beautiful guitar I’ve ever seen,â€ gushes Frusciante.
â€œFugeddaboudit,â€ concurs Kiedis.
Like Ashman, Frusciante strings the Gretsch with .012s, and uses it for parts of â€œOtherside,â€ â€œCalifornicationâ€ and the melody sections of â€œThis Velvet Glove.â€ But those aren’t the heaviest strings he uses. Frusciante also employs a 1950s-vintage Gibson ES-175 on â€œPorcelain,â€ and that guitar is strung with an .013 set.
Frusciante isn’t totally addicted to heavy strings. His Strats are strung with .010s. â€œYou know, you can’t really play funk on .012s,â€ he says. â€œBut I did feel, based on the two or three guitar players there are in rock music who play with .012s or .013s, that I could develop a style that would go with Flea’s bass playing on strings of that size. So I wrote a couple of songs using that guitar, and it worked out well.â€
Flea, by contrast, has no idea what kind of strings he uses. â€œI got a roadie, and he puts them on,â€ he says. â€œI always used to used GHS boomers, and maybe that’s what they are.â€
Flea’s amps are Mesa/Boogie cabinets with Gallien-Krueger heads, and his effects include a fuzz pedal, a wah-wah, an auto wah and a booster pedal. â€œAnd I don’t know what kind any of â€˜em are,â€ he says, laughing.
He knows a little more about his bass, but then again, he should â€“ it’s a Modulus Flea model. But even there, his input into the design was fairly minimal. â€œI said, â€˜Yeah, it’s good, and make it look like a Fender because hat’s the coolest-looking bass there is,’â€ he laughs. â€œThe main thing I like about it is that you can beat the fuck out of it and it doesn’t go out of tune. And it can be in different temperatures, and the neck doesn’t warp because it’s made out of graphite, or whatever it is. I was having a lot of problems with that before, which is always kind of a nightmare for me.â€
The other thing Flea likes about his Modulus is that it’s silver and sparkly. â€œI don’t know if you saw X with Billy Zoom, but he played that sparkly silver guitar,â€ says Flea. â€œI just loved that. He had this weird smile on his face, and he looked really cool.â€
â€“ J.D. Considine