Almost seven years after quitting the band, Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante is back in the fold. Total Guitar charts the ups and downs of the funk-loving band, and talks exclusively to the guitarist about the latest album, Californication. By Mark Ramshaw. Interview by Ronaldo.
Few bands have been depicted as two-dimensionaly as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s understandable given the larger than life attitudes, tattoos and muscles image, and the infamous era when the only clothing worn on stage was one single sock per (ahem) member. Yet the Chilis are farm from easy to pin down, their music anything but conventional, and their history so turbulent it’s actually surprising they still exist at all.
Californication marks guitarist John Frusciante’s return, and is the band’s most substantial record yet. Musical and lyrical depth, close harmonies and some spectacular funk-rooted guitar playing make it one of the most energetic and essential albums of the last five years. Although not the original Red Hot Chili Peppers six stringer, it’s Frusciante’s playing that most readily identify with, his idiosyncratic style stamping hits such as Give It Away, Knock Me Down and recent ’45 release Scar Tissue with rare subtlety and raw soul. Small wonder that fans of the band have been so ecstatic about his return.
After so long away, it must have been an exhilarating feeling the first time playing live with the group again. “Yeah, it was great, but it’s far better than that today because initially my fingers hadn’t yet recovered all their strength,” says John. His return to the Chili Peppers was clearly motivated by purer reasons than most band reunions. “It was our friendship that reunited us, that carried me in fact. Six years ago, when I left, the spirit in the group was really terrible. We all hated each other mutually, it was truly horrible…the fact that we’ve renewed our friendship is a fabulous motive to get the group working again. It was because of that that the gigs went so well, we rediscovered the energy, the enthusiasm and the warm feelings that were there back when we recorded BloodSugarSexMagik, which I look back as one of the happiest periods of my life. It was back in this kind of spirit that we wrote and recorded Californication.”
During his time away from the limelight, Frusciante concentrated on his painting and poetry. Two solo albums were released, but the bulk of the time was clearly raken up by a descent into heroin addiction. it’s not the first time drugs have taken their toll on the Red Hot Chili Peppers…
Out In LA
Fairfax High School in Los Angeles provided the meeting place for four culturally diverse teens, Anthony Kiedis, the Michigan born son of actor Blackie Dammet, Australian Michael Balzary (AKA Flea), Californian Jack Irons and Israeli Hillel Slovak. Singer Kiedis and bassist Flea first played as Los Faces as far back as 1978, before recruiting guitarist Slovak and drummer Irons for a first (one song) gigl under the name Tony Flow And The Miraclously Majestic Masters Of Mayhem.
By 1983 they were known as Red Hot Chili Peppers (the name taken by combining the names of two popular bars), and signed up to EMI. At the time Irons and Slovak were moonlighting in the band What Is This?, a move that made it impossible for them to play on the self-titled debut album. Guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez were recruited, though by the time recording of the second album behan with legendary George Clinton in the producer’s chair, the original foursome were back together. Freaky Styley reflected the funk’n’punk stew beloved of the band rather better than the debut, but it wasn’t until the arrival of third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan in 1987 that the Red Hot Chili Peppers really found their footing, ushering in a brand new era of alternative American music, alongside bands as diverse as Jane’s Addiction, Fugazi and Fishbone.
It was also the beginning of the end for the original line-up. On June 27th of the following year, Slovak, a long-time heroin user, fatally overdosed. It proved too much for Irons, who quit (more recently resurfacing in Pearl Jam), to be replaced by current stickman Chad Smith.
Soldiering on, Kiedis and Flea had some trouble finding the right guitarist – Clinton Cohort and Parliament veteran Blackbyrd McKnight even joined for a while – until John Frusciante came into the picture. A teenage fan of the band and gifted guitarist, he’d already met them and spoken to Slovak several times, and could play the parts to the whole Chilis catalogue. Some even commented that he acted, as well as played, like Slovak. Despite being a mere 18 years old, he was obviously perfect for the role.
1989’s Mother’s Milk saw Frusciante build on the band’s familiar style, mixing up rock, funk and soul in equal numbers, as typified by the infectious cover of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground and ode to Hillel Knock Me Down. It also brought the band that bit closer to mainstream acceptance, thought it was to be the Rick Rubin produced BloodSugarSexMagik (released in 1992) that propelled them into the stadium league.
By this time Frusciante had clearly developed his own unique way of playing, working with Flea’s flamboyant funk bass playing to create a whole range of alternately stuttering and flowing guitar parts. Owing as much to Funkadelic and The Meters as the more obvious Hendrix reference points, tracks like the mega-hit Under The Bridge and Give It Away established the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a band apart – pigeonholes were no longer relevant.
Once more, disaster followed success, with Frusciante quitting during a short tour of Japan. Disillusioned with his playing, the band and the whole industry, he withdrew into a world of heroin. “That was a long period of introspection,” Frusciante explains, “where I looked to myself to find the reasons for the working of my spirit, to understand myself more clearly and to go deep inside myself and to return stronger in mental terms, but also to be more creative musically…”
In this period, two solo albums were released, 1994’s Niandra LaDes And Usually Just A T-Shirt and 1997’s Smile From The Streets You Hold. “I loved the first, I sincerely feel that it’s one of the best albums of that era. I recorded it during one of the best moments of my life. The second was pulled together from half-finished recordings. Some bits aren’t in fact any more than demos recorded on a four-track. I did it just because I needed the money and was really in a bad state. Today I hate it, I’ve got four copies at my house and I won’t even lend them to my best friends. To me it’s not an album, because it’s just some odds and ends of songs thrown together.
Meanwhile the Chilis’ search for a new guitarist began afresh, with Arik Marshall and Jesse Tobias proving ill-suited replacements, before ex-Jane’s Addiction man Dave Navarro climbed aboard. Navarro’s heavy, multi-tracked approach can be heard on the album One Hot Minute (1995).
The collision between his style and that of the other three made for some good music, but it couldn’t last and within a couple of years both parties admitted it wasn’t working. Exit Navarro, leaving the band in limbo yet again, a situation further worsened by both Chad Smith and Kiedis getting injured in motorcycle accidents, the latter also slipping back into heroin use for a short while. Eventually the band pulled together, and Flea sounded his comrades out about the idea of getting John back in.
“It happened in stages,” begins John, “I started to see the others from time to time, then we slowly became friends again. Me and Flea saw each pretty often and even played together two or three times. When the band found themselves without a guitarist, they just turned round and asked me if I wanted to rejoin the group, and I accepted…”
Wasted In America
Many of the band’s problems have undoubtedly been due to drugs, from Hillel Slovak’s death to Kiedis’ on-off relationship with heroin (the aforementioned Under The Bridge was about the singer’s experiences), Flea’s use of the same substance, and Frusciante’s near-death experiences with it. It’s even possible that the descent into despair that led him to quit the band the first time are drug-related. He first shot up heroin right after BloodSugar… sessions, reaching a point during the years away from the band where his body contained only a twelfth of the normal amount. One journalist visited to be greeted by a skeleton of a man, wearing blood-stained clothes, covered in bruises and scabs, and subsisting on liquid supplements rather than facing real food. Yet even then he described his decision to become a junkie as a way of escaping the depression, and maximising his creativity. Now clean, his view is similarly honest.
“Drugs have been something very important in my life,” he admits. However, he no longer feels that drugs are necessary for his creativity. “Today I never take drugs and haven’t for a long time. I’ve stopped smoking and drinking and I take care of my health. I’m even taking courses in yoga, I have learned that I need to be completely clean to express what I could feel under the influence of drugs to in any kind of artistic form. When I was stoned, I used to spend my time writing hundreds of lyrics, listening to music and drifting along. Now that I’m clean, now that I’m out of all that and I feel more whole than before, I spend my time playing guitar. That’s the best kind of buzz…”
During his time away from the band, John focused on his love of painting. “I was literally obsessed. I love painters like Marcel Duchamp, Leonardo Da Vinci and Van Gogh, to the point where I thought that what I was doing with music was so distant to this form of expression that it wasn’t worth the effort.”
He even completely gave up guitar for a while, to enable him to focus purely on his other artistic pursuits. “Finally I realised that I had neither the talent nor the technical skills of these great artists and that the only form of artistic work in which I was capable of expressing my feelings and my emotions was music, and my guitar naturally found its way back into my hands. Today when I write music, I focus on making sure that every note is heard clearly in each whole piece, just like the way each touch of colour is a crucial element in an entire picture.”
“I feel so privileged to be able to use an instrument of expression like the guitar and to be able to say on it almost everything that I want. I could never just paint a blue sky or reach a direct emotion as I am always striving to do on my guitar. To give up the study of those great painters, I had to realise what an incredible work discipline they followed, and that I would try to do the same on my own level with music.
Right On Time
Reconvening in the spring of ’98, the four Chili Peppers wasted no time writing new material. Jamming and writing in Flea’s garage over the summer, they emerged with almost 40 tracks – a stark contrast the protracted time it took to create One Hot Minute.
When it came to selecting a producer, they opted to find a fresh ear, asking – and getting turned down by around five names, including Flood and even David Bowie – before finally approaching Rick Rubin to work with them for a third time.
It undoubtedly proved the right choice, his spartan production style once again bringing the best out in the music. He also developed an obsession with harmonies late in the day, getting Frusciante to stay behind in the studio to record multiple backing tracks, the results lending the finished tracks a whole new dimension. John clearly relished working with him again.
“Rick Rubin is a great producer. He’s a very intelligent guy and dedicated towards finding new arrangements. He knows how to put us at our ease in the studio, and how to make us forget that little red light that shines so bright and which always unsettles you a bit. I love working with Rick.”
Listening to Californication, it’s almost as if One Hot Minute was a temporary detour for the Chili Peppers, the sound a progression of the more direct, funk-filled style showcased on BloodSugar…
“That’s only logical,” says John. “I think it’s down essentially to the chemistry of the band members. As songwriter in a band like the Chili Peppers, you write in co-operation with each of the other band members, which has the tendency to multiply by four the creative potential of each member. It’s not as if each musician writes alone in his corner and just comes together with the band to propose his demos to everyone.”
“If people are making comparisons with out previous albums, it’s just because of the magic that we conjure up every time we all play together. For each one of us the Red Hot Chili Peppers is the ideal band, where each member is complemented by the others. For example I developed my guitar style just from playing with Flea. My role as guitarist with the Chilis is simply to make all the other members sound as good as possible.”
The record is also notable for its poppiness, each track matching either a hook-laden chorus with a more aggressive verse or vice versa. “Honestly, we were really thinking that we were recording our best material, but you need to look back in retrospect to be really objective. Personally I don’t like to think of my songs in terms of potential hits or singles. That’s never been the way in the Chili Peppers. Those are often the first reactions of the people that hear the songs when we record them, giving us their ideas of the strengths of this or that song, but we really like them all just as much as the others. I like Right On Time, Otherside, Easily…in fact, I could reel off all the names on the album, they form such a complete work in my eyes.”
On The Two
Given his instinctive way of playing, it’s quite a surprise to discover that Frusciante once attended the Guitar Institute Of Technology. “I was enrolled there so that my dad could think I was doing some serious studying so that he would keep sending me money. I skipped a lot of classes,” he admits. “Even so, I picked up a lot of technical and theoretical knowledge there which serves me all the time. I think all the same that it’s important for a guitar player not to focus himself entirely on the theoretical and technical aspects of playing, ‘cos he’ll risk losing all the emotional content. You can end up having a twisted notion of what you’re doing, even though music must be one of the most liberated art forms there is.”
He’s been known to profess an admiration for Steve Vai, but other super-speed players hold little attraction. “Some of those technically perfect guitarists, who are so fast on the fretboard, give me the impression that they have been trapped in some kind of a prison that they can’t escape from. They’ve lost all sense of what music is really about: a universe of space and time, where rhythm, melody and silence have an unique importance. When you play music, each day you have a new adventure, you touch the infinite.”
Although still in his 20s, John cites the punk scene as the biggest contributing era to his style. “I was above all influenced by punk guitarist like Pat Smear of Germs, Greg Ginn of Black Flag, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of the Clash, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Bob Ono of Devo and Ricky Wilson of the B-52s. It was afterwards, when I started to take my guitar playing a bit more seriously, that I listened to Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.”
The result is a compelling punk and funk fusion, as likely to head into overdriven dissonance as ultra-danceable chopping. “It comes naturally, because all those elements are present in my head, and my love of music is so great that I’ve never stopped exploring ceaselessly to find new rhythms and new melodies,” John explains.
“My main preoccupation is still top do things with a style that is personal to me alone. To do that I accumulate hundreds of recordings of which only a small part will ever see the light of day on a record by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
The enduring image of the band playing live is one sans shirts, Kiedis wearing cut-off shorts, and John hunched over a 1965 Strat. That guitar remains his mainstay, although he did use several others when recording the new record. “I used a really amazing Gretch White Falcon on some tracks like Californication and Otherside.”
“I’ve also got another Strat from 1962, a ’65 Telecaster and a Gibson SG from 1961. That seems to me to be a pretty cool collection, not even counting all the instruments that I’ve had to let go of over the years. I’ve got the good fortune now to know a guy who’s a real expert, he is in charge of finding me vintage instruments.”
“My amps are essentially Marshalls, a 200 watt bass head and a 100 watt guitar head that I use together, but I’ve also got a Fender Showman for my clean sounds. I’ve limited my effects to a wah wah and a distortion pedal, except for certain tracks.”
Those particular tracks include Porcelain, which hinges on a wonderfully delicate guitar part. It sounds like it’s been put through a Leslie effect, but was in fact achieved simply by splitting he output from a chorus pedal, feeding a Marshall on one side and the vibrato channel of an old Vox AC30 on the other. His methods are equally economical elsewhere. The feedback on Emit Remmus suggested an E-Bow. “No, it was just natural feedback, with me playing directly in front of the amp,” admits John.
Also notable is the guitar solo on the epic Savior. “Oh yes, that one. I got that by using an old Electro Harmonix pedal called the Micro Synthesizer. It’s a very cool effect that lets you get loads of unusual sonic combinations. The first time I heard it was on the Iggy Pop album, The Idiot. Sadly, that pedal is too fragile to take out on the road.”
In fact, it’s actually just been reissued (and is reviewed in this issue of Total Guitar, see page 128). “Oh great, thanks for the tip!” says John. “Sounds like I’ll have to get myself one straight away.- I really hope that the new ones sound like my original.”
They’re Red Hot
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been at the stage before, of course. Right now all four are optimistic about their relationship, their new album, and the future of the band. But while it will be all too easy for something else to go wrong, for heroin to pull one of the band members back down, or sheer bad luck to rear its ugly head yet again, there’s every sign that the foursome are more comfortable about their position than ever before. Frusciante rejoining was obviously such a good move, one that’s renewed everybody’s spirits and has resulted in their finest music to date. The guitarist, so jaded during the days of BloodSugarSexMagik is even looking forward to going out on the road.
“I’m very impatient about touring, because today I feel more complete than ever before, with full awareness of who I am and what I want to do with my life” admits John. “I will appreciate a life on tour so much more than I used to.”
And what of the tracks from One Hot Minute? Will they be part of the live set? “No. Moreover, I’ve never even heard that album… We will be playing mainly tracks from the new album and from BloodSugar…, and several songs from the first two Chili Peppers albums. We’ve got the chance to work from such a huge back catalogue that it’ll be really hard to choose!”
After all the highs and lows, John is in no doubt about future ambitions. “Oh, I simply want to be able to continue doing just this, and knowing how to appreciate each moment. It would be really great if all the members of the group could keep the type of relationship with each other going that we have at the moment. The magic at the heart of this band has never been as intense and I hope that we will never lose it.”
“From my own point of view, I’ve also written loads of music in the style of my first solo album and I hope that all that will see the light of the day, be it in the form of a soundtrack for a film being made by one of my friends, or on a parallel project. Flea and me are also making a dub album and I’m also going to play on the next solo album by Perry Farrell. I think the Chili Peppers still have loads and loads of new ideas to explore, loads of good music to give to people and that I’m hoping will continue to occupy me in the future.”