Descending from packed arenas to a lonely home studio, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante capitalised on a rare tour break and a burst of creative energy to capture sounds both eclectic and ethereal on solo album number three. Verdict: stunning…
We’ve all seen it before: guitarist in a big-selling band gets annoyed about everyone banging on about the lead singer, when any fool can see who is the real star talent in the band. This particular attack on the ego has led to that phenomenon known as ‘solus projecticus’, where said guitarist, Mike Yarwood-style (ask your parents), declares that ‘this is the real me’, leaving us to deal with the turgid fret-flying showcases devoid of charisma or melody.
But, as ever, John Frusciante is the exception to the rule. That shouldn’t be too surprising, though, considering he’s been writing his own, very idiosyncratic, script since the age of 18 when he stopped moshing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and joined the band. At a time when band members and fans alike thought that the tragic death of original guitarist Hillel Slovak might will scupper the Peppers, Frusciante’s arrival inspired the funksters to new creative heights and — with the success of 1989’s Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik in ’91 — worldwide commercial success.
Ultimately, this success came to be Frusciante’s nemesis, as he grew disillusioned with the whole arena-touring machine the band had become. After leaving the Chilis in ’92, he made two solo albums, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (’94) and Smile From the Streets You Hold (’97). The off-kilter, often incoherent tangents that Frusciante indulged in on these recordings, coupled with his chemical dalliances, were used as justification by those who were of the opinion that the former Chili Pepper was living out an all-too stereotypical rock star decline.
But when his replacement, Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, left the Chili Peppers after only one album — the indifferent One Hot Minute — Frusciante was ready again to join the fray. The return sparked a new period of productivity in his life, with the guitarist not only making a sparkling contribution to the band’s latest album, Californication, but knocking out songs on the side at a furious rate.
“The last few years have been real productive for me. If it hadn’t been for Anthony, Flea and Chad’s love for me and their confidence I wouldn’t have been able to get to the point that I am at now,” says a grateful Frusciante. “They were loving the stuff I was doing from day one, even though it was just a fraction of what I was capable of. When you have friends who are on your side there is no limit to what you can do.”
The product of this love and affection is his third solo album, To Record Only Water For Ten Days. Written for the most part while touring with the Chili Peppers, Frusciante has harnessed his ability to get ‘out there’ with lashings of cockle-warming melodies that really do feel like Novocaine for the soul. Many songs, like the bashing folk blues of _Fallout_, are sprinkled with elegiac acoustic picking and falsetto vocals, whilst elsewhere a laidback old-school hip hop vibe forms the backdrop for some jaunty acoustic strumming and phased space-age vocals.
According to Frusciante, this kind of musical invention and cross-stitching has been made possible due to the wonders of technology, allowing him to make the whole album by himself.
“I’m not really good at other instruments, but I realised that I could learn about electronics and orchestrate my music that way. So I learned how to program drums and when I’m doing that I feel as if I’m expressing myself the same was as on the guitar. The good thing about the age we’re living in is that you don’t have to be a good musician to be able to make good music.”
Any suggestion, though, that he could have got in any of the numerous top-notch musician friends in his Filofax to contribute is given the short shrift. “I’ve tried to play my songs with other people before and it doesn’t sound right,” Frusciante explains. “The Chili Peppers is a real band where the songs belong to all of us, so all of us need to put our own thing in there. But when they are just my songs I know how and where the rhythms and the melodies should go, but other musicians hear things in their own way and you get their interpretation of what should happen.
“With my songs,” he concludes defiantly, “I feel like it’s my responsibility to take them to their final destination in this dimension.”
For those not of a spiritual or mystical nature, hearing Frusciante describe his philosophies on guitar playing, and music in general, can be a confusing experience. Talk of scales, chords, technique and the other “mundanities” of the craft is dismissed in favor of discussing the colours and shapes that make up his songs.
“I heard music in a technical way for so long when I was a teenager that when I turned 20 or 21, all of a sudden, I started hearing music completely as colour. I didn’t see the fretboard as having any value whatsoever, in terms of the actual physics of playing the guitar. I remember the exact day that it happened and I’ve never looked at the guitar the same way again.”
He goes on to reveal that he does still continue his musical education, learning about chords and chord structures by analysing such greats as Charles Mingus and The Beatles. But Frusciante sees no contradictions with this and his standpoint on technique, claiming: “I just want to be able to take my songs new places. Even though the fundamentals of a song might be different, the emotions might be staying in a similar place, and I feel like I might be able to have some new colours and shapes in my songs if I were able to understand chord theory a little better.”
He goes on to expound on the John Lennon theory that songs aren’t necessarily written but “picked up”, often fully formed, by an erstwhile composer’s antennae. “Songs come to me as a feeling. A lot of these songs came when I was just playing guitar on the tour bus during the day, but when I had them in my head I pretty much knew how they were going sound straightaway. Any technical stuff you know should just be there to make sure you get the sound and melodies out of your head in the right way.”
You might think such would inherently undermine the talent and hard work of a songwriter, essentially negating the need to give him or her any credit other than for their “listening” abilities and the effort put in to make sure others can hear this divine music that supposedly exists in the ether. It’s a line of thinking that doesn’t seem to bother Frusciante, who relishes — alchemist-like — converting the ethereal to the concrete.
“That’s what I love about it,” he exclaims. “It feels like such a solid and it’s so immovable. It doesn’t alter. If I put it on tape and then leave it for two weeks, when I listen to it again it gives me the exact same feelings. It makes me think that it’s not just a thing in the air. This song is a real place that exists somewhere.”
Some songwriters have this paranoia that this “real place” is actually another song that has already been written — by someone else. Frusciante, however, is unconcerned about such unconscious plagiarism. “It’s happened to me once or twice, but usually you know when it happens, or you find out quickly by playing the song to some friends who know a lot about music.
“And I don’t really worry about if one of my songs has some similarity to another song I wrote. The first two songs on the album, Going Inside and Someone’s both start out in a similar kind of way. They’re both in G minor and have a similar tempo, and the second chords in each are both closed chords. But from then on, they both go in completely different directions and have nothing to do with each other. It shows people how music is infinite in that way.”
Frusciante is happy to place himself within the history of music, rather than claim that he’s not influenced by artists who have gone before. As a songwriter and an acoustic player, he identifies the likes of Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, and Big Bill Broonzy as being his guiding lights for their simplicity and sincerity.
“I think of my style on the electric guitar as something Flea and myself have come up with,” he expands. “When I joined the Chili Peppers I really didn’t have any style of my own, but by playing with Flea, and paying attention to the people he thought were good musicians and guitar players, I gradually started to develop my own style,” he recalls. “My style developed so that I thought about what type of guitar playing complements the way he plays bass the best. While I was trying to do this, he was trying to change his bass playing according to how I was playing the guitar. And, at this point, we’re always changing things for each other.”
At the present time, the pair have started another band; they play solely Joy Division covers.
“I think we’re going to call it “Still”,” ponders Frusciante. “The drummer’s this guy called Josh, who looks and plays like Stephen Morris. It’s a real blast. We played a show and it went really well.”
The instrumental Murderers on To Record Only Water For Ten Days gives some indication of Frusciante’s love for Bernard Sumner’s thin, spidery guitar sound, but not enough of an idea of the depth of his love for the Joy Division/New Order man’s playing. “I know his playing so well that I can get inside of it, to the point where I kind of feel that it’s actually coming from me when I’m playing it, just because I have such a complete and pure love for Joy Division’s music and his playing,” he gushes.
“I don’t know if we’re spiritually connected to each other, whatever it is, but no matter how crazy it sounds, there’s something about it I love so much that I just know the music instinctively. I’ve spent so much time in my life playing along to Joy Division records…it means as much to me as my own music does.”
High praise indeed. And Frusciante goes on to reveal that, along with the late Matthew Ashman from post-punkers Bow Wow Wow, Sumner was the only guitarist he was listening to during the writing and recording of Californication. The experience had a direct bearing on his attitude to guitar solos: that is, he avoids them whenever possible.
“The band and our producer Rick Rubin really had to push me to take guitar solos, because I just wanted to have less in there all the time. It’s just a matter of taste, I guess,” he contends. “I’ve gone through stages where I’ve been really flashy, but when I listen to a lot of guitar players I like, they don’t think it’s cool to do solos. And if they do play solos it’s more like a written thing, not just the guitar player showing how good he is.”
He took this attitude through to the recording of _To Record Only Water For Ten Days_, stating that the fluid, pristine, jazzy excursions on Ramparts are the only things on the album that could be construed as guitar solos. “Well, _Murderers_ does have a guitar solo in it as well,” he concedes. “But it’s a one-note guitar solo, so I wasn’t really showing off in that song.”
Frusciante’s relaxed, easy drawl belies the punishing schedule of touring and recording that he’s had to put up with since rejoining the Chili Peppers, only able to fit in a few solo shows between other touring commitments.
“That doesn’t bother me at all. I’m not trying to build this big career outside the band,” he protests. “I wouldn’t have done this album if I hadn’t devoted the last three years of my life to them. I can do anything I want in the Chili Peppers, the only thing I do on my album that’s different is write lyrics, so I’m not being constricted.
“But I do consider them two different musical lives, that both bring me joy. I’m not a workaholic — I enjoy sitting around, listening to music, watching movies and doing nothing –but I don’t take any talent I might have, or any music I can make, for granted. I consider it a gift, and I want to do the best with it that I’m capable of doing in this life.”
— John Callaghan
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With his beloved Strats, including his fave maple-necked ’55 packed away in storage between Chili Peppers tours, Frusciante decided to bash out the solo album with the two remaining electrics he had available to him: a ’66 Fender Mustang and a ’61 Gibson SG.
“I suppose the Strat is my sound,” he muses. “But that’s because it was the guitar I asked for when I was 11 years old. It was the guitar that I was playing when I came up with the style that’s my style, so it’s the one I’m most comfortable with.
“But I’m also comfortable with the Mustang. I bought it to practise with during the day on the tour bus. It’s perfect for that because it’s really light.
“I’m a bit confused as to which guitars I used on certain parts,” he adds. “I know the song _Away & Anywhere_ is played with an SG, and I would imagine that the guitar solo on _Murderers_ is as well. I also use the SG for my Joy Division band.
“The rest of it is with the Mustang, although the solo in _Ramparts_ sounds like a Strat — except I can’t remember ever having a Strat around!”
Acoustic chores were a breeze for Frusciante, thanks to the ’30s Martin at his disposal, which he loves so much that he’s just purchased a couple more of the beauties.
“Why Martins? Well, it was the guitar that Rick Rubin gave to Anthony (Kiedis, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ singer) and Anthony lent it to me. I just haven’t given it back yet,” he chuckles.
“It was the guitar I learnt to write songs on again, and I got two more small-bodied Martins because nothing else sounds as good when I play them. I’m as attached to Martins now as I am to Stratocasters.”
With his Marshall-oriented amp setup also in storage, Frusciante decided to DI much of the album, with the odd part played through a Line 6 POD amp modeller. “I really like gettin ga cheap guitar sound,” he claims. “Even in real studios, I sometimes just go straight into the board.
“Now…you’re going to ask me what pedals I used, aren’t you? Well I probably did use some stuff like a (Electro-Harmonix) Micro-Synthesiser, but I really can’t remember. I know that makes me sound stupid, but I recorded so many tracks that when you look back it all becomes a bit hard to recall. Maybe I should start writing this stuff down!”