He’s never driven a car, never held a day job, never even had a bill in his own name. In fact, anything that doesn’t positively affect John Frusciante’s creative process has no place in his life. On his third solo album, To Record Only Water for Ten Days, the free spirited guitarist shies away from Chili Peppers funk and dives headlong into a pool of pop.
“In high school, I often used to stay up and practice all night until I had to go to school the next day.”
The last time we spoke with guitarist John Frusciante, he and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were on the verge of releasing Californication, a disc that marked Frusciante’s unexpected return to the fold after nearly seven years.
A lot has transpired since his return. Frusciante, who began a year-and-a-half’s worth of RHCP touring dates wearing long-sleeved shirts, and sporting lengthy locks and a full beard, seemed to gain confidence at every show. He eventually shaved his head, showed some skin, and began improvising his solos – in every song, every night. By the end of RHCP’s tour, Californication had racked up sales in excess of four million copies in the U.S. alone, and Frusciante had return to top form.
Of course, non of the above would’ve ever happened if it weren’t for the mending of relationships within the Peppers’ organization. Back in May 1992, by the time Frusciante announced he was leaving the band, he and Anthony Kiedis were no longer on speaking terms, Chad Smith was reportedly throwing drumstick at him onstage, and Flea’s resentment toward him was palpable. Ending his career as a Pepper on the sourest of notes, Frusciante commenced an excruciatingly dark period in his life. It is this era, between 1992 and 1997, in which he produced his first solo material, including his latest effort, To Record Only Water for Ten Days (Warner Bros).
But first, a bit of background. In 1994 and 1997, respectively, John Frusciante unleashed a pair of four-track recordings: Niandra LaDes/Usually Just a T-Shirt (American/Sony) and Smile from the Streets You Hold (Birdman). Radically different from anything resembling Chili Peppers music, the records – which featured acoustic guitar, piano, eerie electric overdubs, and John’s caterwauling vocals – received some extreme reviews. Many praised the guitarist’s daring minimalism and stellar songcraft, while an equal number of critics crushed his work; Frusciante himself described Smile from the Streets You Hold in Guitar One’s August 1999 cover story as an “album made only because I needed money for drugs.”
In 1997, John’s healing process from heroin addiction began with a phrase: “To record only water for ten days.” In his mind, the phrase would also become the title for a future record. “Basically, it means to create a state of purity step by step,” Frusciante explains. “Three years ago, I had no ability to write songs, play guitar, or make people feel good with my voice. I couldn’t do any of that stuff, but I wanted to more than anything. When I decided I was gonna start gathering up the spirits and become myself again, I knew I was gonna make a record called To Record Only Water for Ten Days. I also knew that phrase was going to be meaningful, in terms of what I was gonna have to go through to make that record happen.” The good new is the record and John Frusciante’s healing did happen, and this ultimate creative spirit has lived to write another musical chapter.
Shortly after the release of Californication, you mentioned in an interview that your new solo album would be the soundtrack for Vincent Gallo’s next film.
Right. Well, he has a movie that he plans on making that I’ll do the music for, but there are certain things that are stopping him from getting started on it right now; he can’t find the perfect people to play the parts, so it’s all sort of on hols. But while we were writing songs for Californication, a lot of the other songs I was writing, in the back of my head I was imagining them being in his movie, because that was what I was thinking at that time.
A couple of years ago – before To Record Only Water for Ten Days – I made two CD’s worth of stuff. Only my close friends have those two CD’s. A lot of the stuff on the first CD may very well be in a Vincent Gallo movie, and some of it is gonna be on the single for “Going Inside,” where I’m putting four extra songs. A couple of the songs on this album was recorded between November 1999 and last April.
Unlike what the album’s title suggests, you didn’t record the album in 10 days.
[Laughs.] No. Each song probably took anywhere from one day to three days to record. When I had drums to program, the whole day would be programming drums. Then the next day I’d add some music to it.
Neither of your first two solo records even have drums. What prompted you to experiment with drum programming this time?
Because I find that when I write a song, although I’m not consciously thinking of a drum part, I hear very definite drum part in my head. And I had never heard a drummer play on my songs where I liked the way it sounded – they never were hearing the rhythms at the right place. I was hearing so many rhythms in my head that anyone who didn’t write the song couldn’t possibly have heard it. Something like “Invisible Movement” has three drum feels going on at once: half time, double time, and triple time. That was just the obvious guitar part, which are just four notes [plays “Invisible Movement” guitar riff]. Those four notes were more meaningful to me than they may have been if I was to play them to an actual drummer. So I found that by programming the drums, it was sort of freeing.
What did you look to for inspiration when you wrote this record?
For this album, I was getting a lot of inspiration from different kinds of electronic music – especially from the ’70s and ’80s. Pretty much the whole time we were writing and touring for Californication I was doing research on electronic music. Joy Division and Depeche Mode are probably the two biggest inspirations for the music on this record, because for the last three years, they’re the only two acts I’ve been excited about. I go through phases and this and that, but those two, for whatever reason, have remained absolutely constant.
Your first two solo albums were recorded on a 4-track. On what was this album recorded?
It was all recorded on a digital 8-track machine – a Yamaha MD8. Then I had somebody dump it onto 2″ tape so everything could be separately EQ’d at length, and separate types of compression couls be given to each separate thing. I don’t have any understanding of the science of how to “separate” thigs with the equalization, and most of these songs have a lot of different types of sounds going on; it’s important for you to be able to hear each thing. On a lot of my mixes, you couldn’t really hear the acoustic guitar because I would sort of favor the drum machine or the synthesizers or something; I’d kind of bury my voice and my guitar a lot, which actually should probably be the main things. So the guy who mixed it made those the main things.
I understand that the Martin acoustic you’re holding is what you used for the acoustic parts on this record.
Yeah. It’s from the 1930s. I borrowed it from Anthony. Rick Rubin gave it to Anthony, and Anthony let me borrow it when we started writing Californication. I really fell in love with it; I’ve written so many songs on it. I just bought another one that I’m having some sort of system put in it so I can play acoustic shows – it’s this “state-of-the-art” pickup system that there is now for acoustics. It’s a microphone; it’s not really a pickup.
Since you were using a digital 8-track, were you recording a lot of your electric guitars direct, without an amp?
Yeah. I didn’t use an amp for anything.
What are some of the electric instruments you used?
The electric guitars are just whatever was lying around my house; I really wasn’t picky about it. I have a lot of guitars, but most of them are kept with the stuff that we have on tour – like mu Strats and my [Gretsch] White Falcon. All that stuff is left in storage between tours. I had this Gibson SG from 1961 that I used on some of the leads; it was just was lying around my house. I didn’t Take that on tour. In addition to the SG, the main electric guitar that I used was a red 1966 Fender Mustang that I bought for practicing. TherE’s also a Gibson L-5 at my house that I might have used for something, but I can’t remember. For a while there was always a [Fender] Jaguar at my house; I probably used a Jaguar on a thing or two. The song “Ramparts” seems like it might’ve been a Strat.
A song like “Ramparts,” where you multitrack numerous guitars playing different things, yet they all work together, is one of your signature sounds.
Yeah. I do that thing where I sort of solo on a few guitars at once and they seem to work as one. You hear it a little with the Chili Peppers, too [e.g., “Easily” outro from Californication – Ed.]; it always seems to work. And I started doing that on Niandra. On the second half of Niandra there are 13 pieces called “Usually Just a T-Shirt” To me, the song “Ramparts” is kinda like all those 13 songs in one, in a weird way.
I remember in an interview you did around 1994 you mentioned you wanted people to think, if they happened upon a copy of Niandra, that some ’50s guy recorded it.
Yeah. I was talking to Vincent [Gallo] about that last night. He’s been recording this great music, and it sounds like it was recorded in the ’50s – it has that vie. That’s where you have vibe in the recording itself, as opposed to having the vibe coming just from the people playing, or from the energies in the room when they’re playing. And when the recording itself is as much apart of the music as the music is, it’s a beautiful thing. That’s what you find a lot of back then – doo-wop and jazz recordings. Especially at the time I made that record I was listening a lot to music from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, and the way it sounded was really beautiful to me. And when I would listen to Robert Johnson or something, and then I would listen to this [pointing to Niandra], they were within a similar frequent spectrum. I mean, that’s why I didn’t feel funny about releasing a record that was recorded just on a cassette 4-track. Because, to me, it sounded pretty similar to a lot of the recordings that they were making back then. And it had that same “romantic” sort of a feeling that it gave me – to hear my music – as it did to hear Blind Blake, Big Bill Broozy, or somebody.
And it makes me wonder: On the earth there must be a kindred spirit to somebody like Duke Ellington – somebody I feel whose music really thrived on the sound of the recordings in the ’50s. If he had a kindred spirit here now who was writing music like that, to me, it would really suffer if he were to record on new, modern equipment. I mean, there are some people who do “lo-fi” things, but a lot of the time those things sound more like the people just don’t care what it sounds like. The sound of the recording is as important as what he’s playing.
To someone who’s familiar only with your Chili peppers work and hasn’t heard your solo records, what would you say to prepare them for the totally different type of aural experience that they are ? To convince somebody who’s interested only in watching color TV, to look at something in black-and-white, if you will?
See, I only watch black-and-white movies. I mean, I don’t only, but, for the most part, I watch movies from the ’40s, and The Twilight Zone is my favorite TV show in the world. So I like black-and-white.
But I think people who listen to music because of what other people think is cool, or because of their own expectations or something, are silly. The reason I’ve always been able to draw so much inspiration from other people’s music is because I’ve always listened to music with a sense of wonderment, and always listened to music with a desire to love things. Flea and I were just talking yesterday about how we often get really excited about somebody’s album when it comes out, and then two months later we don’t really like it anymore; we decided it’s not that great. But when it came out, we were really excited about it. And we hope we’re always like that, because the couple of weeks that wew ere sitting there thinking it was the greatest thing in the world shows we were able to open our hearts to things in that way. Some people, they’re so closed minded to things. I seem to meet more people who like older music and don’t like as much new music, and I’m sure there are people who specifically just like new music and don’t like old music. To me, those people are just closing themselves off from a lot of good feelings that are available to them in the world. The feelings of any time period are all equal to each other, in terms of the music they have to offer. I’m not one of these people who think “The ’60s was the greatest time, and it’s been downhill ever since.” I think every decade has had an equal amount of beautiful music, and I think it’s up to the listener how much they wanna open up their mind to find that out. So have an open mind when listening to any music – not just mine, any music – and realize that it’s all been created for you to listen to.
The great thing about all of your solo records in particular is, because you did them all yourself, you put them on and immediately know you can’t get any closer to the creative source.
Yeah. It’s not going through any sort of a filter because it’s one person. When we play music in the band, it goes through Rick Rubin [producer]. Sometimes an idea of mine goes through Flea, but that doesn’t really “filter” it because in social music you need that organization. When we’re working as a band, it really helps to have Rick Rubin say, “This song needs a new section,” or make little changes here and there. When you’re writing music in a social environment, there are a lot of crazy things at work, disagreements that arise, so you need a fifth person to help make decisions. Blood Sugar took 10 months to write, Californication took nine months to write. The music on my records comes from the original point of inspiration; I hold onto that moment and see it through. When a song comes to me, I don’t stop. I just have a pencil and paper and tape recorder and guitar, and I don’t stop until the song is finished. If an idea for a song comes to me, I sit there for whatever time it takes until all the lyrics are done, all the sections are in order, and everything’s in its perfect place.
During that process, is there ever a time when you say, “Oh, this could be a Chili Peppers song”?
No. Usually I know when a song comes to me if it’s an idea for the Chili Peppers because it sounds unfinished when it’s for the Chili Peppers; it doesn’t sound complete. When it’s a song that’s meant for me, it sounds complete when it’s just the acoustic guitar playing, or when it’s just me singing along with my acoustic. The stuff I write for the Chili Peppers require a lot of imagination to hear it when it first starts. Like when “Otherside” started it was just [plays chorus riff]. I didn’t know where it was gonna go, it was just this thing that I thought was cool. On my own, that was as far as I could go with it. The rest of it came about with the band.
I mean, there are exceptions to this rule, and I’ve never put it that way until just now, but really that is what happens: I’m writing stuff specifically because I’m curious what Anthony would write over something like that. There are other times – like on the chorus for “Parallel Universe” – when I first came up with it I was singing over it and it was inspired by the Ramones. I considered it a song of my own, but I thought to myself: “It’s exactly in the key for that Chili Peppers song that needs a chorus.” So I said, “I’ll try it. If it doesn’t work as a chorus for that song, then I’ll write a song for it.”
In our August 1999 feature, you mentioned how you’d strived to develop a “guitar style that would be the perfect guitar playing to accompany Flea.” What do you strive for, guitar-wise, with your solo stuff?
I don’t really think that much in terms of “guitar” on my stuff; it’s not very guitar-oriented music. I mean, it’s the basis of the music, but there’s no real “displaying” of anything in any way. The guitar is just there to be the foundation of the song, and it’s not really there for a specific soloing style, or to have a specific rhythmic style. It’s just my natural style. What I do on my solo stuff is just the most natural version of who I am, and I’m trying to represent the feelings that I’m feeling as purely as possible. It’s about the songs. Everything that goes on top of the vocals and the acoustic guitar is just to emphasize aspects of what’s already there.
At what point do you think you’ll resume writing Chili Peppers music?
I’m going away to Europe to do a lot of interviews and a few shows until the middle of February, and at that point, we’ll start writing our next record. I’m real excited about it, and Flea’s already writing stuff. I mean, I’ve already come up with some ideas, but, like I said, ideas for Chili Peppers songs really don’t amount to much until the whole band is playing together.
Frusciante discusses the otherworldly elements of his creativity
When you’re engaged in a conversation with John Frusciante, you can’t help but wonder whether or not there’s anybody on the planet who’s more comfortable in his own skin. It’s a peaceful frame of mind highly conductive to creativity that Frusciante exudes, achieved through years of profound introspection. But this is no “spoiled rock star,” enabled to lead a certain lifestyle due to his band’s massive record sales. The well-documented “dark years” Frusciante spent away from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (1992 – 1997) more than prove his commitment to art.
When Frusciante discusses music – and art, in general – he often cites the contributions of spirits, the role of colors, and the necessity of staying pure. Here, the guitarist reveals the significance of his artistic vision – the essence of where he’s coming from.
“I used to always see things in the outside world as being ‘the enemies of an artist.’ I don’t see it that way anymore. To me, everything an artist needs is inside of himself, and it really doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world. Nothing else matters. You don’t need to have things perfect, you don’t need to have a lot of money or a beautiful girl. If your job in life is to create, you can find inside yourself what you need to make beautiful art or beautiful music.
“But you might have to clean yourself out, spiritually or physically. You gotta constantly purify yourself, living in the city, around human beings. There might be people close to you who affect you inside yourself in such a corrupt way that it screws with your ability to do what you do. But if you make sure that the people who are close to you are good people who are there for you and love you, you can create your temple everywhere you go.”
“I feel that when I play the guitar, write songs or write lyrics, I’m writing in terms of shapes and colors as opposed to the actual geography of the guitar. This was a big breakthrough where, in my head, I sort of threw away a lot of unnecessary technically – and started thinking of music purely in terms of color and shape. It totally opened up my playing. That’s pretty much where my style came from: the realization that music was colors ans shapes, and it wasn’t something people were getting better and better at – like how computer technology gets better and better. That’s not how guitar playing is. Music is something that is in the air, and it’s something that, as you get better as a musician, you get better at being able to translate these things that are in other dimensions, that are shapes ans colors and that are real.”
“The subject of ‘spirits’ come up a lot when I talk about myself because I’m very influenced by that world, and I pretty much consider them largely responsible for my music and lyrics. I consider myself only responsible for working hard at being able to make myself open to the feelings that they have to offer me, and the ideas that they’ve had to give me. I’ve lived my life in a certain way, so I’ve been able to hear their thoughts, and I know how the ones that are close to me feel about things. I try to do the best in my life to work for them. I mean, they’re what have made my life meaningful, up to this point. I’m just trying to do everything I can to make life meaningful for them.
“Spirits tend to send messages to you as feelings. You may not know it’s a spirit talking to you, but you feel a feeling, you write a song from it. You’re taking something that already existed in another dimension before it was in your head. And when you turn it into a song, you’ve done something for the spirits by taking this thing that they’re a part of and making it something for everybody , or whoever gets the chance to hear it. So you’ve actually made their place that they live in bigger in this world, because most people wouldn’t be able to hear or feel the same thing.
“When I say ‘spirits,’ I’m not necessarily talking about people who are living in an afterlife. They’re inside people who are directly connected to the life we’re living. You have spirits inside of you, and when you’re hearing my music they’re hearing it, too. That’s the way I think of it.”