Stadium Arcadium, ninth album of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is kicking out at the starting blocks. Meeting in Hollywood with John Frusciante, unique guitarist.
Pale and emaciated, John Frusciante’s face tells more than a biography. Thirty-six years old, the adoptive Californian looks 10 years older. Still fresh memory of a narcotic drift that excluded him from the Red Hot Chili Peppers between 1992 and 1998…
Since his return, the full time artist (ten solo albums in his pocket) sometimes wear the costume of the “world’s greatest guitarist” – for example when it’s time to get with the most atypical band the californian ground ever carried, a thousand times meant to self-combustion, a thousand and one times back from the dead to be the example of rock integrity shown in the shelves of the big consumption.
The ninth album, Stadium Arcadium, shows that : between good music and respect of their musical identity, the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t choose. The butter and the money from the butter, creamy like this deep armchair where you can only see John Frusciante’s head, fixed look. An angel passes and, troubled, flies back in the winter chill of his City.
For the first time, you dare going for the double album, an option that was often thought about, like for Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Why did you take the step?
Because we had never finished as many songs. Usually, we record 25 songs, Anthony records vocals on 20 and we end up releasing 15. This time, we finished 38 songs! At this point, I even consider that keeping “only” 25 in a double album consitutes a regression, proportionnally speaking.
I battled for a double with 30 songs! When you write music that you judge satisfying, you want to transmit it to a maximum of people, it’s human. Every song of this album deserves to be transmitted to the public. God didn’t give us music for the only selfish pleasure of those who write it and play it.
You have the reputation to love playing music, not to talk about it. How are you approaching the promotion period of Stadium Arcadium?
I feel ok, the transition is a bit fast between the end of the mix and the release of the album. It’s a bit my fault, I wanted to take a lot of time to perfect the production. I recorded a lot of backing vocals, guitars overdubs, electronic treatments… I knew that the mix couldn’t be finished in two days! We had to find a compromise – Anthony wanted to release the album last fall, I wanted to take my time.
Had you ever been this much implied in the production of a CD of the band?
I was very present for the mix of By The Way. It was the first time I was in a production of this importance – a huge responsability for a novice. Today, I know where I’m going. I won’t let somebody wear the hat for mistakes I could do, like for By The Way – poor Rick Rubin (producer of the album)! Now, everbody participate and give their opinion. Except Chad who doesn’t care, as usual! (laughs)
As a singer, you released ten albums, of which seven in 2004! Your website announced: “Exit solo John, welcome Red Hot John”. You support this schizophrenic vision?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are my priority, forever. Some songs of this album could’ve been John Frusciante songs, like Wet Sand that I wrote when we were on tour. But frankly, when a song with this much potential gets to me, I want to give it to the band; when a little voice in my head tells me to give it, I do it! I only keep the songs that look too much like me, that carry too many personal things. Actually, while writing Stadium Arcadium, I wrote seventeen songs for my next album. I still haven’t finished dissecting my minidisc.
Why such a big hunger?
I have the certitude that I have two musical personalities. John who writes songs and sings them, and John who plays guitar in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. OK, I sing a lot of backing vocals, I love that — it’s often what I like the most about great singers, sometimes it’s even what I listen in priority. On records like Marvin Gaye’s, the Bee Gees’ these complex harmonies are a form of art that is not recognised.
Right now, Brandy is turning my head, her work on Afrodisiac is incredible. She inspired me a lot for Stadium Arcadium. In short, because or thanks to this double personality, I write and record non stop! As soon as I had six months in front of me after By The Way, I recorded the 72 songs written during the production of the album! I can’t imagine myself stop playing. In four years, I gave myself one week of rest.
The crazy influences of your solo work, from the minimalist new wave to the folk songs, were letting see a renewed Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s pure juice though.
Yes, unless you focus on the guitars production, the textures. You can hear the influence of my solo albums. Stadium is not only the meeting of four people who play together – it’s a sound experience. The guitars where analogically treated, without synths or computers. Only accelerated picking, slowed down, turned over, in echo…
I try everything to capture my brain. Lose your marks, mime the hypnotic state of dream, abuse the senses. All of this, I learned on my own, by working with modular synths on my albums, especially Inside of Emptiness.
Do you see yourself as a guitarist or a sound manipulator?
Both. The technicality at guitar is an accessory. I have been influenced by Hendrix for his guitar play, but mostly for his producer talents. We often forget about it, but Electric Ladyland is the world’s best mixed album! A material constantly moving, where you can physically feel the symbiosis between the three instruments.
The speakers become alive. Hendrix was an artist of the sound who was creating gigantic sound orgasms. It’s an infinite source of knowledge and the creation of Stadium owes him a lot. For me, playing guitar doesn’t mean hitting some strings and move my fingers on the guitar. Since Blood Sugar, I learn to think less in terms of notes or technique and more of sounds and texture.
Stadium Arcadium salutes the return of demonstrative guitar though.
I don’t want to limit myself. I learned to play again by coming back in the band. At the time of Californication, my fingers were still weak. I asserted my technique with By The Way. And now, I push it as far as possible: I want my playing to be powerful, twisted, ambitious, chaotic. I want it to explode in all the directions. Reject the idea of playing clean and straight, encourage the tortuous, the bad, playing before the rhythm after the rhythm, sometimes even ON the rhythm (laughs).
The most beautiful way to sing liberty is to let instruments express themselves together. Flea, Chad and I needed to challenge each other : everybody wanted to bring the other on their field, to play with him, to show that things don’t have to be quiet and cute to be organised : chaos can be a form of organisation; from hitch can be born synchronisation. About this, Flea and I have been influenced by Clapton and Bruce from Cream.
We can play two totally different lines and still create an homogeneous dynamic, punch at rough state. We are so united… no need to show this cohesion by playing twin riffs. It’s better to play against each other and see how everything comes together. Everything comes together in the end…
For a long time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were organically linked to Los Angeles. Kind of a hedonism, a young and radical spirit. How is the band still the soundtrack of LA?
There’s something particular about that city. The ocean, the hills… I think the energy of the bands who preceded us still lives in Los Angeles. The Doors, the sixties, punk, the places where The Beatles lived… That feeling left the streets, it’s true : when you watch old movies, you realise that some warmth disappeared, the city is more organised, colder.
But there are places, very singular where creation exists. Not for the tourists. I love to walk in some residential streets, between Melrose and Fairfax. I sneak up in gardens and try to imagine the life of the owners. I stroll on the sidewalk at night.
Sometimes, I look in half-opened door. Some sort of fascination – I love Hollywood Boulevard. At least, this road doesn’t change, it reminds me my first years in Los Angeles, when I was a teenager and I was strolling on Sunset Boulevard.
Anthony Kiedis released his biography last year, Scar Tissue. Did you read it?
No. A friend of mine did and swore that Anthony wasn’t saying bad stuff about me. On the contrary. It made me happy to know it. Anyway, I don’t think Anthony wanted me to read it… It was a good way for him to sum up everything, a needed cleaning out.
I did it too for a long time, writing on paper my superstitions and my fears. It frees space in your head — which happened for Anthony apparently: after the book was released, he wrote lyrics for 38 songs! Incredible, coming from him.
After your experience, would you like writing your own biography?
I want to write, but I wouldn’t do it like a rockstar biography. I see more of a philosophic essay, I don’t know under what shape. I think I have something to say to people other than with my guitar and my songs.
In Scar Tissue, Kiedis confesses he is still on the edge in his relation with heroin. How does the band live with this threat?
(He thinks) Anthony is strong enough to… He loves his job with the band so much, he loves his life. He is fond of it… If this “spirit” gets him sometimes, he can still be lucid and stable. You have to accept your addiction sometimes : trying to quit at all costs, and than falling down more and more at each relapse, that can be the worst solution. And… it’s the order of things. You can die at any moment. It’s life.
And yourself? Is stopping yourself from taking the dive something you have to fight everyday?
Oh no! I’m not clean. I’m the typical case of (big hesitation) I’m an addict, you know. I have to live with it… Keep it to an acceptable level. Exercise my willpower everyday, I have learned not to let my desires take me over. I keep the things under control. A minimum.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium, Warner. Out May 4th.
—François Barras/Los Angeles