The Red Hot Chili Peppers make music that is all sinew, knuckles and gut groove, the kind of songs that, for two decades, have provided a soundtrack for keg parties everywhere. So there were plenty of puzzled looks and even some laughter from the audience when, at the wonderfully dank Irving Plaza, the band recently decided it was time for a slow-skate song. As the other three Peppers looked on, guitarist John Frusciante hit all the high notes on the Bee Gees’ feathered-hair classic “How Deep Is Your Love.”
” ‘Cause we’re living in a world of fools
Breaking us down
When they all should let us be
We belong to you and me.”
At that last line, lead singer Anthony Kiedis pointed to himself and then to drummer Chad Smith. Flea, the band’s impish bass player, just stared with a gap-toothed grin frozen on his face. It was a relaxed moment that would not have happened in past years when the band was bickering, churning through members and tearing off on dark binges.
The Peppers have a past that has left painful marks, but for now they’re enjoying perhaps their finest career moment â€” scars and all, they find themselves with some measure of peace.
The band of “Hollywood knuckleheads” â€” the term they use to describe themselves, frequently and dispassionately â€” first made a name with a primitive meld of funk and punk that they often performed wearing nothing but tube socks affixed to their genitalia.
This month, the bare-butt knuckleheads are closing in on 23 million albums sold in America. More than that, last month the band scored its first No. 1 album ever on the pop charts with a sprawling, 28-song CD called “Stadium Arcadium” that has earned the Peppers some of their best reviews ever. There have been plenty of signature L.A. bands past and present, but the Peppers may represent the most sustained, defining sound of the place since the long run of the Eagles.
“I would go back even further,” said Rick Rubin, the producer of “Stadium Arcadium.” “I would say that not since the Beach Boys has there been a group that was so representative of L.A. and been so tied to it.”
The Peppers may also have more songs mentioning Southern California than anyone since the Wilson brothers of Hawthorne. Tracks such as “Hollywood” and “Californication” spring to mind, but most especially “Under the Bridge,” the cautionary drug tale with the memorable line: “Sometimes I feel like my only friend / Is the city I live in, the City of Angels / Lonely as I am, together we cry.” The first single from “Stadium Arcadium” is “Dani California,” which adds to the Peppers’ list of songs about characters who wander L.A.’s scruffier districts. The title is a girl’s name and her dreams of fame and fortune on the West Coast end badly. The chorus: “California, rest in peace.”
Going back two decades
“I’m sure some people thought we’d all be dead by now; we sure tried our best.” Flea said this as he sipped tea and waited in the green room at a hip-hop radio station in New York. “I don’t know what this station wants with me; they don’t play the music. But it’s all for the cause.”
The radio show was bizarre. It opened with a long recording of a Charlie Manson rant and then the host played “Dani California” â€” but not all of it; he zapped it partway through, a decision that made Flea wince. When the co-hosts on the show (one was nicknamed “Queer” and the other “White Trash”) began shouting and hooting, Flea looked simply stunned. Still, he played the genial guest. Afterward, he just smiled and shrugged. Asked if a sense of humor is required for longevity in rock, he shrugged again.
“I don’t know how we got anywhere. But we love the music, and we work really hard at it, and we respect it.”
Their first gig was 23 years ago at the Rhythm Lounge in the old Grandea Room, a club on Melrose, and their first song was the Kiedis-penned “Out in L.A.,” a rough effort that, nonetheless, flashed the influences that would shape them â€” a funk groove, punk energy and a hip-hop approach to vocals. The stage was barely big enough for Kiedis and his two buddies, all of whom had met a few years earlier when they walked the corridors of Fairfax High.
At that 1983 debut, the band was Kiedis, Flea and Hillel Slovak, a lanky, Israeli-born guitarist. The performance by the trio wasn’t intended to launch a world-class rock band; it was a one-off gig suggested by a mutual friend. Slovak and Flea were already in bands and doing well. They were a bit skeptical of Kiedis as a frontman for the simple reason that, well, the guy clearly could not sing.
“When we started, Anthony hooted and hollered and he rapped,” Flea said. “After a few records he started up a little melody and held on to it for dear life.” Kiedis had a childhood that taught him how to survive but also how to take desperate chances. His father was a drug dealer who serviced the Hollywood elite, raising his son as if they were a two-man tribe living a life somewhere between the scripts of “Hair” and “Drugstore Cowboy.” In his 2004 autobiography, “Scar Tissue,” Kiedis wrote of his childhood odysseys: He and his father were intensely close, with a relationship more like best friends, but he was also ferrying suitcases filled with marijuana when he was 12.
What Kiedis brought to the band was his almost lupine stage presence â€” he remains today, at age 43, a taut, muscular figure â€” and a vocal style that was influenced by Grandmaster Flash and, especially, Jimi Hendrix. He is the first to concede that he was born with limited vocal gifts, but in recent years, he got a vocal coach to save his throat from the rigors of the stage and, in the process, he expanded his range, strength and ability to bend notes. With the 1999 album, “Californication,” and the two since, Kiedis has elevated his game considerably, both in singing and writing.
“His sense of what a melody is and his ability to come up with melodies to music that we write has improved so much, and it continues to improve,” Flea said. “That, more than anything else, has propelled us forward. As he improves that gives us more space to play around.”
Rubin puts an even finer point on the matter: He has noted that U2, Metallica and R.E.M. are other 1980s-era acts that are still making relevant rock music today but that the difference in quality between their earliest recordings and those of today cannot compare to the ascent of the Peppers.
“He is much more confident,” Rubin said of Kiedis. “On this new album he was incredible with the lyrics. Usually it’s like pulling teeth with artists. The music comes easy, the words come hard.”
The reviews have been strong. Josh Kun, writing in The Times, praised “Stadium” as “full of stories of destructive sunshine, dead dreams and water that will wash it all away.” Rolling Stone hailed it as a “late-career triumph that could pass for another, lesser group’s greatest-hits collection.”
“Stadium Arcadium” was not intended to be a double album, but Kiedis’ prolific writing and a year and a half of intense band cocooning produced a deep stack of material. One disc is titled “Mars,” the other is “Venus.” Kiedis said that’s an acknowledgment that the band is finding music in its love and in its battles. “It’s a very healthy time for us as a band.”
Flea points out how different that is from the not-so-good old days. “The band has been in danger many times. Our guitarist died,” he said of Slovak. “And John nearly died. And Anthony â€” I was always waiting and wondering when I was going to get the call that he had overdosed. It’s a terrifying feeling.”
At Irving Plaza, Flea stepped up to the microphone for a rare bit of singing. It was only a few lines and he warbled them in a thin voice. But it was a telling choice â€” Neil Young’s forlorn “The Needle and the Damage Done”: “I seen the needle and damage done, a little part of it in everyone, but every junkie’s like a setting sunâ€¦.”
Turbulence and death
Drugs created years of storms for the band, and the most awful thunderclap was the death of guitarist Slovak at age 25 in summer 1988. In the weeks after his death, Jack Irons, the drummer at the time, didn’t so much quit the band â€” he fled from it. Another guitarist was brought in, but not for long. Then Kiedis and Flea, in their mid-20s, brought in a local teenager who was a powerhouse talent. His name was John Frusciante, a devoted fan of the band who idolized Slovak.
To celebrate, Frusciante got a tattoo of the band’s logo â€” a blocky, eight-point asterisk â€” on his arm. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to identify that original shape. Frusciante’s arms are mottled by his years with the needle. He wore long sleeves for a long time but now is back to T-shirts, a change that signals a comfort with his past.
Sitting on a couch in a Ritz-Carlton suite overlooking Central Park, Frusciante said he is running on fumes these days. The recording process and promoting the album have taken a toll. But he was clear-eyed and proud of the new music. (“It’s his freest work, absolutely,” Flea said.) The album is laced with reverse guitar solos, special effects and funneled sonics that create a wide palette for a band that once hung its hat (and, ahem, its socks) on funk grooves, testosterone and austerity.
Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips came to Los Angeles recently and the subject turned to the Peppers. “Those guys, I mean, you can tell with them it’s like they are brothers. All the things they have been through and they still want to be with each other and they care for each other. That’s pretty amazing.” When the quote was passed on to Frusciante he winced a bit. The band is focused on honesty and respect these days, but he said they don’t exactly run around like the Beatles in “A Hard Day’s Night.”
“It’s not like we hang out together when we’re not working. We do our own thing. We don’t see each other unless we’re working on the music or playing. You have to have it that way because you do spend so much together.”
Bands that carry on past their second decade, like the Peppers, move away from the young wolfpack approach. “We all have different friends, very different,” Frusciante said. When Flea was asked how he would describe each member and their personalities, he thought for a long moment, then said with a knowing smile: “I don’t think I should do that.”
There are no “band meetings” to air grievances. Everybody knows how everybody feels pretty much all the time now. And right now, they all feel pretty good.
Frusciante has just bought a house with his girlfriend. Kiedis is in a new relationship that he says has him reevaluating his views on long-term commitments. Smith and Flea have children born during the recording of “Stadium Arcadium.” Even Rubin fell in love while making the album at the studio he built out of a Laurel Canyon mansion.
A few years ago it wasn’t so easy. Flea became angry with Frusciante’s no-negotiation push to take the band toward his stylized soundscapes. Flea was also at odds with Kiedis and thought about walking away. “That has happened before, but this was a serious thing. I wasn’t having fun.”
The difference now is that all four members say they are communicating with a new openness and honesty. Rubin also hears “a real respect for each other and their differences.” It probably doesn’t hurt that, with 28 songs, the new album has plenty of room for funk chunks such as “Hump De Bump” and the shimmer and wail of Frusciante’s guitar solos on songs such as “Wet Sand.”
Still, Frusciante is tightly wound. During their run through New York, the band dropped by Rockefeller Center to play two songs on “Saturday Night Live.” The band was generally chipper throughout a long rehearsal, especially after getting a TV in the dressing room to pick up an NBA playoff game. Kiedis and “SNL” cast member Tina Fey made baby talk to Flea’s infant daughter, Sunny Bebop, and Smith made small talk with host Tom Hanks (“Tom said I’m the Ringo,” Smith said afterward). Frusciante appeared the least relaxed. Maybe because the other time the band played “SNL,” in 1992, Frusciante was in a grim mood and on the eve of his two-year exile from the group. “That was a catastrophe,” Kiedis recalled.
This go-around went better but not perfectly: Frusciante’s pedals didn’t work so he was left high and dry twice where he had planned some dazzling accent work. He fumed afterward. The next day, though, he sent a note of apology to the rest of the band. He saw a tape and it wasn’t as bad as he had thought.
The day before the “SNL” performance, when Frusciante answered his door at the Ritz-Carlton, his room was chaos â€” music gear, magazines, organic foods, philosophy books and huge binders full of CDs. He was exhausted, he said, from months of intense mixing; the exacting wizard’s studio labors are far more than his bandmates’. He stared out the window at Central Park and talked about the album and the strange influences that he brought to it, among them R&B singer Brandy, for whom Frusciante is a surprising fan. “No, really, I love what they’re doing on those records. What she does with her songs, bending and overlapping, is very similar to what I am doing with my guitar.”
Frusciante is the classic obsessed guitar player, but Kiedis is not so easy to catalog. His is a rock-hard stage presence, but offstage he’s more surfer poet. Despite a string of famous girlfriends (Ione Skye, Heidi Klum, Sofia Coppola), he seems to disdain celebrity rituals. During an interview with a TV crew, the peppy host asked Kiedis if he had any plans to use his good looks to make Hollywood movies. The singer made a face: “No, I think the thing that I am best at is being in a band.”
Kiedis’ autobiography, “Scar Tissue,” was published in 2004 and, for a book crammed with drug and sex escapades, it has a tone of surprising serenity. The singer is like that himself. The last page of the book isn’t some grand summary of a life or lofty statement of worldview. Kiedis just says that whenever he feels like checking into a motel with a few grand worth of drugs, he looks over at his dog, Buster, and remembers that his pet has never seen him high. Why start now?
It should be noted that no other Pepper has read the book. Smith thumbed through it, Flea didn’t even do that. Frusciante said Kiedis promised repeatedly to send a copy but never did â€” but, hey, he already knows a lot of the story anyway.
“I bet there are more than a few dead bodies buried over there.” Chad Smith nodded out the window toward the shipyards of New Jersey. He was standing in a CBS Radio studio on the 46th floor of a skyscraper on Broadway â€” unshaven, wearing a blazer and tattered jeans. His knees were sore and creaking â€” he had played hoops a few days earlier for the first time in many weeks â€” but he was in good spirits. Smith is actually in good spirits most of the time; defying the conventions of rock history, he is a drummer who appears to be the most stable person in his band.
Donning headphones, Smith got to work. “Hello, Cleveland!” The agenda for the morning was 16 interviews with morning DJs, all of them seemingly named Jimmy the Weasel, Jimmy the Geek or Jimmy the Bull. “It’s like the Mafia moved to Ohio and got jobs in radio,” the drummer said during a break.
Smith is the only member of the Peppers who might be mistaken for a radio show host. The Peppers all go crazy on stage, but the other three are almost bookish when the amps go off. Smith yells and tells jokes (he does a robust imitation of Courtney Love vomiting at a fancy restaurant), and when the band is not working, he wraps a bandana around his head and takes off on his motorcycle. Before the Peppers, he played drums in hair metal bands and those roots (unlike Flea’s jazz mind and Frusciante’s search for studio alchemy) give him a healthy awareness that, hey, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.
It was a few days before the street release of “Stadium Arcadium” and Smith said he was antsy. He checked his Blackberry and wondered if the Peppers would finally get their first No. 1 album on the pop charts (they would) â€” that set him apart from the rest of the band, each repeatedly insisting that the sales crown was far from a priority. “No, not me, I really want to come in at No. 1.” Smith’s e-mail told him that the Gnarls Barkley album would be hitting stores the same day. “I wonder if that hurts us? I think that hurts us. Nick Lachey is the same day too. But who buys that?”
The topic of history and the Peppers’ place in it is increasingly interesting. Once a party music band, they have to be taken more seriously now. Even by themselves. Flea got a call early this year that sent him “working feverishly.” The Sex Pistols were to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and organizers hoped Flea might be one of the speakers at the ceremony.
“I got up at like 5 a.m. and I’m working on this big, long speech about what they meant to me and how they completely changed my life,” Flea said. He let his shoulders sag and gave out a melodramatic sigh. “And then they didn’t show up.”
The topic of rock history is one that matters to Flea. That’s not the case with his fellow Peppers. Kiedis, for one. When asked to discuss the Peppers’ place in rock history, he said: “I don’t even know how to think about that, honestly, so I don’t know what to say. Really.”
Flea wanted to answer but couldn’t do much better: “I do care because I do love rock ‘n’ roll history â€¦ but I have no idea where we fit in, and it’s not my place to say.” He asked when a band is eligible for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame consideration and was told that the Peppers would make the list in 2008. “Wow, not that far, huh? But I still don’t know where we fit. And then there’s everything we’re doing now and all the stuff we will do in the future. We’re still not done.”
Smith smirked and nodded. “Hey, he’s right. Knowing us, we still might crash and burn.”
— Geoff Boucher