Once in league with the devil, John Frusciante has found inner peace by tapping into a higher power. Through all of it, the voices in his head have never been silent. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, guitarist tells how Hendrix, meditation and a few friendly spirits shaped the group’s new double-length album Stadium Arcadium.
It was John Frusciante’s idea to be photographed as Satan and Jesus for this interview. Rock and Rollers from Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard onward have toyed and struggled with the dichotomy between bestial behavior and beautitude that seems to be an inherent part of the music itself.
Few however, have had as dramatic a journey from darkness to light as the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist. Over the past decade, he has risen from the depths of hopeless drug addiction to become something of a visionary, both musically and spiritually. At the very least, he certainly gets messianic gleam in his eye when he starts talking about his aspirations for the new Chili Peppers album, Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros.)
“It’s my dream to make music that can make people feel like they’re flying,” says Frusciante. “I want the music to produce certain brain waves in the listener. I want it to recreate certain psychedelic feelings that come about in life, whether it’s just looking at the ocean or watching a bird flying in the sky.” Over the years, he’s made concerted efforts to achieve his goal. “I did some sonic experiments; I went pretty far with that. But in a lot of ways in which I think I could go further.”
Frusciante’s sojourn into the metaphysics of sound has certainly paid off. Stadium Arcadium is epic in scope. The album rocks harder than its predecessor, 2002’s By the Way, but without sacrificing the high level of harmonic sophistication that the Chili Peppers achieved on that disc. On Stadium Arcadium, Frusciante’s musical approach is expansively celestial, but when he cuts loose on guitar, he sounds like a man with a hellhound on his trail. The album contains some of the most furious, fierce and fiery fretwork he has ever committed to disc.
“John often puts limits on himself as a guitarist,” says Chili Peppers’ bass icon Flea. “He wants to make a stylistic statement, so he doesn’t just let go and play. But on this album, he did both of those things. But there are also times when he just let fly with a Hendrixian, Pagian flurry of loudness.”
Flea’s Hendrix comparison hits home. At times on Stadium Arcadium it seems like Frusciante’s directly channeling Hendrix – echoing the guitar legend’s distinctive sense of phrasing and tone with supernatural verisimilitude, but still managing to transmute his Hendrix worship into pure Frusciante deviancy. Beyond this, Frusciante has come closer than perhaps any other modern guitarist in realizing Hendrix’s vision of the recording studio as one enormous guitar effect. Stadium Arcadium is awash in the sound of Frusciante’s guitar mutated by modular analog synth gear, the latest stomp boxes and tape manipulation sorcery. At various points on the disc, his ax sounds like an organ, like a Sputnik satellite, like water sprites at play, like time turning in on itself, like the sun exploding.
Given the ambitious sonic agenda, it’s no surprise that Stadium Arcadium is a big double album – 28 songs and counting at press time. “It’s especially ironic when you consider that we set out to write a classic 12-song record,” Flea says, laughing. “We said, ‘We always have too many songs. We gotta keep it concise this time.’ But we can’t stop writing once we get going. Everybody’s ideas were encouraged and turned into songs. We were really working well together and on top of our games individually.”
Even a cursory listen to Stadium Arcadium will confirm the last statement. Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith has never whacked the skins with such savage authority. Anthony Kiedis’ voice rises audibly to the music’s daunting new challenges, hitting new heights of expressiveness. Flea and Frusciante mesh with such profound rhythmic clairvoyance, it’s hard to believe they weren’t getting along too well prior to making Stadium Arcadium. The bassist nearly quit the band after the completion of By the Way.
“I was positive I was gonna quit,” Flea says. “I was like, ‘I’m done. This isn’t fun for me any more. This isn’t a place for me to express myself anymore;” He says the tension between Frusciante and him was felt throughout the making of By the Way. “I didn’t really feel comfortable being myself and I kind of withdrew. But we took a six-month break after we finished touring for that album. John and I had some real clearing-the-air conversations during that time, which were very healthy for me. Things just really got a lot better. Shortly after that, we started writing and making this record. And it was very good creative time.”
As the album’s title and double-disc length suggest, Stadium Arcadium harks back to the classic rock era of arena giants. It has that sense, so rare in today’s corporate music environment, of rock as something big and important, steeped in the power to move the masses, not with a sales pitch but messages both spiritually uplifting and boldly revolutionary.
“For Californication and By the Way, I was focusing on music from the Eighties,” says Frusciante. “Whereas on this album I was after what people like the Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple achieved in the late Sixties and early Seventies. All those groups were doing something that was able to bring pleasure to a large amount of people, and at the same time they were breaking new ground and doing something deep. At that time, it was just natural for groups to do that. Today, you could be a really talented group and just not be able to venture into that territory. You’ve got a lot of forces in the air and in the media that are against you. Business junk.”
To make Stadium Arcadium, the Chili Peppers convened at longtime producer Rick Rubin’s residential recording studio in the Hollywood Hills, the reportedly haunted mansion where the band recorded their landmark Blood Sugar Sex Magik album 15 years ago. That was the album that catapulted the Chili Peppers to mainstream success, simultaneously helping launch the alternative Nineties and the Lollapalooza generation. But shortly after Blood Sugar’s release, Frusciante embarked on what might well be described as a descent into hell. He quit the Chili Peppers and spent five years as a heroin addict. He came perilously close to dying many times, barely escaping with his life after setting fire to his home in the Hollywood Hills on one occasion and suffering severe burns. The drugs and the near-death experiences brought him into intimate contact, he says, with realms beyond this life. He describes the period as a fight for control of his mind, an intense battle between friendly and hostile spirits – manifestations of the voices in his head he’d heard since childhood but which became vividly tangible at this time.
Miraculously, though, John rose again from the dead. He returned to the land of the living, kicked his addiction and rejoined the Chili Peppers to make the Grammy-winning 1999 album Californication. It was the start of an upward trend for Frusciante and the Chili Peppers. Californication, By the Way and Stadium Arcadium for a trilogy that traces John’s musical evolution and his profound impact on the band. His plaintively dramatic chordal sensibility is the key ingredient in many of the band’s greatest hits. His keen arrangement and production skills have burnished Californication, By the Way and Stadium Arcadium with the deep golden glow of timelessness. The Chili Peppers may have started out as Eighties punk funk-pranksters, but they’ve long since grown to the stature of a classic band. Frusciante has been a prime mover in that transubstantiation.
Throughout it all, he’s maintained a vigorous solo career on the side, courting his more experimental muses and winning underground recognition with discs like Shadows Collide with People, To Record Only Water for Ten Days and the marathon six-CD series he recorded in 2004. Needless to say, the tonal discoveries made on these records often find their way into the Chili Peppers’ work.
“I feel like we’ve made a good pop record with Stadium Arcadium,” says Frusciante. “But the experience and freedom of doing my solo records gave me the ability to approach this one with an experimental outlook. I feel I can play it for my friends in the underground world and stand behind it.”
These days, Frusciante exudes a kind of healthful luminosity, a mature and more wholesome version of the playful impishness that made him such a perfect addition to the Chili Peppers when he first joined the group at the time of 1989’s Mothers Milk. John recently began studying Vipassana, a form of Buddhist meditation. It seems to have sharpened the mindfulness with which he approaches every aspect of his current life – from the food he eats to the wildly diverse and adventurous range of music he listens to. From occult guitar secrets to just plain occult – John Frusciante covers a range of topics that shape his world in the exclusive Guitar World interview.
GW: Stadium Arcadium has a more classic rock-lead guitar sound that By the Way. You’re back to playing riffs and solos. How did that happen?
Frusciante: Strangely enough, it came out of preoccupation with rhythm. I’d been listening to a lot of hip-hop and R&B, where people are doing a lot of free rhythmic expression over the music, ignoring the strict 16th-note grid that musicians tend to play within all the time. I started noticing that singers and rappers like Andre 3000, Eminem and the people in Wu-Tang Clan were finding their own polyrhythmic relationship to the groove. Plus, I grew up studying Frank Zappa’s music and the polyrhythms that he used. So I started getting into this idea of things being off time and yet in time. I was also listening to a lot of music that had a blues vibe to it, and when I started putting all of this together at rehearsal, the result was a lot like Jimi Hendrix, because he was playing with that same off-time rhythm thing a lot. That led me to study his playing, which I hadn’t done in a few years. I started seeing it in a completely different way once I began specifically analyzing his rhythmic approach.
GW: Speaking of Hendrix, are you deliberately quoting the “Purple Haze” riff in your guitar solo for the album’s first single, “Dani California”?
Frusciante: Yes, I am, although it’s in a different key and the fourth note is different. Since most of my solos on the album are improvised, I thought there should be at least one that was planned ahead like that. And since I’d begun studying Hendrix again, I was playing along with his hits. I’d learned them as a teenager, but now I had a new approach to them.
GW: But elsewhere, as you said, your approach to soloing was more improvisational.
Frusciante: Definitely. For the guitar solos on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication, I knew what I was going to do more or less in advance…or at least I knew how I was going to start and end them. I wasn’t going out on a limb too often. On this album, almost every solo happened spontaneously. I had no idea where I was going to start or end, and that’s also due to this rhythmic approach I’ve discovered. You can’t plan that kind of off-rhythm solo unless you know exactly what groove the drums are going to be in, and that changes subtly from take to take. An idea that sounds off time but in the groove will sound like total nonsense if there’s even the slightest variation in the rhythmic underpinning.
GW:So Chad had to be really tight.
Frusciante: Yes, which he’s great at: tight but not rigid. I was especially pushing for lots of sections to be at slightly different tempos than other sections. Like in “Dani California”: I really wanted the chorus to be slower than the verse, and Chad can do that. In the studio, we’re always talking about how many “clicks per minute” something is. Chad’s really in control of that. We’ll tell him “just slow down two clicks,” and he can do it. It’s something we all do together; we all feel the tempo in precise, scientific way.
Flea and I found our rhythmic connection on a deeper level on this album. As a result, there’s a lot of tempo shifting, but it’s in service of the song, and it’s subtle enough that you probably don’t even notice it. Like on “Desecration Smile”: when I tried to double the rhythm guitar on that, I couldn’t do it; the tempo was changing too much. So instead, we doubled the part with a digital delay that also had a bit of pitch modulation; it bent the notes slightly out of tune, so it gives the illusion of something being doubled, because it’s not perfect.
GW: That’s something else about the album: there’s an amazing variety of guitar tones, some of them quite otherworldly.
Frusciante: A lot of times I changed the sound of my guitar after I recorded it. I used the same guitars and amps I’ve always used: My sunburst ’62 Strat and white ’61 Strat go into a Boss Chorus Ensemble, and the stereo output on that splits out to my 200-watt Marshall Major and Marshall Silver Juiblee. I also have a ’69 Les Paul that I put through just the Silver Jubilee with one cabinet. But after the guitars went down to tape, I’d process them through my modular synth gear. A lot of people might think they’re hearing effects or even a keyboard synthesizer, but that’s not what I was using. There are parts of a synthesizer that make sound, and parts of a synthesizer that process sound. And I was using only the parts that process sound, like filters, LFOs [low-frequency oscillators, which create effects like vibrato and tremolo] and envelope generators [which affect attack and sustain characteristics].
GW: We’ve talked about your modular analog synth gear in the past – that German-made Doepfer system.
Frusciante: Right. Now I’m really into using it like a big guitar effect – using the guitar signal, rather than oscillators, as the sound source. I’m inspired a lot by what Jimi Hendrix was doing with his guitar on Electric Ladyland, or what George Clinton was doing to Eddie Hazel’s guitar [on Parliament/Funkadelic records] or what Brian Eno was doing to Robert Fripp’s guitar [on their collaborations as well as on David Bowie’s “Heroes”]. These were people who didn’t want sound to just sit there; they wanted to hear some kind of movement going on all the time. That idea was very important for me on this album. In some ways I went further than I ever though I could go, and in some ways I didn’t go as far as I would have liked. Our style of mixing sort of prohibited me from having the drums, guitar and bass all coming up and down in volume all the time like on Electric Ladyland. But at least my guitars are in constant state of movement. For instance, on “Tell Me Baby” when it goes from the guitar solo back into the verse, it sounds like it’s two different guitar tracks recorded at two different times, but it’s actually the same track with two different modular synth treatments. I was constantly taking what was on tape, running it through the modular and putting that back onto tape.
GW: So you were working on 24-track analog?
Frusciante: Yes. We had one 24-track machine for the basic tracks, another 24-track for overdubs, which were mostly guitars, and a third 24-track for the vocals. There was a lot of tape manipulation of the guitar tracks as well – varispeeding the tape to put the guitars in different octaves, or flipping the tape over for backward effects. For example, on the solo for “Stadium Arcadium,” I flipped the tape over and processed the guitar through an old EMT 250 digital reverb that was then run through a high pass filter from my modular rig. So it’s backward reverb, filtered. I did three different passes of that, listening to the track backward and opening up the high-pass filter on the reverb. Then I flipped the tape over and took the best bits of the three passes – did a comp, basically – and then erased what I didn’t need. I did the same thing at the very end of “Come On Girl,” where Anthony comes in singing and there’s a guitar that answers him. The filtered reverb sound turns into the real guitar sound. If you tail it right, that’s the sound it produces, as if sounds are coming out of thin air.
GW: Perhaps the ultimate example of that kind of thing is the solo section in “Turn It Again.” It really raises the bar for guitar solos.
Frusciante: Thanks. That solo basically goes in five sections, with different harmony guitars coming in and out. Some were sped up on the tape, some were slowed down, some were re-amped for more distortion… We were using 71 channels on the board to mix that one. I mixed it myself. It wouldn’t have made sense to anyone but me because there were so many guitars. I would just memorize where I wanted a particular part to come in. The board was automated, so I could deal with one track at a time. It was just two hours of sitting there mixing the thing.
GW: Did you use conventional guitar effects at all?
Frusciante: Yes, but not as extensively as the modular gear. I did use the new POG [Polyphonic Octave Generator] from Electro-Harmonix, which is what’s making the guitar sound just like an organ on “She Looks to Me” and “Snow.” I used the new Electro-Harmonix English Muff’n, too, which is a really cool tube-driven distortion box. And, of course, I always use a Big Muff and a Boss distortion pedal [usually a DS-2, but sometimes a DS-1] and my Ibanez WH-10 wah.
GW: Some sounds on the album have a very early Sixties “Telstar” kind of quality [“Telstar” was a 1962 instrumental hit by the Tornados that featured a Clavioline, a tube-driven electric organ designed in the late Forties]. For instance, the sound that sets up the second verse in “Stadium Arcadium” – it sounds like an old reed organ or maybe a Vox guitar organ.
Frusciante: That’s a piano going through a modular synthesize, probably a high-pass filter with the gain being altered by an LFO.
GW: There’s a lot of that kind of fast modulation on the album.
Frusciante: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite patches. I did it to the vocals, my guitar…
GW: Other things sound like you used a Uni-Vibe pedal.
Frusciante: Well, that patch does remind me of something like a rotary speaker [which the Uni-Vibe was designed to emulate].
GW: But it’s all the modular gear?
Frusciante: Usually, yeah. The only time I used an actual rotary Leslie speaker was at the end of “Death of a Martian.” When it goes into the outro, you hear the guitar by itself, and then another guitar comes in, doubling the same part. That’s actually a Leslie. But usually i’m just crating an electronic version of that with the modular sytem, which gives you much more control over the rhythm and all the other parameters. To my ear, it sounds like a space-age version of how a Leslie would sound.
GW: As I said, very “Telstar.” Definitely an early Sixties sci-fi vibe.
Frusciante: Well, Joe Meek was a huge inspiration to me. [British audio wiz Joe Meek produced “Telstar” and designed signal-processing gear, most notably compressors.] Especially on By the Way. He’s the reason why that album is compressed the way it is, ’cause I was into him. A lot of sonic experimentation was going on in the Sixties, and I feel that a lot of what I’ve done on our new album is based on that. Things like tape manipulation – people have stopped doing that because they don’t even use tape anymore, but you can get incredible sound that way.
Like on “Stadium Arcadium”: there’s a guitar that comes in halfway through the first verse. It sounds like a mandolin patch from a Mellotron [tape-based sample-playback keyboard from the Sixties] or something, but it’s a guitar. I just slowed the tape down and strummed the guitars really fast. When you bring the tape back up to speed, that’s the sound you get. I did that a few times on the album – it’s also on “Hard to Concentrate.” There is also something that sounds like a harpsichord on the end of “Wet Sand,” but it’s three guitars in harmony playing an arpeggio riff that I wrote. I slowed the tape down, recorded the three parts, and lo and behold, when I sped the tape up it sounded like a harpsichord. A few days later I realized that maybe that’s the sound on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” by Jimi Hendrix. It sounds like a harpsichord, but it could just be a guitar that’s sped up.
GW:The panning on Stadium Arcadium is as intense as it is on Electric Ladyland, but the stereo imaging is, nevertheless, incredible.
Frusciante: Well, people have stopped panning sounds hard left and right. In the Sixties, they had to do it because of the way pan pots were when they were first invented: they could only be hard left, hard right or center. And actually you get a purer sound when you’re on only one speaker. No matter how good the speaker system, whenever you’re sending the same information to two speakers, it’s always going to be a little off.
GW: Phase cancellation.
Frusciante: There’s always a little bit of phase cancellation, yes. So when you pan something to the center, or any place that isn’t hard left or hard right, you’re sacrificing a little of the presence of the sound. So I panned a lot of my guitars hard right and hard left. Rick would be scared to do that with a lead vocal, for instance. But listen to the fucking Beatles records! The vocal is all the way to one side, and you’ve never heard a vocal sound so much like it’s right in your living room. They were really doing things right in the Sixties. It’s just a matter of us getting up the nerve to do something that awkward and experimental and really rise up to what those people were doing then.
GW: Do you feel like the Sixties were a high point of the art form?
Frusciante: I really do, yeah. But the music I get a lot out of now is very far from that. I don’t go looking for songwriters like the Beatles or guitar players like Jimi Hendrix in today’s world. They’re not around and I’m not looking. If I want to experience that same sense of experimentation, I’ll listen to electronic music like Aphex Twin, Fennesz or Pita – people who are selling, like, 500 copies of an album. Or I’ll listen to guitar players like Oren Ambarchi or Raphael Toral, two guys who get all kinds of amazing textures out of guitars. And for backing vocals, I really like Brandy’s last record and her record before that. They are so inspiring to me. I love her singing so much – her phrasing, her sense of timing.
GW: That’s gonna surprise people.
Frusciante: Yes, I know. But I’d just be disappointed if I looked for a Led Zeppelin in today’s world, or a Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones. You gotta look at other forms of music; you gotta open yourself up. R&B was the one kind of music that I thought I just hated. But once I heard tracks that people like Timbaland or Brandy were doing with backing vocals – with everything overlapping and all these subgroups playing all these mind trips on you – I realized that those kinds of things are why I love music. That’s what makes me spend every day devoted to constantly trying to understand more about music.
GW: You’ve got a very broad scope as a listener. Very “big ears” as people say.
Frusciante: Since I’ve started meditating, I’ve noticed that, more than anything else I’ve ever done, it has really increased the sharpness of how music sounds to me. I hear things so much more clearly. Meditation ahs been a really positive thing for my understanding of music, because it helps the brain focus on one thing at a time.
GW: What kind of meditation are you doing?
Frusciante: Vipassana. It stops your mind from interrupting all the time and getting in the way. It gives you the opportunity to still your mind, so they you can really focus it. I got to the point where I was memorizing 10 minute Jimi Hendrix solos really quickly – in a day, or a couple of days – whereas before, something like that would have taken me a month. I know I spent a whole month learning Jimmy Page’s guitar in “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” from Coda. And now something along those same lines, like Jimi Hendrix playing “Machine Gun” at the Isle of Wight, took me a couple of days. Meditation has made a huge difference in the effectiveness of my practicing. It’s something I can really recommend to guitar players. It’s also created an open space inside me; there’s this light that shines through this music that wasn’t there before. When I listen to By the Way, although I wrote those songs, I hear a kind of darkness there. As light and bright as the music is, it’s a got this darkness with it. And when I hear our new music, it sounds like nothing’s being held back. It sounds like it’s just letting everything out that wants to come out. And I attribute that largely to meditation.
GW: I remember discussing this with you in the past. Your attitude then was, “Aw, I don’t need to meditate.”
Frusciante: I was really in the dark. I’m just barely climbing out the dark now. But when I look at that period of time, I always wanted to seem perfect. I did not want to look at my flaws. I didn’t want to take a chance, put myself out, or admit to myself or to the world that I had problems. I just wanted to create the impression that I was fine: I’m perfect. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have so many problems to clear out of my head. Luckily, I got through a few key ones before we started making this album so they wouldn’t get in my way. But the more you deny to yourself that you’ve got problems, the less chance you have of being able to be really free with your expression and your music. To me, the most important thing is extreme discipline – to never let go of discipline. And when you let go, it’s gotta be for just a day or something, and then you go right back to discipline.
GW: That can be dangerous.
Frusciante: It is dangerous. But you know, if you’re living in the city, sometimes you gotta just feed the part of yourself that’s hungry, or you gotta calm the part of yourself that’s tense.
GW: You’ve been sort of castigating yourself here. But you’ve come such a long way – out of total addiction.
Frusciante: Yeah. Drugs are something that I wouldn’t recommend to anybody. They don’t solve your problems; the just delay you from having to work them out. I’ve had a lot of positive experiences from taking drugs, but unless that kind of activity is combined with some sort of severe discipline, I think a person’s taking a big risk.
There were numerous times that I could have died. I used to shoot cocaine to the point that I didn’t get pleasure out of it until I came close to overdosing. That’s when I really felt like it was really worth shooting it. Oftentimes I did overdose on cocaine. There was a guy I was living with at the time, and every couple of weeks one of us would OD on cocaine. We would have these experiences where I would star ODing on cocaine, and I would realize that I didn’t have control of my body to get up – that my body was somehow heavy with this spiritual matter that had jumped into my body because it thought I was going to die. Some spiritual beings get pleasure from a person having the fear of death in them, so when somebody’s about to die, they rush into their body. I told my friend, “Pick me up.” He thought I was just being silly. He thought it was just my mental state that made me think I was too heavy to get up. He’s a pretty strong guy, but when he grabbed hold of my hand and tried to pull me up, he couldn’t do it. He fell on top of me.
Numerous times, the two of us were saved by what I figured out from beings of high intelligence whispering in my ear – techniques on how not to die from overdosing on cocaine. I just don’t think a lot of people are going to have the same experience. I’ve seen a lot of people die from drugs, having no control whatsoever. And now I believe that the best kind of high is what you can get from doing things like meditation. Eating right, keeping active, mediating – nothing can be better for a person’s music than this. That and always trying to hear a wide variety of music.
GW:Are you still doing Ashtanga [yoga]?
Frusciante: No. It was having bad effects on my back. Lately I’ve been so stressed out that I can’t do any exercise. The whole time we were making this record, I was running and meditating. But even that’s too much for me right now. I’m so stressed out with mixing the album doing press, videos, photo sessions… It’s just nonstop lately. That really drains me.
Luckily the musical stress level has died down. I thought I was going to come up against a lot of resistance to what I was doing with the mixes. My vision for the album was to retain all the raw power of the band playing live in the studio but also to have additional guitars and sonic effects enhancing what was already there. But on the rough mixes it didn’t really sound like that, so there was a lot of tension building, because some people though, Oh, John’s going overdub crazy, or, He’s turning it into a Beach Boys album.
The main problem was that we’d been listening to the band’s basic tracks on a slave reel [ a multitrack tape containing a rough submix of the master tape and onto which overdubs are recorded that will be mixed in with the master recording at a later time]. It was transferred badly, so the mix sounded really dull, while the overdubs were much brighter. That was freaking people out. But when we synced up the overdubs on the slave reel to the original 24-track master eel, everything sounded awesome. It’s not that the overdubs ended up being softer; it was that the band sounded so much burlier. So we all ended up loving the final mixes. There hasn’t been a single instance of somebody not wanting to use something that I’d done. It all ended up serving the song well. So that was cool.
GW: You’re perceived more and more as the group’s Brian Wilson – the elusive genius behind it all. Do the others feel diminished by that?
Frusciante: No, they don’t. They all really believe in me. They’re the ones who gave me the chance to go in all the different directions that I’ve gone. Besides, they get a certain kind of attention that I don’t get, and there’s no bad feelings about that either way. Their main concern is just preserving what we all fall in love with so much when we’re in the rehearsal hall writing the songs. But in the end, the bottom line is that they trust me. I have no interest in taking away from the band. I wanted harmonies, I wanted overdubs, but I only wanted to do it if the band still sounded really raw. I would look back to Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin records, or this band the Move, who really inspired me [ a late-Sixties British pop group founds by Roy Wood and featuring guitarist Jeff Lyrnne, later the leader of the Electric Light Orchestra and a noted producer.] Their records sound really raw. The bass is awesome the drums are really strong, but there’s a lot of guitar overdubs and harmonies and sonic effects going on.
GW: On this album, it seems as if you’ve taken all you’ve learned in the past few years about synthesis, composition, harmonies and music theory and expressed it through the guitar, whereas on a previous album you might have expressed that on a keyboard or through vocal arrangement.
Frusciante: Yeah. Sometimes, like on “Dani California,” I was putting guitars where I’d normally put backing vocals. And on this album I wasn’t as interested in using chords with unusual intervals as I was on By the Way. This time, I was more interested in doing interesting inversions of very basic chords. On something like “wet Sand” for instance, I’m playing what guitar players will recognize as common shapes. But by inverting them, which just means changing whatever is the lowest-sounding note in the chord, you can make it very unfamiliar sounding. The chords in that song are G major, D major, E minor, B minor, but the bass line is G,A,B,B. So for the D chord, your playing A in the bass and for the E minor you’re playing B in the bass, while being very careful not to hit the low E string.
That’s been a real focus for me, lately. I’ve been studying what people like Beethoven were doing with that stuff. It’s mind blowing how something can be so harmonically simple and have so much movement. But even when you’re a musician with a trained ear, you can’t hear exactly hear what’s taking place until you realyl start studying it, ’cause it’s playing tricks on the brain. I used to notice that with the Beatles all the time. When I was 17 years old, I used to pride myself on having a pretty good ear, but I could not figure out chords to Beatles songs. They were putting high notes in the bass, but I was used to focusing on what ever the lowest notes was, and that would automatically tell you what the chord was. There were a lot of progressive rock band that did that, too. Right before we started writing this album I was at the end of a huge Van der Graff Generator period. Peter Hammill was a genius at doing these amazing chord progressions with all inverted chords. Boy, the emotions that can come out of those familiar triads and roots! were it not for the inverting, you wouldn’t get that kind of feeling.
GW: Yet, several songs on Stadium Arcadium, like “Readymade” and “She’s Only 18,” feature a lot of unison riffing, where the guitar and bass are playing exactly the same thing.
Frusciante: That’s something that comes naturally to us too. I wrote the riff for “Readymade” on bass. I’d been practicing bass cause I’d been listening to a lot of hip-hop music and a lot of those records use guitar samples; the only thing that’s consistent throughout the song is the bass. So I’d be listening to the vocals for rhythmic ideas to use in my guitar playing, but I’d be seeing a theme in relationship to the bass. My mind would be working all the time on a polyrhythmic level, listening to what the MCs were doing, but my fingers would be in that straight bass pocket. So that’s how “Readymade” ended up being written on a bass.
GW: That track could have been on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. That album has a lot of that heavy riff thing.
Frusciante: I’m glad we have an aspect of the Blood Sugar feeling on some of the new stuff, because that was a really free time. Flea and I were really getting inside each other’s heads. For a long time, Blood Sugar was our main point of reference, just in terms of the energy behind it. We’d ask, “Is this new song or album standing up to what we did then?” The number-one ingredient that made Blood Sugar great is that we were really playing along as people, for the most part. Still, there was a certain amount of tension between me and Anthony then that isn’t there now. To me, that’s what makes this time even better than the Blood Sugar period; the whole band was united on this album. When one of us has a problem with one of the others, we always talk about it; we get it out in the open. Nobody holds a grudge against anybody. We didn’t work that way at the time of Blood Sugar, and it ended up biting us in the ass. That as a big part of my reason for quitting the band. Anthony and I just couldn’t see eye to eye. Back then we were both the kind of people who tend to blame anyone other than themselves for what’s wrong. Luckily, all of us now are ready to see ourselves as the one who’s wrong in any given situation. And that’s what gives us a lot of strength to connect as friends now.
GW: The sessions for Stadium Arcadium brought you back to the place where you made Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the so-called “Houdini mansion” in the Hollywood Hills. What was that like?
Frusciante: It was a lot different now than it was back then. The feeling was a lot warmer, a lot cozier. A certain amount of work had been done on it: there were some nice carpets, and a parachute had been put up in the tracking room [as a ceiling hanging]. When we did Blood Sugar, it was just a big empty house when we brought in some equipment and started tracking. This time they had a couch in the tracking room. Little things like that. It didn’t seem as devoid of life as it did the first time.
GW: What was your perception this time of – what shall we call them? – the inhabitants of the place who aren’t of this realm?
Frusciante: That period of my life when I was writing Blood Sugar was when I first started to become aware that there were beings of higher intelligence telling me to do things with my music. They ended up being such good ideas that I knew I wasn’t capable of coming up with them on my own. When I was 18 or 19 and trying to ignore all the voices in my head, my music sucked. And when I started obeying the voices in my ear, the music started getting awesome. So I was feeling those kind of things a lot during Blood Sugar. It was getting pretty intense for me. I would hear voices coming out of the speakers. I’d hear ghosts singing while we’d be listening to the playback. I’d say to the others, “Wow, do you hear those voices?” And Flea would be like, [quietly] “John, shhh! They can’t hear them.”
Over the next five years of my life, those kinds of things got more and more intense. I had a lot of experiences where I’d sit in a room with someone who ended up disappearing 10 minutes later, and then I’d realize that wasn’t an actual human being. At this point, it’s really normal to me that there are ghosts everywhere. I don’t believe any one place to be haunted. At that time, my comments were about that house being haunted. Then, on tour, I realized that my hotel rooms were also haunted. And back home, my house was haunted. It’s not a scary thing to me, or a freaky thing; it’s really normal part of existence. There are all kinds of life around us on many levels that our fives senses just don’t perceive.
GW: In all these supernatural experiences you’ve been describing, do you feel that you’ve ever received guidance from a musician who’s passed on, like Beethoven or Hendrix?
Frusciante: Once you move on to another life, you change into something else. And often what you realize when you move on to another life is that you were always there to begin with. So the answer to your question is that sometimes I’ve been convinced that the spirits who are telling me what to do also told some of those people you mentioned what to do. The correlation between a musical idea of [baroque composer Tommaso] Albinoni’s and something that I’ve done occurs only at the very abstract level at which they were originally presented to each of us. At that level, they were vivid as a color, shape or pattern of relationships that had no obvious resemblance to the music they ended up inspiring. You can get the same idea to any number of artists throughout history, but because they’re in a difference place in their lives, a difference place in time and have completely difference artist tastes and concepts, the outcomes will be difference. No two artists will use the same basic inspiration in the same way. But a person with enough sensitivity will see a connection. I might notice a correlation between a drawing of Leonardo da Vinci’s and a Jane’s Addiction song, or between Van Gogh’s paintings and Captain Beefheart’s music. And it’s a correlation so complex that it’s beyond the possibility of coincidence. So yeah, I’ve felt that kind of thing before. But it would be a form of self-deception to go around thinking it’s Jimi Hendrix talking to me, because that’s not for me to know.