Red Hot Chili Peppers part 1

In the first of a special two-part interview, John Frusciante discusses Hendrix, drugs, Ricky Gervais, meditation and why he’s fallen in love with guitar solos again. Words: Phil Ascott. Portraits: Ross Halfin

“Congestion ahead. Delays are expected.” It’s 3.18pm on Good Friday and, from the passenger seat of our car TG is surveying the endless stream of stationary vehicles snaking their way into the distance. We’re braving the M6 motorway, heading north for Easter sojourn with the in laws. It’s a laborious process at the best of times (we’re referring of course to driving up the M6, not visiting the in laws), but this time the holiday traffic combined with a full premiership football schedule, has turned one of Britain’s longest car parks.

The sound of our mobile phone ringing briefly distracts us from the tedium of tarmac. Scrabbling around, TG locates our vibrating friend and notes a mystery London number is on the line:
“Hi it’s John Frusciante here.”
“Oh, er, Hi John….”

Rewind 24 hours, and we are waiting in room 105 of the world famous Claridge’s Hotel, a luxury five- star establishment right in the heart of London’s West End. The hotel room is the epitome of glamour: spacious, decked out with antique Art Deco furniture with copious bowl of fresh exotic fruits dotted around and a bathroom so long you could hold a bowls tournament in it.

John Frusciante is fashionably late. Our allotted hour’s interview was due to start at 1pm but John is still upstairs wharfing down his breakfast, so we recline on an opulent chaise longe, grab a grape and wait. 10 minutes later Frusciante appears shuffles slightly awkwardly across the room and greets us warmly. His long unkempt hair, unshaven, rugged features and simple jeans, t-shirt and lumber shirt attire seems out of place in these sumptuous surroundings. With his tattoos and heavily scarred arms hidden from view, he looks unremarkable – seemingly more likely to produce a Big Issue from up his sleeve than the kind of diamond encrusted watch he could so easily afford – yet perversely, Frusciante is perhaps the most remarkable guitarist Total Guitar has ever met.

His incredible life story to date has been told often, but bears repeating. A prodigious young musician, he joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers aged just 18 years old and his impact on the band was immediate. As the creative force behind 1991’s brilliant Blood Sugar Sex Magik album, Frusciante transformed the band from slightly embarrassing sex obsessed funk- metallers to global rock giants in three short years. Then at the height of their popularity he quit the band in a haze of heroin. Drugs were to rule his life for the next five years, first heroin, then crack cocaine. As Frusciante battled with the “beings of higher intelligence” or “spirits” he’d had in his head since childhood, he lost his teeth, his skin (the burns on his arms a consequence of setting fire to himself while freebasing) his house (burnt down) and by overdosing regularly almost his life.

With the Chilis floundering after and unsuccessful phase with Dave Navarro on guitar, it was bassist Flea who was instrumental in bringing Frusciante out of his addiction and back into the band. His reinstatement once again bore immediate fruits. The banks next studio album Californication, sold 15 million copies, while an astonishing one in 35 UK households own a copy of 2002’s By The Way.

But it’s not just Frusciante’s musical Midas touch that’s remarkable. He’s a fascinating man to spend time with. Despite the scheduled one-hour slot, the enigmatic guitarist eventually spends nearly three hours in our company and rarely have we encountered a guitarist so deeply studied, progressive and passionate about his art. Every facet of his existence is channelled towards his music: whether it’s an in-depth study of every form of composition from classical to the electronic avant-garde, dissecting pioneering, foreign cinema and British comedy, or practising Buddhist meditation, a technique that has replaced drug intake as the guiding force in Frusciante’s life.

Often his conversation has convoluted as he grapples for the ideal words to explain his complex creations and persona, yet it is clear Frusciante is deeply intelligent; a pioneering perfectionist who functions on a level most musicians aspire to yet few achieve. A perfectionism that leads him to interrupt TG’S journey to clarify some of the finer points of our previous day’s conversation, and what led him to the sonic heights that dominate the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s monster, new double album, Stadium Arcadium.

Next month John describes some of the practice techniques, chord theory, instrumentation and studio trickery that went into making one of the most anticipated guitar albums of the year.

While the first part of this in-depth interview, he discusses meditation, soloing, drugs, Jimi Hendrix and his early years in one of the world’s biggest rock bands…

Stadium Arcadium was recorded at the same studio where you recorded 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. What as the reasoning behind that?
It just seemed like the perfect idea because I live about one minute away and Anthony and Chad live about 10 minutes away. Flea’s about an hour away in Malaga, but because of the way it’s set up he could sleep at the studio. Flea made it his home for the weekends so it was just practical in that way. Also the studio we normally use Cello Studios closed down.

Did recording in the house bring back any memories?
Not really. It seems like a different place now to what it was then. I like it better now. It’s cosier, a little more warm and homely. The other guys have a different impression than me, but that’s how it seemed to me. I loved it both times but before it seemed more cold and chilling

How different was the recording process to when you recorded all those years ago?
Well back then I didn’t do many overdubs. Blood Sugar was naked. At the time that was the concept I wanted especially because on Mothers Milk, Michael Beinhorn had really pushed us. He had me quadrupling guitars, so it was years before I ever doubled anything again because I had such a weird experience on Mothers Milk. I did a lot of doubling on this album and it came out really good, but I hadn’t done doubling since Mother’s Milk. The template for Stadium Arcadium was to have and album like Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality where the guitars are in stereo, hard left, hard right, and it’s just the simple powerchord and sounds so thick as you’d ever want it to sound.

Do you ever look back to the Funky Monks film that was made at the time of Blood Sugar? How do you feel about watching yourself back then?
I have all the respect in the world for my guitar playing back then, especially as that was a point when I’d broken out of being in a particular place. When I was a teenager I loved Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, and I was balancing out those three guitarists styles in my playing. I didn’t have my own identity and I didn’t know what my musical voice was going to be. Around the time we started writing Blood Sugar, I finally put aside those guitarists’ styles and I forgot about what’s technically good. I thought, for example, that Keith Richards makes music that connects with so many people and he plays in such a simple way, so why don’t I pick a variety of people along those lines who play simple but do something that makes a beautiful sound that affects people emotionally? For me that was a new way of thinking that to a while adjusting to. So by the time we recorded Blood Sugar, I still felt as though I was doing a balancing act and I didn’t really feel comfortable with what I was doing, which is probably a good thing. The same thing happened when we were making this record. I felt as though it could just as easily be bad as it could be good.

In what way weren’t you comfortable recording Stadium Arcadium?
I felt like I was skating on thin ice or walking a tightrope. It seems that a lot of the things that are good have a quality about them. The only album I remember feeling totally and completely confident on 100 percent was By The Way, and I wasn’t actually challenging myself on that album. I knew exactly what I was doing to do in the studio, so it’s easy to feel powerful and confident when you have over-practised and you’re playing below your level of technique. On Blood Sugar I was being very careful to not think and to play from somewhere else other than my brain activity to play guitar. I would shut off my brain and let my fingers just go and listen to the bass and the drums, and not really listen to myself except the sound coming back from my own guitar.
I started it with the keen feeling that there were beings of higher intelligence controlling what I was doing, and I didn’t know how to talk about it or explain it. I called them “spirits”. It was very clear to me that the music was coming from somewhere other than me. But if you shut off your brain you will notice that the music exists beyond anything that we perceive with our five senses, and we don’t really understand how it is that music exists in the air and comes through as a vehicle. But it does. And on this album, meditation for six months prior to us going into the studio had a big effect on my ability to turn off my mind. That’s where a lot of the music came from.

Many guitarists will be interested in the facet of your work. Please explain how meditation helped your playing and how you’ve developed it?
There are different kinds of meditation. There is one kind where the mind focuses on one object that could be a blue circle or someone’s face that you like or a mantra. The concept is that your brain has been able to do exactly what it wants your whole life, thinking whatever it wants to think and that it’s basically an organ in your body that’s run amok Your brain is interfering with your ability to be in the moment and the idea is to cause the brain to focus on one particular thing for an extended period of time.

Then there’s another type of meditation where you’re bringing awareness to your brain. We say bringing awareness because it’s not the same as paying attention. You’re letting your brain go through whatever it needs to go through to process, but there are games you play with yourself. It’s a little beyond the scope to explain them in detail, but basically your brain gets sick of these games that you make it go through and eventually you get to sit there in silence and just bring that awareness to the silence.

In both of those ways it’s an incredibly powerful feeling when you can just sit there and focus on the mantra, stillness or silence. When you do this for about half hour, one hour or two hours a day, what I’ve noticed for myself and for every other musician who has done this for an extensive amount of time- John McLaughlin, Robert Fripp and people like that – is that it brings this energy and focus to your musical practice and your listening to music. The only thing I can compare it to is when I first started smoking pot, where music had a much fuller body than it ever had before. I hear music so much sharper now, and when I hear a solo I learn it so much quicker. When ideas are flowing my drive to let the idea come to its complete fruition is relentless. The idea being that if you can focus on nothingness for half hour or an hour, it’s no problem to focus on something that gives you pleasure, like music.

So how does meditation affect your ability to lean solos?
Have you ever learned a solo, then a year later you realised that you had figured it out wrong? You didn’t hear that little bit, and when you think back to that time there was some tiny little voice in your head that told you it wasn’t exactly right but you didn’y have the and real contact with that side of your brain so you didn’t listen to it.

Well once you start meditating and you’re doing it for the right reasons, you have to be honest with yourself all the time and you have to be honest with other people. It forces you to clear through your shit. It compartmentalises things in your brain so when you set out to do a task, like learning a solo or a piece of music, your brain is 100 percent with you and unified with that one task.

Do you still learn other artists’ material on a regular basis?
Oh yeah, all the time. At the moment I’m excited about understanding how classical composers thought- people like Brahms and Beethoven and Back and Mozart. I’ll basically take a piece of their music and dissect it. Maybe just a couple of minutes at a time, a section that really speaks to me where I feel, “Wow what is going on there? That is so beautiful, how are they creating these feelings? What is this change that is happening right at this second and why does this part in the song make me feel so emotional for these two seconds?” And then I’ll learn every part whether it’s an orchestra, string quartet or whatever.

Or I’ll learn a Jimi Hendrix solo in great detail. Big solos for me when we were making this record were the long version of Voodoo Child: the three long solos from that track. When I was a kid I would figure out Jimi Hendrix solos but I was learning a skeleton or I would learn it and there would be some little detail that I wasn’t picking up. In the first few months that I was meditating, I made the first progress that I ever made. I felt like, “Jesus Christ! I’m learning exactly what he’s doing” and not only learning it but I’m learning to feel it in the same way that he was feeling it and I’m learning to hit the string in the same way and to put the same vibrato on it. It’s not enough to make a mental observation what kind of vibrato you think he was using, you’ve got to feel it the way he was feeling it. That didn’t happen to me until I started meditating. Pretty much everything on Electric Ladyland was my bible when we were making this record because, not only is his guitar playing always speeding up and slowing down, he was playing around with lots of rhythmic expression and off-time playing, which is what I wanted to do with this album. The production and sense of constant movement and motion on Electric Ladyland that Hendrix caused as a producer was what I wanted to have my own version of.

Was that aspect of Hendrix’s work difficult to replicate? How did you go about it?
In his case he was playing with the pan pots a lot, putting tape phasing on a lot of things, turning the volume up and down while he’s soloing. Basically playing with the mixing part of the process. I actually did my work before that. After I recorded the guitars I’d effect them with my Doepfer A100 modular synthesizer and Moogerfooger pedals. It’s the same idea as altering the sound after you’ve played it and not letting anything be static so the sound is in a constant state of change. That idea was very important to me.

You’re soling more on this record, was that a conscious decision?
I’m a person that likes to contradict himself and go against what he was doing before, and on By The Way I was completely against soloing. I didn’t enjoy listening to solos and I didn’t enjoy soloing. My perception of guitar playing at the time was influenced by John McGeoch from Siouxsie and the Banshees and Magazine, Johnny Marr from The Smiths and Bernard Sumner of New Order and Joy Divison. If I was going to play lead guitar I wanted it to be something you could sing. But as one would expect I got sick of that at a certain point and by the time we were going to start writing this record I was really into soloing. I started getting particularly excited about anybody who was doing off-time stuff. A lot of musicians play within a 16th note grid: on any one of those 16th notes. That was the last thing I wanted to do. At first It wasn’t so much that I was listening to Jimi Hendrix or Cream, I was listening to singers like Beyonce, Alliyah and Brandy and rappers like Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem and Eric B and Ramkin. I would translate the rhythmic phrasing and bluesy kind of things that they do to the guitar and it would come out sounding like Jimi Hendrix. I was playing a Strat through a Marshall with a wah-wah pedal and Fuzz Tone, and it quickly became apparent that the result of trying to do this off-time stuff led to n unexpected parallel to what a lot of blues influenced people were doing back in the 1960s.

The solos appear to be improvised more in the main this time…
Almost every solo was improvised. Even those that sound like they have been written were improvised. The solo in Wet Sand for example, is one of those ones you can sing along with but it was totally improvised. What’s the key to improvisation? In polyrhythmic playing, when you’re finding your own groove inside the music, you can’t plan out what you’re going to do. Take the guitar solo to Hey: I could only plan it out in the sense that I knew I was going to be constantly speeding up and slowing down. If you try to plan the subtlest difference in the groove of drums and bass is going to change what you are doing. During the rehearsal we were playing stuff much faster than we ended up playing in the studio, so the same solos weren’t really working. So I really had no choice but to wing it in the studio. For me, this really gave the album a live quality and an exiting spontaneity that I haven’t had in the studio before. There is no more relaxing part of making a record than improvising solos. That’s just fun for me.

While you use theory to your advantage many top guitarists claim they don’t know much about theory and play be “feel” instead…
Good luck to them. I have nothing against that way of thinking. In fact I have more in common with that way of thinking than with people who normally get associated with theory. The people who inspire me when they talk about theory are Jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Charlie Parker. These people didn’t play by feel and were thinking completely in terms of theory. We are all playing by feel, but not in the definition of these ignorant guitar players who don’t want to spend time learning theory. People pretend there’s an advantage to not learning theory, but I think they’re just lazy.

Yet your solos were still improvised…
As I told you, the most important thin for me is to shut off my mind. I don’t need to think that something is in a minor 3rd, but I know it’s a minor 3rd.The feeling of a minor 3rd is equivalent to a symbol I have in my head that means minor 3rd. It’s not very complicated, it just sounds complicated because people don’t use that language when they talk. It would be like somebody saying, “I don’t want to use words to talk, I want to just go by feel, I want to rub my penis all over them. I don’t want to talk” To me that’s a useless limited way of being. I like to talk and rub all over them. I think theory gets a bad name because a lot of people use theory instead of feel. But Flea and I are both fans of those jazz musicians I mentioned, who seemed to grow throughout their whole life as musicians. But a lot of rock musicians who don’t think on that level often go through a decline within a few years. I’m not saying that’s the only reason, as quite often they overdo it with drugs and sex and dishonesty. If you’re a person that thinks theory is going to limit you then don’t learn it, but make sure you are being honest with yourself and you don’t want to learn it just because you’re lazy and telling yourself, ”Yeah man, I play by feel” because that’s just being a pussy. Theory doesn’t block people’s creativity, only the ego blocks creativity. Excessive drug use or drinking can block it, not theory.

It’s interesting when you say drugs and alcohol prevent creativity, yet many musicians throughout history have used drugs to aid creativity.
Oh you can do that. I said excessive drug use. Marijuana, mushrooms or acid have the ability to really open somebody up, but they actually do it from one time of taking the drug. If you have one good experience with those drugs you’ve altered your brain permanently for the better. If you have a bad experience with them you’ve permanently altered your brain in a bad way that might take years to correct. I believe in that very strongly. When it comes to a drug like cocaine , I believe it takes a very special environment during a very special period of time for this to be of any value, and I don’t count the present time as being one of those times.

You’re drug free now [John raises his eyebrows]. Well if not drug-free you certainly seem to have your drug use under control…
For me that’s the important thing. Since I’ve been meditating I feel very strongly that the highest peaks in a person can reach are from resisting that impulse to just take something all the time. When you take drugs you you’re essentially allowing your brain to do whatever it wants. The most important thing you need is to have some kind of contact with the person you are inside and to be honest with yourself. If you have, you don’t need drugs. I feel strongly that there is no drug or drink that makes anybody better than they really are. Meditation can bring a person around. It’s hard as fuck and I had to go through some terrible shit at first. When I went into the studio to make this album my stomach was very painful and I felt that I hated myself all the time. The part of myself I had been running away from was the Mother’s Milk time because I felt as though I hated that person, hated his approach and hated the way he lived his life. I was looking at myself as a stranger who had invaded my own life. During a meditation about three weeks into the studio time I finally realised that I loved that part of myself and from then on my knotting stomach went away and I kicked ass in the studio! I needed that part of myself to make this album.

It’s a controversial step to release such a large volume of music in one go? Do you have any reservations?
No. To me it’s stupid to that it’s controversial. If a painter decides to paint 40 paintings nobody says, “How can you paint 40 paintings?” When it’s a song all of a sudden everybody says “How did you think you could get away with this?” But it’s what we did. I’ll say the same thing The Clash said with Sandinista, the same thing The Beatles said with The White Album, the same thing Jimi Hendrix said when he wanted to make his fourth album a triple record: it’s what we recorded: It’s the music that came through us. We don’t just make music just for our own pleasure; we make music for our audience. If we write 28 songs that we think are top notch, that’s what we want to give to the public. That’s for mankind. Making music is my gift to mankind and it’s what I have to offer.

You don’t put out 14 songs because that’s what the critics would accept with a smile. We’re putting out what we believe is worthy. I can’t say that if somebody puts the album down it won’t hurt my feelings, because it will. But I can deal with it. What’s important to me is that some kid somewhere, three years from now, could possibly hear one of these songs and decide not to kill himself. I’ve heard that plenty of times from people. People write to me to telling me they fell in love to my music. How do I know that it’s not going to be the 27th song on the album that’s going to do that? Why, just because we’re in the music business, should I have to shorten things to be like everyone else, Fuck that! Business considerations don’t matter as much to us as it does to have the right artistic reasons for doing something. Luckily our managers supported us. When we said we wanted a double record they said, “You know what, why not?” Fuck statistics, we’ve made a good album so let’s put it out.

* This interview further continues in the August 2006(here) issue of Total Guitar and a letter published in the September issue (here) is John’s clarification of what he said in it.

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