Red Hot Chili Peppers part 2

John Frusciante describes the writing process, studio techniques and gear used to make Stadium Arcadium. Plus, learn his practise routines and techniques.

It’s been out for over a month now, but chances are you’re still getting to grips with the Goliath that is Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium. Not only is it Frusciante’s most ambitious record yet, but thanks to his newfound studio knowledge, it’s also his most complex and kaleidoscopic.

Resurrecting Hendrix’s ethos of using the studio as one giant guitar effect, Frusciante often conjures up as baffling as they are brilliant. If you’ve tried to recreate them, chances are you failed. But fear not, as this month John takes you inside Stadium’s inner sanctum to reveal some of the tricks and techniques he employed over the course of the albums 28 thrilling tracks.

What were the concepts behind your guitar work on Stadium Arcadium?
“Like I mentioned previously, I started getting particularly about anyone who was doing any kind of off-time stuff and I would try and get everybody else into the same kind of movement. We [RHCP] would have arguments about it. If it was up to me, Dani California would have been slowed down about three clicks a minute more than it was. When we’re in the studio we get really precise about the tempo of things. With Chad [Smith, drums], we can argue about one beat per minute. Our arguments were always that I wanted to drop so heavy it would slow down. For example on She’s only 18 chorus the whole feeling of the chorus is much slower than you would imagine from the verse. With the Dani California chorus, you will notice the last chorus slows down even more than the first two. I was just interested in playing with rhythm.”

What was the writing process?
“When we were rehearsing for this album, I was probably listening and practising with my guitar for about five, six, seven hours a day. A lot of music for this album came from me just playing and playing. A lot of what I was listening to was hip-hop, so I was playing bass along with it and then I would pick up my guitar and play for an hour and see what came out. I have the patience to play the same thing over and over on my guitar until something new comes into it from meditating.”

“A lot of my time was also spent memorising long Jimi Hendrix Solos. With the first 11 minutes of the Isle Of Weight performance of Machine gun, for example, I’d try to memorize how I hard the sound coming out. If I haven’t played Voodoo Child (Slight Return) for a couple of months, I can re-learn it in a few minutes thanks to meditation. Before it would have taken around 45 minutes.”

Did you use any new equipment for this particular album?
“I bought a bunch of different wah pedals because there were so many moments on the album that were going to have wah-wah that we didn’t want them all to be the same. My favourite one is still the Ibanez (WH-10) one, which they don’t make anymore, the bastards! Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez, of Mars Volta] is now addicted to them and he’s buying them up all over the place. The Dimebag model [Jim Dunlop Dimebag Crybaby from Hell DB01] was another one I used on certain spots on the album. I don’t like it as much as the Ibanez, but it’s the best that I’ve found.”

Do you know how you’re going to alter sounds before you’ve played them or is it an organic process?“
Sometimes I’m experimenting with the modular synthesizer, and sometimes I hear the sound clear in my head so I know exactly what I’m setting out to do. Some effects are impossible to control, like the new MuRF pedal by Mooger Fooger. It’s basically a series of 10 filters that go in a rhythm and you can turn up each frequency at any moment. I used that on the solo at the top of the verse on Dani California, and I also used it on Flea’s [Bass, RHCP] trumpet on Death of a Martian.

Guitar players are not going to be disappointed with this record. Turn it again, for example, seems to have around 5 guitars solos at once…
“That’s right! Another thing I did on this album, which comes in a little on that track, is tape speed manipulation. The idea with that solo was to have a lot of guitars coming in and out, and that was one of the few sections I mixed myself. There were so many tracks of solos, the engineer had no idea what to do with them so I went in and figured out how I wanted them to be orchestrated. There are 5 cycles in 2 minutes and I approached each section differently, with regards as to which guitar to feature. I did some Jimi Hendrix stuff where I turned things up and down with the faders while they were playing.”

Did you just fire off a load of guitar solos then decide what to with them afterwards?
“Yeah, I did some with my friend Omar sitting on the couch listening to me play solos. I did some at my house a couple of months later. I knew I would figure it out during the mix. Brian May and Jimi Hendrix both did really cool things this way, and doing it myself made me hear the way they were doing it in a new light. That thing at the end of Wet Sand – were the guitars come in and sound like a harpsichord – they’re just the treble pick up on the Stratocaster, three tracks in harmony with one another, playing that same riff you hear in the first part of that cycle in that section. But I recorded it with the tape slowed down, so that when it sped up it sounded like a harpsichord. When I went home and listened to Burning of a midnight lamp by Jimi Hendrix it had the same sound, and despite the Jimi Hendrix box saying it was a harpsichord, I’m positive it’s a guitar that’s sped up.”

How important were your solo albums to getting you to this stage?
“Very important. That was where I learnt how to use the studio like an instrument. Up until that point, I was still letting the engineer tell me what to do. On my solo albums I worked with my friend Ryan Hewitt who is a young engineer ready to experiment. We began a relationship where, starting with the will to death [2004], we decided to everything differently to seeing how it was done around us.

“By the time I was doing my overdubs for this record with Ryan, we just had it “down”. On this album we actually had 72 tracks, because we had to have a 24-track machine for the basic tracks a 24- track machine for overdubs and treatments and another 24 for backing vocals so when we were mixed there were three 24-tack machines all sync’d up with each other. I needed my solo albums to be able to get to this point. Now when I’m in the studio I’m in control of what’s going on. The engineer asks me what to use.”

Are you a perfectionist? Do you find it difficult to know when to stop when it comes to the studio?
“Well, another part of my concept for this album was to make it more raw and to let certain mistakes fly. If you listen to Especially in Michigan, I had my guitar on the wrong pickup. I like the way that riff sounds on the bass pickup, but when I was playing the song I looked down and it was on the wrong pickup. You can hear it when Anthony starts singing: there’s a little commotion going on where I stop playing the riff or a second and you hear the sound change, then a little white noise for a second. I’m happy to leave it like that because it gives the recording personality. That’s the kind of shit they would leave in during the 1960s but take out in the 1980s. Which time period was better? The Rolling Stones’ recordings in the 1960s had the tambourines and drums going off on different times with each other; the guitars go off time with each other then come back together and it’s beautiful. That’s what gives it personality and a magical feeling. I am a perfectionist, but for me those kind of accidents are perfection.”

How often do you practise playing?
“I was playing scales every day during the album. I was trying to make my pinky as strong as my other fingers. I was inspired by reading Robert Fripp articles where one of his main points is that the pink is very messily used by players and that few people have it under control.

The pinky exercises have changed the way I play in many ways. There are a lot of guitar parts on the album where the pinky is being used as equally as the other fingers in simple arpeggio-type things. That gave my playing a strength and power that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. There’s no better way to spend the day that to sit around practising. That’s when I feel the best. When we’re on tour I pretty much have the whole day to do what I want. Once the tour starts, I hope to go back to practising four or five hours a day. Now that the albums done, our object it to fucking rock the hardest we can and to be the best band that we can be.”

What would you with your time if you couldn’t play guitar?
“I’d just meditate all the time! When you’re meditating you start desiring a lifestyle that assists your ability to meditate. If I had never been able to play guitar I’m sure I’d being doing something else creative. I have fun painting, but it’s not something I have a natural aptitude for. Writing words was something I felt capable of right from the beginning, so I might have been a writer. You have to work at something for a while until you realise if you have any natural ability or not. In my case, I never seriously thought I’d do anything other than play music. By the time I was 12 I was serious about guitar, so I practised as much as I possibly could. I didn’t think about having something to fall back on, I was going to play guitar and that was that. If you consider for one second that it might be a mistake, you’re finished. There can’t be any doubt.”

* The first part of this interview was published in July 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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