Added: June 10, 2007
From the book "On the Record: Over 150 of the most talented people in music share the secrets of their success" (2004), by Guy Oseary.
Thanks to Gyan, for typing it out
Did you have a mentor or someone who inspired you? If so, what have you learned from that person?
My stepfather, Larry, was a really good guy to have around when I was growing up. At school, every day was a new argument - with kids, with teachers. With kids, it would be because they made fun of things I liked that they'd never heard of, like King Crimson. With teachers, it was like when they wouldn't let me do a book report on The Anti-Christ by Nietzsche. Larry and I would always discuss these things when I came home, and he always made me feel like I was right. I in him that I had somebody who believed in me. It means a lot to you when you're a kid to have an adult who really does believe in you and sees something in you.
I remember a teacher named Mr. Hughes at my junior high school. It was his responsiblity to hold the detention class, and kids either loved him or hated him. He was very funny but also very strict. Once you knew him, you also came to realize how funny even his strictness was. When I was in eighth grade he asked the prettiest girl in class to come get me out of another class to come to him – usually when he did that, you knew you were in trouble. When I got to his office, he said, “John, I want you to sit down and write a letter explaining what you think about me as a teacher, and to sign it, so when you’re famous I can show it to my students.” It made me feel good. I always knew that I was going to be a musician for a living, but nobody else believed me. Maybe other kids did, once they started to hear me play, but not at that point for sure. Mr. Hughes was saying it based on nothing but my attitude toward music and what he saw in my eyes. I really appreciated that.
When I was a teenager, I devoted myself to learning Frank Zappa’s music. I thought of him as the perfect human being who could do and say no wrong. I knew I wanted to be the best guitarist I could be. And I would learn very difficult music that he had written. I would imagine him standing in front of me wiht his baron, and I would play at the technical level I imagined he demanded from his musicians. He calmed something in me when I was fifteen or sixteen, which was when I practiced more than at any other time. If you’re in a certain amount of pain or confusion when you’re growing up, it’s nice to have someone who always makes you laugh or smile. When you don’t have somebody like that, you’re left with your own sadness or pain. I’ve always had people like that. A few years ago it was Martin Gore and Dave Gahan. Right now, it’s Peter Hammill from Van Der Graaff Generator. When I thinkk about him, it gills me with good feelings. I often think about what the world would be like if we didn’t have these images that correspond to our own subconscious pain and cancel it out. These images have kept me happy in times that otherwise would have been very bleak.
What was your very first job in the music industry, and how did you get it?
I was eighteen years old when I joined the band. I had been living on my own for about a year, and my dad was paing something like four hunderd dollars a month for me to go to some ind of music classes. I did that for a while, then I pretended to do that, and he cut me off. And then I joined the Chili Peppers.
What was your first big break? The first great thing that happend to you...
Joining what was, at that time, my favorite band. I feel very fortunate to have gotten into the business the way I did, which was just by making a friend who played bass in a band that was already moderately successful. I didn’t expect that I could ever be more popular than what the Chili Peppers were at the time, selling seventy thousand records or so. Playing at the Palace or the Roxy seemed like the height of fame.
When we first became highly successful, it was actually more of a letdown to me. The last time that I saw the Chili Peppers before joining the band (at Hillel’s last show at the Palace), my girlfriend at the time, Sarah asked me whether I would still like the Chili Peppers if they played the Forum. I didn’t think that could ever happen. To me, if they did, they wouldn’t be the same band. They wouldn’t have any of the things I liked about them. At that time, the thought of the Chili Peppers sounding anything like we sound now would have seemed far-fetched. It would have seemed very unlikely for the band to have the kind of sound that really does translate well in an arena.
I had an image of what the band meant to me, and at the time of Blood Sugar, I felt like we were overstepping that image by becoming as popular as we started to become. I was mad about making the transition from playing clubs to theaters - it wasn’t even arenas yet, just four- or five-thousand-seat venues. In retrospect, I hadn’t yet realized that I am what people think of me. I still wanted people to think I was what I thought I was. Letting go of that was very important. You and your music can be so many different things to so many different people, and in some way, each one of them is right. Their perception of you is the real thing for them, so why should you be the one to control it? I realized that at various times in my life, my images of people were all that made me happy. Those images were more important than who they actually were. When you meet a person, it can kind of blow it. Your image of them is much more elastic and much more magical. I’m very proud to be able to mean a lot of things to different people.
What elements of your job make you want to go to work every day?
I feel that ther is still more territory to cover musically. I feel like we’re getting better. I see Flea growing as a musician; I see Anthony growing as a singer and songwriter. I feel like there’s a lot more to do within the context of this group that is of interest to me. If that wasn’t there, if I felt like we were past our prime, I wouldn’t want to do this anymore. I’d rather continue in a direction that interested me, whether or not it was commercially viable. Luckiliy right now, the thing that interests me is also the thing that makes me a good living.
What qualtities most helped you get to where you are today?
The fact that I am doing this out of a total love for music. Music has saved my life so many times. Since I was a little kid, it’s been a best friend. It’s been the one thing I can depend on an d what makes life seem infinite. Since I was seven years old, music has made me see clearly that everything is infinite: that space is everything while at the same time, it is nothing. This was clear to me just by listening to KISS.
When I was twelve, we moved to the Valley. When you’re a kid, the Valley seems like this boring place with a bunch of geeks, where everybody’s kind of square and nobody knows what’s going on. I had developed this total devotion to music, and I wanted to make it my life. I needed to make sure I was good at it, so I became very disciplined. At that point, all I could play was punk rock. But I knew it was going to be at least five years until I got out of the Valley, so I figured I might as well practice as much as I could so that by the time I got out of there I would be a good guitarist. I gradually went from practicing a couple hours a day to practicing as much as fifteen hours a day. That’s why at seventeen I was confident I was going to be able to make living making music.
There’s a certain feeling that runs through my brain, through the music I listen to and through my life. I knew that feeling was going to be the essence of my music, and that ceraint people were going to gravitate toward it. I can’t take credit for the feeling – it’s something that’s been there since I was a little kid. I never had any doubt that I was going to succeed. Most importantly, I knew that I was making music for the right reasons.