Punk Funk Mofos from Hell

When Hillel Slovak O.D’ed in the summer of ’88, it looked like the plug had been pulled on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The 25-year-old guitarist had defined much of the quartet’s sound and attitude, and he’d been a soulmate of bassist Flea and vocalist Anthony Kiedis since the three were teenagers.

Drummer Jack Irons quit after Slovak’s death, and Flea and Anthony set about rebuilding the band. Their first attempt misfired; recruiting sometime Parliament/Funkadelic guitarist Blackbird McKnight and ex-Dead Kennedys drummer D. H. Peligro was neatly symbolic of the Peppers’ funk and punk roots, but the chemistry wasn’t right. Flea and Anthony took another stab at the formula, and this time they blew up the chem lab. Current guitarist John Frusciante combines the over-the-top craziness of Slovak with the metal edge of Jack Sherman, the band’s very first guitarist. And Chad Smith, while not as straight-out funky like the group’s earlier drummers, anchors the proceedings with a rock-solid groove.

The group’s latest album, Mother’s Milk, is a bona-fide pop hit. The Chili Peppers are breaking out of the college radio ghetto, and their rubbery mugs are all over MTV. All this, mind you, without having watered down their music (equal parts early-‘70s funk and early- ‘80s thrash), their live shows (high impact, sweat sodden aerobic soul reviews), or their attitude (an appealing sex-as-liberation ideology combined with a locker-room grossness that sometimes degenerates into jock-headed sexism).

But there’s more to being a Red Hot Chili Pepper than playing James Brown licks at 78 r.p.m. while wearing nothing but a tube sock on your penis. Flea and Frusciante are terrific players, and the band’s songwriting is better then ever. They’ve always demostrated impeccable taste in choosing cover tunes (recording Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay,” The Meter’s “Africa,” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” among others), but on Mother’s Milk, originals like “Taste The Pain,” “Knock Me Down,” and “Johnny, Kick A Hole In The Sky” hold their own quite comfortably against powerhouse renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Jimi Hendrix’ “Fire”. At their best, the Red Hot Chili Peppers can animate your ass and hormones like few other bands.

The Philosophy

John: Before I joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they were my favorite band in the world. I knew all of the guitar parts, solos, bass lines, and lyrics.

Flea: I met John through D. H. Peligro, and we jammed a couple of times. I was recording some stuff for the new record at home, and I thought the things I recorded with John sounded better than what I recorded with Blackbird.

John: Ever since I first started playing, I’ve only had one philosophy, and it’s one that I share with Flea: Play every note like it’s your last. It isn’t technique that’s important, but the expression of your life through your music.

Flea: When John first joined, he was not playing as much good stuff as he does now, even though he was perfectly capable of it then. But he was worried about playing things that would please us, instead of just being himself and letting his natural playing flow, which is what he’s doing much more now.

John: Yeah. And my playing has changed a lot since we recorded the album – I play a lot less. This isn’t the kind of band that features any one player, and there’s no room for a guitarist who wants to show people how fast he can play. For example, the perfect guitar part to suit one of Flea’s bass lines might be just one note every bar. But I might have been afraid to do that when I first joined the band, because I figured if I didn’t put any thought into it, how good could it be? It’s a matter of not being afraid to play the simplest part imaginable, because that’s what good bands do. So I’ve become more relaxed with myself.

The Album

Flea: This band has been through a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. I think our current success is due to a variety of reasons. For one thing, the record company has changed, and there are different people working on our record. Then there are the years of touring and working real hard. And we’ve got a really good record.

You’ve kept the heavy groove, but now it’s supporting the stronger songs.

Flea: That has a lot to do with the new elements in the band. John wrote the chords for “Knock Me Down.”

John: Stuff like that just comes naturally to me, I guess. I know my scales, modes, chord theory, and all that stuff, but I don’t think about what I’m doing. We never think of the technical aspects of what we do, or what type of song we’re trying to write. But even though the structure of that particular song was mine, everyone puts in their two cents on every song, so everything is really written by the whole band. Most of the shit just come out of jamming with each other.

Is Mother’s Milk the closest you’ve come to capturing your live energy in the studio?

Flea: It’s hard for me to say. It may be.

John: It’s hard to look at your own work very objectively sometimes. I can’t really listen to the album myself because my own playing has changed, plus there were the problems we had making it – how long it took, and the friction between us and the producer.

Flea: There’s always the album you want to make, the album you make, and the album you wish you made.

The Mothership

Flea: I never thought, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s take punk rock and funk, and put them together and make a song!” It was just elements of all the things that I loved. It was what I liked, what I listened to, and what I was able to play. It was never really conscious. At that time, a lot of our songs just started from bass lines. But when I picked up my bass and started wailing by myself, that was the kind of shit I played. Basically, I liked playing funk, but the natural me was very aggressive. I liked that feeling of beating the shit out of the bass, but doing it in a funky way.

Much of your sound is derived from early –‘70s progressive black rock.

Flea: Like I said, we don’t try to copy anything, but that is some of my favorite music – Sly And The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and, in particular, Funkadelic. They’re my favorite band. My favorite P-Funk record is probably America Eats Its Young, but there’s so much great stuff that most people have never heard, albums like Hardcore Jollies and Let’s Take It To The Stage. One Nation Under A Groove is an incredible record, but that was their first hit album, and it was more slick and produced. The earlier Funkadelic stuff was balls-out rockin’.

John: The shit before that had a lot more heaviness going on in the guitars. They’ve just released Maggot Brain on CD, and that’s one of the fuckin’ heaviest albums.

Flea: They just did the music they wanted to do, and it didn’t fit into any category. When I first started playing in this band, I had never heard a lot of Funkadelic, but I think what we’re doing is very similar, except they came out of the acid/hippie thing, and we came out of the punk rock thing. Rock, funk, whatever you want to call it, they were one of the greatest bands. As a guitar player, Eddie Hazel is right up there with Jimi Hendrix.

John: Yeah, I’d like to tell the readers of your magazine who listen to all this heavy metal bullshit being played nowadays that the truest, heaviest metal is on early Funkadelic records.

Flea: They were heavier metal than Black Sabbath ever was.

The Meters must have been an important influence, too.

Flea: We recorded the Meters’ “Africa,” but we changed the name to “Hollywood” [on Freaky Styley] because that’s where we were from. The Meters had a song called “Jungle Man,” but I swear I’d never heard their song when we recorded our song “Jungle Man” [also on Freaky Styley]. We just met George Porter of The Meters the other day when we were doing a gig in New Orleans. He is such a sweet man, and an amazing bass player. My favorite bass players are probably him, Bootsy Collins, and Larry Graham.

John: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with borrowing from other musicians. This band rips off other bands as much as anybody. A lot of times, some of the most creative things come out of slight alterations of things that have happened in the past. A song might start out as a rip-off of something else, but it’s through our own twisted misrepresentation, and through our personality, so it becomes something completely different.

The Feel

John: Sometimes when I hear players nowadays, it sounds like all their inward pain comes out through their music, like they have a strong desire to prove they’re better than everybody else. It’s as if their insecurity about inadequate penis size comes through their guitar playing. But to me, that’s not what makes a musician “better.” For example, I think that “Three Hours Past Midnight,” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, from the ‘50s, is the greatest guitar solo of all time. It’s just mean-as-shit-sounding, like he’s just playing with his middle finger, and it makes me want to get violent. To me, that’s what a great musician is. That’s what was so beautiful about the punk rock movement. It had nothing to do with how “good” you were, or how much time you had to practice. It was just an expression of their lives.

But you’re a fairly accomplished technician.

John: Yeah, but you try to have that implied in simplicity. My goal is that any bit of technique that I have is implied, rather than shoved right in your face. With certain musicians, you can tell, even when they play one note, that they could have played a million notes, but they played that one because it was the right one.

Flea: Like Louis Armstrong.

John: Sometimes when I perform, I try to play solos like I have no idea how to play guitar, and that’s helped me a lot. I read that Miles Davis once told that to John McLaughlin: “Play like you have no idea what a guitar is.”

The band seems to have a submerged jazz streak. You mention jazz musicians a lot, and you’ve been known to perform Miles Davis’ “Jeanne Pierre” in concert.

Flea: But we wrote new words for it: [sings] “We’ve got the biggest cocks, we’ve got the biggest cocks.” Yeah, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were influenced by many, many musicians, from simple, aggressive, punk rock to people like Miles and McLaughlin. But it’s never a matter of trying to emulate anybody, but of creating an emotion. For instance, I might really like the way this one Miles Davis song makes me feel, but if I wanted to create that same feeling in a song, I wouldn’t go about it by copying Miles. I’d just remember the way it made me feel, and try to duplicate that feel.

John: A lot of the musicians don’t pick up on the cosmic energy that’s flowing around their bodies at any time. People don’t pick up on those types of energy, they don’t open themselves up to them. We pick up on the spiritual aspects of music just like we pick up on the spiritual aspects of just being alive, everything from having sex to taking a shit.

Flea: Yes.

The Radio

Do you still think of yourselves as an “Organic Anti-Beat Box Band,” as you proclaimed on your last album?

Flea: In the past, I was very anti-drum machines because I thought they were making music get farther away from what it’s all about: emotion. But more recently, I’ve gotten into a lot of music that uses drum machines, like N.W.A, Public Enemy, and George Clinton. It’s just a matter of using them creatively.

John: Like any genre of music, there are good ones and bad ones. I can’t listen to rap stations for long, but I can listen to particular records, like Public Enemy’s. The sound of the drum machine really gets on my nerves.

Flea: Yeah, but you can’t listen to a white station that’s playing Bon Jovi, either. It’s not because it’s black or white; it’s just because the majority of stuff that gets played on the radio is spinless, wimpy bullshit, with an occasional good song.

John: And it’s no coincidence that the white stations always play Whitesnake, Great White and White Lion.

The Past

Flea: I’m 27. I’m originally from Melbourne, Australia, but I came to the U.S. in 1967, moving to L.A. in 1972. I started playing bass in 1980. I took trumpet lessons as a kid, but I only had one bass lesson. The teacher gave me an Eagles song—“Well, ah’m runnin’ down the road, tryin’ to loosen my load”—but I just wasn’t into it, so I decided to figure things out on my own. I played with Fear [an L.A. punk band notorious for its confrontational performances] in 1982, just after their first record came out. I played with them for a little over a year, and it was the first band I was in that made any money and that people came to see. The band demanded that I use a pick and play all downstrokes, but I haven’t used a pick since then. I also played in a band called What This Is, with Hillel Slovak and Jack Sherman, our first two guitar players. Actually, it was Hillel who taught me how to play bass.

When did you start slapping and popping?

Flea: I don’t recall, but I remember seeing other bass players doing it when I was in high school.

Why don’t more rock players slap?

Flea: I don’t know. Maybe it’s because most rock bands today are busy copying other rock bands. But a lot more bands are starting to do it.

John: I’m 19. I was born in New York, but raised in Los Angeles. When I was growing up, I used to just masturbate a lot and practice. It wasn’t until I moved out of my parents’ house, when I was 16, that I realized that playing with other people was an aspect of my music that I needed to develop. I had a big identity problem when I was younger. There was a time when I wanted to shave off my eyebrows so I could look like Adrian Belew.

Flea: But then you found out that Steve Vai had bushy eyebrows, and you were happy.

John: I’m peeing in a bottle right now, Joe.

We could take a break.

John: No, I’m just telling you.

Thanks for sharing.

The Gear

John: I played mostly Strats and Les Pauls on the record. I was still hung up on Floyd Rose tremolos, which Flea hated, though I didn’t care. But then I started to realize that since most guitar players use those things, none of the shit you can do with them will sound original. Now I just use a stock Strat tremolo system, and if I want to pull up, I push behind the nut. For a while, my main guitar was a ’68 Strat, but it was stolen. Since then, I’ve gotten a couple of others that I’ve fallen in love with. But our basic philosophy is that our tones are in our fingers, and the particular instrument you play, or what kind of pick you use, doesn’t matter much.

Flea: Music Man basses are the best basses ever. I play a StingRay, baby, which is what I used when I first started playing. When we became a little more popular and I could afford it, I got a Spector because it was more fancy and supposedly better. But a few months ago, I bought a Music Man while we were on tour. It was the cheapest bass in the store. I’ve also got a Music Man 5-string and a Music Man fretless. No matter what amp I use, it breaks. I’ve used MESA/Boogie amps and cabinets, which cost an extraordinary amount of money, but the amp kept breaking. I kept the cabinets, but switched to a Gallien-Krueger head, and it kept breaking. I sometimes use a Boss envelope filter for the wah sound. For recording, I usually mix the direct signal and the miked amp. For strings, I like GHS Boomers. No wait, I think I like D’Angelicos. Which are the ones we get for free?

John: I play a MESA/Boogie amp, I forget which one. It broke before we started touring. All the knobs on it are frozen so I can’t move them, but they’re frozen in a good spot, so it’s okay. For the album, I played through a Soldano head, which goes to “11.” I use a Boss Distortion pedal, an Ibanez wah-wah, and a big old ugly Boss chorus pedal. On the album, a lot of the effects were done in the mix. The solos were recorded with just the guitar through the amp. I like green [Dunlop] Tortex picks. I use D’Addario strings, but only because I’ve been using them ever since I started, and I like having stupid habits like that. My roadies think I’m an idiot. Just to be dicks, they put D’Angelicos on my guitar, but didn’t tell me till later. They fooled me.

The Attitude

Flea: It’s a matter of unity, of four guys listening to each other and playing together. We tried to capture that on the record. There might be a great guitar solo going on, but at the same time there’s a chant, and percussion over it. I think that represents the band, as opposed to featuring a soloist.

John: When I was growing up, I used to practice 10 or 15 hours a day, working on technique, or every Frank Zappa or Jimi Hendrix song I could get my hands on, just approaching things from a technical standpoint. But you have to be able to learn everything, and then forget everything. That’s a much more challenging option—to do guitar parts that really fit into what’s going on. A lot of players have problems doing something that’s supposedly below them.

A big part of your attitude is your boosterism of other bands that you like. You even include sample tributes to several L.A. bands on your new album.

John: We feel a connection with any bands that play music that’s a reflection of their lives, of how they feel about the world. Even if what they do sounds completely different, it’s the same shit because it’s all soul. The music that I listen to is nothing like the music I perform, because I want the music I perform to be completely different from something else.

Flea: When we hear bands that are influenced by what we do, it’s a total compliment, and it makes me feel like what we’re doing is really valid.

How do you balance getting wild onstage against messing up the groove?

Flea: The groove is the almighty thing. Anything that might happen onstage is a natural reflection of the music. It doesn’t matter if I fall backwards on my head, because everything that we do is inspired by the notes that we play. Or at least that’s how we feel about it.

—Joe Gore

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