Free Spirits In The Material World

Guitar talk, guy talk, squirt guns and gastric distress with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ axe men John Frusciante and Flea.

Clad in nothing but a silk bathrobe, a scraggly-bearded John Frusciante opens the door of his mondo-Fifties Hollywood Hills pad. John’s robe has no drawstring, but he somehow manages to shield from view that part of his anatomy the Red Hot Chili Peppers are famous for sheathing with socks. This act of propriety is highly appreciated, considering that John is now hopping around his room like a demented leprechaun, grooving to Captain Beefheart CD and playing show-and-tell with his new guest: “Here’s a painting I just did. Here’s my favorite guitar [a dust-encrusted Fender Jaguar] – it’s screwed up, and that’s the way I like it!” John’s a wild dude, a boy-child with facial hair. A real bohemian, maaaan. And like any self-respecting alternative rock guitarist, he hates talking with guitar mags.

“Music is an abstract representation of the cosmos. It doesn’t have anything to do with strings, electronics or philosophies. None of those things!”

Yeah, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers do have a new record, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which they need to flog. And the record does feature some mighty fine guitar work from Frusciante, not to mention the fleet bass stylings of Flea – that one-named wonder-man with a supernatural command of The Funk.

Of course, everyone expects great playing from Flea. But Blood Sugar is also where Frusciante comes into his own for the first time. He only joined the band in 1989, after the death of the Peppers’ original guitarist, the legendary Hillel Slovak. It was a tough slot to fill, particularly for a 21-year-old playing with bandmates seven years his senior, who were his teenage heroes to boot. But John has done it, laying lots of hard, colorful guitar work on what is easily the Chili Peppers’ most stylistically diverse record to date. Dig the elephantine roar he coaxes from his axe on the Zeppelin-esque bridge in “Apache Rose Peacock.” Or his tortured solo on “I Could Have Lied” – there’s enough quavering here to give Tom Verlaine the chills.

Sorry, son, you’re gonna hafta talk guitar.

GUITAR WORLD: You’re using clean, funk-oriented sounds on the new album, as opposed to the more distorted, metal kind of tone you had on your first Peppers’ album, Mother’s Milk.
FRUSCIANTE: Of course.

GW: Why, “Of course?”
FRUSCIANTE: Mother’s Milk doesn’t represent the type of guitar player I am. I’m a bit embarrassed by the album, really. I don’t even want to talk about it. What we’re doing now is what we’re doing now. There’s no conscious reason why I’m playing cleaner. It just happened that way.

GW: Did the cleaner sound make for more space in the arrangements?
FRUSCIANTE: Of course. Space is a huge part of it. Like those parts of life when you’re able to kick back and do nothing – those are amazing parts of life. It’s the same with music. Also, I think one great thing we did with this record is… I forgot what I was going to say, I’m sorry.

GW: We were talking about how clean guitar sounds leave more space.
FRUSCIANTE: Yeah, well, it was more about each of us making the other guy sound good, rather than showing off. Space – oh here’s what I wanted to say: My least favorite kind of music and guitar playing is the sort where I feel like it’s trying to do something to me. Like I’m supposed to sit there going… [orgasmic noises]. Do you know what I mean?

GW: Manipulative music.
FRUSCIANTE: Yeah, where it’s just so obvious. Like the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Things are more subdued at Flea’s suburban house near Griffith Park. Actually, there’s a pretty boisterous ping-pong game going on, but Flea himself is certainly more subdued than his guitarist. His gap-toothed grin makes him look like Sixties character actor Michael J. Pollard. No matter what question he’s asked, he ends up talking about the deep spiritual bond shared by the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and of their love for each other. Guys with a lot of tattoos and muscles always talk like that.

“This is the first time the Red Hot Chili Peppers have done two albums in a row with the same lineup,”the bassman enthuses. “We’ve had the privilege of touring together and getting real tight and then recording after that. That really helps a lot – just the telepathy between musicians who really care about playing with one another.”

Flea patiently recounts the by now celebrated tale of the band’s take-over of a haunted 1930’s Hollywood mansion to record Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and of the Peppers living and recording together in manly accord, to escape the tensions of commercial recording studios. The house, not far from John’s place, was discovered by the album’s producer, Rick Rubin. They had the amps miked down the cellar, drums in the ballroom and mixing board in the library; the musicians’ bedrooms doubled as isolation booths for vocals and acoustic guitar.

GW: Was all the material for the album written before you took up residence at the house?
FLEA: It was written before. We started writing after the tour and then we put it all together.

GW: So you cut most of the tracks live?
FLEA: Yeah, very live. In fact a lot of John’s solos are basic tracks, cut live with the rest of the band. We did very little fix-up stuff. John’s philosophy was that he would only play a solo twice. He’d play it once, and if he didn’t like it or we didn’t like it, he’d play it again – completely differently. And that was it. He’s just such a good guitar player. As long as he’s emotionally and spiritually together at the time he’s playing, there’s no messing with John. His shit is powerful. He’s just a real positive spiritual force.

John Frusciante hunches over his kitchen sink, his silk-draped shoulders quaking as he violently vomits. The sudden departure of his stomach’s entire contents doesn’t seem to trouble him unduly. He insists on continuing the interview.

“Don’t make a big deal out if it. Flea, he pukes all the time, man.” John noisily blows his nose, one nostril at a time, as we settle down for some serious guitar talk.

FRUSCIANTE: The guitar I used for all the basic tracks on the album was a Fender Strat. I have a couple of them, but mostly I used the same one. I played through a Marshall bass head and a Marshall guitar head – sometimes only one of them, and sometimes both of them. And I played through that over there. [Points to an area between his sofa and his grand piano.]

GW: Oh, a Fender H.O.T.. [An inexpensive practice amp.]
FRUSCIANTE: It’s pretty good, you know. I think I got some amazing sounds out of it. Facing it to the ground and that kind of shit. And for some things, I just went direct into the board – which is like my favorite guitar sound in the world.

GW: For the clean stuff?
FRUSCIANTE: Yeah, but also for some distorted stuff. Overdriving the board. You can get some great sounds that way.

GW: Do you go through a cabinet emulator?
FRUSCIANTE: [He seems appalled.] No!I just go straight in. There are no bullshit modern effects on this record. All the equipment is from the Seventies and before.

GW: How long did it take you to record everything?
FRUSCIANTE: We did it quickly, considering we recorded 25 songs. The songs that aren’t on the album are great. We do an incredible cover of the Stooges’ “Search And Destroy” – a song I would be offended to hear anybody cover, because I think the original has such a characteristic vibe. But our version is good.

GW: Will any of these ever be released?
FRUSCIANTE: That’ll be on a B-side. I really wanted it to be on the record, but we could only put so much on a CD, and we decided to give first preference to the originals.

GW: If you used Strats for the basics, where did your Jag come in?
FRUSCIANTE: Overdubs. Solos and overdubs.

GW: This instrument is in an interesting condition. There’s some sort of crud cakes in the area between the pickups. What were you saying earlier about this neck?
FRUSCIANTE: You know, it’s just screwed up. [He picks up the guitar and starts playing bluesy riffs.] Actually it’s pretty good today. But… there… see what I mean?

GW: Dead spots.
FRUSCIANTE: But it has so much character. [Plays an r&b riff on the low strings.] Hear the way the body resonates? Incredible.

GW: Sounds very Zoot Horn Rollo. [Captain Beefheart’s first guitar player.]
FRUSCIANTE: Yeah, I love his guitar sounds so much.

GW: Do you like Marc Ribot?
FRUSCIANTE: I don’t know who that is.

GW: One hears a lot of Hendrix in your playing.
FRUSCIANTE: I love Jimi Hendrix.

GW: Who are some of the other major guitarists for you?
FRUSCIANTE: D. Boon [late guitarist of the Minutemen], James Williamson from the Stooges, Syd Barrett, Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana, Keith Levine [guitarist of Public Image, Ltd.]… I could go forever.

GW: Are you influenced a lot by what Hillel Slovak did in the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
FRUSCIANTE: Very much. The way Hillel and Flea connected when they were playing was just incredible. They learned how to play together. So Hillel is a huge inspiration to me based on that alone.

GW: Was it difficult to find your own space in the band?
FRUSCIANTE: Well, you know, it took me a while. But I was never a clone of anybody. It’s just weird, joining a band after somebody as amazingly original as Hillel was the guitar player. When I first joined the band I didn’t feel that I had as much originality. But now I do.

Getting back to Flea: There’s one thing everybody wants to know: How’d a white kid growing up in middle class Hollywood get so damn funky?
FLEA: I was raised on black music. The first music I was really into was Louis Armstrong. That’s about as black as you can get. And I’ve always loved funk music: Parliament/Funkadelic, Ohio Players, Brothers Johnson, James Brown.

GW: Were your tastes considered unusual in your high school?
FLEA: Musically, everything was unusual for me at the high school I went to. The black kids were into Parliament/Funkadelic and the white kids were into Led Zeppelin and Kiss. I wasn’t really into either. I was raised on hard-core bebop. My stepdad’s a jazz musician, and I was really into that. Not that I had the technical ability or knowledge of music theory to play that shit. But that’s what I wanted to do. I played classical music too – I played in the L.A. Junior Philharmonic. I didn’t get into rock music at all until I met Hillel, who had this rock band in high school with Jack Irons [the Chili Peppers’ first drummer] called Anthem. When we became friends, they said, “Why don’t you figure out how to play the bass? We’ll boot out the bass player we’ve got and you can play with us.” Hillel got me listening to Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Rush, Bill Bruford, Alan Holdsworth, the Dixie Dregs, Black Sabbath – all kinds of stuff. That’s when I got into rock music. Once that happened, then I started getting hip to the punk rock thing. One night I took a hit of acid and went to see this band called Fear. I just said, “Holy Shit! Rock music: this is what it’s about!” And a week later I saw an ad in the paper: “Fear is looking for a new bass player.” And I was there. I got that gig. And that kind of changed things around for me.

GW: Coming, as you did, from a jazz and classical background, did rock music seem simplistic to you at first?
FLEA: No. Because it was a whole other world. I was amazed because the background I came from was all reading music. But here were my friends, just hanging out and jamming on Hendrix tunes and blues. It just seemed so much wilder. It was more in tune with people my age and what they were into. It was a challenge for me to get into that. So it didn’t seem simplistic,no.

GW: What is the essence of the funk?
FLEA: The essence of the funk is being loyal to the funk. Living by it, feeling it 24 hours a day. It’s the true universal language. I just love it. Always have. I believe in it. I believe that it can save people. I love so many kinds of music, but the funk is something else. I hear funk in everything.

GW: Even Mozart?
FLEA: Yeah. I hear it everywhere.

GW: Has playing with John and Chad Smith [the Chilis’ current drummer] changed your approach to bass in any way?
FLEA: I’m sure it has, but I can’t put my finger on any tangible thing. I mean, the main thing about being a good player is listening to the other players. I try to listen as best as I can to them. So obviously I’m paying off of them. On this album, I really got off on just playing beautiful, simple bass lines. I was also very inspired by Eric Avery, the bass player from Jane’s Addiction. On their last record, he played such beautiful bass parts so simply and so nicely. It was an inspiration for me. It helped me get a big sound on the record. You know, I have this reputation for being this bitchin’ bass player and stuff. But I was never able to just get a beautiful, big round bass sound, the reason being that I played too much: There was no room for the bass lines to breathe and be big. But on this record, I got a big, booming, killing sound.

GW: What kind of gear did you use?
FLEA: On the record I played a Wal bass and a Music Man five-string through Mesa/Boogie cabinets and a Gallien-Krueger head.

GW: Do you use very heavy strings?
FLEA: Medium.

GW: Do you like your action high or low?
FLEA: Medium. [laughs] Actually, I like it as low as can be without buzzing.

GW: A lot of people associate heavy bass slapping with high action.
FLEA: Yeah, well, I figure as long as the strings don’t buzz, why torture yourself?

Show-And-Tell time continues back at John Frusciante’s house. The guitarist produces another one of his fave axes – a fretless Stratocaster!

GW: What do you use that for?
FRUSCIANTE: Oh, you sit around and play like… [He plays an Indian raga-style improvisation, using the A string as a drone.] I came up with one Indian-sounding thing on it while Flea was playing the drums. Flea had the idea of using it on the bridge of “Mellowship Slinky.” [He plays the riff.] So it’s on there, and in the solo section of “Suck My Kiss.” A few different places.

GW: Did you have this fretless custom-made for you?
FRUSCIANTE: Well, the frets on this guitar were completely shot, so I took it to Nadine’s [a L.A. music store]. Actually, I took it in for something else, but the guy says, “Man you gotta get new frets.” And he put on these huge frets. Jumbos. Which were like shit. So wimpy. When I play, I press down hard on the strings. And when I did that with the jumbos, it didn’t even sound in tune. So I just told him to make it fretless.

GW: I it hard to chord on that?
FRUSCIANTE: It’s no good for chords. Absolutely impossible. Check it out. [He hands me the guitar. I try some chords, then some raga-style riffs.]

GW: Takes some getting used to, eh?
FRUSCIANTE: Yeah. But at the same time I was really comfortable on it the first time I played it. When I can’t do something, I like it – it sounds better to me when you don’t have everything completely in control.

GW: [playing] Oh I see, chords sound all muted because the strings aren’t being stopped by the frets. [I try some blues riffs.]
FRUSCIANTE: But see, you don’t have to bend. You just slide up and down on the string to change the pitch. It’s hard to bend. Why would you want to? [He takes the guitar and demonstrates.]

GW: Do you know of anybody else who does this?
FRUSCIANTE: Adrian Belew. I’m shit at it. He’s probably amazing at it by now.

GW: Are you into alternate tunings at all?
FRUSCIANTE: Not in any systematic way. But yeah, sure, we futz with our tuning all the time. On “Power Of Equality,” the first song on the record, the low E string is tuned down to E flat. Sometimes Flea tunes down to D, like for “Naked In The Rain.” [He tunes down and plays the riff.] But we’re not into it like Sonic Youth is. I did do a few songs with broken strings. Then there was the acoustic guitar on the song “I Could Have Lied.” I was playing it from my bedroom, which is where I played all the acoustic guitars and… What was I talking about?

GW: The broken string.
FRUSCIANTE: Yeah, so like the G string was missing on that. I was missing strings on a lot of songs.

GW: “The Righteous And The Wicked” opens with this wonderfully sick harmonized guitar sound.
FRUSCIANTE: That’s no harmonizer! [He dashes into another room and returns with an ancient Gibson lap steel.] That’s this! I broke a string when we were recording the basic tracks to that song, so we had to redo the guitar. That’s one of the few basic tracks that wasn’t played live. We kind of pieced it together. Like the choruses are a Les Paul through a couple of Marshalls. You know, big-time distorted guitar. And I was really pissed when I did it too. I thought I was sucking. Feelings like that hardly ever came over me in doing this album. Most of the time everything just flew out perfectly.

But what about the ghosts? It’s a story with which everyone who reads the entertainment press is familiar: Hollywood rock band makes record in haunted mansion. Spirits of the rich and famous. Ectoplasm flying everywhere.

“It was haunted, man.” Flea’s tone of voice signals that he’s not joking. “There was a heavy vibe in that place. I never saw a ghost, but I felt a lot of things. It could have been my imagination, I don’t know. But it was pretty spooky.” The bassist goes on to detail a few classic poltergeist experiences reported by the band’s crew: rooms suddenly going ice cold, preternaturally animated vegetation – that sort of thing. John backs Flea up 100 percent.

FRUSCIANTE: There’s ghosts in the house. I hear them when I listen to the record.

GW: Did you see a ghost?
FRUSCIANTE: No, I heard one.

GW: Speaking? Bumping?
FRUSCIANTE: A woman having an orgasm.

GW: That certainly must have added to the vibe of the record.
FRUSCIANTE: Everything about that place did. It was a very magical place.

— Alan Di Perna

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