It’s the most anticipated rock records of 2002, but – as John Frusciante reveals – the Chili Peppers’ By The Way was inspired by a lost generation of 80s guitar heroes…
Nearly 20 years since Anthony Kiedis and Flea first formed the Red Hot Chili Peppers, things are looking rosier than ever for the Californian funk rockers. 1999’s Californication was their biggest-selling album to date and something of a relief to fans who thought the band had gone off the boil with its predecessor, 1995’s One Hot Minute.
And the new album? Well, if you haven’t heard it yet, rest assured you won’t be disappointed; By The Way will do little to dent the band’s reputation as a serious creative force and everything to enhance it. From the hot funk-rock stylings of the title track to the mellower, more spiritual moments captured on Don’t Forget Me or Venice Queen, By The Way looks like another triumph. Who knows, it may even catapult the Peppers into that â€˜elder statesmen of rock’ territory, thanks to its maturity and depth. Yes, they might still play stripped down to the waist, tattoos and trackmarks displayed for all the world to see, but since the Chilis swapped drugs for the natural high that comes with making good music, there’s no stopping them. And they can’t help but translate all this positive energy onto their new record. From the sounds of it, the Chili Peppers is a good place to be at the moment…
“Like Californication, writing By The Way has been one of the happiest times in my life”, begins a relaxed John Frusciante. Once again long haired and bearded , he looks slightly out of place sitting on a plump sofa in the plush surroundings of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge. “It’s been a chance to just keep on writing better songs and improving my guitar playing.”
Since John re-joined the band for Califonication, th rest of the group have greatly benefited from his dedication to – not to mention enthusiasm for – making music. As singer Anthony Kiedis says, “John is always deeply disciplined and committed to living and breathing his music at all hours of the day and night. That’s pretty infectious.” But typically, he’s anxious not to single himself out. And on By The Way the Chili Peppers remain dedicated to their one-for-all-and-all-for-one jamming ideal, he claims. “I know what Anthony and Chad and Flea have said but I think of it more as a band effort. I do put a lot of energy into everything, sure, but I don’t underestimate that the real energy comes from the four of us. That’s umber one over any of our individual efforts.”
Thanks partly to the group-driven work ethic, the Chilis continue to be a prolific band. As with Californication, they just came up with too much material for this album. “We recorded 28 songs in the end, some of which will be B-sides [14 made the final cut]. There was definitely a lot of good stuff, but we didn’t have time to work on everything we wrote.”
Four years since the return of Frusciante, the Chili Peppers seem closer and stronger than ever. Is it something that’s getting easier, being in this band?
“Yeah… but I guess the difference between now and 10 years ago is that we’re all in the same headspace. Around the time of BloodSugar…, Flea and I were smoking a lot of pot, especially me, Anthony wasn’t and it disconnected. I thought it was having a good effect on my music, which in a way it was. But it’s the energy f the four of us that makes the music, not smoking pot of any other drug.”
‘I overestimated its influences. Writing has always come really naturally to me but my recommendation to musicians is you all smoke pot or none of you do: it’s good for a band to be together, be on the same plane. That’s why for Californication and By The Way I had a lot of a happier experience than when I’d worked on Mother’ Milk or BloodSugar… There’s a lot less bad energies around now we’re all coming from the same place.”
Asked how he approached the writing of By The Way, John instantly namechecks a handful of different guitarists… but not the usual suspects. His heroes aren’t Clapton or ENH, but guys who pushed the instrument in obscure and challenging ways. Like Chili alumni Dave Navarro, Frusciante looks back to the 80s and what is effectively a lost generation of guitar players.
“I did have a few guitarists who I was intent of emulating and who were big influences on my sound on By The Way,” he says. “Like Vini Reilly from the Durutti Column.” Signed to Factory records, the Durutti Column created atmospheric, texture-laden songs. Reilly is also known for his flamenco guitar work, which, John says, partly inspired his Spanish-sounding guitar on the song Cabron. “The main thing about his guitar playing is that it’s really textural. There’s lots of really interesting chords and shapes and you can’t really tell what’s going on. It’s a combination of his Les Paul plus some echo, flanger, chorus and phaser and not using distortion. You can’t tell what you’re hearing,” he puzzles. “I have to really sit down and listen carefully to find out what’s going on. He’s just a great guitar player, full stop. I wanted to listen to these people who weren’t just about technique but more about textures. People like Johnny Marr, John McGeoch [Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees] and Andy Partridge [XTC]. People who used good chords,” he concludes.
These players were a big part of how he approached Californication too. “But I also noticed that the people I was really focusing on Califonication had a bigger effect on my playing on this album. Matthew Ashman from Bow Wow Wow and Bernard Sumner from Joy Division and New Order: I noticed their influence on me this time too. Again, it’s a matter of texture over technique, and their influences are evident on tracks like Dosed and Midnight.”
But Frusciante is far from just a fan of ’80s guitar bands – last time TG spoke to him, he was practicing guitar by learning the synth parts to Depeche Mode’s Music For The Masses. At the moment it’s the Human League. “Yeah, I’ve been playing along with their first two albums [1979’s Reproduction and 1980’s Travelogue; detached, austere affairs in the vein of Tangerine Dream]”. Still, as far as John’s concerned, it’s good backing track material. “That’s how I practise. Melodically, I’m far more influenced by Kraftwerk records than by guitarists’ solos. I’m really trying to get away from playing flashy stuff, and concentrating on not playing solos at all. There’s something about soloing that makes me feel like it’s almost irresponsible. I remember when I hadn’t played guitar in five years, I could pick up a guitar anytime any play that kind of flashy stuff, and I hadn’t been practicing at all. But there was no feeling there.”
And anyway, didn’t he once say that Eric Clapton in Cream took the solo to its utmost peak and that there’s no point even heading in that direction anymore? “Did I say that?”, he laughs. “Right. Well, I love that music, y’know? But yeah, I just don’t feel like that’s the way for guitar playing to continue. For me, that playing came to an end in the late 70’s. Then in the late 70s and early 80s. you had all these great guitar players who never get mentioned now. Like Keith Levine from Public Image. It was a really good time for guitar playing and a really underestimated time.”
Players like Levine tried to play out of the blues box, to stretch the guitars to its limits. For John, it’s become almost a mission to take up where they left off. “In the 80s, when I was a kid, everybody was impressed with your speed on the guitar,” he says. “Everyone had forgotten about all those players that emerged in the late 70s and early 80s. I feel like the direction those people were headed in never really got a chance to develop the way in the way that Jimi Hendrix did. That’s why I want to include their approach and their style in my playing – and I think there’s a lot more to be done.”
These players who John loves so much have turned him on to lots of other, older music too. “Someone like Matthew Ashman [Bow Wow Wow], when I hear his guitar playing, I hear a lot of The Shadows and surf music, Gene Vincent, James Burton and Ricky Nelson. There was a lot of different styles he incorporated, and his playing turned me on to all those bands.”
Admittedly, back in the late ’80s when John was a teenager he was hell-bent on mimicking the-Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak – the guy that created the Chili Peppers’ famous funk-rock sound. But for those who are just picking up the guitar now, John offers a source of inspiration a world away. “I’d recommend listening to The Shadows,’ he says. ‘I love that stuff, it really gets your head into the fact that playing guitar is just about one note after the other. That’s it. Even for an advanced player, it’s something to think about because you can see the way that the note is leading the chord. I can’t express enough how important it is for a guitar player to think about what you’re doing instead of just playing automatically. Playing scales, y’know?…” he trails off disapprovingly.
It’s fair to say that Frusciante couldn’t sound happier with his guitar playing’s at right now. “I’m having a lot of fun at the moment. It’s good knowing that you’re looking at the guitar in ways that it’s not been looked at before,’ he says. “I really try to think in terms of what would be an interesting way for my playing to get better. And how to get my playing in a style rather than directly copying a player.”
Talking of playing, John has frequently said that his playing on Californication is the favourite he’s ever done. “I like my playing on my first solo record, too, just because I felt so free back then, being all over the place then eventually playing with just a minimum amount of notes. It’s a perfect place when you get to that point,” he says. “That’s why I like Califonication, because I feel like it’s the result of all that searching. When I hear it, I hear someone trying to best they can at that time, whereas on BloodSugar… I was capable of playing much more than I did.”
“Not that I think it’s bad guitar playing,” he quickly adds. “But I was so concerned with doing everything in one take, I didn’t really take any chances in the studio. With a couple of exceptions, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I think at that time I’m just completely improvising, and every solo has a real spontaneous, even haphazard feel to it. I’m not putting down my guitar playing, I just feel like I was capable of a whole lot of things instead of just cramming in every bit of technique that I possibly could. When I did Californication, I didn’t have any technique, but I was focused and trying my hardest. I’d rather hear someone play the best they’re capable of with the minimum amount of technique that someone with a lot of technique who plays without feeling.”
What’s more important than technique to John now is creating soundscapes like the players he admires so much. “I was using a lot of effects. We wanted to create a real sense of atmosphere. I used a few Line 6 echo pedals, an Electro-Harmonix flanger and the Big Muff a lot.”
And the Ibanez WH10 wah-wah he’s mentioned in previous guitar interviews. “I’m still using it, yeah. It’s on the song Don’t Forget Me, but there’s not as much wah on By The Way as previous albums. I just turned it on and kept it in a trebly position. I only really needed a little bit of wah for that song.”
As for amps, “I was using this big Fender spring reverb from the ’60s” he continues. “I used it with a modulation synthesizer – that’s the sound you hear on the Throw Away Your Television chorus. As you’d expect by the name, it has â€˜great reverb’ but also a really thick sound and a great tone. I listen to a lot of surf compilations and there’s a lot of really cool surf music that came out of the early ’60s that was made by 15 year old kids and that’s how they sounded.” Singling out another fine guitar moment, John reveals, “For Don’t Forget Me, I used and envelope filter and I was using the volume pedal a lot on that song too – and that Line 6 pedal in one of the analogue delay settings to where it’s constantly feeding back. Just as it was about to feed back, I’d just turn the knob as I’m playing to prevent it from going into full-on feedback. It gives it that spooky kind of feeling.”
Frusciante’s been seen playing lots of different guitars – notably, Gretsches, SGs and a Jazzmaster in Under The Bridge video – but it’s with the Strat he’s most readily associated. Though he used a ’58 on Califonication, for By The Way, he opted for a ’62. “That ’58 has a bit of a cleaner sound and it always seemed to sound better for what I wanted on Califonication, but for this album, the ’62 just sounded right straight away – the sustain’s better – so I stuck with that pretty much all the way, apart from and SG on a couple of songs.”
With Chilis’ album number four in the bag, it’s time for solo album number four, loosely scheduled for and October/November release and a collaborative effort with one of Frusciante’s guitar-playing buddies. If By The Way and his previous solo efforts are anything to go by, we can expect more moments of understated, off-the-wall, brilliant from this leftfield maestro.