Death & Axes

If John Frusciante is mad, many people would do well to emulate his madness. Yes, some of his best friends live in other dimensions. But at a time when so many “normal” humans live increasingly stressed and unfocused lives, Frusciante is cheerful, at peace with the universe, and sharply attuned to what matters most in his corner of reality- music. A voracious listener, the scope of his taste is amazingly broad, embracing everything from avant-garde electronica to world beat marginalia. Frusciante’s notoriously drug-riddled youth seems to have left him in perpetual creative mode. He’s always writing new songs or hot on the trail of some strange new modular synth patch.

Frusciante’s far-reaching musical vision has served him well in his capacity as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist. He played a key role in the success of recent RHCP albums like Californication and By the Way. But John has also been racking up an impressive body of solo work. Shadows Collide with People (Warner Bros.) is the latest postcard from the Frusciante dimension. It’s an eerily beautiful place where weird synth sonar beams illuminate the melodic majesty of acoustic guitar-driven pop tunes- and where death is happy and time isn’t real. Welcome.

How did the songs on Shadows Collide with People come into being?
Most of them were composed while I was writing the music for the Chili Peppers’ By the Way album. At the time I was living at this hotel, the Chateau Marmont, in Hollywood. I was going in a few different directions, making completely programmed music as part of my “learning about synthesizers” experience, and even writing some really sad music that ended up in the Vincent Gallo movie Brown Bunny.

But the songs that started to take shape as the Shadows Collide with People album all had a sort of open, human quality. They also all seemed like songs that would sound good with real drums playing on them. I just started seeing conceptually the way the whole album would go. Originally, I was going to have more drum machine-y electronic things going in the middle of it. But I felt like that would dilute the song element. So to offset the songs, we ended up doing a few avant-garde electronic pieces that create a juxtaposition without diluting the other element.

So all the songs on the album, as opposed to the avant-garde electronic pieces, were written on acoustic guitar?
Yeah, most of them were. During that period I was very interested in learning about chords and understanding chord theory better- the application of 9ths, 11ths, 13ths and all of that. And it’s really much better to practice that sort of thing on acoustic guitar, because the richness of harmonics is so much deeper than with an electric- the way the notes of a chord resonate together. Amazing things happen on the acoustic guitar. Sometimes you find chords where you can actually hear notes that you’re not playing, because the combination of harmonics ends up resulting in an additional note. You might be playing a six-note chord and you can hear a seventh note. You can hum that note. You can point it out to other people and they can hear it too.

Did you have any particular notion of how you wanted to use the acoustic guitar on the album?
I really wanted the acoustic guitar to be dominant. In sections of songs where one might ordinarily overdub an electric guitar to add power, my idea was to just leave a blank space and have an acoustic guitar playing there while the drums conveyed the power of the section. I didn’t want to take that obvious route of adding a grungey electric guitar.

Is it hard to fit an acoustic guitar into a dense mix?
Very; I definitely questioned the ability of the acoustic guitar to sit powerfully in a mix with other instruments. All those other frequencies really cover up a lot of the acoustic guitar. When you think about a lot of records that combine acoustic guitar with drums and bass and all that, a lot of the time you only hear the top end of the acoustic guitar, almost like a percussion instrument. You don’t even hear the chords, just the attack of the notes. So it was definitely disappointing to solo the acoustic guitar and hear how rich it sounded, and then to hear it once you had the cymbals and everything else going on, eating up the frequencies and making it so much smaller. But we did the best we could, and I am really happy with the record. I do feel like I achieved exactly what I set out to do.

Is there any particular acoustic guitar you used on the album?
I have some Martin o-15’s, which are really small guitars, from the late Forties and early Fifties. I have two brown ones and a blond one.

The album in general seems to be tinged with a sense of regret. There’s even a song called “Regret.”
You’re wrong. I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in my life. And to me that song is funny.

It’s hard to know what your intent there is, since the sole lyrical content is “I regret my past. Stay alone.”I realize that it gives that impression. It makes me regret putting it on the record! But really, I’m very happy to be who I am and very proud of who I am. I hope that’s the message that comes through on the record more than any other. I really try to put across a positive message. I just like to play games with words and try to put together ideas that contradict one another, or don’t go together. And to me the statement, “I regret my past” is in itself a contradiction. Because all you are is what you have been up to this point. The “I” who did those things is the same “I” who is now saying he wishes he didn’t do them. The two concepts cancel each other out.

The album is also filled with ruminations on the nature of time. There are lots of lines like “time grows old in reverse,” from “In Relief.”
I’ve given a lot of thought to that sort of thing. I’ve seen time mix itself up quite a bit. I’ve seen films of things in my head before they actually happened, or things that happened a long time ago. So I don’t believe in the linear appearance of time. That’s just how it’s laid out for us in this world. But people in other dimensions see it all as one simultaneous thing. Like, if you’re walking across the country, one place appears to come “after” another place. But if you’re looking down from a satellite, you can see it’s all just one place.

After “time,” “God” and “death” are perhaps the two words that pop up most frequently in the lyrics.
I probably just put God in there because it’s a big image. I don’t have any religious beliefs, and I’m not interested in that as subject matter. But I do like to use strong imagery- I Like screwing around with big ideas. To me, my lyrics are really funny. Like that line in “Carvel” about “sending a dummy to my God.” It’s just a joke, you know- the idea of not really dying and sending a dummy in your place.

As far as death goes, it is one of the things that I do love writing about. It’s just my excitement at the though of dying. It’s just part of my joy, intertwined with my love for being alive. I can’t possibly embrace life without embracing death. It’s one of my favorite things to write about, in part because it’s a way of communicating with friends who are not living in this world. Also, I’ve been given enough of a glimpse of death to know that it’s something I have to look forward to. I especially believe that the more effort you put into doing a good job here on Earth, the more interesting the next life will be for you. So part of what makes me so happy to be alive is that I really am so excited about the prospect of dying.

I think that’s a state of mind many people aspire to but few achieve. There’s usually that fear.
Yeah, but see, I don’t have that fear. It just seems fun to me.

Your lyrics about death are kind of playful- for instance, the line “reaching inside of a big death bag,” from the song “Water.”Yeah. You have to play with things. When you receive instructions from somebody or something in some other dimension, it’s good to bend those instructions- to screw with them. If you ever have a voice in your head telling you to do something, don’t just obey it implicitly. Listen to it, but twist it around in a way that the generator of the voice won’t expect. That’s the kind of thing it takes to have a good and healthy relationship with death.

When a song comes to you, is it immediately clear whether you’re going to keep it for yourself or bring it to the Chili Peppers?
If I get an idea that’s just an interesting guitar part, and I have no vocal idea for it, then that’s always for the Chili Peppers. But if I start singing a melody or coming up with a lyric, that’s for me. Because I don’t write any lyrics for the Chili Peppers; I only write lyrics on my own solo records. And writing lyrics is something I’ve been doing since I was 11 years old. Sometimes maybe I’ll discover a new chord and write a song for myself with that chord and then think, “God, I should write a Chili Peppers song using that chord.” But it would then be used completely differently.

There’s always a clear line, a different sensibility, that distinguishes your solo work from the Chili Peppers material. Even though [Chili Peppers members] Chad Smith plays drums on Shadows Collide with People and Flea plays bass on one song, you would never mistake it for Chili Peppers music.
That’s because I was the sole producer of my album. In the Chili Peppers I definitely contribute production-type ideas, but a lot of things end up being compromised. I might record a ton of different sounds and things like that for a song, but [Peppers producer] Rick Rubin is always going to favor the lead vocal in the mix. But my album was much more my concept- which is that the overdubs, rather than the lead vocal, should be the focal point of the mix. A lot of the time, that’s what holds my interest when I’m listening to a record- little sounds coming in and out. That’s one reason I was very disappointed with By the Way. I felt it had too much of just one dynamic all the way through. Just a vocal being the focal point of the mix isn’t enough.

What’s up with the Chili Peppers right now?
We’re taking a break. We get back to work in the summertime when we’ll finish up the album we started last summer. We already have 15 songs and will probably write another 15 and figure out what we’re gonna do.

Can you give us a hint of what it might be like?
These days I’m big on things being raw and on celebrating flaws. The stuff we’ve recorded so far sounds very much like a band. I’m trying not to draw so much attention to myself this time. I’m trying to limit myself to one backing vocal, and certainly never more than three voices at once. I’m trying to get back into really emphasizing space rather than filling it up with things.

Sounds like the complete opposite of By the Way, which had all those lavish vocal harmonies.
Once you’ve done something like that, it’s usually best to go in a completely different direction. For me, that’s the way to continue growing as an artist. Always find a way to turn the corner.

— Alan di Perna

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