Basic Instict

John Frusciante opens a window to his soul on the intimate, acoustic Curtains

There are an infinite number of great songs out there,” says John Frusciante. “I don’t think we’ll ever exhaust the possibilities of a few simple guitar chords.” That the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist truly believes this was made clear when he recently recorded a series of six solo discs, which he then released at the rate of approximately one per month. Embracing styles from indie rock to electronica to “unplugged,” the recordings are a testament to the fertility of Frusciante’s imagination and the breadth of his musical tastes.

Curtains (Record Collection), the final disc in the series, is an album of primarily acoustic guitar-driven songs characterized by their poignant melodicism, occasionally eccentric structure and lyrics that are both abstractly philosophical and emotionally resonant. While Fruscainte has made extensive use of the acoustic on 2003’s Shadows Collide with People and other solo albums, Curtains is his most fully realized unplugged work to date. The guitarist skillfully augments his crisp acoustic chording and expressive vocals with overdubs on synthesizers and electric guitar, and he benefits from the tastefully minimalist backing of stand-up bassist Ken Wild, Autolux drummer Carla Azar and the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez on electric guitar. But mostly we hear Frusciante, who recorded Curtains in his living room, strumming and singing songs that express his unique notions about the nature of time, death and dimensions beyond our own.

Like the other five albums in the series, Curtains was recorded quickly and on vintage analog gear – in this instance an Ampex eight-track tape machine. Frusciante says he was out to capture both the warm sound of the pre-digital era and the inspired spontaneity of recordings from the Fifties and Sixties, when artists would typically have just one day to record a song and a few weeks to complete a entire album. One upside of this approach is that it enabled Frusciante to commit a huge body of work to tape in a short period of time.

“I write a lot of songs,” he says, “and they mean a great deal to me and represent my growth in a lot of ways. But as the guitar player in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I don’t have the time to record my own stuff as much as I’d like.”

So when the Chili Peppers recently took a half-year break after touring behind their last album, 2002’s By The Way, Frusciante made the most of the opportunity. “During those six months I recorded all the music that’s been coming out,” he says. “It’s basically material from the last three years, but each album also contains new things – half of Curtains, for example, was written during that break.”

Like Frusciante’s electric guitar playing in the Chili Peppers, his songs are fresh, inventive and more than a tad off kilter. Frusciante recognizes this and regards it as a strength. “What I try to do,” he says, “is make words say what they weren’t naturally designed to say.”

Do you write all your songs on acoustic guitar?
Pretty much, although sometimes I write on an unamplified electric guitar.
I have a few old Martins, two small-bodied 0-15’s and an 0-18, at my house that date from the Forties. I usually write songs on one of those. And I always bring a couple of acoustic guitars on the road with me to write with.
Writing songs on an unamplified electric has its drawbacks. The guitar is so quiet that I sometimes sing in a high falsetto voice that doesn’t really work when I do the final recording. So I’ve learned to write on the acoustic and actually sing in the style that I want to use on the final recording.

There is a very intimate quality about Curtains, partly, no doubt, because you recorded the songs in your living room.
Yeah. It was just me sitting on a pillow on my living room floor, with my back leaning against the couch. There was a Neuman KM54 microphone on my guitar and a Telefunken 250 mic for my vocals. I would just go back and forth between my living room and the library, which is now the control room, and listen to what I’d done.
Sometimes, [engineer] Ryan Hewitt and I would splice together two different takes.

Did you work with any kind of click track?
No. I have a very good sense of time, and it’s not a problem for me to avoid speeding up or slowing down. When I do it’s usually because I mean to. Even in the Chili Peppers, we use click tracks as little as possible. Sometimes [producer] Rick [Rubin] suggests it, and we’ll do it just to feel what it would be like to play exactly in time. But we never like the way it sounds when something’s recorded with a click, and usually switch it off when we go for a take.
I’m not saying my tempo didn’t fluctuate when I was recording Curtains. When the bass player and drummer did their overdubs, they had to memorize the spots where the tempo sped up or slowed down. But to me, that sounded good. That’s the part of the music where the human being really exists. I don’t like recordings that are perfect.

Did you sing and play guitar simultaneously when you recorded the songs?
I did on all but two of them: “Hope” and “Time Tonight,” where I recorded the acoustic guitar first and then overdubbed the lead vocals. The guitar parts in those songs are a little more intricate, my timing was much more in the pocket.

Did you play your Martin acoustics on the album?
Yeah. On “Ascension” I also played a 1940’s Martin 12-string. I really love David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album, and there’s a few songs on there that have a 12-string in one speaker and a six-string in the other that basically play the same thing.

A lot of the songs are in keys like G sharp and C sharp. Did you detune the guitars or use a capo? Or did you just play barre chords in standard tuning?
I’m never in any alternate tuning; it’s always standard. I’m a fan of capos, but I didn’t use one on this album. To me, every key has a different feeling to it. I try to not to play in “normal” keys because I feel there might be some interesting ideas waiting to happen in keys others often avoid. We might be at that point in time to see what kinds of feelings are in the sharp keys.

The intro to “Control” includes a C minor arpeggio. Did you fingerpick that?
No, that’s a plectrum. It just sounds like a fingerpicking pattern. And I’m playing really softly. That’s the thing about that song. When I originally wrote it, it was pretty much one volume all the way through. But when I did the recording, on the spur of the moment I came up with the idea of alternating from loud to soft to really fast. Every line starts out soft and then gets real loud at the end of line. The song really seemed to come to life when I did that.

The B7 to E minor chord change your play in the chorus to “The Past Recedes” has a real Beatles-esque, Ruber Soul feel about it. Was that intentional?
I definitely put a lot of time into studying the Beatles’ music in the past few years. It might come out sometimes.

Although you use really simple, open chords shapes in that song, there’s a kind of magic to it. I guess that’s what every songwriter aspires to – to create something new with a couple of G, C and D chords.
I know. I’m really excited about using familiar chords and progressions in ways that are so in tune with the current of life that it gives the song a deep emotional feeling. Or using familiar chords and progressions with rhytms that never have been applied to them before. All this is completely opposite from the way I played when I made By the Way with the Chili Peppers, where I tried to make the songs harmonically unique by using interesting chords. At that time, I was studying Charles Mingus and the Beatles – anything I could get my hands on that relied on abnormal chords. I learned a lot from that, and I still use unusual chords here and there, but I’ve regained an excitement for what you can get with just an A minor, a D minor, a D and a C.

Sometimes it takes just living your life a certain way to be able to open yourself to the rhythm of the cosmos, to the point where you can use those familiar chords in the same way you might speak a few simple words of love to someone. A few of the most basic words in the language might be the most meaningful thing someone can hear, and the same can be said with basic chords.

—Alan DiPerna

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