Playing guitar in the Chilis might look like fun, but for John Frusciante those huge world tour are a source of frustration. Your favourite Chili Pepper explains why he had to release six solo albums in six months…
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”. As if to prove his point, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist recently recorded and released a series of six solo albums over the latter part of 2004/early 2005. Embracing styles from indie rock and electronica to “unplugged,” the recordings are a testament to the fertility of Frusciante’s imagination and the variety of his musical tastes.
Curtains, the final album in the series, is full of primarily acoustic guitar driven songs that combine poignant melodicism with an adventurous sense of structure and lyrics that are abstract and philosophical yet filled with emotional resonance. Frusciante has made extensive use of acoustic guitar on past solo albums like 2003’s Shadows Collide with People. But Curtains is his most fully realised acoustic work to date. The guitarist skillfully adorns his crisp acoustic chording and expressive vocals with overdubs on synthesizers and electric guitar. There is tastefully minimal backing from standup bassist Ken Wild, Autolux drummer Carla Azar and Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez who chips in on electric guitar. But mostly we hear Frusciante sitting on the floor of his living room, where Curtains was recorded, strumming and singing songs that reflect his unique insights into the nature of time, death and dimensions beyond our own. “I try to make words say what they weren’t naturally designed to say,” he laughs.
Like all the albums in the six-album solo series, Curtains was recorded quickly be today’s standards and on vintage analog gear – an Ampex eight-track tape machine in this case. Frusciante was out to capture the warm sound of the pre-digital era and also the inspired spontaneity of recordings from the 1950s and 1960s when artists would typically have just a day to record a song and a few weeks to do a whole album. But these working methods also enabled Frusciante to commit a huge body of work to tape in a short space of time.
“I write a lot of songs,” he shrugs. “But being the guitar player in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I don’t have a chance to record my own stuff as much as I’d like because the Chili Peppers have such a busy schedule. The songs I write mean a great deal to me and represent my growth in a lot of ways. But I don’t really get a chance to record them until the Chili Peppers come to the period of down time, like we came to after we finished touring for our last album By the Way. We had a six-month break. So during those six months I recorded all the music that’s been coming out. It’s basically material from the last three years, but each album also contains new material. For instance, half the songs on Curtains were written during that six-month break. So it’s not just material from a long time ago…”
Does Curtains provide a snapshot of how all your songs sound early in their development? Do they all begin on acoustic guitar?
“Pretty much. Sometimes I write songs on an unamplified electric guitar. I have a few old Martins at my house that date from the 1940s: two small bodied 0-15s and an 0-18, which is also small bodied with a blond top. One of those is what I usually write songs on. And I always bring a couple of acoustic guitars on the road with me that I use for songwriting. Writing songs on an unamplified electric sometimes ends up being problematic. The guitar is so quiet that I often end up singing in a high falsetto voice that doesn’t really work with the final recording. I need to sing in a full voice, but it’s out of my range. So i’ve learned to write on the acoustic and actually sing in the style that I want the final recording sung in.”
The performances on Curtains have a very intimate quality, which is probably a result of your recording them 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 were mic [a KM-54] on my guitar and another mic [a Telefunken 250] for 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 [enginner] Ryan Hewitt and I would make an edit between two different takes.”
Did you work with any kind of click track on these recordings?
“No. I have a very good sense of time. It’s not a problem for me to speed up or slow down. If I do it’s usually because I mean to. I like the way human beings move. Even in the Chili Peppers we use click tracks as little as possible. Sometimes [producer] Rick Rubin suggests it, and we’ll play with a click track just to feel what it would be like to play exactly in time. But we never like the way it sounds when something has been recorded with a click track. So we usually switch off the click when we go for a take.
“But 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 memorise the spots where the tempo sped up or slowed down. But, to me, that just sounded realy good. That’s the part of the music where the human being really exists. I really don’t like recordings that are absolutelt perfect.”
Did you sing and play guitar simultaneously when you recorded the songs?
“All but two of them; Hope and Time Tonight. The guitar parts in those songs are a little more intricate. And when I played the guitar without sings those songs, my timing was much more in the pocket. So for those, I recorded the acoustic guitar first and then overdubbed the lead vocals.”
Did you play the aforementioned Martin acoustics on the album?
“Yeah, and on Ascension I also played a Martin acoustic 12-string, and an E12-36, which was also from the 1940s. I really love David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album, and there’s a few songs on there where there’s a 12-string in one speaker and a six-string in the other that are basically playing the same thing.”
A lot of the songs are in keys like G sharp and C sharp. Are the guitars either capoed or detuned for those? Or are just playing barres in standard tuning on the songs that are in sharp and flat keys?
“I’m never in any alternate tuning. It’s always standard. I’m a fan of capos, but in this case I didn’t use one. To me, every key has a different feel to it. So I try not to stick to the normal keys that people might use. Because I feel there might be some interesting ideas waiting to happen in keys that people don’t noramlly use.”
Did your fingerpick the intro to Control – the C minor arpeggio?
“No, that’s not fingerpicking, that’s a plectrum. I’m just doing a pattern that’s 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 I just came up with idea of going back and forth from loud to soft 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 in the chorus to The Past Recedes imparts a real Beatles, Rubber Soul-era feel to the song.
“I definitely put a lot of time into studying the Beatles’ music in the past few years. It might come through sometimes I guess.”
That song uses simple open chord shapes. Yet there’s a kind ofd magic to it. That’s what most songwriters want – to do something new with a couple of G, C and D chords.
“I know! I’ve been really excited about that recently – using familiar chords and even familiar progressions, but using them in ways that are so in tune with the current of life that the resulting song has a deep emotional feeling to it. Or to use familiar chords and progressions with rhythms that never have been apllied to them before. All this is completely opposite to how I was when I recorded By The Way. On that album I was trying to make the songs harmonically unique by usng interesting chords. I was studying Charles Mingus and the Beatles – anything I could get my hands on that used abnormal chords. I learned a lot from that and I still use unusual chords here and there, but I’ve regained an excitement for the possibilities that can happen with just an A minor, a D minor, a D and a C. Sometimes it just takes 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 it’s the same with basic chords.”
New Chilis’ Album!
The latest on RHCP’s next CD…
With the Chili Peppers revealing recently that they’ve finished writing their ninth studio album – the follow-up to 2002’s By the Way – rumours are rife as to the direction the band have taken in their sound. According a band spokesman, the Chili’s were due to go into the studio in March to record the new record with long-time producer Rick Rubin, and that they have upwards of 35 songs written. No release date has yet been set.
Anthony Kiedis seems chuffed with the work so far. He told mtv.com: “We’re so in love with the songs we wrote. We’re working really hard.” Bassist Flea said of the songs: “They rock! We played a wide variety of music arranged into song format that is among the most diverse and dynamic good feeling stuff we have ever done. We gave it no thought. We just rocked and it worked well, it is the fastest we have ever recorded so much material. It was the way to go, I can’t wait for y’all to hear it. No thinking just rocking.”
Rumours on the Chili Pepper’s official German website (www.redhotchilipeppers.de) state that the new record could be a double album, ore even two albums released independant of each other in a System Of A Down style.
TG’s Rough guide to John’s solo sextuplet
The DC EP
The only one of John’s solo albums not to feature synths (those weird boxes with lots of knobs on) was recorded in the same Washington, DC studio where one of John’s favourite punk bands, Fugazi, record. Fugazi collaborator Jerry Busher played drums, while John laid down his guitar work on a borrowed Les Paul Junior and Marshall head.
Mor of a group project tha a solo album, really, Automatic Writing is a collaboration between John, Fugazi bassist Joe Lally and Frusciante’s pal Josh Klinghoffer. A dark, elentless record, it was written around the trio’s long improvisations and repetitive grooves. “It felt like the music was just there and we were sucked into its writing energy.”
The Will To Death
Referencing bands like Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and Talking Heads, John set out to record an album that was peppered intentionally with imperfections. In Frusciante’s world, off-pitch vocals and ou-of-tune guitars should be tolerated if the overall vibe of a recording is good. Neil Young would no doubt approve.
Inside Of Emptiness
This was another collaboration with John’s chum Josh Klinghoffer and was inspired, in terms of production, by the albums White Light/White Heat by Velvet Underground and Lust For Life by Iggy Pop. The solo for the song A Firm Kick was recorded by John Apparently “beating the fuck out of” his guitar. Nice.
A Sphere In The Heart Of Silence
John’s final collaboration with Josh was a richly textured slice of electronica. The album’s about as far removed from a Chilis’ record as the intrepid Frusciante could get. Sphere, the first song on the album, was originally 30 minutes long – that’s more than three times longer than Sir Psycho Sexy!
John ended his solo sextuplet with the acoustic-driven Curtains. Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez played lead guitar on two tracks. The entire thing was recorded in Frusciante’s front room, on an Ampex 8-track tape machine from the 70s. John’s next record will of course be the new Chilis’ album, which will hopefully land later this year…
* NOTE: Half of the article is identical to this one, but not all of it!