War Ensemble

“You limey bitch!” Flea, Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist, is storming around a suite in London’s Claridges Hotel throwing insults at me. “C…ucker! You can suck my f***ing d*k!” He hurls a bottle of water at my head. It narrowly misses and explodes against the wall. “This is f***ing bullshit,” he shouts as I try to speak. “Shut the f**k up! F**k you!” Then he stomps out of the room, slamming the door. Outside in the corridor he’s still shouting, “F**k him, F**k him.”

I’ve just asked him if he’s hurt that people are calling Stadium Arcadium ‘John’s album’. It’s a reasonable question. The Chilis’ new double opus comes stamped with John Frusciante’s screaming guitars and, from an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that he’s taken a certain amount of control. There have also been stories that Frusciante and Flea have fallen out, that Flea wanted to leave the band and that the image of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a band of brothers was, in fact, untrue. Prior to Flea’s tantrum, singer Anthony Kiedis had already confessed, “We’re dysfunctional. Whoever said a band was supposed to this perfectly functioning unit?” Drummer Chad Smith added, “There has always been a creative power-struggle.” While Frusciante himself said, “Even since the start, it’s been bandied about that we’re a four-man gang, that we love each other and that we’re a tight unit. It’s never been that way.” What on earth has happened to the world’s biggest rock band?

The Chilis prefer to be interviewed individually. John Frusciante is the first to walk into the room. He looks a little lost, confused almost, and his hair is long, dishevelled and still wet from the shower. He looks anywhere but in your eyes when he’s talking to you, his sentences rolling on interminably until you’re forced to interrupt him. Since joining the band as a 17-year-old in 1988, he’s had a turbulent history. He admits his childhood revolved around, “being alone and practising the guitar. When I was around people I was usually pretending, putting on a show. I would put on a mask.” He also found success hard. When the album ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’ made the Chilis superstars, they all embraced it except Frusciante. “I didn’t know how to be successful,” he says. “I had very little concern for the rest of the band’s feelings. I just cared about my own life.” So he left the band while they were on tour in Japan in 1992 and dedicated himself to painting, playing guitar and trying to be “as creative and beautiful as possible.” Mostly, though, he shot heroin. The evidence of those years is still with him today. When he rolls back his shirt sleeves, his pockmarked, burnt forearm is revealed – the result of setting himself on fire while freebasing. Surprisingly, he doesn’t regret the six years he spent doing drugs away from the band. “People think that was a dark period,” he says, “I don’t look at it like that. That was the period that I learned, when I got my mind straight about everything that I needed to know. I really value that period of time.” He’s aware that drugs still hold a strong power over his life, that there’s a chance he’ll relapse. “Yes, it’s a possibility but it’s one that I won’t succumb to. I have an addictive part of me and a disciplined part of me. I just have to make the disciplined side stronger.” It’s music that truly motivates him now. Stadium Arcadium howls with his guitar to such an extent that some are claiming he’s taken control of the band. “It was like that on By The Way” he admits, “it’s more of a band now. I don’t force my ideas on people as much as I did.” There were major problems between him and Flea during the recording of the last album. He says that the pair have always been competitive, “But in a healthy way. On By The Way that competitiveness turned into a bad vibe. I was not being honest enough with myself and I wasn’t looking at what I was doing wrong. Something comes out of music when everyone feels free and the band is a true democracy. That’s something I’d lost sight of.” This is almost an admission of guilt, that he was the problem, not Flea. This realisation seems to have sparked a new sense of unity in the Chilis. “This is the best we’ve ever gotten along,” he says. “This is the most we’ve been on the same page.”

Anthony Kiedis is looking sharp in 3-piece suit. Less tall than you might think, there is nonetheless something intimidating about him. Kiedis refuses to be drawn into talking about the problems between Flea and Frusciante. “It wasn’t that I didn’t notice” he says. “But I had no idea Flea was feeling so creatively stymied. After By The Way there was a certain amount of disconnected behaviour but not to the point of death.Sometimes people just go their own ways for a while.” Flea had admitted that he wanted to leave the band during that period. “I’m actually glad he didn’t tell me,” says Kiedis. “Sometimes things like that are a personal struggle. If he had told me when he was going through it, it probably would have just freaked me out.” His unwillingness to talk too frankly makes him sound like a man who plays his cards close to his chest. That’s not necessarily so. In 2004 he published his autobiography ‘Scar Tissue’. In that book he talked in great detail about his drug use, his relationship with his womanising father and about his own relationships. He also revealed a lot about the workings of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and its members. Surely exposing so much caused some problems? “I’d be much more worried about not putting myself out there,” he says. “Secrets have been the death of me in the past. It feels good to get it out, to discard it and move on.” On the subject of drugs, Kiedis admits that although he’s now been clean for “five years and four months” heroin still plays on his mind. “But being a drug addict in recovery is actually a great place to be because you’re forced to look at the rancid layers of the onion that you’ve been carrying around for a long time. I’m actually grateful for it.” He could still go back to using drugs, “Well, sure I could,” he says. “Today, I’m not interested in it though.” What he’s more interested in is starting a family. Flea has a new child and seems ecstatically happy with his wife; Frusciante is in love with his 25-year-old girlfriend while Chad Smith and his wife have a new one-year-old baby. Kiedis, however, has never been able to settle with a woman. “I don’t know what that’s about,” he says. “Today, I feel like I’d like to get married and have a family. More so than ever. I really don’t think I was capable of being that guy about two months ago.” Because you feel lonely or jealous of others? “No, it’s because a bomb went off inside me a few months ago. I broke up with a girl that I was really into. I started really wondering why the break-up happened and I realised it was because of some of my own character defects – the feeling of wanting things you don’t have. The minute I started seeing how these defects of character were controlling and dominating my life, they vanished. Suddenly, I didn’t think the grass was going to be greener, I didn’t feel like I wanted something I didn’t have. I actually went back to that girl and patiently waited to see if she was willing to give it another go. Now I’m quite content to marry this girl and have a family – if that’s something she’s into as well.”

The first thing that strikes you about Chad Smith is his size. The man is immense but he’s enormously affable too. He has a slow Midwest drawl, words creep slowly from his lips as if deeply considered. Sometimes it seems he’s simply given up half way through a sentence, so planetary are the pauses between his thoughts. He also has a reputation for being ‘the normal guy’, the regular person in the band. “I don’t mind being the guy in the back,” he says. “I’m less interesting, I don’t have the drug problems…” He’s frank about the rift between Flea and Frusciante. He saw the problem as competitiveness between the two. “When we were rehearsing, John would come in, especially after a weekend, with a lot of stuff,” he says. “I don’t know if Flea felt he had to keep up…you know that John’s always going to have a lot of stuff. He could take a shit and write a fucking album, it’s just coming out of him all the time.” Things are different now, he adds. The band relationship is harmonic, partly because, “we’re all a little more sensitive now, we’re more capable of correcting things when we go out of whack.”

Flea walks into the room bare feet, suit trousers and shirt. He’s tired and jet-lagged but talks incredibly fast, as if plugged in at the mains. A lot of what he says could be dismissed as hippy nonsense. He talks about love, about surrendering yourself to the power of music, about the universe and about ‘energy’. At times it’s as if you’re listening to a new age preacher sermonising. At times it also makes a lot of sense. He warily admits, “there’s been a spirit of competition,” between him and Frusciante. “During the making of By The Way it just wasn’t a good time for the relationship between John and I. there were things about him that were bothering me and I’m sure there were things about me that were bothering him. It became a constant argument.” He says he hasn’t ever listened to By The Way since recording it because, “there are moments I remember back to that aren’t pleasant to me.” So unpleasant, in fact, that he decided to leave the band, though he didn’t tell anyone about it. “The band just didn’t feel like a comfortable place to express myself. I felt tight and tense in the situation. All through the history of this band, no matter what was going on in my life, it was always the place for me to express myself and let go of everything. All of a sudden it didn’t feel like a place where I could be myself. That was completely unacceptable to me.” He says that he and John talked about their problems, got things straight between them. Still though, people are incorrectly convinced that Frusciante wrote a great deal of Stadium Arcadium, that it’s his album. Surely those impressions must hurt Flea? He’s calm at first. “No, God no. People can say what they want. It’s not John’s record, that’s not true. I love John. He’s my favourite musician on earth, my brother and my friend and I love him but this is not John’s record, it’s all of ours.” I try to ask him how far the relationship between him and Frusciante had improved, whether he feels more creative in the band. It’s not a question he wants to hear. Suddenly he’s ranting, raising his voice. “My opinion is as important as anyone’s,” he says as his eyes widen and water. Then he explodes. “If you really want to fucking get into it, I think it’s fucking silly and you’re kind of pissing me off right now. This is fucking bullshit and you fucking English people always do this fucking bullshit. Shut the fuck up, fuck you.” And then he hurls the bottle of water at my head and storms out, scattering insults in his wake.

Minutes later, he’s back, still screaming he’s upset that he thought our conversation was concentrating on the negative side of his relationship with Frusciante – perhaps forgetting that it was he that continued to talk about it. “I opened myself up about the tensions between John and I because we had gone through this process which was hard,” he says, beginning to calm down. “it was really tense between John and I but then it got better and there was this incredible sense of release. It feels like a rebirth, like the beginning of the band again.” It’s hard to talk about anything other than Frusciante now. Certainly Flea doesn’t seem to want to. In fact the only other thing he talks about is his anger. “It’s always been part of who I am, especially when I was younger. I had a fucking rage in me that was unbelievable,” he says. He changes the subject, talks about jazz for a few minutes then stops: “Did I scare you when I got mad? Did you think I was going to smack you or something? I’m sorry if I scared you. I’ve never hit anyone. You might have hit me back really hard. I apologise if I scared you.” We leave the room together, travelling in the hotel lift up to where the photo shoot will take place. He apologises to me again, leaning over and hugging me tightly. It seems this is a recurrent theme in both Flea’s and the Chilis’ life at the moment – arguments and reconciliation. “That’s the give and go of life,” he grins. “You’ve got to love the dark side as well as the light side.”

—Tom Bryant

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