John Frusciante talks about his new solo album, The Empyrean

Music is a power which exists in the universe & it will be born through our hands or through our musical instrument. It doesn’t get born in the brain.

One of the most stimulating guitarists, John Frusciante. He released a solo album called The Empyrean. It’s been about 3 years since his last album. Everybody knows about him as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which is a monster band. But his solo albums are also deeply attractive, tasteful, because they express his personal sides. Delicate feeling, dark & psychedelic music, daring arrangements via unique methods, his guitar tones make colourful expressions….these are building his unique world perspective with sweet voice and melody lines.

This time, Guitar Magazine had a chance to exclusively interview John Frusciante. The contents of the interview are necessary reading, such as his new album’s secret story, his obsession with vintage equipment, the possibilities for guitar, and so on all of which he talked about with passion. We want listeners to enjoy his endless spirit of inquiry for music by a guitarist who never stops evolving.

John Frusciante: It’s possible to extract a greater power of expression by utilizing the whole studio as a musical instrument.

Guitar Magazine: It’s been almost 3 years since your last solo album. This is a concept album, which tells a story, isn’t it? While you were making this album, what kind of image did you have?

John Frusciante: When I make music, I don’t think about lots of things. Although some people explain guideline or direction or their own rule in the lyrics, I just make music based on my own feeling. I wanted to make the album reflect the concept of the lyrics and gradually build up the musical energy.

The songs for this album, they reflect the story which the lyrics convey. I just imagined the sounds that are the beginning of this album as being so dark, like a swamp, but then gradually it becomes more of a brighter world view. This explanation might sound very vague but I was just conscious about it. Other than that, I just made the album unconsciously & followed my feeling.”

Guitar Magazine: I felt that when we listen to the sounds, it becomes visual.

John Frusciante: When I was making the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers album Blood Sugar [Sex Magik] (1991) & my first solo album [Niandra Lades & Usually Just A T-Shirt] (1994), I was searching for myself. At that time, when I listened to music, I had a lot of synesthetic experiences. I haven’t had such an experience for a long time, however, when I listen to music now, I feel a sense of specific space is created in my brain. Some people see colours when they listen to music, but it’s not like that. It’s not visual. It’s not an aural experience. It’s like there are mental symbols welling up when I listen to music. In the past 10 years, instead of being inspired by synesthesia, I’m inspired by these symbols. They help me make music.

Guitar Magazine:The album opens with a poetic guitar instrumental track… it’s long, more than 10 minutes. But do you have any important things that you care about especially, when you make music using just the guitar?

John Frusciante: I was listening to Maggot Brain by Funkadelic with my friends after midnight, and I like instrumental music because it’s not music that pushes the listener. If the listener wants, they can go into the space that the song provides. At first, I was going to put very dynamic & energetic songs at the beginning of this album, but I didn’t end up using those kind of songs. After I recorded After The Ending, I thought I want to put very striking music as the opening song. I wanted to make an “entrance” through which I could invite listeners gently, which I don’t normally do but I worked out an idea of the song in my head in advance. I didn’t want the opening song to be pushy.

One morning, as soon as I woke up I made a rhythm guitar part for Before the Beginning and had an idea for the drum beat so that evening I invited my friend Josh Klinghoffer (p,k,d) and we recorded it. While I was playing rhythm guitar, I heard how I should play the lead guitar phrase in my head, so at that time I recorded the guitar solo as well. When I listened to Maggot Brain, felt the same feeling so I wanted to reflect the same feeling in my song. Then, on the next day’s mix, I added various kinds of effects. Later, it was interesting to show my songs to my friends because we had the same feeling when we listened to Maggot Brain at five in the morning. (laughs)

On this album, I was really into reverse reverb and echoes. I tried lots of experiments with effects sounds. At first, I tried them on my vocals, but I ended up mostly applying them to my guitar. This time I recorded with analog tape and I turned over the tape & recorded six or seven tracks of reverse reverb & echoes. Then, I turned the tape back to the way it was & equalized it to emphasize the guitar. I could make it sound as if the guitar was rising 100 metres high. Also, I could improve the expressive power of my guitar playing by using certain EQ settings and the console faders when I was mixing. When you play the guitar, you can express your feelings by adding vibrato or playing with specific volumes or effects. But, it’s possible to extract a greater power of expression by utilizing the whole studio as a musical instrument. For example, I put an effect on a guitar part I’d recorded using modular synthesizers, arranged the volume and added panning to the reverb. Before, I had complaints because I had to ask engineers to do that sort of thing.

But, now it’s possible for me to remember how to better use a recording studio through a little bit of study. If I do that study, I can use the mixing desk effectively, like a musical instrument. Normally, engineers don’t use the desk like this. When I mixed “Before The Beginning”, only I was able to use the studio console. I tried to extract the feeling of expression in my guitar solo through the mixing desk. Another thing is, this time, because I used analog tape for the recording, I had to do a lot of tape editing. In fact, before I cut & pasted the tape, I tried to edit it firstly through the computer. If there weren’t any problems in the computer edit, I applied that edit to the tape by cutting & pasting it. If I did that, there weren’t any mistakes.

Guitar Magazine: I thought the electronic noises & effects were very carefully layered… they make the world view of the song very vivid. Were you obsessed not only with guitar phrases, but also these little bits of effects that you later added to each song?

John Frusciante: “I mainly listen to electronic music, so I wanted to make interesting music for me. While making the album, I didn’t really care about making “nice” songs or making songs that the listener wants to hear. It was more important for me to make music that I wanted to listen to, even after finishing the album. In electronic music, there are a lot of sound changes in one song, I wanted to try the same approach. I created space for the acoustics to change through mixing and through tape editing. I tried to make the acoustics of the verse and the acoustics of the chorus sound completely different. I put musical surprises throughout the whole album… I transformed a lot of different sounds, and then I arranged those various sounds. At first I didn’t try these approaches, so the album wasn’t so interesting to me. So, I tried to make music that I really want to listen to. As a result, I listened to this album when it was finished the most out of all of my solo works. It’s very enjoyable for me to listen to The Empyrean, it’s an album that takes me on a musical trip. I wanted to create sounds that seem like they’re floating above the speakers and I did that by arranging the quality of sound and space.

These sounds never get boring. (laughs) When I listen to the music as just a listener, sometimes I wonder “how did he make this?” and I felt like I was in a different world. To be able to create that kind of illusion or hallucination is “magical” to me. Ever since I was a child, I’ve liked music that makes me feel like I’m in a different world.

Guitar Magazine: The sound effect of the tremolo in the left channel in Unreachable…are you playing this on your guitar?

John Frusciante: That sound is from an electric piano. Originally I had made the music in that section with the guitar, but after laying down the rhythm guitar parts, I swapped them with electric piano & organ. When I started to make this album, I listened to rock music that was focused around keyboards, like The Doors & Roxy Music. In “Unreachable,” I only used the guitar for the solo and the ending. The sound at the beginning of this song is Josh playing the keyboard & me arranging the sound with a modular synthesizer. At the beginning of the guitar solo, I used the mixing desk to alter the volume. At the end of it, I played through the step filter of a modular synthesizer. Using this I could change the frequency more boldly than if I’d used a wah pedal. At the end of the song, I play the harmonies using five guitars & all of them are put through the filter on the modular synthesizer.

Guitar Magazine: We can hear the sound of a wah playing on the important parts of this album… did you use your WH-10 wah pedal, your favourite Ibanez one?

John Frusciante: That’s right. I’ve used other pedals but my favourite one is the WH-10.

Guitar Magazine: What was the key equipment for this album?

John Frusciante: I made extensive use of modular synthesizers by Doepfer & Analog Systems. Sometimes, I recorded guitar using a fuzz or my wah pedal, but mostly I recorded without those effects & then later I added them using the modular synthesizer.

I used my English Muff’n pedal [by Electro-Harmonix] at the beginning of the solos on Central and Enough of Me. On Before The Beginning I used a Holy Grail and a Big Muff pedal [also from Electro-Harmonix], as well as a Fuzzrite pedal [by Mosrite, from the 1960s] and Boss Turbo Distortion.

On [the bonus Japanese track] Ah Yom, I used a Fuzz Wah volume pedal by Foxx. Compared to a normal wah pedal, it can create lower frequencies and also cut higher frequencies boldly, so I could create unique sounds.

I also often used an EMT 250 [by EMT] and All Digital Reverb [by AMS] for both my guitar parts and vocals.

These were the key pieces of equipment that helped me make the album’s sounds. You might hear an effects pedal, but in fact it was often created using a modular synthesizer, because I could’t control the sound through an effects pedal in the way I wanted while I was playing the guitar. When I was playing music using both of my hands, I couldn’t turn the effects knobs on the pedal, so it was interesting to use the effects of a modular synthesizer later. It was like I was playing with four hands (laughs). At first, I recorded the guitar onto tape & then sent it through the modular synthesizer & then back to the tape again.

(a summary quote from John): My stratocaster is a part of my body. I can make most of the sounds that I’m looking for or can hear in my head if I use my strat.

Guitar Magazine: What was the guitar that you used for the recording?

John Frusciante: I only used my ’57 and ’62 strat, because those two are my favourite guitars and I don’t think I used any other guitars. Those two make most of the sounds I’m looking for or hear in my head. I’ve been playing these stratocasters for a long time, so they are like a part of my body. If I play other guitars, I feel like I’m playing with a toy. (laughs)

Guitar Magazine: How about the amplifiers?

John Frusciante: I used the same amps I use in the Chili Peppers, a Marshall Major & a Marshall Jubilee. On my previous solo albums, I tried to use guitars and amps that were different to the ones I used in the Chili Peppers.

However on this album I wanted to use the same ones. Since I’ve been using these amps, I’ve learnt how to make good feedback or how to make sounds. So it’s become easier for me to make sounds that are the most ideal for me, because I use them every day & now I have a kind of communication with them. I can’t swap to other amps.

Guitar Magazine: Have you customized your guitars or equipment in any way, in order to make the sounds you want to make?

John Frusciante: Basically, I use them as they are. For example, I do any maintenance required to keep the (vaccuum) tubes in the amps in good condition. I just used those amps as they were used in the ’70s.

Guitar Magazine: The last part of the solo in “Central” is breathtaking because it showers the listener. I felt as if the guitar was singing. But, was it a guitar part that you improvised during the recording?

John Frusciante: Yeah, it was improvised. I played it naturally, without thinking. The structure and the arrangement of that song was mainly done during the mixing. I played lots of solos for the song, arranging their sounds & any overdubs & then mixed them. Then, I listened to the tape many times & decided which parts I wanted to use. The solo part of the song was played using different approaches & in the end I adapted the best performance into the mix.

Guitar Magazine: How do you think of your ideas to play?

John Frusciante: I often hear guitar phrases in my head. I played the solo in Central passively, but on other songs I played more energetically, or faster, or more aggressively, I guess. Guitarists have lots of things to express with their guitar. There are so many guitarists who play too much when they play. But it’s better to play to erase your ego.

You can play music wonderfully that way. When I was young, I learned that. When I joined the Chili Peppers, I over-played to try and improve my ability. But when I stopped doing that, I found my real self, finally. By erasing my egoism, I found myself. Music shouldn’t be created by forcing it. If you forge a good relationship with your musical instrument, & you erase your egoism & not judge or analyze yourself too much, the music will be created naturally when you play. Music is a power that exists in the universe, it is born via our hands or musical instruments. It won’t come out from your brain. If you are too conscious, it’ll have a reverse effect.

Guitar Magazine: You approach your guitar in a lot of ways. There are some occasions where your guitaring sounds like a keyboard, or strings.

John Frusciante: It might be a sound from a different musical instrument, from creative mixing approaches, or from arranging the sound after I played the guitar. When I make reverb, if the reverb signal is greater than the original signal from the guitar, it’ll be a sound that is similar to strings. Strings have a way of making the sound rise but it’s difficult to create that same feeling with just a guitar. However, if I use my volume knob or reverse the guitar, or add reverb, I can get a sound like strings. I’m not consciously trying to copy the sounds of strings or other musical instruments with the guitar… the guitar sound on this album is psychedelic, I guess.

The core of the album’s sound is the keyboard or the drums. The guitar is added afterwards. It’s different from my previous solo albums. I found out that continuously playing rhythm guitar throughout the album wasn’t necessary, because we can hear other musical instruments. The reason why The Doors were unique and wonderful is because the sound of their guitar didn’t disturb the other musical instruments. That’s why I wanted to use the same approach to my album. If I do that, the guitar is so vivid. Even though there might not be any guitar sounds for a few minutes, suddenly a solo will come in and it will be a more prominent phrase that way. In addition, it was fun to arrange the sounds of the guitar, keyboards, drums & so on with modular synthesizers. I always tried to experiment. I didn’t think about the sound in advance.

(a summary quote from John): |I copied all the guitar parts from The Smiths (laughs) and I learned lots of ways of layering chords from Johnny Marr’s guitaring.

Guitar Magazine: What is the guitar, for you? What are the potentials of the guitar?

John Frusciante: I think the guitar solo on Enough of Me is pretty unique and I don’t think I’ve heard a lot of people playing in that way. So, I think there are still more possibilities to find new guitar sounds. We should focus on the potentialities of new sounds rather than on the differences between existing guitar playing, because the possibilities for new sounds are infinite. Some recent guitarists play boringly or uninterestingly, compared to older guitarists. I get bored when they play the guitar as if they just want to be famous. That is because they think of the guitar as just “a guitar”, they don’t think of it as a “tool” to create sounds. Most guitarists these days misunderstand that using your body to play dramatically is a good performance. But I take the opposite approach. When I was 17 to 19 years old, I was doing the same thing, or I was thinking the same way, but when I removed that idea, I was released & I felt free (laughs).

When people practice the guitar for many hours a day, and they listen to other guitarists play, they generally focus on how to play technically.
But I listen to other players thinking about the relationship between the guitarist, the musical notes being played, the rhythm being played and the guitarist’s relationship with other guitarists…. and how the guitar tone fits in a whole sound space. It makes me enjoy playing more, facing the guitar with those thoughts. Furthermore, I can evaluate various types of guitar playing.

It’s not good playing to do too much action physically. Technical performance using the body only conveys the merits of that playing to the guitarist, because they know how they have to move their fingers on the neck, or how many long hours it took them to be able to play like that. But, it’s not important to the general music listener, or people who play other musical instruments, or people who simply like the sound of the guitar. Your fingers only have a brief moment to move on the neck of the guitar. The important thing for me whenever I play any musical instrument, is to take that fleeting moment of inspiration & make it into a sound. Other things are not important. The connection between a guitarist’s ideas and their music are more important to me.

Guitar Magazine: It’s a big topic that Johnny Marr is a guest on the album. Can you tell us if there were any ways that you were inspired by his guitar playing…?

John Frusciante: When I made [the Chili Peppers album] By The Way in 2002, I copied all of the guitar parts from The Smiths (laughs).
I was addicted to researching how to play the guitar like Johnny Marr. I learned lots of ways of how to assemble chords, how to layer intervals differently, how to layer multiple opposite guitar parts and how to create different sound movements by layering chords. Johnny Marr is good at layering musical notes complexly by adding intervals which weren’t in the original chord structure. He is at his best playing that way in The Smiths. When I listen to other guitarists playing, I analyze them with musical theory. But it’s not an obstacle to listen to the music emotionally. When I listen to chords like a 9th, or an 11th, or a 7th, I hear them symbolize the emotion contained in the interval.

I was analyzing Johnny Marr’s guitar playing theoretically before, but when he played my music, he didn’t think about music theory at all (laughs). He was creating riffs without thinking while he was playing. So, it was very interesting for me to see how he creates his chord changes using his complicated interval relationships, and how he assembles his riffs… it was very useful. I didn’t tell him how the structure of the song, but he created wonderful improvisations. When I talked a lot with Johnny, I discovered that he doesn’t know a lot of music theory. He was just playing by ear, or by his feeling. People who don’t study music theory already have unique theories in their head. In my case, it’s easier to analyze the relationship of each musical instrument with musical theory, but the theory isn’t necessary.

* This translation has not been completed – want to help?

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