NME August 1994
The band wanted a name which everyone would know, and one day, while walking in the Hollywood Hills, Anthony stumbled upon it, glowing, he insisted, from a psychedelic bush that had band names on it.”
True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes-Dave Thompson
The biggest band in the world right now, the band who took their name form a psychedelic bush that had band names on it, are in a rehearsal studio in downtown Los Angeles. Various road crew and hangers-on sit around on battered brown sofas, one of them finds a dildo on the floor and picks it up looking for laughs.
There’s a set of dumbbells in one corner and beside it a single, dusty white sock. God knows where it’s been, but God would probably rather not know. For this is the rehearsal room for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
With bassist Flea elsewhere, drummer Chad Smith- who describes himself as “a peanut butter and jelly kind of guy”- sits behind his kit hammering out a beat. Later, while the rest of the band gurn for the cameras, Chad stands back sheepishly at the back as if waiting for a bus.
Chad is joined by newest member, former Jane’s Addiction guitarist, Dave Navarro. At this moment in time, here in LA, Rock City, USA, he is probably the coolest man in the world. Stripped to the waist, skate shorts, pierced nipples, he looks the epitome of the 1994 alternative rock star.
Navarro is quick to dismiss any continuing rumour-mongering of a rift between himself and Perry Farrell- “I love the guy.” He is equally keen to play down the enormous effect he is likely to have on the band’s sound – if rock guitar means anything to you, Dave is something of a god amongst axe men.
Into this scene walks singer Anthony Kiedis. Like his friend he is cocksure, wearing ridiculous clothes because he knows he has the ‘tude to get away with it- today a balaclava helmet, vest and rubber trousers. But all is not well.
“Ruff day!” he shouts looking around, kicking a monitor. “Ruff day!”
He’s been visiting an ex-girlfriend in prison and while there the police harangued him.
“They asked me what kind of dope I had on me, can you believe it?” he tells us all, incredulously. “This is the only dope I got for you guys,” he says, grabbing his crotch.
Then, on the way here, a pick-up truck knocked him off his Harley.
“I caught up with it at the stop light.”
“What did you do?” Navarro ask.
“I whacked him.”
“You hit the guy?”
“Did he know who you were? Shit man,” Navarro is impressed.
Realising there’s a journalist in the room but not wanting to stop the flow of male bonding, Navarro changes the subject. He has a plaster on his arm from a visit to the acupuncturist.
“It worked man, I can’t believe it,” he tells the long-maned singer.
“I told ya it would.”
“Man, that acupuncturist is some weird guy.”
“Yeah, he’s got social problems though.”
“What do you mean? With female clients? He’s got a reputation for hitting on female clients? Really? I just love the guy even more!”
RIGH T NOW, after years of not making sense, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ forging of rock and funk is the sound of 1994 and they find themselves not only up there as the single most important rock group in America, but cast as mum and dad to a whole gaggle of messy pups: the same mix of adrenalin and testosterone is there in Primus and Rage Against The Machine, to a lesser extent the abhorrent Spin Doctors and, to stretch appoint, Sensor as well.
We find them preparing for the corporate rock hell of Woodstock 2- rightly the band claim where that the first event was peace and love, this time it’s “Pepsi and Nike”- but more importantly a headlining European festival tour that culminates in the final day of Reading. These will be there first gigs with Navarro.
Largely ignored, apart from the heavy metal press, up until the watershed ‘Mother’s Milk’ and now huge, thanks to the hits strewn, Rick Rubin produced ‘Bloodsugarsexmagik’ album and freak two-years-late hit single ‘Give It Away’ earlier this year- the Chili Peppers happened without Britain’s permission and they hate us for it. Although their faces light up when told of Reading’s importance- they didn’t even know what day they’d be playing- it’s a past that that founder members Flea and vocalist Kiedis, who formed the band 11 years ago, still harbour some resentment for.
“England is like my least favourite place on the planet,” moans Flea. “It’s always cold and miserable with grumpy people and stuff. I never have a good time there, never. But this time it’s going to be hot, right? It’s going to be outdoors, people are going to be a bit more cheery, right?”
“We had some severe early impressions of England,” Anthony continues. “Our experiences of England were how you dress, who you knew to be able to get into a club. There were a couple of times when we went to clubs and we just wanted to fraternise, have fun, converse, dance, throw down, whip it up. And these guys at the club doors would go…” he begins a strange posh English accent that only exits from the mouth of American actors… “and these guys would go, ‘No, who do you know? What are you doing here? You can’t come in here like that. Get the fark orf, piss orf.”
What club was this?
“The Wag Club.”
With a new album months away we are here then, it seems, as peacemakers to tell them we’re not all bad, that Reading will be great. Honest. And they’d have hated the Wag Club anyway.
REWIND. We are to interview the band members separately, Flea at his home and then later Anthony Kiedis at the studio. Fifteen minutes early, we sit in our hire car with a map of the stars’ homes on the dashboard. Feeling like stalkers we’re outside a house in the Hollywood Hills with a small, discreet sign outside it, identical to all the other small sings on every other front door: ‘Security-Armed-Response.’
The city mutates and howls beneath us, but it’s quiet here, leafy. Ideas about hijacking garbage for trashy secrets are curtailed when a station wagon turns the corner and lets out a Latino maid who picks up a bin liner left out front and then drives away. The garbage men can’t be trusted here.
If you draw an equal-sided triangle from the twin postcard sites of the Hollywood sign and the Chinese Theatre, the third point would be somewhere around here, the front porch of the home of the Red Hot Chili Pepper turbo bassist Flea.
The last time the world saw him and his band was in the grandiose videos for their two international hits, ‘Under The Bridge’ and ‘Give It Away’. A tight ball of muscles and inky tattoos, his slap and pop bass stood at the centre of a band sound that worshipped at the twin altars of George Clinton and Jimi Hendrix.
Back then his hair was cropped, the subject of regular bleach attacks, but much has changed. The bloke who opens the door is a smiling, grinning fella who looks little like the Flea of yore. Wearing nothing but black Calvin Klein underpants, his face is a tangle of mad folky growth, his hair standing to attention at great unwashed angles. Puggish, he stands beaming up at the tourists. He looks like David Bellamy.
“We were in Hawaii for a while,” he says by way of explanation. “We were f—king around- writing music, screwing around- and I just kinda let my beard go. My mum says I look like a Danish sea captain and my daughter says I look like a caveman. I guess it’ll mean something in England, because it’s such a ridiculously trendy country. It’s like your haircut dictates your existence. To me it’s just hair on my face. But I’ll probably shave it off- I just can’t get laid.”
I thought you were popular with women.
“Not me, not me. I’d like to be.”
Bless his cotton socks. Well, come to think of it, you’d probably rather not.
Born in Australia, aka Michael Balzary, he arrived in Los Angeles, via New York, at the age of 11. His parents divorced when he was five and his stepfather, the jazz musician Walter Urban Jr, had the biggest effect on his musical life, introducing him to Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie. Originally a trumpeter, he became a funk aficionado and- after meeting Kiedis at Fairfax High School-Flea.
“I was never really an extrovert back then,” he remembers. All through my childhood I was like scared of people. As a kid I was really unable to talk to people and stuff, so at parties I would either like sit in the corner and say nothing or I would like pull down my trousers and whip out my dick and run around screaming and make a huge spectacle of myself. There was no in-between.”
IT IS no shock to Chili Pepper followers that the band have been approached by film studios to make a biographical movie. They swallowed the whole sex’n’drugs’n’rcok’n’roll mythology whole, down in one. For them it’s no myth but a reality- “people love f—ing and getting high and listening to rock music” (Flea). As well as being a rock enthusiast’s wet dream, the band’s chequered history comes complete with all the attendant scandals- death, decadence, excess and hard drugs.
On June 27, 1988 guitarist Hillel Slovak, friend of Flea and Kiedis since high school, died of a heroin overdose. Both Slovak and Kiedis had admitted to their smack dependency, Kiedis’ experiences later cropping up on the autobiographical ‘Under The Bridge’. Yet while the Chili Peppers’ biography True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes by Dave Thompson, paints Flea as the peacemaker attempting to straighten his band out, he admits now he was secretly going out getting high all the time too.
“A lot of people do heroin and they really like the way it feels,” he says as a grandfather’s clock chimes in the distance. “But because of the very evil nature of the drug, it takes over your life… and it’s terrible. But, ya know I’m no angel, I’ve done plenty of heroin in my life. Erm…”
I thought you were anti-drugs?
“Oh well, I’ve done loads of drugs. I don’t anymore. I don’t want to come across as a drug-crazed monster. Even when I was doing them, I was against them, but I’m no angel, I’m not perfect.”
Did you take drugs after Hillel died?
“Yeah, I did drugs after he died.”
Did you not think, ‘Heroin killed him, I’m not going to do stuff anymore’?
“Yeah, I thought ‘(drugs) killed him, but they’re not going to kill me, I’m just doing them tonight’. It was a mistake, but I made loads of mistakes.”
Since Slovak’s death, the band have been through more guitarists than Manchester City have managers. Already preceded by Jack Sherman who is currently trying to sue the band (“a complete asshole”), John Frusciante was the longest serving member, with them for the watershed ‘Mother’s Milk’ and ‘Bloodsugarsexmagik’ albums. Since then though it’s been a revolving door vacancy with no one sticking around long enough to take their coat off. Now, at last, they’ve found a permanent bud in Dave Navarro.
“It’s smokin’,” Flea says of the sessions with their new axe man. “It’s a bigger rock thing- a lot of Chili Peppers music in the past has been very intricate and lots of small things, this is bigger, he’s just a great guitar player, when he plays guitar it’s beautiful music. I mean, what he did in Jane’s Addiction, I love that band, to me they’re probably the greatest rock band in the last ten years.”
Whether or not it’s down to Flea not having been interviewed for the past two years, his conversation takes on a confessional doctor/patient form. Asked what the new songs are about he opens up a whole mess of beans.
“It’s different cos times are different. There’s a lot of sad things that happened to us personally, to me personally since the last record. I got really sick and had a really hard time for a while. I had one of my closest friends in the world die in front of me.”
He means River Phoenix. Flea was at The Viper Room, playing bass in Johnny Depp’s band, on the night the actor died. They’d hung out together since they worked together on Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.
“River Phoenix was someone that I was very close to and someone that I loved very much. And someone I was lucky to spend lots of great time with doing really cool things. I’ll always love him, I think about him all the time and he means a lot to me.”
A lot of people find it hard to reconcile the way he died with the way he lived and the things he said.
“He meant all those things. He wasn’t a liar because he did drugs, I mean, lots of people do drugs, he still stood for everything he said. He was the most environmentally conscious, generous, heartfelt, caring person I’ve ever met in my life, I mean truly to the bone. But he liked to get high.”
So it wasn’t out of character?
“It’s not really my business to talk about this, but he was not a junkie. River Phoenix was not a junkie. He did drugs recreationally; lots of people do drugs recreationally. He was young, he was experimenting and he f—ked up. But it’s not really my business.”
ELVIS PRESLEY was filmed from the waist up, his hip gyrations thought too erotic for the American public; The Rolling Stones got arrested for urinating in public; Ozzy Osbourne ate bats; the Sex Psitols tried to bring down the monarchy, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers…
The Red Hot Chili Peppers stick tennis socks on their cobblers.
All part of rock’s stinking rich tapestry of rebellion, the Chili Peppers would probably like to be remembered for their tight funk rock music, for Flea’s taut basslines and Anthony Kiedis’ muscular vocals, the videos, the pecs, the tattoos, their hit singles- the tongue curling ‘Give It Away’, the classic drug confessional ‘Knock Me Down’ the Andy ‘Gang of Four’ Gill produced debut album.
Hell, they’d probably prefer to be remembered for embarrassing stuff like ‘Catholic School Girls Rule’ from 1985’s George Clinton-produced ‘Freaky Styley’ or ‘Party on Your Pussy’ or ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’.
But no. Half of mankind knows them as the Chili Peckers, the Silly F—ers. Dr. Seuss gave the world Cats in Hats, they gave us Cocks in Socks… and it made them famous. Very, very famous.
Although he ranks their novelty invention up there with sliced bread, the space programme and all-weather tyres, Flea appears to be getting tired with this line of interview banter.
“I think we’re less likely to put socks on our cocks now than we were,” he muses. “It’s funny how we worked so hard at the music and people think of us as the band who put socks on our dicks, but we’ve whined about that enough in the past. I think putting a sock on your cock is a great thing, it’s a great image, it was fun to do and I’m sure we’ll do it again and yeah, it’s something to do with your spare socks. You know. We’ve got big dicks so we’re the men for the job.”
That job being wearing socks over your testicles. It should come as no surprise to hear Flea’s “big cock” claim, he’s not shy about coming forward, probably drops it into his conversation when he goes out to by [sic] his morning paper (“Los Angeles Times please, man. Oh and did you know I’ve got a big cock? You do? Right, carry on”).
The definition of “big” is debatable. Later NME lensman Derek Ridgers claims that while Flea was working out on some weights in the studio he gave himself “a little chubby”. But the less said about such unsavoury matters the better.
Whatever, it all adds to the general milieu of sexual intrigue and men behaving badly scenarios that have followed their band from their inception.
A 1988 NME live review championed their bell-endery, including their new “Hors d’ouevres’ routine- family jewels protruding (sans sock) through a paper plate”. While it only enhanced their reputation as college boy favourites- they were the men the boys next door wanted to be, ripped and tattooed and still having fun with their genitals, what joy-such capers were not without their price.
Forgetting perhaps that not everyone was delighted to catch a glimpse of the assembled four meat and eight veg, they were twice brought to court on indecency charges, once in 1988 backstage following a Virginia show when Anthony waved his dick at a “female admirer”. And then, notoriously, at the 1989 MTV party where Flea gave an onstage piggy back to a bikini-clad audience member while behind him Chad spanked her bum.
“They were ridiculous,” Flea maintains. “It’s obvious that people were taking stabs at us ‘cos we had money and a certain reputation for being crazy and naked or whatever.
WHITE LOS Angeles is a sprawling mess of contradictions. In black Los Angeles, at least they know what time it is, while here it’s anytime all the time. Nowhere else on Earth is the geographical line between the haves and the have-nots more thinly drawn than in the City of Angels- yet this is the true homeland of opportunities, a city built on dreams and imagination. Nowhere else are the effects of car pollution more obvious than over white Los Angeles- a city for cars not people; nowhere else is heroin and cocaine addiction more a part of common living; and nowhere else is the reality of AIDS so stark.
LA is where the environmental movement began, where jogging began, where getting ripped and tattooed began, a city of fake smiles and drug dependency, stagediving and channel surfing, cheap sex and tabloid confessions, glamour and decay, plastic surgery and pet cemeteries, drive-by shootings and drive-in dentists, f—ed up and making starts out of f— ups. She’s no lady, she’s a tramp, and if she had a house band- a band that could somehow encapsulate all the glory and all of the bullshit, the washboard abs and the needle tracked arms, and all the hedonistic pleasures in between uptown and downtown- that band would be the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Both Kiedis and Flea grew up here. Anthony left his divorced mother in Michigan when he was 11 to move in with his father, a TV actor called Blackie Dammett. His childhood reads like the plot of teen fantasy movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off every day: his dad was a playboy and loose women were never far away, he lost his virginity aged 12 to one of his father’s girlfriends, had Sonny Bono as a “surrogate caretaker”, did loads of Class A drugs and was the envy of his school mates.
“Twelve was probably way too young to lose your virginity,” he says now, “But I had such an overwhelming fascination with sexuality and exchanging my sexual energy with a female… I got so much so soon, I was sexually awakened at a very early age.”
LA made them, and if you believe in beery stories, half of LA has laid them. And so, as Red Hot Chili Pepper music is born out of the unlikely marriage of funk and rock, as people Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith and Dave Navarro are walking, talking contradictions-eating humble pie one moment, dicking around like rock star clichés the next, espousing PC opinions on the environment then letting slip Neanderthal attitudes towards women.
Flea seems like a modest and shy person when you first meet him. Towards the end of the interview he musters up a huge hugs of sincerity to tell us:
“I just want to be a good person, be nice to people, especially people that I care about. I just want to become stronger and be a more powerful person in a spiritual way.”
An hour later, Flea will be outside the rehearsal studio on Santa Monica Boulevard doing his party piece: pulling down his pants to reveal his hugely unattractive arse to the world at large and simulating exactly what one can expect for $20 from a male prostitute.
After our interview, Flea shows us around his home. There is art everywhere, a painting by the famed Robert Williams, an Andre Kurtesch photograph, a poster for the Penelope Spheeris film Suburbia in which Flea stared as a fledging punk. Beside the primary colour paintings by John Frusciante are the not dissimilar pictures drawn for him by the five-year-old daughter from his short-lived marriage: ‘From Clara to Michael’, says one picture of two matchstick figures.
While this Through The Keyhole tour indicates another, private side to the Chili Pepper bassist, the illusion is soon shattered when a video director friend drops in with a new Sir Mixalot promo that Flea is excited to see (he played on one of the ample rapper’s new album tracks). It’s a “tits and ass” fest of which Flea whole-heartedly approves.
“We should do a T&A video,” Flea tells his friend before regaling us with tales of teenage wanking sessions. “Once when I got the bus to see Anthony at his mother’s in Michigan, I took a copy of Hustler with me and sat in the back seat jerking off the whole journey. I must have come 11 times, once every half hour.”
TRYING TO make sense of what Anthony Kiedis says is like being confronted with a huge jigsaw puzzle that is all blue sky. In a quiet corner of the rehearsal condo, he’s calmed down from his earlier outburst. So much so that asking him a single question spoons out a reply that goes on for 15 minutes without pause, answering unasked questions along the way.
So how’s the recording of the new album going?
“Well, it’s a long and bizarre scenario,” he says beginning a very long and not entirely bizarre tale.
“…And it always is, I think when you go through a massive transition like we have over the last couple of years, I mean going back to when John left the band, that’s powerfully, emotionally crippling, y’know, losing someone in the band who you love to play with and who you’ve established that telepathic musical energy with that only comes with time…”
He continues with an attempt to explain their high turnover of guitarists prior to Navarro.
“Dave said a funny thing to me when I phoned him up and asked him to join. At the time, he was committed to his new band, Deconstruction, and I said, ‘Well, do you know anyone that you think could be appropriate for all the bases that need to be landed on,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, it would be me, I’m the only guy in the world who could do it and I can’t do it’. So it was almost like he was taunting me.
“Anyway, time went by, this crap happened and I was walking down Sunset Strip with Chad, and I said, ‘Chad, what are we going to do? You know we’re in a dilemma here, we don’t have a guitar player, we need to write music, we need to write songs, we need to express’.
“And he said, ‘Well, Dave’s going to join the band,’ I said, ‘No, Dave’s not joining the band. ‘And he said, ‘No, I’ve got a feeling’. So I said, ‘Whaddaya mean you’ve got a feeling? You’re a drummer, you can’t have a feeling.’ He said, ‘I’ve just got a feeling Dave’s going to join the band.’ And about a week later Dave joined the band. And that was a huge relief…”
“But when you’re starting from ground zero like that, regardless of how monstrously talented he is as a musician, you still have to get that companionship and that camaraderie that only comes with time.”
We’ve done that part.
“…And we also had to face up to the fact that we were way overdue to make a record and rather than….”
Now it is as if the head of the NME journalist has been transmogrified into that of the WEA A&R man trying to work out why they’re taking so long over the Xth album.
“…So we’d go to Hawaii where we couldn’t be disturbed or distracted by telephone and friends and family and we could get on with beginning a musical masterpiece… But Hawaii was so remote that to some degree we sort of vegetated.”
So you haven’t finished the album then?
“…There’s so much vegetation there that we sort of assimilated into that greenery, which was cool and then we came back here and went right up to San Francisco and tried to move into a house where we were going to record in the mountains and we got there and we were all ready to get things going and, uh, we still had some material to write, primarily myself…”
So you haven’t finished the alb…
“… There was a lot of music that needed lyrics, that needed vocal melodies and rhythms and stuff like that and I was all geared… But when it came to recording, we got our producer and listened to the sound of the room, so now we’ve got all of our gear up there, all of our mojo up there, all of our energy was up there ready to go and we said, ‘No, this studio will never do’.”
Look, I’m not interested in your excuses, I just want to know about…
“…So that was kind of like having the rug pulled out from under you and we came back down here and went into a studio and recorded all of the basics and the shit sounded slamming, it was really beautiful music these guys were making and I was doing my scratch vocals and we got ready to go into the overdub portion of the production- you know, where you lay down the guitar tracks and the vocal tracks- and suddenly we realised Woodstock was three weeks away and this European tour…”
So you haven’t finished the album?
“About half, we’re going to do it when we get back.”
The end. Phew. Any song titles you could disclose?
“About half the song titles are working titles,” he replies confusingly. “Eventually they’ll have title titles but to us they’ll always be the working titles. Like we have this song right now and the working title is ‘Swirly’ which is descriptive of the way the song sounds to us. But the real title of the song is ‘Warped’.”
What are you writing about at this moment?
“Well, a lot of the record, oddly enough, is extremely sad, not depressing but just … you know, we’re definitely surrounded by a city and by a circle of friends who are going through a lot of preposterously hard…”
“…times, and a lot of the record is pretty dark in the sense that it’s about the sad struggle of a lot of our friends. Which is, you know, a struggle for us.”
Before we can progress any further, a dude approaches holding two pieces of material, one gold and one silver.
“A-hem,” he coughs. “The, er, Hendrix thing.”
“The Hendrix thing for Woodstock?” asks Kiedis.
“Sorry, I confused here, the Hendrix thing, you mean the lightbulb thing?”
The dude nods as Anthony sits with the two pieces of material on his lap staring at them, stroking them. There is silence as he thinks. “I’ll go for silver.”
“What’s your waist size?” the dude asks. “She wants to know.”
“Thirty-two,” says Anthony.
“Really?” responds his friend in the manner of someone saying ‘getouttahere’
Kiedis is mock affronted: “Yeah, really.”
WE’VE SPURNED them from our clubs, laughed at their hair and their novelty turns, and for years we didn’t buy their records. But now, in a week’s time at Reading, the kingdom is theirs. They will pull down their pants, gurn, flex and cavort like no other festival headliner for years. We will get to see Anthony’s “light bulb” outfit, their torsos, tattoos and pierced nipples. And, if their claims are true, they will give us all “a huge erection”.