12/1995: Making Music (117)

Please note: This was an oversized magazine that was too large for the scanner; had to scan it in quarters- arranged as they are above (cover shown last to keep the page scans in order).

Thank you to Kathie Davis for the transcript

Geoff Nicholls talks to Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith, and finds out it’s not all just sex and drugs.  Though a lot of it is

ON PAPER, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ mix of metal, funk, rap and unfashionable slapped bass shouldn’t have given them a chance of success.  Their loud and lewd behavior seeks attention but threatens to obscure their brilliance.

Still, you don’t sell six million albums unless you’ve got something, and 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ scored by capturing the band’s power and funk in equal amounts – an irresistible combination.

It’s taken a long time to complete the follow-up – recruiting yet another new guitarist on the way (they went through eight in ten years), and overcoming health problems (partly drug-related).

‘One Hot Minute’ (again produced by Rick Rubin) has its heavy moments, through the lyrics are more touching than miserable, with plenty of sly humor.  And whatever their personal trails, the band goes from strength to strength musically, covering more ground than ever – from the convoluted, heavy riffs of “Warped” and “Deep Kick”, through the singalong “Aeroplane”, which gets funkier as it unfolds, to the acoustic “My Friends” with its chorus of almost Beatles-like prettiness.  Then there’s the heavy rap of “One Big Mob”. And the loping, infectious “Walkabout”.

New guitarist Dave Navarro (ex Jane’s Addiction) is stunning throughout – tasty, powerful and clever with it, adding extra texture and melody.  Chad Smith and bassist Flea, meanwhile, constantly avoid the obvious; they can still go ape-ship when needed, but the rhythms and licks are deployed with more cunning.

Chad Smith’s been with the Chili Peppers since 1988 (although he was actually their fourth drummer), and he reckons the last album was the first time they’d really captured the “essence of the band” in the studio, “Up to that point,” says Chad, “you’d see the band live and think ‘Jesus Christ’ but then in the studio it would be really tame.”

Chad gives part of the credit to producer Rick Rubin – “The songs really lend themselves to a no-frills approach to production – and Rick Rubin is good at that”.  But it’s also what they’ve learned themselves:  “You get more experienced, especially playing in the studio, and hopefully you’re a better musician.  Rick is very good at being a hands-off producer; he works with us more before we actually go into the studio – he has good musical sense.”

Aside from guitars and vocals, and Lenny Castro on percussion, there are very few over-dubs.  It keeps the album lean and rocking.  But the material itself is rarely straightforward.  Lots of songs have three or four sections, atmospheric starts, ends floating out…

We have several of those – a little psychedelia.  We’re definitely rhythmically oriented – a lot of songs come from the basslines – us jamming, and Dave putting his thing on top; some from melodies Anthony had.”

CHEMISTRY

“We’re very honest; we don’t have the same backgrounds, and we’re all strong personalities.  The chemistry of the band is one of the real strong points.  I think it’s basically a natural combination of what we do.  This is how we play, and now after eight years we have this musical telepathy.  We don’t talk about shit.  The Chili Peppers were like that before I joined – Flea definitely was – but we became more popular, people got more hip to our band and so everyone else caught up to us.  Which is why it’s been difficult finding guitar players.”

They seem to have landed on their feet with Navarro, though.  “I think so too.  I think Dave has really brought something special to the equation – he’s got a thicker more textural sound; he uses the studio as a real tool.  John [Frusciante], our old guitarist, would play it once, no overdubs.  Dave likes headphone type stuff.  The only thing bad about that is he eats up so many frequencies, he kinda digs into the area of the drums and even the bass.  I’m gonna have to talk to him about that – kick his ass.  But that’s how he gets his sound.

“Flea kinda pioneered the slapping funk-punk thing.  He was a really aggressive player when we first met.  I thought, this guy’s really going for his – balls out – but very musical.  And he’s certainly grown as a wonderful player – one of the best musicians I’ve ever played with.  Excellent time, big ears, plays for the song.  But there’s less of what he used to do – it became like, ‘Where can you go from here?’  So in the last two records, with the help of Rubin, we’ve become more interested in writing songs rather than jamming with lyrics or a rap over.  We’re more conscious of that, and the bass playing is more melodic rather than, hey, look at me.  Same with the drumming.”

SHARING

An unusually democratic band, The Chili Peppers split songwriting credits, and royalties – which means Chad gets a better deal than a lot of drummers…

“We’re very communal – we share the credits – sort of unheard of.  Usually it’s, OK, here’s the drum part from the demo, can you play that?’.  That doesn’t work for us… A song’s generally seen as the lyrics and the melody, so if you’re the drummer you’re kinda left out.  Well, take the drums out and, I’m sorry, tell me it doesn’t sound like 25 per cent of the music.

“What happens is it alienates – it’s maybe not so bad at the beginning, but if you start getting success and the money starts coming in from the royalties, and you’re not involved in the songwriting…  And you see whoever wrote the songs living large, then it seeps in.  The band breaks up and everybody’s out – what good is that?  I think sharing is a really good thing equally – like REM, U2, Van Halen – the group stays together.”

David’s old partner Stephen Perking (Porno for Pyros extraordinary drummer/percussionist) crops up on the track “One Big Mob”.

“Stephen’s been a friend for a long time.  We did another thing called “Junkie Song” which is all percussion, but it’s not on the album – he set up his weird shit and played wooden Cajun Box.”

“Mob” starts in the heavy rap tradition, but Chad’s playing Bo Diddley toms…

“That was Flea’s idea – initially I was playing normal and he said I should play something on toms; and he was going, ‘No – more’.  But it’s got a real tribal thing to it:  there’s E-bow guitar on there; and David’s little eight month old baby brother taken off his answer machine – you can hear it rewinding.  It sounds like the baby’s getting fried in an electric chair – errie.  Rick wanted it louder, but we were saying, ‘No, man, it’s a background thing.”

BURNED

The album was a long time in the making.  “I recorded my stuff in June 1994.  Then we took a little break, played Woodstock, came over here for Reading, and Anthony needed time to write more lyrics – he was kinds sick at the time.  He’s got over that now.  We were a little burned, he needed time to recharge – John leaving the band was miserable; and tying to find another guy was a fucking nightmare.”

The band had actually approached guitarist Navarro before with the offer of a job, but he’s turned them down.  It wasn’t until he and Steve Perkins did some jamming with Flea that Dave realized he’d like to be a Chili Pepper after all.

Navarro’s more melodic playing style, and rather less laddish character, has perhaps rounded out the band a bit – but he also brought his own considerable personal baggage (the murder of his mother led to a breakdown and heroin addiction).

I’m definitely the most stable,” says Chad; “it’s the Michigan roots.  The rest were hard core junkies for years – that addictive personality is difficult to deal with.  And Flea’s had so many friends fucked-up.” (One of these, of course, was River Phoenix, whom Flea was with the night he died.)

“I never got into heavy drugs and I just see what it does to people – it’s miserable.  I see how hard it is for Dave and Anthony to deal with it.  I don’t think you have to be the tortured artist to make good art – I don’t buy into that.  But you certainly have to experience – this record is a very honest representation of what we’ve been going through in our lives the last few years.  Some sad times and some terrible things, some good things.

“Anthony writes most of the lyrics – Flea wrote “Pea” and some others.  [“Pea” is a Flea railing plaintively against redneck mentality.]  It’s difficult to find 13 experiences to write about.  You have to live those experiences, which is one of the reasons it took so long to make the album.”

There’s a quote from some old blues drummer who said a good drummer is always aware of the lyrics.

“Absolutely.  The lyrics set such a tone and mood.  With lots of our songs the music came from jamming, and I didn’t know what the words were going to be—but still some of it was dark and you can’t help but be affected by that.  But definitely now that I know what the songs are about – like ‘Warped’ is a really fucked up thing.  He [Anthony] says, “I’m pretending to be strong and free” – and I think that’s a very brave thing to write about.  It’s a very cathartic thing for all of us, but definitely for Anthony doing the lyrics.  So now when I play that song, and others, like ‘Transcending’ – a song Flea wrote about River Phoenix – I’m definitely affected.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the album doesn’t come across as a downer…

“A lot of people have said it’s the darkest Chili Peppers album, but Dave definitely brings his sense of humor – he’s cynical and pessimistic.  But it’s not Joy Division – slit your wrists time.

“When I listen to it it’s very uplifting to me – I get a good feeling.  After Dave joined the band, we went to Hawaii to get away from LA and to write and for the four of us to hang out – and we had a real good time, scuba diving, riding motor bikes.  We’re obviously fortunate to be able to do that, but it was a good time, musically and personally binding.”

LOVE

So what’s next on the schedule?  “We’re here and in the States till the end of the year; then February we’ll be in the East—Japan, New Zealand, Australia, then European festivals, the States again, South America in the fall.  We don’t kill ourselves like some, but I like to play.”

Chad also found time a couple of months back to take part in a drumming event in London, where his skills as an entertainer as well as a drummer were used to the full; the audience loved him clowning around – like when he started miming during his solo.

“Oh yeah – mime is money…  I came across that by accident.  You can get a long way with some cheap sensationalism, let me tell ya.  You could have a little bit of talent, but people will remember you more for the way you twirl your sticks.  I don’t consider myself a showman type, I don’t consider myself a showman type, I wouldn’t want it to get in the way.  I’m playing – that’s first and foremost, and if you can entertain people while you’re doing it, fine.  But if I see another rock band and the drummer gets up and gets the audience to clap along – that’s when I go for a beer.  No musical.”

& HATE

All of which begs a (rather cynical) question:  being such a good musicians how the hell did they make it at all?  Chad smiles:  “We sure wouldn’t have made it over here.”  Then in a mock serious voice, he continues,  ”I have some confidence that good music can seep through the cracks of mediocrity today.  There are some good bands around.”

Are the Chili Peppers the best?  “Hmmmm… I don’t like to compare us with other bands – Pearl Jam or Primus or anybody – I think we’re unique.  And I’ve seen lots of bands try to copy us, which is flattering – but, heh, do your own thing.

“We’re not pigeon-holed in one style – we basically do what we feel like doing – it’s spontaneous.  I’m very happy from a musician’s standpoint – I think we’re pretty respected by other musicians, which is always nice.  At the same time we have a definite entertainment side which is also good.  If I go to see a band these days it seems like, ‘Oh, it’s so tough to be a rocker, I’m the guy who just keeps on pumping gas – and I’m gonna look down at my shoes’.”

That’s very much a British anti-showbiz though.  You get slagged in Britain if the rock press gets a sniff of you being ‘musos’…  How do the Chilis get on with the British music press?

“They fucking hate us, man.  We were the darlings of the English press for about a month back in 1987, in the NME – great.  Then they slagged us off.  I don’t mind not being the ‘band du jour’ in England – I’m not gonna lose any sleep over it.  I don’t read the press any more.  They slag everybody.  I’m more concerned if my mother likes it than some guy from the NME.  Our record went to number two.  You have to have faith in the people.”

The fans know if something’s musical or if it’s just muso posing.

“I’m not a fusion guy – I certainly appreciated people like Dennis Chambers – but after everybody plays the theme and then solos it’s kinda like they’re jacking off.  I’d rather hear songs.  It seems like it would be fun to play but I don’t want to listen to it.”  He pauses and thinks for a moment.  “I don’t know if we’re nice to listen to…”

CHAD’S GEAR

“Pearl Masters series maple with the green sparkle wrapping – 12, 14, 16, 24 kick.  I have a 5×14 Brady Jarrah wood snare drum and it’s really loud – I just like to have my head torn off by the snare drum.  On the album it’s mostly a Ludwig Black Beauty.  Ross, the Drum Doctor, provided the snare drum for the video – a [1930s?] Ludwig Pioneer – dry and dingy.  For me the uglier, the more obnoxious and ringy the snare drum the better – because once all the other shit gets on top of it… and I use the work shit in only the best way.  It’s nice to have some cut to it, and that Ludwig worked.  And I used a [Ludwig] Acrolite a lot.  A 5200 drum and it sounded good.

“But I have about four or five drums – some smaller piccolos and what not.  We’d get ready to record and I’d put up the drums one by one and finally we’d arrive at what would work for the track.  Lots of times it was that Ludwig. Put a head on it, crank it up and bang, you’re there.

“In fact I’ve pared down my kit – I used to have two floors.  I’m finding I’m concentrating more on playing real solid, and on the tunes:  low kick, high snare, pretty high rack, low floor- you’ve got it covered.  And bash away – I’m enjoying it – how can you not enjoy it?”

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