Thank you to Kathie Davis for the transcript.
SIZE DOESN’T MATTER
They’re calling the Red Hot Chili Peppers the biggest band in the world. But, they moan to Sven Harding, the British press always insist on talking about the band’s willies. OK, so we tried not to.
Pictures by Spike Jonze.
It’s the middle of July and Los Angeles, like the rest of America, is sweltering under a heatwave of epic proportions. Both the temperature (heading past 90 degrees) and the heat-induced national death-toll (300 in the past week alone) are displaying the kind of upward mobility unseen round these parts since the mid-1980s. Amidst all the traffic, and the smog, and the instant uncomfortable sweatiness, the outdoor pool at the centre of the Sunset Marquis, LA’s exclusive rock and roll hotel – current guests include Bjork, Tricky and rock photographer/ promo director Anton Corbijn – is, by contrast, an oasis of moneyed cool and calm. Besuited record company executives quietly power-lunch at shaded poolside tables, while skimpily-clad wannabe-starlets tan themselves flamboyantly a few feet away. Everybody is subtly checking out everybody else, while at the same time trying to exude the air of south California poise the mock-Spanish colonial surroundings, at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, demand. Suddenly, however, they tranquility is shattered.
“Where do we go?” yells a booming, irreverent voice to nobody in particular. Every pair of eyes in the place swivels to the pool areas entrance. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have arrived – a cartoon-like visual riot of punky hairstyles, tattooed, tanned flesh, Arnet sunglasses and boldly baggy skate and surf gear. The voice belongs to Flea, the Chili Peppers’ wildman bass player, stripped to the waist, a full-faced motorcycle helmet slung over his shoulder. The quartet – completed by the flowing-maned vocalist Anthony Kiedis, the goatee-bearded guitarist Dave Navarro, and the peroxide-blond drummer Chad Smith – is here for the first day of a week of interviews with the international press to promote a new album chock full of their trademark rock-tinged, Californian punk-funk, and, by the looks of it, they’re ultra-keen to get on with things. A suitably-apologetic hotel employee scurries from somewhere to guide the vaguely surly gang on their way.
“Have you ever noticed how much bigger your penis looks when you look at it from the side rather than from above?” Guitarist Dave Navarro has just emerged from what Americans call “the restroom” in the opulent suite that he and Anthony Kiedis are using to do their share of the interviews (the other two are answering questions elsewhere). The perspective afforded to Navarro by the bathroom’s mirrored paneling while he was urinating has clearly impressed him. “Have you ever noticed how a mirror can make your erection look even bigger?” counters Kiedis, before taking a sip from a bottle of Evian water. “When I’ve got an erection I’m way too preoccupied to be looking in any mirrors.” Replies Navarro, sitting down beside the surprisingly diminutive singer on a chintzy pink sofa. “Well, you know you can get these convex mirrors that make everything look kind of weird – you wanna try looking at your erection in one of those things,” says Kiedis.
Outside, things are getting even wackier. Flea can now be spied strolling across a well-mani-cured lawn wearing only a pair of sopping-wet black Calvin Klein underpants. Apparently he had noticed the existence of yet another pool just outside that chalet belonging to the Warner Brothers press officer and decided to spontaneously strip off and jump in, through an open window some 10 feet above the water’s surface in order to cool himself down. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, it would seem, are going out of their way to live up to their reputation as one of the last remaining standard-bearers of the full-on rock-and-roll lifestyle.
“Fuck the reputation,” states Anthony Kiedis as the interview proper commences, his low-volume, deadpan Californian drawl in danger of being drowned out by the bassy drone of the suite’s air-conditioning system. He and Flea have just returned from an 11-day outward bound jaunt across the remotest regions of Alaska (“I really get off on wilderness, getting away from society, and just being with nature. It makes me as happy as anything else in the world”), but whereas the Australian-born bassist is expressing his renewed vitality by making daredevil pool-jumps, Kiedis is in an earnest mood indeed. “Fuck the reputation, “he repeats. “The reputation is all based on media interpretation. A magazine will get hold of one itty bitty little slice of what we’re about and they’ll try and blow it up out of proportion as to what we’re all about. I think – not to sit here and stroke ourselves – I think we’re about so much more.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, formed by Kiedis and Flea (friends since high school) after they had performed a one-song live show as Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, have been around for a long time. Twelve years to be exact – an eternity in the transient “make-up to break-up” world of modern-day MTV bands. “Blood transfusions,” answers 32-year-old Kiedis when quizzed about the secret behind the band’s longevity, tongue firmly in cheek, fixing me with a mock serious stare across the hotel-room coffee-table. “Blood transfusions and changing blood with the guy standing to the immediate left every so often. We circulate our blood in the band; it seems to have some kind of a fusing effect. The Egyptians used to do it for eternal life.”
The LA-based group’s own lifespan has always been riddled with the kind of rock-and-roll (mis)adventures that seem like the work of an over-imaginative scriptwriter on Spinal Tap 2, events that would have pulled lesser musical alliances to pieces. Models/actresses have been duly dated and dramatically split with, huge amounts of drugs ingested, guitarists and drummers have departed at crucial moments, with music-paper headline-grabbing controversy seemingly never very far away.
In 1988 the Chilis’ original guitarist Hillel Slovak died from a heroin overdose; two years later, Anthony Kiedis, himself a former heroin addict, was up in court, accused of indecent exposure and sexual battery (he allegedly dropped his trousers and jokingly asked a female student – who had volunteered to drive the band bus back to the hotel – whether she was the girl who had come to suck his dick).
Despite the fact that the band has been steadily shifting product and filling sizeable venues around the world for the best part of a decade, it took last year’s wildly successful, largely bill-topping tour of some of the world’s biggest rock festivals (Reading, Woodstock 2, etc) – coupled with the global mega-sales of their What Hits! And BloodSugarSexMagik albums – to finally convince those outside the specialist music press that the Chili Peppers had finally arrived as a serious popular music force. Now many are calling them the biggest band in the world.
The new album, One Hot Minute (their seventh), has taken over two artistically-problematic years to record. “This record was like giving birth,” says Dave Navarro. “It was like giving birth to Andre’ the Giant,” adds Kiedis (Andre’ the Giant, a now-deceased wrestler who turned bit-part actor – he appeared in Rob Reiner’s film The Princess Bride – would appear to be something of a cult hero with the band). “It’s been problematic in the most beautiful sense of the word – full of glitches and pukes and all kinds of unexpected tragedies and unforeseeable dilemmas of every shape in size.”
“We’re taking two weeks to rehearse for our European tour,” adds Kiedis. “The options are to rehearse in Dublin—it’s a place we’ve always been very fond of – or in London…”
“I love London,” butts in Navarro. “The basement of the Tate [Gallery] – we’ll be down below the Tate.”
“Yeah,” says Kiedis, “I want to rehearse in front of Francis Bacon paintings.”
With the subject matter of the new album’s lyrics covering, according to Kiedis, “a gamut of remarkable tenderness and vigorous anger and disenchantment – it’s overall probably harder than our last record,” I ask if it annoys him that, in Britain at least, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are probably still better known for their cocks, or to be more precise, wearing socks on their cocks, than for their music (mention the band’s name to almost anybody over here and the first thing they’ll talk about is the famous photo of the band posing side-by-side, arms folded, each naked apart from sports-socks stretched over their dangly bits).
“That’s really their problem,” replies Kiedis. “I definitely don’t regret it [wearing the socks] because it was so much fun and it was such a beautiful image. When it had its birth it was coming from such a natural and free-flowing place in our hearts. It was so exciting. We did it for pleasure and entertainment. I think that it’s for pleasure and entertainment. I think that it’s really a British problem. In terms of magazines anyway, the British press always takes things at face value and latches onto the first penis they can get their hands around.
“Anyway,” he adds, “the record’s so much more well-equipped to deal with these questions than me sitting in a hotel room trying to explain what the record has to say. That’s said with guitars and drums and bass, percussion and horns.”
At this point Navarro makes a slightly apologetic in-road into the conversation. “But, the first thing I did when I came back into the room was talk about the size of my penis in the mirror,” he recalls. “Well there you go,” says Kiedis, a smile on his lips for probably only the second time in the interview.
The Chili Peppers’ unashamed past championing of their genitals (We’ve got big dicks so we’re the men for the job,” Flea once said during the “sock period”) and the sexually-charged nature of their performances (at one time they’d perform with their meat and two veg shoved – minus sock – through holes in paper plates) has led some to view them as being sexually belligerent. “I’ve got two words to say to that,” says Kiedis. “Bend over. No, I’m kidding. I know myself, as does Flea, and Chad, and Dave, that there’s so much more than sexual energy. But sexual energy is something that we’d never attempt to deny because that’s a big part of life – it’s a part of rhythm, it’s part of music and it’s part of people.”
Given the topic of conversation, not to mention our location (just a few blocks north-east of the Sunset Strip), talk inevitably turns to the unfortunate manner in which Hugh Grant recently tried to discharge some of his own pent-up sexual energy. “I think he’s amazing,” says Navarro of the blow-job buying English actor. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I was actually in the back seat while he was getting done,” quips Kiedis. “From a voyeuristic standpoint it was a lot of fun.”
The duo are less than forthcoming, however, when I try to prompt them into recalling any similarly lewd scenes they may have witnessed during their party-strewn rock and roll careers. “Those kinds of things are much better savoured on a personal level,” says Navarro, taking a mock-serious cue from Kiedis. “I don’t like to talk about things that excite me too much because I like to keep them sacred, really. Those kinds of experiences are sacred.”
With Kiedis now totally drug-free, the legacy of his having fought off an addiction to heroin immediately after Hillel Slovak’s death (the hit single Under the Bridge reportedly refers to the place where Kiedis would find his dealers), his illegal substance-fuelled partying days are long since over. “Recreational drug use, well for me it’s not an option because, for me, it’s just not recreational. Addiction is an undeniable element of my nature, and I just contended with it on a daily basis. I deal with it as best I can. I can’t conceive of a life of any kind where I’m using narcotic.” I ask Kiedis how he managed to stay in such great physical shape throughout his addiction. “Well it’s not something I obsess on,” he replies. “We once had a drummer called Cliff Martinez – he was a great drummer – and he once commented that I was the buffest junkie he had ever know. He was baffled by it.”
Despite his intimate knowledge of the drug, Kiedis is reluctant to outwardly condemn the mooted revival of heroin as a widely-used-narcotic (the cover story of that week’s Bam, a free LA music magazine, was titled “Live Through This – Heroin – The 90s Drug of Choice”). “It’s not something that I can really say anything about; it’s a personal experience. I know what it did to me, and what it did to my friends, and it’s been a pretty destructive part of my life. It’s killed a lot of my friends and I don’t support it, but I don’t judge or condemn it. People do what they’re gonna do – hopefully they live through it and grow from it, and hopefully they don’t end up wasting their lives and killing themselves.”
So, is he a happier man these days? Kiedis puts on a thoughtful look. “Well, personally I’m in, like, a holding pattern, waiting to see what’s gonna happen. It’s a big time right now – I’m personally content with that, but I’m not grounded with it. There’s a huge adventure waiting for us round the corner – it’s kind of like trying to get a good night’s sleep when you have a big game the next day.
“Having said that, I don’t think I’ve really been content since I was six years old and I was walking through a field with my 17-year-old babysitter and it was a sunny day in Michigan and we were walking along the street, eating berries and stuff like that. That was the last truly content moment I can remember ever having.”
With that, however, our time’s up – LA pop-promo prodigy Spike Jonze is waiting to photograph the quartet, and the rest of the world’s press is due their turn. “Did I mention that Dave actually has the most beautiful body of anybody that I know?” Kiedis quips as a joval parting shot. He hadn’t, but then again you’d hardly expect anything else of the newest recruit to the world’s buffest, shirt-shunning punk-funk rock-and-roll band.
The album One Hot Minute will be released on 18 September with a worldwide live tour to follow.