Thank you to Rita Bussetta for the transcript.
Sex, drugs, death and socks on their cocks – no one embodies the Hollywood lifestyle like the
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS.
Unfortunately, frontman Anthony Kiedis is about to get very upset at accusations that his band are more famous for their OTT image than their music…
Things are not going especially well. I’ve been sitting with Anthony Kiedis and Chad Smith in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a quarter of an hour, and the conversation is growing more stilted by the second. There are 20 minutes of our allotted interview time left. Smith is sitting with his head between his knees, studying his footwear intently. Kiedis’ answers to each question are becoming increasingly terse.
The problem seems to have arisen over the suggestion that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have saddled themselves with a cartoon image. For much of the past 16 years, they have paraded around bare of chest and comical of facial expression. Famously, they wore socks on their cocks and flaming helmets atop their heads. With Kiedis, Smith and bassist Flea all now well into their 30s, might they now want attention to focus on their music rather than the side-show with which they’ve frequently surrounded it?
“You’re suggesting I’m a cartoon?” responds Kiedis, a mirthless smile stretching across his face. “Well, the press might have chosen to present that one side of the band, but anyone who has truly known our music realises that we’ve embraced so much more. We’ve brought love and truth and beauty into life, which is what art should be about. We’re multi-faceted.”
It will later transpire that Flea turned up for the Kerrang! photo shoot wearing a shower cup. With little encouragement, he proceeded to gurn spectacularly and get his arse out for the camera.
The Beverly Hills Hotel is a suitably opulent venue from which to launch ‘Californication’ – the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ seventh and arguably most important album. Built in 1912 for $500,000 by developer Burton Green, it’s a grand pink stucco structure set in rolling lawns and surrounded by palm trees. The billionaire Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin all took up residency in the bungalows which thread through the trees behind the main building. Its restaurant, The Polo Lounge, has fed Hollywood’s movers and shakers for more than 50 years.
The Chilis have been meeting and greeting the world’s press in two adjoining bungalows here on alternate days for the past two weeks. By the time they finish, they’ll have spoken to 47 journalists. On their days off, they have been rehearsing for their first tour with prodigal guitarist John Frusciante in seven years. There is little doubt about which task they enjoy more.
Frusciante is the first of the Chilis to arrive this afternoon – at 12:30pm prompt. The youngest of the band at 29, he is unrecognisable from the fresh-faced teenager who signed up for 1989’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ album and quit three years later a mental and physical wreck. His hair is now long, dark and lank, his face creased. He mumbles hello, orders a fruit drink from room service, and disappears into the bedroom, where he spends the next 30 minutes listening to Van Halen’s ‘II’ album at an impressive volume.
Flea is not long behind, his eyes hidden behind a wide and penetrable pair of shades.
“Hello,” I say.
“F**k off,” Flea barks.
There is a brief, deeply uncomfortable pause, before Flea’s face breaks into a huge grin and he extends a hand. His timing is impeccable. Before further discussion can ensue, he exits to join Frusciante. Over the sound of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, the pair can be heard discussing the merits of the lobster meal they ate the previous night.
Since Flea doesn’t do interviews with Kiedis and he’s spent the past fortnight paired with Smith, the bassist has decided to sit in with Frusciante today. Kerrang! will speak to the frontman and the drummer. The latter is waiting in the other bungalow. Dressed in the casual but smart attire that is the preserve of the rich, Chad Smith is the very picture of health. He indulges in small talk, principally about an acquaintance who’s been working on the Gun’s N’ Roses album.
“They’re recording out in the Valley somewhere,” he reveals in a laconic drawl. “I think Axl has them starting work at 11pm and carrying on till 7am. Axl came to see us at the LA Forum in 1996. He’d cut his hair short and grown a beard. I didn’t recognise him.”
Kiedis remains outside the room during Smith’s monologue, only entering when his American PR announces that the interview should commence. He too has cut his hair and he’s shorter than you think, but otherwise he looks just like he does in photographs. He exchanges cursory greetings and is as warm and welcoming as an ice storm.
They’re not an easy pair to interview. Smith is the more amenable, but is content to let Kiedis do the most of the talking. Kiedis’ mannerisms are unexpectedly effeminate, but he’s also intimidating. While you’re waiting for him to elaborate on an answer, he simply stares straight at you with his big chocolate brown eyes. You invariably give in and move on. He has an irritating habit of turning to Smith and repeating all your questions in the sort of faux English accent peculiar to Americans.
The son of actor Blackie Dammett, Anthony Kiedis was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on November 1, 1962. His family moved to LA in the ‘70s, where Kiedis joined a garage band called Anthem formed by his fellow Fairfax High School students Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary, guitarist Hillel Slovack and drummer Jack Irons. They disbanded when Kiedis enrolled at UCLA to study political science.
“I didn’t actually study it,” he says now. “I wrote to them and told them I wanted to be the President of the USA, so I should be accepted on the political science course. Then I studied everything but political science. Then I quit.”
The foursome re-grouped as the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1983. Kiedis was called ‘Antwan The Swan’ in those days.
“For the record,” Smith asks him, “where did that come from?”
“From one of the first songs I wrote – ‘Out In LA’,” he explains. “I came up with characters for each of us and wrote a verse about each. It was just one facet of my character. Do I still recognise Antwan in me today? Certain parts of him, yeah.”
“Our first gig, we only played one song and it’s still one of the best shows we’ve done. I’d always had ideas about sounds and colours and art in my head. And I found three friends whose music fitted with my poetry.”
The ride since then has been long and wild, and littered with tragedy. Slovack died of a heroin overdose in June ’88. Five years later, while John Frusciante played a gig at The Viper Room in LA, Flea watched his friend River Phoenix die on the pavement outside. Their story has played out like a black soap opera.
“I wouldn’t call it a soap opera,” snaps Kiedis. “We have had strange times, but we don’t live mundane lives. This isn’t a nine-to-five existence.”
Flea has described the year before Frusciante rejoined the Chili Peppers as “the year of nothing”. He considered making a solo album while the band was in limbo following the departure of third guitarist to fill Frusciante’s shoes, Dave Navarro.
The Chilis have claimed that Navarro left by mutual agreement. In an interview with Kerrang! last month, Navarro said he was “literally shown the door”. Which was it?
“We may have been the ones who suggested he go,” responds Kiedis, “but he knew that it wasn’t working and he was aware that it’d have to happen.”
Four years after he quit the Chili Peppers, John Frusciante had been evicted from his LA apartment and had developed a crippling heroin addiction. In November ’96, Robert Wilonsky, a writer from LA’s ‘New Times’ newspaper, found him temporarily lodging at the Chateau Marmont hotel – the scene of comedian John Belushi’s tawdry death in 1982.
In a harrowing article, Wilonsky painted a desperate portrait of Frusciante. “His upper teeth are nearly gone now” he wrote. “They have been replaced by tine slivers of off-white that peek through rotten gums. His hair is shorn to the skull; his fingernails, or the spaces where they used to be, are blackened by blood. His flesh bears burns, bruises scabs and scars.”
Frusciante told Wilonsky: “I’m not afraid of death. I don’t care whether I live or die.”
“John went through a phase in his life where he wanted to do different things – poetry and art,” says Kiedis. “And that took him to a very dark place. All he wanted to do was get high all the time. His head is in a completely different space now.”
Were you aware of how ill he was?
“I knew about it, yes. But we very rarely spoke. I mean, I thought about him a lot. I wished him the best in the atmosphere and things like that. The best I could hope for was that neither of us would actually die before we got a chance to speak again. When we finally sat together in a room, that was a beautiful moment.”
During his seven years away from the Chilis, Frusciante made two bleak and largely unlistenable solo albums – ‘94’s ‘Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt’ and ‘97’s ‘Smile From The Streets You Hold’. His return to the band last January was instigated by Flea, who’d kept in sporadic touch with him.
“It was the furthest thing from my mind that we’d ever be friends and play music again,” admits Kiedis. “It was beyond a dream. When it did transpire, I can say that it was a miracle shock – in a positive way. It was as close as I’ll ever come to saying hello to a dead friend.”
Kiedis has fought his own very public battles with heroin. In a recent interview with ‘Rolling Stone’, he admitted that Frusciante had been clean longer than him when he rejoined the band.
From ‘Under The Bridge’ on, Kiedis’ drug battles have been a recurring theme on each Chilis album.
‘Californication’ has ‘This Velvet Glove’, a woozy ballad during which he reflects: ‘It’s such a waste to be wasted in the first place/I want to taste the taste of being face to face with common grace’.
“A recurring theme?” Kiedis asks in his English accent, eyebrows arched.
Well, since ‘BloodSugar…’ you’ve written lyrics and conducted interviews in which you alternately talk about the joys of being clean and then the pain of lapsing again. Have you finally beaten your addiction?
“I wouldn’t ever think that I won the war,” he says. “But as I sit here now, I don’t want to go back there. It’s tough. I’m lucky that my friends and family had enough patience and love to wait for me.”
You wonder of Chad Smith how frustrating it is to be in a band with someone who’s in and out of rehab… “I guess it can get frustrating,” the drummer says with a rueful smile. “But things get done – just slowly.”
At the end of the day, it’s just a rock band. You’ve got to put it into context. In the great scheme of things it’s really not that important. It was much more important that Anthony was well.
“I come from Minnesota, and I’d had no experience of drugs. My friends never took them. I just used to go out for a beer. Being in this band was the first time I’d ever had to deal with anything like that. But we’ve helped Anthony and John and Dave through it.”
In the summer of last year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers set up camp in Flea’s garage and began jamming. Three months later, they’d accumulated more than 20 new songs.
“All we’ve done in the past year,” says Kiedis, “is make music together and write new things. We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
The band subsequently recorded ‘Californication’ in a mere three weeks with producer Rick Rubin. Less clinical than its predecessor, ‘95’s ‘One Hot Minute’, it’s the record that should have followed ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’. The sound is instantly familiar: all bubbling bass, whip-crack drums and Frusciante’s liquid guitar.
Like all their albums, there’s dross to wade through – frenetic funk work-outs like ‘Get On Top’ and ‘I Like Dirt’ are as turgid as their titles. But there’s a sense of spontaneity running through much of it, and the good tracks – ‘Around The World’, ‘Parallel Universe’ and ‘Scar Tissue’ – are among the best they’ve done.
Best of all is the title track, a languorous hymn to their adopted home-town. For a man who seems so utterly Hollywood, there’s a surprising degree of scorn for its fabricated lifestyle in Kiedis’ lyrics (‘Pay your surgeon well/To break the spell of aging’).
“You hear scorn in it?” he says.
“I’d say that’s a very narrow view, my friend. There’s a lot of love, too. It’s about many things – the huge influence this place has had on western civilisation.”
The lyrics to ‘Get On Top’ are less debatable. They feature the remarkable couplet: ‘Go-rilla, c**t-zilla’.
“It came from a drama class I took,” says Kiedis. “The comic of the class was this short, fat girl. One day, she insulted this other girl by calling her ‘C**t-zilla’. I made a mental note to use it some day.”
Kiedis has sung regularly and with candour about his evidently herculean shagging feats. He’s frequently been lambasted as a sexist oaf for it, but it’s never bothered him. Sex, in Kiedis-speak, is the life-blood of his art.
“Word,” he says.
“What more can I say? I’ve never given a shit what other people thought. I’ve expressed my life and my truth.”
Bizarrely, Kiedis hooks his thumbs under the bottom of his black T-shirt at this point and hoicks it up to his chin. He sits for several seconds with his impressively muscled torso puffed out, like a peacock on steroids.
The final five minutes in the company of Messrs Kiedis and Smith are spent rattling through a list of random questions. What do these gentlemen do when they’re not being Chili Peppers?
“I like to scuba dive,” says Smith. “I became a father to a couple of children, so that takes up a lot of time.”
Kiedis doesn’t attempt to answer. Does he believe in God?
“In some form,” he says. “I’m not egomaniacal enough to think that there isn’t a higher power.”
Have you ever had therapy?
“I have had my head shrunk, yes. I’ve found it very useful on occasions. It’s good to open yourself up.”
“I have had therapy,” says Smith. “At first, I found the whole concept of letting someone pick you apart really, really difficult to deal with. But I’d done some really bad things that I needed to straighten out.”
Our time is up. By way of parting, I tell Kiedis that he should work on that English accent.
“Why is that?” he says.
Because it’s rubbish.
“You’re right,” cackles Smith. “He’s worse than Dick Van Dyke.”
It’s impossible to gauge Kiedis’ reaction. He’s already out of his chair and walking away.
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS release a new single, ‘Scar Tissue’, through Warner Bros on May 24. Their ‘Californication’ album follows on June 8.