07/2002 Kerrang! (911)

 

Note: This edition of Kerrang! came with two covers; the inner (paper) cover and the outer, additional, cardboard one (with a free CD attached) showing Anthony Kiedis in a slightly different pose.

THE RED Hot Chili Peppers playing to 700 people in a North London club is, no
matter how jaded the eyes, An Event. On this clammy Friday evening the Highbury
Garage is packed like a vacuum-sealed pound of filter coffee; the wiser members
of the audience are standing beneath ceiling air vents, the thirsty ones are
queuing three-deep at the bar. Outside tickets are changing hands for sums that
are not so much outrageous as blasphemous.

But then, this is the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and tonight is an occasion that
means all sorts of things. For start, there’s exclusivity; chances are the band
will not play a show in such a setting for quite some time. This is a group who,
over the years, have crept into the realm of the Truly Famous. For one hour and
one hour only, this is an experience to be traded in for serious ‘I was there’
nostalgia points.

Onstage, the Red Hot Chili Peppers might well be the same outfit who have
cavorted the boards in various states of undress for almost 20 years now. But
this impression only lasts for a second. Yes, the band are still topless, still
buffed and holy, still aglow with the vibrancy and can-do dynamics Southern
California. But look again; tonight the skin looks older, the lines look
thicker. And even from the back of the club, the scars on the guitarist’s arms
look livid and deep.

But the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still here. As the bands they once shared
stages and sentences with – Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, Fishbone – have
faded into memory or else glided into reverential nostalgia, this most
Californian of quartets have stubbornly, unfathomably, refused to fold. And,
perhaps as remarkably, have continued to keep looking to the future.

This is the story of how the Red Hot Chili Peppers refused to give it
away.

SEVENTY-NINE hours previously, at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon, it’s press hell
in a heavenly West London hotel. The four members of the band – vocalist Anthony
Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith – are
each sitting in one of four suites on the second floor of the Knightsbridge
Mandarin Hotel, overlooking the capital’s Royal Parks, downwind from Harrods. In
a separate room are the journalists, waiting and fidgeting, smoking but not
talking, as a representative of the band’s management firm, Q-Prime, cues up ‘By
the Way’, the band’s new album – their eighth – on the hotel room stereo. Given
that the record is still shrouded in secrecy and security, we’re asked if any of
us have our tape recorders switched on. It’s difficult not to laugh and applaud
in squeals of delight.

But then again, it’s also difficult not to be struck by at least some sense
of occasion, There are few groups around today who are as storied as the Red Hot
Chili Peppers. Not only have they made music that has been loved and adored over
the years, but they’ve done so very much on their own terms, at their own pace
and in their own style. They have almost split on a number of occasions –
usually following the departure, or the death, of one guitarist or another – but
somehow they never quite made it to the crematorium. Instead they moved on, and
they got better. And, as ‘By The Way’ shows, they’re better now than they have
ever been.

“There have been some press-worthy moments that people like to get into with
our band,” says Anthony Kiedis. “You know, people dying and all of that. But
it’s all part of the picture. I can’t say that I’m at all grateful for having
lost one of my friends (Hillel Slovak, the band’s original guitarist, who died
of a heroin overdose) early on in the career of this band. But in some ways I am
grateful for the struggles that we’ve gone through. It was the greatest series
of lessons that I could have ever come across.”

THE RED Hot Chili Peppers are, for purposes of time, undertaking separate
interviews today. And that time is getting thinner by the man. By the
penultimate interview, a scheduled half hour with John Frusciante has been
shaved to 15 minutes. When each interview is finished – actually, not so much
finished, but all out of time – it’s out of the door and down the gathering room
to wait with the other journalists. It’s such fun.

Anthony Kiedis is the first member of the band to open his mouth for you, and
in some ways the toughest to unlock. Smaller than you would imagine but smarter
then you might think, Kiedis is wittily quizzical – “What constitutes metal?” he
wonders, pondering the line-up for the Ozzfest – and slightly Californian. You
get the feeling that even though you’ve just introduced yourself he would be
hard pressed to remember your name. Because he has no need to. And while he
answers every question thrown up, Kiedis does give the air of being nobody’s
fool. That is, you can imagine him having an off day, even if this isn’t one of
them.

These days Anthony Kiedis begins his morning by walking his dog, Buster, from
his home at the top of the Hollywood Hills, two miles down, and then running
back to the house in time for breakfast. It is, he says, good preparation for
heading out on tour. You can ask him if he minds you asking the last time he
took heroin and he’ll say “not at all”, even though the closest you can pin him
is that “it’s been a while”. Then he’ll astonish you with his candour, stating,
without prompting, that his sex life is currently “in the doldrums” since his
recent split with his “soul mate”, Yohanna.

The reason for the split?

I wanted to move in the direction of a family, which for me is easy because
I’ve found myself and I’ve found what I want to do, and she’s sort of in the
process of finding out who she is and trying to make her mark creatively. So we
were at different points in our lives, unfortunately.”

This is quite some distance from the man who remarked, 10 years ago, that his
upper body was in such a good shape because of the amount of sex he was
enjoying.

“I think it was more like 15 years ago that I said that,” says Kiedis, with a
shrug of laughter. “When people ask you silly questions about your upper arms
you’re bound to answer with a flippant and silly remark. That’s not to say that
I wasn’t some kind of idiotic, egotistical maniac back than. And I don’t feel
ashamed of saying things like that, but today that certainly wouldn’t be my
answer.

Perhaps the reason for this is that on the first day of November Anthony
Kiedis will be 40 years old. Chad Smith – ostensibly the most down-to-earth of
the four, interviewed for this piece but more happy to talk about how he
received a signed Detroit Red Wings hockey jersey for his 40th birthday than
anything as mundane as music – and Flea are also of similar age. Flea and Kiedis
have been in the Red Hot Chili Peppers for fully half of their lives, and have
suffered as many of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as any you might
care to nominate. And with the history of a band schooled in schism, drugs,
breakdowns, drugs, death and drugs behind them, such landmark birthdays seem
noteable not only with regard to the young man’s game that is rock ‘n’ roll but
the very nature of the Red Hot Chili Peppers themselves.

“I feel like we’re just getting started.” says Kiedis. “I don’t really think
of it with regard to age, and I’m certainly not thinking about it terms of my
age, but rather how the band has grown. On a daily basis I find a sense of joy
and gratitude that this how I spend my life. And that I get to spend my life
with people I love, instead of having to do it by myself.”

JOHN FRUSCIANTE looks like Jesus of Nazareth. With amnesia. Dressed in dark
trousers and a pale wool jumper, the guitarist is wandering around the luscious
furnishings and chromium steel coffee pots of his interview suite trying to
remember which hotel room he slept in last night. “I can’t remember the number,”
he says, to no-one in particular. A quick call to reception and the answer is
found. He mumbles his thanks and wanders out of the room. “Bless him,” says a
member of the band’s entourage.

If the theme of this feature is one of redemption – or, at the very least,
escape – then the feeling is that John Frusciante has redeemed himself to the
furthest degree. That is, he’s been the luckiest. And if a story about the Red
Hot Chili Peppers’ present cannot be told without a nod to their past, then it’s
the past of John Frusciante that draws the hardest stares.

With hindsight, the guitarist says, he should have left this band at the end
of the recording of ‘91’s “BloodSugarSexMagik” album. Instead he stayed for the
subsequent tour, a thought process that had more to do with “my ego than it did
my heart”. It was, he says, a “desperately painful and confusing time in my
life.”

Returning home from the road, he withdrew to his living room and stayed out
of the light. He took heroin and he took cocaine. The teeth fell out of his head
and the bottom fell out of his world.

“Heroin and coke made me feel better,” he says. “It made the pain go away. At
least it did at first. But I definitely don’t recommend drug use or being a drug
addict to someone who is in pain. But if you are truly in as much pain as I was
then you have no choice but to be a drug addict.”

This “drug addict” thing went on for five years, from the age of 23 to the
age of 28 (Frusciante is 32 now). He tried on two occasions to wash himself
clean, but his heart really wasn’t in it. He only did it, he says “because I was
literally about to die”. But then he received a blood transfusion and “I was
like, ‘Great, I’m good to go again. Let me get my hands on some more drugs’”. In
the thick of his habit, John Frusciante was spending “$500 or $600 a day” on
cocaine and heroin.

Did you ever run out of money?

“Eventually I ran out of money, yes,” he says. “There was a lot of starving
and a lot of convincing dealers to front me drugs. There were all kinds of
problems that went with that. It was pretty rough. There were times when I would
have to be bailed out because I owed someone $30,000 and they were going to kill
me. But the worst thing is having to be sick all the time, that’s the worst. I
didn’t care so much about my personal safety so much as being sick.”

When you look back to those days, does it terrify you?
“No, it doesn’t
terrify me at all,” he says. “I’m really proud to have gone through it,
actually.”

Proud? That’s an interesting word to use.
“Well, I’m proud to have come
through it,” he says. “I’m not so much proud to have done it, but I am proud to
have emerged from it. I don’t see drugs as my enemy because I know there’s no
way I will ever go back to them. And because of that I’m very happy with who I
am as a person right now.”

A lot of conversation here has centered around the theme of pain. What was
the cause of that pain?
“That’s too personal a question,” says Frusciante,
with both a thin smile and a deep frown. “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that.”

MICHAEL ‘FLEA’ Balzary has swimming pool eyes and an air of ragged intensity
that he can’t shake, even in front of a perfect stranger brandishing a tape
recorder. He’s just finished a lunch of local Chinese food, which, he says, was
“delicious”. Flea prayed, as he always does, before eating the meal. In
Australia, he’ll tell you, he recently “freaked out” while listening to the
album “Los Angeles” by X; lunging around the room and smashing plates to the
feral beauty of the music. His daughter, with worried eyes, asked him what was
wrong. Dressed in blue jeans and tight navy Dickies shirt, Flea will sit
cross-legged on a sofa for much of this interview.

He isn’t new to this. Despite a love for the jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton –
from whose band, The Red Hot Peppers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers may or may not
have cribbed their name – Flea moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was
nine years old, and by the time he was 11 he was spending his life – if not
actually living, as his parents always gave him a bed – on the punk rock streets
of West Hollywood. This was where he discovered a sense of community that has
remained with him till this day. Eleven years old was also the age that he began
taking drugs. Right up until the recording of “BloodSugarSexMagik” Flea had
recorded each and every one of his basslines shitfaced on pot.

I don’t know how you managed to stand up.

“Well I think a lot of people smoke pot when they play music,” he says,
without a smile. “And for me it was a question of becoming meditative and just
getting into the space where I played. After I stopped, the music felt a little
cold. In time it became more transcendental, but in hindsight I would have
preferred to have left the drugs alone and worked on making the music
transcendental for me from the start.”

Flea’s accent has the sunshine twang of Southern California. When he was 18
he joined the notorious LA punk band Fear – sample lyric: “Steal the money from
your mom, buy a gun/Kill your mother and father” – and he’ll speak of those days
with as much energy as he will telling you about his band’s new album. Lee Ving,
Fear’s charismatic, red-necked, blue collar frontman, was, he says, like a
father figure to him, even though he’s since learnt a few things about the man
that he doesn’t care for. Not that he’s keen to discuss them with you, if it’s
all the same.

Unlike Kiedis and Frusciante, Flea was never a junkie.
“But I started
doing drugs when I was 11 years old and I didn’t stop until I was 31,” he
says.“A couple of things made me stop. One of the things was just tired of it. I
did heroin, cocaine, psychedelics, and I smoked pot every day. God, I smoked so
much pot.”

And he had breakdowns as well. Proper crawling-the-walls, bloodied-fingertip
breakdowns. The first of these came in 1991. The second came two years ago. The
bassist was, he says, “suicidal”. He offers all of this as if he were talking to
a therapist rather than a journalist.

“I have gone through some things in my life that have led me to the point of
absolute collapse and nervous breakdown,” he says. “I would say for myself,
emotionally, that a couple of years ago I went through a relationship break-up
and I was in a place where I didn’t trust anyone or anything. I was depressed
and miserable and practically suicidal. I couldn’t sleep and I was neurotic.

“But I had to suffer so much fear and so much pain that I was able to be
really clear headed about it and to say, ‘Bring it on. Whatever happens to me,
just bring it on. I don’t care if I die. I’m going to feel all this pain and
absorb all this pain’. And in doing this I managed to purge myself of all this
shit that I’ve been carrying around all of my life. And I was able to get to a
place where I was just this clear and liberated person and I could focus on the
things that really mattered to me.”

Which are?

“The band. Apart from my family, my friends in the band are what really
matters to me.”

BACK IN the journalists’ waiting room, ‘By The Way’ is on its fourth of fifth
spin. Sitting down and listening to it, once again, some sense of accomplishment
of this band begins to shine. It’s not so much what the album sounds like that
is its true achievement, but rather what the Red Hot Chili Peppers have managed
to attain, not only with their music but also with their standing. That is, they
stand alone. Only Metallica have managed to shed their peers and contemporaries
in quite the same way as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Metallica are the only other
band who one mentions without reference to anyone else.

Perhaps more than this, though, it’s the sense of unity surrounding the band
which is the most remarkable. Each story – whether it be Anthony Kiedis and Flea
aglow with nu-age redemption, John Frusciante rotting in his room or Chad Smith
talking of nothing more than playing goal in a celebrity ice hockey match at the
Joe Louis Arena in Detroit – eventually swoops to this point, the point of
togetherness; how hard it was to earn and how much it is now cherished. The
frictions of the past, they say, are gone; the future is clear. It’s not unusual
for band to claim togetherness, but the sheer weight of evidence on display here
goes some way to resting the case beyond words. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have
been together for 20 years now. Today they sound nothing like they did at the
start, without losing the sense of authenticity that made it all worthwhile the
first place. They have the smiles and they have the scars. Literally. And while
the stories of the past are compelling, it’s the music of the present that
really keeps them sticking around.

“This band means everything to me,” says Anthony Kiedis. “And I think I can
speak for each one of us when I say that. There’s a chemistry at work when the
four of us go into a room that I’ve just never experienced with anyone else.
We’ve learned from our mistakes and we’ve grown from our experiences, and I can
only see this band getting better and better. I can only see this band sticking
around for a long time to come.”

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