08/2002: Classic Rock (43)

Thank you to Kathie Davis for the transcript.

GOING BOTH WAYS

 

Madness, mayhem, drugs, death… Yes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are back with a new album, ‘By The Way’, and a whole new attitude – they say.  Sock on: Murray Engleheart

 

A FEW BLOCKS AWAY FROM THE SITTING ROOM WINDOW ON THE eighth floor of the plush Casa Del Mar Hotel, right at the end of California’s Venice Beach, a massive expanse of sand stretches out almost to the horizon, where it is capped by crystal-like surf.  Directly below the window, a family are playing in the swimming pool.  In a surreal way, it’s as if life was imitating the cover art of the Chili Peppers’ 12.5 million-selling 1999 album ‘Californication’, their ‘reunion’ record with cosmic guitar genius John Frusciante after a period in a personal wilderness.

 

But it was the sight of the distant surf that captured the heart and imagination of the staggeringly healthy looking Anthony Kiedis.  “I’m really a rather pathetic surfer,” say the warm but typically intense frontman at the start of the final interview of two solid weeks of media for the Chilis’ new album ‘Buy The Way’.  “But I love paddling out.  I just like being out on the water; and I might catch a wave or two.  But I didn’t paddle out until I was over 30 years old, so I never developed that sort of childhood skill of the whole thing.  But I do love it, and I’m actually watching those guys out there right now – they’re having a little surf – and wishing that’s what I was doing.  That’s kind of the ultimate meditation for me, just sitting in the swell of the ocean, looking at the horizon and waiting for a wave to come.  Good feeling.”

The rise and fall of the ocean’s tides are something of a mirror for the oxygen-starved highs and inky-black lows that the Chili Peppers have experienced since they began back in 1983.  It’s what bred them their cosmic soul.  Flea (aka Michael Balzary) – whose idols were The Clash, Hendrix (he had his Jimi tattoo etched on his arm in 1982) Fugazi, Parliament and Funkadelic – and the original guitarist and drummer Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons all attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.  At shows by their under-aged band, Anthem or Anthem School, a permanent fixture was another Fairfax High student, Anthony Kiedis, who to this day remains Flea’s best friend.  Flea left the band to join LA punks Fear, while Slovak and Irons changed Anthym to What Is This?  The four were later united as Tony Flow And The Miraculously Majestic Masters Of Mayhem and, aided and abetted by acid, played their first show together.  The name Red Hot Chili Peppers came soon after.

“There was nothing conscious about our musical game plan,” Kiedis said years ago.  “We didn’t sit down and say: ‘Let’s put a bit of Parliament and a bit of Miles Davis and a bit of LA punk together.  This was stuff we’d listened to for hours and hours, smoking pot sitting in dark rooms with friends, getting drunk, running around naked, jamming for hours on end.  We digested it all and we shat it out as Red Hot Chili Peppers music.”

Andy Gill, from Flea’s English post-punk heroes The Gang of Four, produced the Chili’s self-titles 1984 debut album, which saw guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez take the place of Slovak and irons, who had opted to return to What Is This?.  Legend has it that Kiedis and Flea sent Gill a still-warn turd in a pizza box as a measure of the relationship.

Drug use began to escalate to the point where, as the band’s biography succinctly puts it, “Hillel denied he had a problem, Anthony didn’t”.

Their 1985 album ‘Freaky Styley’ was steered by another demigod in Chili eyes, funk master George Clinton, and saw the band at seminal line-up strength.  Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren looked set to produce 1987’s ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’ at one point.  That notion died away when the punk mastermind let it be known that he wanted the focus to be on Kiedis, whom he saw – not surprisingly – as a potentially hugh star.  Flea reportedly put a full stop on the entire episode by passing out at McLaren’s feet.  The ‘Abbey Road’ EP was released in 1988 just prior to Slovak’s death in June from an overdose.  In grief the band went in separate directions.  Irons walked out, lashing out at his colleagues for the guitarist’s tragic death.

“It was devastation to lose him.”  Kiedis once said of Slovak.  “We loved him dearly and we’d spent our earlier days daydreaming with him.  If it wasn’t for him, Red Hot Chili Peppers wouldn’t sound the way it does.  His spirit lives on in our music.”

AS A STOP-GAP MEASURE, KIEDIS AND FLEA TEAMED up with former Dead Kennedys drummer DH Peligro and guitarist Blackbyrd Mc Knight from George Clinton’s P-Funk dynasty.  It was a short-lived affair, and the Chilis’ future looked dark.  That was until early 1989, when 18-year-old major Chilis fan john Frusciante landed the guitar slot.  The New Yorker had heard Captain Beefheart’s avant-garde blues and free jazz masterpiece ‘Trout Mask Replica’ at the age of the 10 and never perceived music in quite the same way again.  Frusciante probably still agonises that Cliff Martinez actually did with the Captain.  Drummer Chad Smith joined in the same year as Frusciante.

The Chilis’ 1989 album ‘Mothers Milk’ album offered the first indication of the sort of sparkling alchemy the Kiedis/Flea/Frusciante/Smith combination were capable of.  But nothing could have prepared them for the almost nine million world sales of 1991’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Majik’.  Produced by Rick Rubin, it was recorded in a house in Laurel Canyon where The Beatles took acid for the first time, where Hendrix hung out when he was in LA, and were gangsters used to lay low.  The place also supposedly housed several ghosts.  The record’s biggest hit, the beautifully soulful “Under The Bridge’, reportedly documented Kiedis’s dark-days meetings under a still undisclosed LA bridge when he was looking to score.

In 1992, in the middle of the extensive touring for “Blood Sugar…’, came a not totally unexpected blow:  Frusciante quit on the eve of an Australian tour.  A gentle soul, his dislike of touring was no secret, and the success and associated pressure that came with the album increased his discomfort hundred-fold.  He was going through the world thinking that being a heroin addict and filling his life with good feelings was the best way to maintain his creativity; he soon discovered it wasn’t.  Arik Marshall stepped in for the remaining dates.

Frusciante subsequently released a couple of solo albums, the second of which, ‘97’s ‘Smile From The Streets You Hold’, he has since admitted was thrown together simply to raise drug money.

The Australian tour was an exercise in mania.  The van of opening act The Hard Ons was chased for 15 minutes on foot and by car through one city’s streets because it was thought there may have been a Chili Pepper stowed away inside.  Marshall’s tenure was short-lived, and Jesse Tobias stepped in.  Former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro – who had reportedly been offered some major financial enticement to join a regrouping Guns N’ Roses (“It was easy to walk away from that one,” he told me around that time) — joined the line-up and seemed the perfect choice.  Navarro wrote off-beat film reviews for LA’s ultra-hip Bikini magazine and had never previously owned a Chilis record.  He felt his Chili Peppers debut on 1995’s Rick Rubin-produced ‘One Hot Minute’ was “a pretty important turning point in my life”, and commemorated the moment with a tattoo of the angel featured the album’s cover.

The release of ‘One Hot Minute’ was delayed for a myriad rumoured reasons – everything from writer’s block to rumblings about Kiedis’ ‘mystery illness’, which some wildly put down to being the result of either his drug addiction or Aids or both.  The eventual world tour was a huge success, with Rain Phoenix, the sister of Flea’s friend River, whose death he witnessed at the Viper Room, as one of the band’s backing singers.  At Madison Square Garden in New York, Iggy Pop  joined the band for The Stooges’ ‘Now I Wanna Be Your Dog’.  “It was kind of last-minute,’ Navarro explains.  “The decision came when we were backstage waiting for the encore, and we asked him then.  That was basically the only thing that we all knew somewhat well, and we just threw it together.  It was wild.

After the tour the rumour mill again went into overdrive: the band were to split, it was said, after their next album – if indeed there was to be a next album.

Then in March 1997 a promising link-up occurred.  Frusciante appeared at the Whiskey in West Hollywood with Thelonius Monster, and was joined on stage by Flea.  But any possible momentum was halted by Kiedis’s motorcycle accident, in which he broke 11 bones in his wrist and had to perform sitting down at the year’s typhoon-lashed and ultimately aborted Fuji Festival in Japan.

The thread was picked up again after Frusciante was released from a medical facility.  He’d been through hell.  According to reports, the poor guy’s demons had been so great that at one point he attempted to stab himself in the eye with a fork to get rid of the person he thought was living there.  And just when everything was once more poised for a reunion, Chad Smith had a bike prang.

Finally, the official double-headed announcements came fairly quietly in April 1998: on April 3 Navarro’s departure was confirmed; just over three weeks later Frusciante’s return to the Chilis announced.

Their first gig was at the tiny 200-seater 9:30 Club in Washington DC.  The next day they played at the far more fitting Tibetan Freedom Concert.  They couldn’t have scripted a finer return.  ‘Californication’, another Rick Rubin-produced album, was the perfect renewed beginning.

“It just feels like a rebirth.”  Flea told me at the time.  “Right now we’re in a really, really good place.  There’s a great feeling.  I don’t like to say the word ‘rebirth’ because I don’t feel like we’ve gone anywhere, we’ve always had a band.  But having John back… I just think he’s the best guitar player in the world, so it’s a real exciting thing for us.  Everything’s just great right now  It just seems really easy and natural, and it seems just like it’s supposed to be.”

Some people are meant to play in certain situations.  Frusciante in the Chilis appears without question to be one of those combinations.

“He really is,” agreed Flea, “He’s so focused and so dedicated.  He’s so inspiring to me.  He just plays all the time, it’s all he does.  He gets up, gets out of bed and he just grabs the guitar and starts playing.  We’re doing 12-hour days when we were recording, and we’d leave the studio and John would go home and just write music!  Everyone else would be like [snoring noise].  I just love playing with him so much.  We have such a easy telepathic connection with music it’s like we don’t need to talk.  We just pick it up and start doing it.”

The subsequent world tour was accented with countless memorable moments.  Like the free concert they played in Red Square in Moscow before 100,000 people, and Rock In Rio to more than twice as many.  Unfortunately, the band’s performance at the second re-enactment of the Woodstock festival in August 1999 was under less than ideal conditions.  The band closed their set and the event itself with a prophetic version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’.  “It was accidentally prophetic, yeah,” Kiedis conceded, when we spoke in January 2000 at the Sydney leg of the Big Day Out Festival.  “We played ‘Fire’ for a very unusual but specific reason, because Jimi Hendrix’s sister came backstage before we were getting ready to play.  She came to us with a kind of eleventh-hour request asking if could we play one of her brother’s songs to close the show, in lieu of the fact that the big tribute of guitar players all kind of got washed away.  The fact that there was a huge fire in the audience was just a nice little coincidence.”

In the Chilis’ main dressing area at the Big Day Out, several candles burned and a small statue of the dancing Shiva – a symbol of the Hindu Faith – stood on a table near a doorway.  A small drum kit stood in one corner of the compound, in front of a canvas painting of an ocean scene.  The tour marked the band’s third trip to Australia, but Frusciante’s first.

“It surprised me when we started playing music together again, just because it was the last thing I expected,” said Kiedis. “But once we started writing songs and getting in the studio, everyone felt so positive and in love with what was going on that without having expectations I think we had a pretty good idea that people would like the record.  It seemed like it was all going on.”

There was no need for the ground rules when Frusciante came back into the band, given the personal difficulties that he and Kiedis had both experienced.  “It was so obvious that it wouldn’t work if either of us were, like, getting loaded or something,” said Kiedis.  “We were doing so well without any kind of mind-altering influence from narcotics.  We had both kind of done that, and when we came back it didn’t seem like the time for that all, it seemed like the time for the opposite.

“We’ve both done that to this extend where when we’re doing that it completely interrupts whatever cycle of our will is being exercised at the moment, you know?” added Frusciante.  “And that’s basically the role that we knew it would have served if we were to do it during that time – it would have interrupted the creative flow of what we were doing.”

“Plus,” concluded Kiedis wickedly, ‘it’s so hard to buy heroin in Japan these days.”

So is music the religion, or does music give you religion?

“For me,” said Frusciante, “it’s similar because such a big part of what makes any music great is in the invisible you know?  For me that’s what spiritual means.  Things are definitely there but they’re invisible to people.   In that way music is very spiritual.  It’s something invisible that travels through the air that touches your whole body and that affects your physical state even though you can’t see it.  There’s also a feeling that it gives you, and the way those feelings are transmitted from one person at one point of time, in a small room with a recording studio in it, to many, many people.  It’s like God!  I suppose witches have always had ways of reaching a lot of people from one little place, but the way we do it nowadays in this century in music is really a direct way of affecting a lot of people.  It’s pretty beautiful, this kind of invisible power that music has.”

FAST FORWARD TO EARLY May 2002, and Santa Monica’s money-dripping Casa Del Mar Hotel in the lead-up to the release of the Rick Rubin-produced new album ‘By The Way’.  The Chili machine is out in force, taking up virtually an entire wing of the hotel for their operations.

That the Chili Peppers are occupying such plush surroundings is slightly surprising.  That the Chili Peppers still exist is quite remarkable.  Seven guitarists, one death, countless heroin fixes and several occasions when they were within a hypodermic needle’s width of packing it all in (the last time being five years ago, amid the poor performance of ‘One Hot Minute’ and the problems of Dave Navarro not fitting in – Flea was ready to quit if they didn’t get Frusciante back in the line-up) would have firmly nailed down the coffin lid of most bands’ careers.

Late in the afternoon, a brown-suited (and with matching tie) Frusciante (now drug-free by the way) seats himself at a long table in the listening room.  Somewhat surprisingly, he appears enormously excited when the prospect of him programming a German radio show is raised; but then one of his favourite bands are Kraut-rock masters Can. Flea appears occasionally, also in a suit, with his purple hair peeking out from the back of a hat.  These days a non-smoker and non-drinker, he also meditates, and prays before every meal.

Drummer Chad Smith, a  father of two and the first Chili to turn 40, has also battled demons, and recently went through a period of numbing himself with alcohol.  Contrary to rumours, the smoker-drinker does not travel on a separate tour bus to that of the drug-free Frusciante, the meditating, Yoga-practicing Flea and the vegan-leaning Kiedis (who has now been clean since ’97).

Earlier in the day he had his tattoos analyzed by Japanese journalist, the upshot of which was that some of his markings appeared to be not quite as authentic as he had thought them to be.  Buy any disappointment is soon forgotten when the subject of Smith’s recent memorabilia acquisition is raised.

“I bought the floor tom of Keith Moon’s ‘Pictures Of Lily’ drum set!” he beams.  “At The Guitar Center in Hollywood they have a lot of musical equipment from old players.  They had his drum set from the Tommy movie, but I didn’t want that, it’s like a movie prop.  But from Keith’s daughter they had this floor tom.  It’s all kind of fucked up from being trashed.  She wanted to make sure it was going to a good home.  It’s like a coffee table kind of thing in my house.  It’s a piece of fucking history right there.  On The Smothers’ Brothers [60s TV show], when it fucking blew up – the drum set blew up – that’s the ‘Pictures Of Lily’ kit.  That’s my floor tom.  I paid thousands of dollars for it.  It’s not just some red drum, this is a custom-made drum for Keith Moon, so it’s something to look at too.”

Like Moon’s kit, ‘By The Way’ has the hallmarks of a classic work, and thus the clear potential to repeat the Chilis’ history of success.  However, the recording is not, as Kiedis stresses, a continuation of what it was the band created with its predecessor, ‘Californication’.

“I kind of liken it to the growth of a child,”  Kiedis says never losing eye contact for a second.  “Do you have a son?  Or a nephew?  Two children?  Okay, so you see them when they’re, like, seven years old and they’re one thing and they’re really beautiful and full of light, and maybe they’re into collecting something or skateboarding.  Then you see them in three years later and it’s the same person but completely different, into a whole new thing, listening to different music, now they’re into basketball, now they’re into girls.  It’s kind of like that.  It’s like, definitely the same animal created by the way that created ‘Californication’ but it’s just off onto a different trip now.  So we have the same experience and the same kind of…  We’re aware of where we came from, but we weren’t looking to take anything from it; we wanted to invent something pretty new.”

That’s not to say the Chili Peppers suddenly leapt into electronic or hip-hop.  ‘By The Way’ is still within the band’s musical ballpark – as big as that area is.   It’s soul music, but by the broadest definition.  The title track – which is also the first single – switches between classic Chilis’ surreal wordplay and a grinding chorus; ‘Cabron’ opens with acoustic guitars that recall something from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses Of The Holy’, before moving into an almost South American feel; space guitar noise accents the first section of ‘Venice Queen’; and the sheer emotional power of “Midnight’ has Kiedis’s throat doing triple time.  Overall, though, I’m hearing latter-day Beach Boys and The Beatles.

I’ve never listened to the Beach Boys,” Kiedis replies.  “I’ve wanted to be able to like that music, but I’ve never been able to connect with it.  I love vocal harmony music, but I just never been able to connect with it.  I love vocal harmony music, but I just haven’t found my place relating to that music.  I think there is a lot more influence of doo-wop than anything else.  Two weeks ago we started doing interviews and people kept mentioning the Mamas And Papas to me, because I actually make mention of that band in a way in one of the lyrics.  But I’d never owned a Mamas And Papas record.  So I went out and got one, and now I’ve been listening to it for the last two weeks and I love it!

“But I think, you know, there was a point early on in the writing process when we decided that it was time to make use of John’s beautiful voice on this record.  It’d be a shame not to, because he sings so well and he’s been very fascinated by vocal harmonies in the last year, and really took at the time to study it and kind of understand it.

“It just was really a kind of natural development,” he continues.  “The Beatles are clearly an influence, and do-wop, as well as some other stuff coming out of the 50s.  Amazingly, tying all these strands and many others together and making music out of them was even easier and a more fluid process than the making of ‘Californication’.  It was like some bad Star Trek episode where we just couldn’t stop making music.  There wasn’t enough room on the chalk board to put all the working titles for these songs that we were writing.  In the end we had to really kind of slash and burn and whittle it down to about 40 pieces of music that we wanted to work on.  We got that down to 28 when we went in the studio, and recorded about 28 pieces.”

A major portion of the album’s vocal tracks were recorded in Room 78 of the legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood, which at various times has been home to everyone from Led Zeppelin and Sid Vicious to Jim Morrison and John Belushi.  It is also where Frusciante almost became history at the strangulating hands of heroin in ’97.

“I always sing with the band during the recording of the basic tracks,” Kiedis explains, ‘so when we’re in the recording studio called Cello I sang and sang every day.  Sometimes I sang the same song 12 times in a row.  But when it comes down to actually getting ‘keeper’ vocals, you sort of have the option of going anywhere and everywhere that you want to with the way vocals are recorded, with the computer and the Pro Tools [music studio software].  So when we finish basic tracks, we thought, do we want to stay in this huge studio the size of a small airplane hangar, or do we want to go someplace kind of cosy where we can create our own environment?  We chose the Chateau because it’s central, it’s beautiful, it’s from the 30’s, it’s got history, I used to live there, John used to live there.  So we set up a computer in the living room, microphone in the bedroom, I brought my art collection and decorated the place, and just kind of set up shop.   Hotels have a kind of a nice life flowing through them.  There’s always people coming and going, and that particular hotel caters to a pretty interesting breed of people.  It was fun.  A good hang.”  During the recording sessions for the album, the band found time – or, perhaps more accurately, made time – to contribute to the Ramones’ tribute album.

“John has a pretty nice friendship with Johnny Ramone and they hang out and eat food together and go to vintage movie poster shows together,” says Kiedis.  “Johnny’s quite a character – quite a character,” he repeats for emphasis.  “I mean, that guy’s a one of a kind.  John just came storming into our recording studio one day and said there’s a Ramones’ tribute album.  Do you guys want to do a song?  We said sure.  He gave me, like, three choices, and of those choices I was most lyrically attracted to the song “Havana Affair’, and John came up with this pretty amazing interpretation of that song.  It’s much slower, and almost like this kind of bluesy New Orleans guitar-picking type thing.  So we changed the song pretty drastically:  same arrangement, same vocal melody, but a really different take on it.”

Well, of course…

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