05/2006: Q (238)

Transcript by Rebecca Billingham

On the verge of releasing their defining album, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are stranger than ever. Witness dangling babies off balconies and wanting to become monks…

The rock star answers his front door in tight black pants, his sinewy, nut-brown body bent into a shivering foetal curl. “Aren’t you a bit early?” asks Anthony Kiedis. Interrupted mid-shower, he scuttles off for a towel, leaving me to explore his home: a Shangri-La of lemon and orange trees, fountains and a carp pond in the hillside of Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills.

Inside the Spanish haçienda-style home it’s all rugs, candles and art books. His two waist-height dogs, Katie and Sammi amble over for exploratory snorts to the groin. There’s evidence of unexpected home entertainment mellowness. Among the most recently deployed records are Glen Campbell and the Bee Gee’s Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Rough mixes of the new RHCP album, Stadium Arcadium, lie by the stereo. A blue book entitled Alcoholics Anonymous 4th Edition has been extracted from the shelves and lies on its side. On the living room wall is a painting of a female nude reclining in considerable rapture, as a skull emerges from beneath her breasts.

“I wouldn’t buy that piece now”, Kiedis notes when he returns in a stained grey T-shirt, silver-blue jeans and trainers. “I bought it in the late 80’s. It’s a little macabre, not reflective of my current tastes,” he adds, sounding almost English, a bit “sophisticated”.

Kiedis looks amazing for his 43 years. His narrow Mowgli face sits on top of an intensely muscular throat. His wet hair and big brown eyes make him look pretty, girlish even.

His left eye socked – rebuilt with titanium and Teflon after he drunk-drove his mother’s station wagon into an elm tree at 90mph (he has switched to beer in an effort to get off heroin) – is slightly wonky. As a result, a raised eyebrow can make him look super quizzical or utterly scandalised.

Kiedis has an interview reputation. He can be evasive and prickly. When a German TV interviewer asked for a proper Teutonic explanation for wearing a sock on your cock as the Chilis once did, he became sullenly monosyllabic. On at least one occasion, he has walked. Or as guitarist John Frusciante says later: “I love him. But way back when we were assholes, he could really turn into one”.

Today he is the perfect host, rummaging in his cupboard for premium tea leaves. Meanwhile his little Spanish maid Vivian wants him to put his new clothes away. She brooks no shit. He gives none back. While she tidies a clutter of vitamin supplements and minerals from the work surface,h, he makes our drinks. A couple of years ago he was grinding his own cashew nuts for milk. He’s back on regular dairy now on account of it being too acidic, part of a well-researched ultra-healthy masterplan. He grabs the pot and mugs and leads me to a little round coffee table in a sunny nook off the lounge the size of Yorkshire.

After almost a quarter of a century together, Red Hot Chili Peppers are in their pomp. After 2002’s By The Way and 2004’s triumphant shows in London’s Hyde Park, they reconvened at long-time producer Rick Rubin’s mansion in Laurel Canyon last spring and recorded three albums’ worth of material. Giddy with enthusiasm they planned to release all three at six month intervals. Now they’ve settled on a double. (“When I first met them around the time of 1985’s Freaky Styley I thought, Nothing good can come out of this band”, Rubin tells me. “There was a darkness to them. It was unhealthy. Now their creativity just astonishes me”.)

Stadium Arcadium is not a concept album, but it bristles with the imagery of post-addiction spirituality. Kiedis, a follower of Kabbalah, the Madonna-endorsed branch of Jewish mysticism, says the album’s title refers to the quasi-religious euphoria of their stadium shows. Everywhere there are love songs, “I’m sorry” songs. On pivotal track Hey, you can almost picture Kiedis tossing his drug dealer’s mobile number onto the fire as he solemnly croons “I don’t want to, but I will”.

Unquestionably, on this album his mode of transport to the higher spiritual plane is John Frusciante’s guitar soloing, which is set to “I fucking RULE!” throughout

But inevitably there’s the occasional status report on “the 800lb gorilla”, Kiedis’s own term for the previously irresistible urge to destroy himself on drugs.

Today he vividly recalls the time in 1984 when he ingested heroin and “some kind of ecstacy” before meeting a girl in an after-hours club called Zero. He says they had anal sex on the stairs before the intervention of a jealous bouncer. They made their way to her apartment where they continued “all-night” on the roof.

Drugs and women are often linked in his stories. But occasionally it is drugs alone and the details are choking, sometimes surreal, such as early –‘80’s tale of booking himself into a Los Angeles motel room with $2000 worth of heroin and shooting speedballs in an apartment with a Mexican hitman and his sick mother.

So it’s not without reason that I raise an eyebrow at a track called Charlie. Kiedis smiles archly and launches his explanation.

“The guy who types up my lyrics said, IS this about…basically he thought I’d been on a binge. But I haven’t. Right now, it’s a 2 inch gorilla. There was a time in the early ‘90s when I would bet every cent I would die sober, that I had beaten it. That didn’t work. I’m not immune. I have a healthy fear of my obsession for heroin and cocaine. There are a few things you have to do for your mind if you’re a bit sick in the head. I do them”.

Stadium Arcadium’s sudden flourish of creativity is down harmonious intra-band politics, according to Kiedis. But also, mid-life live. Each band member is in domestic bliss. Flea has a 4-month-old baby by fiancée Frankie Rayder. Chad Smith has a 10-month-old son Cole by second wife, Nancy. John Frusciante is in love with new girlfriend Emily Kokal, a singer who has recently worked with Tricky. Even Kiedis, who reportedly is dating Jessica Stam, says that three weeks ago he had a breakthrough conversation about becoming a father.

The new song Hard To Concentrate is an unequivocal proposal of marriage. Kiedis says he wrote it for Flea. But he too is beginning to understand women beyond the parameters of his bizarre upbringing. That is extraordinary progress, as anyone who has read Scar Tissue, his memoir of a ‘70’s Hollywood showbiz childhood and picaresque of sex, booze and drugs which followed will attest.

At the crux of Scar Tissue is his father, actor and former showbiz drug dealer John Kiedis, aka Blackie Dammett. Kiedis moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to live with him in L.A. aged 12. As well as becoming an accessory to his drug operations, Kiedis was immersed in Hollywood society. Cher was his babysitter; Sonny Bono a father figure. He sat with his dad as he sold drugs to Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin at the Rainbow Bar & Grill.

But his father also presided over his sexual awakening. He showed his son how he’d grown one long fingernail as a coke spoon, and kept one short to be “pussy-friendly”. He also arranged for him to have sex with one of his own girlfriends, an 18-year old called Kimberley. Kiedis Jnr was 12 and high on a Quaalude.

“Seeing women as sex objects or imagining there is always a better one around the corner is…crippling. I don’t want to be like my dad. I’ve got as far as two or three-year relationships but I want more. I’m not satisfied. Recently I’ve understood why I’m stuck in that cycle. It’s my own character defects. The thought of having children made me feel less safe, less secure. But seeing Flea with his new child, I can see the opposite is true.”

What did your dad make of your book?

“I haven’t had a thorough discussion with him about it,” says Kiedis. “People have given him grief. I don’t. I don’t blame him for any of my troubles. I believe he was doing 100 per cent the best he possibly could with the emotional tools he was given.”

Some would say strapping cash to your 12-year old son to smuggle on to a plane on the way back from a drug run, as he did, isn’t “trying your best”.

“I have no objection. At that time we were on an adventure to support the family. But yes, definitely bad parenting.”

What do you feel about your dad now?

“I just feel bad that he felt so confused, that he was that confused he thought it a good idea. His childhood was an absolute disaster. His father was physically and emotionally abusive, a tyrannical bastard. In reaction my dad wanted to be an anarchist and took me along for the ride. It didn’t serve him well.”

And your mother?

“Mom was not allowed to read the book. I don’t want her to know what I did. I don’t want her to disdain my father.”

Kiedis now certainly seems “centred”. Perhaps Kabbalah has played a part.

“Previously I’ve always bashed institutions. It was easier to point out what was wrong with them than see I was completely out of balance with my own personal journey,” he says. There are several references to “spirits” and “higher forces”. He says he knows Kabbalah has been “flavour of the month” among celebrities and that he is in no way a fanatic.

“But better a little light that no light at all,” he adds, quietly. And then we sip tea and there’s the little red wristband sliding down his wrist.

“HEY YOU WANNA STEAK?” John Frusciante answers the door to his Laurel Canyon house in his socks. He’s hungry and says I must be, too. Two door-sized organic slabs of meat are brought from the fridge and he sets his wiry frame to work over a George Foreman grill.

The place looks like it was mothballed in 1972. Film posters, ‘70’s furniture, old school recording equipment clog the hallway. A Post-It note reminding him to get the latest Ricky Gervais podcast looks like a reminder sent back from the future.

Stick-thin and pale, Frusciante favours student chic; emerald-green polyester trousers, a loudly checked shirt. He presents the meal and last night’s cold vegetables with a child-like eagerness.

“I cook for the studio crew,” he enthuses. “In a band it’s easy to give in to a party lifestyle, eating shitty food, screwing this girl and that girl, being rude to people, taking advantage. Being an asshole is easy. I’ve noticed people who resist have that extra strength. Cooking for someone kinda connects you to them.”

So we connect. In terms of meatiness the steaks are more substantial than him. His teeth have an incongruous gleam of LA health. But they’re false.

His original set rotted away and he had them replaced at a cost he has previously estimated at $70,000. On his arms, patches of shiny, bubbled skin are visible: the burn scars after he set himself on fire while freebasing.

“I have a lot of great memories from that time,” he will say later. “The problem is, your problems stay on hold. You still have to face your shit. But I had 4 months of supernatural experiences on drugs. I became convinced there are other life forms. I have enough proof of that to last a lifetime. There are higher levels of being than what we know. Things were revealed to me.”

He’s a compulsive talker, theories and connections emanating from the slightest conversational prompt. I ask him about the cute little emerald ring on his right hand. “Emerald connects me to the plant Mercury. Mercury governs decision-making. I need a stronger connection with Mercury because my decisions haven’t always been very good,” he says. And yet in all his hobo glory, Frusciante is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ creative hub. He wrote more than half of Stadium Arcadium here in the snug where we relax after lunch. As Kiedis neatly puts it: “He’s totally on some higher uber-Beethoven-meets-Hendrix-type shit.”

Famously, whatever Frusciante has been listening to becomes subtly mutated into the Chili Peppers’ music. While recording By The Way, it was Fugazi. This time? It’s hard to stop yourself spraying the ‘70’s décor with veg when he says: “Well, Wu-Tang, Roy Wood and Wizzard…ELO…Brandy…” Only in his fantastical visionary mind does it make sense. “You take the backing vocals of Brandy – the way they sit off the rhythm – and transpose those lines into your guitar, which in turn leads you back to Hendrix but only the era 1968 onward when his polyrhythmic phrasing really came to the fore…”

He goes on. It’s like being witness to Einstein slashing at the blackboard with chalk, enthusiastically ranting his mathematical extrapolations. “I think the band got a bit tense that I was Brian Wilson recording Smile,” he says, finally. A lot of frothy spit has built up in the right-hand corner of his mouth.

Frusciante’s journey with the Red Hot Chili Peppers has been darkly fantastic. Younger by around 7 years, he was at first simply a fan but was recruited in the aftermath of guitarist Hillel Slovak’s death by drug overdose in 1988.

Slovak’s death devastated the band. Drummer Jack Irons departed. They drafted in Parliament guitarist Dwayne “Blackbird” McKnight and former Dead Kennedys drummer DH Peligro. But they were fired when Frusciante, an 18-year old guitar prodigy and Chili Peppers fan, came along.

Frusciante added a new creative dimension. But he struggled with the relentless touring and also from bullying.

“It bugged me that they called me Green Man because I had no band experience,” says Frusciante. “And then for the first couple of years, Anthony would go between being a really cool friend to being a total fucking asshole. He’d just turn on me. He’d pick on some little thing I did or said, which reminded him too much of himself, and he’d be an asshole.”

In 1992 he left the band mid-tour with the parting shot: “Just tell them I went crazy.” On his return to LA the planet Mercury was definitely out of alignment. Frusciante made a terrible decision: “I thought I could preserve my good feelings, a state of artistic intensity by using heroin…and then crack.”

He had enough money to stay high for three years. He talks about the day he got down to his last $10 and was faced with the choice of a wrap of heroin or a hamburger. His voice simply trails off. “I don’t wanna talk about that anymore…”

Without Frusciante, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were LA journeymen. Sessions faces came and went. Former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro joined for the uninspired One Hot Minute album. (“It doesn’t feel like a Chilis album to me,” says Flea today. “Different band.”)

However when Flea found Frusciante living in an East L.A. apartment and asked him to re-join, Frusciante seemed to have learnt something from his near-fatal relationship with heroin and cocaine. (“When he first joined, he tried to fit in, to be one of us. When he came back he was his own artist. He had the ideas,” says Flea later.)

Interestingly for one who has experienced so much anguish both as a member and non-member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frusciante has no interest in hearing the other side. He hasn’t read Scar Tissue.

“I’ve asked Anthony for a copy on three occasions. He says, Sure, but it never comes,” he smiles. But Frusciante has heard what’s in it. He is unimpressed.

“There are things in it that were supposed to be secrets. We said, We won’t talk about this, but it’s all there. It’s not the coolest shit in the world…but I forgive him.”

Fanatical as ever, he has embraced new things: health food, prayer, meditation. He plans to throw himself into the latter when the Red Hot Chili Peppers finally disband.

“I’m different to Anthony. I don’t want to be Iggy Pop. Iggy’s a god but I don’t want to be 60 and chasing women round LA. I want to be prepared for after this. I want to explore myself through meditation. I’ll be a monk. I want to learn Hebrew. I think learning a scared language based on numbers would be good for my perception of existence.”

But could he make it as a monk? Musically he’s compulsive and prodigious. Within a 12-monthperiod across 2004 and 2005 he released 6 solo albums. And from the haunting The Will To Death and to the rocking Inside Of Emptiness and the final, mostly acoustic albums Curtains, he seemed able to explore a new vernacular every time. He’s just played on the forthcoming Mars Volta album with his best friend Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. He’s going to record with his new girlfriend. Later, former Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell is coming over to work on some tunes.

“I long for a simpler life that rejects all these forms of pleasure, making money and functioning as a business enterprise,” he says. “It will happen.”

What would Hollywood smoothie Cary Grant make of the guy in his house these days? Drummer Chad Smith has the keys to Grant’s Hollywood Hills mansion now.

Improvements have been made. Smith has ‘Photoshopped’ himself into a portrait of the screen legend, displayed as you enter. He’s turned Grant’s old bedroom into the pool room. “You’re interviewing the others, you just want me to cross the Ts, right?” says Smith, an affable no-nonsense beanpole, taking the steps down into the lounge in one. He swings his baseball cap round backwards and tosses a still shrink-wrapped Kasabian album off the sofa.

Smith drums but also anchors the band. There are no car-crash lost years. He doesn’t do meditation. The band’s on-tour catering area bristles with the organic and macrobiotic. Smith has pizza. He was cited in the Guinness Book Of Records for playing a 308-piece drum kit – a favour for a friend who owns a drum store back East. “I’m a Midwest guy…I’m just… normal,” he says, before taking 10 minutes to explain that this doesn’t mean he thinks the others are weirdos.

When Kiedis asked him to join, he was offered the job on condition he shave his head to achieve a more “punk” look. Smith turned up for his first rehearsal still with his hair in a bandanna. He was allowed to stay because Kiedis thought his obstinacy was impressive.

“My take on our history is quite simple. John is alive. Anthony is alive. These two facts right there are incredible. I’m incredibly grateful for that. The fact we’ve been making the best music we’ve ever made…to me that’s just the gravy.”

Granted entry through the electronic gates of a beautiful Malibu home, I search in vain for the host. By the pool, a voice rings out. “Hey, I’m Michael Jackson!” Michael “Flea” Balzary is holding his 4-month old baby daughter Sunny Bebop over the first floor balcony.

When we meet moments later in his homely kitchen he’s dressed in yellow tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt purporting to show him with female breasts. Everything suggests Flea the baby-faced gap-toothed punk rocker.

But the 43-year old Australian-born bass player has not been happy. Five minutes later, on his library’s plush sofa, he’s explaining how he decided to leave the band after the last album. “On By The Way, John went to this whole new level of artistry. But he made me feel like I had nothing to offer, like I knew shit,” he says sitting Buddha-like and nursing a mug of tea.

For the first time ever, the Red Hot Chili Peppers had ceased to be fun. It became a confidence-sapping, challenging environment. Also, he had ended “an addictive relationship” and spent two years alone.

“Throughout the By The Way tour I would play a show and then go and sit on the end of my bed in my room staring into space,” he says.

He told no one how he was feeling. Not even Kiedis because “I just love him too much. I’ve never told him to this day.” And not Frusciante because, he thought, he wouldn’t understand. “I almost had a nervous breakdown around the time of Californication and John found that hard to deal with. Suddenly I didn’t fit in with the kind of person he thought I was supposed to be. I guess I didn’t want to go through that again.”

He decided to leave. One plan was to spend time teaching at the Silverlake Conservatory Of Music in East LA, the 600-pupil music college he built and funded for its first two years. It’s not a “rock school”, he is at pains to point out. It offers a range of instruments and he teaches there between tours.

By the time of the 2004 Hyde Park shows he was ready to try again. He’d fallen in love with Franke Rayder, a girlfriend he first met 15 years ago. Kiedis’s words for Hard To Concentrate – that wedding proposal set to music – ask “Will you agree to take this man into your world?” and later, “Take this woman and make you my family”.

“Anthony’s words are so beautiful. I get tears when I hear it,” says Flea. As the sessions for Stadium Arcadium began, Flea finally told John about his near departure. By this time the bass player had discovered the ancient Indian technique of Vipassana meditation. They agreed that if Frusciante embraced it too, it would help bring them closer together.

But what all the intra-band tensions were really about were insecurities dating from his childhood. “I always felt ugly. I’m small. I was never popular. Anthony was different. He had such a will. He’s made this band what it is today just by his desire and ambition. I guess I was facing up to all that.”

Flea has flicked through Scar Tissue twice. “First time I opened it, there was a passage saying something nice about me. Fine. Second time I picked it up…he’d fucked my sister. I found that offensive. That’s been a littlescuttlebutt around my family. I mean I don’t care he fucked my sister. I hope he had a good time. But…when you have a shared history it’s hard to read one man’s version of it. The book came out while we were writing the album and I couldn’t read the rest of it because I didn’t want the bad feelings to compromise that.”

Flea has been in therapy for years. Now he says he’s happier than he’s ever been in his life. Caught between the drive and charisma of Anthony Kiedis and the wayward talent of John Frusciante, he seems to have overlooked that fact that he is renowned as one of the greatest bass players alive.

His instrument is out in the library. He’s been practising, playing along to a Charlie Parker music manuscript on a stand. A jazz album is still one of his ambitions.

He comes out into the drive to bid farewell. We chat momentarily by the vacant dog kennel bearing the name plaque Martian. Flea’s dead dog is commemorated on the new album, on a track titled Death Of A Martian.

I start to drive away, but then stop and look back to ask a question about opening the electronic gates. Flea is gazing up into the sunshine with his cock out, pissing into his own shrubbery.

When the RHCP gather at a Hollywood photo studio to have their picture taken, they are all dressed casually in t-shirts and trainers except for Frusciante who looks like a particularly bright but culturally isolated student appearing on University Challenge: cosy jumper under a sober, fashion-less jacket.

Soon, though the ghosts of their frat-rock pasts are conjured up. They strip down to the waist and immediately they are a tattooed gang: gurning, goofing playmates.

A nasty gash on Kiedis’ chest inflicted by the fin of his surfboard had dried blood on it. But undeterred he puts on a James Brown CD and shimmies and slides around the floor discreetly between photographs. He says he’s excited. They have completed mixes on two more album tracks today.

At 25 tracks, some might view Stadium Arcadium as the album everyone was too nice to edit, where the new détente means that sensitivities within the band have been a little too politely observed. Rick Rubin is adamant there has been no lapse in quality control: “The album chose itself. Nothing seemed weak,” he says. “This is definitely a time when these guys have worked a lot of their personal issues out. Anthony’s writing – his love songs in particular – really struck me. He’s writing about his relationships in a way he could never do before.”

Stadium Arcadium shows how they’ve moved on from the dark stuff. Hollywood though, is trying to convince Kiedis there is a great movie future for the 800lb gorilla. He’s had offers to do a biopic. “They’re interested for all the wrong reasons,” he says.

The accompanying world tour will see them on the road for a year and a half. Frusciante is so convinced they are at their creative peak, he says he wants them to record new songs on tour. Smith and Flea agree but their minds are on family now, too.

“It’s like a car wreck,” says Anthony Kiedis. “You climb out and you stagger. And then you run. Finally you realise just how lucky you are and you want to celebrate, embrace the life you have. I think we feel something close to that.”

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