Q&A with Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis
Sunday, October 29, 2006
The Grand Rapids Press
Press reporter Troy Reimink recently interviewed Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis, a Grand Rapids native, about the band’s new album, the Peppers’ creative rebirth and his memories of growing up here.
Press: I won’t ask you about the weather out there (in California). We’re entering the rainy and disgusting season here.
Kiedis: I’ll have to tell you anyways, we’re looking at about 75, with clear skies today. It’s kind of like that all the time.
So are you guys ready for a new tour?
It’s kind of all one large animal of a tour that we just segment. About five years ago on tour in Australia, (bass player) Flea came to the stunning realization that it’s better to tour in segments and maintain your sanity and your health and your happiness and your home life, than to go away for a year and become miserable and weak and disconnected from your family life.
So even though it’s a financial loss — because we have to keep everybody that works for us paid for these sort of two week breaks we take in between the three weeks of touring that we do — in the long run everyone’s happier and into the whole idea of going back on the road over and over again because we get to come home. So that’s what we’re on now, this little two-week sabbatical between legs. We start up again this coming Tuesday in New York City.
What do you do during the breaks? Do you treat it like a vacation?
Well, not really like a vacation, more like a recharging, just to come home and figure out what home life is all about, which can be confusing. You sort of become this untethered ball of tour-dom. Then you get home and you’re like, ‘Wait, where am I supposed to go? Where am I? Who are my friends? What’s my routine?
What day does the trash go out…
Yeah, that kind of stuff. Who feeds the dogs? Which can be difficult. That’s a challenging thing. The whole touring schedule kind of uproots you. There are certainly pros and cons, but one of the cons is you lose your home-life groove. But having said that, we really relish the time at home. And we all have different things that we do. Actually, Flea and Chad (Smith, drummer) didn’t even come home during this break. They stayed on the East Coast to do some stuff. John (Frusciante, guitarist) and I came home.
Are you generally happy on the road, or is it more of a necessity?
No, it’s way beyond necessity. It’s an amazing experience. It’s an elating experience. I don’t think any of us have grown tired of it at all. I’ll get home at 2 or 3 in the morning after playing a show in Saskatoon, Canada, and I’ll get a message on my pager from John going, ‘My god, I’m so happy that we’re in this band together and that we play these shows together’. It’s one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
It hasn’t gotten old, it hasn’t gotten tiring. Every night we go out there, it’s like a fresh painting, and the feelings are still as good as they ever were. It is challenging, but it always has been, since our very first tour in 1984, it’s a challenge.
What do you remember about that tour?
Well, it was a much different style of touring back then. We toured in a blue and white Chevy van with all of the equipment, and we did most of the driving and the roadie-ing. We lived on very little money and all crowded into one hotel room and slept on floors and stayed at people’s houses.
Now we complain if they don’t have the right down pillows. Which is wonderful. I have no problem with that complaint after all these years. The truth is, it was just as fun then as it was now. It’s just a completely evolved experience.
When you make it back to Grand Rapids, how many tickets will you have to set aside for family members?
As many as they need. I don’t even want to look at the number. I’ll have faith that my family will do the right thing and give the tickets to who they need to get to.
Most of them still live around here?
A lot of them do. Most of my family lives there. I’ve got some in Arizona, some in Florida, but the bulk concentration is still in Michigan.
Do you make it out here very often?
It varies from year to year, but I probably average two to three touchdowns in the mitten state per year. Actually, the last few summers, I’ve been taking a holiday for a couple of weeks on Lake Michigan, renting a house there and having my immediate family all come and stay under the same roof. One of those lovely beach areas there. My nephews come and my mom and my dad.
It’s a pretty wonderful little two weeks in the summer. Then I try to get back for Christmas, and maybe once beyond that.
So is everyone in the band in pretty good spirits these days?
Everyone’s in great spirits. Possibly the best spirits we’ve ever been in. It seems like the longer we’re together, the more excited and willing we are to deal with whatever problems come up. In the past, problems would sort of be ignored until they would turn into these festering resentments that were kind of poisonous to the overall psyche of the band. These days, we have a lot of love and respect for each other.
We all continue to change and get better as musicians and as human beings, and it makes the whole thing just a much tighter ship. It’s been pretty remarkable to watch these guys in my band stay like hungry young kids when it comes to learning how to improve as musicians.
They’re still as turned on by music as they were when we started this thing. Which is a very rare and almost-never kind of a thing. Most bands, after 20 years, are kind of in a rut, or their little niche and they work it and they’re good at it or they’re not. Flea and John still practice constantly and are always learning new things and wanting to experiment with new things.
You know, what happens if we take this element and try to incorporate it into the songs we’re trying to write and try these new production techniques. It’s constantly changing, which makes it constantly interesting.
You’ve sort of entered a sphere that not many bands make it into, where you’ve been together this long, are still successful and still make interesting music.
I don’t get too terribly analytical about it, but I know I love that. I drive around in my car and happy or sad or crushed or elated or whatever it is, and all I can think about is writing new songs. I feel like I’ve barely tapped the well of songs that I have inside me. And I really have some of the greatest songwriting partners that I know of at my disposal. Any time of the day or night, if I have a song idea, and I called up John and said, ‘Let’s work on this’, and he’ll jump on it. It’s possible that the best is yet to come.
There’s a ton of desire and not yet any sort of real satisfaction that my work here in this particular band is done. There’s a lot more work to be done.
How do you feel you’ve evolved as a songwriter to this point?
I think I’m mid-evolution. The songs I’ve done are in the past, and now I’m just thinking about where to go from here. As soon as the record is done and recorded and mixed, it’s ancient history to me. I’m glad that people are enjoying this music at this moment, and I’m proud of it, and I think we did something vibrant and interesting. But now I’m just looking forward to what it’s going to be like the next time we start writing.
The past three albums in particular have shown a lot of development in terms of melody and structure. Is that an area you feel you’ve improved in?
I don’t know if we consciously go into it thinking how to improve the melodies. Melodies are almost these bizarre little gifts from space. If you listen carefully, they’re there for the taking, and those moments of inspiration, or whatever you want to call them, they are what they are. Melody, if it evokes a feeling or if it serves the purpose of communicating that particular song, then it’s a good melody. It’s kind of a difficult thing to judge.
Just in terms of stretching out and expanding and incorporating some different musical possibilities… for instance, classical music is a completely different musical form than rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s entirely possible that you can bring the two together and instigate a new feeling. That’s just an example of one of the things you can do to keep doing something new and not just cover old territory.
I’ve heard it said that a good melody isn’t so much written as pulled out of the ether, as if it already exists and the songwriter sort of discovers it.
If I’m hearing some chords or a bassline and I stumble up to the mic, I’m just going to sing the first thing that comes into my mind, and that certainly didn’t exist in my mind before that moment. It’s just something that presents itself. And hopefully you’re in a place as a musician and a human being where you’re capable of hearing it and capable of executing it.
Obviously, physically, people are limited by their instrument, and you just want that instrument to be the best that it can be so it can serve that moment. As songwriting goes, that is the pinnacle of songwriting, that moment that it happens. For me, there will never be a moment in the record-making process like when the song is born. That’s the point when you go home feeling like you did your job and there was a spiritual element to the experience. That is the feeling of satisfaction.
You mentioned your instrument. Do you think you’ve improved as a vocalist or are you just learning to work with what you have?
Not everybody has the pipes of Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin. I do the best with what I have. I think half the battle, or maybe even more, is really what you do with it rather than what it is to begin with.
Some of the greatest singers in the history of singing didn’t have a great range. Billie Holiday had sort of a one-octave range, but she was able to convey more than almost anybody. So, you know, feel brave and experimental and free to try new things, but also try to prepare that damn voice to be up to the task.
Do you have any tricks for that?
I have a trick named Ron Anderson, who’s a coach who just kind of teaches you to exercise the voice and place the voice. That’s just part of the equation. It’s also an emotional experience. It has to do with sleeping and eating and drinking water and breathing and other things.
So it’s better that you guys are living a little healthier these days.
For me, but not necessarily for everybody. Certainly there are some people who do nothing but smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey and not sleep that sing beautifully. I’m just doing what’s working for me at this moment, but it certainly isn’t a prescribed formula for everybody.
When you began working on this record, were you planning on doing so many songs?
No. I actually had the opposite intention, which is probably why it ended up the way it did. I keep thinking how wonderful it would be just to go in there and bang out 11 great songs and put that on a record. It’s so much easier for the public to digest and get their head around than a 28 song record.
Twenty-eight songs, most people will never give full attention to every one of those songs. People don’t have that much time. There are some extreme music lovers … but the majority of the world, they just don’t have two hours to dedicate to a listening experience. But at the same time, when you’re in the writing process and songs keep happening every day, you can’t ignore them.
I was fully able to shift gears and go, OK, this certainly isn’t going to be an 11-song record. Let’s see how many of these songs are good when all is said and done. And oddly enough, several of the songs that got left off the record were songs that I cared as much about as songs that got on the record.
How many songs did you have altogether?
Uh… I want to say 36. One of which we’re mixing right now, and it’s going to end up on the b-side of our single for “Snow.” “Snow” is our next single, and it comes out in a few weeks or something. So we have to put together two or three songs on the b-side of that single, and one is a song called “Funnyface,” which is a song I had voted strongly for to put on the record. But (producer) Rick Rubin and I were the only people that were voting for that song, so we were outvoted three to two.
So it’s a pretty democratic process?
Painfully democratic, yeah.
Despite being so long, the record has been pretty successful commercially.
We made a pretty good record. It’s hard to say. People like what we do. Kids like what we do. Sometimes their big brothers and sisters like what we do. And their mom and dad like what we do. We love it that people care.
It’s definitely a record that benefits from headphones. Was there anything different happening production-wise?
It’s always a little different. John is very involved in the post-production. The actual recording of the basic tracks is pretty clear for us and we do something similar every time, which is…actually, no, I take that back. This time we set up bass, drums and guitar in one big room, and we put a bit of baffling up between the amps and stuff like that.
A lot of times we just record the drums in a big, live room, and we put the bass and guitar amps in closets far away to separate the sounds. We wanted a more authentic band sound, so we recorded everybody in one room, and we had the discussion of, do we want to keep this as raw and simple and four-man-band sound as possible? Or do we want to orchestrate it with all kinds of crazy overdubs? Somewhere along the line, John caught fire and went overdub-crazy.
That’s a beautiful thing, especially on a record with 28 songs, to have a layering principle, whereby every time a new chorus shows up or a new verse shows up, you’re adding layers, whether it’s a little keyboard part or whether it’s yet another guitar part or different processed and manipulated sounds.
John really went for it in this experiment of “let me just slowly layer” on almost every song until by the song you’re hearing completely new things that weren’t there at the beginning. And he took months doing this, and it really became this driven obsession for him. The record has that element, moreso than any other records. More like the ELO approach.
We recorded it in a house again. We went back to the house that we recorded “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” in, which has a very warm and distinct feeling to it. That’s about it, production-wise.
What inspired the song “Especially in Michigan”?
I don’t know. I have a connection to Michigan. I was born in that state. I grew up until I was 11 in that state. There is something kind of off-the-beaten path and magical about the magic and the medicine that are Michigan. There’s a lot of the mundane. There’s a lot of the unfortunate sort of strip-mall-reality mentality.
But if you get out in the woods and out in those lakes and rivers, under those skies, there is a great sense of strength and wonder that on a poetic level I can sort of tap into from time to time.
That song started with just a title. I just liked the word combination of “Especially in Michigan” as a title because it just suggests something different as a song.
Certainly different than what you’re used to in LA?
Yeah, it’s totally different, but, you know, thank goodness.
You still like living there?
I love living here. I travel around the world. I see all kinds of stunning places, whether it’s in Italy, Australia, South America, Central America, just gorgeous, wonderful, exotic, culturally stimulating, God-given miracles. And I come back to Los Angeles, and I’m like, ‘Ah, this is home’. There’s a reason why I live here. I feel good here. I feel right here. This is where the shoe fits.
Do you have a lot of strong memories about growing up here?
I have tons of strong memories, for sure. There’s something about that period of your life, you’re such a little work in progress as a kid, the smells and the music and the temperatures and the colors, that stuff sticks with you forever.
I’m constantly getting the sense-memory recollection of things that happened to me in my childhood in Michigan, particularly songs. I’ll hear songs today on oldies stations that were playing on AM radio stations in the 1970s, and I’ll get a flashback to when I’d be riding around in my mother’s Chevrolet Impala listening to songs driving down Division or Burton or Alger Heights or something.
Do you remember specifically what first made you passionate about music? Was there a certain record?
Just a combination of everything. I didn’t hear a record as a kid and go, “Ooh, that’s what I’m going to do.” I heard records when I was a kid that filled my heart up and made me want to dance or made me want to cry or made me want to turn out the lights and listen to it over and over again. But my first instinct was not, “How can I do that?”
That didn’t hit me until I was in my late teens and I saw face-to-face how that process came to be. My friends were all playing instruments and playing in bands and writing songs. And it wasn’t until I saw that that I went, OK, so there is a process to this, and if I get involved, I can possibly make people feel what I’m feeling when I get touched by music. That idea, of being able to be the co-creator of that feeling, rather than just the guy who’s feeling the feeling, seemed appealing to me.