“WE HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN PERFECT, WE HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN NICE, AND WE HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN SMART, BUT WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN HONEST TO WHO WERE ARE,”
FUNKED UP LA PUNKS, BRATTISH FRAT BOY JERKS AND GLOBE-STRADDLING MEGASTARS, THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS HAVE PLAYED THEM ALL.
JESSICA HUNDLEY MEETS THE BAND WITH CALIFORNIA AT THEIR CORE
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are California. Not since the Beach Boys has a band embodied the Golden State so completely and played at being ambassadors of the California myth with such energy and vividness. But while the Beach Boys conveyed a kind of blissed out, blonde-haired blue-sky optimism, the Chilis explore a far more complex California, an outlaw outback where a frontier mentality still holds true. The California of the Chili Peppers is continually evolving, an untamed land that contains all manner of opposites – honesty and insincerity, compassion and ruthlessness.
“California is so many things – it’s tragic and it’s pathetic, beautiful and wild and alive, and it’s an indelible part of who we are and what we do,” explains the Chili Peppers’ iconic bassist Mike Balzary (aka Flea). “John was born in California. Anthony and I moved here when we were 11. Chad didn’t arrive until 1989 but, by now, he’s California through and through. Our biggest influence has probably been growing up in Hollywood,” he continues. “And seeing it for all its glory, and for the complete backstabbing, power-hungry world it can be. We understand its dysfunction and we see the place for the bullshit that it is. But along with all that, you have beauty and art and music and craziness and freedom.”
“It’s a mythical place,” elaborates the equally ironic frontman and singer Anthony Kiedis. “And so, of course, it lends itself to myths.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sound evolved from the primordial post-punk wasteland of LA’s music scene in the early 80s, when the golden sheen of Hollywood had been worn thin by the economic depression of the late 70s. Beneath the tinselly glint was grit, grime and cracked pavements, smog and smack, and the edgy sun-blown harshness of hardcore outfits like X and The Germs.
Flea and Anthony Kiedis were at LA’s fairfax High together. The school is located at the centre of the storm, on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax, and in 1979 it was within spitting distance of a slew of punk clubs and the slick streets of Sunset Strip. These two friends had first -hand experience of a now legendary epoch in the city’s music history. Along with a few of the other original band members, including Jack Irons and the late Hillel Slovak, Flea and Kiedis were fuelled by their immediate surroundings. For them, the frenzied, vital world of early hardcore and new wave mixed easily with the drama and music club geekiness of their high school pals.
“We were living in this time of creative explosiveness,’ remembers Kiedis, “with bands like The Germs, Black Flag and The Dickies. I got into very aggressive, esoteric and chaotic sounding music, which made sense to me and what I was feeling at the time. And yet we were also listening to Coltrane and other great jazz music, so we were getting the best of both worlds.”
“I liked Dizzy Gillepsie,” recalls Flea. “I was an arty little kid. But then The Germs changed everything for me in terms of how I saw rock music. I liked post-punk funk stuff, Parliament, all that. But it was The Germs who taught me that the emotional content of one out-of-tune chord could be as great as a John Coltrane solo. To me, that was the birth of the Chili Peppers, that was the moment that liberated me.”
After a self-titled debut from Flea and Kiedis, the band in its original incarnation, with Irons and Slovak on board, would release three innovative albums, the George Clinton produced Freaky Styley in 1985, 1987′s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and 1988′s five track release “The Abbey Road EP”. That same year, their commercially uneven but musically intriguing start was cut abruptly and tragically short by Slovak’s death from a heroin overdose.
Struggling to find a new line-up that could coalesce, Flea and Kiedis enlisted guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith, and the Chili Peppers as they exist today were born. With California continuing to serve as inspiration, the Chilis released Mother’s Milk, and the line-up bonded as the band began to rise up the ranks. Meanwhile, acts like Jane’s Addiction and Guns N’ Roses were feeding from the breast of that same mother muse – that California junkie surf sound – melodies that seemed at once pounded by ocean waves and pierced by the hypodermics strewn across Venice Beach. Like Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers gave that Cali sound a bouncing, funk undertone, an energy and enthusiasm that was utterly contagious. By the mid-90s, California was again basking in an economic boom, and the Peppers were grappling with massive mainstream success. Albums like Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik captured a particularly defiant optimism, a joy to play that quickly made the Red Hot Chili Peppers everyone’s favourite. But it was Kiedis’ lyrical soul-searching, and the unexpected “sensitive side” of their smash track “Under the Bridge” that truly thrust the band into the big time.
“I have never had such an incredibly intense reaction to a song,” remembers Kiedis. “There was something about that track that really got to people. And it helped me since, as I try to keep myself open to emotion and not be afraid to be true and honest.”
“With ‘Under the Bridge’, we suddenly became a mainstream band, when in fact all we were doing was exactly what we’d always done,” remembers Smith, “and it has continued to be strange to reconcile that.”
“We were just these funk-punk idiots,” says Kiedis. “Who could have known that we would end up sticking around for so long?”
On their upcoming double album, Stadium Arcadium, the band continue their relationship with producer Rick Rubin (see page 86) who has produced every Peppers album since 1991′s defining Blood Sugar Sex Magik. A twin shot of vibrant pop rock and unabashed funk, Stadium sees the Chili Peppers continue in a tradition that has become entirely their own. And, as always, underlying Flea’s mind-popping basslines, Chad’s throbbing backbeat, John’s lilting guitar and Anthony’s alternately plaintive and exuberant vocals, there remains that homage to their state – California dreaming, at the edge of all they do.
The Chili Peppers’ early work was predictably defiant – frenetic and uncontrolled, the sound of boys revelling in the freedom that comes from having nothing left to lose. And with this new album, the band, now millionaires and celebrated rock demi-gods, have somehow maintained that same degree of passion, a fire that bums in the guts.
“We haven’t always been perfect, we haven’t always been nice, and we haven’t always been smart, but we’ve always been honest to who were are,” says Flea. “It’s hard to have a rational perspective on our music, but what I’m the most proud of, is that none of it is contrived. From the beginning, when we were writing an album, there was no ‘well, what are people going to think?’ We just do what we love and put it together and make a record, and, this time, we’ve done that better than we’ve ever done it before,” he continues. “This album is the best of us together, the best from all four of us, without one of us trying to pull a power move. Our band has no real leader, and we all contribute to the process. This is the record that we can be truly judged by, because I think we’ve touched the core of what we’re about.”
There is no doubt that each member of the band contributes some of their best performances yet to Stadium. Flea’s bass-playing remains without peer, and Kiedis’ vocals, which have ranged in the past from “whit boy rap” to ” pseudo-scat”, have both softened and strengthened, thanks in part to John Frusciante’s ethereal backing harmonies. Frusciante is also responsible for much of the album’s unique, peculiarly psychedelic sound. “I’m just looking to trip my own head out,” he elaborates. “I want it to sound like you’re flying, floating on the ocean or breathing under water. I’m trying to create these kind of atmospheres with the music.”
Stadium Arcadium’s multitude of tracks ranges from dancefloor funk numbers to poignant ballads, and the band continually jump from virtuoso stylings to experimental exploration. “It’s what happens when you get four show-offs in one room,” says Kiedis. “Everyone wants to get their two cents in. It feels so good when it all comes together like this. There’s magic in those moments.”
“There’s always been this feeling that the music is coming through us,” explains Frusciante. “That it is not something that we force out, it’s something that is really waiting for us there in the room. We just walk in and grab hold of this power that is already there, and we channel it through our instruments and our voices. But on this album, it felt like the forces were stronger, the energy was thicker somehow, and when we walked in the room, it seemed like we were more open than we have ever been.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have managed to endure in spite of their differences, both musically and personally. Each member holds dearly to their individuality, to their assigned role in this family that they’ve somehow managed to create together. “It’s an intimate relationship,” says Flea, “and it’s raw and you can’t hide. But you don’t grow without pain.”
After nearly two decades, the Chili Peppers have become, essentially, brothers. Anthony is the darkly handsome, moody one, alternately the recluse and the showstopper. Flea is the mediator, the middle child, the well-adapted sibling skilled at negotiation and temperance. Chad is the protective, cheerful older brother, the guy who plays basketball and finds happiness a relatively easy feat. John is the sensitive one, the intellect, the deep thinker and the spiritual explorer. “Flea and Chad and I, we’re all kids at heart,” says Kiedis. “But John is the one who pushes himself, who continues to explore and to grow. He is always out there, learning, pushing. And because of John, we’ve all grown as well. Not just musically, but as people.”
“Both Chad and I had babies while this album was being made,” says Flea. “We all took meditation breaks during recording, worked hard on the music, on becoming better musicians and a better band. Music has always been sacred to us, whether we were acting like complete brats, or going the other way, towards obscurity and intellectualism. In the end, we have always tried our best to stick together and allow this power between us to evolve. And the music is still sacred.”
That respect for what they do together is what has allowed the Chili Peppers to survive. They have created a cohesiveness that has endured all the usual strains of a rock’n’roll life (and then some), from those early days of crowded vans and cheap motels, to the first blushes of Blood Sugar Sex Magik stardom.
Over the years, their allegiance to the music has endured addictions, death, a parade of significant (and not so significant) others, John’s departure from the band due to a particularly nasty drug habit, and his eventual clean-up and return, not to mention clashing egos, label hassles, vicious feuds, and wild fury. But perhaps most remarkably, the Chili Peppers have managed to endure the continuous evolution of fads and fashions, the fickleness of fans, and the mercurial music tastes of the public.
“The Chili Peppers have gone in and out cool in the public consciousness,” says Flea. “When we first started playing, we were the coolest thing in town, these ‘crazy maniac kids’ who were doing something different. We went from that to being thought of as ‘drunken frat boy misogynist idiots’ and then to being “the guys that broke through’. We’ve been cool, we’ve been uncool. But we’ve always had one thing that a lot of great bands don’t have, which is this old-school showbiz work ethic – that Sammy Davis philosophy of, ‘Let’s give ‘en what they want!’”
Stadium Arcadium is out on May 9
THE FIFTH CHILI: RICK RUBIN
The legendary producer reflects on his past work with the Chilis and explains why they decided to release Stadium Arcadium as a double album.
When I first went to see them in 1987, I didn’t know what was going on. There was a black cloud hanging over them, which I later found out was all drug-related.
I saw them play a couple of years later and a lot has changed. Hillel had passed away, their drummer Jack Irons had quit, and they were working with two new members, Chad and John.
When we all finally started working together, we had a stroke of good luck. They had left their label to go to another one, and because that legal process ended up taking a long time we were in rehearsals for nine months, which they would not normally have done. It set a tone and enabled us to take our time, which was crucial for Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
Even though they were a funk group, I never thought of them as that. One of the things that we started talking about at the beginning was how to break down that framework. They didn’t need to have rap vocals, if they wanted to write a ballad they could, as long as they believed in it. They embraced that and the result was “Under the Bridge”. It was not a Chili peppers song, but it became a quintessential Chili Peppers song because it came from inside of them.
Their follow up, One Hot Minute, was a different thing. John had quit the band and Dave Navarro had joined. Every guitar player up until Dave had been a disciple of Hillel. John grew up loving Hillel’s playing, so when he joined, it was a continuation of the Chili Peppers sound. When Dave joined, it became a new band. If they had three years to develop, it probably would have been a great band but personality-wise they didn’t really mesh. The guys really liked to jam and write music based on jamming. Dave didn’t really like to jam, he’s more of a studio-based guitar player who layers and builds tracks. So one of their main methods of working didn’t work for Dave and in turn it didn’t work for the band.
The album sold six or seven million copies. It wasn’t a flop, it just didn’t do as good as the one before it, so there was a feeling of being let down. It was a step down, but not a terrible one. It was probably one of the biggest selling albums of that year.
Coming off of One Hot Minute they weren’t as confident going into Californication as they had been going into Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It was a different feeling, but it was a great feeling. They had lost some of that upward momentum and were coming from a more humble place. This was the first album back with John, so it was a new start again which was exciting. When everyone’s working together, there are these psychic connections and it seemed like everyone was in a good place to do some good work, which we did.
My role was, and still is, to put the right frame around their work so when people see the overall picture it looks and sounds like a work of art and not something that just got slapped together. My job isn’t to tell them what they want to hear, it’s to tell them the truth. As an artist gets more popular, fewer and fewer people tell them the truth, it’s like there’s no sense of reality. I only have one opinion but at least they know they’re going to get the truth from me. All that really matters is if it sounds good when it comes out of the speakers.
The new album Stadium Arcadium continues what we’ve done but doesn’t fit into any one category, because it has funk songs, rock songs, mellow songs and harmonious songs. In the past, we’ve always recorded with everyone playing together but this was produced much more like a live album with all the instruments in the room bleeding into each other. I would say all of our albums sound lively but this one sounds the liveliest. In Blood Sugar Sex Magik, a lot of the lyrics were sex fantasy stories and now it’s become much more emotional and spiritual.
In the beginning, we only intended on making a single album, but when we were listening to everything we thought that most of the songs needed to come out, but that meant they needed to be split over three single albums. The band started thinking if they released them over a long period, although they’d be great, they might not reflect who they are in 18 months time. So, it ended up being a double album. When I listen to The White Album, I’ll Listen to one of the discs over and over again and then I’ll listen to the other disc over and over again separately. We’ve made an album that people can digest as much or as little as they want. We think it’s beautiful and as fan it’s what I would want to listen to.