It seems one of modern rock’s most celebrated acts has recently made news more for what they haven’t done- such as letting their music be used on “Glee”- than for what they have. So there was a certain buzz of anticipation when The Red Hot Chili Peppers invited the remaining members of the shrinking international music media to sit down in a Santa Monica hotel with the band to finally hear I’m With You- the first Chili Peppers album in five years- a strong, passionate, 14-song piece of work.
From the opening track, The Monarchy of Roses, to the concluding Dance, Dance, Dance, I’m With You is an album that shows the old rock ’n’ roll dogs learning some new tricks too, including a winning and sexy melding of classic rock and dance rhythms that at times recalls the ’70s-era Rolling Stones.
“Our mission is the same as it always was,” says Flea, muscled and tattooed, and looking younger than his 48 years as he sits in one of two adjoining hotel suites on the coast with the Santa Monica pier in view. Next to him sits Josh Klinghoffer, their new guitarist. “It’s to get together in our personal lives, and in our communal life as a band to be the very best musicians that we can be – to grow and search and indulge our creative selves in new ways,” he adds. “Trying to get better – that’s really my thing, and I know that it’s Josh’s thing too. It’s all about thinking about music in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with categories or trends, or anything at all, except giving ourselves to making the most beautiful thing that we can.”
Of course, it’s been an unusually long time for the Chili Peppers between making beautiful things-their sprawling and brilliant last album, Stadium Arcadium, came out five years ago. And after a successful international tour in support of that album, the band went their separate ways, losing a key member in guitarist John Frusciante, who had contributed mightily to the band’s most successful albums.
“For the first time, we took a pretty sizeable break from the band, during which time, of course, John left and we got Josh,” Flea explains. “But the mission was just to get together again and not limit ourselves to any idea of what we’re supposed to be or need to be. So the idea was just to get in there and get busy again.”
For the Chili peppers this time around, getting busy again meant finding a new guitar god. And inevitably, Klinghoffer is a significant part of the story on I’m With You. Having already worked with the Chili Peppers as a supporting musician, Klinghoffer – who’s also backed Gnarls Barkley, Beck and PJ Harbey, among others- finds himself filling some very big musical shoes.
“It’s a lot different from John,” says Flea. “John was a virtuoso-guitar-hero type of player- and probably the best guitar player in the world. Josh is a completely different kind of musician- he plays a lot of different instruments. Josh is an all-around talent- he plays guitar, he sings, he plays drums- so he’s a real musical guy. He’s the kind of subtle player who creeps up on you rather than wowing you right away, and you sit back and see what he does grow into something gorgeous.” Flea adds, “Josh is also a great writer, and he wrote some great stuff for this album. So Josh brought something very different for us.”
For the slight Klinghoffer, who looks even younger than his 31 years, the transition from sometime-collaborator to full-time member has been relatively seamless. “It hasn’t gotten weird yet, although I haven’t really got onstage with them as a member of the band,” says the soft-spoken guitarist. “But being in the studio and writing the songs hasn’t been weird in the least. How will it be when I step onstage with them? I don’t think it’s going to be any different.”
The day Klinghoffer first jammed with the band to begin work on their latest album in late 2009, the Chili Peppers received the sad news that their long-term friend and early booster, Brendan Mullen, had died. They immediately began writing a song tribute to their fallen friend- and now, Brendan’s Death Song is one of the album’s many moving highlights, along with other standout tracks like Factory of Faith, Look Around, Goodbye Hooray, and its first single, The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie.
They worked once again with Rick Rubin, the producer of the Chili Peppers’ breakthrough album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and I’m With You sounds like a new classic- an eclectic-yet-cohesive song cycle that takes listeners on a memorably funky journey.
“I always think about when I was a kid in junior high school and my favourite band was Earth, Wind & Fire, and one of the things I loved was that I could listen to them when I was with my Mexican friends, I could listen to them when I was with my black friends-even my white friends loved them,” says Flea. “Parents and kids, funk people, and sophisticated jazz fans all loved them,”
“We’ve always tried that same idea of reaching for everybody and crossing boundaries. Earth, Wind and Fire were life affirming to me, but so were The Germs,” explains Flea. “People tap the source to this sacred connection to music-whether they’re a hardcore punk band, or John Coltrane or Stravinsky. It’s the sound of musicians connecting to the sacred, whatever that might be.”
When Flea’s reminded of the old Duke Ellington quote about there being only two kinds of music- good music, and the other kind- he immediately sparks to it. “Exactly, that’s always been our thing, too,” he says with a big grin. “And though we might be a lot more technically limited than Duke Ellington, we embrace music with that attitude, and we do the best we can.”
The story of the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be told many ways: as a very human comedy, as an occasional tragedy, and very clearly as one of music’s wildest, yet ultimately most uplifting epics. From their beginnings as four troubled, high-spirited sons of Hollywood taking the stage at sleazy strip clubs on the Sunset Strip when they were called Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, to their near-icon status today, the Chili Peppers have endured despite themselves.
In the end, though, the band’s tale remains, first and foremost, one red-hot mystery: how did this brilliant group of highly unstable and explosive musicians turn into one of the most enduring and influential groups in music history?
“The longer a band can stay together and stay vibrantly interested in improving as musicians and team players, the more stuff you can funnel from wherever the hell it’s coming, “ Anthony Kiedis told me around the time Stadium Arcadium was released. “Somehow, you connect with things that are part of the unseen. Really since the first second we started playing music together, we all felt connected to something that was powerful and true.”
For all that shared musical history, many figured that the Chili Peppers’ story had ended with Frusciante’s recent exit. Yet, I’m With You sounds like a band at its peak, not running on fumes. As Flea says today, “I can’t really compare it to anything else. It just feels great. It feels like family. It feels like we’re all earnestly involved in giving over ourselves to the process of making something that we all love. And within that process, there’s a great feeling of camaraderie and togetherness and a connection, and that’s it.”
Asked today if the Chili Peppers were ever close to throwing in the towel, Flea pauses, then says, “I considered it. But I’ve considered it a million times, so there’s nothing new. At the end of the last tour, things felt very strained. And I said, ‘Let’s take two years off.’ Because things just felt unpleasant, and not too functional-even though I was very pleased with the art that we were making, I thought we needed to get away from one another.”
He adds, “I also think that we had been pushed together so intensely by all the work we were doing for so many years. So we all got away from it for a long while and did other things. But I still thought that if John left the band, there was no way we would go on without him, because John was such a big part of this band and of our writing process. He wrote a lot of the principle parts of many of our biggest songs.”
Yet when Frusciante left, Flea found himself looking at things from a whole new perspective. “When John left, suddenly we were confronted with a very different situation, and we saw the challenge differently.” Says Flea. “Then life goes on, and with a few things going on in my life, I found myself feeling this tremendous outpouring of love for the band, and for Anthony in particular, since we’ve been friends since we were kids. There’s just this sense of home in the band at this point, and I want to keep doing it. We didn’t want to leave home yet.”