Clash 2016 December
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Kevin Amato
Fashion: Matthew Josephs
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
RHCP RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
A Life Supreme
The room is silent. A mesh of cables at my feet mark an impassable divide between staying and leaving, and a blazing spotlight is doing little to ease my already simmering nerves. In a moment, the man in the headphones who’s perched over his laptop by the window will signal that we’re live, and suddenly, my face will be transmitted on Facebook to millions of viewers.
It’s a petrifying prospect, and I’m doing my best to remain calm, keeping quiet, as requested, until we are go. But the gentleman to my left is bemused by the whole situation, and defies orders by opening his mouth. “It’s like we’re going into space or something,” he sneers, surveying the abundance of technology that surrounds us. The man in the headphones looks incensed by this act of disobedience.
“Like NASA,” my neighbour continues. “Make one small step and the fate of mankind…” He trails off, aware of the palpable distress he’s caused by daring to desecrate the precise amount of quiet required before broadcasting, and the fact that nobody is responding to his observations.
I’m bursting to react. I want to laugh, to conspire and rebel, but I feel bound by duty, and am overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation I find myself in. Two cameras dauntingly point at me, their black screens coldly offering no compassion. Sitting beside the man in the headphones is a label exec, indulgent of her charge’s sabotage, but unmistakably radiating a ‘don’t-fuck-this-up’ demeanour. Across the room is Clash’s Creative Director, languishing in my discomfort, ready to enjoy the show from a safe distance. He knows what an honour it was for me to be asked to be here, presenting an interview with an artist whose music has been an indelible part of my DNA for 25 years, and knows that our current proximity – and the global audience awaiting our conversation – is blowing my mind.
It’s not like it was an hour ago, when the two of us sat alone in the lounge of a hotel suite, talking about his band and their new album – that was work; that was us conversing in a professional capacity, two equals fulfilling their respective responsibilities. This is different. Armed with a list of questions that were submitted to the band’s Facebook page, I am the voice of a passionate and dedicated international network of which I am a proud member. It’s the ultimate fan experience.
With just seconds to compose myself, I take a long, deep breath and glance again to my left. There’s a glowing smile on the face of my fearless accomplice that suggests everything is going to be okay, that we’re in this together and, as the man in the headphones signals that the cameras are rolling, it takes every fibre of my being to stop myself from leaping out of my seat and shrieking, ‘IT’S ANTHONY FUCKING KIEDIS!’
It’s June 2016, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ebullient frontman is in London just ahead of the release of ‘The Getaway’, the group’s 11th album. Upon first listen, I could immediately recognise it as a sonic departure for the band – the choice of Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) as producer, over longtime collaborator Rick Rubin, resulted in a fresh approach that explored the subtleties of their playing – and was excited to learn more about its eventful creation, which had been bookended by disasters.
An hour before our Facebook chat, which was scheduled to premiere the video for lead single ‘Dark Necessities’, we sat down to get the bottom of their change in direction, but – first thing’s first – I needed to know how Anthony was feeling. Only a month prior to our meeting, he had been rushed to hospital before the band’s performance at the KROO Weenie Roast in Irvine, California, citing “complications from intestinal flu,” and was forced to cancel their next date, too. How was he bearing up now?
“I feel good. I feel really good,” he says, looking the picture of health. “My stomach had stopped working,” he begins to explain. “I had been on this medication for not having a gall bladder, which exploded eight years ago and they took it out and then they said ‘Take this pill every morning for the rest of your life.’ I was like, ‘Alright.’ So that pill created an imbalance in the homeostasis of my stomach and its counterparts, so one day it just said, ‘I’m done. I’m shutting up. I don’t like this medication. I don’t like what you’re doing to me.’ So they had to pump me up; they had to pump my stomach. They put a big fat tube through my nose and told me to swallow ice chunks to help it go down the throat.
“I was screaming and gagging and making dead duck sounds,” he continues, “but having it out was a great relief, because it had stopped going through my body. And then, I just knew I was going to end up being better than before, because something wasn’t right to begin with for that to happen, so now I got to look at the big picture and say, ‘Okay, let’s figure out this puzzle.’ I went to see an Eastern medicine lady called Asha who does acupuncture and other things that balance the body, so I’m already feeling better than I was before that even happened. But I had to give up the coffee for now, which is troubling for a guy who’s been hitting the bean hard for decades.”
Anthony’s medical emergency came just over a year after the devastating blow to Flea, who shattered his elbow in a horrific snowboarding accident. Suffering severe nerve damage and undergoing major surgery, the bassist endured a lengthy recovery period, during which time the band missed Burton’s initial window of opportunity. Looking back, Anthony says the delay was “just the thing Flea needed to go get right with himself,” allowing him the time to cope with the painful process of relearning his instrument around the damage caused.
Nine months later, with Flea suitably repaired and Burton available again, the band convened in the producer’s studio, where his intentions for the sessions were outlined from the beginning. Though the band arrived with a stack of songs ready to record, Burton insisted that they discard the majority and start new ones from scratch, live in the studio.
“A totally new method; very exciting, very nerve-wracking, high pressure,” Anthony confirms. “The boys would go in in the morning, and Brian’s kind of like a musical director, where he wants to start with the beat, and he wants to find the best section of that beat and loop it, and then he calls Flea in and he’s like, ‘You know that feeling you get when you listen to a Michael Jackson record?’ And Flea’s like, ‘Yeah?’ He’s like, ‘Well, give me that feeling.’ So Flea’s like, ‘Okay,’ and he just starts riffing. [Brian’s] like, ‘I like the 16th bar of the thing you played; let’s repeat that.’ Then Flea would repeat that and put his own magic onto it. So he would build songs like that and we had never done that before, but the end result was beautiful music.”
The singer, dismayed at jettisoning all the lyrics he’d amassed for the record, feared he didn’t have much more to say, but found inspiration in the CDs of instrumentals the musicians would regularly supply him with, some proving complex and arduous for him to find his place within. “So I just kept chipping away and really clocked mad hours writing and trying,” he says. “Many days I would go in and sing for Brian what I thought was good and he would say, ‘It’s not that great. Please try again.’ There was a song that I loved so much and could not crack the code for. I knew the music was great and super interesting, and on the very last day that I would work with Brian – the last day of recording, period – I tried one last time and finally ended up singing the thing that Brian liked and ended up on the record as ‘We Turn Red’. So it was very different. I liked it.”
The collective undertaking to explore new paths is testament to the band’s robust chemistry at present, which was invigorated by the arrival of guitarist Josh Klinghoffer in 2009 following the departure of longstanding member, John Frusciante) and emboldened by the bouts of touring for 2011’s ‘I’m With You’. Josh’s stylistic advancement, which sees him actively sidestepping the big, clean John-ish sounds that permeated ‘I’m With You’ for something more restrained and textured, echoes the fortification of Frusciante on 1991’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ after the exploratory ‘Mother’s Milk’, wherein he struggled with the burdening legacy of his own predecessor, Hillel Slovak, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988. “What you want to be on that first record is kind of an experiment where you’re just feeling each other out, and because we had never been on tour with Josh, we didn’t have that depth going for us that we had had with John by the time we made ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’,” Anthony confirms. “So it’s pretty much the same thing. To me, ‘I’m With You’ is our ‘Mother’s Milk’ of the 2000s, where we were just like, ‘We don’t know you that well, but let’s make a record anyways.’ And then we went on tour for years with Josh for that record, had an amazing time – one of the best touring cycles ever for us – and by the end of it, we knew him in a way that we didn’t know existed before. So, when we started writing for this record, it was just a new experience. Like, now we were one. Before, we were trying to let him in, and now there was no difference between myself or him or Flea; we were all just one thing.”
Considering their revisionary moves, if taken literally, the album’s title would suggest a deliberate attempt by the group to liberate themselves from any preconceptions, but Anthony’s quick to dispel the notion. It’s named after the opening track, which extols the transporting possibilities of music, where one can “leave your troubles in a different place and just go exist on a plane of sound and emotion” while immersed in song. The song ‘The Getaway’ is about heartbreak and wanting that feeling with a special person where you’re just two people in a bubble listening to music and nothing else really matters for that time,’ he reveals. “I wanted that song to represent the entire record, because to me it was the most different sounding that we had even been since we started. It was a song based on loops and it just had a different slant to the rhythm, and 1 thought it should be our first single, just to say, ‘This is who we are now. This is what we’ve done.’ But I lost that battle.”
The loop-based opener is just the first of many surprising delights that struck me throughout the record. I loved the prominent piano in ‘Dark Necessities’, the mellifluous grace of the Elton-John-featuring ‘Sick Love’ (my favourite track, no less), the twin-bass ’80s groove and drummer Chad Smith’s plunging tom work on ‘Go Robot’, the murky might of ‘Detroit’, and the ferocious punk ambush of ‘This Ticonderoga’ – just one of a number of tracks whose fluctuating rhythms combine to make ‘The Getaway” something of an unpredictable experience.
Attempting to infiltrate a couple of choice cuts and scratch below their surface, I begin by asking Anthony about the portentous Burton co-write, ‘Feasting On The Flowers’. With reference to a “best friend…about to take his final fall” and the implication that he died aged 26, would I be right in guessing this is another in a long line of tributes (that includes ‘Knock Me Down’ from ‘Mother’s Milk’, ‘My Lovely Man’ from ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ and ‘Otherside’ from ‘Californication’) to the late Hillel? “That song was inspired by Hillel Slovak, for sure,” Anthony sighs. “The verses reflect the last sorta few days or couple of weeks of his life and my thoughts about that time, which is still very strong in my consciousness – not in a bad way, but just trying to understand what happens to the young life of a person when they’re experimenting with altered states, and how we kind of lose ourselves to the point of no return like that, and also what a bizarre and powerful thing it could be to think that you know exactly what something is, and then in an instant realise that all of your ideas were wrong or incorrect in some way, or not what you thought they were, and just in a flash everything changes. And I think that happens to everyone at a certain point; something happens and you’re like, ‘I thought it was like this, but it’s actually like that. How could I have been so wrong about my ideas of life and philosophy?’ And so it’s kind of an homage to Hillel, but also an homage to the fact that we have to be open to change, and maybe the things that we’re so damn sure about aren’t really what we think they are.”
In the song, when Anthony sings, “The next dimension show me in,” I’m reminded of a line from ‘My Lovely Man’, which states: “When I die I will find you.” As a recurring theme, does he believe that one day he might hopefully be reunited with his childhood friend? “It’s not a conviction or anything, but it’s just kind of a nice thought,” he smiles. “I have no religious associations, but yeah, it’s just kind of a pleasant thought.”
‘The Hunter’, a brooding and foreboding waltz, is next to be deciphered. Visions of “strawberries left to decay” illustrate the deterioration of a loved one falling victim to time – their identity implied in the chorus: “Even though you raised I will never be your father / The king of each and every Sunset Marquis”.
“It’s about my dad,” Anthony admits. Raised by his mother in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Anthony moved, aged 12 to live with his father in LA in 1974, entering a world where Kiedis senior – Blackie Dammett: actor, playboy, dealer to the stars – led by example in a wonderland of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. After managing the Chilis’ fanclub through the height of their fame, he’s now retired due to ill health – the symptoms of which, for Anthony, have clearly proven difficult to endure.
“[It’s about] watching that cycle of my father, who for so long was the tiger out there, just kind of perusing the world and being in charge of his destiny, and then you hit a certain point and suddenly you’re not that guy anymore, and suddenly you need someone else to take care of you. And that’s a heavy thing I think a lot of young men go through, when their fathers reach a certain age and their mind isn’t as strong as it used to be, their body’s not as strong, and suddenly you realise the vulnerability of this person you always thought could handle everything.”
Time is against me, too. I have so many more questions, but the imminent Facebook fracas means we’re on a tight schedule and we’ve still got some photos to take. I could talk with Anthony forever – and not just about ‘The Getaway’, whose intricacies, depth and detours (not to mention Danger Mouse’s spacious and complementary production) beget the Chilis’ most dramatic and dynamic album in years. No, I have to go, but not before I take this final private opportunity to confess my longstanding status as a diehard Chili Peppers fan, and the impact his music had on me at a most impressionable age.
Anthony smiles respectfully. How does it feel, I ask, as we both stand to leave, him completely unaware that our Creative Director is about to make him take his shirt off – purely for aesthetic reasons, obvs – to be told you’re someone’s hero?
He pauses, humbly, to consider his answer. “I had lots of people when I was growing up that I looked to their art and I went, ‘Holy mackerel! How did that person get into a state of mind where they could create that, where it just floods the world with coolness and wonderfulness?’ So, when I met people that I could work with and create some kind of a flood of energy like that that I could tell was affecting people, I was like, ‘Alright, well this is what I want to do.’ But I don’t think it was ever with the intention of being put on a pedestal or be thought of as a mentor or a hero or anything like that – it was just to be part of the bigger fabric of that energy. So yeah, you know, I kinda shirk from the hero thing. I don’t really have heroes myself – I have people that I admire no end, but everyone’s just everyone.”
“People are people,” he insists. “End of conversation.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers tour the UK and Ireland in December, and hit the US in January.