RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
CREATING THE MODERN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL LIFESTYLE WAS THE EASY PART. THE TRICK WAS SURVIVING IT
BY CARLO McCORMICK PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUL IAN SCHNANEL
Usually, when a band asks to be interviewed separately it’s a bad sign. And if it meant, as it often does, that no one in the Red Hot Chili Peppers could stand being In the same room, then that might not be so surprising for a band that has had such a legendary past of addictions, accidents, breakups and even death.
Quite to the contrary, life with the Chili Peppers these days is much closer to an ongoing love-fest: They just wanted to make sure each got a chance to say their due. With their dirty laundry already famously aired out, front man Anthony Kiedis, bass player Flea, drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante were all totally open.
Since its formation in 1983, the band has endured the death of its original guitarist, Hillel Slovak, witnessed the brutal self-destruction and resurrection of his equally inspired replacement in John Frusciante, snared more than enough troubles to fill the dreams of any VH1 programmer and proven over and again that the Chili Peppers are as capable of being lame as they are of attaining unmitigated brilliance.
Perhaps, like the best of creative magic, their endurance all comes down to chemistry. They fully understand what it is that first brought the core of this band together as a bunch of high school misfits: a special degree of understanding, empathy, trust and respect that has always been the heart of their music. That the magic was clearly lost at one point only makes it stronger now that it’s back. It’s a true gift, and one that makes their new material a singular leap into creative maturity few bands ever accomplish. And when we tell them this, we still can’t blame these overgrown delinquents for reminding us of the essential spirit yet unchanged: “It still rocks.”
CARLO McCORMICK: Your new record, By the Way [Warner Bros.], is very ambitious in terms of its eclecticism and the different places you guys go. What’s also noticeable is that your signature style—the percussive, dynamic way you play the bass—is not as apparent as on your previous recordings.
FLEA: Right. Both individually and as a band, we are growing and changing and finding new ways to express ourselves. This is definitely a different record for us because our lives are different, because we are different people every day and are always writing and changing and arriving in different places. I’m very proud of my playing on this record, but I’m also proud of being a part of something that is in touch with the energy around it. You know, in our communal compositions on the record, something is moving and changing, so for me to be selfish or say that I got notoriety for being this fancy, fast, funky bass player would be silly, and it wouldn’t be relevant to me. When I play songs that we wrote 10 years ago, I respect them for what they are: I honor them and pour my heart and my body into every note—but for me to not change and grow with it would be stale and uninteresting. On this record, I play with a pick a lot, which is different.
CM: It opens up a lot of melodic possibilities for everyone else as well. Do you think the change in your style happened because it was becoming a dead end creatively for you and you felt that you needed to break loose? Or did it just happen organically?
F: I didn’t feel that I was in a dead end at all. Everything that I’ve ever done is part of who I am. I love playing all the ways that I can play; so no, I didn’t feel like anything was closing, I felt like it was opening. I just want to keep changing and growing as a musician.
CARLO McCORMICK: You’ve got a pretty good sense of humor about yourself. How does that work for you?
ANTHONY KIEDIS: Well. I guess it depends on the mood I’m in. We’re just coming from the viewpoint of being alive at a time of such a preposterous media reality. You have to be willing to laugh at yourself and recognize what’s coming from a real place and what’s coming from an empty place. Obviously we go in both directions, and we’ve found ourselves getting ridiculous. It’s more important to us to just make music and play it and not to worry about that stuff. We’re not big image-makers and we’re not trying to put media spins out to the world. We’re a pretty simple band. basically, kind of an old-fashioned band, that plays the best we can and put on a good show.
CM: This record is really the first time that the brotherhood between you and the band has become the substance of your material.
AK: While we were making this record, we were too involved with it to really get the overview. But when I listen to it now, a lot of the material is just pure—in love with love, and in love with nature, and in love with the fact that we’re doing exactly what we want to do. And a lot of that love is inspired by being depressed, being lonely and being heartbroken. That’s the reason why I listen to music—to connect emotionally with all these different things. As much as it is to stimulate my intellect, it’s really to stimulate a spectrum of emotions. There was never an intention. There’s an element to our band that’s just a series of accidents and mistakes and mishaps and experiments which just turned into something that works. (more Chili Peppers page 108)
Carlo McCORMICK: You always struck me as an introverted guy? How do you fit in with this very extroverted band?
JOHN FRUSCIANTE: Luckily, I’m in a band with people who love me being the way I am. Nobody expects me to act in a way that I don’t feel like acting. I think we had a little more conflict about this before I quit the last time. At that time I think that everyone in the band felt like it was their job to jump around and make funny faces but now I think everyone knows that it’s their job to be themselves and make music. I definitely had a problem being in a band like that before and I would have a problem being in a band like that today.
CM: Even when It comes to the drama of playing guitar- all the gestures and over-emoting-you don’t do that, either.
JM: Flea was actually the one who told me back when I was first in the band that his favourite guitarists were the ones who were really mellow and didn’t jump around. But dancing has ended up being a big part of my life now—like going to drum ‘n’ bass clubs and just freaking out. A lot of times when I’m dancing, it’s to try and show things about the space that I’m in hearing in the music and how one point connects to another. I’m dancing in a musical way, to try to figure things out.
CM: Shamanism has a big history of that- that dance works in idiosyncratic to get the body to carry the mind into those spaces.
JF: That’s why at rehearsals I would also be jumping around, because you get ideas doing that you never get otherwise. It’s a way of hearing things you wouldn’t normally hear.
CM: That’s a good way to get that out of body feeling.
JF: I don’t really think much in terms of words but i use my brain a lot for colors and for music, and it’s important to me to be at the receptive end of music as opposed to feeling like it is your responsibility to be creating it all of the time. The feeling of absorbing music is a lot more important.
Carlo McCORMICK: I had to really listen to your drumming on this new album to appreciate it. What you do is not as obvious as other rock drumming. [laughs]
CHAD SMITH: I did this session with an old blues guy about two months ago and he said, “If I can hear you, you’re playing too much.” [laughs] I think he meant if I hear you, you’re playing too busy. You know, just make it feel good, man. And it’s kind of my mentality with where we’re at now. We’re just trying to make the best songs we can.
CM: I’ve only heard nine songs from the new album, but it does seem to me to have a kind of reined-in aspect to the music.
CS: We didn’t play our Cookie Monster rock, did we? That’s another record. I don’t feel reined-in or restricted in any way. This album is just a snap-shot of where we are right now. It seems like we’re in a really good, creative place. We can appreciate the four of us together, the important chemistry. With John coming back, it’s amazing. He’s an incredible, inspiring person to be around. He’s a musician and an artist and he’d come to rehearsal and show up ready. John would have the record written in half an hour. [laughs] And I think it brought everybody up a level.
CM: Is it OK to call it a more mature record?
CS: Yeah, why not? But we’re not boring. [laughs] We may be old, but we’re not boring.
CM: Spectacle has been such a part of the shtick. Like with the live shows.
CS:[laughs] Yeah, we had a shtick. Everybody’s got to have a shtick. We like to entertain.
CM: Have you figured out—
CS: —new shtick?
CM: Obviously certain things have been retired, like dancing girls in cages and socks.
CS: Sadly. You cannot really go there anymore. But by now we are an exciting band without all of the distractions.
Carlo McCormick is a senior editor at Paper magazine.