08/2011 Drum

WITH A NEW GUITAR PLAYER, A FRESH OUTLOOK, AND THEIR FIRST ALBUM IN FIVE YEARS, THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS ARE POISED TO SEAR THEIR WAY BACK TO ROCK’S TOP SPOT.

A glance at his watch on this Tuesday night reminds Chad Smith he should already be at home in front of the Lakers playoff game – it’s well after 10:00, and Kobe’s on the court with a sprained ankle. Instead, Smith kicks back in front of an elaborate console. Hologram images of Lennon and Hendrix stare from the far wall as he pulls out a CD marked “RHCP Approved Main Mixes.” He’s seated to my right just down the hall from the master class he gave earlier at The Collective School Of Music in the heart of Manhattan’s Chelsea district. And he’s weighing which of the new, never-before-heard Red Hot Chili Peppers songs to unleash on me first.

“Ah, this makes me nervous,” Smith winces 30 seconds into the eruption of one RHCP Song titled “Look Around.” New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer sounds as if he’s stepped right into those big shoes vacated by his predecessor, as rock music’s singular rhythm section hits the eardrum with fresh ammunition. It’s all too much for Smith. Grinning from ear to ear, he leaps out of his chair and paces into the control room for a moment as the studio walls absorb this virgin music, months from public release.

Smith would later tell me that DRUM! Magazine gave him his first cover story 20 years ago, and so it would be DRUM! Magazine that would get the first listen to the first Red Hot Chili Peppers album in five years.

“I haven’t played it for anybody,” he says under his breath as he readies the next cut, “except for my wife, who’ll be like, ‘What’s that? I like that one!”

Distortion bursts suddenly from the speakers, then a dark Sabbath-like riff roars over Smith’s militant kick drum. Singer Anthony Kiedis sneers over the chaos: ‘The crimson tide is flowing through your fingers as you sleep…” These first bars might well be the most unsettling of any Red Hot Chili Peppers record. Yet just as the discord reaches its peak, the song crashes into balance. “Monarchy Of Roses” is jilted, upturned to reveal a rainbow throbbing with the bounce of a discotheque that eventually leads back to heavy metal. It’s pure, melodic gold.

Then there’s “Ethiopia,” which begins with Flea directing the band: “Rollin’ everybody.” he announces. “It starts with bass.” As his funk begins to thump. Smith enters in 7/4, an odd time signature groove he says was inspired by Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron and former Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Flea’s crafted piano chops make for a welcome addition to “Even You, Brutus?,” and “Happiness Loves Company,” and Chad Smith explores Afrobeat elements on “Did I Let You Know.”

To listen to these veterans emerge from their longest ever time-off is to hear them interrupt any speculation of their demise. With three-fourths of the lineup intact for more than 20 years, they’ve still got something to say.

WANTED MAN

Burned out by two decades of an unforgiving album-tour-album cycle, the Red Hot Chili Peppers agreed to cool it for at least a year in 2008. They walked away from the stage, the studio, and each other. Then, in the middle of the break, guitarist John Frusciante left to pursue solo work full-time. Though the move extended the groups absence from the public eye another year, his amicable exit allowed the Red Hot Chili Peppers time to plant new seeds.

“I thought he might come around one day and go, ‘Yep! I’m ready!” But he never did, and that’s fine,’ Smith says. “He’s probably the best musician I’ve ever known and played with. He’s just fantastic and I love him. But we want to keep going.”

There would be no audition process to replace Frusciante, the band decided. They’d known Josh Klinghoffer since 1997, and he played alongside Frusciante during the final months of 2007?s Stadium Arcadium tour; he was the obvious choice.

As it turns out, the guitarist had a secret connection to the guy behind the kit that made his selection that much sweeter. “My first musical instrument was drums when I was nine years old or so,” Klinghoffer says. “I had the Chad Smith instructional video as a kid. When I used to go on tour with them opening up, I used to perch myself behind John’s amps and hang out with Chris Warren. Chad’s drum tech, and just watch Chad like a hawk.”

Klinghoffer will never forget the day he got the call. It came July 20, 2009, while he watched a ballgame at Dodger Stadium. Flea was on the line, asking him to join Red Hot Chili Peppers. The request startled Klinghoffer, but Flea had to know whether the band could survive losing Frusciante.

“Within a couple of minutes of playing together we sort of knew that it was the right decision,” Klinghoffer says of the band’s first session that October. “Pretty much from day one until we finished our writing process we were coming up with stuff that we loved.”

The band announced its reformed lineup to the world a couple of months later. In February 2010, Klinghoffer and Flea trawled to Ethiopia, where they spent six days making music with local musicians. That adventure abroad, coupled with the bassist’s year of studying musical theory, hits home on I’m With You, with hints of jazz, classical, and roots music never before heard on a Chili Peppers record.

The first day together, the band penned “Brendan’s Death Song” to memorialize the late Brendan Mullen, the Los Angeles club promoter who booked the band’s first gig in 1983. They spent the next 11 months writing, compiling a trove of potential material that by August was whittled down and ready for preproduction at Beach Boys guitarist Al Jardine’s ranch, in Big Sur, California. There they were joined by long time producer Rick Rubin, who remained at the helm through the final tracking sessions in L.A. from September to February.

“When Chad is playing, you never have to worry or think twice if the drums will do their job,” says Rubin. “Chad is the solid-rock foundation on which the Chili Peppers are built. He brings mighty power and great vibes, so much so I have asked him to play on many other recordings.”

Over the years Rubin has invited Smith to track with the late Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks, and Kid Rock, among others. Producer and engineer Ryan Hewitt, who most recently worked with one of Smith’s other bands, Bombastic Meatbats, says “he can listen to a song, or even a description of a song by an artist he’s playing with, and nail the arrangement within two takes.” And Smith has played with plenty of performers — his body of work between Peppers projects reads like a laundry list, a dream resume boasting gigs with some of his heroes, and others with musicians half his age.

While on vacation in April, Smith recorded an album with Outernational, a young band discovered by Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello. Its members, most of whom were children when Smith joined the Chili Peppers in 1988, piled into their van and drove from New York City to his house in Malibu. They inherited some of Smith’s endurance and expertise from the three-day session, and he in turn drew inspiration and energy from their youth. Smith has since performed with them at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood.

“I think it’s so rare to find rock drummers in the last 25 years who just come with that level of force, fierceness, velocity, power, and enthusiasm who aren’t stiff as a brick,” says Outernational singer Miles Solay. “And not only is he the opposite of that, but he’s the best.”

FOREVER YOUNG

Though he’ll celebrate his 50th birthday in October, Smith never shook that youthful enthusiasm that got him into the craft at age seven. So it’s only fitting he share how he’s evolved as a musician with a roomful of those pushing for a similar future.

For most of the students squeezed into these ten rows of metal chairs, this is the closest they’ll ever get to a rock star. Tonight, a few hours before our listening session at The Collective, Smith sits on an amp and offers them a message of love straight from the heart.

“I would suggest playing with other people.” he offers. “I’ve been married to the Chili Peppers for 21 years, right? And then I have these other things that I do when I’m not doing that, and those are like my mistresses. And then when I go back and play with the Peppers,” he continues. “I have new positions for them.”

A 12-year-old boy giggling from the middle row interrupts the informal lecture. Resembling a young Anthony Kiedis, the boy is the youngest here by several years among this group of mostly college students.

What are you laughing about?” Smith shakes his head with a smile. That’s not funny.”

“It’s okay.” another student pipes up. “He watches South Park.”

No musical experience matches meeting and playing with those of different personalities, styles, and instruments. Smith explains, and he’s about to prove it.

“Come on up.” he calls out to a petite high-school girl with a bass guitar across her lap. Then a guitarist in his late twenties volunteers, and heads to the front to join the impromptu lineup. “We’re gonna improvise,” Smith tells them as he sits behind the Pearl kit.

“I can’t stress this enough,” he says before they begin. “These things on the side of your head — your ears — these are the most important thing. Listening to what is going on in any musical situation is good for everyone. Drummers especially.”

 

Once they pick a key, a jam is born between Smith and the two students, five minutes of raw funk that sounds composed, even rehearsed — but it’s hatching in front of the class, note by note.

For Estrella Arias, who just turned 18, playing bass with Smith tonight taught her an invaluable lesson. “His energy is so great.” she says, “and he reminded me that the most important thing is to enjoy it. There wouldn’t be any point otherwise.”

Smith should be enjoying his last few weeks of free time before he heads back to Los Angeles to rehearse those newsongs with Red Hot Chili Peppers. But he appears at home here in this modest room on the buildings seventh floor, instructing these students to stick with their instruments.

“You’re lucky to find what you’re passionate about at an early age,” he tells them after the jam, “The only way I made it was going to music class.”

CLASS CLASH

There was a time when the city also known as Motown birthed a brand of music worlds apart from The Temptations and The Four Tops. By the early ’70s, guys like Alice Cooper and Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band were dominating Metro Detroit with mullets and, in some cases, makeup.

The long hair would come later for Chad Gaylord Smith, who was born in 1961 in St. Paul. Minnesota, and later moved with his family to Michigan. His first kit was nothing more than a collection of discarded Baskin-Robbins containers his dad recovered from the trash. But the set proved to satisfy and encourage the boy’s outlet. When he was 11, Smith and older brother Brad formed their first hand, Rockin’ Conspiracy, and covered led Zeppelin and The Doors at school dances.

It was in the suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where Smith played with a couple of bands (one was called Pair Of Dice, the other Northstar) in high school. Brad’s record collection opened Chad’s ears to Bonham, Keith Moon, Ian Paine, Neil Peart, and Ginger Baker, lead drummers whose styles propelled the music rather than the other way around.

After graduating in 1980, Smith went on to back a number of hair bands on Detroit’s club circuit. One of those was Tilt, whose leader recalls Smith’s audition.

“When I shook his hand to say hello, I let out a scream just to freak him out,” says Michael Pagan. °He stood his ground and took it in stride admirably! That moment of confidence would fore-shadow Smith’s approach to his career-defining audition for Red Hot Chili Peppers later that decade.

But in 1982 it was a group called Pharaoh that offered Smith his first serious opportunity behind the drums. The band was curated by an ambitious promoter hell-bent on forming the next Santana or Chicago. Smith was 21, and until then had never worked with an official teacher. While the other members of Pharaoh were much older and more seasoned than Smith, their new drummer had a veteran in his corner.

Percussionist Larry Fratangelo, formerly of Parliament/Funkadelic and now touring with Kid Rock, taught Smith to concentrate on fundamentals like tuning his kit, timing each stroke, and listening to every member of the band during a performance.

“I think up until then I was a drummer,” Smith remembers. And once I studied with Larry and played with these other guys, I turned into a musician.”

Years of playing the bars night after night led Small, join established rock band Toby Redd, and he recorded an album with them in 1986. The excitement died for him when the group’s flash of popularity faded; before they knew it they were back to playing places like the 24 Karat Club again. Smith knew it was time to get out of Detroit.

SOCK ROCK

In the fall of 1988, Brad drove his younger brother across the country to Hollywood, where he would attend the Percussion Institute Of Technology. A few months there confirmed school wasn’t a fit either. It seemed too constricting and competitive. Smith needed to play with other people.

“He was always in a band. Always,” says Brad. “To be so intuitive and natural as he is, it’s like walking for him.”

That December, Smith learned a group he’d never listened to called Red Hot Chili Peppers had lost its drummer. He didn’t know much about these guys, only that they strutted around shirtless in public and often performed wearing nothing but tube socks over their genitalia. So he bought The Abbey Rood E.P. cassette and listened to it in the car while driving to the audition.

From the moment 27-year-old Smith walked into that place, his long-hair-and-bandanna look irritated the Chili Peppers — and they were determined to break him. So they jammed. When Smith’s speed began to overwhelm Flea, the band realized they had to have this tall guy from the Midwest. But their offer came with a catch: Smith had to shave his head. He refused. It wasn’t long be-fore Brad heard from Chad, who had four words for his big brother: °I got the sock.”

Since they released their break-through album, Mother’s Milk, remarkably little has changed in terms of how these guys approach songwriting. Each member brings in ideas from home — a bass line maybe, or a groove in its infancy. A scrap of a lyric. Spontaneous jams often follow, then Kiedis sorts through it all and writes melodies. And then they track it together. It’s the music that has changed most over these last 20-plus years. The dynamic remains the same.

“We’re still a bunch of knuckleheads from Hollywood hacking away,” Smith says. ‘You show up to rehearsal every day, and you just never know. That day you might come away with three really great ideas for songs, and sometimes you might come up with nothing. But usually we were coming up with something every day. And it was really exciting, especially after taking a couple of years off. And with a new guy in the band, it was renewed energy.”

Each song that ignites the studio during this side-by-side listening session with Smith confirms those socks-on-cocks villains remain locked away in ancient history. Now heart-on-sleeve funk-rock veterans, the Chili Peppers emanate more truth and soul and instrumental intuition than they ever did in their twenties. Mark “Police Station” up there with “Under The Bridge” as one of those timeless ballads they’ll be remembered for; piano and guitar embrace in a dance here that takes a delicate, psychedelic turn.

“Did I Let You Know” thunders in next, with Smith’s Afrobeat rhythms leading the pack. Engineer Greg Fidelman helped achieve the tribal effect by deadening Smith’s toms and adding a piccolo snare to the left of the hi-hat. “Chad hits harder than most drummers, and that can he tricky for an engineer.” he points out. Having worked alongside engineer Jim Scott on Californication and By The Way, Fidelman prepared for more hard hitting during the I’m With You sessions —he rented every Tama Bell Brass in town to make for easy rotation between snares when Smith exhausted the heads.

“It’s very magical what he does,” says percussionist Mauro Refosco, who worked on the new album and has recorded with David Byrne and Atoms For Peace, Flea’s project with Thom Yorke. “Every little nuance he did was what the music was screaming for.”

 

As we near the end of our time, Smith sings along with Kiedis’s vocal, head back, his eyelids clenched. This slightly shuffled band lineup has captured a sound that would never have existed if not for Frusciante’s departure — and some time away from each other.

CHAD’S BATS

“I’m sloppy, and I play too loud sometimes.” Smith admits to a Collective student who asks about his shortcomings. “And I couldn’t play straight-ahead jazz to save my life.”

Though most drummers would disagree with all of the above, all three of those so-called imperfections seem to work within the dynamic of Bombastic Meatbats: the sloppiness sounds sophisticated; the loud playing just makes good sense; and what the hell is straight-ahead jazz, anyway?

Tonight, on this rainy Easter Sunday in New York City, Smith stretches his 6? 3? frame and grabs a smoke between sets with the Meatbats, one of his ventures since the Chili Peppers hiatus.

During Smith’s downtime these last several years, he also formed classic-rock group Chickenfoot with guitarist Joe Satriani and Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony. Smith made two albums with each band, and between those tours cut a children’s record with his son’s music teacher and entertainer, Dick Van Dyke.

Four or five butts litter the tile floor outside the jazz club’s kitchen, where two swivel chairs in the hallway double as a humble backstage atmosphere for a guy whose chief band fills 50,000-seat stadiums.

“This is the longest we’ve ever been not touring.” Smith says of the Chili Peppers. “As soon as August comes around,” he grins from beneath the brim of an orange Yankees cap, “back to my day job.”

It’s showtime again, and Smith heads back to the stage with keyboardist Ed Roth, guitarist Jeff Kollman, and bassist Kevin Chown.

Dressed in a Keith Richards T-shirt and black pants, Smith ducks his head to avoid hitting the stage lights. He’ll insist he’s not the leader of this band, but he’s the only one armed with a microphone tonight.

“What are you having over there?* he asks one of the 50-or-so spectators. “A quesa-dillah? Back in the day when I used to drink, I would’ve come over there and eaten that.”

Smith follows up with a crack about the Easter Bunny and the resurrection before leading the Meatbats into numbers with names like “Oops, I Spilled My Beer” and “Greasy Louise.”

They formed as a bit of a happy accident while backing Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple, who was late to a session one day. While they waited, they jammed. Nothing rehearsed, nothing written — just four different guys improvising and making jazz-funk rock purely for the love of doing it. It just happened. They became a band. Sometimes seeing other people pulls that out of you.

Though his loyalty lies with his partners in the Peppers, Chad Smith’s heart beats hardest when he’s making music, whether it’s with them or a band that forms on the spot. He’s come full circle by breaking outside the box — making new bandmates, playing those small clubs again, even volunteering time to students in hopes of inspiring them to try the same.

“I suspect he is secretly a monster virtuoso, but coupled with a sophisticated, well-honed sense of what is appropriate.” says Cliff Martinez, who drummed with the Chili Peppers from 1983 to ’86. “Everything he does is in service of the music. That’s what great drummers do.”

Life happened when the Chili Peppers walked away: Kiedis became a dad. Flea went back to school. Smith decided to see other people. Along the way he’s provided unsung musicians the chance to be heard. And each of those endeavours has given so much back to the drummer who refused to shave his head at an audition for a bunch of California punks.

Time for Chad Smith to bid farewell to the mistresses for a while — and break out some of those new positions he’s been working on.

 

Odds and Evens

Groove analysis by Brad Schlueter

 

CHAD SMITH IS WELL KNOWN AS THE drummer driving the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bus. Flea certainly adds a lot of funk to the grooves but without Smith’s foundation, that’d be icing without the cake. The band’s much-anticipated new release features a new guitarist, who did help with the songwriting, but diehard RHCP fans need not worry — this is unmistakably Chilis.

 

“Ethiopia”

This is one of the singles from the new disc and it’s a catchy funk ditty with a verse in 7/8. Smith plays a tasty odd-time groove with ghost notes, drags, and strong snare accents on J and the & of 6. The time signature changes to 4/4 leading into the chorus so all the crashes fall on the & of 4. For this section Smith uses open hi hats on the &’s to lift the groove and keep everything funky.

 

FLEA: MARATHON MAN

“I didn’t think that I would want to continue the band without John.” admits Flea on guitarist Frusciante’s departure. “But after he left and some time went by, I felt a very profound love for the band for a variety of reasons, and felt like it was time to get together and do it.”

In a way, Frusciante’s departure forced the Chili Peppers to get away from it all and enjoy the kind of liberation sudden change brings. Flea, rock’s consummate bassist and RHCP founding bandmember, got outside himself and into several new things during the hiatus. He traveled to Africa to discover different music, enrolled at USC to understand where it all comes from, and trained his body and soul to complete his first marathon (he broke the four-hour mark by several minutes earlier this year).

That kind of endurance helped in the studio, where Flea drew from his studies of Bach and musical theory to introduce piano to the Chili Peppers sound.”I wanted to always be exploring new ways of expression, and I hope to only increase my appetite for music and keep my curiosity vibrant. Because music is such an infinite thing.” he says.

Flea ran the marathon to help support the Silverlake Conservatory Of Music, which he cofounded in 2001. His dedication to the art mirrors Chad Smith’s passion for teaching and coaching musicians. “His attitude has always been one of wanting to lift youngsters up and to empower them with abilities that could aid them in their lives,” Flea says of Smith.

“The one thing that he has that no one else has is this brutal power,” he laughs. “I mean, he’s just a big guy with these long arms and he hits ’em so hard. It’s just a mountain of a groove. It’s so solid. It’s a mighty oak whose roots extend into the earth. And though Chad has the ability and the chops to do anything he wants — he could be all over the place — he plays a very supportive role in our band. He really lays the bed for us to frolic around on. “His role is so crucial, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it.” —P.F.

Leave a Reply