The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Surging Blood Sugar Level
By Johnny Angel
They are as archetypically LA as Kareem hook shot, a Koufax curve, a stall on the Santa Monica freeway, a “sig” alert, an earthquake, a fad diet, a New Age healing process, siliconed bazooms, and lipo-suctioned backsides. They are the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Spending an afternoon with these legendary yaboos could have sent a scribe racing for the asylum not all that long ago. It’s probably a bit of an understatement to say that their reputation as crazies, capable of anything, precedes them. But this time around, hanging out with the quartet in the offices of a photographer friend is a leisurely way to pass a few hours, talking music and sociology, while revelling in the company of newly mellowed (or on their best behavior…who knows?) former maniacs.
It may seem a bit redundant to describe the spectacle that is this seminal band to any California resident; the band has been packing West Coast clubs and halls for almost eight years now. But, in the words of Carly Simon, nobody does it better. By combining the ferocity of hardcore/skate/speed metal with the unlikely sinew of classic George Clinton and Jimi Hendrix, the Red Hot Chili Peppers created a unique marriage – a bond, it should be noted, that has failed for many of their contemporaries. Eschewing the traditional bassist-as-timekeeper in favor of bassist-as-primary-instrumentalist, and then completing their calling card by adding a wildly flailing drummer pounding out classic funk beats at punk velocity, the Peppers formed a brand new beast, one that was always decked out in bizarre, post-hippie regalia…that is, when it’s even dressed at all. If this brew hasn’t always been captured successfully on tape in the past, a lot of it may have been the age-old “great live/ can’t get it in the studio” dilemma that’s been the downfall of many an electrifying band throughout rock history. But this time around, with a newly found emphasis on the recording process, courtesy of Rick Rubin – the man originally behind the Beastie Boys and Danzig, Public Enemy and Def American, and Run-D.M.C. meeting Aerosmith – the band just may finally change all that.
We’ve gathered to discuss Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the Peppers’ debut Warner Bros. LP, which hits the stores the third week of September, and which will be followed by a worldwide jaunt to sell it to the masses. Decked out in their customary threads – best described as “Southern California minimalist” (and which is rapidly reaching Southern California chic status – shorts, baseball caps, combat boots, etc.) – and hopping around to the booming strains of some old King Crimson, the Peppers seem thrilled as can be at the prospect of once again launching their singular, anarchic blend on an international public. Their last tour and album took the Peppers to heights that many a cynic thought they’d never reach; this time threatens to turn them into rock superstars.
And why not? Coming on the heels of Mother’s Milk, their first gold record, momentum is on their side. Not to mention a sense of liberation, thanks to a split with EMI, their previous label, with which they had a decidedly adversarial relationship toward the end. That split, of course, was followed by a huge bidding war between the major labels. It looked as though the band would end up with Sony, which offered millions…but Warners eventually upped the ante considerably. The Peppers should also be somewhat delighted by the vindication that comes from seeing nearly every garage band in America currently coming alive with a Chili-derived sound.
“Every interviewer asks what I think of all of the copycats,” says lead singer Anthony Kiedis. “I’ve finally gotten too tired to respond to it. After all, I can’t control what other people do. Let them imitate us if they like.” Bassist Flea agrees. “It’s flattering, really,” admits the man who does have a last name (Balzary). “If the imitation comes out of inspiration, how bad can it be?” Drummer Chad Smith, however, is a bit vexed by all the “inaccurate” comparisons. “I read an article that said Faith No More and Extreme are like us,” he complains, “just because of the funky bass playing and crazy lead singers. But they don’t sound like us. We didn’t corner the market on that shit at all.” And guitarist John Frusciante – who never removes his battered Strat during the interview, not even when we venture down the road to eat lunch at a small Thai restaurant (that’s either dedication or mania) – thinks “so many of those people miss the point with us. They copy the thumb-slapping or the silly faces, but they miss the essence of what we really are.” Which is? “We’re just trying to create the most powerful music in the world. That’s all.”
Even though I recently coined a phrase in the LA Weekly, and crowned these clowns the unwitting fathers of the so-called “Asshole Rock” movement, I can forgive ’em. I mean, they didn’t plan to have every frat kid with a hyperactive thumb ’n’ thyroid ape their image and sound. This is, after all, a band whose first gig consisted of one song, “Out in LA,” written on the night of the gig. Besides, the new album should move these guys even further away from the clan of imitators. “The showing-off by each of us on our instruments as individuals is over,” explains Smith. “With Rick behind the boards, we decided to approach these songs as songs, rather than as showcases for ourselves as players. We’re a lot more into one groove on this record.”
Indeed, a new, peace-loving, Pepper mindset is all over Blood Sugar Sex Magik. In fact, even though the band has used acoustic guitars in the past, and has, on occasion, added a quite ballad to the normal frenzied mayhem this group so loves to generate, never has the entire mood of one of its albums seemed this somber. They have to think about that one. “Perhaps it was the house where we recorded the record,” offers Flea. “We literally moved into this abandoned mansion in the Hollywood hills one week before we started recording, and didn’t really leave until we were done. Rick Rubin had built a little studio in the house, and we just lived there and worked, among the ghosts.”
Among the what? “The ghosts.” It seems that even elite Hollywood has haunted mansions. In fact, during a recent photo session shot at the said house, an image showed up in some of the frames that the photographer can’t explain, and which can only be linked to spiritual phenomena. The image was most evident in the photos shot on an outside bridge where the ghosts presence always seemed the strongest. “I heard the sound of what must have been the lady who used to live there, moaning, for about four seconds or so, like she was getting f-ed or something,” says Frusciante. “It was totally amazing!”
Twenty-seven songs were cut for the new project, and then the weeding-out process began. In addition to the original material, the band cut a few covers, including several by the legendary guitarist who initially fused hard rock and funk together back in the ‘60s, and whose material the Peppers have covered in the past. “We did do a couple of Hendrix covers for this one, but they didn’t make it onto the record,” says the Peppers’ own semi-legendary guitarist, “‘Castles Made of Sand’ and ‘Little Miss Lover.’ They were good, but not so exceptional as you’d want them on a record.” In other words, they were a little too faithful to the originals, and not thoroughly Pepper-ized. Also missing from the American version of Blood Sugar Sex Magik is a torrid rendering of the Iggy & the Stooges anthem, “Search and Destroy” – which, for some reason, will make it onto the British vinyl version of the record.
Working with a legendary eccentric like Rubin might have seemed like a match made in rock ’n’ roll heaven for this particular band, but the Peppers weren’t all that sure during the initial stages of the project. Says Kiedis: “At first, I thought [hesitantly] ‘Wow, Rick Rubin. I don’t know. He’s into all of these negative bands like Slayer and Danzig. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have always been totally into positive energy. It’ll never work.’ But then you get to know the guy, and you see how cool he really is. Rick has this real sense of identification with all of the red-necked, white trash of America, and he wants to be totally tapped into giving those kids something to work out their ya-yas with. He really is a great person.” And not at all the way a lot of people might believe him to be. “One day, he came over to my house to see what the lyrics for the album were going to be like,” continues the singer. “He saw the lyrics to this really sad thing I’d written called “Under the Bridge.” It was something I didn’t want his to see. It was sort of sensitive, and I thought he’d hate it. But when he read those words, he demanded that I sing it to him – and it knocked him out. I didn’t even want the bandit hear this song, but when they did, they were floored by it. As a result, it ended up on the record. So Rick Rubin’s not as one-dimensional as you might think.”
Considering Rubin’s “satanic” reputation, however, it was somewhat fitting that the team should decide to cap off the album with a cover version of Robert Johnson’s classic “Red Hot.” The track also displayed the fun-loving side of the so-called devil’s producer, since he had the group record it outside, campfire-style. “When we were doing the playbacks for it,” continues Kiedis, “Rick kept saying, “Can you hear the cars go by?” This is so cool!”
Although he may be the first to successfully capture some of the Chili Peppers’ inspired sense of lunacy on disc, Rubin joins a famous plethora of previous Peppers producers, running a gamut from Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill (who helmed the band’s debut) to the band’s mentor and idol, George Clinton. “We thought Andy would be perfect for us, because Gang of Four’s first two albums were so fantastic,” says Flea. “But it was our first album, and we were totally naive about what a producer did. Instead of suggesting to Andy what we really wanted out of a guitar sound or a drum sound, we’d just walk into the control room while he was experimenting, and say things like ‘This sucks!’ We should have been asking, ‘Can’t we try something else?’ – but we didn’t know. He was a very tight Englishman on top of it, and so that mix didn’t work very well.
“For the second album, we went to Detroit to record with George Clinton at the same studio where all of the classic P-Funk work was cut. He was so intense! I mean, you’d be halfway through a take and all of a sudden George would start talking to you, coaching you through the headphones, and coaxing a good take out of you. If anybody but Clinton tried that, I’d be screaming ‘Shut the f-k up! I’m trying to play!!!’ But he could get away with it. George is one of the greatest geniuses and sweetest guys I’ve ever met.”
As for Michael Beinhorn, the guy who helped them cut their breakthrough disc…well, he may have been just a tad overboard. “He was totally gung-ho,” says Kiedis, “Right before we did Mother’s Milk, he gathered us around him, and he was pumping us up with a pep talk, like ‘This is gonna be the greatest record ever made – LET’S GO!’ We did the most painstaking takes ever for that record, and it was difficult. But in retrospect, we got really good tracks out of it, even if Michael seemed to be very anal-retentive!”
Another thing that helps the new album is that the Peppers’ current lineup has apparently solidified since they cut Mother’s Milk. Original guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a drug overdose a few years back, not long before they began recording that album, and drummer Jack Irons, quit shortly thereafter, too grief-stricken to continue. Up to that point, the original band has been together in one permutation or another since high school. As a result, no one on the outside was totally sure at the time whether they’d be able to continue. “It took literally hundreds of drummers to find the one we wanted,” says Flea. “We even had a different guitar and drum combo at one point that we never ended up recording with. But when we met John, he knew every song we did, and was totally perfect for the gig. Before we cut Mother’s Milk, we did a few short jaunts with the new lineup. But we never jelled to the point where we are now.” For his part, Frusciante recalls the first time he’d ever seen the band live. “They were playing downtown in the Variety Arts Centre. I’d heard their stuff before, so I knew what they sounded like. But after I saw them live, I thought, ‘Man, this is what I wanna do!’ I still can’t believe that I am actually doing it sometimes, y’know?”
In the past, the Peppers have been the subject of much controversy, which has even led to arrests, but they all claim that those days of mayhem and pillage are probably a thing of the past. “All of that kind of stuff is now confined solely to the stage,” says Flea. “We’ve been through the busts and the unnecessary controversy with nudity and assault and such, but talking about it and emphasizing it really detracts from people paying any attention to our music.” Despite the fact that the Peppers have often been labeled “critics’ darlings” (probably because they’ve sold lots of albums without radio play), their relationship with the media has always been touchy at best. “I don’t think those people really know what we’re about at all!” complains Frusciante. “Every time I read something about what we are, or what we’re supposed to be, it completely misses the point. We’re trying to tap into all of the good vibes in the universe, and yet all we ever see is ‘Cocks in socks.’ It’s ridiculous!”
Not that the band exactly does anything to downplay this image. It doesn’t help matters that a recent issue of Musician magazine devoted a large percentage of its letters section to complaints about a recent “Ask the Red Hot Chili Peppers” column, in which the band dished out advice a la Ann Landers. When asked about a constantly brawling baby, Flea had suggested that the advise-seeker “tie up the brat, and leave it in the closet.” Musician’s readers were outraged. “That was total bulls-t,” scoffs the bassist. “The interviewer from Musician came to our rehearsal space, and asked us to come up with the most outrageous answers we could think of to these innocuous. I would never, ever, even think of doing such a thing. I mean, I have a 4-year-old daughter myself, and would do anything I possibly could to insure my child’s happiness. I’m sorry if those people took what we said the wrong way, but I can’t see how any thinking person would take it seriously.” Kiedis snorts about the letters. “They can all go f-k themselves. Those people are idiots!”
Those people probably also aren’t likely to be part of the crowd when the Peppers kick off their world tour later this month, commencing with “a few cow towns,” claims Kiedis, “before hitting some real cities.” The prospecting opening acts at press time were Soundgarden and L7. “We originally wanted Ice Cube to do this tour,” says Kiedis, noting my visible grimace at the mention of Seattle slop-meisters Soundgarden, “but he was simply too expensive. Then we asked Lenny Kravitz” (does this mean the tour would have been called “Monsters of Melrose”?) “but he was also too pricey. Soundgarden are actually coming along nicely, and I hope L7 makes it onto the tour because those chicks really rock out, y’know?”
Which leads to a discussion of some of their favorite bands around town. The Chilis seem keenly aware of the happenings around LA, and are quick to hype their particular faves, which include Thelonious Monster (“They’re eventually gonna come out with something really unique,” says Kiedis, “though I don’t think even they know what that is yet”), Two Free Stooges, and Spinout – but their biggest praise is reserved for LA’s other huge left-of-center act, Jane’s Addiction. “They’re the greatest band on the planet at the moment,” says Flea. “They are to this generation what Led Zeppelin was to the one before.” The other Peppers concur. “Jane’s Addiction is at the very forefront of everything that’s important right now,” adds Smith.
The first dose of the new Peppers has already been unleashed on the public in the form of single No.1, “Give It Away,” and the accompanying black and white video, which features the band romping around the desert, clad in nothing but silver warpaint, not unlike a quartet of Marvel comic book characters. (“We haven’t seen the final edit yet,” says Smith, “but the footage is monstrous!”) The album is following right on the heels of the single, and then it’s time for the guys to hit that recession-heavy road. “We seem to have really loyal fans out there,” says Flea. “I know that a lot of the tours aren’t doing so well at the moment, but we’ll be playing at the right sized venues for us in any given town.” Says Frusciante: “I personally hope we continue doing smaller halls this time because I prefer them. It’s great when everyone is still in your face at these gigs, and not a million miles away from you.”
Despite the more groove-oriented material of the new album, Kiedis claims that that “in-your-face” attitude will always be present. “There will still be total madness live,” he says. “I’ve broken ribs, sprained my ankles and knees, and ruined my shoulders at gigs in the past. But it’s all for the cause, so I think it’s worth it. Trying to raise people to that orgasmic state is what we’re really all about, y’know? For me, the point of being onstage is to reach that sexual level where you are totally tuned into that happiness that you and your lover generate during sex. That’s where I’ll always be at.” Flea also promises much of the lunacy of the past, but is quick to point out: “We’re evolving. Why do the same thing year in and year out?”
Besides, that lunacy has sometimes gotten these guys into some pretty hot water in the past. “We were doing this festival in Finland – our final date after seven months of touring – and the Ramones were headlining,” reminisces Flea. “The Ramones were just starting their set, and during ‘Blitzkrieg Bop,’ we all came out onstage with them, stark naked, dancing and going wild. We were delirious…but they were furious! Johnny Ramone wouldn’t even look at us, and Dee Dee was just shaking his head, angrily. Afterwards, their manager was saying s-t like, ‘This is the most unprofessional thing I’ve ever seen in my life,’ and ‘You’ll never get away with this,’ when Joey Ramone piped in – with that weird low voice of his – and said “Actually, I thought it was rather amusing.’ I mean, we loved the Ramones, and that’s just how we showed our appreciation for what they were doing.”
So considering the Peppers’ newest slant, one can only wonder if all that pent-up energy might end up finding different routes for release. “Well, I am part of a celebrity basketball team that’s doing a game for charity at Loyola-Marymount soon,” says Flea. “One of my teammates – so I’ve been promised by my manager – is Magic Johnson. So for me to score a jump-shot off of a Magic feed…that would be the greatest thrill I’ve personally ever had!”
I mean, how much more archetypically LA can you get than that?”