“I don’t know shit about bass, but I’ll talk to you anyway.”
Stripped to the waist, trademark tattoos proudly displayed, the leader of the jack-hammer slap-and-pop posse speaks from the doorway of his Hollywood Hills home. A familiar face (and torso) to MTV and TV-commercial viewers, Flea is a trend setter and a thrash-funk icon—one whose thumb has been infectiously influential on many young bassists. And he’s still gaining visibility, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers burn through the charts with their new album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which show-cases some of Flea’s best work in the band’s ten-year history.
So if he doesn’t know shit about bass, how in the world did he get here? “I basically do what I do, and I pay no heed to what other people do,” Flea responds. “I can’t express things in technical terms. There was a time when I needed some cash, so I decided to give bass lessons. People came over and when they sat down to play, I realized I didn’t know what to say! All I could tell them was to go for it—get inside the instrument and do what you do as hard as you can.” Flea has a deep spiritual commitment to his instrument and to music as a whole, much of which came from his punk roots. “Most of my influences have been emotional, not technical. As a result, I try to apply all of my spiritual and physical energy to the music and believe in if.”
That conviction has been a big part of the Chili Peppers sound, which has evolved along with the band’s shifting personnel. Blood Sugar Sex Magik captures the crystallization of a solid lineup: Flea, guitarist John Frusciante, drummer Chad Smith, and vocalist Anthony Kiedis. This incarnation has been together since the 1989 album Mother’s Milk; before that, two drummers and two guitarists had come and gone. The new album also represents a stylistic evolution though the thrust of the Chili Peppers music is still pelvic, it lacks the balls-in-a-blender jock-rock frenzy of their previous efforts. Instead, funk—which has been a seed in the Chili Pepper pod all along—has become the main ingredient in the band’s genre-spanning mix. Flea no longer plays a million notes a second, but his playing is heavier and deeper and richer than before.
Few wouldn’t agree that Flea’s playing is inspiring, but to appreciate him fully, it helps to hear his rap: where he’s mining from, where he’s at, and where he’s going.
My playing has always been very physical: a constant whackeda- whackeda -whack. I don’t do it to impress people; I just play what’s fun. Understand that my roots are in punk, which was all about playing hard, fast, and loud. As the Chili Peppers got more and more funky, it was a natural evolution: the energy of punk translated into the music we felt like writing.
Dynamics are important in music, and everything else—that tension and release. I think we’re releasing tension on this album. I used to play too many darn notes, and there was no room for them to breathe; it’s nice to relax and play some simple things that are really beautiful. Our producer, Rick Rubin, encouraged me to play simply, and the more I did it, the more liked it. Part of it was the sound I got this time; on previous albums, I didn’t have a nice, big tone that sounded good with simple parts. Another big factor was that we toured so hard after the last record, and every night I was up there jumping around, sweating my ass off, playing as hard as I could, beating the shit out of my bass. When I got home, I was tired, and I wanted to relax. We started playing again a few months later, and it felt good to play simple bass lines. It’s important to remember that anyone who has good technique, with just one note, imply a billion more. Louis Armstrong never needed to play fast.
I don’t know if my playing is more mature now or not; it’s hard to keep it in perspective. I guess your playing is mature if you try to play just what’s good for the song, and that’s what I did on Blood Sugar. I didn’t play one note on this album to prove I was Mr. Bitchin’ Bass Player. I’m sure there will be a time when I’ll want to be a big bassopotomous again, but right now, I just want to be part of the band and make it happen correctly.
It Came From Jodie Foster
We wrote the tunes in a rehearsal studio in the San Fernando Valley during the four or five months before we went in to record. When we were writing, and also when we were recording, I made a conscious effort to listen to the other parts very carefully. The songs are all simple, but it’s the intangibles that make them happen: the things that make musicians musicians, like paying attention and getting inside the groove. While we were making the album, I was listening to Neil Young’s Harvest [Reprise], Tim Drummond’s bass parts are just the simplest things in the world—the root, period, on the one. It appealed to me, and I tried to sound like that on “I Could Have Lied.” It’s cool to find beauty and depth in simplicity. Don’t get me wrong—I love players such as Jaco, but the simple stuff is what I was listening to when we did this record.
I write a lot of music on my 4-track at home. I came up with the core riffs on “If You Have to Ask,” “Suck My Kiss, “Mellowship, Slinky,” “The Righteous & the Wicked,” “Give It Away,” “Naked in the Rain,” and “Apache Rose Peacock.” For “Give It Away,” I had written something and told the guys, “Aah, it’s just another bass line—I don’t really like it.” But they said, “No, no, it’s really good—we gotta do it.” It ended up being the album’s first single. I came up with the “Mellowship Slinky” groove one night while I was sitting around feeling pretty good; I wanted to write something light and airy and spacious, with that jumpy, swinging James Brown feel. Another time, I was watching the movie Taxi Driver, a 5string was sitting on my lap, and I was just hitting the strings—not even listening to what I was doing. A commercial came on, and I realized I had written an entree song—all the parts for “The Righteous & the Wicked”—without even thinking about it. It was nutty—that song came from Jodie Foster.
We dedicated the album to Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE; we all admire him very much. [Ed. Note: Watt was profiled in the Summer ’90 issue.] He’s amazing—innovative, beautiful, melodic, and hardcore, all at the same time. His work on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime [SST] is phenomenal; he manages to be very busy and complicated without screwing up the song, but he can also play the simplest thing in the world and imply that he can play anything. He’s one of the greatest bass players ever.
Blowing Sucking Hitting Plucking
I was born October 16, 1962, in Melbourne. Australia. I moved to New York when I was four years old. My mom was married to this guy, my dad, they got divorced a few years later, and my mom married Walter Urban, a jazz bassist into hardcore bebop. There were jam sessions at the house all the time, and the people would play music that just blew my mind. As a kid having no preconceptions about music, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever experienced. These guys would pick up these things and start blowing and sucking and hitting and plucking, and it made me so happy I’d roll around on the floor laughing.
That was the first time I felt the real beauty of music. I’d been exposed to music before, but I never got into it; it was just there, and I was into playing ball and stuff. I had never actually seen people play. When I was 11, Walter got me to start learning the trumpet, and I played all through junior high school and high school in the jam bands and orchestras. I also played in the L.A. Junior Philharmonic and the LACC Jazz Band.
Fear & Frying
In high school, I met Hillel Slovak. He had a band, and he asked me if I was interested in playing bass. I had never played bass before, but I went out and bought a Fender Mustang and played my first gig after only two weeks—three sets! Hillel also got me into rock music. Before I met him, I was listening to Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, and other trumpet players. Hillel introduced me to Zeppelin, Rush, and Hendrix—the Hendrix really got me. Then I got into the Bill Bruford Band with Allan Holdsworth and Jeff Berlin, the Dixie Dregs, and other fusion stuff. I was in Hillel’s band, What Is This, for a few years. By 1982, I had shaved my head and gotten into taking acid and acting wacky and crazy, and the next thing you know I had quit Hillel’s band and joined the punk band Fear. It was a complete turn—all of a sudden I was playing bare-bones, raw-energy punk rock.
The musicians in Fear were great. The drummer, Spit Stix, was a big influence on my musicianship. I had never warmed up before I played; he taught me how to get my blood going before a show, how to be physical, and how to push the music. I really enjoyed being in Fear. But after a while, I di-covered that what I was listening to was different from what they were into; they wanted the band to go in a metal direction, and I liked the funky feel. It became more and more obvious I wasn’t going to have the freedom to be creative. Hillel and Anthony and I were living together at that time, and a friend of ours needed an opening act, so we put a band together without rehearsing. We were billed as Tony Flow & the Miraculously Majestic Masters Of Mayhem. When we got onstage, I started some funk-bass thing, Anthony read a poem, and we just played. At the next show, we were the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The band was starting to happen and I wanted to leave Fear, but I didn’t have the guts to quit. I was sitting there trying to get up the nerve to call, and just as I reached for the phone, it rang. “Hi, Flea, you’re fired.” It was great! From then on, it was just the Chili Peppers for me. Things went pretty well: we were together for only a few months and people were trying to give us record deals. Now, we’ve put out five albums, and we all have houses and cars and shit.
Learning To Play Wrong
I never played along with records; I learned by jamming with people. To this day, I’m not one of those guys who knows every Rolling Stones song; I don’t know anyone else’s songs, except those we cover.
I took one lesson when I started playing bass. I was having a great time with the instrument, banging it and hitting it with a cup and everything; I walked into the lesson, and the guy said, “I want you to learn this music.” It was “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. I said, “Fuck this—no way!” So I never went back.
In high school, I saw some guy slapping on a bass, and I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.” So I started doing it. When I got into punk, the way I slapped wasn’t really funky; it was more like WHUM—BACKA—BACKA—BACKA! as hard as I could, just abusing the bass. I was really into the punk ethic: Play every note like it’s your last! You could be dead tomorrow! Play for today! And when you perform, give every ounce of energy you have. It’s not because you’re better than anyone else—it’s just what you have to do. You do it because you mean it: you’re pissed, because things are twisted. And that’s beautiful—the punk thing is so honest and sincere. Even though the music and the genre were finished a long time ago, the intensity is still important to me. I don’t think of soft songs or slow songs as less intense; a pretty song can be just as intense as a hard, thrashing song.
Going on my own really helped as far as developing my style. My biggest strength as a musician is that I sound like myself, not anybody else. I think the main point of music is expression, not trying to sound like other people. Being self-taught has its drawbacks, though: I can sight-read classical trumpet music really well, but I can’t read a note of bass music. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the clef—I never figured out the clef thing! That bass teacher I had wanted me to play along with chords, which is something I’ve never done; I’ve never learned to flow through chord changes. When I played in bands, I just played—I’d find something that sounded cool and play it. That’s all I’ve ever done. These days, I might ask John what chords he’s playing—not because I know anything about chords, but because I know where a C is on the bass. I do know a little bit.
I’m sure I play all wrong, even though I can get around okay. For instance, I don’t consciously try to use one finger per fret. Usually, I don’t use my left-hand pinkie, so I’ve been doing some exercises that put it to use. I pluck with my first two right-hand fingers, mostly alternating. I played with a pick when I was in Fear; they told me I had to play all downstrokes. Now, I never use a pick, except for once in a while in the studio when we’re going for a certain sound, but that’s rare. As far as economy of movement is concerned, I don’t have that down at all. When I slap, I slam the strings as hard as I can with my thumb, I use only my middle finger—never my index or ring fingers—to pop. If the part is very intricate, I use mostly wrist motion, but usually it involves the whole arm. I’ve seen people slap and hardly move their hand at all, but anyone who’s ever seen one of our shows knows that’s not me! I believe if I get my whole body into it, I can play better.
The Good, The Bad & The Blond
People get on us because we make money. In an interview a while ago, I was talking about how important music is to me and that art is all that matters. The interview. said, “Well, what about all that money you get?” My response to people like that is: So? What do you want us to do—turn it down? It’s ridiculous. I’ll take all the money I can get, and I won’t feel guilty about it at all.
The music business is just like any other business: it’s about buying and selling things. There are a lot of slimy people in. the industry, and most of them don’t want to take risks. They want to keep their jobs and expense accounts, so they promote bands that have no creativity whatsoever—bands that fit into the latest trendy pop format. It’s disgusting. There are a few people in the record industry who really care about music, but they’re rare. Obviously, the independent labels are more willing to take risks, they go for creativity and realness, not what will make them a lot of money.
Most pop music today is awful! Fortunately, ever since someone tried to rip off my car stereo, the only thing I can get is a college station. But I’ve been watching music videos lately, and I’ve seen some really sickening things. The ugliness of the images and the sounds! I don’t want to mention names, but these metal groups of guys with straight, long blond hair—there are about seven or eight of them—all sound exactly the same. It’s the most unemotional, formulaic stuff in the world. Why do they bother? Do they even play instruments, or are they just poster children for bad music? One thing’s for sure: You don’t get paid for being a musician—you get paid for being a rock star.
Of course, there’s good stuff out there, too. I love Fugazi, Janes Addiction, the Butt-hole Surfers, Nirvana, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube. Especially Fugazi—you’ve got to respect a band with that much integrity They make it as easy and cheap as possible for people to hear and see them. We want to make money and be comfortable, but they’re into being thoroughly righteous and compassionate down to the marrow. I ‘just read this Tom Robbins book, Jitterbug Perfume, and there’s a cool character who has bees living in his head; he gets killed by a police officer, and for weeks the bees terrorize the police. I was thinking that if something happened to [Fugazi’s] Ian MacKaye, all of nature should rise up against the evil forces that oppose him. But the world is so tucked up that won’t happen.
Another guy I like is Les Claypool of Primus. [Ed. Note: Claypool was profiled in the Fall ’90 issue.] He has a 6-string fretless tremolo bass that spins around and explodes and does all these crazy things. And he plays a lot of notes. Some people com-pare him and me, but I think that’s ridiculous. Les plays lead bass—bass is the featured instrument, and the rest of the band supports it. In the Chili Peppers, my parts are important, but they’re not lead bass. Even the busiest, fanciest stuff I do is all about playing the bottom and being part of the rhythm section. I always wanted to be just a bass player. I’m not interested in setting rules or anything; that’s just how I like to play. What Les does is completely different, but it’s great in its own way. It’s not that one style is cooler than the other—it’s just a different trip.
Touch-Tone Phone Sex
I used to really, really hate drum machines, and I still despise them on the whole. It’s very unhealthy for technology to take the place of human emotion. People often use drum machines and sequencers because of a lack of creativity—they can just plug them in, press buttons, and get “music.” But these days, I’m a lot more open to machines, having heard people such as [Public Enemy producer] Hank Shocklee use drum machines and sequencers creatively.
Real instruments and computers are in totally different worlds. Would you rather have phone sex or real sex with a beautiful girl you love? But then again, I think the majority of pop music is bullshit. A lot of rock and metal bands sound sequenced—they re-cycle stuff and put it into specific formats. As long as people treat music as a formula or program, it’s an uncreative, unhealthy, sad state of affairs.
I don’t usually play a 5-string; I prefer a regular old bass. I’ve been playing fretless off and on for a few years, but I’ve never played one onstage—I always transfer the parts over to fretted. My favorite basses are Music Mans, though the necks tend to warp on me. On Blood Sugar, I played a Wal 4-string, but I don’t like the look of it. Paul McCartney uses one, and he’s a moron, a marshmallow head. What is he doing? He made such great music before. I don’t even know what kind of music he makes now, but he looks so silly. And if you play music that’s good, you can’t look silly. So on this tour, I’m playing a Music Man 4, a Music Man 5, and when I need a bass that’s tuned down a step, a Wal; the Wal sounds great in the studio, but I’m not sure it’s the best live bass in the world. My strings are GHS Boomers, medium gauge.
used a Mu-Tron [envelope follower] on the album, but I can’t get it to work right onstage. I can get a good sound out of it, but as soon as I step on the pedal to turn it off, it doesn’t come back to a normal sound. So I’m using a Boss envelope follower, though it doesn’t have the unique, special sound of the Mu-Tron. My amps and cabinets are all by Gallien-Krueger. [See signal chain, page 46.]
I’m not into equipment that much; basically, my road crew tells me people want to give me stuff that’ll sound great and be really loud, and I say okay. I must be a real rock star—I can’t even reach the knobs on my amps! I have to hire a tall guy just to adjust my treble knob!
We’re not sure what the Chili Peppers will do next. We never approach any project with plans or preconceptions; we just do what we do. As for myself, I’d love one day to do soundtracks for films; I’m very interested in that. I’d also love to play more with other musicians. In the ’60s, everybody jammed with everyone else—whoever was around—and people learned from each other. There was communication and a sense of community among musicians. People don’t jam like that anymore, but they should.
My goals are to continue learning and to keep a fresh attitude toward music; I hope to continue exploring new things and getting better at what I do. In ten years, I want to still enjoy playing. If I can still have a blast playing music, then I’ll have accomplished what I wanted.
The Chili Peppers’ latest album has so many cool bass lines, it was tough picking only a few musical examples. These excerpts from Blood Sugar Sex Magik will have to do. The location of each segment is given in minutes and seconds into the song; if you have a CD player, you can cue up the selections quickly and accurately.
Ex. 1 is from “Naked in the Rain” (1:18-1:27); it recalls Flea’s playing on earlier Chili Pepper albums, with a lot of muscular thumbstyle riffs. “That’s the busiest song on the whole record,” Flea notes, “and it’s still simple. When I wrote the line, I wanted to go below E, but I didn’t have a 5-string around—so I tuned each string down a step. I like that loose, sloppy sound; I used the same tuning on another Blood Sugar tune, ‘If You Have To Ask.” Another notable feature of “Naked in the Rain” is the reckless bass solo—Flea’s first on an album. “I basically went wheeeee! up the strings, and that was it,” he remembers.
Ex. 2, from “Apache Rose Peacock” (1:12-1:23), is a heavy groove that reflects Flea’s newi direction. “I was going for a Meters sound,” he says, acknowledging the influence of the great New Orleans bassist George Porter Jr. Note the extensive use of offbeats, slides, and ghost notes, which push the tune along. The descending chromatic fill in bar 4 works back smoothly to D, which holds into the following measure.
A section of the outro from “Funky Monks” (4:35-4:46) is shown in Ex. 3. The key is B minor, but Flea uses the Dorian mode—a very common choice for funk—which explains the G#s. In bar 2, note the interweaving of open Ds and a chromatic walk-up, a classic James Jamerson technique. Also interesting are the rolling chromatic triplets in bar 5: they’re the same chromatics as those in bar 2, only in a denser texture. The midrangey bass tone in this section is distinctly different from that in the rest of the song. “It sounds a little like a tuba,” Flea points out. “The outro was one of the few overdubs I did on the album. I recorded it a few weeks afterwards; I used the same Music Man 5-string, but the controls were set completely different. It’s not that I wasn’t happy with the performance; I just thought the part called for a different sound.”
“Sir Psycho Sexy” yields Ex. 4 (1:02-1:14). The influence of P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins rears its funky head all over this song. “I used an old Mu-tron on that one,” recalls Flea. “Its power was running out when we were recording, and I laid down a track while someone was out getting a new battery. But we couldn’t get the Mu-Tron to sound as cool with a fresh battery, so we ended up keeping the track.” Of note here are the funky rests on the four of bars 1 and 2 and the Jamersonesque string-crosses in bar 4. If you can’t get into this tune, have Bootsy take you out for fried chicken—you’ll be funked up in no time!