Thank you to Kathie Davis for the transcript.
MAY THE SAUCE BE WITH YOU
THEY ONCE PROMISED THAT WHEN THEY WERE FAMOUS THEY WOULD FLY EVERYWHERE IN A PENIS-SHAPED JET. SO SURELY THIS MUST BE THE PHALLIC YEAR FOR AMERICA’S ROCK BAND OF THE MOMENT.
INTERVIEW BY CHARLES M YOUNG
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Ask Flea, the Red Chili Pepper’s bass player, for his theory on the band’s recent rise to international superstardom and he just smiles and says ‘it’s obvious – it’s ‘cause Anthony’s so handsome”. Mr. Kiedis himself, however, just laughs: “The definition of success varies from person to person. I’ve felt successful from the first day we ever played. For me success was just being happy doing what you’re doing. Making a living at it was incidental. As for mainstream popularity, we’ve been working at it for 10 years now and it can take time for the general population to warm up to a concept that isn’t made readily obvious by the media. It was a combination of laying down this foundation and the fact that we made a great record. Anyway, I’m awful at analyzing why things happen in the music business. I just get on the boat and go.”
To their fans, the Chili Peppers have always been simply the greatest live rock band on earth – “KC & The Sunshine Band on Angel Dust,” gasped the hip scene-character LA Weekly way back in 1984. But although those fans included everyone from the LA Lakers and Public Enemy to Aerosmith and Mick Jagger, the group’s uncompromising style meant that it would take a while for the mainstream to catch on. After witnessing their fist live shows, the LA Herald Examiner, in sarcastic, pompous-news-paper-of-repute style concluded, with prophetic irony: “These guys should go far. And with any luck, they’ll do it soon.”
The Peppers had to lay a hell of a lot of track before their train finally pulled into the station at Successville, USA. But when it arrived it did so in style, and last year their public profile and record sales finally caught up with their critical acclaim. The year kicked off with a New Year’s Eve gig at San Francisco’s Cow Palace headlining over Nirvana and Pearl Jam, then saw them sell a deca-zillion units, headline the record-breaking Lollapalooza tour and go home with a bundle of industry awards. They were photographed by Bruce Weber, filmed by My Own Private Idaho’s Gus Van Sant, appeared in a What is Cool? TV ad for Nike and were unanimously declared the godfathers of the year’s biggest musical story, grunge, or (as Americans idiotically called it) “alternative rock”.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik, arguably their finest and most accessible album to date, was one reason the Chili Peppers finally connected with a mainstream audience in 1992. Give It Away was the first hit single (and video) from the album, but the song that sent them into the stratosphere was the ballad (and video) Under the Bridge. In it Kiedis (second from left in picture) sings about his former heroin habit and how it changed his ideas about what’s truly important in life. “Yeah, I’m still sober,” he says, for years after kicking the habit. “It makes life a much less miserable cruise for me. The public may think ‘here’s this magical freaky music guy on heroin; I wish I could lead a life like that’. But when you’re an addict, you just wish you didn’t have to carry that ball-and-chain of chemicals everywhere you go. It’s incredibly unpleasant. When I was with the band and using, it was during the brief periods of sobriety that I was at my most creative. There were occasions when I wrote songs fucked up, but mostly those ideas went down a dead-end street. It’s easier for me to be productive now. Instead of bumming everyone by doing shows with a hangover, I concentrate on maintaining a healthy mind/body/spirit balance. I would never take away the experiences of my past, but I wouldn’t want to trade anything I have now for what I had.
The Peppers are a complex, unpredictable bunch, but their appeal is anything but hard to fathom. They alloy a louder guitar noise to tighter, funkier rhythms delivered with more energy than anyone else. They’re intense as fuck, but they have a sense of humour, blending right-on politics with irreverently non-politically correct lasciviousness. They love Mother Earth and all mankind, but you won’t find them stoned in the chill-out room clutching their crystals: they rage and stomp and party with the best of them. And in this age of sexual fear and loathing they sell positivism without being pious, they celebrate sex and funky good times. This, after all, is a band whose frontman, Anthony Kiedis, is nicknamed Antwan the Swan after the swan-necked shape of his penis. But while he confesses a fascination with sex, Kiedis denounces critics who call the band gratuitously sex-obsessed. “I inherited my interests from my father,” he says. “He was your basic, subversive, underground, hooligan, playboy womanizer type of character and he definitely had a strong influence on me.” Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Kiedis was 11 when he settled in Hollywood with his father, and admits that his upbringing was “anarchy on a plate” when it come to formal schooling and women. “My father had a constant turnover of girlfriends,” Kiedis recalls. “It wasn’t that he was this cold-hearted user of people. He just had this insatiable desire to meet all of the beautiful girls in the world. That was great because I got to develop this early self-confidence with women.
“Fortunately I had enough of my mother’s genuineness in me,” he continues. “At a pretty early age I fell in love with a girl and stayed with her for three years. So it wasn’t like I was destined to do the same thing as my father. At the time, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world to have all those women come into my house and not have to be uptight about me hanging out and having sex with them. You can believe that my friends were rather impressed with the situation.”
The Peppers’ psychedelic punk-funk stew has influenced everyone from Faith No More to The Spin Doctors, but it has been their integrity and fuck-you attitude that has most impressed a lot of fans. They care only – and passionately – about their own musical vision and, in the mid-80s, were happy to remain a cult band rather than conform to the demands of mainstream rock’s most commercialized, sterile era. Flea turned down John Lydon’s offer of a bass job with PIL (before they became a circus) to form the band, and they later rejected Malcolm McLaren’s offer to produce them, confident that their own view of things would one day make sense to the rest of the world.
But through the Peppers’ musical blueprint didn’t always fit record company and radio station formats – they were neither Black Flag nor Funkadelic – they worked on it with a tastefulness totally out of keeping with their wild ‘n’ crazy image. Gwen Dickey, the deee-georgeous leaderence of 70s Rose Royce, sang backing vocals on their first album, James Brown’s horn section accompanied them at early live shows and the producers they hired were all pioneering giants in their respective fields of musical genre-mutation: Andy Gill (Gang of Four), George Clinton, Michael Beinhorn (Material) and Rick Rubin.
We’ve tighter than a hemorrhoid on a mosquito’s ass,” Anthony recently announced, casually letting slip the kind of juicy sound-bite that makes the media so fond of this bizarre beat combo. But the amazing thing is that the group’s playing has remained so irresistibly tight despite many personnel changes. Of the three musicians – guitarist Hillel Slovak, drummer Jack Irons and bassist Michael Balzary (Flea) who approached Anthony Kiedis at Fairfax High School – the first two had already quit before the first Peppers album was recorded, Hillel rejoining for the second and Jack for the third. When Hilled died of an accidental overdose, Jack left the band as a way of dealing with it.
The group went multiracial, playing a Californication mini-tour with Dead Kennedys drummer Don Peligro and Funkadelic guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight, but that didn’t work out, and they started breaking in newcomers Chad Smith and John Frusciante. Then, two albums later, at the peak of their success, when they just seemed to have bonded into a new family, Frusciante quit during a Japanese tour, leaving them only a few weeks in which to instill eight years’ worth of material into new guitarist Arik Marshall before headlining over Ministry, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Ice Cube and the Jesus and Mary Chain on the Lollapalooza tour. But for some reason, losing seemingly irreplaceable players never slowed the momentum of the Peppers’ relentless rise to power. “I had an amazing time at Lollapalooza,” Kiedis says. “It was great breaking in Arik Marshall under such strange circumstances. He’s been in the band for about a week when we started playing in front of 15,000to 30,000 people a night. I feel blessed that it went as well as it did, that I got to hand out with all those great people on a daily basis.”
Flea doesn’t remember the experience so fondly. He thought the audience looked like the sort of people who tormented him in high school. “I didn’t get picked on in high school,” laughs Kiedis, “so I wouldn’t really know about that. Also, I’m extremely nearsighted so when I look out at an audience, all I see is a big blob. As for the audience itself, you’ll find interesting, creative, intelligent, artistic people wherever you go and you’ll find slews of moronic, mindless sheep who get all their information from television. That balance exists all over the world. If people at a show are searching for enlightenment – or even if they aren’t – I feel compelled to give them the most beautiful aspects of my musical spirit when we’re in the same proximity. I’m not going to judge them.”
Flea is the only member of the band who has stayed the course and remained by Kiedis’ side since the inception of the band. “In high school I saw this really smart, creative, adventurous person who needed a partner in crime. He was a freak and I was a freak and we decided to be freak together. Our friendship had been deeper than everything else surrounding this band. We’ve been the only consistent members from the beginning and we’ve ended up in this perfect situation to express ourselves. I have the freedom to write my own lyrics, to see the world, to hang out with my friends, to affect the lives of other people in a positive way, and to rock. I can’t imagine a situation more desirable for me.”
The Chili Peppers have long been what Kiedis terms “emotionally and financially wealthy”. Their dedication to the strenuous but lucrative American live circuit meant that, on their way back to LA from Europe in 1988, they commanded more money for one stopover show in New York than they’d make on their entire European tour. And the same year they had to reconcile their punk sensibilities to the fact that they could all afford houses of their own. These days, however, they’re in totally different league. The cult days of endorsing skateboards and being voted best band in surfer magazine polls are over.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers enter 1993 as the globally renowned mothers of all “alternative rock” bands. Their fame and figurehead status bring a weight of expectations and responsibilities, but the Peppers never gave an inch to get success, so they’re unlikely to let it affect any new moves they make. One plan is for Kiedis and Flea to sit down together and write a movie script, a “psychedelic comedy” based on their experiences in the band (several studios have expressed an interest). Whatever happens, though, there should be a surprise in store for international air travel in 1993. Unless, that is, the Peppers renege a promise Flea made way back when: “When we become big rock stars, we’re gonna fly everywhere in a penis-shaped jet.” Is that Dickey Branson on the other line already?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are currently recording their new album; Virgin Publish a biography of the group on 20 May.