As the world reels in disbelief over the OJ verdict, the battered and tarnished melting pot that is Los Angeles must surely be feeling the strain more than ever before. Racial tension, riots, drugs, earthquakes, the apparent death of justice in America… Oh yeah, welcome to the American Nightmare, qualified and quantified in the City of Angels more accurately than anywhere else.
There are ways of dealing with it though — most of them ultimately confrontational. Get rich or get mad. Get out or get even. Get busy or get beat. Everyone in LA is a product of the city, whether from Compton or Bel Air and, reading very much between the governmental lines, there is a war raging between those in the hills and those below. But it’s a war with very clear territorial borders and no particular desire to invade on either side — just the historic and perverse urge to suppress on one, and the desperate need for self-liberation on the other. And while it may seem that the extremely uneven balance of power should have brought things to a close by now, the overall situation seems to be getting more intensely heated by the day.
Since the image of LA given by the American media has always been unrepresentative to say the least, the city has found ways of expressing itself artistically to convey its true identity. Hollywood, ever the hypocrite, lets the likes of Tarantino, John Singleton, Dennis Hopper and Joel Schumacher tell tales to the masses, while area-specific West Coast hip-hop remains one of the biggest things in black music. And as for rock ‘n’ roll, well, where the hell would we be without the seminal hardcore likes of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and the Minutemen? The ’90s grunge movement would be very different had these monumentally important outfits not been quite so pissed off at their surroundings.
But of all the ‘under-ground’ bands to have come out of LA, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have hit the biggest time. As intrinsically, ironically Californian as Cube and Snoop, the world’s biggest punk-funk crossover has ignored all cultural and musical boundaries and become not only a respected collection of musicians with a real edge, but also a huge commercial success. Certainly they’ve missed the mark before and definitely had their fair share of problems, but since the release of BloodSugarSexMagik in 1991, they’ve become international MTV darlings, somehow without alienating their original following. And while not as unanimously adored as BloodSugar..., their latest album, One Hot Minute, has been greeted with rabid enthusiasm at best and bemusement at worst.
Drummer Chad Smith is perhaps the odd one out of this hyper-mad quartet. He’s still not entirely anchored to the ground, but his particular eccentricity is more ‘up’ than those of his three compatriots. Bassist Flea’s an out and out loon; frontman Anthony Kiedis’ story is one of heroin addiction, introspection and depression; while new guitarist Dave Navarro is a psychedelic weirdo of the highest calibre. Chad is an extrovert without compare, that much is certain, but also one of the most courteous, endearing people you could ever hope to meet. That LA-rebel vibe is noticeably there, but he hasn’t been a resident long enough for it to become stereotypical. And he has hair best described as a shock.
Today the Chilis are in the UK, making a video at Shepperton Studios. Sadly we’re not allowed on set, but Studio A has apparently been turned into Waterworld. “We’re in a giant tank of water in these boats,” says Chad, as if this sort of thing happens every day. “Today we’re going to be getting in the water — freezing fucking cold, but we’re showbiz, baby, do it all for showbiz.”
Lightbulb helmets. Socks on cocks. Kiedis’ hair. Flea. In terms of image the Chilis have set their own standard — or have they? They wouldn’t be the first band in the world to have used image consultants. What I’m basically wondering is: are they really as out there as they seem? “No-one ever tells us anything,” states Chad. “That’s one of the problems actually. Nothing is contrived. I think that lots of times people, especially the media, pick up on the entertainment aspect of the Chili Peppers — they’ve got socks on their dicks, blah blah blah… We’re into being entertainers, people think of us as a show, and it’s definitely an extension of who we are and the music that we play. That’s why Flea always wears his underpants on stage. I wish he’d change them. It’s basically a by-product of the fact that we need to be comfortable playing how we play — which is very demanding, very physical. So there’s no way I could be playing in a tux. But at the same time we try with videos to pick some nice art pieces that are cool to look at. The whole MTV thing is just like a giant radio station that shows pictures, so it’s kind of a necessary evil. Unless you’re Pearl Jam, of course. But we enjoy making them; we enjoy the challenge of coming up with interesting images.”
The director for today’s vid is the near legendary Anton Corbijn, who’s previously worked with Depeche Mode and U2 amongst others. However, Chad is keen to stress the fact that the overall effort is collaborative. “We definitely have a lot of input. I wouldn’t say we’re control freaks, but we definitely try to be as involved as we can, because it’s our music in the end and it’s part of who we are. I think the one aspect of people thinking we’re mad or whatever — and I’m not in any way trying to compare us or put us in the same league as someone like him —but Jimi Hendrix was like the wild guitar player, humping the guitar and playing with his teeth and everything, and then when you talked to him he was really smart and soft-spoken and completely different to what he was on stage. People have a hard time dividing between what they see on stage or on videos, and what a person really is.
“All four of us are very complex individuals, and a lot of the time the press want to pick up on the entertainment part of it, and I certainly don’t apologise for that — I think we’re one of the most rockingest live bands you would ever want to see. When we play our shows we do it like it’s the last show we’re ever going to play; we put everything into that one moment. It’s different from records — a record’s going to last a long time, but a show’s just that one day in that venue with those people, and it’s a very special thing.”
Born in Detroit, Michigan, the teenage Chad listened to everything from Zeppelin and The Doors, to Motown and Funkadelic, to Iggy and the MC5. He first picked up a pair of sticks (actually a pair of Lincoln Logs) at the age of seven, and set about destroying a set of ice cream cartons nicked from behind Baskin Robbins by his dad. “Only the finest equipment. After I’d put holes in those, I got stepped up to a little K-Mart set, which was still shit — a little triangle, a little crappy cymbal.” Surprisingly, Chad never took any lessons, preferring instead to gather as much practical experience as he could by getting into every single band at school. “Marching band, jazz band, symphonic band, concert band, any kind of band,” he says counting them off on his fingers. “That’s where I learnt to read. I was pretty good, so I’d always get an ‘A’ in band which would help balance out my ‘D’s and ‘C’s in everything else.”
Despite playing jazz and orchestral music at school, Chad doesn’t see himself as anything other than a rock drummer, albeit a damn funky one. “I would never even consider myself any sort of jazz player, it’s not my heart and soul. I’m more into funk and blues and rock, and I think it’s really hard to be a completely all-round drummer. Even the country thing — I can do it, but I can’t do it with conviction, it sounds like a bad polka beat instead of a really soulful country drumming thing. It’s not part of who I am. But I certainly appreciate great jazz drummers, and blues guys, and great country drummers. My dad’s into country, so I was forced to listen to a lot of that, and he was also into the swing thing. Of course, being a youngster I rebelled against that shit — ‘Fuck that, I’m going to play my Black Sabbath as loud as I can.’ It’s normal for teenagers to have music they can rebel against with the most obnoxious music they can find. Like Kiss — I went through a Kiss phase.” For anyone out there who didn’t already know, all American rock drummers have to go through a ‘Kiss phase’ at some point in their lives. Strange but very true. “I was 13 years old in ’75. My sister was into the Beatles, and when John got shot she was crying. I was like, ‘What the fuck are you crying about?’ It wasn’t the musicianship with Kiss, it was the theatrical thing. I liked Alice Cooper as well. I just bought it, I thought they were the wildest, craziest shit that there was. I still enjoy rock performers who are entertainers. We definitely keep the entertainment aspect of bands like Kiss.”
After leaving school, Chad joined Tilt and found himself earning $150 a week playing six nights a week. “It’s certainly a good way to get your chops going,” he states. “Playing music with other people is way better than just practising in your basement. You need to go through that though, and I did. I did my playing along to Rush in the basement phase.” They all have to go through a Rush phase too.
In 1988, tired of going nowhere with his second band, Toby Red, Chad resolved to pursue his dream elsewhere. “I decided to move to either New York or LA. I’d had enough of the cold weather in Michigan, so I went to LA. I had a few friends there, and my brother was in San Francisco.” In December ’88, after two months of study at PIT (“That was okay, I guess.”), Chad heard that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were auditioning for a drummer following the departure of Jack Irons who was unable to continue after the death of guitarist Hillel Slovak. “I wasn’t a huge Chili Peppers fan; I knew the band weren’t that big, but I didn’t know much else about them except that they were cool. So I went down and immediately just started rocking out. Flea and I were just screaming at each other — ‘Come on, man! Fucking come on!’ We just jammed, and Anthony was laughing hysterically. We hit it off musically, definitely, right off the bat, and everyone was really excited. By Christmas we’d started rehearsing and writing some more songs.” He leans back, folds his hands behind his head, and slips into mock rock star affectation: “Before I joined, the Chili Peppers were an okay band, but once I joined — and I don’t know if this is a coincidence — all of a sudden they became very popular and respected, and I don’t know… No, no, no. It was just the timing and the musical scene.”
From day one Chad was accepted as a member of the band in every sense — even to the extent of having an equal share in the songwriting process, which for a drummer is something of a victory. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, he’s just the drummer.’ It’s a great band to be in from a muso point of view. We run the full gamut of the musical scale; we just play whatever we feel. All our influences are very different, but together we have this chemistry. You really have to have love, respect and admiration for the other people that you play music with —that’s a very important part of our band. It’s a hard thing to find, that bond musically and personally, but I think we definitely have that now.”
The Chilis may well have that now, but in 1993 things weren’t quite so simple. John Frusciante, the band’s seventh guitarist (including some extremely temporary ones), went… well he went mad, basically. In the middle of a Japanese tour he decided that he just couldn’t go on and left. “He just freaked out,” says Chad. “He went kind of crazy. He definitely needs to get some help. We were actually going to Australia from Japan, so we tried to cancel a few early shows and carry on with another guitarist. It didn’t work out though; it would have been half-assed, and we don’t want to be half-assed about anything.”
Upon returning to LA, the band approached ex-Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro and asked if he wanted to try out for Frusciante’s job. Unfortunately Navarro was busy with Deconstruction at the time. “He said, `I’d love to do it, and I am probably the only guy who could do it, but I have to say no.’ So Chad and Kiedis set about the not overly enviable task of auditioning guitarists – 500 guitarists, to be precise.”Some of them were good,” remembers Chad. “We played with Wayne Kramer from the MC5, and Adrian Belew. But no-one seemed right.’ Finally Deconstruction ran its course, and, since they weren’t planning to tour, Navarro found himself with nothing to do. “We called him up and he came down for a jam. We played for like five minutes and hid, ‘You wawa join our band?’ He said, ‘Okay,’”
And so the latest and, some have said, greatest incarnation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was born. What does Chad see as the main differences between Frusciante and Navarro? “They’re two completely different players,” he states emphatically. “John plays really clean and one time, no overdubs; and David’s definitely into the studio as a tool – overdubs, big, thick textural colours. He’s sonically much bigger. Their sound is completely different, but as players they’re both really gifted musicians, and we’ve been fortunate to have both of them in our group. You have to be a sensitive, tortured person to do this, and they both definitely have that, David especially. Guitar players the weird motherfuckers.”
Indeed. But then Flea and Kiedis are hardly the most well-adjusted of people either. “Flea is quite the consummate musician,” Chad says. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to play with him for all these years. He’s probably one of the best musicians that I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with. He has excellent time, and that really frees me up in that I don’t have to be the guy that has to keep everybody in line all the time. At one point I think he was known as the guy who slaps bass – he pioneered that whole punk-funk thing. Since then he’s definitely been growing and changing as a musician, and he’s more into playing melodically and not showing off. We have that musical telepathy; it sounds kind of corny, but I cherish our musical situation, and you couldn’t have that if you didn’t have mutual respect and love for the person that you play with.”
Yes, yes, but is he totally friggin’ nuts or what?
“We don’t really talk about shit that much, we just kind of jam. He’s quite a complex individual.”
Is that it? He’s quite a complex individual? Okay, what about Kiedis? “Oh man, Anthony’s the funkin’ super-freak of the week.”
“Sometimes I know exactly what he’s going to be doing, and other times I have no fucking idea what he’s going to be doing. The three of us knew we wanted to be musicians, but Anthony was just kind of a knucklehead wandering through life, and I think he wanted to hang out with his friends in high school, Jack Irons and Hillel. They were in a band, I can’t remember the name, and he just wanted to hang out with them so he had something to do. He just ended up rapping and getting into Grandmaster Flash think he had a band called Tony Flow and the Majestic Mayhem. It started as a joke – the Red Hot Chili Peppers started as a joke, and it still is a joke actually. No, we take it very seriously.”
No you don’t.
“Well okay, no we don’t. We don’t take ourselves that seriously. Some bands take themselves way too seriously.
“Anthony’s come a long way from Tony Flow and the Majestic Mayhem to where he is now. I think that writing music and lyrics for him is a very cathartic thing, it’s like therapy. I think it would be really hard – I could never imagine trying to write fourteen or fifteen melodies and lyrics, finding meaningful stuff to write about. I totally respect him for that, and it’s a very creative thing for him to be able to write about his addictions and loneliness – really heavy stuff. I totally respect that… And he’s got long fucking hair, I can tell you that.”
One Hot Minute is the sixth long player from the Chili Peppers. It marks an ironing out of their sound, resulting in a more consistently rock-orientated feel. White there are still some deeply funky moments there isn’t, for example, another ‘Give It Away’ – recreating BloodSugarSexMagik wasn’t the idea. Of course, the addition of Navarro had a major influence on the album, but the creative side was also helped along by what can only be described as a monster holiday in Hawaii. “The four of us wanted to get away from all the distractions of Los Angeles and sort of bond with Dave musically and personally,” recalls Chad. “What better place than the beautiful Hawaii? So we went there for about three months and rode our motorcycles, and went scuba-diving, and played tennis, and jumped off cliffs… Oh yeah, and we jammed a little bit too,” he smiles. “Actually a lot of the music on the record came about while we were in Hawaii; so when I listen to the record my fondest memories are definitely from when we were there.
“The whole growing and maturing thing is a difficult one to put a perspective on right now,” he continues. “Obviously Dave being in the band had brought us a fresh, new energy. Each Chili Peppers record has been very different, because of different members or hopefully because we’re growing and becoming better as musicians and songwriters. I think that we’ve taken another step towards becoming better players, and I only hope that we’re… I don’t know if maturing is the right word. You have to look inside yourself at the person you are, and that’s the way to make honest music. We did that with this record. It’s a little darker than some of the records in the past. The funk thing is on the back-burner, but not in any conscious way. This is the music that’s going to come out of this combination of players.”
Chad’s work on One Hot Minute is best summed up as lean and mean. The execution of his fills has the accuracy of a marksman, but his main strength is in the powerful, infectious nature of his groove. Everything is stripped down to the bare, most effective minimum, leaving nothing but the baddest beats. It’s only recently, thanks to his performances at events such as the Modern Drummer Festival and Drums In The Bush (at which his DAT-accompanied annihilation of ‘Give It Away’ was one of the high points), that Chad has begun to gain long overdue recognition as a world class drummer. Characteristically though he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. “I just kind of do my thing and hopefully people enjoy it,” he shrugs. “Hope-fully drummers can take one little thing out of one of my clinics — what I say about really listening, or playing for the song, or not overplaying, or whatever. That’s what I like about doing clinics. If I had the chance when I was younger to see someone like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham in a room with 100 people… well fuck, man, I’d have jumped at the chance. I’m normally like this little pea a mile away, and the drums are all miked up, and you can’t hear everything I’m doing. Drummers are different to guitar players and stuff like that; there’s more of a communal thing, and they’re cooler for some reason. So I’m totally into share and steal — if you see something of mine that you think is good, go for it, because it ain’t gonna sound like me when you play it anyway. Take it and apply it to your own thing.”
The bottom line with Chad Smith is that he loves what he does. But then being in a band like the Chili Peppers must be one seriously effective way to beat the LA-blues. And now that he’s also inadvertently become one of the most talked about drummer’s drummers around, things are going no-where but up. It’s just as well really, since if you took away his drums he’d “go fucking nuts!” Yeah, right — he’d go even more fucking nuts.
“You know what I think? I think we’re making really good music, and 95 per-cent of the popular music you hear on the radio is shit, it really is. So I don’t apologise for our band becoming more popular and a commercial success, any of that shit. I think there’s so many different songs and styles in our stuff, and I think it’s really good music, so I’m very proud of that. We’re just having fun, and I think that people can see that. As the great Viv Savage once said: Have a good time all of the time, that’s my philosophy.”