New Blood New Magic
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Dave Navarro Joins The Flea Circus
Hidden inside a ridiculous light-bulb costume at Woodstock ’94, Dave Navarro was the unknown guitarist. His characteristic squeals and textured guitar were worlds away from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ happy-go-lucky funkfest, but somehow it seemed to work.
A couple of hours after viewing a tape of that performance, I’m sitting with bassist Flea and Navarro in Flea’s Los Angeles living room watching a laserdisc of Jimi Hendrix at the original Woodstock. The connection between Navarro’s playing and Flea’s bass pyrotechnics becomes clear: it’s where soul, experimentation, and the power of rock and roll come together.
The result is One Hot Minute, arguably the most anticipated album of 1995. Yet, after his first year in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Navarro still feels like a hired hand. He’s the group’s sixth guitarist in its 13-year history and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be their last. But then, Navarro is the kind of guy who always comes across as a bit unsettled, even when he’s fronting what is now one of alternative rock’s most popular, and profitable, concerns.
Although Navarro’s involvement with the Peppers smacks of the kind of manipulation that produced ’60s supergroups like Cream, the real story is much more straightforward. He’d already turned down an offer to do the Lollapalooza tour with the Peppers when he got another call from Flea—a year later—asking him to come over for a jam. The impromptu jam session turned into a job interview, despite the fact that the Peppers had already hired guitarist Jessie Tobias. Before the session ended, Tobias was out and Navarro was in.
Still, for many the idea of Navarro joining the Peppers was—and is—difficult to get used to. His music with Jane’s Addiction had always come from a darker, more private place than the Peppers’ wacky funk, and it was hard to imagine this introspective guitarist playing with rock’s biggest extroverts.
But the personality thing came easily enough. Just after Navarro joined the band, prior to his debut with them at Woodstock, the band went to Hawaii where they rode motorcycles, went diving, jumped off cliffs, played music, and, just got to know each other. Then, of course, there was the matter of his guitar style. How would Navarro’s more complex playing mesh with the bone-dry staccato funk the Peppers are famous for?
“I’ve had different reactions from people,” says Navarro. “Some people think it’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever heard and some people think it is really obvious. I personally don’t think that I have one particular style. This thing has been really exciting for me as a musician and a guitar player because I never played music like this. There were also times when it was frustrating and we thought it wasn’t happening because we came from such different places.”
Except for Hendrix, there’s little common ground among their influences. Navarro cites English modern-rock guitarists like Daniel Ash (Bauhaus, Love & Rockets) and Robert Smith (The Cure). “It wasn’t until I started listening to guys like that that I knew one note held for 12 measures could be an amazing thing if it was done in the right context,” he says. “I always liked bands that were guitar heavy but still interesting. I never got into AC/DC because it wasn’t experimental enough. I’ve always liked Hendrix and Page—guys that made all kinds of sounds as opposed to just shredding all the time.”
Flea has a more eclectic, roots-oriented taste that takes in reggae, funk, and hardcore punk. “My two favorite electric bass records are What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye with James Jamerson and Double Nickels On The Dime by The Minutemen with Mike Watt.”
It took some time, but Navarro and Flea eventually came up with a way of working together that allowed them to create music they were both satisfied with and that didn’t dilute their respective strengths. “When I first hooked up with them, I tried to play more along the lines of what I thought they wanted me to play like,” remembers Navarro. “It was a little bit more forced but I think it came from the pressure that I put upon myself. In the end, I took a couple of steps toward what these guys naturally do and I think they took a couple of steps toward me. That’s how we were able to come up with sounds that have not appeared on either past Peppers records or records that I have been involved in.”
“We have a whole new sound,” adds Flea. “Me and Dave sit together and one of us will have a riff for a song and we’ll think up a bridge for it or a change for it and start developing it into an entire composition. It’s new because he’ll do something that’s not like anything I would have thought of and it’s not like anything that any guitar player I’ve ever played with would have thought of.”
Whether it was down to Navarro’s musical direction or just having some new blood in the band, there’s no denying that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have produced a record that may be closest to what they’ve been striving toward for years: a dynamic mix of shifting tempos, volumes, textures, and emotions. “There’s hard, slamming shit alongside beautiful ballads,” explains Flea. “We’ve always aimed for that but I think we succeeded more this time. It’s one thing to be able to jam and play the most cosmic things but it’s another to be able to take the feelings that you have from those experiences and channel them into the format of a rock song that people can hum.”
There are many such memorable songs on the new record. “Transcending,” a song written for actor River Phoenix, has a slinky, circular groove that sucks the listener into a whirlpool of emotion. “Warped” is a jamming song that goes through a series of different dynamics and feel changes. Yet, somehow the band manages to stay on the good side of self-indulgence. “We just try to write the songs until they are done,” says Flea. “That’s the difference between someone who’s a good musician and someone who’s not. It’s about taste and esthetics, and to me its about love.”
What does seem to be missing from the album, except on a few tracks such as “Aeroplane,” is the unadulterated funk the Peppers made their name on. “I’m not a funk guitarist and I don’t like funk,” admits Navarro. “It makes me feel dumb and I can’t relate to music that makes me feel dumb.
But I like these musicians and that’s why I’m in this band. Funk is light, uplifting, happy stuff, and none of us were feeling that way when we were writing this album.”
“When we got together we just played, and the shit that sounded the best was not funk,” adds Flea. “On most of our earlier records, the core was funk. The core of this record is a very new-sounding rock music. It’s no less emotional, no less powerful, and no less important to me.”
Usually musical differences are what splits a band apart, but in this case it has brought these musicians together. After playing with so many different guitarists over the years, Flea had a good idea of what he wanted. He was trying to fill a void, not just a slot. “I was looking for someone that didn’t sound like anyone else and yet was also into being in a band. Someone that I could love on a personal level. Someone that could jam. Someone that could let go of boundaries and just play.”
While guitarists have come and gone, Flea’s bass playing has remained at the core of the band’s music. “Obviously, I’ve come up with a lot of the musical ideas on the bass guitar, and over the years the bass has become a main component of the sound,” says Flea. “But ever since I started playing it was always about wanting to express myself in a certain way and not about any particular instrument. I could just as easily be playing a slide trombone.”
For the first time, the bass is playing a lesser role in the band’s music, and it’s to the benefit of the songs. “There are songs on is record where you could take the bass out and it would still be a song,” says Flea. “I don’t really think in terms of centering things around the bass. I just think in terms of what’s going to make the song better. I like the bass just as much on a Neil Young song as on “Portrait Of Tracy” by Jaco Pastorius. Both of them are people expressing themselves in a beautiful way. I’m proud to be a bass player but I’m not hung up on the bass trip.”
Flea even wrote some of the songs on the acoustic guitar. “I can play about two and a half chords,” he says. “I. would come up with these simple chord changes and melodies and Dave would take my stupid little chords and make them cool.”
When asked if the Red Hot Chili Peppers have a tendency to burn out guitarists, Flea downplays the issue. When the heat’s too hot, you’ve got no choice but to get out of the kitchen. “The only three guitarists we’ve had that really mattered were Hillel [Slovak], John Frusciante, and Dave,” says Flea. “I’d like to go on record as saying that the one guy that played with us on our first record, Jack Sherman, was a non-creative asshole that had nothing to do with anything. We’ve been together for 13 years, and we’ve put in a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work. We deal with a lot of emotional highs and lows in this business and it’s difficult to be in any band. Hillel was a drug addict and he died. That’s an incredibly tragic thing and I miss him greatly. John didn’t want to deal with it anymore for a variety of reasons. It’s hard being in a band with all of the emotional, physical, and creative demands that it places on you and still trying to deal with the rest of your life and balancing it all with-out driving yourself bonkers.”
The demands of the Red Hot Chili Peppers lifestyle were at the root of the extensive delays in the release of the new album. But fans needn’t worry that somehow the Peppers have become Pink Floyd. The basic grooves were laid down over a year ago, and according to the band members, aside from Navarro’s relentless overdubbing and the addition of some vocal tracks, it is little changed since then. “It took us a long time to make it because of personal psychological obstacles that we had to over-come,” explains Flea. “Many months went by with nothing happening.”
The delay was especially frustrating for the band’s newest recruit. Navarro spent much of the time immersed in the studio, surprising the other band members and producer Rick Rubin with his approach to recording. He’s the kind of musician who likes to layer parts first and strip them down later. “On every song, I put down way too many parts,” he says. “I was the only Pepper that went down every day for the mix. I’m not saying I was the only one who cared, it was just that there was so much shit to weed through that other people wouldn’t know what was going on. When I go to mix, I’d rather have too much than not enough. Even if I double or triple the rhythm, I know that when we go to mix there are going to be three different sounds to choose from.”
Adjusting to the band’s rhythm section proved a challenge for Navarro, who was used to playing in a more traditional rock lineup. “A major difference would be that in Jane’s Addiction, Eric Avery [bass] played less and Stephen [Perkins, drums] played more,” he says. “In this situation, Chad [Smith, Pepper drummer] plays less and Flea plays more. I used to really follow the drums, and the bass was locked in with what Stephen was doing. Stephen and I had played together since high school, so we had a vibe between us. In this Flea and Chad are much more of a locked unit, so it’s completely different. Sometimes it’s hard to try and get across what I do.”
Another change is his choice of axe. Navarro has switched to Strats in order to play the older Peppers material, which relies on a single-coil sound. As always, he uses Marshall amps and Boss pedals but he’s not hung up on the technology. What is somewhat surprising for a guitarist who says he is always in search of new sounds is that Navarro has consistently resisted MIDI and rack-mounted effects, mostly because he can’t be bothered to learn how they work. “I know what my pedals do because it says it on the pedal, but it doesn’t go any further than that,” he claims.
“I’ve spoken with other guitar people and they are baffled by my lack of knowledge. But I think it’s actually a key part of my sound. If you listen to this record you’ll definitely hear it. To me, the idea is more important than the technology. There’s one song called ‘Walkabout’ where I just wanted a thin, bad-sounding guitar so I used one of those Fernandes practice guitars with the speaker built into it.
Although he is now fully involved with the Peppers, Navarro continues to do the occasional session, and recently guested on Nine Inch Nails’ “Piggy” remix from the Further Down The Spiral EP Before you start to draw too many conclusions, realize that it was strictly a one-off and he never even met Trent Reznor. “I was out in Hollywood riding my motorcycle when I got a page from Rick Rubin. I went down there, played a couple of chords on the remix, and that was it.”
Much more interesting was the Deconstruction project he recorded with former Jane’s buddy Eric Avery, which was released last year. “I was more interested in sounds than just straight riffing,” he says, “taking sounds that weren’t really appropriate and trying to make them work somehow. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I’m not happy with the album on the whole, but in terms of guitar playing it was a real turning point for me and I noticed a lot of growth in my playing.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have provided an outlet for Navarro in which he isn’t completely comfortable, and he’s all the better for it. By playing a different style of music than he is used to, he forces himself to be more inventive as a guitarist. Plus, the band he’s joined is at a crossroads. They are rock stars with thick-shag carpets on their floors and gold albums on their walls. But with Navarro in the fold, they’ve got an opportunity to continue stretching musical boundaries at the same time they are filling the arenas.
“On one level, our music is becoming more dynamic and multi-dimensional than it’s ever been before,” says Flea. “On another level, we can always play our other stuff. It can be creatively stifling to play the same thing every night on the road in a big arena, but at the same time it can achieve a beautiful level of communication.”