Drum June/July 1999
In this bar full of suits, ties and hair gel, it’s easy enough to spot Chad Smith. He’s the guy with the baseball cap, leather jacket and embroidered sweatpants – the one who looks like a rock star. Smith’s hear to meet the rest of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the band’s new managers, who are in town for the awards ceremony. The discussion between band and management will centre on the release and promotion of the Peppers’ new record Californication, a proposed upcoming VH-1 rockumentary of the band, and an appearance at this summer’s Woodstock festival -all very important business. But Smith is a little impatient. He wants to make sure he isn’t late for his twice weekly softball game across town. All the glitz and glamour, all the business of the music business of the music business seems to bore him. He’s clearly much happier behind a set of drums making music, or, as in tonight’s case, playing first base.
As the other members of the band filter into the bar, they greet each other with hugs and small talk before heading off to the privacy of a restaurant table to discuss business. After about an hour, Smith bows gracefully out of the meeting, pays this writers bar tab, and we hop into his 1965 cherry-red Mustang Fastback and speed over the hills to Pasadena, where he and his softball team are promptly delivered a can of whomp-ass by the opposing team, something that Smith insists doesn’t happen very often.(The next night, they win big, with Smith making up for the previous evening’s strikeout by hitting prodigiously.)
But The Red Hot Chili Peppers are something of a rarity in these days of one hit wonders and major label buyouts. They have weathered more than a decade of death, drug addiction, mental illness, and a host of other precarious plagues that go hand in hand with rock and roll fame, yet they always seem to land on their feet like a cat dropped from a second-storey window. After a four year absence, they are now re-born and hell-bent on tearing the roof off, with a new record that doesn’t reinvent the clown-school, funk-rock, synthesis the band pioneered, but refines it. With John Frusciante back in the band (after the departure of former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro) and a determinedly sober Anthony Kiedis, the Peppers stepped into Ocean Way studios with veteran producer Rick Rubin and cut some of the best tracks of their career. And that is something Smith is very excited about.
“We did this album really fast”, he says, relaxing outside his home in the Hollywood Hills. “It’s an all-time land-speed record for us. We did the basics on 23 songs in seven days. Most of the bass stuff was kept – Flea would do little fixes here and there, John would do little guitar overdubs – but almost always the basic guitar track was kept. The drums were set up on a riser against one of the walls, in the so-called sweet spot, the amps were in other rooms, and Anthony was in a vocal booth, but we all played in the same room. We would just look at each other and go.”
The new songs are a result of a writing frenzy that was sparked with the return of Frusciante, who left the band six years ago suffering from drug addiction and severe depression. Smith was taken by surprise when Kiedis and Flea approached him about Frusciante’s rejoining the band last May. “Flea called and asked me to come over around six o’clock and watch the Laker’s game”, he remembers. “Then he calls back about ten minutes later and says, ‘Can you make it around five because Anthony wants to come over and he’s got something to do around six thirty’. So I thought, this isn’t just a normal ‘come over and let’s hang out’ thing. We’re having a little meeting aren’t we? I go over and we’re watching TV and they turn to me and go, ‘So, what do you think about getting John Frusciante back in the band?’
Smith knew that Frusciante had been arrested and had been in and out of rehab, but he really hadn’t heard much from him in the past few years. “I looked at Anthony,” he recalls, “because John and Anthony were not getting along at all when he left the band, but Anthony had been visiting him and they were patching things up. I think they were concerned because I was definitely the closest one in the band to Dave.”
In fact, after touring in support of the Peppers’ last record One Hot Minute, Smith and Navarro had become frustrated at the slow pace that work on a new record was taking, due in a large part to Anthony’s personal problems. “There was a point where I thought it might be the end of the Peppers. We were going to write some songs and go to Hawaii, just get away from everything. We had done that before and it had worked out pretty well, so we tried it again in October of ’97 and it was a disaster. No one wanted to be there. You can’t force people to make music together”.
Eager to at least keep playing, Smith and Navarro recorded an as yet unreleased album together under the name of Spread, which Smith says was “just something fun for us to do while everyone was having some down time.” The record features songs that really didn’t fit into the Chili Peppers repertoire, but after Navarro left to go on the Jane’s Addiction reunion tour, with Flea filling in on bass, things ground to an abrupt halt.
“Dave was having some personal problems after the Jane’s Addiction tour,” Smith continues. “We tried to do some dates as the Peppers at the end of the year, but that didn’t happen, so everything was kind of up in the air. So when those guys asked me about John, I said, ‘I’m game, let’s give it a shot.’ He came over and played one day and after a couple of times that was it.”
The band rehearsed in Flea’s garage for a few hours every day, getting to know each other musically again, recording ideas and riffs, anything that had the seed of a song in it. “In two weeks, we came up with something like ten song ideas,” Smith says. “It felt really good. I was cautiously optimistic, mostly because John was a volatile person and I hadn’t really been in contact with him. I didn’t know if he could stay clean, but after a while I could tell that he was just happy to be doing it and he just fully immersed himself in being in the band and playing guitar and writing songs. That’s the part that he really enjoys. He’s in a different place in his life now, so it’s good, it’s real good. He’s got so many ideas.”
In contrast to Navarro’s wall of sound, which filled up a lot of the sonic space on One Hot Minute, Frusciante’s sparse, barebones guitar style gives Smith plenty of room to open up the groove. The title song Californication, an astute observation of Hollywood’s negative impact on popular culture, finds Smith laying down an alternately tight and loose bedrock groove that builds dynamically and allows the song to breathe. The haunting Porcelain, one of the most quiet and poignant songs the Chili Peppers have ever done, starts out with just a stark, wide-open kick drum and brushed slowly swirling on a snare. Its departure from much of the band’s other material underscores the versatility of the musicians.
Compare the drumming from Smith’s Chili Peppers debut on Mother’s Milk to the new record, and you hear a more seasoned and solid musician. He seems to have stripped down to the essentials. “I think my playing has changed since I first joined the band,” he agrees. “Whenever you play with people for a length of time, there’s definitely an unspoken chemistry. I think I understand how to play what fits the song a little better. I play less drums now than I used to. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really about making it feel good. If you tap your foot a little bit then I’m doing my job.”
Californication marks the third time the Chili Peppers have worked with producer Rick Rubin. The band decided to use Rubin again, mainly because, as Smith says, “It’s comfortable and we felt that he would be the best at getting what we wanted. It’s pretty organic and straight ahead, and Rick is really good at getting those natural, good-sounding tracks that are more timeless than timely.
“We did a lot of preproduction, which I think makes a big difference. Last time we didn’t. Rick’s forte is in the preproduction where we’re writing songs and trying to put stuff together and he’ll come in and work with us, giving us new ideas. He makes our songs more song-like, instead of a bunch of pieces of songs. Then he and I pow-wow on the (basic tracks). He always wants the drums to be the best they can be.”
On the day of the Grammies, Smith drives down to the Village Recorder in West L.A, where engineer Jim Scott is mixing the 15 songs that will make up the record. In the control room, lit by candles and Christmas lights, the album’s title track blows through the speakers at an almost deafening volume. Smith is clearly happy about the overall sound the band has captured. Heads bob and feet tap – Scott proposes the possibility of bringing the drums down in the intro of the song to give more space to the vocals. Smith concurs.
After a bit more talk about the mix, Smith challenges Scott to a game of ping-pong in the lobby of the studio. It’s a heated tournament, with errant ping-pong balls hitting the platinum Neil Diamond and Steely Dan records that line the wall. Session percussionist Lenny Castro sticks his head out of a tracking session for a new movie and cracks a couple of jokes with Smith. The atmosphere in the studio is laid back and merry – Smith is what many would call a little crazy, but down-to-earth. He is as friendly and easygoing with the long haired kid who recognizes him at the grocery store as he is with Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland, who he runs into at a post-Grammy party.
In many ways Smith is an anchor for the Peppers, and although he’s not unscathed by some of the problems befalling the rock elite, he has little room for star behaviour. “Believe it or not”, he says with a laugh, “I’m the more normal of the guys. It’s all relative. I’m kind of the Midwesterner, a more meat and potatoes guy. I think it’s important to have different types of personalities in a band. It makes for balance in a creative or working situation. Whether it’s a basketball team – you know, some teams need the Dennis Rodmans, some don’t – there needs to be balance. If everyone is the same, there’s not enough dynamics. I think it works for the Chili Peppers. They know I’m always going to be there. We were talking about getting ready for shows and Flea was saying, ‘All I ever see you do is have a beer and go rock out.’ I think there’s a reassurance that I’m in the drum seat that gives them some feeling of security. There is that balance of characters, where Anthony is one type of guy, and Flea is another, and John is another. That melding makes us work.”
His personable style also makes Smith a controversial favourite on the clinic circuit, where he mixes one half Catskills comedian with one half drum clinician. Although he’s been criticized for his frankness and a well developed sense of mischief, you won’t walk away from one of his appearances feeling cheated. At one notorious performance he offered a free drum set to anyone who would strip naked and dance in a cage while he was playing. Another clinic closed with two belly dancers undulating to Smith’s solo drums.
“I love it!” he says. “Why not have fun with it? I just try to have fun. I don’t do many clinics, but I’m not going to get up there and say, ‘Here’s the paradiddle,’ or solo for 20 minutes and then say, ‘Any questions?’ which I’ve seen before. I couldn’t do it if I wanted to – it’s not my style. I do what I do, I play along with some songs because I think the kids that come want to hear some music and see what you do. They are the future, they really are. They like to come out and see that you’re not messed up on drugs and you’re not an asshole. If I had an opportunity to do that when I was a kid, to see the guys I like up close, I would have jumped at the chance. That’s why I do clinics. Sometimes I do my shtick and the guy at the store gets upset because of something I’ve said, but I’ve got to be myself, which sometimes means I’m very spontaneous and don’t have a clinic thing worked out where I hand out sheets and say, ‘We are going to do clave.’ I have a sense of humour and I think it puts people at ease and they a good time and hopefully they will go away thinking, ‘Oh he played some cool things, and I got to ask him some questions about when they had the lightbulbs on their heads.’
The lightbulbs in question, which the band donned for their last appearance at the Woodstock festival, are part of a long list of antics that started out with strategically placed socks and culminated with fire throwing helmets. These stunts and the Peppers unique musical style have set them apart from most of the major movements in music in the last decade. (“We don’t break any ankles jumping on any bandwagons,” Smith notes dryly.) But it could be said that many younger bands like Rage Against The Machine and KoRn probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Chili Peppers, just as the Peppers wouldn’t have existed without Funkadelic and James Brown.
Is it possible to be current and stay hungry after winning Grammies, earning platinum records and headlining huge festivals? “Yeah, things are different now and we’ve had some success as far as longevity and people liking us. I’m still amazed that this band, that started out pretty much as a joke, is where it is. We never thought we’d sell millions of records or any of that stuff. We just wanted to have a good time, travel around and support ourselves playing music. As far as having something to prove, I think we’re just trying to make music for ourselves these days. You’ve got to please yourself first, if you like it, hopefully other people will like it. You just grow up a little bit. It doesn’t mean you can’t still be passionate about the music and the people you’re with. There’s a feeling of still wanting to make good music.”
Smith and I are in the living room of his house listening to some Led Zeppelin rehearsal outtakes from Physical Graffiti. On the speakers the band is truly struggling through what will eventually become ‘The Wanton Song’, but at the moment Bonham and company are producing more clams than a bowl of chowder. We’re both heartened to hear that one of our biggest heroes was mortal – he still had to suffer mistakes before great breakthroughs could be made. Having known Smith for a long time, I point out the irony of a guy who knows every single note of Van Halen II has been voted ‘Best Funk Drummer’ in many magazine polls. He laughs and shakes his head. “I’m a rocker from a rock background. I definitely come from the school of bashing. I don’t consider myself a funk drummer per se. I love funk and I love all kinds of music. I wouldn’t pretend to be a jazz player or a country drummer or a reggae guy, but as far as playing a heavy, hard funk, yeah, I do my thing. But to be put in a category – I think they’re just looking for categories for magazines. You do what you do and it’s nice to be appreciated by your peers and other musicians.”
When the rehearsal space the Chili Peppers had been using had a few free days on it after the band had finished, Flea headed off to his house in Australia and Smith and Frusciante went in every day and performed a classic rock record from start to finish. “One day we did all of Ziggy Stardust. John knew the whole thing. And then another day we did Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. We played the whole album and it was awesome, it was so fun. I felt like I was jamming in my basement again when I was a kid. And that’s all I really am when it comes to music. I’m just a big kid.”
Many thanks to Anton for help with the text!