Peppers Chill Out
Months of melancholy result in the Peppers’ most mellow album yet, writes DINO SCATENA
ANTHONY Kiedis has shed a lot of tears lately, but he’s happy enough to talk about it now. “I can’t even count the number of times I found myself crying.” the Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman says. The waterworks would start at any time, in any place: at his kitchen table at home in LA, in the Caribbean at his sister’s wedding, on holiday in Hawaii or a weekend in New York.
But it was all these tears, Kiedis says, that enabled him to plumb the depths of his soul and eventually resurface with the words for the Chili Peppers’ eighth album, By the Way.
“Yeah, lots of crying.” the singer says. “There’s one song about a friend of mine who died a year ago.
“I was crying about that when I wrote it, partly because I missed her but partly because it felt so good to sing about someone who meant so much to me. It’s called Venus Queen. I just sat there at my kitchen table writing this little ode to Gloria. Even though the song is about a little more than just one person — it’s about the cycle of life.
“Another time I found the words to the chorus of Tear (as in torn). For the longest time I had just the verses, then I finally found the f…ing words I’d been looking for for two months. They were there the whole time. I just couldn’t see them.
“When I finally found them and realised they fitted perfectly into this melody I’d been humming, it was such a great relief.” But the emotionalism of By the Way wasn’t conceived through tears and existential thoughts alone.
Last year, Kiedis split up with his girlfriend of four years, Yohanna Logan. Chili Peppers bassist Flea also split from his long-term partner. Kiedis was in the midst of his break-up when he finally started putting words and melodies to the endless supply of riffs and song ideas that had formed during nearly a year of jamming and rehearsals with the band.
“As much as I was in love with my girlfriend,” he confides, “I was kind of dissatisfied that it wasn’t moving to the place where a family could come out of it.
“So maybe underlying in was a bit of, ‘God. I love this girl and I want it to work but maybe it’s not going to work because she’s on one path and I’m on another.’ Maybe there’s a bit of that pain in there.
“But I was relatively happy. I had my house, my backyard, my dog, a place to go every day to play my music. I wasn’t feeling too out of sorts.
“I mean I don’t think I’m ever 100 per cent happy with my life. I’m always grateful for it — I always try to recognise the fact that my problems today are quality problems. I’ve been really blessed a million times along the way.”
Certainly, it’s hard not to be thankful for your lot in life when, for one thing, your last record (1999’s
Californication) sold 13 million copies worldwide; and half a million in Australia alone.
When it comes to super bands, the Red Hot Chili Peppers remain one of the toughest gangs in the global village. This is their 20th year together, and that alone is a remarkable achievement for this band who have won several Grammys for band to least likely to make another album together”.
“You can’t kill us.” drummer Chad Smith jokes. “We’re like Jason in Friday the 13th.” The Chili Peppers are one of the few acts left in the world with enough mass support and the bravery to mount a football-stadium tour in their own right.
They’re big enough to fly representatives from most of the world’s media here to this glitzy Casa Del Mar hotel overlooking Venice Beach in Los Angeles.
But if the history of rock ‘n’ roll has taught us anything, it’s that success and longevity are often the enemy of vital music.
T HE Chili Peppers — especially Kiedis — were conscious of this going in to make By the Way. But they also knew there’d be little to worry about with guitarist John Frusciante on hand.
According to drummer Smith, it was Frusciante, the Chili Peppers’ prodigal son, who steered By The Way in the right musical direction. While the others rested after the two-year world tour in support of Californication. Frusciante studied Beatles albums. There was something in the Fab Four’s harmonics, he convinced himself, something in their use of harmonics that was missing from the Pepper’s musical arsenal.
“When we started writing the Chili Peppers record, I started realising how that could be a part of our music.” the guitarist says.
Smith says of Frusciante: “It’s really inspiring to be around someone like that. He was really the catalyst for a lot of the music that we play now.”
As was well documented in the publicity for the release of Californication — Frusciante’s first album since 199I’s BloodSugarSexMagic — the guitarist was invited back into the band in 1998 after a five-year exile while he battled heroin addiction.
The Peppers had already lost one guitarist to the drug (Hillel Slovak in 1988). Other members had battled the demon drug and won, so Frusciante was kicked out.
“John should probably have died from the lifestyle he was living,” Smith says. “And I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to have got that phone call. So just on a daily basis it’s really inspiring to be around someone who you thought you might never see again, a person who’s living life to its fullest with boundless energy and creative pieces coming from him at all times.”
Frusciante himself makes no secret of how low he had sunk before his old gang came back for him.
“There was a period when I didn’t sleep in a bed for a long time.” he says. “And you start to feel you’re no longer human, you don’t have anyone giving you a nice hug or something, and you don’t get to sleep on anything soft. You just sleep on a cement floor or a rug.
“Now, this far into being around people and also getting warmth and love from the audience, it just makes me feel like a complete person. And I’ll never take it for granted because a pretty big chunk of my life was spent being cold, feeling no warmth from anybody and not really giving any warmth either.
“I feel really lucky to be able to make the music that I make with my band and I feel very lucky that when I walk into a room. Flea or Anthony or whoever, my girlfriend (who painted the cover for the new CD), they smile at me and are happy to see me.
“That’s the greatest thing in the world. There was a time when any room I walked into, people would get a scared look on their faces. Even the last time I was in the band, I’d walk into the room and everyone would look the other way.”
Though all the members of the band seem averse to admitting it, By the Way is the most mellow album the Peppers have produced. It’s filled with rich layers of dense music, and only a few of the record’s 16 tracks (such as the title track, Throw Away Your Television, and Can’t Stop) go anywhere near a traditional Peppers’ rock/funk-out.
Indeed, Rolling Stone magazine has described By The Way as a pop record in the tradition of the Beatles or the Beach Boys.
“I don’t really see it as ultra-mellow,” Kiedis argues. “To me the songs all have a certain depth to them, which defies my definition of mellow. But that’s just semantics.
“The heaviness comes in the emotion and just the energy of the songs, whether or not they’re overtly aggressive. It doesn’t really matter because there’s something heavy and deep inside that happens even in these mellow songs.”
FLEA says the band made enough music this tune to fill 50 albums, (“a painful amount of music,” is Kiedis’s description) but all that has now been condensed into the 16 tracks that make up By the Way.
And no one could be happier with all the things that did and didn’t make the final cut.
“When you’re playing together every night you start to establish a lot of communication musically. said and unsaid, which is at a really high level.” Flea says. “And it’s really unique to the chemistry of the people who are doing it.”
Of course, the last word on By the Way should go to Anthony Kiedis, the man drummer Chad Smith describes as a “a giant onion with many, many layers”.
“I’m just grateful that, whatever force that keeps us together and drives us on in the face of calamities and tragedies and events that could dismember us, we’ve found a way to keep it going,” Kiedis says. “Even though it wasn’t always a bowl of cherries, it was worth nicking together through the f…cd-up times to be where we are today.
“I would be pretty useless without this particular chemistry. It’s definitely what lights my fire, playing music with these exact people.”
By The Way (Warner) out now. Red Hot Hot Chili Peppers. Colonial Stadium December 1.
A pepper in mint condition
the years are no grind at all
AS ANYONE who has ever paid close attention to a Chili Pepper lyric will know, Anthony Kiedis (right) doesn’t quite see the world like the rest of us. For instance, on turning 40 later this year “Numerologically speaking, I’m keen on the threes,” he says.
“I like my odd numbers. I’m going to be in an even decade so I’m going to have to get used to it. I like harsher numbers like ones and three and sevens and fives.
“I have certain advantages because in order to do my job well. I have to defy the ageing process on a certain level. I accept it and I enjoy the process of ageing and learning and I want to do that gracefully and not live in fear of what this media-driven society has deemed too old.
“I’m proud of my age but at the same time I’m forced to go against the grain of conventional ageing. Every year I try to get in better shape and have a stronger inner strength than I had when I was in my 20s. I feel like my 40-year-old self could definitely kick my 20 year-old self’s ass if I had to.”