Rhythm August 2006
Chad Smith and Flea
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are back with a vast, sprawling double album that shows off their every facet. So what better time to nail both drummer Chad Smith and bassist Flea for an exclusive Rhythm tete-a-tete?
Within drum circles (and indeed the wider music-loving community), the arrival of a fresh new album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is big news. The crazy Californians have, after all, established themselves as one of the biggest bands in the world in the last few years, due in no small part to the monstrous success of 2002’s By The Way. In the case of its follow-up, the recently released Stadium Arcadium, the news is bigger than usual. That’s because the record contains no less than 28 track, lasts about three hours and it features one of the world’s best rhythm sections on fiery form.
Both a reminder of their heady funky Blood Sugar Sex Magik days and a reflection of the band’s increasing ability with lilting melody, Stadium Arcadium neatly sums up everything that’s great about the Chilis. And, even better, provides Rhythm with a unique opportunity to sit down with both Chad Smith and Flea for a rhythm section conversation. For, as part of their early press responsibilities in support of the new record, we collared the Chili’s drum and bass machine for a joint interview of the kind that, as implausible as it sounds, they’ve never really done before.
The idea was to prompt Chad and Flea to reminisce about their Halcyon days, working together on a string of classic albums, explain their developing musical relationship, talk about the new album and reveal a few of their own favourite rhythm sections. In the event, very little prompting proved necessary. Rhythm readers will already be aware that Chad is a good talker, but in Flea’s company, even the Chadster takes a backseat, happy to allow his super energetic bass-playing compadreto wax lyrical about all of the above and more. It’s a formidable display of deep musical knowledge, passion and considered thinking, and great fun to witness the two of them bat stories backwards and forward, frequently sick-tracked trying to recall long forgotten details of early gigs, tours and who-was-with-whom-and-when…
Rhythm: We were hoping to kickoff by getting the two of you to talk about the relationship that exists between the two of you when you’re playing…
Chad Smith:”Well that would be a first, wouldn’t it?!”
Flea: “Yeah, it would. I mean, we’ve been playing together what? 16 or 17 yens? We’ve played a lot —a lot of different grooves and a lot of different kinds of songs —and we never say a word about it. Holding back, pushing ahead of the beat, bringing it down — all those little things that make what we do what it is, just happen with a raised eyebrow, or a headbang, or me squatting or Chad looking at me a certain way. We never discuss any of that stuff.”
CS: “There’s definitely an unspoken musical intuitiveness that we’ve had for a long time. Maybe at the beginning we talked a bit more about it, because I had come into a group that already existed — they had their thing going on. l remember when I first joined the band we were going to do something, a little tour.. .”
F; “Was it the Murphy’s Law tour?”
CS: “I think it could have been the Murphy’s Law tour. When I first learned the old songs for that tour it was just Flea and I and we used to rehearse the songs together. We had to talk through things back then, because I’d not been part of the band that wrote those songs.
“It was very helpful to me, because I’d listened to the records but it’s a different thing when you’re actually playing it. Even back then, though Flea would say to me `Do your thing’ — they were very open for me bring my own flavour to the song, I guess,
So the two of you don’t talk much about what you’re going to play as you’re writing new songs now?
F: “There are times in the writing process where we might have a comment for each other, just about laying back in one section or something. But that only really happens when we’re deciding what works best for a song. Once it comes to a Iive situation things really take on a life of their own and the songs are guided by the emotion of the moment. We don’t really need to talk about that stuff, we know each other’s playing so well.”
Which is why you can improvise stuff on stage when you feel like it…
F: “Yeah we can play any of our songs completely differently depending on what John (Frusciante, guitar) or Anthony (Kiedis, vocals) does. Any of us could launch into an improvisation at any time and things happen that couldn’t happen if we hadn’t spent this long playing with each other. Or without having complete trust in each other. Improvising is all about trust — in yourself and the musicians you, playing with.
“Anyone can write a song and go play it That’s paint by numbers. Bur your heart really comes out when you take something and do something spontaneous with it, that’s when you can be loose and free and put real feeling into it.
“You have to step out of yourself and put yourself on the line. And when you do that you might do something lame – it’s always a risk, but you have to take the chance of making an ass of yourself, that’s the process. And as time goes, you develop more of a feel and more confidence and you can go to more and more places.”
CS: “We take chances. That’s when you can come up with really great moments on stage. That’s what makes performances night after night exciting. We have to play in the moment, whether that’s in a little jam section or the songs themselves. We have little signposts in songs that are somewhat consistent, that we know work, but after that it’s really a blank canvas, and that’s so rewarding as a musician.”
F: “If we had to play ‘Scar Tissue’ the same every night we’d hate it already. But we know it’s going to be a looney goosey thing that’s going to have a jam at the beginning, middle and end. Sometimes me and Chad will do something crazy there, sometimes it’ll be a little intricate thing, but it’s exciting.”
Flea, did you know that Chad was the ideal drummer for the Chilis as soon as you first played with him?
F: “Let me start off by saying that we’re so lucky as a band to have Chad because whether we’re recording or on stage we don’t play with any clicks. Because Chad is so solid, we can go off on these flights of fancy without losing the groove. Even when Chad gets wild, the time is always right there. I’ve played with some amazing drummers – Steve Jordan, Brian Blade, Stephen Perkins – a lot of really good drummers, but none of those guys can hit half as hard as Chad, and while I won’t say that they don’t have as good time as him, I know Chad’s time feel so well that it works better when the two of us play than at any other time. His is a great combination of brute animal power, timing and a sensitivity to dynamics.”
Were all of those attributes immediately obvious from the outset?
F: “Definitely. I was used to a different kind of drumming before Chad. I had played with mostly arty, quieter guys. And never had I felt that kind of power. It was unbelievable -it was like the room was about to explode. And I felt that however hard I could go, however brutally I could attack my bass with every ounce of energy I had, Chad was always right there with no sense of fatigue. And it was never out of control. It was never rushed or dragged, it was always like, ‘Wherever you want to go with this, I’m right there’.
“So I liked the brute power but I wondered whether he had the funk, whether he had the ability to make a simple groove interesting. And when I found out that he did I was like, `Oh my God, this is great – if only he didn’t look like he was in Guns N’Roses’.”
CS: (laughing not inconsiderably) “Yeah, I had hair like I could fit right in with Guns N’Roses of course!”
Chad, what are your earliest recollections of hooking up with Flea and the other Chili Peppers?
CS: “Well, I knew of them through Larry Fratangelo (percussionist), who played on Freaky Styley. He told me about the band…”
F: “Oh really, is that what happened?”
CS: “Yeah, he was like, ‘George (Clinton, Freaky Styley producer) is with these crazy kids from California, playing this crazy music. He told me that he’d played on the stuff and that it was cool. I hadn’t heard of you guys yet…”
F: “No, we were a pretty local phenomenon back then.”
CS: “Larry didn’t play me anything, but we were just talking on the phone. And that was the first time that I heard of the band.”
F: “Did you hear any of our records before you played with us?”
CS: “Yeah, because (shared acquaintance) Newt was a big fan.”
F: “What did you hear?”
CS: “I heard The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.”
F: “You didn’t hear Freaky Styley?”
CS: “No. And Larry was like, this stuff is great. And I heard it and although I wasn’t a huge fan before — it wasn’t like with John Frusciante, where he joined his favourite band — I thought the stuff was cool. They did a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’, which I loved. They played great and so I was definitely interested.
“But I didn’t have these great expectations. Like Flea said, they were kind of underground and a big college band at that time. And I think that was to my advantage that I wasn’t expecting anything— I just came in and played and it was really exciting. I realised that we could play anything and go anywhere with this band. John was only 18 at the time and I remember one time early on, when we were doing this ferocious jam and he broke a string. He ran over to his case and changed strings faster than I’ve ever seen — he was so hungry to get back into the playing zone with the rest of us. That was kind of what it was like back then.”
F: “John’s been like that until recently, actually. He would always run to find something, to go and check something with someone. He was always frantic…”
CS: “Now he walks with a serious purpose.”
Through all the craziness, it’s been clear that the music has always been the single most important thing with the Chilis…
F: “For us it was and is, everything in the world. The jams are precious. When I started the Chili Peppers I really felt that I came into my own as a bass player. I started to feel like this is what I wanted to do — and a lot of the songs started from bass lines.
“That lead to me trying to get right inside of the bass drum, to make that relationship really tight so the band sounded great. I’d try to picture myself right in the middle of the bass drum note. Like if it was a ‘pop’ I’d want to be in the centre of the ‘o’ sound, not the ‘p’ at the start or end of the note. When I can focus enough to do that, it’s a beautiful feeling. As good as anything.”
You’re both extremely dedicated to what you do, but kind of dismissive of your abilities at the same time.
F: “We’ve laid down some grooves that, for me, are as good as anything I can imagine doing. And we never say anything about it. We turn up and play, hear it back in the control room and even when we know it’s magical, we’re like, ‘Cool, thanks. Next track’.”
CS: “We might slap each other’s backs once.”
F: “Yeah, but that’s about it. It’s very natural and very uncontrived.”
Does your experience of playing together for so long mean that you always know which way to approach a new tune for the best? And do you beaver away on new parts individually, or just jam and let it all happen?
F: “More of what Chad and I do is spontaneous compared to what John does — he tends to think a little more about his parts and what he’s going to bring to a record.”
CS: “Usually I’ll go with a gut feeling with what I should play for a song when we’re writing and jamming. It tends to be the right thing, because there’s something about that first, instinctive response that’s right, even if it needs some refining.
“But at times we’ll suggest things to each other and we’ll work through it and it’ll gradually become its own thing. Like with ‘Dani California’, John said to me, ‘I was thinking of the drums playing a simple groove like the Wu Tang — boom, boom, ba, boom, boom, ba’. So that’s what I played, although I played it more like Lynyrd Skynyrd of course.
“Once I’ve settled on something, I tend not to over think it. When we’ve got a groove going, it’s all about playing in the moment, about listening to each other and making it feel as good as we can. Nothing can replace the experience of playing together for years. To be a great rhythm section like Led Zeppelin just takes time and knowledge of each other’s playing.”
You can’t manufacture that…
F: “No, and you know what? Jimmy Page was really smart to not allow Led Zeppelin to continue with another drummer. I read recently where someone suggested to him that they should have got another drummer in because they were such a great band. And Jimmy was like, ‘You’re out of your mind, no way’. He understood that the relationships within a band are an important thing. That’s what makes a band.”
One thing that seems clear from the new album is that although you’ve been together a long time, there’s still a sense of edginess there, there’s no sign of the Chilis mellowing out…
F: “It’s never a case of mellowing unless the song is mellow. We aim never to lose anything that we’ve had before, we just build on it and so the picture of music gets bigger. I know that sounds as though we’re patting ourselves on the back and tooting our own horn, but it’s not a question of me saying how great we are, it’s just the truth. One day we might be 90 years old and not physically capable of playing a Black Flag song, but that hasn’t happened yet.
“We learned a long time ago how to bash the f*** out of a song from the deepest well of the pain inside. Then as you go along you learn other things, you learn how to channel that animal energy into doing something delicate and sweet and by doing that it becomes as intense as the most aggressive, hardest piece of music. It’s drawn from the same well.”
CS: “Everything is still all there, it is just a case of how we choose to channel things now. We try to grow, change and challenge ourselves. But the motivation is the same.”
F: “We listen to so many different kinds of music, and that keeps me always inspired, and when you’re inspired and striving to do better work all the time, it drives you forward. This morning I listened to Elvis Costello, to Tony Williams, to Wayne Shorter, to AC/DC —that was my listening playlist. And you can’t listen to those guys without getting fired up one way or another.”
Talking of other musicians you admire, to what extent were your formative influences shared between the two of you?
CS: “I think our influences were very different. Flea’s an accomplished jazz musician, that was his background, whereas I grew up in a household where it was my older brother’s records that were really influential to me — a lot of late ’60s and early ’70s British bands. That was what I cut my teeth on.”
F: “That’s really where we overlap. We’re both into Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who, all that great rock music. I guess we both love jazz, but for me it was my first love, and it wasn’t Chad’s. Actually, it was The Beatles first for me, but then jazz.”
CS: “I got turned on to Tower Of Power and Funkadelic by Larry Fratangelo. I really studied that stuff for a while, and then Anthony gave me a Meters tape and that was my funk education.
“We have varied influences, and they’ve all combined to build on our basic musical personalities over the years. I can do rock much better than odd time stuff, because it was rock that was my first influence. I have to count 5/4 and stuff like that, it’s just not natural to me.
“So although I always aim to add things to my palette, there’s always going to be stuff that comes more easily, stuff that is at the core of your personality as a musician. It’s important to me to preserve that, but to add to it as much as I can. That goes for both of us I guess.”
Far from a standard finish, Chad’s new Yellow/Red Translucent Serpentine wrap (courtesy of Rowland Technologies) features the latest in lighting technology from CeeLite, which enables the kit to light up when plugged in. In a two-step process the paper-thin light panels are applied to the shells like a normal drum wrap, and covered with the translucent wrap. The end product is no thicker than conventional wrap materials and, as you can see,the result is stunning!
Drums Pearl Reference Series – 24″x18″ bass drum. 12″x10″ mounted tom. 14″x14″ and 16″x16″ floor toms and 14″x5″ Pearl nickel plated brass Sensitone snare or 14″x5″ Pearl Ultracast snare, 3mm solid aluminium shell
Cymbals Sabian – 20″ AA Rock or Medium crash. 22″ AA Rock or Medium crash, 21″ AA Rock ride, 14″ AAXXCelerator Hats, 20″ AA china and 10″ AAX splash
Plus.. Vater Chad Smith Funk Blaster drum sticks. Remo drum heads. Pearl cowbell and hardware.
Chad & Flea Favourite rhythm sections
Rhythm asked Chad and Flea to name some of their favourite rhythm sections of all time, their biggest inspirations. They weren’t short of suggestions — as Chad said, the pair could “sit here all day with this”…
James Jamerson & Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown)
John Paul Jones & John Bonham (Led Zeppelin)
John Entwistle & Keith Moon (The Who)
Geezer Butler & Bill Ward (Black Sabbath)
Sly & Robbie (Various)
Larry Graham & Andy Newmark (Sly And The Family Stone)
Jack Bruce & Ginger Baker (Cream)
Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr (The Beatles)
Charlie Mingus & Art Blakey (various)
We take our music pretty seriously,” says Flea. “I know we were the guys with the socks on our dicks, and I’m really proud of that, of all of it. But were very serious about the music and very humble at the same time. We live for the groove and to honour all the great groovers who have grooved before us. You can’t duplicate the way that all of those sections played time. All we can do is be ourselves.”
“That’s the thing,” agrees Chad. “We’re so lucky to have this music and be inspired by it. I played drums to Led Zeppelin in the garage and although I don’t want to be John Bonham — I want to be me — I damn well hoped that some of him would find its way into me.
“You rip guys’ stuff off all the time,” continues Flea. “That’s the way it is. But you don’t steal their riffs, you steal their sense of commitment and their willingness to sing their own song and let their cards fall where they may.
“Art Blakey and Charlie Mingus and guys like them were the ones who put things into perspective for me. You can’t listen to musicians like that without thinking, ‘We’re just learners at this stuff’.”
Chad is also quick to point to the rhythm sections renowned for having great feel: “On the other end of the scale — in some respects — guys like McCartney and Ringo do the same. Ringo and Paul were just so musical. Ringo’s not counted sometimes because he’s not a choppy guy, but find me one Beatles’ song that doesn’t feel great. You can’t do it. And that’s no accident.”
“The Beatles are one of the first bands I think of when it comes to classic rhythm sections, although some people wouldn’t,” says Flea. “Paul McCartney is one of my five favourite bassists of all time, and no one can deny how great a drummer Ringo is.
“Come on, The Beatles were the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time and he played drums on all their records, didn’t he? Apart from the ones where there are no drums. Where’s your argument? Ringo is just as great as Elvin Jones to me.”
Chad and Flea on the new Chili Peppers record.
Chad Smith: “We recorded 38 songs for the record. And we were really prepared for this album — we spent a long time writing the songs. It was interesting working with Rick Rubin this time because he didn’t change things as much as he usually does. Before, in pre-production he would spend time working on arrangements with us, even when we thought the songs were done.”
Flea: “Yeah, it was always just ‘part’ stuff really, wasn’t it? Just getting the instruments to sit well and make the song flow. The main things that Rick pays attention to are drums and vocals.”
CS: “He’ll usually get us to stop doing things that he thinks are ‘too much’, too ‘jammy’. He did a superb job this time — I think he’s becoming an even better producer than he already was. “This time I think he was conscious of letting me leave more of my personality in the drumming. There were some cool moments as a result — in ‘Readymade’, for example, where the beat turns around. I never thought I would get that past Rick Rubin. He’s a two-and-four guy, but I wanted a kind of ‘Black Dog’ feel to it.”
F: “In terms of memorable moments, or where we create rhythm section magic, honestly I think every one has that this time. As far as highlights that I can pick out, tracking ‘Charlie’ was really fun and so was ‘Hard To Concentrate, it has a really different drum sound. I remember getting inside the groove and using a unique bass sound which was cool.”
CS: “I put towels on the drums for ‘Hard To Concentrate’ and took the snares off for that one. And we’re really happy with the way that rhythm track sounds.”
F: “I love it when we use weird drum sounds. Things like ‘The Power Of Equality’ off of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, where Chad used two different drum kits and overdubbed his parts are really cool — they stand out because you’re not used to it.”
CS: “I think Stadium Arcadium shows us all in a good light. John’s guitar playing is incredible on there too. When I’m not playing and it’s just John and Flea, they have an incredible sense of time. John is very much part of the rhythm section really — no one needs to tell him where the time is. He’s very much playing that part on the new album.”
Stadium Arcadium is out now
Bass Modulus Flea signature model
Amps Three Gallien Krueger 2001RB amps, three Gallien Krueger 41ORBH speaker cabs, three Gallien Krueger 115RBH speaker cabs and Shure ULX Pro wireless system
Plus… Boss ODB-3 Overdrive, MXR Micro Amp. Electro Harmonix Q-Tron envelope filter. Furman PL-Plus Power conditioner FX pedals. Monster cables and GHS Boomers ‘Flea set’ strings