August 25th 2007 Kerrang! 1173
Band of Brothers
BAND: RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
IN THE routinely horrible record business heroin is not considered a problem drug because it doesn’t tend to harm creativity. Cocaine is the one to watch for, because once a band can afford to start stuffing as much Womble dust up their noses as Scarface, they will record anything and insist that it sounds great. Nirvana, Guns N’Roses, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin all made fantastic albums when one or more of the guys were shooting up smack like fiends.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have had a long association with heroin. Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante and Dave Navarro have all been serious spikers and, of course, the drug cost original guitarist Hillel Slovak his life – one of the more obvious downsides of being an addict. The other seriously negative aspect of heroin addiction is that once bands clean up, their music really, really sucks.
Remarkably, as 1999’s ‘Californication’ – and three years later, ‘By The Way’ – would show, the Chilis would record their best material entirely clean. But in 1997, it didn’t look like there was going to be any material at all as there was no band to record it.
1995’s ‘One Hot Minute’ had been a massive critical and commercial disappointment after the multi-platinum party manifesto of ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’ four years previously. The band’s subsequent despondency really became apparent in 1997 when an appearance at the Tibetan Freedom Festival was pulled due to lack of rehearsal. Two planned summer dates in Hawaii and Alaska were pushed back – first when Kiedis came off his Harley, then again when Chad Smith broke his wrist in another motorcycle crash – and then cancelled altogether because the band were not sufficiently rehearsed. The one show they did play -Japan’s Mount Fuji Festival – was cut short by a freak downpour.
The painkillers Kiedis had been prescribed following his accident had whetted old appetites for something a little stronger, and he was back on heroin. “I have spent many of my years under the influence of drug addiction that it’s probably genetically coded in every cell in my body,” he said after eventually wrestling this particular monkey from his back yet again. “I know that it stopped adding anything positive to my experience years ago. And I know that I don’t take any of my clean time for granted.”
AS THE indestructible band started to look all too fragile, the Chili Peppers dispersed to clear their heads and contemplate their collective future. Flea journeyed to Costa Rica, lay in a hammock and read a biography of the Central American leftist revolutionary Che Guevara. Anthony Kiedis flew to India, swam in the Ganges and visited the Dalai Lama. The movements of Chad Smith are less clear, though they probably involved sporting events and beer. In April 1998, Dave Navarro left for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, though his notorious drug use was, apparently, not a factor. “I can’t imagine it would be,” he later said in a 1999 interview. “I have, and always will have, a tremendous respect for all of them.”
“I love Dave and I miss him,” said Kiedis in the same article. “I hope we had fun and go on to be friends at a later time.”
“Personality-wise, they are really at odds,” added long-time producer Rick Rubin of the fractious relationship between frontman and guitarist. “Dave is dark-humoured, dark-souled and Anthony doesn’t appreciate that. But once Dave kind of left us and Anthony was dealing with his own insurmountable problems, [the other members] thought the band would not continue, that there was too much anti-momentum.”
It had been rumoured that Anthony’s travels formed part of some kind of rehab process – after all, when Hillel Slovak died Kiedis had retreated to a remote Mexican village to go cold turkey – but this proved to be untrue. Whatever the singer needed, he realised it wasn’t in India. “What I was looking for was in my own back yard,” he said after returning to LA and kicking heroin one last time. “It was my friends.”
ONE FRIEND in particular was ready to rejoin the brotherhood. John Frusciante and Kiedis had grown apart during the snow-balling success of ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’, Frusciante saw the band as selling out, while the singer saw the band leapfrogging several tiers of stardom as nothing but a positive experience. “Getting through to the masses was something we had been aiming for, and now it was here why not embrace it?” Kiedis reasoned. “I mean, we’ve always had a bona fide fondness for making money. What was going on with John was like someone had cut my left nut out of my ball sack.”
The Kiedis scrotum was, eventually to be healed. Flea, who had been the only Chili Pepper to stay in contact with their former bandmate during his narcotic maelstrom (“I was terrified. I thought for sure he was going to die”), visited Frusciante at his home in ’98 and considered the guitarist fit to rejoin the band. After six years twisted out of his gourd nearly to the point of death, Frusciante had finally made the decision to enter rehab after absent-mindedly giving a taxi driver $2,000 [approx. £1,000 ] from a Chili Peppers’ royalty cheque. Though still suffering the effects of his all-consuming chemical regime – most obviously a variety of straggly beards to hide the bruising caused by extensive dental work to repair his ruined teeth, but also the abscesses on his arms from shooting cocaine- Frusciante agreed that, physically and mentally, he was ready again.
With expectations not exactly running high, the band convened in Flea’s garage in the summer of ’98. “I’d hardly played guitar for five years, so I had very little ability,” remembers Frusciante. “But it didn’t matter to them, it was just the spirit of what I was doing and the fact that it was me. It felt so good to have friends who really believed in me when nobody else did.”
Making up for his rusty playing with boundless enthusiasm, the guitarist was – ironically enough – a massive shot in the arm for the disheartened Chili Peppers. Kiedis remembers this first meeting as the high point of the entire ‘Californication’ experience. “When John gets excited its like eight billion volts of electricity. When he hit that first chord it was so perfect.”
THE BAND began recording at Hollywood’s Ocean Way Studios. Flea was going through a break-up with his girlfriend of five years, but apart from the perturbed bassist suffering the occasional panic attack, the sessions progressed smoothly. Three weeks later, ‘Californication’ was complete. “When it gets easy, it’s fun and everybody is in a good mood,” says Chad Smith. “The worst thing about drugs is that people get consumed by them and nothing else matters.”
“The fact that we didn’t die,” explains Kiedis, “or become spiritually crippled in the process of going through all these hardships, means there really was something in the air that wanted this to happen.” When the band emerged to promote the record, the first obvious change was cosmetic. Kiedis had cut his flowing brown hair to collar length and bleached it blond. It was a decision, he would later admit, that spoke volumes about his state of mind.
“I didn’t think that at the time, but I was definitely going through a change. I had decided to be clean. It was a whole new era for myself and the band.”
It certainly was. Propelled by a stream of hit singles, ‘Californication’ would sell over 12 million copies worldwide.
“Everything is possible and that’s a great feeling,” says Flea. “The old magic is back.”