The future of the Red Hot Chili Peppers may be in question, but that doesn’t mean guitarist John Frusciante is going to sit around and mope – as heard throughout his most focused solo release yet, The Empyrean
Since the late 1980s, few guitarists have introduced more rockers to the wonders of funk music than the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante. But there is much more to the guitarist than just this slinky style – as evidenced by his unpredictable and varied solo releases over the past few years. For the first time in a long time, Frusciante is focusing solely on non-Chili Peppers activities, and his first solo release post-Stadium Arcadium sees contributions from Flea, multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer, the New Dimension Singers and Sonus Quarter, in addition to one of John’s guitar heroes, Johnny Marr.
How does The Empyrean differ from your previous solo releases?
“If you put all the dates together that we worked on it, it was probably a month-and-a-half or two months accumulated, but it was done over a period of over a year. In terms of mixing, I learned how to engineer completely during this record. It’s the first time I’ve gotten that under my belt to the point where I really felt like I was putting the same expression into the recording and the mixing that I do into the songwriting, the guitar playing, or the singing.”
Who plays on the album, and how was it playing with the other musicians?
“I’m really accustomed now, when I record music, to the fact I’m doing everything myself – I don’t have anybody around me, except my friend who gets gear fixed.
“I was appreciating the gift of being able to work with people for what it was. With Josh’s keyboard playing, I kind of based the sound of the album around his organ and electric piano playing, that and Flea’s bass playing. I guide people and form things a little bit – ask people to put this note there in the bass or put a kick drum here – but mostly, anybody I work with understands where my music is coming from well enough, so I don’t have to tell them what to do.
“So, with the string quartet it was the same – these people that Josh was on tour with, with Gnarls Barkley, we were into a lot of the same classical music. So with no instruction at all, I just had them write these string parts. In one case, we did two versions of one song – one that was only strings and a couple of elements, because we had already mixed the song when they did their string parts. So, I made it a reprise of an earlier song – the songs Enough Of Me and One More Of Me. It’s neat to see the energy just take form – even when it’s in other people’s hands. Like with the choir, I told them what to sing and how to sing it. They just blew me away – just the sound of their voices and the pleasure of being able to EQ such rich voices like that. it was a really great experience for me mixing that.”
The Empyrean is a concept album, so would you care to discuss its storyline?
“I’ve never written lyrics that were so specific to me. But it’s personal to the degree that I’m not interested in talking about it in the press, because it would go against the principles that the album is based on. And I have too much respect for those principles to just use them as ‘selling material’. But basically, there are things in the album that have to do with the kind of reaching that it’s in our nature to do. You strive for things that are beyond your reach. And in getting there, you grow, change, and open up – as a person. But it’s necessary in that growth process to give up sometimes, or even to experience a kind of ‘death’ – whether it’s an actual physical death, or a kind of a death that comes along with giving up, which you’re reborn from.
“So, the album, lyrically, goes back and forth between a mixed up insanity to thoughts gradually coming into clarity, and then going back into a kind of insanity, and then gradually going into a clarity. It’s the same thing musically, where the album starts in these murky depths, and then it starts ascending and getting higher and higher. Then when it reaches a peak, it drops down again, then it continues to reach up, and then it reaches another peak, and then it drops down again. The end of the album is higher in pitch and in vibrancy than at any other point of the album. I tried to make the album continually feel like it’s moving upwards. That’s why the last song doesn’t even have any bass drum or bass guitar, so it contributes to the feeling of it floating, in relationship to the rest of the record.
“But I can only really speak about the concept in the abstract. There’s stuff in the lyrics for somebody who’s at a particular point in their path, and I’m sure that person will be able to get something out of that, or somebody with a certain type of experience that might be parallel with mine in some way. But I don’t feel things of this nature – when it comes to things or somebody’s personal inner journey – I don’t feel like that’s the kind of stuff that anybody can tell another person, with any kind of clarity about their own experience. I think I’ve done it on the lyrics about as clearly as I would be capable of doing it. Everything gets twisted around in interviews, so what I’ve said is all I can say.”
What guitars and amps did you use on the album?
“Pretty much the same ones I use with the Chili Peppers – a Marshall Major, a Marshall Jubilee, a ’62 Strat, ’57 Strat. It’s the first time I’ve ever used the same stuff I use in the band on one of my solo records. But really, that equipment is more me than any other equipment I’ve ever used, so I figured I’d stop playing a game and do what I do. I also used a Fender Bassman amp for the guitar.”
What effects did you use?
“That BOSS Turbo Distortion, Electro-Harmonix English Muffin, BOSS Chorus Ensemble, Ibanez Wah Wah pedal – again it’s the same stuff I use in the band. I think a Maestro Fuzz-Rite, but I used a lot of modular synth stuff. I would put things on tape, and then run them through a modular synthesier, basically using it as an effects unit. So most of the effects aren’t guitar effects – the initial guitar tones were usually made using the things I mentioned, but I did pretty extensive treatments with the modular synthesiser. I also used some really cool outboard gear for treatments as well: the EMT 250 Reverb, Plate Reverb, Eventide Primetime – old digital reverbs – the EMT 250 was one of the first digital reverbs ever made, and it figures prominently on the record.”
What about strings?
Do you follow a specific practice routine?
“At the time we recorded most of the stuff on this album I was on tour, so I was practising constantly. Since I was a kid, most of my practising centres around learning things from records – I’ve been doing it since I was 12 years old. My style is pretty much based on developing a vocabulary based on the way the different combinations of notes and rhythms cross with different notes [and how it] makes me feel. I learn things off records to try to gain a better understanding of why the music I’m hearing makes me feel what I feel.
“I have a huge record collection, and I can pretty much put on almost any record and play along with it. It’s gotten to the point where if I know a song, I know how to play it. I don’t even really need to learn something, unless it’s a really involved, improvised solo that goes on for 10 minutes. Or if it’s something with a lot of odd time signatures – those are the kind of things that don’t stay in your memory the same way as things that have more repetition. Even as a teenager, I could play all of Frank Zappa’s music. But at this point, my taste has gone through so many different phases and in so many different directions – I have a pretty big repertoire of stuff I know how to play.
“I love studying music, and I love the way that by learning things off other people, you can get an idea of what they were thinking, or why they chose the notes they chose, because it related in a certain way to the keyboard part or the bass part. And I love seeing the way that I don’t think of a guitar part as being an entity unto itself, which I think I made the mistake of thinking all through my teenage years. Whenever I learn a guitar part, I always look at it in relationship to the bass part and the other parts that it’s entwined with.
“I think it has broadened my scope to look at guitar playing in relationship to the other instruments, and not just learn the guitar part, and think, yeah, that’s the guitar part. It’s not the guitar part unless you understand the relationship to the drums, the bass, the vocals, and the keyboards.
“For a simple example, it could be one note, but it’s a very different note if you’re playing E on the ninth fret of the G string if C-sharp is in the bass, than it is if D is in the bass. And it’s also different if it falls on the second potential 16th note of the bar than it is if it falls on the second half-note of the bar. I used to think of one note as being one note, but they’re two completely different feelings and two completely difference flavours – depending on where they fall in the bar.
“I know it sounds rudimentary, but I studied really complicated music as a teenager and still didn’t really have that through my head – of how meaningful one note can be if it’s placed in the right place, and if it’s in the right harmonic climate.
“I think it’s probably a pretty popular misconception amongst young people.”
So do you have any more advice for other guitarists?
“A lot of people seem to judge guitar playing based on how well the guitar sticks out in the music, and I don’t think that’s a fair way to judge it. If you listen to a Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic, John Lennon or Peter Gabriel record – where the guitar is more contributing to the musical framework – it’s not “less” than guitar playing such as Jimi Hendrix’s, where it’s sticking out above the music. It’s not less musical, it’s not less beautiful, it’s not less emotional. Just because something sticks out doesn’t mean it’s better music. There’s been so many great things done with the guitar on a more subtle level, and I think a lot of the time guitar players are only interested in who’s playing the fastest, who seems the coolest, who dresses the coolest, who has the longest hair, or whatever it is.
“Sometimes, these faceless people – who you don’t even know their name – were a part in creating really beautiful music with other people, and it’s as important to develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of that type of guitar playing as much as it is to learn how to solo. When I was a teenager, I learned how to solo really fast. But there are certain really basic things about moving around in chords, or being able to play melodies that are based around chords, that I didn’t get clear in my head because all I was ever concerned with was playing something that nobody else could play, or something that was really difficult to play.
“I think a lot of the time, people that don’t play guitar listen to it more in terms of the sound, emotion, and feeling of it – they’re not concerned with how well it sticks out over the music, or what’s physically happening on the instrument. To me, it just doesn’t matter at all what’s happening physically on the instrument. What matters is the resultant sound and the way it offsets the rhythms, melodies, and chords played on other instruments. I think it’s important to not look at the guitar as a vehicle to demonstrate that you’re better than the next guy, or to show that you’ve practiced a certain amount. It’s an instrument to express yourself with, and it’s an instrument for playing with other human beings.
“It’s also an instrument that can help you gain better insight into things that people have done in the past. I don’t keep up on what guitar players are doing nowadays, but the sense I get from going to music stores is that the same sort of mental diseases are still running rampant, in terms of people saying that one guy is better than another guy. Really, nobody is any better than anybody else, in my mind. People should really look at it more in terms that it’s just another tool available to make music on – one of many.
“It’s good to focus on learning all different types of instruments, with all different types of roles, and apply them to your knowledge of the guitar, and use them to help broaden your understanding of your instrument. It shouldn’t matter if you’re learning the different string parts of a Beethoven piece, a Jimi Hendrix solo, or a rhythm part to a John Lennon song. It’s all just different words and languages.
“When I joined the Chili Peppers, even though I was pretty advanced on the instrument itself, I hadn’t developed a vocabulary of the simpler music that I liked. So when I was in a situation of the object being the ability to build music with other people, rather than show off, I didn’t know what to do! I had nothing to apply to that, because most of the music I liked that was simple, I hadn’t bothered to figure out because I thought it was too easy. It’s important to listen to a variety of music, and to study the guitar in a variety of situations and not just when it’s standing out to your mind.”
What is the current status of the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
“On an indefinite hiatus. No plans whatsoever to do anything – at all.”
So will you tour your solo album?
“I’m too involved in making music right now to tour. I spend four-and-a-half of the last 10 years on tour. In a way, I’d love to do it; it’s a nice way of connecting with people. But in the case of this record, I wouldn’t want to just go up on stage with my acoustic guitar like I used to. I’d want to put a couple of months into rehearsing a band, and then probably spend a couple of months on tour. Four months just seems inconceivable for me to get away from what I’m doing here. I won’t say absolutely that there won’t be any touring, but at this point, I can’t imagine it. Recording, writing, and playing – that’s really where my soul needs to be, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Many thanks to invisble-movement for allowing us to use their transcript for this.