The Unstoppable Groove of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Three decades and a dozen bandmates later, Anthony Kiedis and Flea have just begun to fight.
By David Fricke
Photograph by Terry Richardson
‘I was afraid,’ Flea, the bass guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, confesses over the roar of a tour-bus engine. ‘I couldn’t imagine going out with someone else. It seemed done.’ It is the last week of July, and Flea is sitting in the rear lounge as the bus hurtles north from Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway, up to Big Sur for the Chili Peppers’ first concert in four years. The show is their first in more than a decade without John Frusciante, the Chili Peppers’ brilliant and mercurial guitarist over 15 years and five albums of metallic funk and psychedelicized pop, including 1991’s Top Five hit, Blood Sugar Sex Magik and the 2006 Number One set, Stadium Arcadium. In 2009, Frusciante quit the band for the second time, for good.
Sporting turquoise-green hair and a basketball jersey exposing his upper body museum of tattoos, Flea explains the way he and Frusciante wrote songs: “John would come in with an idea, bam, and I’d pick it up. Or I’d have an idea and boom, he’d play the right thing. Done.” Flea also describes their friendship variously as “pleasant,” “tense,” “brotherly” and “combative.”
It’s like his band is “missing a family member,” he says.
Now they have a new one. The Chili Peppers are about to release I’m With You, their first album with Frusciante’s friend and successor, 31-year-old Josh Klinghoffer. Yesterday, Flea, Klinghoffer, drummer Chad Smith and singer Anthony Kiedis held their last pre-tour practice, running down nearly two dozen songs at a rehearsal space in Santa Monica. Tomorrow in Big Sur, the Chili Peppers make their live debut with Klinghoffer, at an invitation-only show on the lawn of the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Flea owns a house in the area and he wants the Chili Peppers to open their next era in front of friends and neighbors.
“I don’t feel ready,” Kiedis will admit a few hours before the gig. “I’ve never been ready for the first show of a new chapter. I get ready just enough so I know, somehow, I can make it work. Get the spit, get the glue, hold it together.”
The Chili Peppers have, in fact, become experts at rebirth since forming in 1983. Friends since high school and the remaining original members, Flea and Kiedis, also 48, have survived hard-drug abuse, death -the 1988 overdose of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak- and a dozen personnel changes, including Frusciante’s first resignation in 1992 and the short mid-Nineties tenure of Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction. Frusciante returned in 1998.
But when he quit the Chili Peppers again in 2009, near the end of a two-year hiatus from recording and touring, “it could have been the end, for sure,” Smith, 49, says, taking his turn in the tour-bus lounge. “We’ve been through the guitar-player mill, and here we are again.” The drummer admits he hoped Frusciante would change his mind, “which he’s done before. OK, he’s doing other things, but one day, I’m gonna get that call: ‘Hey, it’s John, you wanna jam?’” Smith does an affectionate impression of Frusciante’s choppy whispering voice. “Never happened.”
By October 2009 – two months before Frusciante publicly announced he was leaving – Flea, Smith and Kiedis were writing with Klinghoffer, a gifted Los Angeles-born sideman who has worked with Beck, PJ Harvey and Gnarls Barkley and played extra guitar and keyboards on the Stadium Arcadium tour. There were no auditions or other major candidates. The new lineup cut the basic tracks for the 14 songs on I’m With You in one month.
“I never had the feeling we were done,” Kiedis insists. “Flea’s biggest concern, that he shared with me, was that he didn’t want to continue if it wasn’t as good as it had ever been, at its best: ‘We’ve accomplished too much to do anything half-assed.’”
But, the singer concedes, “If Flea bows out, there’s no Chili Peppers. I wouldn’t even consider trying….” His voice trails off, as if he’s pondering the impossible. “Flea and I were meant to share this life together. It’s just what’s happening.”
On the bus, Flea talks about that bond: “Anthony and I moved to L.A. at the same time, same age” – in their early teens; Flea from Melbourne, Australia where he was born, Kiedis from his native Michigan. They both came from families ruptured by divorce and, Flea notes, “from the lower end of the economic scale. We knew that no one was going to do anything for us if we didn’t do it on our own. We realized we had magic together. We used to call ourselves ‘the Two-Headed Monster.’ We had more power together than apart. We could do shit.”
The monster is now a pair of dads, with separate and busy personal lives. Twice-divorced, Flea has two daughters. Kiedis has a three-and-a-half-year-old son, Everly, by a former partner, model Heather Christie; the couple split in 2008. (Smith, who joined the Chili Peppers in 1989, has two boys with his wife Nancy, and three children from previous relationships. Klinghoffer is single.) “Our sense of everything, all of our jokes and experiences -I don’t think Anthony and I see the depth of it all the time,” Flea goes on. “Last week, we had not been getting along at all. We had some ridiculous argument over video shit. That’s the thing, after John left, I didn’t want to lose – the sense of family, of working on something together for so long.”
Over a steak dinner and a glass of wine at a hotel in Big Sur, Klinghoffer – an amiable, soft-spoken guy in a tall, wiry frame – recalls a recent phone conversation with Frusciante. The two met when Klinghoffer was in his teens, playing with their own fraternal intensity on Frusciante’s solo records and other projects. “I was talking to him about playing with these guys,” Klinghoffer says. “He said, ‘There’s something amazing about getting up in the morning and playing something amazing with your friends.’
“That’s something I’ve wanted more than anything in my life: to have a band of friends that you trust and love,” Klinghoffer says excitedly. “Flea and John had a special relationship – I saw it for years. That Flea and Chad and Anthony could open up and let someone else in, someone new, is amazing to me.”
Frusciante could not be reached for comment. “I think he just wants to be free to do what he wants,” Flea suggests, “without the commerce involved with being in a big band.”
But the weekend before the Big Sur show, Smith ran into Frusciante at a Soundgarden concert in L.A. “He looked good and happy,” the drummer says. Later, Frusciante sent Smith a text message: “It made me really happy to see you.”
“I don’t know what’s ahead – I never know -but right now, the band is really fun,” Flea declares, his voice revving up. The Chili Peppers wrote more than 50 songs for I’m With You and already plan to make a second album with Klinghoffer after they finish touring next year.
“It’s only gonna change and get better,” Smith swears cheerfully. “Unless something weird happens.”
In the corner of a room at Dirt Cheap Sound Stage, on the afternoon of the Chili Peppers’ last tour rehearsal, Flea – shirtless and barefoot, in loose red pants – sits at a table with his vegetarian lunch. He is absolutely still for a minute, his eyes closed and hands turned upward, before he digs in.
“Flea says a little prayer over his meals,” says singer-poet Patti Smith, a close friend and collaborator. At some of her concerts in recent years, he has played bass in her band. “To be around Flea is a holistic experience,” she goes on fondly. “He’s careful with his food. He runs every day.” Smith once saw him warm up for a Chili Peppers show by practicing Bach runs on his bass backstage. When she and Flea perform together, she says, “If I’m tired, if he can feel a little faltering, he looks into my eyes and gives me all of his energy. He’s his own man. He knows his worth. But he has that selfless quality that makes a great musician.”
Flea’s silent prayers are nondenominational. “I’ve developed a relationship with my idea of what God is” he says. “While music gave me liberation, my playing is about staying in touch with something sacred, a divine energy that flows through me.”
It is a visible energy. At Dirt Cheap, the Chili Peppers – with a new touring member, percussionist Mauro Refosco – swing from the rolling acid pop of “Monarchy of Roses” and the stark ballad “Meet Me at the Corner,” both on the new album, to the war-dance charge of “Throw Away Your Television,” from 2002’s By The Way and the Blood Sugar funk command “Give it Away.”
In every number, Flea telegraphs each note and rhythmic inflection with his body bent forward practically in half, head and shoulders jerking in time. Kiedis does his own version of that. His dancing, in the instrumental breaks, is part karate, part break dancing, iced with a cocky smile.
Klinghoffer is no wallflower. He often stands toe-to-toe with Flea – heads bobbing, almost butting -and hits his power chords with his long legs spread apart, like a basketball version of Pete Townshend. But Klinghoffer’s playing – restless and textural, a mix of Keith Richards’ melodic weaving and Jimi Hendrix’s pictorial echo and distortion – is a sea change from Frusciante’s cutting riffs and solos.
“Josh creeps around an idea, working it out,” Flea says. “It’s more sublime and subtle. We’ve never had that before. Even when Josh gets violent, he envelops more than attacks.”
“I’m not John,” Klinghoffer says bluntly. “It’s not conscious. I never did anything to be not like John. But what he did was that band. Hopefully, this is a new band.”
Flea says as much after that rehearsal. “He texted me: ‘It sounds amazing,’” Klinghoffer remarks later. “It was very sweet.”
Sammy Hagar, who plays with Chad Smith in the band Chickenfoot, envies the loyalty he sees in the Chili Peppers. “I was always complimenting Chad on that,” Hagar says. “It’s not like they’ve stabbed the guitar player in the back and thrown him out,” a glancing reference to the dramas Hagar witnessed in Van Halen. “Guys keep leaving, and they still keep their core strong. It’s just good people that care about each other.”
Flea, however, took advantage of the Chili Peppers’ two-year break after Stadium Arcadium, working on other artists’ tours and records and cutting solo material at his own studio in the Silverlake area of L.A. In 2010, he played bass in Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s offshoot band Atoms for Peace, doing shows and playing on a forthcoming studio album. Yorke says he asked Flea to join the project “because he plays bass like a lead instrument. But I thought, ‘Why would he want to do this?’ He said he enjoyed the idea of getting involved, but not being responsible for the end product, getting the kicks and walking away.” Yorke laughs. “I can totally understand that.”
Flea is actually a complex bundle of confidence, humility and yearning, a formally trained musician – he started on trumpet – whose aggressive style on bass belies his notion of service. “I want to support them,” he says of his work for Yorke and Patti Smith. “Thom channels such a beautiful thing. I’m like, ‘Let me give everything that I am to him, give him what he needs to float on.’
That freedom thing Thom’s talking about – it’s getting out of the way,” Flea explains. “When you try to control music, you strangle it. I know it’s a hippie thing. But I’m trying to get the energy out, let it go. That’s the gift I have.”
Flea co-founded a nonprofit music school for children, the Silverlake Conservatory, in 2001. He still considers himself a student as well. In the fall of 2008, the bassist enrolled at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music for a year, taking courses in theory, composition and trumpet. He did not receive formal credit but completed the assigned homework – in Bach, Haydn, and Mozart among others – and final exams. “Not playing a chord instrument – the trumpet, bass – I wanted to unlock some mysteries,” he says.
“He would call me two or three times in an afternoon – ‘I have a question about the assignment, this chord in measure two,’” says Flea’s theory instructor, Neal Desby. “He was very serious, and the other students could see that. It became a lesson in itself – 9:30 in the morning, this guy’s here. He doesn’t have to do this.” Flea’s grade in Desby’s class: “A, with flying colors. He did extremely well.”
Asked during that bus ride if he ever wonders where he would be now without music or his band, Flea looks up, amazed. “It’s funny you should say that. That was my thought when I woke up this morning.” He recounts an adolescence of hard drugs and robbing houses, “bad, bad shit, the kind that ends you up in jail, dead. Anthony, Hillel, my friends who really felt like my family – we took our drugs together. It was our communion. But it became clear -people’s lives ruined, nothing beautiful about it.” Flea quit hard drugs “cold, never went to rehab,” in the early Nineties, at 30. Kiedis, who wrote vividly about his life as an addict in the Blood Sugar hit “Under the Bridge,” took longer. He has been clean since 2000.
“Music saved me – and books,” Flea says, “Reading Kurt Vonnegut at 13, that was the shit that raised me, gave me a sense of ethics, what’s right in the world.” Flea is now an avid book collector. He owns a British first-edition printing of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which he bought in London in 2004 for, he sheepishly admits, “a large amount of money.”
I didn’t read it until my late thirties,” he says of the novel, “but it touched me – the resilience Jane maintains when faced with situations where everyone loses their dignity and kindness. She is put through fucking hell. She’s abandoned, treated like shit. And she never strays from what she loves.”
Give her a guitar, I suggest, and it could be the story of his band.
“I relate to it,” Flea confesses. I didn’t always keep my dignity and stay true, be kind and stuff.” Still, he says, “It’s something to aspire to.”
Joshua Adam Klinghoffer was born in L.A. on October 3rd, 1979, the younger of two children, to New York natives Steve and Kathy Klinghoffer. Josh’s father is also in the entertainment business, a sound technician for films and television.
Josh was nine when his parents signed him up for drum lessons. “He would bang on everything in front of him,” Kathy says. “If you were talking to Josh, he would be drumming on the kitchen table, drumming on the coffee table.” Josh taught himself how to play guitar and keyboards.
At 15, Josh told his parents he was quitting high school to study music on his own. “It was a war for years,” Josh remembers. “I said, ‘I want to get smart on my own terms.’” It was an eerie parallel, too: Frusciante also dropped out of high school to concentrate on the guitar, obsessively playing along to records at home, before he joined the Chili Peppers at 18, in 1989. “There was a lot of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix,” Klinghoffer says of his own private studies. “The Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam were big bands for me.”
Klinghoffer first met Frusciante through Bob Forrest, the former leader of the L.A. cult band Thelonious Monster and a long time friend of the Chili Peppers. “Josh and John – all they did was live for movies and records,” says Forrest, now an addiction counselor. He recalls a trip to New York where Forrest and Klinghoffer signed a deal for a band they had at the time, the Bicycle Thief. “We each got a $10,000 advance. Josh said, ‘I’ll see you back at the hotel.’ He came back eight hours later with 100 CDs and a 1940s acoustic guitar. I said, ‘How much money do you have left?’ he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, not much.’”
Klinghoffer’s resume as a sideman reads like alt-rock star time. In addition to his live work with Beck and Harvey, there have been tours and sessions for Perry Farrell, Sparks, Tricky, the Butthole Surfers and the highly touted indie band Warpaint, as well as several records with Frusciante. Forrest points out a significant difference between the two guitarists: “John exploded to power and money so quickly” when he joined the Chili Peppers. “He never had Josh’s experience of playing with other musicians.” Steve Klinghoffer proudly talks of his son’s “way of attracting people – he fits in very well.”
In the Chili Peppers, he is treated – and acts – like a partner, not a junior associate. At several points during that tour rehearsal, Flea and Kiedis – “the invisible axis,” as the latter puts it – go into consultation about an upcoming video shoot and the flow of songs in the set list. But Klinghoffer is often in there as well, listening closely and making suggestions. And he receives equal writing credit on I’m With You. “Josh shined as a contributor,” says the record’s producer, Rick Rubin, who has produced the Chili Peppers’ last six albums. “He would be argumentative if things didn’t go exactly how he wanted to. He would fight for his stuff.”
Kiedis hears what he calls “the core of Josh, a gentleness, in his melodies and chordal movements.” He’s also noticed the perfectionism. “We’ll play a song, and I’ll think, ‘Fuck, that is so good.’ Then I’ll look over and he’ll be kicking his equipment. He’ll hear one itty-bitty thing that didn’t go right with his pedals. It felt so good to me. But he wants to get it more correct.”
Charging through his steak dinner the night before his Big Sur debut, Klinghoffer is honest about the stuff he has to learn and hone for the Chili Peppers’ tour: a three-decade catalog of songs; the shifting guitar tones and background-vocal parts in the new ones; the jump to principle soloist. “That creates a massive fear in me,” he confides. “I begin a solo and think I’m off to a good start. But in the middle…” Klinghoffer laughs. “My dismounts are terrible.”
Flea leaps to his defense. “Being the guitar player in a big fucking rock band is a lot to do,” the bassist asserts. “As time goes on, he’ll discover more and more. But it’s all there. He just needs to be himself.”
Flea then tells a story about a recent summer camp program at his music school, where he, Smith, Refosco and Klinghoffer played for students and held a question-and-answer session, telling tales about how they got involved in music. “I knew Josh didn’t want to talk,” Flea says, “so I asked him, ‘Josh, how did you get started?’ And he was so quiet. He said, ‘Well, when I was little, I’d start playing music’ – the kids were all listening – ‘and it made me happy. It still makes me happy.’
“That’s all he said. But there was so much weight in those words.”
“It’s changed so much,” Kiedis say the morning of the Big Sur show, reflecting on his life outside the Peppers since the birth of Everly in 2007. “It used to be all about me. Now it’s all about my son. It was the greatest thing that could have happened to me.”
Kiedis is sitting in the living room of an antique cabin on a hilly estate overlooking the Pacific where he is staying with Everly. Flea’s house is nearby; he and Kiedis both love to surf in these waters. “Road Trippin,” on the Chili Peppers 1999 album Californication, was written about one of their surfing holidays here.
“I get up when he gets up,” the singer says, describing a typical day at home with Everly. “I have breakfast with him, but I don’t make it. He has a nanny. My job is to tell stories to him while he eats. And he is demanding about his storytelling. If I try to get away with a short one, no. We’re talkin’ full-length.”
Puzzles, reading, drawing and “backyard hide-and-seeking” usually follow. There is no television – the kind with “commercials and noise,” as Kiedis puts it. He and Everly watch “1930s animation together, a lot of films. But when he walks into a room where the television is on, he walks right by.”
Kiedis, who lives in Malibu, reserves a couple of hours every day for surfing. (Two years ago, after he was hospitalized with a gall-bladder crisis – “It literally erupted like a volcano inside me” – Kiedis spent his recovery riding waves.) He calls his current dating life “pretty much nonexistent.” As for marriage, “I don’t feel like I need it. Being a single parent is golden.”
One of rock’s best-known libertines, part of a band that got famous fast in the Eighties for appearing onstage dressed in nothing but strategically placed socks, Kiedis examines his own adolescence with a single parent in L.A. – his father, John, an actor now in his 70s – with nuanced affection. “He was like, ‘I’m going to make my son my best friend – we’re going to be two adults that take on the world together,” Kiedis recalls. “He gave me knowledge and introduction into a culture most parents never give their children.
“But it’s difficult,” he continues, “when you’re parenting your parent because they’re out of control, which my father was in the mid-Seventies, with the drinking and using. He was pushing his limits – although not as far as I would later push mine. I would try very hard not to put my son in that position.”
“I was a dad way before anyone else in the band weighed in,” says Flea. His older daughter, Clara, a musician and photographer, recently graduated from college. “But Anthony’s dedication to his son is intense. And he seems so stable. I feel a greater understanding from him, a tolerance of things that might have pissed him off before.” Flea grins, “He’s definitely cooler with me, that’s for sure.”
Kiedis is a mix of modest and circumspect when he talks about his lyrics for I’m With You. He refers to himself as “a weird writer. I never think, ‘My life is different now, let me get out the pencil and paper.’” His hopeful bravado over Flea’s brisk bass gallop in “Factory of Faith” w as “just the words that tumbled forth. I look at it now and I can see I was having faith in the process of love, sending my message that I was available.”
But he has a ready answer to a question about the first grown-up song he wrote: “Love Trilogy,” on 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. Like most of their early material, “It’s kind of kooky,” he allows. “But its subject matter is grown up – love for your friends, for your parents, for life. We always felt misinterpreted. We knew exactly who we were. When we were being knuckleheads and making faces, taking the piss out of ourselves to the press and anyone else, it only made sense because we believed in the music the whole time, from the first song we ever played.
“I can’t imagine it not being there,” Kiedis says of his band and its future with Klinghoffer. “Something weird could happen,” he adds, echoing Smith’s remark. “Or not. I know today, we have the Henry Miller Library -our first show with Josh, outdoors at night, in the mountains.” Kiedis flashes a hungry smile. “Yeah.”
The Chili Peppers’ first live show in four years turns out to be a ragged good time. The lights go out several times during the first few songs; half the set is from the new record, which the audience hasn’t heard yet; and Kiedis, losing his voice in the cold, asks Klinghoffer to take over the singing in a couple of high choruses.
There is also plenty of evidence of a band reborn again: Kiedis’ vigorous dancing to the polyrhythmic surge of “Ethiopia,” from I’m With You; Flea, shirtless and working up a sweat despite the chill; Klinghoffer’s excited, slashing guitar breaks. “The last thing we want to be,” Chad Smith says the day before on the bus, “is that band out there, doing a summer tour, playing ‘Under the Bridge’ in the sheds. ‘What about our new songs?’ Everybody is off getting a Coke and a hot dog. We’re really fortunate. We got another chance.”
Backstage in Big Sur, after the encores, Flea is delighted and relieved. “Every time I looked at Josh, I could tell – he was in it,” he says. “There was no deer-in-headlights. This band, this new version, is starting.”
“I felt great,” Klinghoffer announces happily. “Rehearsals are great, but there’s nothing like doing it for people.” He laughs off the rough patches. “This was my kind of gig –
lights go out, singer loses his voice. I could have played all night.”
There is a moment, too, when Kiedis walks up to Flea, on his way to a waiting car. They don’t talk about the show. Kiedis is giving Flea the ocean report for Big Sur the next day: good swells and low winds in the afternoon, perfect for surfing. “That sounds great,” Flea says. “How about fourish?” Kiedis smiles and they hug before parting for the night.
Thanks to Anthony O’Connor for typing out the original transcript this was based on.