2022 04 Bass Player (UK)



Welcome (from the index page)

The power of love will save us, says Flea. He makes a valid point, right?

When the Red Hot Chili Peppers, heroes in our world for decades, announced recently that their new studio album would be called Unlimited Love, it gave me pause for thought. We are, after all, coming out (we hope) of the worst episode in public health in a very long time: is 2022 really the year that we should be suggesting that love is the solution to all our problems?

Having spent a long time in conversation with RHCP bassist Flea for this issue of BP, though, I now understand the message more clearly. Love for our chosen instrument, love for his band-mates, love for music: if these are at the core of our worldview, as they are for him, then we will be more tolerant, kinder people who are better equipped to help each other out of the current situation. That’s my take on it, anyway: I’ll be interested to hear yours.

I’ve always thought that we bass players are a pretty good bunch of people anyway. Of course, we have our flaws like everybody else, but there’s something about being the primal heartbeat of any musical endeavour that makes us rise above most of the petty problems of everyday existence. I like to think you’ll get some of this from our other interviews in this issue with a host of talented bassists from the blues, session, indie and metal worlds, as well as from our panel of educators. They genuinely want one thing: to fulfil our stated aim of making you the best bass player you can be.

Maybe this ‘sharing the love’ idea makes sense after all. If it works for a bassist as advanced as Flea, it’ll work for the rest of us. See you next month, friends.

Joel McIver, Editor


Love is in the Air

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new album is a showcase for Flea, who you recently voted the world’s best rock bassist — but as he tells Joel McIver, he doesn’t see himself that way.

We work hard,” wrote Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael ‘Flea’ Baizary in the liner notes of 2004’s Greatest Hits album, a world away from the club-level act that his band had been two decades before. That hard work has led him to the position of Best Bassist in multiple polls in this magazine – even though, as he tells us, he’s nowhere near being the bassist that he really wants to be. It’s our job to find out why.

An Australian who moved to California as a kid and endured a tough childhood which you can read all about in his 2019 autobiography Acd For The Children, Flea – so nicknamed for his habit of leaping about on stage, like you didn’t know that already – is probably his demographic’s most visible bass player. He won his category in BP’s 100 Greatest Bassists Poll a couple of issues ago by a significant margin, indicating that many of you reading this would agree with that assessment.

A jazz- and punk-rock obsessive since his early days, Flea’s bass parts are deft without being over-polished, fast without lacking heart, and infused with a hippie West Coast sensibility that is equal parts Larry Graham and Peter Hook. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Chili Peppers’ new album, Unlimited Love, whose title may sound like a rom-com but whose contents definitely deserve your attention.

Produced by Rick Rubin and featuring the retuning John Frusciante’s first work with the band since 2009 – when he was replaced by Josh Klinghoffer, who he replaced in turn two years ago – Unlimited Love is a subtler RHCP record than many fans will expect. Generally quieter and less aggressive than their best-known albums Mother’s Milk (1989), Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) and Califomication (1999), the album leaves plenty of space for Flea to fill with a variety of bass parts – and fill them he does. We sat down with the perennial punk of funk to see where his head is at in 2022…

Did you record Unlimited Love the old-school way – together in the studio?

Yeah, absolutely. We don’t know any other way. We like to record live to tape, with all of us playing together in a room, looking at each other playing, feeling each other playing, like we’ve always done it. We sit in a rehearsal room for months on end, writing, jamming, laughing, arguing, and at a certain point, the shit has been honed and nurtured, so we go in and put it on tape and play it for Rick. He makes his comments and then we record it.

I assume that when you play with John Frusciante, it’s like putting on a pair of comfortable old sneakers, or am I way off?

No, no, that’s it. That’s a really correct assumption. You know, John was gone for 10 years, and the first second that we started jamming together again, it was just like talking. We were both yearning for the same thing to happen, and when the thing happens, we’re both completely conscious that it’s happening. It’s like that with the four of us, not just me and John. It was like that with Josh too, who is a beautiful musician, and not only a beautiful musician but a great person – someone who is kind and thoughtful and generous and supportive, musically and otherwise. It’s just different sets of reference points, and different ways of looking at what the project is. It’s just a matter of the language spoken organically, you know – and we have that with John in spades. It’s there, and it’s clear, and it’s simple, and it’s easy.

And what about working with Rick Rubin? I never know whether he kicks your asses in the studio, or if he just sits back and is a kind of impassive guru figure.

You know, to be honest, I didn’t see a lot of him. I think he came to one rehearsal, and he listened to the shit and he loved it. He gives us arrangement advice, and he tells us how he thinks the essence of the song can be brought out better. You know, how we can serve the melody and the vocal, or whether a song needs to change key or tempo, or if he thinks one part should be longer and another part should be approached in a different way. We went through that with him and then we laid it all down. He and Anthony went to Hawaii and did the vocals, and John and I stayed and did whatever overdubs were needed to my parts and John’s guitar parts. He added a whole plethora of keyboards and backing vocals, too.

There’s tons of room for you to move around on this album – it’s a real bass playground in that sense.

I think that’s just where we’re at, collectively, and where I’m at. I think about playing bass – particularly as it relates to the Red Hot Chili Peppers – as like a river. With the bass-lines and the way I want to play them, I want to live my life in a way that allows me to open myself up enough for this cosmic, spiritual river to flow through me. I can unleash it however it needs to go – like when it needs to be violent rapids, or when it needs to be a calm, still pool. However I can serve the chords, the melody, the rhythm and the harmony, I’m going to be loose and free and let it flow. I feel like we have a lot of great rhythms and chords and melodies and I just want to flow through it, man. It can be a supportive thing, or it can be a hypnotic, repetitive thing which creates that meditative feeling of hypnosis that we all want in music, you know what I mean? Whether I’m talking about flicking Discharge or Slayer or Erik Satie or everything in between, it’s that human feeling that we want, the connectedness of humanity, that we feel when we hear great music.

How do you apply this in practice?

I get out of the way and let the thing flow. More often than not on this record, I’m all over the place. I’m just letting it flow. Every song is different than the next, every call is different than the next. I’m just feeling the music and feeling what works, and as long as I stay focused and diligent as a musician, and I play a lot, and I pay attention and I’m humble, I’m continuing to learn. When the opportunity comes to play, after a lifetime of playing, I have all these reference points and all these feelings, which are part of who I am, that make me up. They’re constantly guiding me and I trust them. I trust all the things that have come through me.

How much of the bass is arranged and how much is improvised in the moment?

I like to not know what I’m going to play. I know the feeling of what I’m going to play, and I know the feeling that I’m yearning for, but I’m gonna trust my fingers and my nervous system and my brain and my relationship with God to come through. I just want to rock it. I just want to let it happen.

Do you practise much?

I practise, I do my scales. I do my stuff. I study. I love music. I love the bass. I get more joy picking up my bass and holding it in my hands than I ever have in my life, you know. I love to play the thing. I’ve got my ’61 Fender Jazz and I love the lightness of it, the smoothness of the neck. I hold it in my hands and all is right in the world.

I love the unselfishness of John’s guitar parts. He obviously doesn’t feel the need to show off at this point.

John is so fucking good, man. He is more technically capable than he’s ever been. He can play anything. His knowledge of music is encyclopaedic. His taste is beautiful. He’s always evolving, growing, changing. He comes from the purest place, with the most integrity, and with all of that said, the thing that has been such a joy for me, playing with him this time around, is the humility that comes with that sparseness. He has no desire, anywhere in him, to show off. He just wants to make great music. His vision of the music is so beyond ego. He’ll write a beautiful chord progression and melody, and within that, he trusts me just to do my thing.

On the same subject, we all start our careers wanting to show off our bass chops, and then as we mature, that falls away. When did that happen for you?

I don’t know that I ever really had that desire, consciously anyways, to be a show-off. Of course, I loved Jam and Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller and all these great bass players, but I was more about having my own sound and my own style that sounded like me. Maybe that’s where my arrogance was, especially in the early Chili Peppers stuff where I’m very busy, with fast 16th notes slapped aggressively. I’m into punk rock, and the funk that I love kind of comes through the vehicle of the punk rock aggression that I was feeling in the street as a kid, you know. I don’t know… I always loved sweet, mellow bass playing, too. It just didn’t really make sense for me to do it. Even back then when I was playing all that fast stuff, we would do a song like ‘Baby Appeal’ [from RHCP’s eponymous debut album, 1984], where it was just so simple. I love bands with really simple bass-lines, like Gang Of Four or Echo & The Bunnymen. Around the time we made Blood Sugar Sex Magik, I definitely felt the value in really simple bass playing. At the time I was super into Neil Young and the sound of the Crazy Horse bass player, Billy Talbot. It was so heavy. He would just hit a root and a quarter note and it would fucking shake your insides out with the beauty and the heaviness of it. But at the same time, I could never shy away from the heaviness of Charlie Mingus’s fastest, most brutal attack. Man, I love Mingus so much.

Has it occurred to you that that in early 2022, it’s 30 years since ‘Under The Bridge’ and the other Blood Sugar Sex Magik singles came out?

I hadn’t thought about it. Once a while, I’ll look on social media and I’ll see people saying that it’s the 20-year anniversary or the 30-year anniversary of something, and I’ll think ‘That’s cool’. You know, I’m grateful that people care, but I’m thinking more like `Shit, I gotta work on my soloing, because I haven’t been practising enough’. The lightness and the weight of time is something that I feel every day, like every human being, you know, and especially as I get older, I’m just grateful to be a human, ha ha!

Are you playing bass now the same way you were 3o years ago?

I hope that I’m better. I mean, I feel like I’m better. I’m always discovering things, you know, and trying to develop. I like to think that the best parts of myself back then, I’ve kept, and that I’ve gotten rid of the bits that I don’t need. I’ll try to add more essential parts and I’ll get better. You know, I really want to be a good jazz bass player — that’s something I really want to do, whenever I get the time. I was studying with someone for a little while, around the time I finished tracking on the last Chili Peppers album. I was studying jazz with this girl whose husband plays saxophone on our record, just working on trying to play through changes on walking bass, because upright bass is the most comforting sound to me. I remember when we were tracking Californication, we were all sitting around the studio lounge, and John was asking everybody in the room, ‘What’s the real comfort music that you put on and it’s like breathing?’ I realised that for me, it’s jazz, mostly because liked it when I was a kid. I just don’t know how to play a lot of that shit, so that’s something I’m always quietly aspiring to.

Presumably you could do a jazz project on the side if you wanted to?

I could, I could. I would love to, but my professional life has always been such that it’s difficult to go develop something like that.

How do you maintain your chops?

Well, when we’re on tour, I’m playing so much. We’re playing gigs all the time, and I play scales for an hour before every show. Something about the Chili Peppers is that never for a second have we ever taken the audience for granted, or thought ‘We’ll just go out and play the hits’. I always take every show as a sacred moment, as part of a mission of being alive. So I keep my chops up. I’m ready. I’m ready!

How are the hands and shoulders holding up after 40 years of playing bass?

Strong as ever. I practise, but I also know when it’s time to rest. I’m keen on physical fitness, which I really think is a big thing. I can’t speak for everyone, but for myself, my feelings get deeper and my insight gets deeper as you get older. In order to be able to articulate feelings and insight, you have to take care of your body. I think that’s true at all times of life, but you become more conscious of it as you get
older. I’m going to be 60 on my next birthday, and I have lots of friends who can’t be bothered. You know, I get it. I have a lazy streak like a motherfucker, but if you choose to do something, you want to do it as well as you can, and I care about happiness and longevity too.

When you go out on tour, will you be taking your ’61 Jazz, or the Fender signature model based on it, or both?

I’ll bring a variety of Fenders. I usually leave the ’61 at home, or I’ll use it as my hotel-room bass, you know. With old basses like that, with those old pickups, it’s hard to articulate the fast stuff, like ‘Nobody Weird Like Me’. A more modern, active pickup situation works better in a stadium or an arena.

Ever tempted to bust out a Modulus bass for old times’ sake?

I could, but then the amp settings and stuff would all have to change. I’m actually switching amps on this tour for the first time in a long, long time. In the studio, I started playing Ampeg SVTs, and I’m switching to them live. To be honest, I’ve always thought it doesn’t fucking matter. You’re bringing your heart and your fingers and that’s all that really matters, but I’ve been really enjoying them – they are the centre and the character of the sound that I love.

What have you got left to achieve?

I want to be a good musician, man.

You don’t think you’ve reached that point yet?

Well, I have my thing, you know, but I want to be better. The specific goals I have as a bass player are that I want to become a better soloist, and I want to expand my cerebral knowledge of chord progressions and bass-lines, so I can be a good jazz bass player. And I want to fucking rock harder than ever. I want to stir the souls of human beings when we play. And I want to be a good bandmate – I want to connect with my bandmates, and be a great support to them and help them be the best they can be. I love my band and I’m really proud of the music we’ve recorded. I feel like it’s beautiful. I feel like it’s the best we can do. I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders and at the top of our game, and I just want to continue to do all those things.

What makes you happy, Flea?

Love. I try to live a life where I’m creating it, where I’m building bridges, even with people who I really disagree with. I try to build bridges with different communities where I live, with different people. That’s very important to me. I just really hope that we can build bridges of love everywhere we go. I think that’s where happiness lies in the future. The possibility for it lies within all of us.


Your cut-out-and-keep guide to the best bass parts in Unlimited Love

‘Here Ever After’

Amid an atmosphere of post-punk-influenced rawness, there lurks a mids-heavy bass tone, and Flea delivers a suitably gritty solo around the three-minute mark.

‘Aquatic Mouth Dance’

Enjoy the funky bass intro, again loaded with grit for a very ‘real’ sound; watch out for his pyrotechnic display towards the end of the song.

‘The Great Apes’

There are a lot of ballads on this album, and we do mean a lot, but the great thing about that is there’s tons of room for expressive bass parts. Flea does his best Hendrix impression here, so stand well clear.

*White Braids and Pillow Chair’

Listen out for the busy bass sixteenths at this song’s end, the point at which Flea seems to spread out on most of the tracks on this album.

‘One Way Traffic’

With a cool bass groove in the intro, plenty of high-register busy parts at the end, a touch of overdrive and some massive string-bends, this is the bass song to focus on.


Inside ‘Give It Away’

A nostalgic look back at arguably Flea’s finest hour taken from Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991).

One of the high points of Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the most obviously ‘Chili Pepper’-sounding song on it, the relentless ‘Give It Away’. Plucked straight from the drawer marked Mother’s Milk, the song was and remains the finest extant example of modern white funk to emerge in years. Nowadays the long-time RHCP fan will not be able to hear its opening salvo – a ringing, string-bent chord from John Frusciante plus Chad Smith’s staccato snare – without punching the air. Like its big-rock-single contemporaries of the time – Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ – ‘Give It Away’ has been a club staple for so long that it inevitably evokes early-Nineties emotions.

But there’s a reason why ‘Give It Away’ has become such a benchmark: it is, without a doubt, one of the catchiest singles to be released in the last couple of decades. Once heard, it sticks deep in the listener’s ear and will not be removed. The core of this catchiness is twofold. Firstly, Flea’s simple, elegant bass-line – a simple upper-register slide with a three-note tail – is among his most effective work to date, taking the less-is-more philosophy which he had often spoken of on the BSSM album to an elevated level. Only on two or three occasions does he drop in one of the deft fills for which he had become famous, making the whole effort a masterclass in economy.

Flea’s reputation as a killer bass player had almost seen him lured away at one point “John Lydon,” Anthony Kiedis once reported, “once made a great stab at poaching Flea for Public Image… And Malcolm McLaren tried to poach the whole band. He sat down with us, watched us rehearse, and then he said, ‘Okay, here’s the plan, guys. We’re going to simplify the music completely, so it’s just basic, old-school, simple three-chord rock’n’roll, and we’ll have Anthony be the focus of attention, and you guys will be the back-up band doing this surf-punk thing: At which point Flea keeled over and passed out. It could have been what we had smoked – we were very dysfunctional at that point – but I think it was more what McLaren said.”

Secondly, Kiedis’ vocal – the closest to a rap, rather than singing, that he comes on this record – hangs on a repeated boast of ‘Give it away, give it away, give it away now, all of which he enunciates perfectly in couple of seconds at most. It’s a fantastic piece of vocal acrobatics and is all the more remarkable since Kiedis is not known for the speed or dexterity of his vocals, before or since.

The song made a profound impact Kiedis later explained: “I was toy shopping in New York right before Christmas, and this little girl was tugging on her mom’s coat, pointing at me and going. ‘That’s him, that’s him’. And her mom came over and said, ‘Oh, I’ve just got to thank you. you’ve made my life so much easier’. She said the only way she could get her little girl dressed in the morning was to play our record and sing to her. And to me, the appreciation of a child is the ultimate compliment”