Butt! Hurhurhurhur!He flashed his butt! Red Hot Chili Peppers may have ‘matured’ but that old Beavis & Butt-head spirit is still lurking- in the title of their album (‘Californication’), their lyrics and hanging out with them on the beach! hurhur!
The way he says it makes Anthony Kiedis sound rather like he’s in a hotel lobby, paging a penis he’s temporarily mislaid. “My Johnson?” he asks. “Is my Johnson in there?”Oh indeed it’s in there, because the ‘there, where it’s ‘in’, is the new album by the Red Hot Chilip Peppers. And it’s not just anywhere either. Look! There’s the little fella! Right there in track one! C’mon, Anthony! Let’s not be shy!
“Oh right, “ he says, rubbing a suntanned hand down a suntanned arm and snapping himself smartly out of a short musing on the Counter-Reformation. “yeah, you’re right: ‘Bone Fide ride/Step aside my Johnson/Yes I could/In the woods of Wisconsin’.”
See… told you so. Pecker-wise, we’ve struck gold. Wearing a T-shirt that bears on its rear the image of a naked woman with her legs widely spread, boldly declaring his espousal of feminist causes, Anthony Kiedis is pondering in a La hotel suite what it is to be a Chili pepper. To have felt the pangs of loss and the sting of drugs. To have returned regardless with an album with a very silly title (this ones ‘Californication’) that speaks of love and loss and Johnsons. But now, he’s trying to say, it’s not about shagging at all, really.
“It has nothing to do with fornication,” he ruminates. “And more to do with California.”
And he stares out past the balcony and the selection of coffees, teas and jus pressé, and into the pastel-pink wash of bungalows, the swaying fronds of the palms beyond, he knows just what it’s done for him.
“It made me the sick fuck I am today,” he says.
Red Hot Chili Peppers assemble this bright California afternoon thusly. Drummer Chad Smith, who looks rather like a large town house would if it was very brown and had tattoos, enters and coughs menacingly. Anthony Kiedis says simply, “Anthony” before retiring to attempt a handstand. Flea bounds in wearing a T-shirt drawn by his daughter, while a straggly-haired man in a red shirt who looks like he’s been taking drugs for seven years announces his arrival by expectorating deeply and expelling the summoned phlegm over the balcony, at speed, into the hotel grounds beyond. This is John Frusciante, guitarist.
John is making his return to red Hot Chili peppers after an absence of six years (having played on the ‘Mother’s Milk’ and ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ albums), and it’s down to him, pretty much, that the group are here with a new record at all: invigorating a tired and somewhat jaded group wondering why they were bothering. Which is a pretty interesting prospect, because John looks like a corpse and sounds like a stroke victim with a hangover. On the surface of it, it doesn’t look like invigoration is really his forté, yet he proves to be a source of boundless enthusiasm. He likes his music, he really does.
“The thing that makes me happiest is, like jamming with Flea,” he says, endearingly. “I don’t really go out, y’know. The social intercourse that’s involved, the kind of flirting that people do… because I’ve been spending so much time playing music, and before that spending so much time doing drugs, I can kind of peer through things that people are doing to get to life.”
This is the lens, basically, through which ‘Californication’ views the world- high on life where once high on drugs, wiser about your surroundings and sceptical about Hollywood’s leisure-time trident of insincere friends, high times and silicone implants. Flea wouldn’t live in LA at all if he didn’t have a daughter here, Anthony infrequently goes out but does enjoy a soft drink in the company of friends at a concert, while Chad is reticent about the whole business. Do they party no more?
“People so readily associate ‘partying’ as a synonym for taking drugs,” says Anthony.
He considers a handstand.
“But when I think about partying, that’s not what I define it as. I have no skills whatsoever, except surfing, paddling out to sea, but that’s what I call partying.”
It was all so different once. Their first guitarist Hillel Slovak dead from a heroin overdoes in 1988, Anthony’s heroin dalliances chronicled in ‘Under The Bridge’, John’s seven years in a dark room on drugs… to be in the Red Hot Chili Peppers- even to meet them- is to witness a kind of divided loyalty, between the responsibility of singing about their experiences ad their duty to appear to enjoy the whole business of rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s a strange place to be. You ask Anthony what he thinks about All Saints’ version of ‘Under The Bridge’. He in turn asks you if they play their own instruments. A true product of their locale, Red Hot Chili Peppers are one-half charming, one-half empty, and have changed an awful lot in the last 15 years.
“When I was a kid here, I would walk to school, go do anything,” says Flea. “It was a safer place, a lot less hostile. Now I wouldn’t let my daughter walk around the block without an armed guard.”
What’s kept them going, with a winning naivety, the twin principles of friendship and punk rock. Between Flea and John there’s a real crackle of sheer enjoyment in each other’s company: both unequivocally immobilised in the past by, respectively, Love Trouble and drugs, their sheer unguardedness offers an insight in to why this might be the case. Theirs are hearts worn, in the absence of sleeves, on their tattooed forearms. Beyond the soulless machinations of industry, they can even periodically find time for enthusiastic reminiscence about their home town.
“I used to live in Florida with like, nerds all the way round,” says John. “But here there were kids who were into Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, and surfers. It was the perfect place to discover punk rock. The best bands came from LA, so to know that I was breathing the same air as them, that there was a chance I could maybe run into someone from Black Flag walking down the street, made it all real.”
After six years of not playing the guitar at all, John began to rock with new zest and something of the original Chili Peppers spirit was restored. Flea can talk about being periodically being “without anxiety”. Anthony is even moved to say that the group, he feels, is the best it’s been since Hillel Slovak was a member.
They jammed their new songs in a garage. You might call it group therapy.
There was a scene in the 1991 film Point Break !, where Keanu Reeves is roundly threatened by a posse of surfers who cut the waves like javelins and fight like cornered dogs. They were played by Red Hot Chili Peppers. The real Red Hot Chili Peppers, unfortunately, can’t surf terribly well. Chad, Flea, John and Anthony – they cut the waves like people in imminent danger of drowning.
But still they surf. And it is their surfing exploits that has given rise to what is simultaneously one of their least and most characteristic songs. Most because it’s about hanging out with your friends: the rap/rock support network.
“We went out on a mission,” declares Anthony, much as Louis Pasteur must have declared it his mission to vanish smallpox, “to write an acoustic song.”
“We drove up to Big Sur one day,” John continues, “and we went surfing. I was just starting about then… and that’s about as far as I got.”
Flea: “You were frightened of getting hurt.”
John: “I was bold that day, though,”
Flea chuckles and the whole reason for this band continuing to exist beams out. “You were totally bold,” he enthuses. “He was going out in waves you’re not meant to go out in unless you’ve been surfing for ten years. Bone-crushing, giant waves. Amazing! This guy who’s been in the house dong drugs for seven years!”
John and Flea gurgle contentedly at the recollection and look for this moment at least, in spite of everything, insanely happy.
Anthony runs his hand through his hair and indulges a woman from a French TV company with a fleeting smoulder. Outside palm fronds idly flap. Plus ça change, like, dude.