Transcript: Many thanks to Sally Sturman ofr typing this all out!
FLEA GIVES HIS ALL ON THE
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS’
DRIVING RAIN DRUMMED MERCILESSLY AGAINST Malibu’s lone highway, as if to remind the exclusive seaside town’s residents of life’s inescapable cacophony. Above the curvy road, snug and secluded, Flea’s hillside home seemed content amid the downpour, and the rock star himself was enjoying in his own hard-fought happiness. “Music is this beautiful, sacred thing, and I take it really seriously,” intoned the 43-year old, perched on a soft couch in his high ceiling practice room. Nearby a silvery trumpet and an open Real Book on a music stand stood at the ready, while wall-size shelves of Cds, albums and music books offered shelter. “I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve let go of a lot in my life to really focus on music. I want to work and grow and be the best musician I can be. Not just as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bass player, but as a good musician who can give and contribute in a variety of situations. I feel more focused now than ever on achieving that.”
Flea may be clear on his future goals, but his band’s new double-disc album, Stadium Arcadium, stands as a major achievement right now. After months of writing and jamming, the quartet – Flea, drummer Chad Smith, singer Anthony Kiedis and guitarist John Frusciante – recorded the album in producer Rich Rubin’s mansion studio, where they made what many consider their best effort, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Like that album, Stadium Arcadium shows the band’s potency and cohesion, but it goes beyond powerful grooves and dreamy ballads. Flea and his band mates’ individual contributions are among their best ever, and the performances as a whole convey greater emotional depth, while retaining the essence of their aggressive groove approach. It’s an album that proves the Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the most cohesive units in rock & roll.
Anthony has called the album “the best thing we’ve ever done.” How does Flea make sense of this achievement? “Our personal relationships have more to do with the quality of the music than anything,” he says. “And on this record, we were each really open to what the others were doing.”
Stadium Arcadium has 28 songs. Did you set out to make an album that long?
“No, we actually had been talking about how we always make records that are too long. We really wanted to make a 12-song “classic,” but we just kept writing. We all want to give to the process so much, and we just kept coming in with ideas.”
What is the writing process like?
“We always write together, but there are three different ways songs come about. One is that I come in with a bass line or a series of bass lines that go together. Then, if someone does his thing on top of it, it’ll be a song. Another way is John will come in with a guitar part or series of parts. The third way is jamming, and we jam all the time just for fun. If we’re playing something we think could be a song, we’ll record it. It’ll usually be a chorus or a verse; Anthony will start singing something over it, and then we’ll fill in all the other stuff around it. Often, if we have, say, a verse and a chorus and we need a bridge, we’ll do what we call a “face-off.” John and I have a tradition where we look at each other and go, “Arghh!” – it’s just a friendly competition thing – then we go our separate ways for 10 or 15 minutes and each write a part. When we come back, we all decide together which part is best. Sometimes we use both.”
Do you always write on bass?
“I sometimes write on piano, but more for myself. The best way that I can give in the band is with bass.”
When we spoke with Charlie Haden, you said, “If you’re an improvising musician, you have to trust yourself and love yourself, so that when you do what you do, it’ll be beautiful because you are who you are. And if you’re not a humble giving person, there’s no way you can love or trust yourself.”
“Yeah that makes sense to me. I’m not trying to put myself on the level of great musicians – that’s not for me to say. But as an improvising musician, that’s what it’s all about. The great musicians trust themselves to let go, become completely untethered, and give themselves to the process. You can feel the character of who they are in their playing. And when they have a clear conscience because they know they mean well in the world, the music is beautiful. It can be argued that there are a lot of great musicians who were angry and bitter people, like maybe Miles Davis, who was one of the greatest improvisers of all time. But I believe every note Miles played was packed with love. The things he was angry about were injustices in the world, and the way he manifested it often came across as bitterness. But the motivation was love.”
That’s a sophisticated perspective on music, one that many wouldn’t expect from a rock musician. Is there a way that kids starting out in rock bands can tap into that kind of idea?
“Well I didn’t consciously think that from the beginning. I mean, I wanted to be a jazz musician way before I was in a rock band. I was dead-set on being a jazz trumpet player. And so I definitely had a different perspective on rock music when I got into it, because I was raised to think rock was simple-minded music for people that didn’t think.”
Your step-dad was a jazz musician. Did he tell you that?
“Oh, yeah. The opinion was that rock was haircuts and bullshit, but jazz was where it was at. When I first started listening to rock, it was the virtuoso playing I really liked, like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, where there were beautiful textures and cool arrangements. And the funk stuff, like Sly & the Family Stone, P-Funk, and the Ohio Players, which is much closer to jazz. But when I got into punk rock, the beauty of it and how much I related to it hit me from the core of who I was. The first record that struck me like that was the first Germs record [(GI), Slash, 1979], which I listened to on headphones every night for a month. That changed the way I looked at music completely. I always aspired to scale the lofty peaks like John Coltrane or Hendrix, but it hit me that the emotional commitment, the intent, and what you put into music makes the simplest two-chord punk rock song as valid as [Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme. That’s the same concept I’m talking about with being an improvising jazz musician. Bob Marley once said it didn’t matter what you do, but your commitment to it and giving all of yourself to it is everything. And when you really believe in the righteousness of what you’re doing, the odds of it being good are pretty strong.”
I suppose you can transfer that idea from your art to the way you conduct your relationships and life.
“Yeah, totally. There are many times when I’ve been less than noble in my life and suffered as an artist because of it.”
Do you practice a lot?
“I practice every day. Lately, I’ve been working through jazz books and trying to walk – which I have no idea how to do, but I’m working on it – and playing heads like Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” and “Ornithology.” Actually, it was that night with Charlie that made me think, I’ve really got to learn how to do that.
Did practicing jazz impact your contributions to Stadium Arcadium?
“I wasn’t really working on it at the time, but I had been reading jazz theory books and sitting at the piano a lot. Because I never really played a chordal instrument, I thought it was important to start learning all that stuff. It definitely gave me a bigger picture of music.”
“I really want to learn. I know this bass player in Australia – a really talented kid – and we were playing jazz tunes during my annual trip down there this past Christmas. I was playing trumpet and he was playing upright, and we were doing gigs and putting out the hat at the open market.”
Do you not have the recognition there you have here?
“I do, but my place is in the middle of nowhere! [Laughs] I think there were a few kids who knew, but mostly it was just old people walking by and listening.”
You did a solo-bass looping thing recently, too.
“[Experimental punk poet/singer] Patti Smith created this festival in London called Meltdown, and she asked me to play. I did a version of [Jimi Hendrix’s] “Third Stone from the Sun” doing all the parts myself, and then I added new parts and played trumpet on top. Actually, it backfired a bit because I was doing all these really intricate moves. There were like 50 steps involved in the layering, and I had it down – I had practiced it so much – but I had to hear myself perfectly to do it. If I messed up once, the whole thing was screwed, you know? But at the gig, I couldn’t hear myself. So I skipped a bunch of the steps and just cranked down the fuzz and started wailing! [Laughs] But it was still really fun, and the preparation for it was a great experience. I also played with Patti, which was a blessing, man. She’s just a real dynamic, emotional, powerful woman.”
Your bass sound on the recording is really big and warm.
“I just try to get the natural sound of the instrument. I’m playing the Fender bass with flat wound strings. In the studio, sometimes I played through my big Gallien-Krueger rig that I use live. But sometimes I played through an old Ampeg SVT tube head or a little Ampeg flip-top. Now I’m trying out all different gear, because I feel I’m way more serious about bass playing now than I ever have been. I feel like I’ve done myself a disservice over the years by not taking my sound more seriously. I’ve been really lucky getting great equipment, like Gallien-Krueger amps. But I want to search around and get something that feels perfect to me now, especially because I’m playing these old basses and getting into their character. They’re so beautiful, and I want that character to come out when they’re being played in big places. I feel it’s important for me to experiment. Also, I just really want to get better.”
Why do you think you’re taking your bass playing more seriously these days?
“I’m at a point in my life where I feel free to work on my art. For a long time my life was really angst-ridden, with a lot of anxiety, hard times, and challenges. For the first time in a long time, I feel comfortable and happy. I have a family; everything is peaceful and things are good. I don’t have to worry about being defensive, or what my next step is, or being lonely or some weird thing, so I’m free to work. I’m kind of an emotional person in that way, so it’s helpful for me to have a real solid, nice home life.”
Is that difference something you feel people will hear on the record?
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, I don’t know. I definitely know that the guys in my band appreciate that I’m a lot happier and probably easier to be around. I’ve always tried to do my best, but there were times when I’d be hurting and not as present as I could be.”
“So now, I feel really in love with the bass. I just want to play and figure stuff out. I’ll do anything. The last couple of days I got out Jeff Beck’s Wired album [Epic, 1976] and was like, I gotta learn the bass lines on this record! There are some cool, classic riffs on there. Wilbur Bascomb – he’s great.”
On the new album, it sounds like you have a real openness to being creative.
“I feel real open. On the last record, I didn’t feel open at all. I was unhappy with the whole process, and there was a lot of tension between John and me. My tendency in that situation is to withdraw, but for music I need to be loose and do what I do.”
Is there a difference between tapping into that openness and creativity in the studio and doing it onstage?
“Yeah. It’s different because the songs always take on a life of their own live and the arrangements change. But I have this feeling like, fuck it – whatever happens, happens. I don’t even care. I mean, obviously I care: I want the music to be as good as it can be. But I feel that it will become its best if I let it be whatever it’s going to be, and really be open to what happens: Love the mistakes, let them lead to improvisations, and be loose with it.”
You mentioned how letting go of some things has helped you be a better musician. Were there things you had to let go of that surprised you?
“No. Everyone has their childhood issues and some have more than others. There were things I had to learn about being a man that I didn’t learn when I was a kid; to not be a needy person and have enough faith in myself to be comfortable in my skin. For a long time, playing has been cathartic for me in terms of letting out this rage I had inside of me. When I look back, it was so healthy for me to have that, but now I don’t feel so afraid anymore, and I don’t need to be so angry. I still love that type of aggression in music and that kind of primal, animal feeling in music will always be a part of me. But I want to move into a higher place with it, too. That’s where I feel myself moving toward as a musician, and specifically as a bass player.”
FLEA FILLS A STADIUM
“EVERYONE REALLY SHINES ON THIS RECORD,” says Flea. He was talking about his band mates, but he just as well could have been talking about his own playing. Without a doubt, Flea is in fine form throughout Stadium Arcadium’s 28 tracks. Though his approach differs widely across the two discs – from simple rock riffs and four-chord progressions to finger picked parts and double-stop funk – the precision, energy and creativity that mark his personal bass brand are always in evidence. As we videotaped (see www.bassplayer.tv for clips), Flea showed us how he played several lines from the record.
Ex. 1a is similar to the verse line on the album’s first single, “DanI California.” Note length is key to making this straight, boxy riff rock. Flea completes each two-bar phase with a variety of improvised fills. Ex. 1b shows the structure of Flea’s part on the song’s pre-chorus, which ends with full-band syncopation on beat four. Ex. 2a is in the style of the verse bass line on “Charlie,” which Flea propels with galloping ghost-notes. Ex. 2b recalls the song’s chorus, which has Flea outlining chords by playing 10ths on the E and G strings. On the funkified “Hump De Bump,” Flea snaps two strings at once, plucking with his thumb and first two fingers, in a line similar to Ex. 3a. “We called this song ‘Ghost Town’ for a while because it’s similar to a song we did with George Clinton back in ‘85 called ‘American Ghost Dance’ [Freaky Styley, EMI].” Ex. 3b captures the rhythmically precise spirit of the song’s blazing chorus riffs. While the verse has a slight funky swing, Flea plays the chorus straight with razor-sharp rhythmic precision. At the end he cuts through with a killer riff. “I do that kind of thing all the time,” says Flea, of the quick descending pentatonic scale and triplet passing tone. “But here it’s by itself and it’s faster.”
Ex. 4 outlines Flea’s approach on “Hey,” a line he calls “one of my favourites.” Despite how forcefully he pulls these double-stops with his right thumb and forefinger, the long notes and moody harmonies sound sweetly sentimental, even as his left hand stretches to fret each interval. An even mellower musical approach comes on the song “If.” Ex. 5 shows the guitar-like thumb-and-fingers finger picking Flea uses for the line.
A JAZZ SUPREME
First it was Ernie Ball MusicMan StingRays, then a Spector NS, then the sticker-covered Wal Mach II he played on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and then the sparkle-finished Modulus Flea Bass. Flea’s latest love predates all those modern axes. His main bass is a ‘61 Fender Jazz Bass in Shell Pink, the rarest of Fender custom finishes. It may in fact be the only Shell Pink ‘61 J in existence, and as such, this instrument would command well over $35,000 on the vintage instrument market.
The bass was a gift from Zach Stevens, who, after working on the AOL Time Warner merger during the late ‘90s tech boom, had the freedom to embark on special projects. One was to present this prized instrument to Flea, who had asked his fans in his online tour journal if anyone knew where he could get a pre-CBS Fender, so he could be “as cool as John Paul Jones.” Before travelling to Australia to present Flea with the bass in 2000, Stevens stopped by BASS PLAYER’S offices where we examined this rare instrument and photographed it. (We even wrote down the pot codes – 1376025 and 1376039 – which translate to CTS pots made in the 25th and 29th weeks of 1960). Flea has since removed the bridge and pickup covers and marked the bass as his own with a well-placed sticker.
CAN BE HEARD ON
Red Hot Chili Peppers,
[Warner Bros., 2006]
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
[Def Jam, 2006]
Dr. Sikiru Ayinde Barrister,
Alhaji Dr. Sikiru Ayinde Barrister [African Pop, 2003].
“Barrister is incredible percussive dance music from Nigeria. Sometimes I go through phases where I only want to hear one thing all the time, but right now I want to hear everything. I put my iPod on random.”