Classic Rock August 2011


Words Tom Poak

Portrait George Chin

It’s all change for stadium funk rock titans Red Hot Chili Peppers. Guitarist John Frusciante is out, new boy Josh Klinghoffer is in and, on the eve of their tenth album, they’re embracing “the gayness”… and Poison.

 The Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica is the hotel of choice for A-list rock stars who want to avoid media attention or don’t fancy slumming it with the hoi polloi a few miles away in Hollywood. A super-plush Mediterranean hideaway, its luxury interiors are matched by luxury prices.

It’s here, in a swanky $1,400-a-night suite, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are officially kicking off promotion for their new album, I’m With You. The tranquility of the setting is in inverse proportion to the turbulence of recent years. A gruelling I8-month slog in support of2006?s Stadium Arcadium nearly split the band. “Things had gotten dysfunctional and not fun,” says bassist Flea. “We just needed to get away from it.”

Worse was to come. When they did reconvene after a two-year break, talismanic guitarist John Frusciante -whose return to the band in 1998 coincided with them jettisoning the party-heavy funk-rock with which they made their name in favour of an altogether more mainstream sound -announced that he was quitting for the second and final time. The guitarist gave no reason other than a frustratingly vague: “My musical interests have led me in a different direction.”

And so it’s here that the Red Hot Chili Peppers Mk 10-yes, there have been that many line-ups- have convened with baby-faced new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer to talk about I’m With You. It’s a continuation of the more mainstream sound of their last few albums, only this time with added African percussion (on the self-explanatory Ethiopia) and soft rock flourishes in the shape of some Billy Joel-esque piano.  Anyone seeking the testosterone-fuelled energy and socks-on-cocks rush of 1991?s Blood Sugar Sex Magik should look elsewhere. It rocks in places, but for the most part I’m With You is a Properly Grown Up Red Hot Chili Peppers Album.

“I wouldn’t call it ‘grown-up’,” counters singer Anthony Kiedis. “I mean we’ve got our shit a little more together than maybe we used to. But not so much that it still doesn’t have a few rough edges.”

“I have no idea what that means,” adds bassist Flea. “I know that we’re growing up. I know that we’re also going sideways and down and diagonally and circular. We’re embracing the warmth, the beauty, the gayness, the macho-ness.”

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been fending of charges of ‘growing up’ for a good 12 years now. That was when the 15-million-selling Californication gave their flagging fortunes a shot in the arm and found them swapping one fanbase (early adopters who discovered them in the 80s, whose ranks were swelled with the stratospheric success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik and its hits Give It Away, Suck My Kiss and Under The Bridge) for another, much bigger one consisting of housewives, estate agents and mainstream pop fans. The former group mourned the loss of ‘their’ band to no avail: the Chili Peppers of old have gone, the tube socks packed away, never to return.

The four of them are interviewed in pairs today. Anthony Kiedis and Josh Klinghoffer are up first. Despite turning 49 this year, the frontman is as athletic as ever (“l can’t wait to hit the 50 mark so I can really carry the flag for the half-century-of-life-and-still-living-crew. I look forward to defying the odds of gravity”). He sports Jack Sparrow-style facial hair and a hipsters’ uniform of shorts with shirt, tie and suit jacket He has a short attention span, and a tendency to be very reserved, especially when it comes to personal questions.

“John leaving did for us what we could not do for ourselves,” says the singer. “It allowed us to have a new relationship and start from scratch. And it was time to start from scratch.”

What happened with John?

“There was a certain amount of discord and tension that had built up from him not wanting to be where he wanted to be,” says Kiedis. “And vice versa. He did it in a very gentlemanly way. He came and had a very calm conversation about him just wanting to do something else. Which was more than understandable, all things considered. And it was a great relief.”

This earnest explanation is as deep as Kiedis will go in explaining Frusciante’s departure, possibly because there genuinely seems to be no drama. It’s certainly a world away from the first time the guitarist quit, in the middle of a Japanese tour in 1991. Back then the guitarist was strung out on drugs. So was Kiedis. But times change, people grow up. Evidently, so do bands.

The singer tries hard to bring Josh Klinghoffer into the conversation, with little success. At 31, the guitarist has appeared on more records than many musicians twice his age, collaborating with everyone from PJ Harvey to Gnarls Barkley and, ironically, John Frusciante. It was the connection with the latter that led to him joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a touring guitarist on the Stadium Arcadium tour. Quiet and introverted, Josh Klinghoffer is either uncomfortable or unimpressed with the interview process, leaving Kiedis to do most of the talking. At 31, he’s young enough to be one of his bandmates’ sons.
“We tested for that,” says Kiedis with a laugh. “We made sure.”

Klinghoffer: “Age honestly doesn’t come up in my mind. I think I’ve now finally admitted to myself that I’m an adult. Even though I don’t look or act like one most of the time.”

There are trace elements of old school Chili Peppers in The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie, the first single from the album. It’s key line -”I want to rock you like the 80s” – sounds like it’s beamed in straight from Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Proving there’s life in the old horndogs yet, this snigger-worthy lyric has already upset the stuffed shirts at the BBC.

“Referencing the 80s is a fun thing to do,” says Kiedis. “Getting cock-blocked for saying ‘cock’ on British radio. British radio does not love the word ‘cock’. Hopefully the original will rise to the surface. Because it is a poignant moment in the song. You can hang your teacup on the word ‘cock’.”

Some would say cock rock has never gone away. Motley Crue and Poison are touring the US together this summer…
“I would like to see what has become of those chaps,” says Kiedis. “I ran into CC Deville on the Sunset Strip recently. He was so sweet. He’s just emanating good vibes and loving nature. It’s all just gravy for him.”

There are more similarities between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Motley Crue than either party would like to admit. Both made their name in the clubs of Los Angeles of the early ’80s. Both have had their struggles with substance abuse. In Kiedis’ autobiography Scar Tissue, the singer says that he has been sober since Christmas 2000. Does he find it easy to stay away from it all?

“Well, temptation pops up and it fades so quickly. The other day I saw a video and these three beautiful sexy stylish girls are in a kitchen and they’re all blowing smoke down each other’s throats, getting ready to go out. And for a moment I looked at it, and I was like: ‘Oooh, that looks kind of sexy and fun.’ But that just doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it about 18,000 times and it always ends up disastrously. So, I’ll just have to enjoy it vicariously, without the smoke being blown down the throat.”

Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary is officially the second best bassist on the planet, at least according to a recent online poll. He was beaten by The Who’s John Entwistle, though he did trump Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee and Primus’ Les Claypool. “What about John Paul Jones?” he asks. “Incredible bassist. Or King Crimson -Peter Giles?”

Along with Kiedis, the athletic and muscular 48-year-old is the Chili Peppers’ joint senior partner. His fluid, elasticated basslines drove the band’s sound in the 80s, though the thunder-thumbed four-string acrobatics have been toned down in recent years in line with the band’s General drift away from youthful exuberance. Witty, quick and sharp, he’s willing to open up about most subjects, though he can be prickly if he chooses.

The bassist is teamed up with drummer Chad Smith. Usually the Chili Peppers’ class clown, today Smith is tired and occasionally impatient. He refuses to be drawn on his Sammy Hagar-fronted side-project Chickenfoot or any of the 20 other non-Chilis albums he’s played on in the last 10 years, while references to his resemblance to comedy star Will Ferrell go down like a fart in a spacesuit. “Chad told me the other day that if someone mentions Will Ferrell to him again, he’s going to strangle them to death,” explains Flea.

For Stadium Arcadium, the bassist said he was listening to “flashy” guitarists like Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen. This time around, he got his inspirations from altogether less straightforward sources.
“The three main things that I was listening to during the creation of this record were underground kind of avant-garde electronic music, The Rolling Stones, and Johann Sebastian Bach,” he says.
“I was listening to my wife’s heartbeat through her beautiful large breast,” adds Smith. “It was very inspiring to me.”

One of the tracks on the album, the percussive, African-tinged Ethiopia, sums up where the Chilis are coming from in 2011. It was inspired by a trip to the titular country undertaken by Flea as part of Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project, in which Western musicians play with their counterparts from that continent. It’s a long way from running around with a sock on your todger.

“The idea wasn’t about drawing attention to what great do-gooders everyone is, but to go play with Africans, on their turf, and not live in some ivory tower,” says Flea. “They see Live Aid and they think it’s just silly.”

Any doubts that the perma-gurning bass-imp of old is a thing of the past are dispelled with the news that he spent a year of the band’s hiatus enrolled at college to study music theory (“I barely went to school after I was 15, so this was great. I can’t wait to go back”), not to mention the fact that he completed the Los Angeles Marathon (“Three hours, 52 minutes and 50 seconds. I rocked it!”).

“Rock stardom is, like, pretty boring,” he says with a shrug.

No plans to go see the Motley Crue / Poison double-header when it hits Los Angeles, then?

“Funny you should mention that,” says Smith, perking up. “Somebody sent me a link to a show from Dallas two nights ago. Tommy Lee’s now doing a drum solo where it’s a rollercoaster ride. He’s in his kit and on a track. And he invites somebody up from the audience and straps him in with him: ‘Let’s go for a ride, come on dude, wheeee!’… you know, Tommy shit. And he goes along, and you know what it is? It’s our song! He plays along to [the Chili Peppers’ cover of The Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster. Karaoke drums! He’s playing to me. I’m going to kick his ass!”

 Flea: “I like Tommy he’s nice.”

Presumably, Chad, your Chili Peppers commitments mean you won’t be able to tour with Chickenfoot for their second album?

“I think Tommy Lee’s going to take my place,” he quips. “Chickenfoot was a thing that I did while we had a break from this. And it was a long break. And those [Chickenfootl] guys were, like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re in that other band…’. It was strictly something I could do for fun on the side, you know?”

So if Jimmy Page called and asked you to join the reformed Led Zeppelin, would you go?

“Only if Flea gets to come with me,” he replies. “No, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Jason Bonham did a great job. He’s the living sperm. If they’re not going to use him, they’re not coming to me.”
Flea: “It’s the living sperm or nothing.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the album that transformed the Red Hot Chili Peppers from cock-waving funk-rock oiks into cock-waving funk-rock oiks with several million record sales to their name and several millions of dollars in the bank. The perfect distillation of the Chili Peppers’ sound and ethic, it was a watershed album for the band, and the one that their fans – at least the earlier generations – always go back to. For some bands, it might be an opportunity to celebrate one of the key albums of the era by playing it in its entirety. Not the Chili Peppers, though.
“I would rather play this new record in its entirety,” says Kiedis. “I still like playing those songs, but it doesn’t feel like a milestone to me. I don’t feel like that was the best record we made. Even of that line-up.”

“It’s nostalgia,” Flea will add an hour or so later. Nostalgia is fun but it’s not exciting. There’s no risk or vulnerability happening.”

You can see their point: the past is done, move on, do the next thing. But there’s something undeniably different about the Chili Peppers in 2011 compared to the younger version of themselves. Once upon a time, they were chemical lab; today, they’re a health club.

“Does it have to be one or the other?” says Kiedis. “Can it be a health club with drugs? Rock ‘n’ roll can be with or without drugs. It can be with or without health. It can be with or without late nights. It’s anything goes.”

The ‘Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new album ‘I’m With You’ is out now on Warner Bros

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