The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a guitar players’ graveyard, but they’re hoping they’ve finally beaten the hex. As One Hot Minute races up the charts Nick Bowcott caught up with new Chili Dave Navarro, for an exhaustive Q&A about horse, Hendrix and how to survive the most guitar-hungry band in rock…
Cayenne u dig it?
What do the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Spinal Tap have in common? Well, aside from the Chills’ penchant for wearing totally ridiculous costumes (do you have any idea how much it costs to dress a band up as working lightbulbs?), Flea and company go through guitarists at a rate rivalled only by Tap’s rapid turnover of drummers. So, before we get to the main subject of this piece – Chili Pepper axeman number seven, Dave Navarro – it’s worth a look back at the band’s busy 6-string history…
The Red Hot Chili Peppers first sprouted up in 1983 and, alongside Flea (aka Michael Balzary: bass) and Anthony Kiedis (vocals), one of the original members was guitarist,Hillel Slovak. Hillel bailed in out ’84 and was replaced by one Jack Sherman, who performed on the group’s eponymous debut LP. A year later, however, Slovak decided to return to the fold and Sherman was unceremoniously out on his ear. And just so you know, in 1993, nine years after his dismissal, Sherman sued the bad claiming he was treated unfairly and inadequately compensated – as action that has since prompted Flea to refer to him as ‘a non-creative asshole.’ It wouldn’t be Tap enough without some juicy gossip or slander now would it; but anyway, back to the plot…
For the next three years, all was fine and wonderful in the Peppers’ camp. Then, in July ’88, disaster struck when Slovak died of a heroin overdose. The troupe regrouped with P-Funk staple Dewayne ‘Blackbyrd’ McKnight filling the seemingly fated guitar spot but, typically he didn’t last long. By the end of that fateful year, he’d been replaced by the wayward talent of John Frusciante. The Frusciante period was a fruitful one that saw the band release two superb LPs – the critically acclaimed Mother’s Milk (1989) followed by the commercial breakthrough, BloodSugarSexMagik (’91). Acclaim and hits – Give It Away, Under The Bridge – rained down; hell, BloodSugar… was such a big smash it even earned the Peppers the honour of being mentioned on Neighbours. Before long, though, the rigours of the road coupled with the pressures of success become too much for Frusciante and he handed in his notice midway through the BloodSugarSexMagic tour. Due to the band’s heavy gigging schedule, a replacement had to be found immediately, and was in the form of Arik Marshall – an LA based dude who’d once played with Flea in a band called Trulio Disgracias. Marshall successfully completed the remainder of the tour and then he too became another name on the band’s ever growing list of ex-guitarists.
After some serious thought, the Peppers decided that the guy they really needed in the band was ex-Jane’s Addiction axe abuser Dave Navarro. So, confident that their star was in the ascendant, they made the call. Navarro retorted with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and so it was back to the drawing board for Flea’s rockin’ circus. The Peppers’ next step in their seemingly never-ending search for Mr Goodguitar was to place an advert in an LA paper. 5,000 entered the race… but there were no winners. Then, out of the blue, the band announced that they’d found exactly the guy they’d been looking for – Jessie Tobias, guitarist with a group called Mother’s Tongue who’d just signed a record deal. Later on that week (or so it seemed!) Jesse was out and in walked the band’s initial first choice, Dave Navarro.
Now, unless you’ve been in a coma for the past few years, you’ll be well aware of the fact that Dave Navarro is one of the most respected and exciting new guitarists to have emerged from the so-called ‘alternative’ scene of the late ’80s/early ’90s. His sterling fretwork and larger-than-life tone with Jane’s Addiction not only won him magazine polls, it garnered the respect of many of his peers, and deservedly so. Consequently, when it was announced that Dave had joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the 6-string world got more a tad excited. And as the band’s seventh LP, One Hot Minute, began sending record biz suits mad with anticipation. TGM tracked Navarro down to his LA home for an exclusive interview. Finally we learn about the saturnine guitarmeister’s formative playing years, his newly acquired hatred of funk and lightbulb helmets, and the full and frank tale behind his heroin addiction…
TGM: Let’s start at the very beginning Dave. What made you start playing the guitar in the first place?
‘When I was about seven years old, my parents gave me piano lessons but I didn’t really dig it after a while because I wasn’t able to play anything that I liked. The music I really enjoyed was guitar music and when I was 10 or 11 years old I was at a garage sale with my father and he bought me a little, three-quarter scale acoustic for, like 50 cents (30p! And probably a bargain -sceptical vintage Ed). That was my first guitar and I chose it over the piano – maybe out of rebellion but probably because, like I’ve just said, most of the music I listened to was guitar music.’
TGM: So did you take the instrument seriously right away or did you just mess around on it initially?
‘God, that was a long time ago but, if I remember correctly, I jumped in with both feet from the get-go. I had a lot of friends at school but I really wasn’t into what they were into. Most of them were into sports and talking about their sexual conquests. I used to get really perturbed with that whole scene of hanging around the locker room talking about, quote-unquote, “pussy”. I’m not much of a talker when it comes to that, I always feel that those things are sacred and personal. Consequently, I never took part in that shit and so I was pretty isolated in terms of what I liked to do until I got to the age when my friends and I started sharing our feelings about drugs. So, up until that point I pretty much turned to the guitar as my salvation from all the assholes out there in the world.’
TGM: Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
‘A bit of both really. My cousin Dan, who’s a very talented musician in his own right, taught me may first chords – D, G, A, C and F – by drawing them out on a piece of paper for me. I tinkered around with those for a while but I ended up taking guitar lessons. Once a week for about two years I’d go and see this woman named Laurie Barth and she would show me different songs. Y’know, I’d come in and go, “I wanna learn how to play Hey Joe,” and she’d show it to me. It always ended up being a Hendrix song and she always ended up showing it to me wrong, ha ha!
‘That’s pretty much how it went for those two years. She also taught me the basic blues scale and things like that but I really wasn’t into it. I’m really obsessive and alcoholic by nature with everything I do so I wanted to just play lead guitar right away. I didn’t want to practise scales and I didn’t want to learn to read to read music ‘cos all that stuff bored me. To me, being a kid, that whole approach was the antithesis of rock – it turned my guitar playing into school work and I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. Someone’s pulled a fast one on me!” So, I decided I wasn’t going to do that and I ended up putting on Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin and Cream records – y’know, all those guitar-heavy bands of the late ’60s/early ’70s – and just started to figure them out, play along, emulate and steal from them if you will. So, I quit my lessons and just kept up with that for a long time. During this period I was also in a number of bands with friends of mine at school ‘cos I ended up hooking up with other nerds who only wanted to play instruments – that definitely helped too.’
TGM: So, from what you’ve just said, your early influences were the stalwart players like Hendrix, Clapton and Page…
‘Right – but especially Hendrix. He was my most important influence and still is actually. As a matter of fact, when I first picked up the guitar I was also into skateboarding and I was a member of a skatepark which is a little club where they have an empty swimming pool you can skate in. Anyway, they used to play music over the PA while we were skating and one day when I was there Voodoo Chile and Purple Haze came on. I immediately stopped what I was doing and did that thing where you actually stare at the speaker. I don’t know what that means because you don’t actually hear it any better but I did that and, as I was staring at the speaker, I went, “That’s what I want to do.” And, from that moment on there was never a doubt in my mind that I would ever do anything else.’
TGM: How supportive were your family when they found out about your chosen career path?
‘They were very supportive. They really wanted me to be whatever I wanted to be. I was fortunate enough to come from a very supportive family that encouraged me to undertake whatever interests I had. They would let me have band rehearsals in the house and also take me to other people’s homes to play music. But, at the same time, they wanted me to focus on school and they wanted me to go to college. My Mom died when I was 15 (Dave’s mother was in fact murdered by an ex-boyfriend, who killed Navarro’s aunt at the same time. This experience was a major contributor to the guitarist’s well-publicised problems. The killer wasn’t caught until ten years later and Dave had to testify in the subsequent court case. As a result of Navarro’s testimony the murderer was sentenced to death: the trauma of those court appearances caused Navarro to suffer a severe nervous breakdown — Ed) and until that point I don’t think either of them thought I’d do anything with my playing. I mean, they felt I was talented but so are a million people who play instruments and it takes more than talent to do something with it… namely luck! There are millions of guitarists out there who are much more talented than I am but they may or may not have had the luck that I’ve had of hooking up with the right guys. So, although my parents were real supportive of my music, they wanted me to do other stuff. It eventually got to the point where I simply wasn’t going to do anything else… and then I was fortunate enough to end up in Jane’s Addiction.
‘It’s a pretty weird story about how that came about. When I was about 15 I met Steve Perkins (JA’s drummer) at high school. He and I were in the drum section of the school marching band and we became pals. We put a band together called Dizastre which was like a hardcore, speed metal thing. We were pretty terrible but we played the clubs in LA. I ended up introducing Steve to an ex-girlfriend of mine named Rebecca Avery who’s (Jane’s Addiction bassist) Eric Avery’s sister.
`They started going out and I obviously felt good about introducing a pal of mine to a girl that he loved. Anyway, Eric, who’s a little bit older, started working on music with Perry (Farrell, Jane’s Addiction’s frontman and brainchild of US travelling festival Lollapalooza) and they needed a drummer, so they got Steve through the Rebecca connection. Then, about a week later, they needed a guitar player because their guitarist was going through some drug 74 problems and so I was called on through the Steve Perkins connection. I was about 18 at the time…
TGM: Jane’s Addiction had a relatively short but successful lifespan. In fact, many of your fans were devastated when you split up in late ’91 because they felt that the band had yet to do their ultimate work. Do you ever find yourself looking back on the group’s dissolution with regret?
‘When I hear us on the radio sometimes I get a little soft spot and I miss it. The split was a pretty mutual thing and I had been going through my own personal problems, with both the band and with myself at the time. So, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I felt sad about the break-up. Having said this, all good should come to an end at some point and I’d much rather we ended it when we did. Our final tour was Lollapalooza which was a great success so we went out while we were on top —we never got to the point of releasing records that failed miserably because nobody was interested anymore.’
TGM: You’ve always been very open about the drug problems you had that came to a head at the end of Jane’s Addiction. Now that you’re “clean and sober”, how have you found this has affected you as both a player and a writer?
‘It just makes the entire process much more fun all the way around. This is gonna sound kinda pessimistic because that’s my nature, but it’s never really been that much fun for me anyway. I mean, there are moments when I’m playing music that are wonderful but I’m not going to tell you that it’s fun, party and rock’n’roll all the time because it’s not. The reason I do what I do is because I have no choice — something inside me tells me this is what I have to do. It’s somewhat of a calling if you will. But, like I’ve just said, I can tell you that since I’ve gotten healthy I’ve managed to squeeze a lot more fun out of the experience than I have before.
TGM: There are artists out there who claim that certain substances enhance their creative process. Has being straight altered that side of things for you?
‘The creative thing for me has always been hit or miss. Drugs or no drugs, I either have creative days or incredibly uncreative days. It all depends on where I’m coming from as a person and from myself. I’ve found that if I’m in a really good mood then I can’t create shit. If I’m feeling melancholy and sad, though, I’m able to utilise that to the best of my ability. It’s weird, when I’m excited about life and uplifted I don’t have a problem telling people about that. When I’m feeling down though, it’s not so easy for me to talk about that with people and that’s why I use music as my avenue of release for those emotions. That’s why I’m a little bit more prone to being pessimistic.’
TGM: What finally prompted you to head for rehab and kick heroin for good?
‘I got so deep into the pit of despair that I had absolutely no choice but to take a couple of years off from trying to play music so I could really focus on getting my personal life together. There wasn’t one specific thing that prompted me to quit, it was just time. Try to imagine that someone is punching you in the arm all day and it doesn’t really bug you, it’s just happening. After seven years of that you’re just going to freak out one day and scream “enough already!” That’s basically what happened.
TGM: What happened to Deconstruction, the project you put together with Eric Avery after the demise of Jane’s?
‘We finished the LP (Deconstruction) and then we both amicably decided to make it a one-off affair rather than an on-going band.’
TGM: So how did the Chili Peppers gig come about?
‘Basically, they just called me and asked “Hey, do you warms play music?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to!” heh heh!’
TGM: You didn’t say “yeah” right away, though, did you?
‘No, it took me a while. I wasn’t really ready for it when at first they approached me so I turned the offer down. Then, one day I ended up jamming with Flea and Steve Perkins, ‘cos we’re all friends, and it was really fun. After that I figured it would be great to be in a band with Flea and when they asked me again I was more than happy to accept.’
TGM: How is it playing with a bassist who’s as brilliant and busy as Flea?
`It’s great ‘cos he’s the best bass player I’ve ever met in my life. Sometimes it’s frustrating though ‘cos I come from a place where I’m a little bit more interested in repetitive, melodic bass lines – such as the ones Eric Avery would play. But, as you’ve just said, Flea tends to be busy but, that’s just what his schooling and background has taught him. I’m a little bit more of an airy guitar player than a percussive one so sometimes we run into standstills when we’re trying to create. But then, when the walls come down, it’s great.
‘It was also weird for me because as soon as I joined the band we started making music for a record – there was no gestation period, I was just thrown straight into the deep end. With Jane’s Addiction it was totally different – I played with those guys and wrote songs with them for years before we made a record, so, we were really fluid as a four-piece. The way Jane’s worked was we’d tour and work on any song ideas we had during whatever down time there was. And, we’d continue to live our lives that way until we had an album’s worth of material. We never sat down and went, “Okay, let’s write a record.” With the Chili Peppers, we had to immediately come-up an entire album! – which was a little awkward for me. But, I love Flea as both a person and a musician and I’m very excited to be playing with him.’
TGM: Many music critics are describing One Hot Minute as a Chilis/Jane’s hybrid. How do you feel about such an analysis?
‘I don’t think I brought a Jane’s thing to the table as much as I brought my thing. I think that I come from a slightly different place, musically speaking. To use an expression Flea has come up with, they (the Peps) are percussive and sharp-edged whereas I’m more into melodic and ethereal sounds. I feel that this combination has worked really well and has given birth to something very new.’
TGM: So how would you personally describe the sound of the new LP to someone who hasn’t heard it?
‘God… I don’t even know where to begin because it’s so diverse. It’s definitely more of a rock record than a funk one and it’s more dynamic than any other Chili Peppers record. On the surface though, I’d probably have to say that it sounds like the guy from Jane’s Addiction playing with the Chili Peppers hahahaha! That’s the best description I can give you! I mean, if it wasn’t me playing on One Hot Minute and it sounded the way it does..? That’s what I’d say.’
TGM: To most people the Chilis are all about funk. When you joined the band did you lock yourself away in a room and work on that side of your playing personality?
‘Well I’ll tell you, when I first joined the band I kinda thought I should brush up on the funk world. So, I started listening to stuff like Kool & The Gang, Funkadelic and Parliament. After a few days, though, I was listening to something like that in my house and I just screamed at the top of my lungs: “What the fuck am I doing? This is horrible! I hate this! Why am I listening to this?” And then I ran over to the CD player and switched it off. The thing is, I don’t like listening to that sort of music – it bugs me and makes me feel dumb.’
TGM: If you hate funk so much, how on earth do you deal with playing some of the old Chili Peppers stuff without going nuts?
`The difference is this: playing old Chili Peppers stuff to me is incredible fun just because it’s good music and it’s technical. I don’t have any emotional connection to it so playing it is a blast. But, when it comes to just listening to it, that’s a completely different ball game. That’s probably why I was never a Chili Peppers listener – I don’t relate to happy party music. I only relate to music that emulates how I feel… or vice-versa.’
TGM: What do you think of your guitar playing predecessors in this band?
‘I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Hillel (Slovak) did and, in my opinion, John (Frusciante) is one of the most creative guitar players around today.’
TGM: But, despite that, you don’t like listening to the Peppers?
`Old material..? No, it’s too dry, percussive and happy for me to enjoy from purely a listening standpoint.
TGM: Your debut appearance with the Peppers was at the already legendary ’94 Woodstock festival. How did you feel performing live with the band for the very first time infront of so many people?
‘It was intense. Having said that, I was wearing this stupid lightbulb helmet when we first came out on stage so there wasn’t really room for me to be worried about anything. Man, it was so awful having that thing on my head, it didn’t really matter how many people were out there – I couldn’t see and I couldn’t hear…
TGM: If it was that bad how in the hell did you manage to play?
`Well, if you listen to the recording of that first song you’ll know that the answer to that is “I didn’t!”‘
TGM: It’s safe to assume that Woodstock was your first and last appearance as a lighbulb then…
‘Absolutely. I’d have to say that my top three worst experiences of my life have been: number 1, my mother dying; number 2, my drug addiction – actually, scratch that because I grew a lot from my addiction. So, number 2 would have to be overdosing in London; and number 3, wearing that lightbulb helmet. Trust me on this one – there are no words in the English language that can express the joy I felt when that thing finally came off!’
TGM: In the past, you’ve always been associated with Les Pauls or PRS guitars but now it appears that you’re using Strats almost exclusively. Why the sudden change?
‘I love the PRS guitars, they’re beautiful instruments. The problem was that when I first joined the band and we started playing old material, it just didn’t sound right. So, what I first did was get a bunch of Fender Custom Shop Strats specifically for the old material. But then, I got real tired of changing guitars for every song we played and so I kinda ended up with a Strat. It’s not that I prefer them over my PRSs or Gibsons – I just wanted everything to be as easy as possible on the technical side. I don’t like to switch guitars and I don’t like a bunch of rack effects that need programming.’
TGM: Compared to a PRS, most people feel that a Strat is a harder guitar to play. Would you agree?
‘Yes, I think it definitely is.’
TGM: And has this had a bearing on your style?
‘It’s just made me a worse player!’
TGM: Are you still using the trusty old Marshall stacks (JCM900, 4100 High Gain Dual Reverbs) that you had in Jane’s Addiction as your backline?
‘Yeah. One of our techs, Brian Doyle, tried to convert me to a Marshall rack system – a JMP-1 preamp, a JFX-1 effects unit and a 9200 power amp – but he failed! I thought it was all extremely cool stuff and if I was gonna drop acid and sit in my house for a month it would be a really fun setup.
But, at the end of the day, to me all that MIDI stuff is a nightmare in terms of a live situation. So, I went back to my Marshall JCM900 amps and my Boss pedals (see gear sidebar for a specific breakdown of Dave’s gear). On stage I like to be able to plug in and play without having to think about it. The reason I like my Boss pedals is because they’re simple to use and I know exactly what each one does. I have a total lack of knowledge when it comes to equipment and I think that kind of works to my advantage because, to me, musical ideas are much more important than technology.’
TGM: What amps did you use in the studio?
‘For my clean sound I used an old vintage Marshall head and for my distorted tone I used the lead channel on my JCM900 with the gain turned all the way up to 20 for that real smooth sound. I used a Bogner head too which I really like but I don’t ever use it live – it’s much too complex for me.’
TGM: Do you ever practise or do you just dick around on the guitar when you feel like it?
‘I don’t dick with anything and I rarely play guitar unless I’m working on something specific.’
TGM: So you’re definitely not one of those guys who takes a guitar into the bathroom so you can practise while taking a dump?
‘I used to be one of those guys but I don’t want to play like that anymore. I don’t really care about fast solos anymore and all that stuff. I’ve always found that I get the best out of my instrument when I just go to what I feel like going to rather than what I’ve trained myself to go to.’
TGM: Following on from what you’ve just said, is that why One Hot Minute isn’t exactly packed full of long, self-indulgent guitar solos?
‘Yeah, there’s virtually none. I wanted to get out of that lead guitar thing – I’m kinda not into that anymore because I feel like I’ve already done my fair share of it. I mean, in the title track there was a big long section for me to take a guitar and I ended up putting four tracks of “space noise” on it using lots of echo and stuff. To me that’s more interesting because it creates a mood rather than cramming myself down people’s throats.
TGM: You’ve already enjoyed a great deal of success with Jane’s Addiction and it looks like you’re about to surpass that with the Chili Peppers. As someone who’s already made it in the music industry, do you have any advice for those who would like to follow in your footsteps?
‘I would just say to stick to how you feel when it comes down to what you want to play. And, as hard as it is, don’t ever consciously try to sound and play like the bands you love to hear. Whether you like it or not, the influences of those artists is going to seep into your playing anyway and you’ll find yourself inadvertently stealing stuff from them anyway. I catch myself doing it all the time but I don’t feel bad about it because it wasn’t deliberate. If you think about it, inadvertently stealing is an on-going process in most forms of music. I mean, if you look at the progression of rock music you’ll see that almost everything is just a piggy-back of something else.’ Nick Bowcott
DAVE’S GUITAR RAVES
Guitars: Fender Custom Shop Strats, Parker Fly Deluxe
Strings: Dean Markley .009s.
Amps: Marshall JCM900 4100 High Gain Dual Reverb heads, plus one Bogner head. Cabinets: 2x1960A and 2x1960B Marshall 4×12″s, both loaded with 75W Celestion speakers
Pedals: Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Wah, Experience pedal, MXR Micro Amp, Boss Power Supply and Master Switch (PSM-5), Boss Turbo Overdrive (OD-2), 2xBoss Digital Delay (DD-3), Boss Super Chorus (CH-I); Boss Noise Supressor (NS 2), Boss Octave Divider (0C-2); Boss Turbo Flanger (BF2)
Tuner: Boss TU-12