Flea on RHCP History Funk Brothers
Guitar World 2006: A massive John Fruscinate interview that I’ve split into it’s two different sctions plus there is a Flea interview about this history of RHCP; links to the other sections below the gallery for this part:
FOR 24 YEARS THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS HAVE SURVIVED ADDICTIONS, DEATH AND A CHRONIC OBSESSION WITH ALL THINGS FUNK. FLEA, THE GROUP’S POWERHOUSE BASSIST, GUIDES US THROUGH THE BAND’S ROCKY HISTORY, FROM ITS ART-PINK ROOTS TO ITS RECENT ROCK REVIVALISM.
Stadium Arcadium is the third album in a row (the fifth, all told) that Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante Flea and Chad Smith have recorded collectively as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The fact makes this the most stable Chili Peppers lineup in the band’s 24-year history—although “stable” is hardly the first word that springs to mind. Frusciante bailed shortly after the release of the Peppers’ 1991 highly influential break-through, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, embarking on a five-year “Lost Weekend” of drug addiction, painting, occult experimentation and freeform home recording at his Hollywood Hills hideaway—until he burned the place down. Kiedis, for his part, has dealt with demons of his own, as his numerous visits to rehab attest.
But then rampant dysfunction has been part of the Chili Peppers’ story ever since 1982, when they first exploded onto the L.A. punk scene. They played a turbocharged amalgam that had one foot in the self-conscious, postpunk, art-school funk of predecessors like Talking Heads and the Gang of Four and another in the pro-totypical Seventies black power, sci-fi funk of George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. But the Peppers didn’t sound like any of these antecedents. They were always one of a kind—and always somewhat disaster prone. On the eve of sessions for their 1984 self-titled debut album, founding guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons jumped ship, due to contractual obligations with MCA, which had signed their project What Is This (the Chili Peppers were signed to EMI). Flea and Kiedis soldiered on using a hastily recruited B-team, with Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill at the production helm. Once a hero and key influence, the British producer proved incompatible with the Chili Peppers in the studio. In his auto-biography, Scar Tissue, Anthony Kiedis recalls one instance when the band defecated into an empty pizza box and left it on the console as a “gift” for Gill. Not surprisingly, given the absence of two members and the bad vibes with their producer, the Chili Peppers – turned out an unimpressive debut, notable only for containing such early favorites as “Out in L.A.” and “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes.”
By 1985, What Is This had broken up, and Slovak and Irons returned to the fold. The Peppers made two albums with this lineup: Freaky Styley (1985), produced by Dr. Funkenstein himself, George Clinton, and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987). Each release had shown improvement over its predecessor, and the group seemed finally to be coming into its own. Then, in 1988, Slovak died of a heroin overdose. His death was a heavy blow to the others, all of who had been friends with the guitarist since their days together at Hollywood’s Fairfax High school. Shortly after Slovak’s death, Irons quit.
Flea and Kiedis carried on, recruiting drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante into the fold. This lineup recorded two discs—Mothers Milk (1989) and Blood Sugar Sex Magik-before Frusciante took his walk on the wild side. His replacement, Jane’s Addiction axman Dave Navarro, lasted long enough to make one album with the band, 1995’s appropriately titled One Hot Minute. By then, Frusciante had pulled himself back together and was ready to rejoin the group. Since then, both he and his band-mates have demonstrated that they are, musically speaking, better than ever on the quartet’s gloriously expansive “California sunshine” trilogy: Californication, By the Way and their new album, Stadium Arcadium.
All of the above is merely the Cliff’s Notes version of the Chili Peppers’ history, leaving out such transitory guitar figures as Jack Sherman, Blackbird McKnight, Jesse Tobias and Arik Marshal. One rock-solid constant in all the chaos has been the diminutive gap-toothed bass titan born Michael Balzary and known to the world as Flea. Through the band’s many years and incarnations, his muscular bass lines—wickedly syncopated and fiendishly melodic at times—have woven under, around and through the band’s particolored parade of guitarists. Flea’s bass style has been a defining element in the Chili Peppers’ sound, an equal with Anthony Kiedis’ voice. A onetime self-confessed Hollywood brat, Flea has surprised everyone by growing up to be a mature, spiritually centered, emotionally balanced guy and a consummate musician. In the interview that follows, he reflects on the long, crazy ride that has been the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ career.
GUITAR WORLD This year is the 15th anniversary of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. How does that feel?FLEA It’s amazing that it’s that long ago. That was the beginning of a new era for us. For one, that’s when we broke into the mainstream, and it made a real change in our lives. Also, it was a time when John brought a new element to the band and made it a much bigger musical picture. When he first joined the band and we made Mothers’ Milk, he was just trying to fit into the concept that we already had. He did that well, but I don’t think he felt comfortable. By the time we made Blood Sugar, he felt more confident in himself, and he brought a whole new concept into the band as a guitar player and songwriter. It suddenly gave us so much more to draw from—a bigger pad from which we could all be launched into outer space.
GW It’s easy to hear on a song like “Breaking the Girl” [from Blood Sugar Sex Magik] how John’s chordal sensibilities started to bring new things out of you. That was some of the jazziest bass playing you had done up until that point.
FLEA I guess it is. John came up with the idea for that song on acoustic guitar. It was a beautiful thing and I just wanted to complement it. With the chord progressions John was coming up with, I just felt really free to play on them. We bring out the best in each other in this band. It’s an intangible chemical relationship between us.
GW It’s interesting that you and John tuned down to E flat on a couple of songs on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, considering that down tuning didn’t become popular until the late Nineties.
FLEA Yeah. I think we did it because Hendrix sometimes tuned down a half step. That slack strings just seemed to loos-en everyone up. I think “If You Have to Ask” is actually a whole step down. And that was because of the bass riff I came up with for that song. I came down in pitch and tried to play something low and pokey.
GW Is it all traditional four-string bass on that album?
FLEA No, I played a five-string on “Funky Monks” and “The Righteous and the Wicked.”
GW What kind of five-string?
FLEA I don’t remember. I haven’t played one since. It’s nice to go low and everything, but with all these bass innovations I still don’t hear any bass playing better than Jaco [Pastorius]’s or [Motown house musician] James Jamerson’s or any of the great electric bass players that played in bands in the Sixties and Seventies.
GW However, that envelope follower on the bass in “Power of Equality” is certainly cool.
FLEA Yeah, on the bridge there. I’m not certain but that might have been an old Mutron. I think [session engineer] Brendan O’Brien had one. But I remember being really happy about the way [producer] Rick Rubin started that song off with just the room sound of the drums. Then when the miked drums come in, the track really explodes. It’s a great dynamic. Back then, Rick was still pretty fresh out of just making hip-hop records. He was a lot different than he is now.
GW The Chili Peppers have done five albums with Rick now. What’s the magic in that relationship?
FLEA He’s the calm voice of reason that we trust. Rick is really great at hearing our songs and coming up with suggestions for the arrangements. Since he didn’t write the song, he can see all the pieces. He’s always thinking, How can we take these pieces and use them to their best purpose? In the studio, he pays the most attention to the drums and the vocals. He pretty much just lets me and John do our thing, but he really focuses on the drums during the basic tracks and then, afterward, he and Anthony do all the vocals together.
GW There are stories about Rick: that he doesn’t show up, and if he does he just lays on the couch…
FLEA Oh, he lays on the couch, definitely. That’s the truth. But when we’re making a record, he shows up. Rick is a smart man. He knows that for him to be his best in the creative process, he’s gotta be relaxed. Running around acting like he’s busy or being a drill sergeant isn’t going to get
work done. A lot of times he’s laying there on the couch typing on his Blackberry and you think he’s just taking a nap. But then he’ll sit up and say something very insightful about the song you’re working on.
GW How much credit are you comfortable giving Blood Sugar Sex Magik for being an album that launched the alternative Nineties and the Lollapalooza generation?
FLEA Whatever credit anyone wants to give us. I’m not really interested in that. I’m more comfortable talking about other bands that I think of as being hugely influential on popular culture and rock music at the time—chiefly Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.
GW I think the Chili Peppers were part of that gestalt. FLEA Well, I know those people are our contemporaries and we had something original to say. But that’s for you do decide.
GW I can certainly hear how a band like Rage Against the Machine got a lot from Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
FLEA If they did, they also took a lot from Zeppelin and Funkadelic.
GW But there, too, you guys were the first ones to put Zeppelin and Funkadelic together.
FLEA That’s just the way we evolved. The Chili Peppers were never part of any movement that excluded anything else. Even at the peak period when punk rock meant everything to me, I still loved Zeppelin. I never Xed them out of my heart just because they had long hair and sang about goblins and shit. I’ve always loved Hendrix and jazz and African music. Music is just music to me. I don’t exclude things that I used to like just because I’m caught up in the zeitgeist of a particular cultural moment. And the Chili Peppers, for all the styles that have come and gone through-out our career, we never really aligned ourselves with any of them; we were never part of any movement. At one time, people put us together in a category with Fishbone and Faith No More, but we were always different from those bands, and they were always different from us. I’ve seen all these different revivals of punk and ska come and go, not to mention goth, industrial, techno, nu-metal, hair metal, this metal, that metal, hip-hop, hip-hop with metal… But no one has loved every kind of music.
GW How did this eclecticism play on the early Eighties post-punk scene in L.A., where the Chili Peppers got started?
FLEA I think the idea of us playing funk was pretty weird, because no other band did that. I mean, it might have worked on the more arty New York scene, but funk was just not happening on the L.A. punk scene we played. We just did it anyway—did what we loved. And it worked because, in the beginning, there was just this natural energy bubbling through us. It was literally like we were on top of a volcano. It was charging up our asses, and we were just exploding with excitement that we couldn’t really understand or control. And people on the punk rock scene related to that, just in terms of its energy.
GW What people may not know is that the Chili Peppers really started out as a side gig to What Is This, which was an out-growth of your high school rock band, Anthem.
FLEA Yeah. What Is This was my first band. Hillel and Jack stayed with that, but I’d left them and joined Fear, which was a really popular punk rock band that, incidentally, had some great musicians. But yeah, the Chili Peppers were just a joke. The idea of Anthony singing was funny. He’d never been in a band before, but he had gone to see [hip-hop innovators] Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and fell in love with hip-hop and said, “Wow, I could do that.” He always had the entertainment thing in him. He’d acted and stuff; he used to introduce our band. He was just a pal—a funny, intelligent guy—but not a real musician, like me and Hillel and Jack.
But Anthony had agreed to open for a friend’s band—to do just one number—and we agreed to back him. So I just came up with a jam that was a rip-off of a band called Defunkt. It was actually the song “Defunkt,” which featured a great guitar player named Calvin Bell. Our first song, which was “Out in L.A.,” was just a rip-off of that groove, with Anthony rapping on top of it. We got onstage one night and did that for a complete joke, and the Chili Peppers just took off like crazy. For me, Fear was an important career thing. Hillel and Jack felt the same way about What Is This. But suddenly our one-off joke band became more important, more fun and more exciting than any of that. It was us just letting go and playing what we really loved. And all of a sudden, there were lines around the block to see us play.
GW Were the Chili Peppers the first band where you actually explored funk bass?
FLEA Pretty much. In What Is This, there were elements of funk when we jammed, but in the songwriting it was much more thought out and self conscious. I didn’t want to write too much in that band anyway. Hillel and Jack had their thing, and I had never played bass before. I played my first gig with them after I’d been playing bass only two weeks. I was still learning to play, whereas those guys had been playing for years. And then I joined Fear. I guess they got into me because of my energy, but I was really just a sideman in Fear. So it wasn’t until I started coming up with this funk stuff for the Chili Peppers that I developed my own style. Right before the Chili Peppers, I started slapping the bass and playing in this real high-energy funk way. And it was like, “Wow, this is me!” I felt like I was finally really expressing myself. I think that’s how John probably felt when we did Blood Sugar.
GW Fear also put on quite a show. Onstage they were kind of mock confrontational. Did that inspire the way you performed with the Chili Peppers?
FLEA In a certain way, it did. I used to antagonize the crowd and stuff in the beginning, but that’s just how punk rock is in general. Also, I was like that onstage playing a bass because, prior to that, I played trumpet and wore a suit. You gotta realize that I grew up thinking rock music was for dumb people. In my house, you listened to [jazz saxophonists] Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley. I was taught that rock music was for the masses—people who don’t really care about music, people who don’t want to use their mind, people who will take whatever is forced down their throats. But then Hillel turned me on to rock, and I realized how cool it was. And when I saw one of my high school’s rock bands play, watching how they’d move around onstage, I said, “If I ever get up there, I’m gonna go completely crazy!”
GW Which you proceeded to do in the Chili Peppers. And then one fateful night at the Kit Kat Club you all decided you should get onstage wearing nothing but socks on your dicks.
FLEA Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had done it around the house for fun. I can’t remember whose idea it was. It might have been Hillel’s.
GW It sort of makes sense when you consider that the Kit Kat was a strip club.
FLEA Yeah, but the night we played was a special rock night at the place. It was a great gig actually. It wasn’t like playing for sleazy old guys who’d come to see strippers. It was full of people who wanted to hear good music. The people who booked it were really into the arty L.A scene. There was this downtown art scene in L.A. that had these great bands like Neighbor’s Voices, Two Balls and a Bat, and Red Wedding—all these interesting bands who were influenced by the Residents, Captain Beefheart and, you know, intellectual music. There were all these great clubs like the Brave Dog down-town and Al’s Bar. It was a very underground, very gay, artsy,real cool bohemian scene. There was this club called Theoretical, which was a gay club, but they had all of these great bands. We used to play there. That’s the scene we identified with: it was really free and art conscious, and the people were smart. But when we started getting popular, all of a sudden it was like we were the frat-boy party rock band, which was the polar opposite of what we were into. I guess people decided that because Anthony sang about sex a lot. We were definitely a “sex” band.
GW You had some muscles. You were in good shape…
FLEA Yeah, we had our shirts off and we were singing about “I want to party on your pussy.”
GW People were bound to draw conclusions.
FLEA But to us, sex was beautiful. For us it was never about that misogynistic, insensitive jock-frat thing. Those were the people who made fun of me and called me a fag, so it really hurt us when that was the perception. But I guess when you get really popular and you do these things, people latch onto them in that superficial way.
GW It also must’ve hurt when Hillel and Jack left the Chili Peppers right on the eve of making your first album.
FLEA Well, they left because What Is This got a record deal first. Hillel and Jack were in that band since they were in junior high school. All of a sudden, they were signed, which was a big deal for them, so they left the Chili Peppers to do that, and Anthony and I got two other guys. At that time, I was just so rash. Like, “They’re gone? So what? Get some new guys! I’ll fuckin’ rock. I don’t care. I got plenty more where that came from. Bring it on!” I would do anything. I just didn’t care.
GW But when you got in the studio with Andy Gill to make that first album, it didn’t go so smoothly did it?
FLEA No, it was difficult. I think partly we were just brats and had no idea what we were doing. We knew that our essence was this really explosive thing that was happening onstage, and we knew we weren’t capturing that in the studio and what Andy was doing to us wasn’t right. But we didn’t know how to correct it, so we just reacted and were obnoxious. It was kind of fun being obnoxious, too. We put our shit on the mixing board and stuff like that. We were just punk rock kids. In retrospect, we should have got Hillel and Jack in the studio to record the songs we’d written with them and then recorded the newer songs we wrote with Cliff Martinez and Jack Sherman [Iron’s and Slovak’s respective replacements] with those guys. It would have been a much better album that way. But as it was Jack and Hillel eventually did come back and we got to make two albums with them.
GW What was the most important lesson you learned from George Clinton during the making of Freaky Styley?
FLEA I learned two things. Once he told us about how badly he had wanted to make it when he was young. Then he learned that someone he really admired—I think it was someone in the Temptations—didn’t make it until they were 28. George said, “That really freaked me out, ’cause I was 19 and trying so hard. And I said, ‘Fuck it. I’m just gonna relax and have fun and play music.’ And when I did that, fame and success all came anyway, ’cause that’s what it’s all about: being yourself.” That was a real important thing for me to hear at the time, ’cause it really confirmed what our experience had been in the Chili Peppers.
GW What was the second thing?
FLEA Oh, just something from a [George Clinton project] P-Funk All Stars song that I was listening to a lot of that time. I think it’s “Pumpin’ It Up.” There’s this whole thing where George is going, “I got one more pump in my back. I got one more clap in my hand.” I remember thinking at the time, That’s so pro-found. ‘Cause no matter where ya at, even if you’re fuckin’ dying, you always got one more clap in your hand. That concept has carried me through so many fucking bummers in my life. So many times when I’ve been down, suicidal, feeling like I can’t go (continued on page 100)
RHCP (cont. from page 74)
on, I’ve always remembered that. “Well, I got one more clap.”
GW When did you first realize that Hillel was in serious danger with drugs?
FLEA He’d gone in and out of drug problems when we were making The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. It got kinda bad when we were on tour for the record. There’d been hints of it before, but out on the road, it clearly wasn’t working. The drugs were really slowing Hillel down. He tried to stop a few times, but he just couldn’t figure it out. Then he made the fatal mistake and overdosed.
GW Where were you when you first got the news of his death?
FLEA I was at home. Earlier that day, [Jane’s Addiction frontman] Perry Farrell and I had gone to some guy’s house to watch the Tyson/Spinks fight. It was the famous night when Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in the first round. And when I was in the car with Perry he said, “This is my new record.” Jane’s Addiction had just finished recording Nothing’s Shocking [the group’s 1988 album featuring the breakthrough hit “Jane Says”], and he played it for me in the car. That’s the first time I heard it, and I remember thinking, Wow, that’s an interesting record. So it had been an interesting day like that.
Then I came home. I’d been home about an hour when I got the call. It was really, really shocking. My wife at the time was pregnant. We had a baby coming. And it was just really, really sad. It’s still really sad. Right now, I’m sitting here in my house, and I have a big painting that Hillel did right in front of me. He was such an artful, intelligent, interesting guy who had dysfunctions just like all of us but never got the chance to work them out. There’s no way the Chili Peppers could have found their sound without Hillel. For one thing, he’s the guy who asked me to start playing bass. He’s the guy I jammed with and with whom I found out who I was during my early formation as a bass player. Hillel, Jack Irons and Alain Johannes [who went on to play with the band 11 and Chris Cornell] —those were the guys. And those jams we had, that’s what the Chili Peppers became.
GW Do you think that the experience of losing Hillel to drugs is one reason why you stuck with John through his dark years?
FLEA It’s interesting that you say that. I never thought of it that way, but it could be true. I know that when Hillel died, I had a lot of regrets about how I’d dealt with his drug abuse. I mean, I was in and out of drugs myself, but I was never a junkie. And I used to get really mad at Hillel: “He’s fucking up, that fucking asshole!” My regret more than anything was that I didn’t try to help him. I got angry instead of having the depth of feeling to realize that he was in pain. So when John left the band and was a junkie for five years, I’m sure it was in my mind somewhere that I’d meant to do something for Hillel but had made a mistake, responding with anger instead of love. And without consciously thinking about it, I’m sure I didn’t want to make that mistake again. So I always stayed in touch with John, always loved him. Honestly, I don’t think John wanted my help. John is so intense. He was way more crazy than anything I’d ever seen with Hillel. John was very extreme. It was hard being around him then. But at the same time, I always went to see him. I was always there for him any way I could be.
GW You were instrumental in bringing John back into the band just prior to making Californication. Considering how messed up he’d been, that was a risky move. How did you know it was going to be all right? What gave you the sense that he had come through the worst?
FLEA Well, I didn’t know. I didn’t care. With the band, I never thought ahead like that. But I knew that it wasn’t working with Dave [Navarro]. There were moments with Dave when it was really incredible. I’ve recently been going through some unreleased tracks from One Hot Minute and they’re really fucking good.
But even though there were those times that we connected with Dave, I was frustrated because we just couldn’t seem to get together in a room and jam with him. It was always: “Let’s get together and jam tomorrow, Dave.” “No I can’t. I gotta go to the gym. I gotta go here, I gotta go there.” Once I counted the times that happened, and it was, like, 20 times in a row. The only time we could get together in a room with Dave was when there was some money thing happening or some gig we had to do. I’m sure I played an equal part in that. Maybe I was being an insensitive weirdo to him or something. But whatever that natural chemistry is that makes me, John, Chad and Anthony get in a room and jam for five hours, that same natural chemistry made us and Dave run to opposite sides of the city. But I think Dave’s a great musician. I never want to say anything bad about him, ’cause I really respect him.
GW But, as you say, it just wasn’t working out with him in the Chili Peppers.
FLEA Anthony and I came to that decision. We knew John had been in rehab. He had just gotten out. Anthony had been in rehab, so they kind of connected a little bit. I went over John’s house and asked him to come back. And he said yes. It was a beautiful moment. At the time, I’d been planning to make a solo record and play guitar. The plan was we’d go in the studio with the Chili Peppers after I made my solo album. But then one day Anthony and John just showed up at my front gate. John had a guitar and was waving it in the air with a huge smile on his face. And Anthony was standing next to him, shaking his fist in the air. It was the most beautiful sight; I’ll never ever forget it. I decided, “Fuck the solo record. I can do that anytime. Here’s this opportunity to play with John again.” I felt the magic in the air right then. I knew there was no other choice. And we went in my garage and made Californication.
GW Which, like Blood Sugar Sex Magik, was another milestone in the Chili Peppers’ career.
FLEA That’s always been my favorite record that we ever made, up until this new one. What made me happy about Californication was that it was our biggest record, and we weren’t even MTV darlings anymore. With Blood Sugar Sex Magik, it was all about us—our tattoos, the whole cultural phenomenon. But when Californication came out, it was all about Limp Bizkit and Korn. We weren’t in vogue anymore. But still, Californication was our biggest-selling record ever. We sold way more copies of that than Blood Sugar. And I thought, Wow, it’s really about the music this time. That made me feel happy. I felt that people were liking it for the right reason.
GW And one can make a pretty convincing argument that Californication was the start of the Chili Peppers’ being generally regarded as classic band.
FLEA I think it is. At that point, we had the longevity. We’d been up and down a few times. We made a good record and people dug it.
GW So having become classic like this, do you have to resist the temptation to rest on your laurels and cruise a bit?
FLEA It’s just not in our nature as a band to do that. I couldn’t go on if I didn’t feel like I had some-thing new to contribute to the band on each album, or if John didn’t keep coming in with some amazing new thing I’d never heard before. And Anthony’s evolution as a musician has been incredible. It could be argued that he’s more responsible for our longevity than anything, ’cause if he wasn’t able to grow, we couldn’t grow around him. Like I said, in the beginning the idea of Anthony being a lead singer was just a joke. Anthony would scream and rap and holler, and that was great. But then he started singing a little bit of melody. And now he’s really singing, full of heart—not just hanging onto the melody for dear life but using melody as a flexible thing. Anthony Kiedis is my favorite singer right now. Let it be known. ?