Red Hot and Bothered
By Alan di Perna
Photos by Michael Sexton
From the bowels of his self-haunted house, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Navarro hatches spellbinding riffs and bravely confronts his demons.
Alongside one of the narrow winding roads that lead up into the Hollywood Hills stands Dave Navarro’s house. From the outside, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarists abode looks fairly ordinary. But inside, the place could be mistaken for the Addams Family’s vacation home. The walls and furniture are swathed in heavy, dark velvet. Up on the living room mantel, two skulls and twin statuettes of the pagan god Pan flank a silver crucifix; directly above hangs an Andy Warhol “electric chair” print. Downstairs in the bedroom, a human skeleton lies languidly on a divan. Another hangs next to the bed, like some executed brigand no one ever bothered to cut down.
However macabre his taste in interior design may seem, the master of the house is a pleasant enough guy. Dave Navarro radiates a quietly intense friendliness that seems to say, “Please don’t fuck around with me, and I won’t fuck around with you.” Dave is exceptionally polite–his “devils moustache” and “evil guy” image notwithstanding. While he can be extremely candid about his emotions and personal life, he’s also got a wickedly understated sense of humor.
Not that he’s always subtle. At one point, Navarro excuses himself and reappears moments later, a big, black shotgun in his grip. “It’s for protection,” he says reassuringly as he snaps open the ammunition chamber to show that the gun isn’t loaded. “Imagine you’re a robber. First you hear this,” he says, releasing the safety catch with a loud click. “Then you see this,” he continues, flicking on the weapons barrel-mounted flashlight, which emits a beam so piercing that it would paralyze a would-be intruder with fear, blindness and confusion. “That’s the point,” says Navarro. “You don’t want to shoot people.”
DAVE NAVARRO OVERCAME a troubled early life to emerge as one of the most influential guitarists of his generation. His passionately trippy guitar work with Jane’s Addiction did much to set the tone of the Nineties alternative rock [see Birth of a Nation]. When he joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1993, Navarro was deemed by many to be the best thing to happen to the band in a long time. His lava-hot touch is all over the Chilis’ current hit album, One Hot Minute. He lubricates the albums grooves with slick funk rhythms and power riffs, imbues song structures with strange sonic twists and drenches the whole affair in layers of intoxicating leads.
While the Chili Peppers is his main priority these days, Dave has always maintained a full schedule of side projects. Shortly after Jane’s Addiction split up, he teamed with the bands ex-bassist, Eric Avery, to record as Deconstruction, a woefully overlooked band whose eponymous American Recordings album showcased the guitarists moody, psychedelic side. More recently, he reunited with fellow former Jane’s members, Perry Farrell and Stephen Perkins, to play on a track for their current band, Porno for Pyros. Dave has also lent his unmistakable guitar sound to Alanis Morissette’s hit album, Jagged Little Pill, and a recent remix of Nine Inch Nails “Piggy.” Recording as Honeymoon Stitch, he and Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith cut a track for A Means to an End, a multi-artist tribute to the supreme Goth ban–and one of Dave’s all-time favorites–Joy Division. Dave and Chad have also emerged as a remix duo of some note, retooling tracks for Janet Jackson and Traci Lords–a surreal pairing, but somehow par for Navarro’s course.
Navarro was recently divorced, and apparently the parting was not easy. In Dave’s kitchen, in a cabinet below a counter, he keeps a box filled with several copies of a solo CD that he recorded in his home studio and had pressed on his own. The album deals with Dave’s feelings about his failed marriage. The front cover photo shows his ex-wife’s hand carving her name into Dave’s chest, his blood dripping from the slashed letters. The inside photo depicts blood splattered over the marriage certificate. One can only imagine what the music on the disc must be like.
“It’s interesting,” says Dave, “but I don’t want anybody to ever hear it. It’s one of the things I did down there [indicates his home studio]. That records filled with a lot of hate and bitterness. I just think it’s a very positive energy to put out there. My initial intent was to leave stacks of them for free at record stores. Just put them up at the register, and if anybody was interested, they could have it. But when it came right down to it, [the record] was a pretty negative thing and potentially very hurtful to my wife. And it gives away some pretty heavy secrets of mine. So by the time I had the discs printed up, I’d decided I didn’t want to have them out there. So now I’ve got all these in the kitchen cabinet. I’m trying to get rid of them.”
When a freak-accident hand injury brought a temporary halt to Smith’s drumming and the Peppers touring, Dave got some time off to dabble in a few side projects and–most importantly for him–spend Christmas at home. The ghoulish Count of the Hollywood Hills has a Christmas tree set up in one corner of his living room in front of the coffin. He’s all fired up over a jeweled crucifix pendant he made as a Christmas gift for a loved one. As a musician and a person, he’s quite a study in darkness and light.
Guitar World: To paraphrase a television show, there is a strong dark side to your reality. What is its source?
Dave Navarro: It basically comes from having gone through a hell of a lot in my life. I’ve gone through drug addiction; I’ve gone through the murders of my mother and my aunt [by an ex-boyfriend of his mother when Navarro was 15,–GW Ed.] I come from a divorced household. I spent a lot of time with the wrong people. I’ve seen that just about anybody will stab you in the back, given the opportunity.
It also comes from the fact that I’m now prepared for all that. But at the same time, I feel that I have a good outlook and a realistic sense of humor about life. I feel very lucky.
It’s not like I walk around feeling as if I’m doomed in a world of doom, and that there’s no hope in anything.
GW: Does art or music that’s dark help you deal with the darkness in life?
Navarro: When I listen to music that’s really dark, I get this overwhelming sensation that I’m not alone, that I’m not crazy. It’s a little comforting.
GW: While your houses decor is beautifully done, it feels like you’re continually dwelling in the presence of death.
Navarro: Yeah. I have friends who ask me about that. My girlfriend asks me that. I don’t know how to reply. Not only do I find it aesthetically pleasing and different, it’s also comforting. My girlfriend tells me I’m losing it. I don’t know whether she means that I’m losing my mind, or that she’s going to get rid of all this stuff.
GW: Now that you’ve recorded One Hot Minute and toured with Anthony Kiedis, Chad Smith and Flea, do you feel like a full-fledged Red Hot Chili Pepper?
Navarro: Sometimes I do. I feel like a full-fledged Chili pepper right now because I have intruders in my house, and it’s because of what I do. Other days, I don’t feel that way. Sometimes I wake up and wish I never was. But I think that’s part of being me. Sometimes I don’t know what I want. But all in all, I’m pretty happy to be doing what I’m doing.
GW: One Hot Minute has a lot of mood shifts. Even within the scope of individual songs, the whole vibe changes gears frequently and unexpectedly.
Navarro: I’ve always been a fan of mood shifts in songs. Jane’s Addiction and Deconstruction had a lot of that. So, in part anyway, that may be something I brought to the table. A lot of the mood shifting from song to song is basically a result of where the four of us were coming from, as human beings, when we made the record. The true nature of any artist is to create based on what he knows. At that time, we were going through a lot of different emotional ups and downs, and that’s how that record came about.
GW: Did some of those ups and downs stem from the process of your becoming a member of the group?
Navarro: Probably. In any relationship, you’re not completely comfortable at first. And I wasn’t in this band; sometimes I’m still not. But that’s what happens when you work with human beings day in and day out. It’s not always going to be easy, and it’s not always going to be hard. It’s going to be all of the above. That’s what happens with my personal relationships at home; I imagine it will happen for the rest of my life. But we had to find a common ground initially. And sometimes that wasn’t easy.
GW: Was there a main guitar and amp you played on One Hot Minute?
Navarro: I used a Marshall JCM900 amp for the majority of the recording and an old Silvertone on a couple of tracks. I mostly used Fender Custom Shop Strats and a few Paul Reed Smith guitars.
GW: Did you switch to Strats to accommodate the Chili Peppers sound?
Navarro: Yeah. I was playing Paul Reed Smiths through the last days of Jane’s Addiction. When I joined the Chili Peppers, we started doing old material of theirs, to build a repertoire, and the Paul Reed Smith sounded too chunky, too heavy. I really didn’t get the sound I needed to play the old songs and keep them true to form, so I bought a Fender Custom Shop Strat. My initial intention was to play the Strat on the old material and the PRS on the new stuff. But once you’ve got a guitar in your hands you end up sticking with it. So it was kind of by accident that I ended up suing Strats for the majority of the set. Although I find them more difficult to play than the Paul Reed Smiths, I really love beating up Strats. Not to destroy them, but I really love to go to work on one, and at the end of the evening it’ll still be hanging in there with me. I’m not a mellow player. I’m not nice to my instruments. The Strats are faithful to me. A night doesn’t go by where I don’t drop or throw one. The Strat that I played at Woodstock finally died on the last European tour. The body actually shattered into three or four different pieces. I’ve never seen that happen before. I don’t even remember what I did to it. I sort of black out when I’m playing. But I probably did something not too smart with it, like throwing it up in the air and trying to catch it, but missing, or trying to throw it to a guitar tech. A lot of times, I take guitars off and drop them. It may have been that.
GW: Do you have another main Strat, now that that one’s gone to its rest?
Navarro: Yeah. After that one broke, I had to make my number two guitar–a black Custom Shop Strat–my number one. I ended up preferring it to my original number one–a happy twist there. My current number two is a sunburst Strat. Number three is a Paul Reed Smith. Number four is a champagne-pink custom Strat. And then I’ve got the Parker Fly guitar that I use onstage for songs like “My Friends.” Those guitars sound great.
GW: Do you use stock pickups and hardware in your Strats?
Navarro: I think so. I don’t know, really. I think there’s some kind of Stevie Ray Vaughan-configuration Strat pickup, isn’t there–the Texas Special or something like that? That makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about, right? [assumes mock authoritative voice] Oh yeah, I go with the Texas special. When I’m on the road, I need a pickup I can depend on.
GW: How does being on stage with the Red Hot Chili Peppers differ from being onstage with Jane’s Addiction?
Navarro: It’s like night and day. The Chili Peppers are less of a one-man show than Jane’s Addiction was. I don’t mean that as a slag to either band. It’s just a fact. Perry Farrell is a very charismatic performer, and a lot of people who went to see Jane’s Addiction primarily went to see Perry. With the Chili Peppers, I feel the attention is distributed a little more evenly on stage. But at the same time, in Jane’s Addiction I felt a little more of a connection between the band members, as a foursome. Which is ironic, because I feel like I’m better friends with the members of the Chili Peppers than I was with the members of Jane’s Addiction. When I’m offstage, I’m in my own world all the time, anyway. I think that Flea, Chad and Anthony rely a lot on connecting visually with each other onstage–looking into one another’s eyes. I’ve always played with my head down in the guitar–like I said, in my own world. I’ve always relied more on feeling the connection, because I’m not providing those physical cues. Whereas with the Jane’s Addiction guys, I didn’t have to look at anyone, and I felt completely bonded with them–even if I wasn’t getting along with them off stage.
GW: Sometimes you can be really pissed off at the other guys in the band, but still go on stage and get into the music.
Navarro: Absolutely. At the end of Jane’s Addiction, there were times when Perry and I literally hated each other. We got into fistfights off stage. We once got into a fight on stage during a performance in Australia. But even with that much animosity and hatred flowing between and around us, I still felt really connected to him and everybody else when we were playing music. It’s strange, but I think that comes from having played with that band for seven or eight years. I’ve only been with the Chili Peppers for two of the 12 years they’ve been together. It’s only natural that it would take time for that total instantaneous connection to develop, although I already feel very connected to them onstage.
GW: How do you feel about the notion that the Red Hot Chili Peppers personify L.A., or that they’re the ultimate L.A. band?
Navarro: That’s hard to say. Because I’m from L.A., I’m on the inside looking out, and there are many different things I identify with L.A. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are certainly a band that came out of the Los Angeles underground scene and rose up to become successful. I’ve known of them ever since they got going. We’re a very diverse bunch–especially now that I’m part of them–and L.A. has a lot of diversity.
GW: Coming from Jane’s Addiction, you bring with you another side of the L.A. scene.
Navarro: And I was born here, too. All I can say is I’m happy to be in a band that is looked on as personifying Los Angeles, cause I’m incredibly proud of the city.
GW: You said that you hate some of the songs on One Hot Minute.
Navarro: Let’s just say that if I were listening to the CD, there are some songs that I would skip, such as “Tearjerker,” “Walkabout” and, perhaps, “One Hot Minute,” depending on how I felt at the time.
GW: What do you dislike about those songs?
Navarro: They don’t really speak to me. I think that they could have been better. It’s a little hard for me to listen to something that I know could have been better.
GW: Often that’s presented in the press as, “Dave doesn’t like funk and all the others do.”
Navarro: What I meant when I said that was that I don’t listen to funk music. It doesn’t really speak to me. But then again, when I’m playing with three other guys who I love and feel camaraderie with, it’s enjoyable to perform funk.
GW: You do play some funky shit on the album.
Navarro: Part of that came from playing with those guys. The experience enabled me to grow as a guitar player.
GW: Was that freaky at times? Like, “God, what am I doing? I can’t believe what’s coming out of my amp!”
Navarro: There have been times when I’ve laughed out loud at the stuff that I was playing. So yeah, it was a little strange, but it was fascinating too. I don’t know if the is makes any sense, but I enjoy dark music. And there was something so opposite about this, that, in a way, it was the darkest thing I’ve ever done. The guitar part in “Walkabout” is somehow the darkest music I’ve ever played. It’s the exact opposite of how I feel. It’s very unusual for me, and somehow it makes me sad.
GW: Embracing your opposite.
Navarro: Or being appalled by it. I don’t see it necessarily as “embracing” it.
GW: As the two melodic instrumentalists in the band, do you and Flea spend more time together on any given tune, working out the fiddly bits?
Navarro: We have at times. But most of the working out comes through the four of us playing. Usually, if there’s a bass line or a guitar part that will eventually become a part of a song, it’s ironed out through all of us playing together. We don’t sit down and focus on things as much as people might think.
GW: The ballads sound fairly arranged.
Navarro: Well, okay. The original music for “Tearjerker” and “My Friends” was written by Flea. When it came time to put it together with the band, he sat there and played everything, and we just played along. I didn’t ask him what he was playing, and he didn’t show me. We did it all by ear. There are parts of both those songs that I wrote. For the most part, the whole thing came together pretty organically and naturally.
GW: It’s no secret that everyone in the band has been a heavy drug user, with serious addiction problems in some cases. Is that an element of the bond you share as friends?
Navarro: Were all very open and honest about our emotions, having gone through a lot of pain in trying to deal with our personal lives, but I don’t think that the bond comes from sharing tragedy. The bond comes from having grown as people through tragedy. We are really sensitive to one another, and really respectful of one another’s emotional frames of mind.
GW: There was a period where it was rumored that the tracks for One Hot Minute were all completed, but that [singer] Anthony [Kiedis] was having trouble coming up with lyrics, delaying the albums completion.
Navarro: No matter what industries are knocking at your door, you can’t rush a man to do his artwork. Anthony writes about personal things. Sometimes those things aren’t as easy to get into as might be assumed by someone who doesn’t do that kind of writing. I’ve heard a lot of talk about writers block, but I wouldn’t call it that.
GW: Was there anxiety among the other three of you while you were waiting for the lyrics, like, “Gee, what if he doesn’t think of anything?”
Navarro: You want the diplomatic answer to that? It’s one for all and all for one in the Chili Peppers. We stand behind one another’s artistic needs. We had a lot of faith in our brother; we knew that love and support would bring out his best. If you print that, I’ll sound really charming. Or I’ll sound full of shit.
GW: How did you approach the guitar tracks for the record?
Navarro: I fill up as many tracks as are available with guitar ideas. Usually, when I go into the studio, I don’t necessarily know what it is I’m going to try and accomplish. It usually ends up taking on its own life. Then I step back and delete tracks or combine tracks and see what kind of tapestry can be woven. I prefer that to going into the studio with a concrete idea and then trying to accomplish that, because I’ve found that if I have a concrete idea of what I want, I usually can’t get it.
GW: What might be the maximum number of guitar tracks you’ll lay down?
Navarro: Oh, 10 maybe, but they’re never all on the record. It’s usually four, at the most. Often, it’s a matter of combining a bright-sounding rhythm track with a dark one–that sort of thing.
GW: At the end of “Coffee Shop”, the guitar gets noisier and noisier with feedback. What were you doing to generate those tones?
Navarro: In the middle of the outro I put on my Boss delay pedal. It has multiple delay times on it. I set it on infinite repeat mode so it would continuously slap back. When the bulk of the song had finished, the delay was still hanging over the end of the song. I just turned the delay-time knob back and forth between two delay settings. Like, “brrrrrr…keh…brrrrrr…keh..keh.”
GW: What’s generating those envelope filter sounds on “Falling Into Grace”?
Navarro: A Heil Talk Box. I left it on and played one note throughout the whole song, with the exception of the chorus, which was a direct input Strat–very clean. There’s a bridge that has an E-bow. I’m a big fan of the E-bow; I always have been. I used it on “One Big Mob”, too.
GW: Who is the Baby James Gabriel Navarro heard crying on “One Big Mob”?
Navarro: That’s my little brother. He’s not yet 14 months old. I recorded his voice on a Dictaphone. I collect little sounds on tape. Thinking they might serve some purpose later on. When that song came up in the studio, I didn’t know what to do with that section. If I played a guitar solo, it would be really retro Seventies. Anthony doesn’t sing in that spot, and I was banging my head against the wall, trying to come up with something to put there. Then I realized, “Wow, I have the perfect thing!” I ran home and got that tape of my brother. It seemed to fit the mood perfectly.
GW: Did you put the little tike through a wah-wah pedal, or is that just the quality of the recording?
Navarro: It was just a very cheap recording. I thought it sounded better all fucked up than if it had been a nice stereo sample. You can hear that I rewound the tape in the middle of the crying. It rewinds and then starts up again. It almost sounds like an electrocution is happening, but it’s not intended to sound that way.
GW: Was a lot of stuff done in overdub sessions, with you sitting alone with the tracks?
Navarro: Yeah. I generally like to do all the overdubbing with myself and the engineer in the room and nobody else, which is the most comfortable way for me to work. I don’t like to have a lot of onlookers. If I spend more than 20 minutes on a part, I usually will never get it that day because I get myself so wound up that nothing sounds right. I paint myself in a corner. But when that happens and you don’t know how you’re going to get out, here’s my number one rule: stomp on the digital delay and wah-wah pedal and flail around frantically.
GW: What’s your main wah?
Navarro: The [Dunlop] Jimi Hendrix Crybaby wah. It’s a little bit darker than the normal ones. It doesn’t seem to go to such extreme high frequencies, which is nice.
GW: How did you get [ex-Jane’s Addiction/current Porno for Pyros drummer] Stephen Perkins to play percussion on “One Big Mob”?
Navarro: I picked up the phone and said, “Come on down here.” He’s a good friend of mine and of the rest of the band. We thought it would be cool to have his energy in the studio.
GW: So you guys have stayed in touch.
Navarro: Yeah. Flea and I played on the Porno for Pyros record that’s coming out. We’re still friends with all those guys. It was great to play with Perry again. I got a call from the guy who manages them, and he said there was going to be a lot of guest appearances on that record, and would I be interested in coming down? I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to.” They were recording in Malibu, at this big house. It was great to see Steven and Perry again. I’d met [Porno for Pyros guitarist] Peter DiStefano before, but this was the first time we played together. I’m not really used to that. Peter comes up with great ideas as a guitarist, and it was great to jam with Steve again. Everything was fluid and loose. When Perry sang, I got the chills. There’s something about playing with him that’s magical. It’s like playing with nobody else in the world. I’m not sure exactly what’s going to end up on the record, cause they were experimenting with the post-production and doing a lot of mutes, edits and sampling and some electronic drum sounds. The most important experience of the whole thing was just getting down there and doing it. We did just one song, called “Freeway.”
GW: Has Perry had a lasting influence on you as a person and as an artist?
Navarro: Definitely. When I hooked up with Jane’s Addiction, I was a kid–very impressionable. I had strong opinions about what music should be. Playing with them contributed to that in a very broad way. It opened my eyes to a whole lot of different possibilities as to what music is about–what it should do and how it should speak to people. That remains with me to this day.
GW: Is there any chance of Jane’s Addiction reforming?
Navarro: I don’t think so, but I would definitely be into it.
GW: You’ve been doing a lot of sessions lately–for Alanis Morissette, that Joy Division tribute [A Means To An End: The Music of Joy Division (Virgin)], the Nine Inch Nails remix.
Navarro: Most of those things came about through phone calls from friends who were working on those albums. Like, “Do you want to come and play some guitar on this?” “Sure.” Alanis Morissette wasn’t even in the studio when I did that. The studio was down the street, and I was out of there in two hours. Same thing with Nine Inch Nails. I didn’t meet Trent Reznor either.
GW: Do you see yourself becoming a session guitarist one day?
Navarro: Actually, what I would like to do after this band is produce other bands and possibly do A&R–not necessarily working at a record company, but just trying to help out bands that I see and like. Personally, I don’t want to be out on tour past the age of 30.
GW: You’ve remixed a couple of songs.
Navarro: Chad and I just remixed a song for Janet Jackson [“What’ll I Do“] and one for Traci Lords [“Fallen Angel“]. Of all the Chili Peppers, I have the closest bond with Chad. He’s the most down-to-earth.
GW: Were those Janet Jackson and Traci Lords records the first time you’ve dabbled in remixing?
Navarro: Pretty much, yeah. The way I record guitars gave me an upper hand in the mixing room. I was used to having a whole bunch of tracks, not knowing exactly what to do with them and trying to fit them together so that they work somehow.
GW: Plus, you’ve had home studio experience.
Navarro: Yeah. I’ve got two ADATs, a little drum set, a Mackie board and a lot of different effects. Chad and I do a lot of work down there. He and I did a soundtrack for a short film called Ugly Meets the People, which was written and directed by a friend of mine, Robert Sobul. The score has some quiet piano stuff, some hard industrial stuff and there’s some acoustic guitar/bongos/mandolin, Led Zeppelin III-esque stuff. It’s diverse.
GW: Are there any plans for the next Red Hot Chili Peppers albums?
Navarro: It’s a little too soon for that. We still have a lot of touring to do. However, Flea and I do intend to get together and write, but we don’t know whether it’ll be for a band thing, just me and him doing something or a solo record by him, or one by me. We remain fairly active as musicians outside of this band. I have a string of friends in other bands whom I record with.
GW: Any plans to do another solo record?
Navarro: Oh yeah. I intend to do many. And they’ll all probably be really low budget, really lo-fi, done in my home studio, printed up on my own and probably given out for free. I really like the idea of making records that will be free. No distribution. No labels. I’ll pay for everything, record and produce everything, do the artwork myself and then drive to record stores and say, “Here’s a bunch of free records that I made.” And that’ll be the end of it. I figure I can distribute a thousand records every year.
GW: No one could accuse you of doing it for commercial reasons.
Navarro: I don’t feel like selling myself. I’m not really into that. It’s one thing to be in this band; it’s like a huge machine. But when it comes down to my own personal feelings and creativity, I don’t want to try and turn a buck on that.