Guitarist 2003

 

Guitarist goes backstage to meet Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, the man behind last year’s finest guitar album. Join us as we find out why he can’t bear to listen to that album now, how he’s rebuilt his guitar arsenal after a house fire destroyed his old collection, how he approaches soloing and chord theory, and why we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the coming months.

It’s 8pm and we’re standing in line, eyes fixed on the glow from Manchester Evening News Arena’s only cash machine. The line stretches almost the whole way across the lobby area and contains people from all walks of life shuffling from foot to foot, wondering if they’ll ever get in to the arena, let alone to the bar.

Tonight, the place is positively swarming with music lovers. Pretty young punks with their chains jangling; old rockers in battered leathers; svelte new-wavers with a second skin of black denim; bright-eyed teens getting drunk on a school night; smart-casual thirtysomethings feeling hip and trendy. Tall, short, black, white, blonde, red, hot and Chilly, they’re all here. Because the world’s biggest rock band are in town and quite simply, everywhere else is nowhere, man.

The universal appeal of the Red Hot Chili Peppers right now is astounding. For a band that once famously wore nothing but socks on their cocks and were marginalised as sexist rap-metal goons, their transformation to mega-selling, supermodel-dating world-beaters seems extraordinary. Yet look a little closer at the Chili Peppers’ rollercoaster 20-year career path and it soon becomes obvious what, or rather who, is responsible for its peaks and troughs.
When John Frusciante joined the band in 1988 they’d already been a going concern for five years, recorded three mediocre albums and showed little prospect for improvement. Sure, Flea was an awesome talent and Anthony Kiedis a memorable frontman, but musical inspiration and melodic focus was negligible. The effects of John’s introduction were felt contiguously. Fourth album Mother’s Milk featured their first MTV-friendly tracks, Higher Ground and Knock Me Down, and led to a major label record deal with Warner Brothers. Then 1991?s BloodSugarSexMagik followed, selling millions worldwide, and within the space of three years Frusciante had turned the Chilis in to bona fide rock stars.

In 1992, when tensions between Frusciante and Kiedis reached breaking point, Frusciante quit the band. His life began a downward spiral through isolation, introspection and drug addiction; likewise the Chili Peppers’ career followed a similar descent. It took three years and four different guitarists before they finally settled on a replacement – ex-Jane’s Addiction man Dave Navarro – but 1995?s One Hot Minute album was a pale imitation of earlier successes. Things never really gelled with Navarro and his departure two years later was hardly surprising. The band had hit rock bottom.

By 1996 heroin controlled Frusciante’s life; his house had burnt down, his teeth rotted away, his body was scarred and his mind ruled by ghosts and demons. The Reaper beckoned. Only a term in rehab clinic saved him from certain doom and he emerged drug-free in 1997, only to be courted soon after by his ex-bandmates who again needed a saviour to rescue them from obscurity. John duly obliged, and bingo, here we are two albums and six years later with the Chilis back on top of the world.

It’s late afternoon and we’re backstage, still awaiting John’s arrival. Comprised of long white corridors and floors plastered with luminous duct tape guiding the way to the stage, the whole area is sadly rather unglamorous. There are no groupies loitering expectantly, no trays loaded with narcotics being generously passed around, and certainly no sign of any supermodels. These days the Chili Peppers are a highly professional, drug-free unit. And it shows. That said, it’s not hard to pick out their dressing room among the almost exclusively plain backstage lounging areas. First of all you can smell it. A heady waft of incense emanates from within, contrasting the cannabis stench synonymous with many rock star dressing rooms. Then there’s the lighting. A haze of reds and greens that’s ambient, atmospheric, gentle and relaxing – the polar opposite of the stark neon strip-lighting that dominates elsewhere and perfect for the meditation and stretching rituals that form an important part of the band’s pre-show routine. And finally, nestling just inside the doorway, there’s the final give away; Flea and John’s warm-up guitars – two beautiful eye-catching pieces of luthiery, a customised Modulus bass and an orange Fender Jaguar.

As we stroll by, Anthony Kiedis emerges, glances in our direction and heads off towards hospitality. Once you get past his surprisingly diminutive stature (he’s around 5’7” tall), he looks every inch a star, his healthy LA tan and flowing locks belie the fact that he recently celebrated his 40th birthday. Members of support band The Mars Volta saunter past in the opposite direction looking suitably cool in skin-tight black leathers and funky Afros. Then at last, an hour later than scheduled, Frusciante appears.

Taller than Kiedis by a couple of inches, though similarly shorter than you’d expect, John greets us warmly. We’ve been warned he doesn’t like being photographed, so to make the process slightly less painful we allow him to strap on his Jaguar, plug in to a small Electro-Harmonix amp and start his warm up early. Although initially on edge, as soon he starts to noodle around the fretboard you can see the tension drain away. Indeed, by the time we sit to begin the interview he looks relaxed and ready for questioning.

Unsurprisingly, we begin by discussing the huge success of By The Way, Guitarist’s Album Of The Year last year. Frusciante’s ultra melodic lead lines and lush vocal harmonies dominate proceedings, and considering John sang every backing vocal on the record he must have really worked on his voice.

“Yeah, I have a teacher and it’s helped make me a lot more consistent,” he begins, his answers slightly slurred, often leaving random pauses between words as if he’s giving every sentence intense thought. “I did a lot of singing on the Chili Peppers record, but on my new solo record I think my singing has got to a much higher place. On the Chili Peppers record, even though I sing a lot on it, to me it seems restrained because I am fitting into a background place. Plus I doubled everything so there’s not much personality there. On my album I don’t double anything. There are harmonies, but only two or three at a time, so you really hear the personality of the voices that are singing.”

The album John is referring to, and which he seems very keen to talk about, is his fourth solo record, due for release later this year. A collaboration with the talented musician Josh Klinghoffer (although the record will be released under John’s name) it contains Frusciante songs dating from the time of his last solo record through to the By The Way sessions and features some notable guest appearances. “The oldest songs on the album were written at the time I wrote the last songs for my last solo record,” explains John, “but they obviously required real drums not a drum machine, which I used for that record. For this record Chad (Smith, the Chili’s drummer) played the drums. Josh and I had the drum parts worked out and Chad just came in and belted ‘em out like a session musician and did really great job. Flea plays upright bass on one song. It’s his first upright bass performance on a record and he did an amazing job. Plus Omar from The Mars Volta plays slide guitar on two of the songs.”

Like all of Frusciante’s solo releases to date, these new recordings are more experimental than his work in the Chilis. This time around it’s John’s current passion for electronica and modular synthesis that surfaces. “There’s a lot of very experimental electronic music on this album,” John admits, “but allied to good songs. The synthesisers are usually used in a very subtle way – the songs are basically acoustic guitar, drums and bass with additional Melotron or synthesiser and electronic sound here and there. The way it’s recorded is a lot more colourful than anything I’ve done before. The entire recording 

It’s late afternoon and we’re backstage, still awaiting John’s arrival. Comprised of long white corridors and floors plastered with luminous duct tape guiding the way to the stage, the whole area is sadly rather unglamorous. There are no groupies loitering expectantly, no trays loaded with narcotics being generously passed around, and certainly no sign of any supermodels. These days the Chili Peppers are a highly professional, drug-free unit. And it shows. That said, it’s not hard to pick out their dressing room among the almost exclusively plain backstage lounging areas. First of all you can smell it. A heady waft of incense emanates from within, contrasting the cannabis stench synonymous with many rock star dressing rooms. Then there’s the lighting. A haze of reds and greens that’s ambient, atmospheric, gentle and relaxing – the polar opposite of the stark neon strip-lighting that dominates elsewhere and perfect for the meditation and stretching rituals that form an important part of the band’s pre-show routine. And finally, nestling just inside the doorway, there’s the final give away; Flea and John’s warm-up guitars – two beautiful eye-catching pieces of luthiery, a customised Modulus bass and an orange Fender Jaguar.

As we stroll by, Anthony Kiedis emerges, glances in our direction and heads off towards hospitality. Once you get past his surprisingly diminutive stature (he’s around 5’7” tall), he looks every inch a star, his healthy LA tan and flowing locks belie the fact that he recently celebrated his 40th birthday. Members of support band The Mars Volta saunter past in the opposite direction looking suitably cool in skin-tight black leathers and funky Afros. Then at last, an hour later than scheduled, Frusciante appears.

Taller than Kiedis by a couple of inches, though similarly shorter than you’d expect, John greets us warmly. We’ve been warned he doesn’t like being photographed, so to make the process slightly less painful we allow him to strap on his Jaguar, plug in to a small Electro-Harmonix amp and start his warm up early. Although initially on edge, as soon he starts to noodle around the fretboard you can see the tension drain away. Indeed, by the time we sit to begin the interview he looks relaxed and ready for questioning.

Unsurprisingly, we begin by discussing the huge success of By The Way, Guitarist’s Album Of The Year last year. Frusciante’s ultra melodic lead lines and lush vocal harmonies dominate proceedings, and considering John sang every backing vocal on the record he must have really worked on his voice.

“Yeah, I have a teacher and it’s helped make me a lot more consistent,” he begins, his answers slightly slurred, often leaving random pauses between words as if he’s giving every sentence intense thought. “I did a lot of singing on the Chili Peppers record, but on my new solo record I think my singing has got to a much higher place. On the Chili Peppers record, even though I sing a lot on it, to me it seems restrained because I am fitting into a background place. Plus I doubled everything so there’s not much personality there. On my album I don’t double anything. There are harmonies, but only two or three at a time, so you really hear the personality of the voices that are singing.”

The album John is referring to, and which he seems very keen to talk about, is his fourth solo record, due for release later this year. A collaboration with the talented musician Josh Klinghoffer (although the record will be released under John’s name) it contains Frusciante songs dating from the time of his last solo record through to the By The Way sessions and features some notable guest appearances. “The oldest songs on the album were written at the time I wrote the last songs for my last solo record,” explains John, “but they obviously required real drums not a drum machine, which I used for that record. For this record Chad (Smith, the Chili’s drummer) played the drums. Josh and I had the drum parts worked out and Chad just came in and belted ‘em out like a session musician and did really great job. Flea plays upright bass on one song. It’s his first upright bass performance on a record and he did an amazing job. Plus Omar from The Mars Volta plays slide guitar on two of the songs.”

Like all of Frusciante’s solo releases to date, these new recordings are more experimental than his work in the Chilis. This time around it’s John’s current passion for electronica and modular synthesis that surfaces. “There’s a lot of very experimental electronic music on this album,” John admits, “but allied to good songs. The synthesisers are usually used in a very subtle way – the songs are basically acoustic guitar, drums and bass with additional Melotron or synthesiser and electronic sound here and there. The way it’s recorded is a lot more colourful than anything I’ve done before. The entire recording was done according to an aesthetic. The microphones we used were all old microphones and a lot of the drums were recorded on an eight-track and then bounced to 24-track. Every effort was made to make all the sounds as warm as possible, and in a lot of ways it has the same vibe and warmth as sixties and early seventies recordings. That’s the feeling we tried to capture.”

In fact, Frusciante’s hands-on approach to his solo work and growing confidence in mixing and engineering music has led him to question producer Rick Rubin’s treatment of By The Way – to the extent that at present he finds it hard to even contemplate a new Chilis record.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve had a really hard time accepting that By The Way is actually finished,” says Frusciante, his face displaying a look of frustration and sadness. “On my record you’ll notice any interesting sound that comes in is loud. For me that’s what keeps my interest going in a record. I don’t want them to get in the way of the vocal, but I am also not paranoid about stepping on the vocal. Rick really mixes the vocals high and pushes anything that matches the vocals’ power back so it doesn’t come anywhere near it. I can’t even listen to our last record because of that; the mix just drives me so crazy. For the first time Rick was nice enough to let me have something to do with the mixing process, where I was saying how loud to put this harmony next to this harmony and stuff. But the big picture was left to him. But in the course of time I’ve really developed my own opinions as far as that goes, so for my album you’ll see it’s done differently and I hope that the next Chili Peppers record can be more like mine.

“Finishing my solo record has calmed something inside of me because at least I’m proud of it, 100 per cent. With By The Way there are so many things about it I wish were different and I can’t let go of it, you know? I can’t just admit to myself that it’s happened.”
Luckily, Frusciante has had the chance to make amends as various tracks are culled from the record for single release. “We remixed Can’t Stop for the single and I like that mix a million times better,” John confirms. “And we just did a remix of Universally Speaking because they’re thinking of releasing that as a single, and I like that a lot better too. When we get these opportunities to remix songs I get to get them the way I want. I guess I hadn’t really refined my ability to trust my own instincts about things. I was used to just handing the tapes over and letting Rick mix them however he felt best and I was always happy with them. My approach now is so much more multi-dimensional than just playing guitar.”

These days Frusciante is a man totally immersed in music. He lives it, breaths it, eats it and sleeps it. And more than likely when he’s sleeping, he dreams it. His knowledge of music is encyclopaedic, his hunger for it seemingly insatiable. Get him on the subject of his favourite current artists and the range of styles and generations they cover is impressive. “I’ve been listening to some of this very abstract electronic music that’s being made now,” Frusciante begins, his enthusiasm for the subject palpable. “Rosy Parlane, Pita and a guy called Fennesz. He’s a great guitar player too, and all his albums are good and all totally different. It’s just very abstract music where there’s no beat. The timing’s very different and that’s what sounds interesting to me. I also listen to a lot of folk music like Joan Baez, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, as well as stuff like King Srimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Mott The Hoople and Slade. I don’t pay attention to the world. I just have the art I like and the music I like and for me that’s the whole world.”
Estimated to be 2,000-strong around 10 years ago, Frusciante admits that he now has no idea how large his record collection is. “I haven’t figured it out, maybe I’ll do an estimate sometime.”
With such a tough touring schedule and a continuous flow of press commitments, John even has to call in some favours to make time to pursue his vintage vinyl obsession. “When I was in Spain a couple of weeks ago this girl got the keys to her dad’s record store and kept it open between two and six in the morning, so that was fun,” he reveals. “But lately I just haven’t had the time as I wake up so late. My whole day consists of just a few hours of practising, warming up my voice and stuff.”

Shopping for guitars has proved equally difficult for Frusciante, and having lost all his previous axes in a house fire a few years back, John had to start building his collection again from scratch. The Jaguar he posed with for today’s photo shoot was his first acquisition. “I bought that at a guitar store, I think it was Voltage Guitars on Sunset, in 1997. I didn’t have a guitar and then I got some money and that was my Christmas present to myself. Then when the guys asked me rejoin the band I said that I really need a Stratocaster. So Anthony lent me some money and we went to Guitar Centre and I got one with the rosewood neck. It’s a ’62 and I used that one on practically every track on By The Way.”

The only notable exception was the track Tear, on which John played his big old Gretsch White Falcon. He appropriated that particular guitar with the help of his good friend, actor and musician Vincent Gallo.

“Yeah, Vincent found that one for me. It’s a ’57 that used to be his but he had sold it to somebody and he had to buy it back from them. He’s really a wheeler and dealer, you know?” says John of his friend. “He’s known as an actor and director but his real profession is a wheeler and dealer!” He smiles. “He just argued with this guy and caused an ugly situation to get it back.”

Did you want it because it looked good? “No, I wanted one because Matthew Ashman, the guitarist from Bow Wow Wow, used one,” claims John. “His wasn’t from the fifties though, it was from the seventies, but that’s why I wanted it. At that time him and Bernard Sumner from New Order were the two guitarists who I was really enamoured with.”

John did use other guitars for the By The Way sessions, but the tracks they were used on didn’t make the final cut. “We had some more rocking songs which didn’t make the album where, for a distorted sound, I used an SG through a Marshall that’s cranked with distortion,” John remembers. “To me that’s the ultimate kind of distortion sound. I have a really nice SG from 1960 – Vincent also found that for me – that’s got P90s in it and it’s really great. We also did a 15-minute track called Strumming In D On J; the title literally means Strumming in the key of D on the Jaguar. I hope that we put it out, as it’s a really good funky song.”

Keen observers may have been surprised to see John brandishing a Fender Toronado in the video for Can’t Stop. “Yeah, the director asked me to play that, just because of the colour,” clarifies John. “I don’t play guitars unless they’re from the sixties or earlier so I wouldn’t play one, but it looked all right to me. I thought the shape was pretty cool. He just wanted it because of the colour and he was a real dictator of a director so I didn’t really argue with him!” In case you hadn’t already gathered, Frusciante is a rather busy man. So fans will be amazed to hear that he’s been working on another two projects which could also see the light of day in the coming year. The first is for Gallo, who asked Frusciante to provide the soundtrack music to his forthcoming movie, The Brown Bunny, some time ago.

“I’ve been making music for this movie for around three years,” John explains. “Vincent gave me the script and left me to it. I’ve written a mixture of songs and instrumentals and I don’t know what’s gonna end up in the movie. I’ll probably have so much good leftover material I could probably make an album from it! There’s a lot of really sad music as it’s a sad movie. Vincent’s in the middle of editing the film now and I’m really looking forward to seeing it.”

The other project has arisen as a result of John and Flea’s recent on stage jams, a feature of the current tour, and sees the pair returning to their musical roots. “Right around the time we finished By The Way I went to see The Mars Volta play, who are very influenced by King Crimson,” John recounts. “Then I went through a period of listening to King Crimsom and ELP live shows. It occurred to me that back then those bands would really stretch out live, doing a lot of improvising, and people loved it. They were the biggest bands in the world and they were up on stage doing instrumentals that could last for 20 minutes. I said to Flea one day, I think we should make jamming a bigger part of the show, so we did and it’s going down really well. That side of Flea and mine’s playing is probably going to come out even more now because we’re going to make a record of instrumental music with Omar from The Mars Volta. We’ve been working on it on tour and we’re going to be touring together a lot for the next few months, so we just have these little rehearsals after shows.

“It’s really the antithesis of where Flea and I were at on By The Way. It’s flashy with a lot of weird time signatures, a lot of fast playing. Omar and me do a lot of intertwining guitar parts, like Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp were doing in the eighties. When Flea started playing bass he was really into Allan Holdsworth, and for me it was progressive rock stuff and also Mahavishnu Orchestra and Tony Williams Lifetime. So it’s a big side of where we come from musically.”
At this rate it’s hard to tell how many other projects Frusciante will become involved with in the coming months. His work ethic is phenomenal and his current attitude and outlook on life something we could all learn from. “Personally, I try to understand something new by the end of every day,” he says to conclude. “Maybe it’s learning a Jimmy Page solo; or maybe it’s learning a Mingus song; or understanding my synthesiser a little better; or just working really hard at mixing something and learning how to do a better job in the studio. Just make every day a learning experience rather than thinking in terms of what can I show people or what can I prove to the world. Learning has that natural bi-product of something resulting from it, and so for me that has always been the main thing ever since I started learning guitar – to get better.”

Simple solos?!

John on his approach to soloing on By The Way…

“I think, as a guitar player, when we were recording the record I was thinking very much in terms of being as simple as possible. And I was getting the ideas for my melodies from the way Kraftwerk use melody… the way I hear synthesisers doing melodies more so than guitar players. Michael Rother from the band Neu!, who also made solo records that were really great, his playing was very influential to the way I played on that album. Where every note has its perfect place that it falls and builds on what the last note had started. And you use very few 16th notes. That was my idea for solos. A lot of the times what a guitar hero does is play a group of notes where you hear the feeling created by those notes happening very fast, like Jimmy Page would do. I just didn’t want to do that on By The Way. I wanted all my solos to be something you could sing along with.”

Chord Blimey!

John on how to expand your chord vocabulary…

“For me, books were the best place to learn about chords. If your ear is not accustomed to knowing that right there there’s a 6th and a 9th or whatever, you’re not gonna just hear it from listening. I was buying tons of chord books a little while back. I learnt a lot from a Charles Mingus book and the book of The Beatles’ score: they both used really interesting ones a lot of the time. I had Burt Bacharach books that had great chords. The Fiddler On The Roof and Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory books had some incredible chords in them that you would never think of. I was just learning everything I could from books like that.
“The whole thing with chords is that it has to do with one following the next. When I was a teenager I had a book called Chord Chemistry by Ted Green, but it didn’t really give you chords in any kind of context. Just a million ways to play a minor 7th. To me any chord book needs to have its counterpart book that uses those kinds of chords. A good book I found is called Grimoire Chord Encyclopaedia. The nice thing about it is that it has a page in the back where it says a chord and tells you what intervals are in that chord. That way when you have your Charles Mingus book or your Charlie Parker book and you read the chords out of that, when you get to one where you don’t know what intervals are contained in that chord, you can just look it up. It’s so important to see chords in practice. A chord like a flat 9th, I came across it one day in two different songs. It was in Michelle by The Beatles and a Charles Mingus song, and it was used in a similar way in both. The root chord was the key that the song was using and the flat 9th a fifth away from that chord. So I wrote a song that day that used it in the same way.
“One of my favourite things to do with chords is where you play a normal chord but the bass is doing a note other than the chord you’re playing. Like an A minor chord with a B in the bass or something. Or in the series of a bunch of chords, if you’re playing an A minor chord but E flat is in the bass, not A flat, it really does turn the chord in to something else.”

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