Guitarist May 1996 Volume 12 no. 12
The Guns of Navarro
Dominic Hilton compares body piercings with a small, hot vegetable.
Dave Navarro is a bit of a dark horse. Bela Lugosi would not be out of place in his Hollywood home, with its black velvet drapes, statues, crucifixes and skeletons (both real and metaphorical) in Dave’s closets. He is the dark, deep and pensive element of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the flavour he has imparted on the latest album, ‘One Hot Minute’, is unmistakably dramatic.
“It’s my nature not to be pleased with anything I’ve creatively had a hand in until a lot of time has gone by and I can look at it with a fresh perspective. When it was first completed I was relatively happy with it. I always hear stuff I want to change or songs I don’t like. I focus in on the negative bits. Now some time has gone by, we’ve done some touring and I haven’t really listened to the record and I have a good feeling about it now. I think it comes from not hearing it. I don’t have any Jane’s Addiction CDs and somebody brought a few over for me to sign them. I put them on and was really enthused which never happened in the old days. Time needs to go by for me to appreciate the work as opposed to pick it apart.”
It is widely known that this was a difficult album to make for various reasons, including archetypical band problems.
“Oh, it was easy for me to make, it was difficult for those guys to keep up with me [he deadpans; then laughs]. It was difficult to make but then it was a difficult time. I had hooked up with guys I barely knew, musically or personally, and immediately commenced work on an LP which is awkward on many different levels. Having said that, being able to complete a body of work together through those awkward times is something to be even more proud of.”
One would assume that Dave may have had to push quite hard to get his input accepted in terms of style and being the new guy with such long standing bandmates.
“Absolutely not. From the day I joined, anything I had to offer, contribute or disagree with was completely listened to as if I had always been a member. That made it more comfortable for me but it didn’t erase the fact that it was still a new situation.”
Previous interviews, plus the fact that he doesn’t own a single Peppers record, have seen Dave give the impression of not being a big fan of the Chili Peppers prior to his joining.
“I think that idea evolved from the fact I am not a funk fan, which is probably why I strayed from their records. However, something happens when you’re playing with a group of guys; there’s a bond that kicks in and no matter what you are playing it becomes thoroughly enjoyable. Because of that experience with them I really enjoy playing the funk music they do or have done. In terms of the old material, for me it is a break in the set because it is material that I have no emotional connection to. I didn’t have anything to do with creating it so it is simply just a lot of fun; I can kick back and have a good time. Old Chili Peppers material is kind of like being in a cover band with the actual band, which is incredible; I get to play some really great songs with these guys and I don’t have to feel the stress surrounding creating something and performing it.”
So what was it that attracted him to the Chili Peppers?
“A number of things. I really respect Chad and Flea’s musicianship, but at the time of my joining, their style of playing was so alien to me that it was an exciting experiment. Not to mention the fact that they are both incredible musicians in their own right. I think Flea is the best bass player around and Chad the best drummer. The opportunity to play with those guys is an incredible gift. On top of that I was feeling really stagnant in Los Angeles; I’d finished doing the Deconstruction record and I really wanted to go on tour; I wanted to play live shows; I wanted to be in hotels and go on the bus, do the whole thing. I missed that! Ironically, once I was on tour I hated it! That’s the nature of being an artist, I guess; never really happy with where you are.”
A player like Dave doesn’t just slip into a band unnoticed, so what were his influences on the group?
“In terms of bringing something to the band, it is a question I don’t like to answer, because any explanation would sound like arrogance. With regard to my previous bands, of late I have likened it to relationships with females. Jane’s Addiction, Deconstruction [formed with Eric Avery, ex-bassist in Jane’s Addiction] and the Chili Peppers are all different entities; in some strange way they are all like girlfriends I’ve had, because they demand that much emotional time and at the same time they are all completely different. Each group of guys takes on its own identity and becomes its own thing, so comparing them is very difficult to do.”
For all his own views, when it comes to reproducing his predecessor’s work Dave shows a great deal of respect.
“I play the old songs and try to keep them close to form. I wouldn’t want to repaint anybody’s artwork with my soloing. I’m not trying to emulate someone else; I’m trying to stay true to that art. Playing guitar parts that Frusciante or Hillel wrote is exciting. When musicians get together, especially guitarists, what do they like to do? They love to play Hendrix and Zeppelin songs, they love to play great music written by other people. I like to play well thought out music no matter who wrote it.”
As you would expect from such a talented group of musicians, the songwriting doesn’t rest on the shoulders on an individual member.
“Each song came about in its own way; there really is no formula to songwriting. The majority of songs on ‘One Hot Minute’ came about with bass lines, then Chad, Anthony and myself would contribute and arrange what would become the songs. Others came about from drum patterns- there is in fact a song that never made the record which is all drum groove and we built the song up around that. Songs came out of guitar parts, some from the simple melodies that Anthony was singing in his head. The middle section of One Big Mob, Chad was playing this groove on his drum set and I kept him playing it and wrote that part. I think that is what gives us the ability to be somewhat diverse on this record; we didn’t approach every song the same way.”
Separate approaches are also required when it comes to maintaining spontaneity in both studio and live work. “It is virtually impossible for me to make them both the same from the simple standpoint that when I go into the studio I like to use a lot of overdubs, because I like the records to sound really thick and dynamic. Obviously, in a live situation you can’t do that and personally I don’t like to see bands that sound exactly like their record. I don’t worry myself with trying to recapture sounds that are on the record because if people want to hear the record, they will put the record on. We are there to do a live performance and I play what I can play and by doing that it stays spontaneous.
“I would say studio and live are equal to me. I truly enjoy the studio, being able to paint pictures with music and have the ability to try things over and over again. However, if I am in there too long I go crazy. It’s the same thing with being on the road; I really enjoy playing live but if I’m out too long I start to hate it. So they kind of balance themselves out quite well. Fortunately I’m also able to work on other musical projects outside the Chili Peppers to give me another avenue of release, so I don’t have to carry all my emotional stress around with me in this one entity.
“Chad and I have this 16-track ADAT studio here in my house and I am constantly writing and recording songs. I have a library of stuff that I eventually want to do something with. There is really nothing in the works so to speak- I don’t have a deal or a distributor and I want to stay away from all that. What I mean by other projects is playing or having a hand in production of records, because playing with a different group of people all the time is healthy.”
The formidable Rick Rubins was at the production helm of ‘One Hot Minute’. “The thing about Rick is he’s the fifth member of the band. Everything he says is equally regarded or disregarded. He and I just found middle ground- I like to do a lot of overdubs and he likes to work very dry. Regardless of who is in the chair, it is still the work of the artist, so if a producer feels strongly one way and an artist the other, then I think you should always go with the instinct of the artist.”
Dave’s lifestyle must have changed considerably since joining the enigmatic Chili brotherhood.
“Of course my life has changed dramatically. If you do anything that demands as much of your energy, time and life as this it is bound to happen. This band is highly visible and that I’m not used to. Jane’s Addiction was visible to an extent, but not like this, and didn’t suck the cock of MTV like we do.”
On that note, sex seems to be a large part of the Chili Peppers image and influence. “Personally my sexual energy filters into the music a little bit. However, what fuels it more is who I am as a person, which affects the music I make. So it takes some steps before it gets to the music. We are a group of guys who are not afraid to show you who we are.”
When they played at Reading, just before the encore Flea ran on-stage, flung himself on the floor and started screaming down a microphone.
“We don’t fake anything. There are nights when we are staring at our shoes, just playing our instruments and other nights where something like that will happen. That was Flea’s reaction to the evening we were having: he was really excited about being on-stage and playing and probably just felt like exploding. I can guarantee you that you will never see me do that!”
Returning to the brotherhood idea, can one assume this bonding process produces more cohesive music?
“Well it may, but if that is true then it is something that has taken on a life of its own. When we play music we don’t consciously say to each other, or think to ourselves, we are going to try and bond as brothers and create something spiritually beautiful. I think the absence of that kind of thinking is what makes it happen.”
Being a more cerebral creature than your average rocker, Dave finds inspiration in a number of places.
“From time to time I have other inspirations, sometimes it’s to write, sometimes to paint, to go to the mountains to escape city life, to create new friendships. It varies but I think that my musical side is the focus of my life. The only thing I actually draw inspiration from is my surroundings, myself and my past experiences with other human beings. In terms of people that are playing out now, there are few contemporaries that inspire me. This morning I put on Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun from ‘Band of Gypsys’ and it was incredibly inspiring. If I can get inspired once a month I feel very lucky.”
The guitar itself isn’t immune to influences…
“I would say that the best thing that happened to it was Kurt Cobain because he single-handedly wiped out a whole genre of music, like Warrant and the like. He basically ended the careers of a lot of flashy people. I don’t want to say I’m happy their careers aren’t happening; I’m just happy the focus is more on the art than the flash. The worst thing that happened? Well, I don’t think anything bad can happen to it- it is what it is, and the only bad things that happen to it are people.”
Dave once described his perception of music as being in colours. “When I listen to music I see it in the air and that is what makes it exciting to me. I believe that music is a visual stimulant as well as an audio stimulant. I guess that might be the reason I don’t listen to a whole lot of different things because if I don’t get that visual stimulation from the music, then I don’t want to hear it.”
Dave’s choice of equipment is not as complex as the textures and colours of his tone suggest.
“I look for simplicity. I look for something that is easy and that I can quickly understand. I don’t want to focus on that end because I really don’t care and as long as it sounds reasonably good I’m happy. The main thing I look for when I plug into an amp is sustain, then I won’t mess with it. Especially now I’m using Strats, that can be a hard thing to find sometimes. I know this sounds like a cop out, but my sound finds me.”
One sound that was particularly interesting was that of a child crying during the song One Big Mob.
“That was my brother! My parents brought him over to my house and he was crying and I grabbed a little Dictaphone and just taped him. I carry that thing around and tape sounds all the time because I like to use them in my studio at home; I really like making music that has an abundance of bizarre noises going on that have nothing to do with the song in hand. When we were recording One Big Mob, that section had a space in which I intended to do a guitar solo, which I now do live. But when I listened to that part if felt every egotistical and self-indulgent to put a guitar solo there because it just screamed for one, real 70s anthem rock. I felt funny about it so I got my motorcycle, raced home, got the tape recorder and brought it back to the studio. I literally just held it in front of the microphone and later did some E-Bow stuff around it.”
As you may have read in our What’s New section (April 1996), Dave is now an endorsee for the Parker Fly hybrid guitar.
“I use is as an acoustic guitar substitute for live work; it makes life very easy in terms of playing songs like My Friends or Tearjerker where I need a clean, acoustic sound. I hate dealing with acoustic guitars with microphones or pickups because they never sound quite right, but this is very easy and lightweight and sounds great when you plug it in. But I think it’s an eyesore. There is an advert I did for that guitar that has no headline, which happened because I agreed to do it as long as I could come up with the headline. I came up with ‘At least it sounds good’ which obviously doesn’t imply it looks good, so they left it off.”
One of the sleeve notes announces that ‘Through the years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have roosted in the hen house and wallowed in the pig sty’. Does Dave feel like he is roosting?
“Sometimes I do and sometimes I feel like a hen in the hen house when the fox is on his way in.”
For the recording of ‘One Hot Minute’ Dave mainly used a Marshall JCM900 and an old Silvertone amp for one pr two songs. Guitar-wise he played Texas Special loaded, Fender Custom Shop Strats and occasionally his old PRS. He originally intended to use a Strat for live performances and the PRS for the new songs as it was too heavy sounding for the older material. However he found that he grew attached to the Strats which, although being more difficult to play than the PRS, had a personality he preferred. Another aspect of their design that appealed was their ruggedness- they are more likely to be in one piece after a performance, which is likely to include a drop or knocking. Dave uses a few simple pedals for his effects, mainly wah and delay. He also uses nipple rings, sexy trousers and, on occasion, three socks!