Resurrection LA Style
Miraculously alive after his descent into the underworld, John Frusciante leads the Red Hot Chili Peppers into a new golden era with their album By The Way.
John Frusciante moves purposely through the journalists, publicists, band members and employees gathered in a bungalow suite at LA’s elegant Bel Air Hotel. It’s a Red Hot Chili Peppers press day and the guitarist is in full meet-and-greet mode, dressed in retro checked polyester slacks and a flouncy patterned shirt. But while Frusciante is affable, he seems preoccupied. Whenever he’s not strictly needed for an interview, he’s off in some corner speaking urgently into a telephone.
“And when it goes to the second chorus, I really think that high harmony line should come up a little….”
The Chili Peppers are still finalising the mixdown of their new album, By the Way, with longtime producer Rick Rubin (presumably the other person on the end of the phone line). “It seems strange doing interviews when the record isn’t even finished,” Frusciante confides before darting off to buttonhole Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis.
“Hey, you don’t know how that vocal countermelody enters after the bridge…”
Frusciante has played on three previous Red Hot Chili Peppers albums, including 1999’s Californication, the quadruple-platinum disc that earned the band a Grammy and elevated them to a new plateau of credibility as a mature rock band and an enduring fixture in the rock firmament. But the guitarist really steps up to the plate on By The Way, masterfully stacking layers of guitars, keyboards and heady vocal harmonies on to what are the most well-crafted songs ever to come out of the band.
There has never been a Red Hot Chili Peppers album quite so broad in scope; and there has never been one with this much input from Frusciante. He even collaborated with Rubin to write some lush string arrangements for the album.
“John really inspired us to take it to the next level on this album,” says the band’s drummer Chad Smith. “On Californication he had just rejoined us, and he started writing music right away. But we hadn’t really had time to reconnect, personally and musically, through touring, travelling together and spending time back at home. The chemistry of our band is so important. And now John is a really key, integral part of this new music that we have.”
“I wanted this album to have some more dimension, more different sounds and more movements in the chord progressions,” explains Frusciante. “But I also wanted it to be more fun.”
A slight hesitancy and slurring of speech is the only readily apparent vestige of the guitarist’s intense bout with heroin addiction during the nineties. He spent six years out of the band, from 1992 to 1998 – an extended lost weekend during which, amount other feats of wild dysfunctionality, Frusciante managed to burn down his house in the Hollywood Hills. He alarmed many with blithe declarations that’s he’d been spending lots of time in the company of ghosts, spirits and astral bodies, some of whom he considered closer personal friends than anyone alive. But now the guitarist is healthy and back in the realm of the living.
“When you compare where John was in his life to where he is now, it’s unbelievable,” says Smith. “He was really in a rough spot. It’s a miracle that he’s alive, let alone the creative, wonderful person that he is now.”
If there’s any truth in the old adage that suffering is good for one’s art, Frusciante’s journey through oblivion may have enhanced his creativity. In this, the guitarist invites comparison with Brian Wilson, the drug-damaged yet brilliant former leader of the Beach Boys. The analogy is especially apt since By The Way is drenched in sunny Sothern California good vibes. It is the Chili Peppers’ Pet Sounds. Frusciante readily admits that surf music and sixties pop vocals were two of his biggest influences during the writing and recording of the album.
Rick Rubin and I would get together every day, and he’s got theses CDs of AM radio hits from the sixties. And they’d have stuff by the Mamas and the Papas and songs like Cherish by the Association and Georgie Girl (by The Seekers). All those songs are about harmonies. I’ve been practising harmonising a lot in the past year and a half. My friend Josh and I would sit around and sing Beatles songs, or that Velvet Underground song, Jesus, which has a harmony in it. Anything we could think of that had harmony.”
It’s difficult to imagine a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers – one-time poster boys for shirtless, jarhead jock, SoCal muscle culture- harmonising on such quintessentially non-macho pop fare as Georgie Girl. But the quest for a perfect rock album leads down many a strange pathway. “I always felt we had a real femininity to our music,” says Flea, the Chili Peppers’ diminutive, gap-toothed bassist. “But I guess it’s not heard so much when something is really loud, distorted and jammy. To me the biggest difference on By The Way_ apart from the fact it’s more layered than any of our records- is that it’s less jammy. There are more songs and less solos and jamming out. There’s definitely improvisation going on within the structure of the song. But the structure is more, um, structured.”
Indeed never has a Red Hot Chili Peppers record been less about funky groovin’. While Flea and Chad Smith definitely keep the rhythm beating, full-blown chord progressions are the order of the day. This too, must be put down to Frusciante’s influence.
“I was thinking of writing chords that are dense- that have more to them than just a root, third and fifth. These chords have 9ths and 11ths and 13ths. I tried to make the guitar pretty impossible to figure out correctly. Even though it doesn’t sound like it, I’m going all over the place, doing lots of stretches and stuff, putting in lots of extra notes and chords. I learned a lot, throughout the making of this album, from studying Charles Mingus. Learning his chord progressions. The Beatles, Burt Bacharach…. just things that I’d never have been able to figure out by ear. It started changing the way that I play guitar. Johnny Marr was also a big inspiration in just thinking to think about the guitar differently.”
Absorption of chord progression led Frusciante far away from rock guitar histrionics. “People like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix have pretty much been my gods the whole time I was playing. I also like Eddie Van Halen’s early guitar playing. But I don’t feel like guitar playing went any further after that- not in that technical or flashy direction. And I don’t feel like guitar players have started coming at it from a new angle. So I began drawing inspiration from synthesizer players- programmed music, starting with Kraftwerk. It’s another way of approaching melodies that guitar players don’t really do. For the whole time we were touring for Californication, I was practising guitar by playing along with electronic music.”
While much of the record was group-written, as always Frusciante worked closed with Kiedis in developing a few of the songs. “John and I got together in his rooms at the Chateau Marmont [West Hollywood’s vintage chic, rock star hotel], where he was living at the time,” says Kiedis. “And we worked on some more obscure pieces together like the song Cabron, which sounded almost like he’d written it to be a flamenco guitar instrumental. I just loved it because there was energy in there like crazy. I took home a rough copy of it from a low tech tape recorder and started thinking of vocal lines to go with this music. John and I are both very much in love with doo wop- vocal music from the fifties. I was feeling that kind of energy, but with a Mexican flavour because the soul of Los Angeles is largely fuelled by our Mexican population here. So because of that I started singing kind of a doo wop melody to this really wild acoustic guitar instrumental. I brought that in to the band and it took Chad and Flea a while to find their places in it, because it was so different and weird for us, coming from left-field.”
With the Chili Peppers riding so high, it’s easy to forget that they almost didn’t make it out of the eighties. One of them, in fact, didn’t. In 1988, not long after the release of the band’s third album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, their first guitarist Hillel Slovak was found dead of a heroin overdose in his Hollywood apartment. Drummer Jack Irons decided to leave the group shortly after the guitarist’s death. Vowing to press on, Flea and Kiedis recruited Chad Smith and John Frusciante. A bit younger than the others, Frusciante had been a huge Chili Peppers fan who suddenly found himself playing guitar in the band he’d so often gone to see in LA clubs. In 1989, the new line-up released Mother’s Milk, an album Frusciante now says he detests,
“That was our main ‘macho’ album,” he says. “I don’t really get into that emotion. I remember when I joined the band I had a very limited idea of what they were trying to do, and I just tried to fit in with that. But in time I started learning more about what kind of music they liked or what kinds of ideas they were open to. Like when I first saw Flea wearing a Talking Heads T-shirt, I said, Cool, he’s into that too, And I started to realise we could do something with a much broader scope than what they have been doing.”
The new line-up really connected on 1999’s BloodSugarSexMagik. It marked the beginning of their ongoing relationship with producer Rick Rubin, who’d made his name in both the hip-hop and metal worlds as a producer and co-founder of Def American records. A man who would go on to distinguish himself with productions on a wide range of musical styles.
“To me, BloodSugar is the first time we got down on tape what we really do,” says Flea. “We’d never done that before. In the past, we’d always been intimidated by the studio. It would be a tense and alien environment. But that album was more about creating a vibe for us to jam and do or thing in.”
Their first album release for Warners, BloodSugarSexMagik was also the Chili Peppers’ first bit multi-platinum success, a disc that catapulted them to a new level of fame and acceptance. But the Chili Peppers’ road has never been smooth. Shortly after the album was completed, Frusciante quit the band, citing an inability to deal with the pressures of touring.
It was the start of a period of intense psychic struggle for the guitarist, who had already become heavily involved in drugs. He stopped playing guitar entirely for a while, and began to paint and delve deeply into the world of the supernatural. His fascination with paranormal experiences had begun during the making of BloodSugarSexMagik.
“When I was playing guitar, I would play this game with myself. I would say, I’m going to leave my body now. I’m going to be holding the guitar and recording what I’m playing, but I’m not going to be here. In time I just started having this natural belief in these spiritual forces that were possessing my body. I’d always had voices in my head as a kid, but now I started getting a real excessive amount of voices in my head. They were having conversations with me, telling me about the future. They’d say something was going to happen in two minutes. And whatever it was they said would really happen. They would do these things to show me they were in tune with the future and could see the future. Because the future has already happened many times over. They don’t live in a dimension that has time, but they sort of feed off the energies of people who do live in dimensions that have time.
“By the time I quit the band, I was pretty much devoting myself to nothing but magical progress. I made it my life’s purpose to achieve a more full kind of contact with these beings. And I did. I actually got to the point five years later where I could suit in a room with a ghost or an astral body for half an hour at a time, which takes a tremendous amount of concentration. I would do that every day, for at least half an hour.”
Of all the Chili Peppers, it was Flea who remained on closest terms with Frusciante during the six years he spent out of the band. “I wasn’t thinking very clearly during that time,” Frusciante admits, “but in my mind I didn’t think Flea and I were ever going to stop playing together. He’d come over to jam from time to time. But when I became a drug addict that just separated us. We still continued being friends, but two people can’t have any consistent relationship when one of them’s a junkie. We did drugs together once in a while, but he was never a drug addict. There’s a difference between somebody who gets high every couple of months and someone who makes that their life. For me, it was my life. But for Flea it was just a recreation thing. At a certain point he stopped doing it even recreationally. He just got into a more spiritual kind of path. Me, I just went as close to the edge as I possibly could.”
While Flea maintained a compassionate friendship with his troubled friend during his time out of the band, the Chili Peppers soldiered on with a succession of guitarists: Jesse Tobias, Arik Marshall and former Jane’s Addiction axeman Dave Navarro. They cut 1995’s One Hot Minute with Navarro. But shortly after, it was decided that the guitarist would part company with the band.
“It just wasn’t working with Dave,” says Flea. “It was evident to all if us, so there were no hard feelings.”
Chad Smith recalls a conversation he had with Navarro shortly before the guitarist left the group. “Dave said to me, The only guy you should get is John back. He’s the guy for your band.”
It was Flea who spearheaded Frusciante’s re-entry to the group, shortly after the guitarist got out of a rehab hospital in early 1998. When he popped the question, Frusciante didn’t hesitate. “I knew right away that I wanted to rejoin the band. Although at the time I wasn’t sure about Anthony.”
Kiedis had felt betrayed by Frusciante’s departure from the band in 1992 and had severed all relations with the guitarist. “We both had grudges against one another for a few years,” remembers Frusciante. “We wouldn’t talk to each other.”
But by 1998, when Frusciante was asked to rejoin the Chili Peppers, a lot had changed. Kiedis had come through his own hard fight with heroin addiction. Both men had had time to cool down and get over their anger. Says Frusciante: “Once Anthony and I actually saw one another again, and we saw how much the other had changed, we were completely loving each other again.”
Frusciante’s bond with the band was re-cemented during the making of the Grammy winning Californication. The success of that album, clinched a major shift in the public’s perception of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Once they’d been regarded as laughable, punk funk cut-ups, they had now become something like a classic rock band.
“I think the seeds of that shift were sown with BloodSugarSexmagik” says Flea. “And by the time that Californication came out, we’d strung together some good records. So I guess people’s perception of us was no longer as these lunatics with socks on their dicks, but as guys who were really taking care with writing music and playing the best they could.”
The Chili Peppers were in top form when they entered the venerable Cello Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood to begin work on that album that would become By The Way. Frusciante had a clear vision of how the guitar should sound- layers and layers of principally clean tones.
“I used reverb on a lot of this album which I’ve never really done before,” he says. “That’s one of the main differences in the guitar sound. I was really influenced by all of the surf music I’ve been listening to. I had an old Fender spring reverb. Then toward the end of the project, for a couple of overdubs, I also started using the Holy Grail (digital reverb) pedal by Electro-Harmonix.”
The guitarist mainly relied on a 1962 Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood neck for the album sessions. Clean tones were important, Frusciante explains, “because I was playing a lot bigger, denser chords than just your standard trials or whatever, and I wanted all those intervals to come through clearly. I’m not really into distortion, except for solos, feedback and stuff. There were a couple of times when I used a Gibson SG straight into a Marshall, which is the best kind of distortion. My favourite guitarist is Bernard Sumner of Joy Division [later with New Order and Electronic] and that’s what he uses.”
On By The Way, Frusciante made use of a 200-watt Marshall Major and 100-watt Marshall Super Bass. He generally runs one of these in a stereo configuration with some other guitar amp, typically a Blackface Fender Showman driving a Marshall cab. For acoustic parts, he relied on several Taylors. “I don’t even own one,” he adds. “We just rented them. They sounded good for recording. On the song Cabron the acoustic guitar is capoed. I really love having the capo. There’s a lot of capoed acoustic guitar on the Jethro Tull album, Aqualung, which I was listening to before I wrote Cabron.”
A DigiTech digital delay features on the song Don’t Forget me. “I’m playing [double-picked] 16th notes,” Frusciante explains, “but the echo is set to where it’s doing triplets. That whole song, by the way, is played only on the high E and B strings.”
A large German made modular synthesizer is one of John’s prize toys these days as well. It was brought out to process some of the guitar tracks on Throw Away The Television and Don’t Forget Me.
Lyrically, Kiedis describes most of the tunes on By The Way as love songs. “In very obscure, less than obvious ways, I feel a lot of it is about being either in loved or the desire to be in love. It’s definitely what I’ve been feeling for the last year. A profound sense of wanting love in my daily experience.”
The song Don’t Forget Me deals with a kind of universal, mystical love that Kiedis says sustained him through the darkest hours of his drug addiction. “It’s about that spirit of universal love and the spirit of God. Whatever that might be to you. I don’t mean it in the religious sense. Let’s just call it an energy, or beauty. That energy is everywhere. It doesn’t turn its back on people because they’re fuckups, losers and dope fiends. For me, that beauty has always been there, even when I was dying. It’s infinite. It’s in the jail cells. It’s in the ocean. It’s in all of us. It’s there when you’re born and it’s there waiting for you when you die.”
The album’s title track is more a love song to Kiedis’ ‘home city.’ “By The Way,” says the singer, “is about the colour of any given night in the Los Angeles basin. What’s going on in the streets- from a crime in a parking garage to a sexy little girl named Annie singing songs to some guy she’s got a crush on. It’s an atmospheric lyric. Just painting a picture rather than the whole plot. The feeling that inspired the chorus melody is one of waiting, hoping and wanting to make a connection. Just that feeling of, Is this gonna be the night?”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ image has always been intricately bound up with the City of Angels. “I love being associated with LA because it is such a paradox of a land,” says Kiedis. “And I believe in paradox as being a kind of higher truth. LA is the most ridiculous place in the world, but it’s also the greatest place in the world.”