Spicy US quartet the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS are currently deliverin’ vitamin-packed daily doses of their latest album, ‘Mother’s Milk’, to the troops up and down the UK. It’s their first tour here for two years, in which time they’ve replaced a drummer and had a guitarist die from a heroin overdose. But now they’re bouncing back, and polishing their Funky Metal milkfloat tourbus… STEFFAN CHIRAZI orders an extra pinta
THIS WHOLE funkin’ thing started approximately two years ago. Some small, sleazy room in some large, sleazy area of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Faith No More were supporting a band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and quite apart from finding the name very odd, I found the music inspiring. A hot cauldron bubbling with rhythms so heavy, so fat yet athletic and generally mobile that I took time out from going off for a few drinks to watch the whole set.
Afterwards, I can’t get the rhythms out of my head and I tell the bassist Flea —who has since appeared in ‘Back To The Future H’ as Michael J Fox’s boss, trivia fans — that one day I’ll write a piece on the band.
On their first three albums (`Red Hot Chili Peppers’, `Freaky Styley’, ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’) the Chili Peppers slapped out some hard funkin’ rock ‘n’ roll, but it was maybe a bit too much for the average Death fan to comprehend. Today, though, times have changed and barriers have been steamrollered: Thrash bands like Death Angel wear Chili Peppers shirts, and Faith No More are a well known part of the Metalworld.
So finally myself and Flea, plus Anthony Kiedis (vocals), John Frusciante (guitar), Chad Smith (drums) are sitting in one of those big record company boardrooms. We bravely set about our business —which is to make you rush out to the store at the end of this story and buy a copy of their latest album ‘Mother’s Milk’ because you feel like expending some energy whilst hearing great, excellently crafted music. Hard rock. Big guitars. Fat drums. Thick bass. Piercing psycho-vocals. And enough funk to have you dancing your pants off. Don’t get alarmed by that word `funk’…
FLEA: “IT seems funk is a dirty word because people immediately think of all that disco thing in the mid- to late-’70s. But funk is as heavy as shit. These people should go and listen to some Funkadelic albums, that shit is so heavy!” With that in mind, where do the Peppers see their biggest fan base right now, their largest potential audience? “I see our fans as being the audience who buys Living Colour LPs, people who aren’t still hooked into this big thing of `white’ Metal and `white’ pop.”
`Mother’s Milk’ is an unclassifiable, free-form shape. The one constant is its heaviness, its unleashed energy that rips from the first note after Flea’s loony toon bass intro to the album. Speedfreaks, look no further than ‘Nobody Weird Like Me’, eclectic weirdos get a jolt of Stevie Wonder’s `Higher Ground’ done royally”‘ here, or Hendrix’s ‘Fire’ given an ’80s coating. Or go for a serene stroll in desert plains with ‘Pretty Little Ditty’ unless you feel like pogoing your brains all over the ceiling to ‘Punk Rock Classic’. Strength in variety: ‘Mother’s Milk’ is a great trip to everywhere.
Kiedis and I ponder the breakout of bands such as the Peppers and FNM from cliquey underground…
“Two years ago we were out with Faith No More rocking the nation as hard as we physically could. I guess I considered us to be a big underground band because we weren’t getting major airplay or MTV, we weren’t selling a lotta records and not-a lotta people knew about us – yet still at our shows we’d-get a couple o’ thousand people!
“It was a beautiful position to get that popular and powerful on the strength of no TV or radio, that people still liked us enough to turn up in those numbers worldwide. `Now we haven’t really done shit in two years yet we’re ‘bigger’. We’re just like one of those diseases that gets worse with time,” he laughs. “I think the only difference between being ‘alternative’ and ‘major’ for us, is selling a few more records. We haven’t changed our goals or perspectives, decided to that we wanna become the commercial opposite of alternative.”
ANOTHER SUBJECT arises. For a while there, some inane critics accused the Peppers of being a band of white boys playing black music. Which of course is both totally immaterial and absurdly meaningless. Has that whole situation got any better?
Kiedis: “I think it’s getting better. The more we talk to reporters the less bullshit we get given for playing funk and being white. I think we let them know how stupid it was to be a bunch of racist idiots when it comes to music.
Flea: “We’re just a f** ing band that plays music, it’s that simple.”
“Record companies have to understand us,” continues Kiedis, “they have understand what we do, and the better they do it the better our chances are.
“One of our things is for EMI to present us at the same level that they present, say, Richard Marx but without us changing our clothes, our style, our way.
“We wanna be the alternative to what’s out there but we want it to be with that vast push. Get us out there and I think we can be accepted to a wide variety of people who want more than conformist pop.”
Which is something some old fans might find hard to take. Not because it’s the Peppers, but because that’s just how old fans can get when their baby actually tries to earn a crust from their fruits.
Kiedis: “Of course our old fans are important to us, but our music still speaks for itself. I think the music we play will always rise above that hip/unhip stigma. As long as what we play is good then I don’t see how anyone will care how many records we sell, or how much we end up on MTV.”
Flea is quick to add: “I also think that people who have been paying attention to us for a long time would be happy to do it the better see us achieve some success. Some people already say to us, ‘You rock so hard how come you aren’t as big as, say, Sammy Hagar’ and I really think our fans’d be happy if we were. I mean, I think it’s very obvious that we haven’t `sold-out’.” (The Chilis have sold about 450,000 albums in the US.)
It’s important, before we go much further, that you understand who Magic Johnson is and why there’s a song about him on the LP. He is, in fact, a Los Angeles Lakers basketball star…
“Quite apart from the personal appreciation we have for his ball skills, he is like our music. He just flows and glides across the court. So much style!” enthuses Kiedis.
A FAR MORE serious point of discussion, is just how much of a kick in the pants the Peppers received from the death of guitarist Hillel Slovak who overdosed on heroin after the last Peppers tour (the song `Knock Me Down’ on `Mother’s Milk’ is about the matter). Did it make you think the whole underground thing was a crock of shit?
“That’s a very personal thing,” Kiedis says quietly before looking up and continuing. “I personally don’t associate the underground with shooting heroin, those two words don’t go together. It was a severe slap in the face…”
John Frusciante: “I don’t think you can pin down drug-taking to any one person, any one type of person, people who like pop music also do drugs. Doing hard drugs doesn’t always mean you don’t take your music seriously; it means you have a very serious problem.”
“But there are people who fall into the ‘underground hero I can do as many drugs as I want and it won’t touch me ’cause I’m on stage’ thing.”
Kiedis: “That’s an ugly farce. Once you start believing that bullshit, it becomes deadly, you cannot be touched by the things you loved because you’re trapped this deadly evil space.
“To get high off your own trip is bullshit. We as a band will never, whatever the fame or fortune, feel superior to anyone else because we just aren’t about that, it’s a very unhealthy attitude.
“For Hillel maybe it was a problem, maybe he was too much a hero in his own mind but his awakening proved to be his death. It was somewhat of an enlightening situation for me. The idea of being a rock hero is just gonna hold you back for the most part.”
CONVERSATION SHIFTS across to the Chili-soup, a thick steaming cauldron of music and moods, appreciations and antics crazier an half of you could know. For others, the antics are all they know the Chilis…
“It’s sad when people only notice us for the gimmick,” sighs Kiedis, “when there’s strong, righteous and honest music goin’ down. It’s like people who saw Hendrix coming away and saying `Wow! He played guitar with his teeth’, when this man was playing the greatest guitar of the century. ”
I recognise that there are people who miss the music, buy I’m not going to alter our behaviour to accommodate them ‘cause then it wouldn’t be a good time anymore.”
The most direct reference point for Pepper-antics brings us to the photo of them all wearing nothing but socks on their dicks on the cover of their ‘The Abbey Road EP’. This was also a live custom.
“To play sizzling funk rock nearly naked is one of the greatest feelings ever. If people don’t get that point, f**k ’em, we’re not gonna put it in block letters for them to read.”
Flea: We’ll always do things that make the playing as great as it is.
Kiedis: “We wanna put on a great show and let everyone think that we’re smart, handsome and talented but at same time we’re the ones who have to go home and sleep with ourselves at night and if we can feel proud with we’ve done then it makes things that much better.”
MAYBE THE most obvious question not yet asked is just how the Peppers arrive at this sizzle-pop-smack sounding music?
“Our albums develop without too much thought,” states Flea.
“The thing with this record, ‘ offers Kiedis, “is that it’s bound to reflect a lot of feelings that are different from two years ago -simply because we don’t contrive things.
“We let the music come right out of us without thinking too much ahead, and ultimately that means you’re gonna reflect situations and events.”
Flea: “I personally always feel that I’m stumbling and that I have to work harder to be a better player, songwriter and band member. As soon as any artist is content, they’re lost, the minute you think you’re there, you’re nowhere.”
I press further and am met with the simple truth: the songs are mostly written around a bass riff of Fleas and from there it’s pretty much no method to the madness…