Q 302 September 2011
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Five years since their last record, they’re back-with their eight guitarist and thoughts on life, sex, death and getting head from the Kardashian sisters…
Words Paul Rees Portraits Matthias Clamer
ANTHONY KIEDIS IS LEAPING And gurning around a photo studio on this warm summer’s day in Venice Beach, California. Such has been his modus operandi for the last three decades- the span of time during which he has athletically fronted funk-rock’s pre-eminent overlords, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It’s been more than three years since Kiedis was last visibly engaged upon Chili Peppers business. The band, he will tell you, took an intentional two-year break at the end of the tour for their last album, Stadium Arcadium, to “go live and breathe”; the last 18 months have been spent writing and recording their 10th studio album. Oh, and there’s also been the small matter of replacing their mercurial, talismanic guitarist John Frusciante, who officially walked out on the band for the second time in 2008 to concentrate, he said, on his own career-which, to date, has yielded 10 esoteric albums, none of which have unduly troubled chart compliers the world over.
The terrible bushy moustache Kiedis currently sports is suggestive of some sort of existential crisis. But otherwise, at an exceedingly well preserved 48, he is a glowing advertisement for a lifetime spent careering between periods of monastic living (whether by drinking milk extracted from nuts or subjecting one’s self to daily ozone injections-he has done both) and bouts of epic drug abuse (the opening sentence of his 2004 memoir Scar Tissue is this: “I’d been shooting coke for three days straight with my Mexican drug dealer Mario…”). After several minutes spent working up a sweat, he peels off his hoodie to reveal a white T-shirt emblazoned in bold black lettering with two words: Crazy Band.
This much, when applied to the Chili Peppers, is true and is best summed up by their long-running troubles with guitarists. In total they have now had eight: one of whom (original member Hillel Slovak) died of a drug overdose; while Frusciante was so traumatised by his first tenure in the band that he took enough heroin to make all his teeth fall out.
Frusciante’s replacement is his one-time prodigy, Josh Klinghoffer. A former sidesman for the likes of Beck and PJ Harvey, Klinghoffer first worked with the band as back-up guitarist to Frusciante- the latter armed with expensive dentures, and in his second stint- on their last tour of 2007/’08. He also played on the errant Frusciante’s most recent record, 2009’s The Empyrean. He is 31, but has the cherubic face, loose-fitting attire and loping gait of a man 10 years younger. He speaks very, very quietly. For now, at least, he seems happy with his lot.
And then there is drummer Chad Smith and bassist Flea. The former is tall, laid-back, of indeterminate age and looks to an extraordinary degree like Will Ferrell, which tends to make his every action unintentionally comedic; the latter, also 48, talks faster than anyone Q has ever met. Flea has had two reported breakdowns and is a keen advocate of the restorative powers of psychiatric therapy. Today he looks like a big baby, since he is wearing what can only be described as a turquoise romper suit, his hair dyed to match.
Three hours prior to the Q photo shoot, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are holed up on the seventh floor of Casa Del mar- an appealing boutique hotel on the Santa Monica beachfront (both Kiedis and Flea live nearby) that will be their base for the next week, during which they will meet the world’s press to talk up their new album, I’m With You,
The tricky issue for them surrounding it is that their best and most successful records have all been made with John Frusciante as a member of the band- 1989’s Mother’s Milk and 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik first time around; latterly 1999’s Californication and 2002’s By The Way, in between they made but one record, One Hot Minute, with erstwhile Jane’s Addiction man Dave Navarro (no slouch himself in the pharmaceutical appreciation department) that no one, least of all the band themselves, enjoyed much. It has been five long years since the elephantine Stadium Arcadium, a 28-track double that seemingly wrung every last drop of inspiration and more out of Frusciante.
All of which gives rise to a simple question: can they possibly cut it without Frusciante? Against the odds, I’m With You suggests they might. Recorded with long-term cohort Rick Rubin, it picks up By The Way’s thread: comfortably marrying their enthusiastic punk-rock-isms to Beatles and Beach Boys harmonies and further ‘70s rock inflections- highlighted to best effect on sprightly first single The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie, which returns the sound of the cowbell to the rock lexicon, the stately Happiness Loves Company, on which Flea plays piano, and standout track Brendan’s Death Song.
Missing are Frusciante’s grandstanding flights of fancy, but the understated Klinghoffer seems an adept team player- and he brings a striking falsetto to their vocal harmonies. Most likely, I’m With You will add appreciably to the 60 million plus albums the band have sold to date.
They are interviewed in pairs in adjoining suites. Kiedis tries and largely fails to give way to Klinghoffer, who is sweet but awkward and generally unforthcoming. The singer, too, has been known to be prickly at best in such situations- the last time this writer encountered him, circa Californication, he was as welcoming as an ice storm (“That was not a good time for him,” his US record company rep opines when reminded of the occasion). This morning, by contrast, he is relaxed and relatively charming. He had his first child- a son, Everly- with model Heather Christie three years ago. Fatherhood clearly becomes him (“I’m still a selfish pig,” he suggests, “but it has relieved me of the burden of self-centred thinking….”)
In the other room, Chad Smith proves not to be given to protracted cerebral discourse, but he doesn’t need to be since Flea never shuts up- his words coming in a torrent of Californian psychobabble, self-help manual-speak, boyish enthusiasm and heroically inventive expletives.
“I absolutely guarantee I will need to take a piss before we’re done,” the bassist tells Q upon meeting (36 minutes later, he does so). As expected of one who has spent hours with his therapist, he confronts the elephant in the room head on. “There is one thing that I do want to express,’ he says, each word rattled off like a machine gun round. ‘How grateful I am to John Frusciante. He gave our band so much. As a friend, as a bandmate, he is irreplaceable.”
Q: Why did he leave again?
Flea: You’d really have to ask him: probably a billion different little reasons. John is a very intelligent man and he’s doing what he wants to do. What more could you want for anyone?
Q: Did you have any sense that it was coming?
F: I’m open for anything to happen at any time.
Anthony Kiedis: It did not surprise me in the slightest. When the tour ended I knew that change was coming – and as the months went on, and I heard… things about John, then I knew it was a matter of time. But I never once felt like it was over for the band, just that John was going to bow out gracefully, which he completely did. It was for the good of everybody and a blessing for us all.
Q: So you never considered not continuing as the Red Hot Chili Peppers – given you’d now been through seven guitarists?
AK: Gosh. Do you know, I have not counted guitarists.. But no, speaking for myself, I did not. I think it would have been kind of quitting to do that, because I always think the best is yet to come.
F: I’d thought that if John did go that I would definitely not want to continue the band without him, But after he left, something kind of shifted in me and I found myself a really profound love for the Chili Peppers and particularly Anthony. You know, we’ve been friends since we were 15. We were inseparable. And even though are relationship has been really antagonistic… We’re very different types of people: we offend each other and we can both be a couple of self-righteous twat cunt-faces. But I really love the guy and he’s my brother.
Q: There was a precedent of One Hot Minute to consider, though. Not good, was it?
F: There might have been a little element of fear creeping in once in a while. But the thing is, Josh puts his heart into doing it and I knew if he did that then we couldn’t go wrong. God bless Dave Navarro, and he’s great, but his heart wasn’t with us. The whole process of getting that record done was like pulling fucking teeth, in every way.
AK: It was weird period for sure. Musically it was odd because personally it was odd. I had kind of gone off the deep end and Flea was having his own personal struggles. God knows what Chad was doing, but it was probably in a darkened closet somewhere. And then, Dave Navarro is rather unusual and colourful character. All things considered, the fact we wrote songs and made a record was an accomplishment.
Q: Josh looks irritatingly young…
F: Oh, he’s going to get all the pussy.
Q: … But going on first impressions of the album, he appears to have brought some zip to the band…
AK: It’s kind of like starting over again without having to do 25 years of legwork.
F: The trickiest part of getting together with Josh for me was also the best, which is that he’s completely different to John. There were things that I had come to expect John to do: he’s such a phenomenal musician that I was used to playing something and – bam! – John would hit it. He and Chad and I would lock in, and it was undeniably good. Josh is way different. He’d be floating around the outside with this ethereal, texture thing, It was like, “Whoa! When’s he gonna do that thing we know?” And he didn’t. I had to consciously say to myself, “Dude, relax”…
Q: How was it for you, Josh- joining a band with such a shared history and having to fill someone else’s rather imposing shoes?
Josh Klinghoffer: I couldn’t begin to think that I’d ever replace [Frusciante]. So I could only resolve to and do something new with these guys.
AK: As beautiful as John’s shoes were, I don’t think that we ever expected Josh to be like him – just bring out some new shoes. Josh has incredible footwear.
Q: Twitter didn’t exist the last time you made a record. Flea – you tweeted the new album’s title three times in as many minutes last night..
F: Tweeting makes me want to suck my own cock! If you’re gonna drink a bunch of coffee, you either shit your pants or start tweeting. Chad knew this guy…
Chad Smith: Oh no, no, no!
F: What?! Well I knew a guy… [To Smith] That better? This guy had to drink a bunch of coffee. He squat naked on a glass table under which these pervert guys would lie. Then he would do these big, gnarly, psychedelic, brown liquid shits on the table and the guys would lie these and whack off their cocks…
CS: It was called The Glass Bottom Boat.
F: A truly tangential part of the human culture that I feel gets too little attention. Humanity is full of great things, you know. It’s given us Bach, Charlie Parker, Da Vinci…. and The Glass Bottomed Boat.
Flea and Kiedis formed the Red Hot Chili pepper with a fellow schoolmate from Fairfax High, Hillel Slovak, in Los Angeles in 1983. Since heroin claimed Slovak’s life in 1988, they have been the only constants in the band’s turbulent history-and their relationship has been central both to its many upheavals and to its endurance.
In the early ‘80s they strutted around together naked but for strategically placed socks- a look they initiated to play strip clubs on LA’s Sunset Strip and which would come to be a millstone, casting them, as it did, as sexist buffoons. Each has helped pull the other from one crisis after another. While Kiedis’s battles have been with heroin addiction (he claims to have been clean now for more than a decade), Flea’s have been with his own depression- in Scar Tissue, Kiedis wrote of his partner: “[He] always remained a lightweight around heroin.”
That book seemed to drive a significant rift between them. In it, Kiedis, documented his own eventful upbringing with his bit-part actor/full-time drug dealer Blackie Dammett, in the Los Angeles of the mid-‘70s (the gist of which was: Dad gave him his first joint to smoke aged 12; at the same time Dad let him sleep with his own 18-year-old girlfriend to lose his virginity; and so it went). He also revealed much about the internal workings of the Chili Peppers.
The latter aspect of the book, his bandmates have since alleged, breached an agreement to withhold certain confidentialities. This would include, one imagines, the revelation on page 89 that he once slept with Flea’s sister (“Karen was a wildcat,” Kiedis wrote, [It was] a very- for me-tormented sexual romp…”). It was the first the bassist had heard of it. “Second time I picked the book up, “Flea told Q in 2006, “he’d fucked my sister. I found that offensive.”
Q: There was evidently a degree of friction within the band after Scar Tissue came out…
AK: Shock, horror.
Q: In hindsight, did you reveal too much?
AK: I could’ve revealed a lot more, I really could. It was my first foray into trying to tell the truth about myself… and in doing so you have to be hyper-conscious of not telling other people’s stories in ways they might not be comfortable with. In retrospect I made some mistakes along the way and I’ve made apologies for them.. It caused a little friction, but I feel like I was forgiven. By most.
Q: Did you ever finish reading Anthony’s book, Flea?
F: I never did, no. There will probably come a time when I’ll want to, but it still kind of freaks me out. Obviously it’s Anthony’s perspective on what happened…
Q:If the Chili Peppers’ story were a movie, what would be the dramatic high point?
AK: Oh, Jeez, come on! So much drama! But obviously Hillel’s death was the biggest loss and turning point of our young lives at that point. To be 26 years old and lose your left heart ventricle was probably the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to me in my life… But I love our story, for better or worse, for the pain and the gain. We’ve all been little bitches from time to time, and we’ve all grown up along the way too.
F: All the stuff that’s gone down, it’s been difficult. But because of that difficulty there’s also been great opportunity for rebirth, each time. I have learned to be grateful for challenges, because I know, as hard as it is, something great always comes. The two things cannot exist without the other.
CS: What I do know is that I would not want Will Ferrell to play me in that movie.
Q: Any regrets?
AK: Not as I sit here before you.
F: Change all the complete fuck ups that I made? No. You come into this world and you have to make your mistakes in order to grow. I’ve done a lot of misbehaving. I’ve been a fucking rude, obnoxious, self-centered, self-righteous, asshole many times – and I’m grateful for it.
Q: Anthony, you wrote Scar Tissue about falling off the wagon during the tour for Californication- being holed up in an LA hotel with your then girlfriend, smoking crack and heroin 24 hours a day. How much blame over the years have you ascribed to your unconventional upbringing?
AK: Ermm… That was a little time bomb inside me that was always waiting to go off. Environment has an influence, but I think that would have happened regardless of my upbringing. There was some demon in there waiting to have its time.
Q:Do you ever wonder how it is you’re still here?
AK: I never felt like dying was a good idea. I’ve just had a kid, so I’m looking for a long haul at this point.
Protracted gaps between records is not a new thing for the Red Hot Chili Peppers- since Blood Sex Sugar Magik, four-year periods have been their norm. But whereas previously these hiatuses may have been a prelude to such endeavours as Kiedis fleeing to remote locales in Mexico or Borneo to wean himself off heroin, on this occasion they have indulged in slightly more prosaic activities- Kiedis’s assertion that he has spent his time “travelling inside to the life of a father” notwithstanding.
A man given to extracurricular musical pursuit- having toured with Jane’s Addiction in the past and established and funded a 700-pupil music school, the Silverlake Conservatory, in East LA-Flea played gigs with Thom Yorke in Atoms for Peace (“A beautiful experience”), and is also part of nascent Damon Albarn project alongside ace Afrobeat percussionist Tony Allen (“We get together every once in a while to work on it so it’s slowly getting built-but it’s fucking dope”). Most notably, in recent years he has also taught himself the piano and studied Music Theory & Composition for two semesters at the University of Southern California.
Kiedis took up surfing and committed himself to a now aborted TV project with HBO to adapt the story of his growing up with his father under the working title Spider And Son (“A disheartening experience- a lot of energy wasted”). Even Chad Smith, who beyond the odd drum clinic had not hitherto revealed a burning desire to do much outside the band, hooked up with Van Halen’s former singer Sammy Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony to tour and record as the old lags of hard rock “supergroup” Chickenfoot.
Q: How was university, Flea?
F: I loved it and, honestly, I’d love to go back for years. I barely squeaked through high school. I was never an educated person outside my own personal growth process. The main thing I did was to analyse Bach; what he did is the pinnacle of human achievement. Having, like, five different complex melodies all going at the same time, each one in itself the most amazing thing you’ve heard and all working together. The genius of it boggles the fucking mind. I liked being in a place where I didn’t have to feel guilt about picking someone’s brain.
Q: The Silverlake Conservatory is in its 10th year…
F: It’s a huge part of my life. It takes a lot to run it financially, but it’s an awesome thing. I was a troubled kid. I was on the street, breaking into people’s houses, on drugs- all this stuff. But the one thing that kept me together was, I went to school and I played in the jazz band, in the marching band. Music gave me a sense of discipline. Otherwise who knows what might have happened to me.
Q: You teach at the Conservatory, too. What’s the secret of good teaching do you think?
F: In answer to that question I want to tell a quick story… There was a kid I was teaching- he was, like, 10; it was during a period when the Chili Peppers took six months off and I was there throughout. I was teaching him the trumpet. He was a kid who had been tossed around from foster home to foster home and he had a very difficult time paying attention. I kind of befriended him so I’d go pick him up every morning- he was living in this really fucking rough orphanage. He liked music, but didn’t really know anything about it. But he’d pick this trumpet up and he would not be denied. I’d see his little face, absolutely determined you get a sound out of this thing. That kid, the last I talked to him was a few months ago and he’d gotten into USC… [His eyes well up and he begins to sob].. And it’s so fucking beautiful. It means a lot to me. I get emotional about it. [Recovering himself] To put it in terms of teaching a little bit really goes a long way.
Q: You’re closing in on 50 now…
F: I am, but I’m also more aware than ever about each moment as it passes. I really feel joy and profound satisfaction in being in the moment.
AK: I like the idea of defying the convention of what it is to be in your 40s, or 50s or 60s. Discovering surfing at this stage of my life is definitely going to keep me active till the day I die. So, yeah, I accept the challenge… In the same way that [the late American exercise and nutritional guru, aka The Godfather of Fitness] Jack LaLanne did – doing things in his 70s that no man on earth could do: pulling tugboats across the San Francisco Bay with his teeth.
Q: How does your daily regime differ now from, say 15, 20 years ago?
AK: One hundred per cent.
Q: Meaning what precisely?
AK: Meaning 100 per cent.
F: I feel like I’m happier now that I’ve ever been in my entire life. I don’t think I ever completely loved who I was before and I’ve always beaten up on myself about it. My general relationships with people are a lot better as a result. But my basic thing is kind of the same. I get up do some form of physical expression… I’ll go surfing. I ran the LA marathon this year. And then it’s a day of music and loved ones.
CS: Mines much different. Twenty years ago it was all about escaping me. I would do anything to exit that – riding motorcycles, getting high, women, drugs… That’s not who I am today. I’m a father, a husband… I’m not perfect by any means, but I see progress.
Q: What’s to be made of Chickenfoot?
CS: I got to hear all the Eddie Van Halen stories from Sam and Michael.
AK: I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Chickenfoot. [To Klinghoffer] Did you? [To Q]
AK: There you go: three men in one room who’ve not listened to Chickenfoot.
The afternoon soon is turning to dusk on Venice Beach. Chad Smith has popped outside to the photo studio’s sun desk to sneak a cigarette. Soon Anthony Kiedis joins him, not to smoke but to issue a treatise on the perils of smoking and of doing so when one is a father. Yes, says Smith, he does smoke at home, but no, he adds hastily, not in front of the kids.
Josh Klinghoffer is inside, strumming away on the acoustic guitar he brought along to the shoot. Flea is on the beach. Or, to be more precise, Flea is at this exact moment barreling away on one of the swings in the beach’s children’s play area. At the apex of each upward swing, he lets out a gleeful whoop.
No one passing pays much attention to the middle-aged man with bright blue hair as he screams away on a child’s swing. Until, that is, a bedraggled gentleman in a dirty overcoat tentatively approaches the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist. Words are exchanged. The assailant shuffles off after a brief discussion. Flea exits the swing.
“He asked me if I wanted to buy some acid,” he reports to Q. “Or if not to try a lime pickle.”
It’s an encounter that could almost be the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ story in microcosm: it began with the innocent pursuit of fun; craziness ensued; drugs were involved; things turned out well, if ever so slightly surreal, in the end.
Q: What’s the ultimate high?
F: I always found slamming a quarter gram of coke would burst your fucking eyeballs…
CS: There’s this new thing out that’s supposed to be more toxic than crack.
F: We grew up in a drug culture and as a kid I did a lot of drugs. When I stopped, at first it was kind of boring. I was like, “God, this is flat.” Then I started, through other means, to have some really fucking trippy experiences- meditations, spiritual things. All these things [through which] I definitely got into an altered state of consciousness. There’s so many ways of getting high, drugs just get you there quicker. I still smoke weed once in a while but I’m basically pretty sober.
CS: The highest I ever got was having a near-death experience crashing my motorcycle. There’s this place on sunset Boulevard called Dead Man’s Curve… I’d had one too many Long Island Iced Teas and I came round the corner on my bike. I went into oncoming traffic and at the point I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pull it back in, the world completely slowed down. Everything was super-bright. I could hear the birds chirping. It was an incredible experience.
F: From all the descriptions that you hear from people getting enlightened, that’s what it’s like all the time.
CS: Nothing has ever beaten that. If you could live your life like that, without the impending car coming, it’d be the fucking greatest thing ever. But it only lasted for about three seconds and then- Bam! “Arrggghhh!”
AK: I think dying is the ultimate high… I like [comedian] Chris Rock’s definition of how he wants to die: driving 150mph while getting head from a Kardashian and listening to NWA’s first record at full volume.
Q: How would you want to die?
AK: In the back seat with the other Kardashian sisters, of course.
Q: What’s the greatest low?
F: I’ve been real down in the past where I questioned the value of my existence. That’s the greatest low. I’m pretty up right now.
Q: When did you last cry?
JK: Two years ago. My tear ducts never really work.
AK: I’m a crier- let me know if you need some tips. I could cry every day, in a good way. If I just sit and think about my boy. But I sat on an aeroplane recently, coming from Hawaii to Los Angeles, with Rick Rubin just across the aisle, watching the Justin Bieber movie, Never Say Never. I cried about twice during that film and I wanted the world to know that! They were doing this very cheesy giveaway of concert tickets to 16-year-old girls. The cheesiness didn’t matter- it was the reaction of the kids. When you saw those little girls crying deliriously, I lost it. I decided to tell Rick afterwards and he said, “I was also sobbing during that point in the movie.” There you have it.
Q: Have you anything else to declare?
F: It’s all cool, man.
Anatomy of a Song
Anthony Kiedis breaks down the making of the Chili Pepper’s Best New track- Brendan’s Death Song
1. The Subject “Brendan Mullen is a guy who came to Hollywood from the UK in the mid-‘70s and helped start the punk rock scene in LA. He ran a club called the Masque, which was technically the first punk rock club in LA, He went on to be the booker for Club Lingerie on Sunset Strip- a very prominent venue in the ‘80s. His thing was promoting music.”
2. The Background “In 1983 Flea and I spent our last dime recording a demo tape. We barged into Club Lingerie in the middle of the day and found Brendan. He listened to our tape on our boom box and Flea and I danced around wildly to convey the sort of energy we were bringing to the table. Brendan offered us a slot opening up for Bad Brains- who at that point were the kings of the scene. We took that gig and started a friendship with Brendan that continued until he died 18 months ago. That was in the middle of him doing a coffee table book [The Red Hot Chili Peppers: An Oral/Visual History]”.
3. The Writing “Brendan happened to die on the very first day we were going to rehearse with Josh Klinghoffer. I was driving from home up over the Santa Monica Mountains when I got a text saying that Brendan had died of a massive stroke- on his birthday. When I got to rehearsal I delivered the news to my band that we had just lost this beautiful person. And then we started playing without really talking. Probably the second thing that came out of that jam was the basis for Brendan’s Death Song.”
4. The Song “We got a good recording of it with Rick [Rubin]. It does have a sort of death march feel to it, but the song is more a celebration than a bummer. My favourite part of the song came much later-which is the bridge section, where it gets quite dark there for a moment and there’s this feeling of falling into the unknown abyss, of dying. So, yes, we lost a good man, but he had a very full life.”