The Times Magazine (UK) 7/12/2002

(Sorry the scans I got are not very good quality but I found the actual interview online so the text is readable below)

December 7, 2002

Feel the burn

Chad Smith, the drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is sitting across the table from me in a hotel bar far above the streets of Tokyo. He’s hooting with laughter. “Man, we’ve got two tour buses: the broccoli bus and the meat wagon. The crew ride in the meat wagon, where you can eat as much meat, drink as much beer and smoke as much as you like. The band tour in the broccoli bus, which is strictly vegetarian, no alcohol, and the only smoke you’ll see will be from burning incense. I tend to ride in the meat wagon.”

Ten years ago, the concept of a ‘clean’ bus would have been anathema to all of the Chili Peppers. After all, this is a band notorious for drug abuse and hell-raising. Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer, Flea (real name Michael Balzary), the bassist, and John Frusciante, the guitarist and creative fulcrum of the band, have all endured bouts of heroin addiction. Former guitarist and founder member Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988. Oddly enough, Smith, the only remaining drinker and smoker in the band, managed to steer clear of drug hell, although even he’s admitted to dabbling with heroin.

The fact that the group, which celebrates – but probably only with mineral water and wheatgrass juice – its 20th anniversary in February, is still extant is remarkable enough. That the Red Hot Chili Peppers are now one of the world’s most successful rock bands is simple incredible, given the turmoil they’ve endures. Their 1999 album Californication, sold more than 15 million copies, while their latest album, By the Way, is likely to surpass that, with six million units shifted in just four months.

Four years ago, however, such a state of affairs would have seemed impossible. Kiedis and Flea – both, like Smith, now 40 – seemed almost resigned to dissolving the band they’d started with Slovak in Los Angeles in 1983. Why? Because Frusciante had left the band in 1992, unable to cope with sudden fame when the band’s breakthrough album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was a global hit on the back of the single Under the Bridge. Since his departure, although they’d recruited ex-Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, they had been creatively becalmed as their only album in the interim, 1995’s mediocre One Hot Minute, attested.

By 1998, Frusciante was a mess. Troubled by childhood trauma – a period of his life he’s reluctant to discuss – and feelings of inadequacy, soon after leaving the band he’d retreated into a world where he had just one friend – heroin.

Frusciante is otherworldly to a remarkable degree, consumed by music, with little interest in the outside world. In an interview with a music magazine earlier this year he referred to the events of 9/11 as “the catastrophe of the Empire State Building.”

He speaks in a faltering whisper, long hair framing a ruined face that’s seen just a little too much darkness and belies his age of 31. His arms look as though they’ve been dipped in acid. The scars are from hypodermic syringes.

“Even when I joined the band in 1988 (to replace Slovak) I was headed for my dark period. When I was in my early teens all I did was play my guitar, but when I joined the band I was 17 and just starting to hang out with friends and get drunk. I should have been practising on my guitar – I knew that at the time but I ignored it. I’d ahad a painful life and being in the Chili Peppers eased the pain because they were my favourite band. I thought I had it in the bag but I wasn’t home free. You’re never home free.”

So why did you leave the band, I ask him. Frusciante squirms in his seat. There’s an even longer pause than usual. “I guess I was a little too concerned with punk ethics,” he finally admits. “I didn’t really want to be in a big band. I was happy as a guitarist in an underground band, playing at colleges, making enough money to get by. I didn’t want fame.”

Why drugs then?

“I had this warped idea that in order to make music you had to take drugs. But that’s not true. You make music because of who you are. Drugs smother the person and stop the ideas coming to you from outer space or through spirits, and stop you turning them around to make them into music.”

Drugs are central to the myth of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Frusciante’s and the other Chili Peppers’ descent into the maw of addiction is hardly novel. From Jimi Hendrix to Mick Jones of the Clash, through to Kurt Cobain and Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, the history of rock is awash with fragile rock stars for whom drugs became their only means of escape from the person they were. Indeed, rock stars are likely to be especially susceptible to a drug that numbs emotional pain. Why else would you want the adoration of strangers, if it weren’t for some inner deficit that needed balancing? Some, like Mick Jones and Dave Gahan, survive the narcotic experience but are never the same creative force again. What makes the Chili Pepper, and especially Frusciante, extraordinary is the fact that they’ve not only survived (obviously with the exception of Slovak) but grown stronger.

A tip-top squeaky-clean model of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is outperforming the old four-headed rock’n’roll monster version of the band by about five to one. Frusciante may bear the vivid scars of his addiction, but he’s stronger for his brush with death. But how did he save himself? After all, this is a man who lost all his teeth (he now wears dentures) and nearly died five times because of heroin, and who claimed repeatedly that he didn’t care if he lived or not. For the first time during our interview in the pristine hotel bar, Frusciante’s voice rises above a whisper.

“I didn’t think I could enjoy life without drugs. Heroin had tricked me into thinking that it could give me a nice, comfortable life. But what it did was stop me having a relationship with any other human being. The real me was flying around in outer space waiting for that period of time to end.” His voice drops to a whisper again. “In 1997, for about the fifth or sixth time, I had no money and nowhere to live, as I’d spent everything on drugs.

“I had no choice but to go to hospital. For a while it seemed like the other times I’d been in hospital. I intended to go right back out and live my life the way I wanted to. But after a few days I began to have some interesting thoughts and I made a deal with myself: ‘Let’s see what happens if you don’t go back to drugs for a year.’ I’d been complaining that the world had kicked me out, the world didn’t want me, that it had no place for me, so the voice in my head said, ‘Let’s see if the world rejects you when you don’t take drugs for a year. If after a year you still can’t find a place – go back to drugs.’ A year later, we were in the studio recording Californication.”

While Frusciante had his finger pressed very firmly on the self-destruct button, the band he had left behind were missing him, although Kiedis was by now refusing to talk to his erstwhile best friend. “I resented him for leaving the band and choosing to live the life of self-destruction that I had already sort of been through earlier in my life. Also I had a bit of a broken heart because this was a person I absolutely loved making music with and had been one of my best friends. He pulled the plug on all of that and I felt betrayed.”

Flea, whose hyperactivity and clowning shrouds an intelligent man fond of Kurosawa films and Celine novels, recalls the conversation that led to Frusciante’s re-admittance to the Chili Pepper’s ranks. “We seemed to be staying together just because we were a bit money-making enterprise, as opposed to an artistically vibrant concern. I really thought that we should just stop. I thought it was the end. The only way I through we could survive was to get John back on board. But, although I’d stayed in touch with John, he and Anthony were no longer speaking.”

Kiedis, an earnest but strangely beguiling mix of Iggy Pop and Greg Rusedski, with deep chocolate eyes and luxuriant hair – the antithesis of an ex-drug addict – did agree that the band were floundering without his old friend. “Flea said that the only way that the band had a chance of continuing was if we could get John back. And I said, ‘That just isn’t going to happen. He’s off in his own world that doesn’t include us.’ And then Flea said ‘I have a funny feeling you’re wrong about that.’ That’s when the clouds parted and I suddenly thought, maybe Flea knows something I don’t. I then went to see John and realised when I was with him that all the painful things that had happened between us no longer meant anything to me. It was simple. I cared deeply for this persona and I wanted to make music with him again.”

Kiedis breaks into a rare smile. “He was kinda scared because he hadn’t played guitar for so long. We went into Flea’s garage behind his house; we plugged in our guitars and this tiny PA that you could barely hear and as soon as we started playing I felt like a part of my heart that hadn’t been receiving oxygen for seven years was suddenly full of it, and I knew then that nothing could go wrong. No matter how we were received, this is what we should be doing.”

The results of the reconciliation are undeniably magnificent, although some critics have continued to dismiss the Chili Peppers as cartoon rock, a reputation to which they contributed in their early days by appearing on stage naked but for strategically placed socks. Recently, a UK journalist asked Kiedis what he thought of this cartoon image. Kiedis walked out of the interview. It’s clearly a sore point, but you can understand Kiedis’ irritation. Californication and By the Way are albums of depth. The band have not forsaken completely the rowdy funk-rock with which they first emerged in 1983, but melody and intelligence are now the key words. Songs such as the recent single The Zephyr Song are drenched in complex harmonies and plaintive chord changes.

The night of the interview the Red Hot Chili Peppers play in Tokyo to 15,000 fans. The venue is cavernous. The crowd, mostly teenagers, are here, let’s not forget, for a band of which three of the members are 40 years old, and they go crazy.

The Chili Peppers are brilliant. Flea leaps around the stage tossing off comments such as, “We love Japan, it’s so full of Japanese people.” Kiedis is no less energetic, coming across like a masculine Kylie. Frusciante, meanwhile, beams beatifically, adding gorgeous harmonies and playing his guitar beautifully. As I watch Frusciante, I’m reminded of the last thing he said to me before he shuffled off to make way for Chad Smith. “I would hear the music in my head in hospital and I thought, ‘Is this music I’m going to make or is this music that I could have made if I’d lived my life differently?’ Now I know it was music that I was going to make.” Just then, Kiedis ends Can’t Stop, a standout track from By the Way, with the line, “Can’t stop the spirits when they need you/This life is more than just a read-through.”

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