Red Hot Chili Peppers are still on fire
Even after drugs, death, disbandment and rehab, they’re the hottest of tickets. Robert Sandall pays them a home visit
That which didn’t kill them has made them stronger. As they prepare to release their ninth studio album, a double CD whose title Stadium Arcadium only hints at their current hugeness, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are in miraculously good shape.
Creatively, commercially and, perhaps most important, physically —given the drink and drug ravaged pasts of their singer Anthony Kiedis and guitarist John Frusciante — the band that appeared to have self-destructed in LA’s fast lane enters its 24th year as the most determined demon slayers in rehab rock, as well as the hottest live ticket after U2.
The stats tell part of the story. Of the 45 million albums the Chili Peppers have sold, far more than half are accounted for by their 21st century offerings, Californication from 2000 and By the Way (2003). Their triumphant shows in Hyde Park in the summer of 2004 were the biggest grossing concerts staged by one band in one place. Not that the fiercely in-dependent Chili Peppers have ever worried about cash. As Kiedis says: “Our record company does not mess with us. We don’t talk to them for years at a time, and it has always been like that. By the time they started throwing large sums of money at us we could throw it back at them.”
At this point, the force is very much with them and their music. They are the longest serving exponents of one of rock’s most fashion-able sub-genres of the moment, punk funk. When Franz Ferdinand explained that they were trying to make rock music that girls would dance to, they were merely parroting the Chili Peppers’ manifesto. Girls have been enjoying this band, both on stage and off, since Franz Ferdinand were in short trousers.
And yet as recently as 1997 —dubbed by the bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary the Year of Nothing — the Chili Peppers were in total disarray, effectively broken up. Their last album, One Hot Minute, had dramatically underperformed their 1991 12 million-selling breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik, partly because the guitarist who really pulled their songs into shape, Frusciante, had left to become a junkie.
The vocalist, Kiedis, was all over the place, literally. In New Zealand on his new ranch; having his picture taken with the Dalai Lama in Tibet; or, most often, back in LA checking into cheap downtown motels for week-long drug binges.
His high-school buddy Flea and the replacement guitarist Dave Navarro had decamped back to Navarro’s old band Jane’s Addiction, which by the end of the year was out on tour with Flea on bass. This left the drummer Chad Smith, the Chili Peppers’ phlegmatic anchor and the last of the classic line-up to join, with nothing to do. Somehow they managed to claw their way back from the brink to reunite with a cleaned-up Frusciante and release their most successful album to date, Californication. Shortly after, around Christmas 2000, Kiedis embarked on a rehab programme which he has stuck to, and then cured himself of the needle-borne liver disease, hepatitis C, through herbal remedies.
The wonders have not ceased since. A band famous for laddishly posing naked, bar the long socks drooping from their privates, has finally become domesticated. Flea and Smith are happily with partners and new babies. Frusciante has a long-term girlfriend; Kiedis hasn’t quite settled down yet; he broke up with the latest model girlfriend recently. But for most of the making of Stadium Arcadium, according to Smith “we were all in love, in happy, healthy relationships. And that was pretty much a first for us.”
Kiedis lives alone in an elegant Spanish-styled 1930s villa in Benedict Canyon. It is, unmistakably, a bachelor’s pad. Along with his two Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs, Katie and Sammi, Kiedis shares the place with a lot of art, books and music- and not much else. The car in the garage is a Porsche Carrera.
For a 43-year-old man who started shooting hard drugs at 14, and once complained that in New Zealand “there wasn’t enough cocaine in a small country like that to keep me satisfied for any length of time”, he is looking good. The muscly torso beneath the tight white T-shirt and black jeans suggest that Kiedis has swapped the crack pipe fort the gym- a very LA transition for an LA enthusiast such as himself.
“I will never leave this place,” he announces firmly. “This state and the city are so full of mysticism and creative juice. Because people like to label things it has become the capital of what is considered a more artificial reality, but that’s not how I see it.” He says the first single from Stadium Arcadium, Dani California “is about the misconceptions surrounding West Coast culture.”
Kiedis came to LA in 1963, aged 11, to live with his natural father, a drug dealer, womaniser and part-time actor whose lifestyle the young Anthony took to like a fish to water. Dad, another surprise survivor, is now the band’s biggest fan. Kiedis Jr talked at length of his past indulgences in an autobiography, Scar Tissue, published in 2004. “The book started out as a desire to tell a story about a father and a son growing up in Southern California in the 1970s, because it was so colourful and crazy. But then I didn’t know where to stop so I told the whole thing.”
Once was enough, however. Like the through professional entertainer he has become, Kiedis is now keen to focus on his new album. A 28-track marathon, it is by far the largest wodge of new material the band has released. “I went in with the intention of making something far more concise and digestible. Like an old rock ‘n’ roll record that had 10 or 11 songs. But the songs kept coming, and after (John Frusciante) wrote me a ten-page letter insisting that we kept them all, I knew there was no point in having an unhappy John in the band, ‘Cos that’s who we lost him in 1992.”
For a man who has often referred to himself as a “control freak” this sounds very accommodating, particularly give the oodles of extra space allowed on Stadium for Frusciante to wig out with his guitar solos.
“There was a lot less friction this time than on any of our other albums. On By The Way there was a lot of bickering, a lot of struggling to dominate the writing board. Which is stupid as we know our greatest value is as a team. I really feel that the stars aligned for us on this new record. There was a definite and perceptible love in the room driving us forward. The universe has tested us in every possible in the past. This was payback time.”
Frusciante joined the band after the founder member Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988. It was his virtuosity that spurred a group of rowdy punk funkers to mature into serious songwriters.
Frusciante left when he was just 22. Confused and overwhelmed by the international acclaim garnered by Blood Sex Sugar Magik, he dropped out and took up painting and hard drugs. While Kiedis appears un-marked by his years of drug abuse, Frusciante’s scrawny arms are covered in burns dating from the day he set himself on fire freebasing cocaine.
Seven years younger than Kiedis and Flea, he remains very much the fragile, sensitive, slightly bonkers one. He talks nervously and fast on subjects ranging from old 1970s guitar solos to Alastair Crowley: “To me he’s like a spiritual teacher.”
The son of a classical pianist, Frusciante is an obsessive musical omnivore. On the afternoon of this interview at his low-rise pad off Mulholland Drive, Mozart is pouring out of vast hi-fi speakers in a living room stuffed with records, sound equipment and paintings by Captain Beefheart. “Hendrix loved Mozart,” he offers by way of explanation, before proudly showing the 24-track mixing desk that takes up most of the spare bedroom and which was once used by John Lennon.
On the new album, Frusciante is, for the first time, in the driving seat. “I’d be in the studio till five in the morning most nights. First I’d cook dinner for the engineers, and then we’d have a night of overdubs and experimentation. It was the freest feeling I’ve ever had in the studio. All the solos were completely spontaneous.”
This is in marked contrast to his minimal approach on the band’s last studio album, By the Way. “I didn’t want to have any solos or blues influences on that album. I wanted it to be along the lines of Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Smiths. I was inadvertently repressing myself, and Flea as well.”
Frusciante attributes his change of attitude to his new girlfriend Emily, who has forced him to open up as a person. “I also do a meditation where the brain tries to heal itself.”
His six years as a heroin and crack addicted wannabe painter taught him a lot, he says. First, that “if all you do is go after being creative all the time, you’re not gonna be creative at all.” Second, he realised that playing guitar in the Chili Peppers wasn’t such a bad job, and that only he could do it.
“When I wasn’t in the band I knew that they’d never find somebody to replace me, they’d hire people or whatever, but I felt it meant more to me than it could to anybody else.
“When I rejoined there were loads of freedoms I was appreciative of that I hadn’t even noticed first time around. Now I have a studio in my house. I have Captain Beefheart paintings on my wall. I have to be friends with people I respect, like Brian Eno. People I would never run into in my life as a drug addict.”
Smith is a different type of person from the others. For one thing he is about twice their size. For another he is schooled musically in the classic rock of the Led Zepp era rather than indie, punk and funk. While the rest of the band have nested in groovy hideaways, he and his family live in Cary Grant’s old house in Hollywood central, where coach parties regularly stop outside to take snaps.
When Smith auditioned for the band in 1989 he barely knew who they were. “They were this under-ground college band. Not in my consciousness at all.” They liked his drumming but hated his long hair and told him he couldn’t join unless he shaved his head. “I was like, ‘f”* you.”A couple of months later, when they asked him along to pose with one of their infamous “cock socks” for a photo session for Spin magazine, he knew he’d got the gig.
As something of an outsider, Smith has a balanced perspective on the band’s ups and downs in the 1990s. He speaks with authority on the subject of drugs: “They are not a creative tool, particularly for Anthony. He is not a party drug-taking animal. When he takes drugs, he disappears.”
Without Frusciante, he feels they were rudderless. “The chemistry was never there. Navarro was more of a reactive player. He didn’t initiate anything.” Smith credits Flea with the band’s renaissance. “He the one who went round to ask him to rejoin.”
Of his own role he says: “Musically we hit it off straight away. Personally it has taken longer. But now we are connecting pretty well. I don’t need to meditate with John, or play golf with Flea. Though I do.”
MICHAEL “FLEA” BALZARY
On the morning of our meeting, Flea has just returned from a kayaking trip in the rivers above his Malibu home. The little fellow looks fit, in his wiry fashion, and says he is happier than ever, since falling for his new partner Frankie at the after-show of one of the Hyde Park concerts in 2004. They now have a baby, Sonny.
Flea’s thirty-something-year friend-ship with Kiedis is back on track after the strains of his defection to Jane’s Addiction; and the friction with Frusciante, which nearly forced him to quit during the making of By the Way, has disappeared. “We are very different. The only thing we have in common is our respect for the music.”
Flea’s stepfather was a jazz musician who taught him to play the trumpet and to look down on rock as a loutish, inferior pastime. What converted young Michael was the enemy and theatrical stunts of his best school friend Kiedis — with whom he would climb billboards naked — and punk rock.
“For me, being in a rock band in the beginning was all about going crazy! When Hillel was in the band there was definitely a magic because we all grew up together. Then, when John joined, he brought this whole chordal melodic thing that we hadn’t had, and it became a much bigger, broader thing. When John came back, we just took up where we’d left off.
“I’d been in touch with him the whole time he was gone, so I knew what he’d been through with the drugs and that he’d cleaned up. I just went over to his house and asked him if he would come back and he started crying and said ‘yeah’.
“We’ve never been aligned with any movement. Since 1983 we’ve seen off three generations of punk, industrial, techno, grange, nu metal. You name it We just play music that we love. For us it’s a sacred thing. I still think it’s a bizarre concept, all these people coming to see us play, the same four little guys thumping away on our stuff.” ?
Stadium Arcadium is out on May 8. The Red Hot Chili Peppers will play the MEN Arena, Manchester (volvw. men-arena.com 0870 1908000) on July 11 & 12; Earls Court, London SW5 (ww.eco.co.uk 0871 8719809) on July 14-18