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The Red Hot Chili Peppers visited Lansdowne Road, Dublin on July 8 but we caught up with the band in Paris recently and heard why the west coast warriors of funk-rock have never been hotter
Peter Murphy, 03 Jul 2002
The devil’s music thrives in the city of angels. You want proof? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Doors’ LA Woman, Love’s Forever Changes, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, X’s Los Angeles, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual, Hole’s Celebrity Skin. And The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication.
In the midst of that band’s fluxed-up doldrums in the mid-’90s, Anthony Kiedis stumbled on the perfect word to evoke the matrix of paradoxes that is LA, what Mike Davis christened the “sunshine-noir dialectic” in his heavyweight tome City Of Quartz. But beyond that, it addressed the global dissemination of the Californian ideal, the American dream become nightmare.
The song, the band and the city are spring-loaded with contradictions. Here, holistic meets hardcore in a metropolis that is at once utopian and dystopian, nostalgic and future-shocked, sunstroked and smogged. A place where you’re prosecuted for smoking in public but can get emphysema from breathing. A place where one degree of separation exists between Doris Day and Charles Manson, with Terry Melcher as the middleman. A city documented in three generations of dirty realism, from early noir (Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain) to post-noir (James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard) to sci-fi noir (Phillip K Dick, Aldous Huxley, Blade Runner). A paranoid paradise forever on the edge of apocalypse by fire, firearm or freak earthquake; the San Andreas fault constantly threatens to dump Hollywood’s gated estates into the Pacific.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers know all about living on LA’s fault lines. They have always existed in the rift between wide-eyed imaginings and gruesome realities, higher entities and hard drugs, the divine spirit of music versus baser human cravings. Los Angeles is a place and a state of mind that Anthony Kiedis has inhabited since he moved there at the age of eleven to join his father Blackie Dammett, a bit part actor, Hollywood vampire and Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco regular who introduced his son to people like David Bowie, Keith Moon and Alice Cooper. Perhaps the most beautiful paradox of all is that the Chili Peppers’ biggest hit to date was ‘Under The Bridge’, Kiedis’ testimonial to hard time done on heroin in the city’s underbelly, an addiction that plagued the singer until as recently as his motorcycle accident in 1997 (11 broken wrist bones and five hours of surgery) when prescription painkillers led him back to smack. Heroin abuse has plagued the band since the late ’80s, making casualties of original guitarist Hillel Slovak and bassist Flea’s friend River Phoenix. It also contributed to John Frusciante’s five-year hiatus from the group; a period of blown opportunity that only ended when the guitarist returned to the fold for 1998’s Californication.
The new Red Hot Chili Peppers album By The Way, their eighth, is a continuation of the spirit that animated that last record. The ill Santa Ana wind – the West Coast Mistral eulogised by Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem – still blows through songs like ‘Don’t Forget Me’ and ‘Dosed’ and ‘Venice Queen’. It’s a record that pans from the original West Coast boosters’ visions of blue skies and citrus groves to the squalor of hastily constructed stucco fuck pads; from Death Valley to Death Row; from Polanski’s Chinatown to Pulp Fiction to Thomas Pynchon; from the boys in the Compton hood to the ladies of Laurel Canyon; from Bukowski to Brian Wilson. By The Way is equal parts downtown funk (‘Can’t Stop’), Beach Boys balladry (‘Tear’), Spanglish flamenco (‘Cabron’), Mexicangeleno skank (‘On Mercury’) and, in a song called ‘Midnight’, a Scorpio moon rising over the Mojave. In short, it’s their most expansive collection since 1991’s high water mark Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and maybe their most melodic, frequently cutting from exhibitionism to introspection.
“To me, some of the tempos might be a little bit slower,” Anthony Kiedis says, sipping his green tea on a rainy morning in Paris, “but the heaviness is actually greater.”
Outside, the birds are loud in the ivy-overgrown courtyard of this plush hotel, agitated by the June thunder and monsoon rain. It’s a long way from LA, but Kiedis seems comfortable in his skin, a blaze of tattoos in a wifebeater shirt. In the videos and promo shots the singer looks built, like a bulked up Iggy Pop, but in person he seems slighter and more sensitive. Or maybe it’s the big brown eyes.
“There was a lot going on last year,” he says when I ask about the spread of material on the new record. “Our chemistry was kind of at an all-time fertile in the rehearsal space. I didn’t feel like I was psychoanalysing myself or anything, I was just having a kind of love for life – sad love and happy love.”
Much of the record seems defined by its sense of location, I suggest, a product of place.
“The place…” he ruminates, “…for one thing when I write I sit at an enormous window that literally looks at the entire basin of LA, and it is something that permeates our daily affairs. Speaking of Raymond Chandler, I think in the last three years both John and I fell in love with that whole genre and read tons of Chandler and all of Dashiel Hammett and just about any detective novel from the ’30s and ’40s we could get our hands on.”
Kiedis hasn’t read Ellroy’s LA Quartet, but nevertheless has his own tale to tell about the self-styled demon dog of American letters.
“I met him once,” he says. “He came to rehearsal. I guess he was writing a book about the music business and he wanted to just come and get a feel for how musicians work together, so he came and sat in on a practice. He was cool, very easygoing, smile on his face, cordial, no attitude.”
The image of Kiedis sitting in a big house overlooking the streets on which he used to hustle reflects all the dramatic contrast of the Chili Peppers saga: from dirtbird urchins scrambling for odds in the club scene of ’80s LA to a band who sold nearly 26 million albums in the last decade.
“It was such a slow shift,” he considers. “I think the way the universe offered us this experience was in the instalment plan. We put out four records before anyone except for Los Angelenos ever took notice of us. I don’t think that we could’ve handled it if we went from straight dirtbird to having too large of a menu, financially speaking. It was an incredibly gradual process. I went from sleeping in people’s back yards, being supported by your girlfriend or your girlfriend’s mom, to being in a little club band and then suddenly I could buy myself a little one room flat on Hollywood Boulevard above a pizza shop. (Then) going on tour and coming home and having a pocketful of money I couldn’t actually spend in one day. Having a cheque coming in the mail, that was a real shocker to me.
“And then we started selling records by the shitload and making a ton of money, and there was that sort of transitional period where we probably became a bit arrogant and egotistical and idiotic, but fortunately that was a passing phase for us, we weren’t going to be permanent self centred bastards, we were just gonna go through a phase for a while and then go, ‘Wait a second, we know better than this.’ And that happened over almost eight or nine years.”
Does Kiedis think that if the band experienced a Nirvana-like career curve he’d be dead now?
“I don’t ever feel like I should be dead, like it was my destiny to die young,” he says. “There’s all kinds of different curves. Not everyone goes into a mode of complete self-destruction. I always look at Pearl Jam as an example of someone who went from zero to 100 in one record, and they didn’t kill themselves. They may have become a bit bizarre and reclusive and full of themselves, just like every other pop star in the world has a tendency to become, but I don’t think self-destruction is the necessary outcome. We’ve all lost our minds at one time or another, and John kind of proved that in the most extreme version of having one foot in death and one foot in life and at the very last second getting a reprieve to come back and do it all over again.”
Did Anthony feel any guilt over Frusciante’s drug problems, given that the guitarist was still a teenager when he joined the band in 1988?
“No, not at all,” he states. “I never felt an ounce of responsibility. I felt responsible for having abused our friendship in certain ways, I learned a lot about how to treat people from that relationship, I was able to look at my side of the street and go, ‘I guess I was a bit controlling, a little bit insensitive maybe to what he was going through.’ But I was always there for him, even up to the final moment of departure. And that was just his path, it really had very little to do with me, he was going to have to go through that.”
John Frusciante’s role as the prodigal Chili Pepper is integral to understanding their rise and fall and rise again. The band formed in 1983 from the ashes of an act called Anthym, based around the nucleus of Kiedis, Flea (real name Michael Balzary), drummer Jack Irons and Hillel Slovak. Their eponymous debut was released the following year, but it wasn’t until George Clinton took the wheel for Freaky Styley that their athletic fusion of chicken grease punk-funk and syncopated metal was satisfactorily preserved on vinyl. Slovak died of a heroin overdose in June 1988 and Irons left, blaming the band for his friend’s demise. The two were replaced by Peppers’ fan Frusciante and Michigan-born drummer Chad Smith for the Mother’s Milk album, whose covers of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’ started getting the band some serious MTV rotation. 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, recorded in a haunted house and produced by Def Jam supremo Rick Rubin, was the breakthrough record, selling almost nine million copies. Frusciante left during the Asian leg of the ensuing tour, precipitating a near farcical revolving door guitarist situation. To make matters worse, Flea was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and ordered to rest for a year.
Enter ex-Janes Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. On paper Navarro seemed perfect. He had the grounding in powerchording and polyrhythm, he had the character, the tattoos and the physique. Yet the resulting One Hot Minute album did not equal the sum of its parts, and the band’s improvisational engine seemed to be running at half speed. It was a frustrating period for all involved.
Chad Smith: “Dave’s a fantastic musician, Janes Addiction was an amazing band, but he was more of a reactive player than an active player. Once you had something he would put his part on top of it, but that’s not the best way for us to work.”
Following Navarro’s departure to concentrate on his Spread project and the reformed Janes Addiction, Frusciante rejoined in early 1998, fresh out of rehab. Cue a return to form with the 12 million selling Californication, the band reaching new levels in terms of songcraft – the title track boasted Kiedis’ most accomplished lyric to date.
“That was a song that was really born in Thailand,” he recalls. “I didn’t even necessarily have a band when I wrote the lyrics. We were with Dave Navarro and the chemistry was just not working, Flea was dissatisfied, we were really kind of falling apart at the seams. And I went away to Thailand for a month to swim in the Andaman Sea and eat good food and clear out my system, and while I was there I started meditating on this idea that I saw everywhere I went in Third World Countries, in Indonesia, Borneo, India and Thailand, of just how profound the imagery and ideas and the art that come out of California have affected the rest of the world. It’s like this enormous jellyfish whose tentacles reach out and touch the most faraway places. Some of it seemed really beautiful, some of it really obscure and some really shallow.
“And while I was just walking around through these jungles I started singing all these different lyrics to myself. And as soon as John came back to the band I went to his house and that was the first song that we started and the very last song that we finished on that record; I wasn’t going to quit until we had it.”
In retrospect Frusciante’s return makes total sense, but when Flea tabled the motion in the spring of ’98, both Chad and Anthony were somewhat taken aback. Long-time Chilis aficionados reckoned the Blood Sugar line-up as the definitive one, but in practical terms a reconciliation looked unworkable. Ask the straight-talking, wisecracking Chad for his version of the Frusciante sub-plot and he says this:
“He was a kid when he joined the group, had never been in a band before, one of these guys who sits in his room and plays guitar all day, doesn’t go out and play sports, immersed in music, music, music. He’s the most inspiring, incredible musician I know. And he joins his favourite band at 18 years old; it would be like me fucking joining Led Zeppelin when I was 18. And he really loved the fact that it was this cult band. John comes from a punk rock aesthetic, and I think once we became mainstream or whatever when Blood Sugar came out, he kind of rebelled against it: ‘This is not why I got into this’. All of us kind of embraced it, it wasn’t like selling out or any of that shit – we’d been doing what we’d been doing, and all of a sudden, for whatever reason, we were becoming more popular.”
Did John’s drug problems alienate him from the rest of the band?
“It wasn’t that at the time. He got into hard drugs later. That was just numbing himself. He lost focus on the reasons why he was doing this. It was not fun to be playing there for a while. We did this one European tour (where) he was just anti everything, wouldn’t talk to journalists, we’d be supposed to be playing the chorus of a song and he’d be going (makes screeching guitar sound). It was like the three of us and somebody else. I did want to kick his little fucking ass sometimes, I’ll tell ya, I really did: ‘What that fuck are you doing?’ We sort of tolerated it. Like any relationship you think maybe you can work things out, but it didn’t get any better, it just got worse.”
What was Chad’s initial feeling when Flea suggested bringing him back in to replace Dave Navarro?
“I was like, ‘Whaaat?’ The last thing I knew he was like, ready to die. I mean he was that bad. If I had gotten the ‘John is dead’ call it would not have surprised me at all. Anyway, I looked at Anthony, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I just saw him and he’s cleaned up and getting it together’ and I was like, ‘Wow’. It’s funny because Dave Navarro said to me when he left the group, ‘John Frusciante is the only guy for your band.’”
Navarro knew what he was talking about. Frusciante is the Chilis’ catalytic converter. The author of a clutch of highly rated solo records, he has emerged as the key player on the new album, contributing nagging hooks, no-note-wasted breaks and most remarkably, stacks of harmonies.
Anthony: “He’s like a sponge, he became a student of harmony and went and bought like a thousand records of vocal groups, doo-wop records, rock harmony from the ’50s, classics like the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees and the Mamas And The Papas. And he got my vocal coach and started training so he could develop even more.”
From metallic hip-hop to doo-wop? It’s not as perverse as it seems. George Clinton started off in the barbershops of New Jersey. And from day one, the original Chili Peppers sound was a poly-ethnic hybrid, leaning as heavily on The Meters and Sly Stone as it did on post-punk acts like the Gang Of Four. 20 years later, By The Way suggests the band took a look around at the legion of yobs they played alongside at the carnage of Woodstock ’99 and decided to put some distance between themselves and the homogenous rap-metal rabble.
“There was some good spirits there too,” Kiedis says. “(But) I do remember backstage getting ready to play, doing setlists, stretching, doing vocal warm ups, hearing different music coming from stages and not being so impressed. I remember hearing one band and going, ‘That is the most blatant Pearl Jam rip off I have ever heard and everyone seems to be loving it. I don’t understand, it’s like you heard that the first time ten years ago, why would you want to hear the same thing again?’ And then I hear this really aggressive noise coming out of another band, it seemed so obvious that they had this plan to manipulate teenage boys by pretending to be angry about things and how they really felt like fucking somebody up, and I was like, ‘It’s a bunch of posers trying to manipulate audiences.’”
Kiedis is too much the gentleman to mention Creed and Limp Bizkit by name, but watching his band live in the Olympia in Paris that night, it’s clear just how far from suck ‘n’ fuck funk the sports metal clones have strayed. Early in the set, Flea tells a story about waking up in his hotel room the night before and spontaneously coming all over himself, a la Jean Cocteau. Twice. Or maybe it’s a Henry Miller thang. Either way, when the band shamble onstage and kick into the single ‘By The Way’ they look like they’d been playing for an hour already. (“That’s ’cos backstage before we went on we were fuckin’ each other for like an hour,” Chad says the next day.)
The circumstances of the show are exceptional though. The Chili Peppers are a stadium band playing an Olympia not much bigger than the Dublin venue of the same name, to a crowd that includes basketball buddies Toby Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. By the time ‘Scar Tissue’ and ‘Give It Away’ have been dispensed with, my notes have pegged Chad as a drummer with a Bonham-like grasp of both brute force and technique, while Frusciante looks for all the world like a savant bum who just wandered in off a Venice beach boardwalk. Flea, as ever, is a ball of blue-haired wired energy, and if Anthony sings flat sometimes, he’s also one of the few performers who knows the same physical graffiti as Iggy and Rollins. Plus, the band are loose enough to fly in the face of MTV computer cues and accommodate covers of the Ramones’ ‘Havana Affair’ and The Sweet’s ‘Fox On The Run’. By encore time, ‘Under The Bridge’ has been booted off the list in favour of The Stooges’ ‘Search And Destroy’, which in turn becomes a jam that meanders from techno to dub to Delta blues to snatches of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.
“I sang that because I was trying to put a spell on a girl who was in the audience and I wanted to use her name,” Anthony says, back at the hotel. “That was something that just came to me while I was sitting next to Chad.”
Does he feel like the hot sex warrior most of my female acquaintances seem to think he is?
“I really don’t feel it,” he says. “I met a beautiful girl last night that I wanted to take on a date, she had a boyfriend, she wouldn’t have anything to do with me. That’s my luck these days.”
Perhaps he’s gravitating to what he can’t have.
“You’re probably absolutely right. If a girl likes me I ask myself, ‘What’s wrong with her? She must be a little loco.’ You know what the Marx Brothers used to say – I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”