- 09 May 19
13 years ago today, Red Hot Chili Peppers released their ninth studio album, Stadium Arcadium. Featuring hits like 'Dani California' and 'Snow (Hey Oh)', the album topped charts around the world - including Ireland. To mark the anniversary of the release, we're revisiting our 2016 interview with bassist Flea.
Paris is world famous as the 'City of Love', but it's a somewhat sad and forlorn looking Michael Peter Balzary - better known to millions of Red Hot Chili Peppers fans as Flea - who ambles into the bar of this trendy Montmartre boutique hotel. His downcast demeanour is surprising given that the 53-year-old bassist is usually considered the most lively, animated and upbeat member of the legendary L.A. band.
"I'm doing ok," he replies to Hot Press' concerned query about his wellbeing. He runs his hands - both knuckles are tattooed with the word 'LOVE' - over his trademark tight crop (today it's dyed electric blue) and sighs. "I broke up with my girlfriend," he admits. "So I'm kind of sad, to tell you the truth, but I'm ok." Naturally, one commiserates: that's terrible... "Yeah. I mean, I know she's alive," he mumbles, "but we broke-up two days ago." He brightens momentarily when I mishear and say, "Two years ago?" "Two days!" he laughs. "I hope I'm better in two years. It's ok. Yeah, I'm doing my work. It's good." He gestures towards the digital recorder on the table. "So, shall we?" He orders a Perrier from a passing waiter (he's been sober for many years) and we immediately get down to business.
We're meeting to discuss RHCP's eleventh studio album, The Getaway.
Released in June, it's the LA-based band's first studio album since 2011's I'm With You. Currently gearing up for a major tour, they've just done a series of festival dates to support it - and will be hitting Belfast to play Tennent's Vital on August 25th. He's really looking forward to playing Ireland. "Yeah, yeah," he nods. "We just did five festivals, yeah. It was great. It's a lot of work (smiles)."
Flea first formed RHCP with frontman Anthony Kiedis in 1983. Surely, by now, they're all well used to playing in front of tens of thousands of people? "I care about them," he says about RHCP fans. "I care about the music. Which is a mission of my life: to be great, you know? There's times when it's brutal. There's times when I walk up on the stage and I'm very tired, but I always give everything I have. I try to be a channel for the energy to move through me." Do you get energy from the crowd? "Yeah, I get energy from them. I get energy from the music, you know? The music comes from a divine place and I try to let go and let the music move me, so I don't have to do it all. You know? I try to get out of the way and let the music do the talking."
Obviously still distracted by his current romantic woes, Flea frowns and pauses for a moment. Then he sits up straight and expands on how he approaches his work. There is, it seems, a mystical aspect to it. "The music is an energy that is there and it's moving," he says. "The world is always expanding and contracting and things are going up and down, vibrating. I feel like I can get myself in a position, when the wave comes, so I can write it. I can do my best to have my fingers strong, my mind clear, my body ready, and do the work - to hopefully let the music pass through me, you know? And to use that energy and shape it into something. But yeah, it does come from a divine place, I believe."
He's a big surfer. Is it something akin to sitting in the water and waiting for the right wave? "Yeah," he nods, smiling. "And the greater thing is: did you practice? Did you make yourself strong, so when it comes, you're ready to jump up and go? And it's the same thing with music. I mean, you look as someone like Igor Stravinsky: every day he woke up and he sat down to compose. Every day. And on some days, it was kind of a slow day - maybe he didn't get so much done. Other days, it was like inspiring and all this great music happening. But every day, he worked. "Every day he was ready for something great to happen, so when the ideas started coming, he knew how to write it down, he knew how to get it on the piano and get it on the paper. It's that thing, like you have to always work and always be there. And sometimes in the most mundane, boring time, great stuff is happening and you don't even realise it. You know what I mean? You look back at it a week later and you're like, "Oh, that was good!" So as a musician you have to always be playing, always be channelling the music, always be trying to find it."
The reference to Stravinsky isn't surprising. Some years back, wishing to learn more about the academic side of his art, Flea enrolled as a freshman at the University of Southern California's music programme. He started at the beginning with Bach's chorales and his four-part harmonies. "Yeah, just for a year," he recalls. "I did get a lot out of it, yeah. I mean, in one year of college, like two semesters of college. I left in the middle to go play with other people. But I really did learn a lot. "It got me thinking, learning about chords, and thinking about how they move, and just the academic part of music, the math of music, and how it moves - and just understand it better. When I was writing music I was always looking to create tension and to create release and love and beautiful things - and I would have to search to find these things. You know what I mean? Maybe use the same tricks all the time. And so, studying music really helped me to have more colours to paint with, and be able to articulate emotions more fluidly."
He's definitely playing with a lot of colours on the Chili Peppers musically rich new album, The Getaway. "Wow, thank you," he smiles. "I don't know what to think about it. We just made it. I know that I think we made something beautiful, but I can't tell what or how people will react to it, how it will make people feel. But I know that it feels like movement and that we're growing, changing, trying to give birth to something new.
"I just sort of feel like when we're making music - when we're writing the music, when we're recording the music, and thinking about it all the time, I feel like then it's our thing that we're making. But when it comes out, I don't feel like it's mine anymore. It's everybody's. Everyone gets to take it and make it what they want it to be, what it means to them. I hope to touch people's hearts and shine a light in the world, you know, to create love. That's all l care about. Yes, of course, I would like it to be a massive fucking hit. You know what I mean? A cultural phenomenon of the new millennium, but I don't know what's going to happen." He pulls a confused face. "Is it still the new millennium or is it not the new millennium anymore?" Um... it's been going on for about, eh, 16 years now. "Is there a new millennium now?" he jokes. "The teenage millennium?"
Now well over three decades in the business, the days of RHCP being teen faves are long over. But that's ok. As the songs on The Getaway attest, they're a lot wiser and more mature nowadays. Well, mostly. "Yeah, I can't even think like that," he shrugs. "I know that there's a difference between the time when we put out our Blood Sugar record and we got really popular and became huge - we had already been together for eight years or something, but at that time when it became so big, it wasn't just the music. You know? "The music was good," he continues. "We created our own sound, but it was everything else, too. It was the tattoos, how we looked, how we talked, all this stuff. It was a cultural phenomenon. It transcended the music. And then that calmed down and then we made some records like, you know, Californication, By the Way, and Stadium Arcadium and we weren't a cultural phenomenon anymore. It was just the music. And that was great, because the music was good and it had power and it had the ability to touch people. "So is it possible we can be a cultural phenomenon again? I don't know, but I think that we made a good record. I think we're still hard-working, diligent musicians who play together well."
Veteran producer Rick Rubin has produced most of the band's best work over the past 25 years, but for The Getaway they worked instead with Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse). Why the change? "For a lot of reasons," he mulls. "I think the big one really was just we had become so comfortable with Rick. You know? Doing the same way, the same thing. And yes, it's up to us to write good music no matter what we're doing, but we felt like it would just jar us and make us do something different if we changed the process - and that we needed to get out of our comfort zone and be uncomfortable. "We got together with Bryan and that's kind of how it was," he continues. "It forced us to do something that we hadn't done before, in a way that we hadn't done it, with a different recording process, and it just made us create something new. Something different. It was really healthy for us."
Were the band not concerned that they'd lose something vital with a change of producer? "I was a little bit worried about it," he admits. "Like, you know, when we first went to work with him, the way that he wanted to record, I thought, "I don't know if this is going to work. I think we're going to lose the magic of who we are", and I said, "Let's try it for one week". In my head I'm thinking, "We try this for a week. If it's not good, fuck it, I'm out of here". But the first day was just great. Sometimes awkward, but you know, good music was happening all the time." Had you known how he works? "I didn't really have any idea," he says, shaking his head.
"I knew what we talked about, what he wanted to do - the big difference is when we worked with Rick, and before Rick even, we did everything in a rehearsal studio. We played everything together, jammed it all out and then did all the arrangements, figured it all out, all the math, and then when we went into the studio, we just used the studio as a place to document what we had done in a rehearsal studio. For the most part. "And Bryan was suggesting we create in the studio, and use the studio as an instrument. And it's just a different way of going about things, building and layering, and that's what we did. It made us write in a much different way. It was good. I think you can hear: it's alive."
Was breaking up with Rick after so many years akin to breaking up with your girlfriend? He laughs. "You know, it's funny because if you asked me this about a week ago, I might have said, "Oh, it is like a break up", but no, it's not. You know, Rick, like, we're still friends and it's all cool. He understands." So you might work with him in the future? "Yeah. I'd love to. I love him. I love Rick Rubin." Working with Danger Mouse wasn't all plain sailing. For a start, recording was delayed when Flea broke his arm in a snowboarding accident. It took him six months to recuperate. "That really slowed us down," he grimaces. "You can see the screw sticking out here now [shows elbow]. I broke it off. Like, big pieces of bone got shorn off and they had to put in lots of metal plates and stuff. It was crazy looking. My arm was this big and swollen: it was crazy. But you know, I got better."
Had you started work when it happened? "Yeah. We had been writing beforehand: we wrote a lot of music and then I broke my arm! I remember when it happened, they put me in the ambulance, and I was sitting there like, 'Oh shit, I broke my arm!' And I wasn't thinking about the record. I was, 'My arm hurts!' They had to give me morphine - and, all of a sudden, I see Anthony's head coming in the ambulance, looking at me, and I just started crying. I was like, 'Fuck... the record'. But it turned out being good. You know, we took the time away, that time we decided to work with Bryan and you know. It was cool."
Do you often go on vacations or snowboarding trips with Anthony? "We do. Not often, but we do," he nods. "Yeah, we didn't go together this year." That's great isn't it, having known each other for 40 years? "Yeah, we've been friends for almost 40 years. Almost 40 years. That's fucking crazy, man. I would have never imagined anything like this could ever happen." He shakes his head. "I don't know. It's funny, like, I was just saying to you that - breaking up with my girlfriend and stuff, the last few days have been really sad and knowing I can call Anthony and say, 'Let's sit down and talk because I need someone to talk to' is really great. Im really grateful for that. I'm so lucky. Like in a band, it's a very loving environment." Do you talk about everything with each other? "Yeah."
Do you think he uses elements of your life experiences in his lyrics? "Yeah, for sure, I do. But you have to talk to him about his lyrics. I can't speak for him." Sir Elton John makes an appearance on The Getaway, playing piano on the song 'Sick Love'. How did that come about? "Well, because you know, we wrote this song, and you heard it, and we thought the verse of it sounded like 'Benny & The Jets'. I mean, it does - and we thought we were just going to shelve the song because of how it sound too much like 'Benny & The Jets'. But it was a good song and we thought, 'If we just have Elton come down and play piano on it...' And we called him and he said, 'Yeah, great!' And he just came down and bam, he played piano."
Is he an old friend of yours? "Acquaintance. Yeah. I can't say we were that close or anything, but it was really nice hanging out with him and playing. He's a really nice man."
Flea caused online ructions a few weeks back when he declared in an interview on Sirius XM's Pearl Jam Radio that rock was "a dead form in lots of ways." When you said it, did you expect such a reaction? "No, I don't care," he shrugs. "I mean, I play rock music, but I just feel like if you're a kid today, you're not looking to do that. It's an old music. You know? It's like the great rock music happened in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, maybe a little bit into the '90s, but even that was starting to be retro, you know? So, I feel like most of the music that seems new and exciting is not done by rock 'n' roll."
So where do you find new exciting music? "Well, I don't listen to a lot of new music, but when I do it's mostly electronic music and hip hop, you know, people using strange instrumentation and stuff like that for something that's exciting-sounding and new." Do you still strive to make the Chili Peppers sound new and exciting? "I mean, yeah. I just can't sit there and go, 'Oh, we have to change to be modern'. I would never try to change us to fit into any trend. When we started we didn't fit into what was going on. In the middle we didn't fit, and now we don't fit. We've always done our own thing. That's not the point. The point is just that every time I hear a new rock band, I feel like I've heard that ten million fucking times. So I say rock music is dead. I stand by that statement."
As we meet, news has just emerged of the shooting in Dallas. Flea has his own thoughts on the subject of gun violence in the US. "Well, I'm definitely more afraid of the NRA than I am of any Muslim terrorist, that's for sure," he says. "But it's just too sad to comprehend, really. Like, I think when somebody does something like that, they are so insane and so removed from love and the connection that we all are one. All religions, all people, all races, all ethnicities, we all are one. 'And I know everyone knows this and you hear or see the hippie bumper sticker on a car, but when you don't understand that, you really are sick, you know? It's a sickness and it's something that people have a little bit of sometimes and sometimes people have it a lot - to the point they want to kill people. It just fills me with such a great sense of sadness. What can I say? All we can do is try to make good decisions, try to create love in the world. That's it: that's all I want to do."
Talk turns to the ongoing US presidential campaign. Clinton or Trump? "Yeah, I don't know," he sighs. "I'd rather have Hillary than Trump, but she's politics as usual. She voted for the Iraq War, so I'm not really with the war kind, you know? So not with it, man. I mean, she's experienced, but she's experienced in causing wars and all that. I'm just not into it. Yeah, Bernie (Sanders), I think, was actually wanting peace and love for people and justice for people. To care about each other is what he actually wanted." Are you optimistic he's going to stay around in politics? "I don't know. What I really hope is just that the dialogue that he started becomes a bigger dialogue and the fact that so many young people really cared about what he had to say, the United States could be on the verge of a liberal awakening. That would make me really happy."
Would Flea, er, flee the US if Trump is elected? "No, I mean Trump just wants rich white people to be in charge. That's really what he cares about. When he said, 'Make America great again', he means: make it so rich white people are in charge of everything and they don't have to answer to anybody. That's what he wants and he doesn't care about, like, all the people that are supporting that.
"I understand that they're frustrated, they can't get a job, and they're out of work and they're dealing with terrible situations and they're looking for someone outside the political system, who says they are going to help them - but he's just a guy that was born wealthy, has never cared about anything except accumulating wealth and power for himself. He doesn't care about these people. So, he's never been a kind, compassionate person. The whole thing is just sad, just sad. It makes me sad."
Though, technically, you are a rich white man yourself. "Well, I don't put myself above anybody else and I want to use the energy of who I am to help other people."
We are coming to the end of the interview. Could you ever imagine a day, I ask, when the Chili Peppers are not around anymore? "Well, it's going to happen," he says. "I don't know. I can't answer that question. I mean, is there a point where we get too old to do it? Or is there a point where we don't feel like we have it in us to do it with the great passion and intensity anymore? I don't know." Flea stands up and prepares to depart into the Parisian night. "All I know is right now. All I can do is live in the moment, you know? And I'm just grateful for it. I'm so grateful to be a part of this thing that is so alive, so vibrant and just an emotional powerhouse of a thing."
Stream Stadium Arcadium below: