RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
How the world’s weirdest band got sober, sorted out
bad backs, grappled with September the 11th and put some trousers
"The cock-waving lunatic likes to have a laugh,"
admits Flea, "but he’s more conscious of how he
affects other people."
their two decades together, Red Hot Chili Peppers have seen their
share of the dark side of Los Angeles: the crumbling apartments,
the seedy bars and, famously, that spot “under the bridge
downtown” where their frontman Anthony Kiedis scored heroin,
later immortalising it in a hit song. During one of his bleaker
moments, Kiedis once described LA as “a stifling land of smog,
violence and hate”.
a Monday morning in May 2002, Red Hot Chili Peppers find themselves
in a part of town better suited to their buoyant mood. Santa Monica’s
Casa Del Mar hotel reeks of money. In the foyer hangs a colossal
wrought-iron chandelier cradling a copper boat. It’s stupid
and ugly but expensively so. In a bar the size of a tennis court,
guests survey the Pacific Ocean.
three opulent two-storey suites, the band gather for the first public
airing of their imminent album, By The Way, to a phalanx of European
TV crews. When Q arrives, bassist Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary
is already there, twisted like a pretzel into some implausible yoga
pose. Q would shake his hand if only it were clear exactly where
his hand was. He wears asymmetrical electric blue hair and navy
blue shirt and trousers.
Sporting a precisely trimmed goatee, he is unexpectedly sombre for
a man whose image has previously suggested an interminable adolescence.
He proffers a half-handshake and a quarter-smile, which signal a
wavy tolerance, but no great love, for the press.
Next is errant
guitarist John Frusciante, who aided the band’s path to megastardom,
left to spend five years in the clutches of heroin addiction, and
returned in 1998. Last time Q photographed the group, a straggly
bearded Frusciante stuck out like the result of a hobo replacement
scheme. Now he resembles Vincent Gallo playing Jesus of Nazareth,
another famous resurrectee.
drummer Chad Smith barrels in, clearly not long out of bed. “I
thought it was noon,” he jovially protests. “Nobody
does interviews before noon!”
immediately put these four men together, but their mutual affection
is transparent. Flea and Smith make a wisecracking, sarcastic double
act. Alongside Frusciante, Flea is more sincere and almost paternally
protective. Kiedis and Frusciante comprise the most intense alliance.
from British TV’s CD:UK has met the group before, but only
Smith recognises her: the rest aren’t great with faces. She
asks Kiedis for a precis if the band’s history. She has asked
the wrong band. Kiedis gamely rattles off a condensed chronology,
but is practically incomprehensible to anyone not aquainted with
their contorted family tree. “I wish Mel Brooks was here,”
he sighs. “Our history would be much funnier.”
the Red Hot Chili Peppers will be 20 years old; Kiedis and Flea
will have been Chili Peppers for exactly half their lives. Only
now has their number of albums (eight) overtaken their tally of
guitarists (seven). As Kiedis later tells Q, they have been on the
verge of calling it a day at least four times, usually in the wake
of a disappearing guitar player.. And then there are the bits that
Kiedis opts not to share with the CD:UK audience, namely their previous
Herculean drug intake. Heroin killed founding guitarist Hillel Slovak
in 1988, poleaxed Frusciante and has plagued Kiedis intermittently.
a brief history?” the frontman asks when he’s finished.
Then, as if he’d temporarily forgotten the whole point. “Oh,
we had fun. We had a lot of fun, too.”
If anyone decides to make a Red Hot Chili Peppers biopic, the most
apt title has already been taken by M. Night Shyamalan: Unbreakable.
The tagline they could filch from Nietzsche: what doesn’t
kill them makes them stronger.
five years since the band last contemplated dissolving, a record
for them. In 1997, Dave Navarro, the Jane’s Addiction guitarist
recruited to replace to replace Frusciante, wasn’t fitting
in and the album he appeared on 1995’s muddled One Hot Minute,
was both a commercial and creative disappointment . Kiedis had been
using heroin again, while Flea and Smith were ready to quit.
Read any interview
from that period and you’ll see that the group are masters
of “We’ve never been happier” rhetoric, even when
the truth is very different. These days, though, it’s hard
to disbelieve them. By The Way marks only the second time they have
recorded two successive albums with the same line-up. The last occasion
was during Frusciante’s first stint: Mother’s Milk (1989)
and Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991). If the guitarist’s departure
derailed the band after the breakthrough success of the later album’s
8.85 million sales, this time there’s nothing to stop them
building on the unexpected career high of ‘99’s Californication,
which has cleared a remarkable 12.5 million copies.
Rick Rubin is
back in the producer’s chair for the fourth time in a row
- Kiedis says they never considered anyone else – but By The
Way does not chart familiar territory. Aside from a brief flurry
on the title track, there is no sign at all of their trademark funk-metal.
Instead, there are mellifluous harmonies (think Smile-era Beach
Boys and any-era Beatles), avant-garde quirks and the most fluid,
untethered playing of their career. Frusciante has gone all Jonny
Greenwood, expanding his repertoire to synthesizers, mellotron and
overdubs, and taking inspiration from techno boffins Autechre and
Boards of Canada. In late 2000, he and Flea moonlighted on Tricky’s
Blowback album and formed and unnamed Joy Division covers band for
just one gig: consequently the bassist’s playing now owes
more to Peter Hook than Bootsy Collins. Kiedis’s songwriting,
meanwhile, is wise and persuasive.
When many bands
might have settled into a comfortable holding pattern after 20 years,
the Chili Peppers have made an expectations-confounding new album
that reiterates their skills as musicians and songwriters and demonstrates
a refreshing reluctance to sit back and trade off past glories.
They have finally, decisively, grown up.
It would not,
however, be a Red Hot Chili Peppers record without some strife along
the way. Towards the end of the Californication tour, Frusciante
was locked into a stressful relationship and suffering from psychosomatic
back pain. For much of that same period Flea was even worse, reeling
from a traumatic break-up with his girlfriend of five years and
wracked by panic attacks.
through the tour, Flea experienced an epiphany after a conversation
with self-help writer Caroline Myss. “She said, Everytime
you go on stage you feel you have to prove something to the audience
and you don’t have to prove shit. You’re gonna kill
yourself that way. And it was some of the best advice I ever got
in my life. That was definitely a watershed moment.”
is blissfully happy with his current girlfriend, 19-year-old Stella
Schnabel. She’s the daughter of artist/director Julian Schnabel
(Basquiat, Before Night Falls), who provides the faintly disturbing
cover art for By The Way.
Kiedis worked on the vocals and overdubs for several months at the
Chateau Marmont, where the guitarist was living. It seems strange
for Frusciante to return to the same hotel where he almost wasted
away at the height of his heroin addiction in’97, but Kiedis
contends otherwise. “There’s no reason to pretend like
it didn’t happen. It was pretty dismal and scary but we lived
None of the
band need prompting to sing Frusciante’s praises. When the
guitarist was first in the band he was closer to Kiedis than Flea,
but it was the latter who maintained a friendship in the following
years while the singer simmered with ‘animosity’. During
the frustration following One Hot Minute, Flea told Kiedis that
if they didn’t try to get Frusciante back, he was leaving.
So, after a fraught separation from Navarro, that’s just what
resentment just evaporated instantly, “ says Kiedis. “It’s
like a boyfriend-girlfriend thing. Sometimes you’re so fucking
hurt by somebody that you won’t allow yourself to be friends
with them. It doesn’t mean that deep down you don’t
love them. But, you know, ego. Ego and mind games.
as it sounds, I think we were put on this planet to make this special,
magical music,” says Smith. “When he came back we realised
that. We don’t take it for granted now.”
And what a curious
chemistry it is. They don’t live in each others’ pockets
anymore, nor has their friendship become a mere business arrangement.
Their bond is both genuine and, to the outsider, unfathomable. As
Rick Rubin says, “They’re very different individuals.
Each has their own world.”
At the Casa
Del Mar, the CD:UK interviewer asks Flea and Smith who their favourite
British bands are. Smith names Ocean Colour Scene (he’s friends
with Steve White from Paul Weller’s band). Flea opts for the
Prodigy and Aphex Twin.
English people are repelled by me,” he tells Q later, only
half-joking. “One newspaper called me an oafish troll so I’m
going to hold that against them for the rest of my life. Spirituality
be damned! I’m gonna be bitter.”
I was little and jumped around a lot”) is the Chili Pepper
who most personifies the band’s contradictions. He’s
the one with the dyed hair and the daft voices (which he’s
employed in The Big Lebowski and cartoon The Wild Thornberrys) and
the fondness for disrobing on stage. But he’s also the meditator
who prays before every meal and who likes Kurosawa films and avant-garde
jazz. In the rockstar DNA blender, he’s equal parts Thom Yorke,
Sting and Blink-182’s Tome Delonge; a strange brew.
Sat at a table
in the hotel suite some hours later and having eschewed all animal
products for the last few months, Flea is tearing into a heap of
chops with the gusto of a recently released hostage. Until Rick
Rubin introduced him to transcendental meditation in the mid-90’s,
Flea’s tendency to ricochet between extremes was even more
dizzying. “When I first met Flea, it was difficult for him
to communicate,” says Rubin. “He’s be racing off
in a lot of different directions and not making much sense.”
Flea alternated between voracious drug consumption and short-lived
puritanical spells. These days, like Kiedis and Frusciante, he doesn’t
even drink or smoke, but knows the ‘oafish troll’ image
feelings would be hurt when people say you’re an asshole,”
he reasons. “Y’know, sexist frat-rock, jock, shallow-minded
party music. But does it impress people that I read Celine and listen
to Thelonious Monk and watch Cassavetes films? I don’t know.
Stuff in the centre of pop culture has never really interested me
The Red Hot
Chili Peppers’ status as the Lollapalooza generation’s
class clowns, multi-platinum sellers and reluctant godfathers of
rap-metal has obscured their left-field origins. In their early
years, when other LA metal bands wore spandex, they worked with
George Clinton, Gang of Four’s Andy Gill and Captain Beefheart’s
drummer, Cliff Martinez. But then, if the Art Ensemble of Chicago
had appeared on album sleeves with socks over their penises –
as the Chili Peppers did on ‘88’s Abbey Road EP –
they’d probably have had credibility problems, too. But, as
Smith explains, “We may jump around with socks on our dicks,
but when it comes to making records, we don’t take things
the Chili Peppers’ somewhat boisterous sexuality, and a run-in
with the Florida police after spanking a female stage invader in
1990, Flea bristles at charges of sexism.
I’m wrong, perhaps I didn’t feel we were ever sexist.
I always felt very much in the feminine. So I don’t feel that
different, I just feel a desire now, if I can, to contribute to
the feminist cause.” Only a Californian could say such a sentence
with a straight face. Does he, then, regret the wrong impression
given by his previous exploits? “I don’t really mind,
I embrace the cock-waving lunatic. I think it had its place.”
Is he gone for good? “No, the cock waving lunatic likes to
have a laugh. Perhaps the cock-waving lunatic is more conscious
of how he affects other people.”
When you survey
the current US rock scene, most of the bands who aren’t brandishing
their childhood tragedies like medals are in some way indebted to
the Chili Peppers’ socks-on-cocks hi-jinks. Soberingly, Sum
41 are just about young enough to be Flea’s children. He pleads
ignorance of most rap-metal (his 13 year-old daughter Clara is more
of a Stokes fan) but acknowledges that if there’s an influence,
then “They take the most male part of it. It’s like
hair bands in the ‘80’s. Led Zeppelin had so many different
sides to them, but everyone wanted to steal this macho suck-my-cock
only regret about the old days is his promiscuity. Currently, he’s
at the other end of the extreme. “I’m a bachelor, man.
[Mock-bawling] A lonely man nearing 40 and I don’t have a
And then he
has to head home to Malibu, an hour out of town, before Clara goes
to bed. “Last week, right after I died my hair blue, her friends
came round and she wouldn’t let me go outside and say hello
to their parents,” he reports. She was like, [mortified voice]
Oh please don’t. It happens all the time.” Every day
that the ‘cock-waving lunatic’ remains on sabbatical,
one 13-year-old girl must be very relieved.
Before meeting Q, John Frusciante lies on his back in a darkened
room listening to The Beach Boys’ Smile sessions and emerges
serenely refreshed. Though musicians habitually claim that music
is their life, few take that credo quite so literally. Frusciante
first won his place in the band with note-perfect renditions of
every Hillel Slovak guitar part and still practises from dawn till
He spends the
interview with a beatific grin on his face. Although better than
he once was, he still has a precarious grip on the world outside
music. He doesn’t drive (in LA, the height of eccentricity)
or follow the news - and it shows.
art is about accepting what’s going on around you and turning
it into something beautiful, no matter what it is,” he mumbles.
“During this record we had the catastrophe at the Empire State
Building and we just kept on writing.”
His being the
only man in America who isn’t sure which building collapsed
on 11 September may be alarming but, after what Frusciante’s
been through, it’s perhaps enough that he’s still enough.
When he auditioned
for the Chili Peppers, he was still in his teens (he’s 31
now) and his militantly punk ethic didn’t gel with life in
a rock band in the first flush of global success. His reaction was
smoking pot night and day and I went through the world thinking
it should be the way I believe it should be. And if it’s not
like that then I’ll shut that part of the world out. I was
scared I’d lose my ability to be creative. I thought being
a heroin addict and making my life nothing but good feelings was
the best way to maintain being a creative person. But it’s
the group in’92, Frusciante slowly faded from view. He released
two minor solo albums (1995’s Niandra LaDes and Usually Just
a T-Shirt, and ‘97’s Smile From the Streets You Hold)
later admitting he cobbled together the latter purely to raise drug
money. By the time an LA reporter tracked him down to the Chateau
Marmont in 1997 he was all but forgotten.
to the point where there was no-one looking at me the way people
look at you when you’re famous, with that love even though
they don’t know you,” he says. “I was getting
physical pain. I felt like childhood traumas that I had never even
felt existed were now coming up to get me. This life that we’re
trussed into when we become rock stars acts as a kind of doctor
for us and we don’t even realise that it’s happening.
We just take it for granted.”
to the group for the recording of Californication and is now playing
better than ever, passionately in love (his girlfriend “wants
to help crack babies in hospital”) and utterly convinced that
he will never relapse.
not scared of going back on drugs. I don’t see it as being
I’m just lucky. I like people smoking pot around me. I really
just like the way it smells.”
removes his lumberjack jacket, his arms are a ruin of scars and
patches. He says that when he looks at an old picture of himself
– lean and boyish and still in possession of his own teeth
– he doesn’t recognise that person.
it like I’m remembering somebody else’s life. I remember
how spirits at that time were plaguing me and insulting me all the
time. It was good. Because what I was capable of compared to what
I was doing was so huge, so the spirits were giving me hell for
Do you still
get those spirits?
like me now,” he beams. “I know how to work hard to
make them happy. I like the idea that I’ll never be in the
position of having nothing to eat and nowhere to live again. And
I love being able to buy as many records as I want to buy.
During the recording of By The Way, Red Hot Chili Peppers decorated
the studio in order to feel more at home. Some members brought tapestries
or film noir posters or incense. Chad Smith brought a picture of
dogs playing poker. “You familiar with that one?” he
says with a throaty laugh. “Ha! That was my inspiration.”
Smith is one
of those drummers who seem to consider it their duty to act in a
drummer-like-manner. A couple of years ago he attended a ‘drum
clinic’ in England with fellow sticksmen from the likes of
Jamiroquai, the Prodigy and Iron Maiden. It sounds like the set-up
to a light bulb joke. “Drummers are the nice guys of the band,”
he says. “They’re more normal and stuff. Those guys
out front, I dunno about them.”
smoking Marlboros now, jamming the stubs into Flea’s lamb
chop massacre. He looks like he should be the star of a sit-com
about a skirt-chasing baseball coach. However, Q’s suggestion
that he is the least troubled Chili Pepper prompts an explosive
roar of laughter.
all smoke and mirrors my friend. I'm the worst, heheheh! But, yeah,
maybe it’s part of my role in the band, being the drummer.
I like the other guys to feel like they can always count on me.
But, you know, there’s dark places.
When was the
last time you went to extremes?
recently, heheheh. It’s been, like, the last three months.
Up until about two weeks ago. I had things I didn’t really
want to confront, I got into a pattern of numbing myself with alcohol,
and I was fucking shit up in my personal life. I’m not like,
[whining] I’m never gonna do anything ever again! There’s
just a point like, h this is no good. I’m a grown man for
Smith is a father
twice over, divorced from the mother of five-year-old Manon, but
still with the mother of 16-month-old Ava. Recently, he was the
first band-member to turn 40 (Flea and Kiedis are 39), and celebrated
with a “pimp and ho” garden party. “John came
as a giant pimple and Flea came as a garden hoe,” he reports.
“Very clever, those two, verrrry clever. My mom came out.
She was a good-looking ho.”
rumour, Chad doesn’t travel on a separate tourbus; he laughs
at reports that he’s nicknamed the others’ vehicle ‘the
tofu bus’. “We hang, not as much as we used to, but
it’s not a substance thing. I don’t feel I have to go
to yoga meditation class with Flea to feel connected. I’m
not really at that point yet. I'm getting there, though.”
What are your
interests outside music?
to ride motorcycles. I like to scuba dive…. My favourite colour
is off to LA’s Viper Room to an ironic hair metal club night
called Metal Shop. Yoga can wait.
The following lunchtime, Anthony Kiedis goes to his favourite vegan
restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. It’s been said that LA
is the only place where famous people can feel normal, and today,
like most days, he’s just another diner, tucking into a bowl
of black bean soup.
ages of six and 11, Kiedis lived in Michigan. He has spent the rest
of his life in this city. His father Blackie Dammett was an actor
and, when he was 14, Anthony appeared in a couple of films under
the name Cole Dammett. But his role in 1978’s F.I.S.T. –
as Sylvester Stallone’s son – was something of a disappointment.
“I had one line. It was, Pass the milk. And I think you can
just see my arm in the frame as I say it.”
devoted himself to music instead, he was determined not to let it
fail, even when Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons left to join
another band before they’d even recorded their first album.
“I was left there sobbing, thinking, Well, there goes my plan
to conquer the world. But six hours later we regrouped and said,
OK, we cant’s let this die now.”
Kiedis has shown
similar resolve at several crunch times since, but his iron will
leaves little space for frivolity. He sits bolt upright, hands clasped
together on the table like a guest on Newsnight. He is slow to smile
but, like Bruce Willis, he has the kind of mouth that takes little
prompting to twist into a mirthless smirk if he dislikes a question.
He laughs twice in an hour.
Several of the
lyrics on By The Way suggest a sunny optimism quite at odds with
Kiedis’s normal mood. One factor was his girlfriend Yohanna,
whom he met, Don’t You Want Me-style, when she was a hostess
in a New York restaurant. With awful timing, the couple split while
he was recording the songs she inspired. “Those feelings are
still there. If anything, you get that extra dimension of sadness
that makes it even more meaningful and satisfying to sing.”
So what happened?
ready to go all the way and she wasn’t really into having
a family and she got on this career path and we just wanted different
things. It’s not like we ever really fell out of love.”
He changes the
subject to the quality if his soup. Unlike his bandmates, Kiedis
has little taste for self-analysis. He bats back several questions
about the future or his motivations with a curt, “I don’t
really think bout that,” or smothers them in dippy Californian
gush. When he’s in a funk, so to speak, he prefers to go on
an adventure. In the past he’s dealt with bad times by trekking
in Borneo and India.
have a degree of wanderlust,” he says. “I just like
to go and see new places and be in nature. I’ve gotten a lot
more out of the ocean than I have out of a shrink.”
Kiedis would rather not examine too deeply is his own history of
heroin use. When Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley dies recently,
he could, “definitely relate. It makes me think, There but
for the grace of God go I, or most of my friends.”
He refuses to
discuss his rehab method (he’s been clean since 1997) because
he’s concerned that if he relapses people will infer that
the process is faulty. However, he hasn’t banned drugs in
his touring party, as Aerosmith famously did, and refuses to preach.
Does he share Frusciante’s confidence then?
about myself a little more. You know, there are times when I’m
tempted just to fuck it all. But I don’t. There was a time
when I thought I would live and die sober without any question but,
y’know, a couple of setbacks and it sort of fucked with my
thinking about that.”
the Red Hot Chili Peppers is something he doesn’t really think
about, as if the mere thought might jinx them, and he never dreams
of a quieter life. He enjoys a degree of fame, which has never become
overwhelming, but could he handle not being famous one day?
too late for that. I think all you have to do is be in the public
eye for 10 years and you’ve sort of sealed your fate.”
be the guy who used to sing that song…
Remember that guy? You shoulda seen him in his day.”
Back at the
Casa Del Mar, Kiedis claims that, “I feel like we’re
just getting started”. It’s another bit of familiar
rock speak that actually has a ring of truth here. The Red Hot Chili
Peppers have always moved forward, but previously they hurtled or
lurched or stumbled forward. Now, perhaps for the first time, they’re
striding steadily into the future.
have thought that Californication, 18 years into our career as a
rock band, would have been our biggest album?” ponders Kiedis.
“With this album we had so much stuff. We never felt we were
hitting writer’s block or feeling the pressure in any way.
Nobody talked about sales and there’s nobody punching cards
when it comes to working. We do it all in our own time.”
Life is good
then for the Chili Peppers?
Barring some unforeseen meteorite coming through our path, we’ll
be alright for a while.”
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