Chili Peppers Rise Again".
Rolling Stone Magazine; April 2000
TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO, before the platinum records, the
world tours, the drug addictions and overdoses, before
anyone had put the words chili, hot, peppers and red into
order as a band's name, there was a friend ship.
Two 15-year-old boys at Fairfax High in LA - an outgoing,
charismatic one named Anthony Kiedis and a short, terminally
shy one called Michael Balzary but better known to you
and me as Flea - became so inseparable that on days when
Kiedis didn't show up, Flea would just walk the school
grounds by himself. "I'd circle around," he says. "I didn't
want anyone to see that I was all alone." One of the first
things Kiedis told Flea - while they were getting stoned
on a bus taking them to Mammoth Mountain for a ski trip
- was that he was a survivor. Kiedis said, "If a planecrashes,
I'm the guy who survives." "Really?" said Flea and took
another hit off the joint. In part, this was teenage hubris,
but at 37, after a long run of extremely life-threatening
behaviour, Kiedis says, "That feeling hasn't changed at
all. Whether I'm in jail or in a rehab or just half-dead
somewhere, I always have an innate sensation that says,
'You're going to get out of this mess,' That can be a
good thing or a load thing; it gives you carte blanche
to explore areas you have no business going into." The
Red Hot Chili Peppers have survived across 17 years and
seven albums, enduring personnel turnovers and crises
that would have ended three lesser bands. Their latest
record, Californication, is not only a triple-platinum
hit, it's their finest sustained work ever.
What does it mean to be a Chili Pepper in the year 2000?
It means that you still play party funk with more bounce
to the ounce than any other rock band but have dramatically
expanded your sonic palette. It means that, improbably,
you have matured from a half-naked, out-of-control Young
Turk into a half-naked elder statesman. It means that
you can walk through life holding tragedy in one hand
and merriment in the other. It means that you are in a
group whose members frequently declare their love for
each other but don't hang out much anymore. When I visit
the Peppers in LA, frontman Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist
John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith try to choose a
group activity I can attend. They have no rehearsals planned;
a Lakers game is ruled out because Frusciante doesn't
like sports. I ask what they'd do on tour with a night
off. They all laugh. Flea explains, "I'd stay in my room
and meditate, Chad would go out to strip clubs and get
drunk, John would do yoga and play guitar, and I don't
even know what Anthony would do." Have you all learned
to stay out of each other's hair? "No," says Flea, "we
still get in each other's hair. But now we say, 'Sorry
for being in your hair.'"
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have had so many guitarists-
seven - they could hold a reunion barbecue for them every
summer. Their current lineup, however, is the only one
that has recorded more than one album together. Original
guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988.
Frusciante, then an 18-year-old Peppers fan, joined the
band for 1989's Mother's Milk and 1991's breakthrough,
BIoodSugarSexMagik. He quit abruptly in 1992; Arik Marshall
filled in for that summers Lollapalooza tour (he now plays
in Macy Gray's band). Jesse Tobias lasted a little longer
than a gallon of milk. Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction
signed on for 1996's One Hot Minute and left in 1998;
now he's working on a record with his new hand, Spread.
On tour, the Chili Peppers play no songs from One Hot
Minute. The fundamental problem with it appears to have
been that while the Peppers like to improvise. Navarro
had a different style of composition, laying down multiple
guitar tracks in the studio and then melding them. Frusciante
says he's never listened to One Hot Minute. " Nobody's
ever made a good case to me why I should," he explains.
After quitting the Chili Peppers in 1992, Frusciante descended
into severe heroin addiction, nearly dying. He finally
checked into a hospital in January 1998 for treatment.
The following March, Flea invited him to play with the
Peppers again. Kiedis remembers their first rehearsal
with Frusciante as the standout moment of the whole Californication
experience: "When John gets excited, he's like 8 billion
volts of electricity. He was knocking things over - it
was absolutely chaotic, like a little kid trying to set
up a Christmas tree. And when he hit that first chord,
it was so perfect - this blend of sounds from these people
who I hadn't heard play together in so long."
I join the band for dinner at a Moroccan restaurant
where the waiters wear fezzes and the meal concludes with
a belly dancer. Kiedis has begged off sick, explaining
that his head has swollen up to the size of a football;
the other three openly scoff at this excuse. "I came here
once with my mom," Flea says. "I stuffed myself and drank
seven glasses of wine. And back then, I was playing basketball
every night. I was so fanatic, I wasn't going to not play
just because I was drunk and stuffed. So I threw up all
over the court." FRUSCIANTE: You told me once about going
to the court on acid and - FLEA: It wasn't acid, it was
ecstasy. I was up all night, and I went to play as soon
as it got light, at 6A.M. And I could. Not. Miss. Are
you the best player in the band? SMITH: [Straightening
his six-foot-three frame]I'm better than him. But Flea's
very quick. I think we could take on any other band two-on-two.
Who could beat us? Long silence as they ponder this conundrum
Master P. FLEA:[Nodding] Master P would fuck us up. How's
Anthony's game? FLEA: He shouldered me in the face really
good once when we played basketball. SMITH: He's a wildman.
He'll defend you like a fucking wet rag. He's all over
you, like [emits primal animal scream, accompanied by
flaying arms]. Frusciante excuses himself early; he's
working on his third solo record, and he's finding it
hard to carry on a conversation when all he can think
about is the mastering process. Smith and Flea amiably
trade stories about their children and touring with Nirvana
in South America. Flea describes a dream he had in which
he was swimming, then got on land and took a bus, where
he had sex with Foxy Brown; whom he says he isn't particularly
attracted to when awake. Smith says, "I thought you said
Foxy Brown is nasty?" "I'm attracted to Lil' Kim," insists
Flea. "Lil' Kim is the one I'd like to take out to dinner."
After dessert and the belly dancer, Flea lingers in the
parking lot, chatting in the chilly spring air. He shows
me his automobile, dubbed "the clown car" - it's a 1989
Mercedes with every panel elegantly painted a different
colour. "I just thought it would be a cool piece of art,"
Flea says. Lately he's been having second thoughts. his
11-year-old daughter, Clara, used to love it, but now
she asks to be dropped off a block away from school.
Anthony Kiedis lives in an apartment building not
far from Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. When I'm buzzed
in, he and the band's tour manager are working out the
itinerary of the Peppers' upcoming American tour. They've
spent most of the last year playing outside the States,
just recently returning from Japan and Australia. This
summer they'll play major American cities, but first they're
visiting smaller ones like Chattanooga, Tennessee - towns
they haven't played since they all packed into a blue
Chevy van. Kiedis wants to make sure the band stays in
places where the local colour hasn't all been "homogenised
into Styrofoam." He sits on his couch with an atlas in
his lap, licking his fingers as he flips through the pages,
trying to determine where the band members should sleep
IF they play in State College, Pennsylvania. "One hundred
ninety-nine miles to Philadelphia? OK, let's stay In Pittsbutgh,
then jam down to Roanoke." They finish the planning and
Kiedis stands up. He's shorts and a sweater with red and
black stripes. "You want a beverage?" he asks. "A soda
pop? A glass with ice?" The answer to all three questons
is yes, so as the road manager leaves, Kiedis glides to
the kitchen. Onstage, he's prone to flailing around; in
his apartment his motion is subdued and economical, as
if he has spent four decades learning to get from point
A to point B without wasted movement. The apartment is
pleasant but lacks any particular signs of Kiedis' personality.
"I accidentally sold my old house," he explains. "A few
years ago, I wasn't feeling myself and wanted a clean
slate." He put his house on the market, thinking it would
take about a year to sell. But a week later, a buyer had
written a cheque. When Kiedis came back from a trip, he
found his stuff had been put in storage, where it has
stayed while he bounces from place to place.
Hovering around is a tall woman with short blond hair
and a tight candy-pink shirt; this is Yohanna, Kiedis'
girlfriend of 18 months. While we talk, she makes phone
calls in the bedroom. He glows as he speaks about her
and how they met: She was a hostess at the trendy New
York eatery Balthazar; and he was smitten the moment he
saw her. The first year the relationship was long-distance,
but now she lives with him. Kiedis, Smith and Flea are
all 37 years old; their birthdays are within two weeks
of one another. Smith and Flea have had children, though;
does Kiedis think of settling down and starting a family?
He swallows. "Well, yes and no. I'm so in love with kids,
it's always in the back of my mind. But it scares me -
I've lived my life as such a solo flyer. I'm afraid of
the responsibility: Suddenly, I can't just run off. With
a partner, I feel like I'm signed up, but you know, there's
always a mysterious back door. If I had to jump out of
this plane, "I'm pretty good parachuter." Between legs
of the tour, he's been hanging out with Yohanna by the
ocean in such locales as Bali and Hawaii. "I'm a fairly
pathetic surfer" he says, laughing. He loves the water;
although he runs and mountain-hikes, his favourite exercise
is swimming. We talk about Kiedis' hair.' For years, one
of the band's trademarks was him whipping around his long
dark mane. Since 1998, however, it's been short and blond.
Kiedis reports that now girls are more comfortable talking
to him and less likely to think he's "some kind of a weirdass
hippie that they'd rather live their lives without ever
knowing." Did he change his hair because of some event
in his life? Kiedis mulls the question. "I didn't think
that at the time. But, yeah, I was definitely going through
a change. I had decided to be clean. It was a whole new
era for myself and my band." When Kiedis finishes a sentence
on a topic that makes him uncomfortable, he punctuates
it with a half-smile, indicating his relief at having
completed the thought. "I'm such an idiot when it comes
to analysing my own situations," he apologises. "I've
never had much time for looking at myself and seeing how
things have developed or why" Kiedis and Slovak both nursed
heroin habits through the '80s. Kiedis was even thrown
out of the the band for a month in 1986 because of his
addiction. When Slovak died, Kiedis cleaned up, although
he has frequently relapsed. Most recently, after a motorcycle
accident in 1997, Kiedis' prescription painkillers led
him back to heroin. He says he's staying clean now, and
I ask what he's learned from his previous attempts. He
sighs. "You would think there would be some coherent answer.
I have spent so many of my years under the influence of
drug addiction that it's probably genetically encoded
in every cell of my body. I know that it stopped adding
anything positive to my experience years ago. So, you
know, I don't take any of my clean time for granted. It's
all been wonderful." Talking about himself, Kiedis often
lapses into platitudes. So he recounts his battles with
heroin in a way that seems to hide all struggle, pain
and darkness. Some might regard this as deceptive - Kiedis
trying to put the best face on his own life. But it seems
much more the case that he's describing the person he
wants to be. And year by year, he comes closer to actually
being that man.
Kiedis' lyrics for Californication do include his funk-sex
stomps, but more than ever, he's writing stories of loneliness
and remorse, like the single "Scar Tissue". Three songs
refer to marriage. Kiedis says he doesn't know the specific
number but is aware that his commitment to Yohanna has
been emerging in various lyrics. The sun is setting over
the cloudy hills of Hollywood; the room grows dark, and
Kiedis' face becomes dim in the shadows. I ask him what
the most rock-star thing about him is, and he draws a
blank. His bank account is large, he concedes. "I bought
my family houses, I drive expensive cars," he says. "I
never see bills or worry about money. I'm probably the
wrong person to ask this. He trails off, with no half-smile,
still contemplating. "Yohanna!" he calls. His girlfriend
strolls in from the bedroom and turns on the lights. "What's
the most rock-star thing about me?" She thinks for a moment,
then answers, "Your teeth." Kiedis flashes his molars
and bicuspids In a wide grin, and they do shine brilliantly.
I excuse myself to use the bathroom; when I return, the
couple is in a standing embrace, kissing gently.
Chad Smith's House is halfway up a steep slope in
the Hollywood Hills, where sometimes random deer will
stare down oncoming traffic. Smith gives me a tour of
his airy, comfortable home: The swimming pool in the back
yard with a child-safety fence around it, the collection
of photographs. We end up in the living room, which has
a drum kit and a blazing fire. Smith gets us Heinekens,
lights a cigarette and unfolds his lanky body on the couch.
He's wearing a New York Yankees cap backward, although
his team is the Detroit Tigers. He grew up in Michigan,
where he was fired by multiple employers, including a
paint company (screwed up a big order), a Gap (never mastered
the sweater fold) and a pancake house (spilled a vat of
maple syrup). All he wanted to do was play drums, beginning
at age seven, when he pounded on Baskin-Robbins ice-cream
tubs. After "barely graduating" from high school, he played
with a slew of bands, most starting with the letter T:
Tilt, Tyrant, Terence. One of them, Toby Redd, put out
a record; when they opened for Kansas, Smith discovered,
to his wonder and delight, that there was free food backstage
at rock concerts. After Toby Redd broke up, Smith headed
out to LA; in 1989 he auditioned for the Chili Peppers,
and he has been cheerfully sitting in the drummer's seat
ever since, the band's steadiest member. "I'm not tortured,"
he says. "I wasn't a drug addict, and I didn't lose my
shit." As the drummer, Smith has had the easiest time
of it when the Peppers go onstage in outlandish costumes
- giant light bulbs, hats spouting flames - since he can
keep his balance by remaining seated. There's nothing
quite so extreme on their current tour: On the European
leg, the band started out wearing matching embroidered
orange jumpsuits in the style of Afropop star Fela but
ditched them as too uncomfortable. The Chili Peppers'
most famous costume - nothing at all except for white
athletic socks over their schlongs - has been retired,
at least for a while. "We've done it so many times," groans
Smith. "it's like putting the Kiss makeup back on. Give
us $100 million for the reunion tour of 2022 we'll do
it in every town. You won't be able to see the sock under
our fat bellies, but it'll be on".
If the Chili Peppers were a smell, what would it be?
SMITH: A 12-year-old girl's bicycle seat. KIEDIS: An amalgamation
of our own strong body odours. Flea and I, we can generate
some absolutely skunklike confrontation. Neither of us
is afraid to smell as strong as we possibly can. FLEA:
A dog - funky but cosy at the same time. FRUSCIANTE: Purple.
I Visit John in the hills, about 20 minutes from
Smith's place. It's a modest rented house: two rooms plus
a sleeping loft. The living room is essentially empty,
except for a TV set, posters of Andy Warhol movies and,
tucked away in a corner, an original of Marcel Duchamp's
"Museum in a Box".
Frusciante spends most of his time in the other room -
crammed with enormous stacks of vinyl records and music
equipment - playing guitar. He used to own a larger house,
he says: "It burned down, and then it was rebuilt, and
then I moved into it, but I stopped paying for it. And
eventually it was taken away from me. I almost saved it
- my lawyer got me the money to get it back. But it was
sold the day I got the money. That was fine with me, because
that was 50,000 extra bucks I could spend on heroin?"
His management wants him to buy another house now; for
tax reasons, but he likes these two small rooms: He has
evetything he needs, and it's easier to control the temperature.
Frusciante's slacks hang low around his waist, and he
wanders around his home with the distracted air of a scientist
mulling an unfinished experiment. When he talks, it's
in a slurred drawl, often with pauses and backtracks,
like he's not used to sharing what's inside his head -
at least not as sentences. He spends hour after hour in
his music room, just playing guitar. That's where his
thoughts flow pure and free. While recording Californication,
he'd play all day with the band, then come home and continue
playing, by himself. Asked how being a Pepper is different
this time from last time, Frusciante recalls how touring
as an 18-year old let him indulge every adolescent fantasy.
"I was to totally abusing the situation," he says. "But
by the age of 20, I started doing it right and looking
at it as artistic expression instead of a way of partying
and screwing a bunch of girls. To balance it out, I had
to be extra-humble, extra-anti-rock star." He became so
dogmatic in this that he could no longer see any way to
participate in the band and still be an artist. He quit.
Unfortunately, his progress as an artist went backward,
as he spent most of his time consuming heroin. Today,
Frusciante's arms are covered with abscess scars; they
look like they've suffered third-degree burns. He was
taught to shoot up by people who didn't really know how;
when he started getting abscesses, he persisted anyway:
"I just didn't care what was going to happen to me. I
always thought I was very close to dying." Frusciante
thought he would never be able to kick heroin. "When I
was a junkie, I would think, 'How at can I ever stay clean?
I'll always be able to compare it with how it feels to
be on drugs.' And I thought being on drugs was the ultimate
way you could feel. I was so proud to be on them. I love
everything that I felt on drugs, but I can do more justice
to those feelings by trying to re-create them with my
music." He says his scarred arms don't bother him and
that he's recently felt confident enough to start taking
his shirt off onstage again, an essential part of being
a Pepper. "I wouldn't trade them for the way I used to
look," he says. "At 19, I might have looked like a stud,
but I was a weakling inside. I wasn't proud of who I was
then. And now I'm proud of who I am." Frusciante debuted
most of the songs for his upcoming solo album in his living
room, in impromptu concerts for friends: "A couple of
years ago, I could only make people feel sad. That was
the only ability I had. So it means everything to me to
be able to sit down and sing and play guitar and make
whoever I'm with feel good."
Flea pulls into his driveway in the clown car; with
him is his daughter, Clara, whom he has picked up from
school. She's fresh-faced, with long red hair and bell-bottoms.
She runs into the house and spots a stack of DVDs in the
living room. "Can I watch a movie tonight, Papa?" she
asks. "Don't you have homework?" Flea counters. A brief
negotiation ensues; apparently, all of Clara's school
work right now is for long-term projects. "Work on the
speech for an hour," Flea tells her, "and then you can
watch a movie." He has a friendly joint-custody agreement
with his ex-wife, who lives just down the road. Flea's
sprawling home has a lot of dark-wood walls; he enjoys
the hunting-lodge look. "I've been living in nice places
for sometime now,", he says. "And I never take it for
granted. I walk around and grab the walk and say, 'This
is mine. I don't have to worry about anyone taking this."
"Wanna see my room?" says Clara, sharp and self possessed.
She leads me through a hallway covered with photographs
of Flea's heroes, including Miles Davis and Billie Holiday,
to her own room. It's large and white and has a door leading
directly to the pool outside. She's decorating it with
magazine pictures of Blink182, Christina Aguilera and
Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst. Next she shows me Papa's room,
demonstrating the feature she truly envies: a remote-control
fire place. "He's the spoiled kid," she says affectionately.
Back in the kitchen, Flea is making us dinner:turkey sandwiches
and some steamed asparagus and broccoli. He's wearing
a rust-orange sweater, black vinyl pants and loud blue-and-yellow
Adidas. He loves to cook, although he freely admits that
his enthusiasm outstrips his skills. "Can I have this,
Papa?" Clara asks, holding a box of chicken-flavoured
rice. Flea casts a critical eye over the ingredients -
there are a lot of artificial flavours - but agrees and
gets some more water boiling. Flea was born in Australia;
his family moved to the US when he was four. He recently
got American citizenship, although he expects to eventually
retire Down Under. Asked whether he considers himself
American or Australian, he says, "Neither. I'm Hollywoodian."
Flea started off playing trumpet,' he didn't pick up a
bass until around age 8. "I liked Dizzy Gillespie. I didn't
know anything about rock music. Once I had a notebook
and I wrote 'Styx' and 'David Bowie' on the cover, but
I had no idea who they were. But before I ever played,
I visualised myself making the bass as exciting as any
guitar player, jumping around going crazy." Flea's lickety-split
finger-popping has won him numerous awards and accolades;
lately though, his style has matured, becoming more melodic.
As we talk, three cats (Peppy, Angel and Froggy) and two
dogs (a walrus like one named Martian and a smaller one
named Laker) wander around the kitchen. Clara tells me
she named them all; Flea objects, saying he named Laker.
"No, you wanted to call him Ankles," she says. Dinner
is served. The rice has come out soupy; Flea says that's
how it's supposed to be, but Clara persuades him to strain
it. At the table, Clara starts eating while reading an
Archie comic. Flea bows his head to pray. "You don't have
to wait for me to finish praying," he says. "Nobody else
does." After we eat, Flea shows me the bungalow where
he's working on his solo album; then we retire to the
TV room. There's an enormous projection set, used almost
exclusively for Lakers games. We talk about Californication.
The making of the album was not a happy time for Flea.
He was breaking up with his girlfriend of five years and
taking it hard: not sleeping crying a lot, wanting just
to curl up in the foetal position. Every day he'd focus
his energy on getting it together enough to show up at
the studio, knowing he'd find solace in the music. Which
he did but every 20 minutes or so, he'd have a panic attack
and find himself covered in sweat. The one consolation
for Flea after these bleak months is that he knows he's
confronted his sorrow. The last time he went through this,
when he split up , with Clara's mother, in 1990, he handled
it differently. "I just got high and got laid and forgot
about it", he says. And this time, I didn't go be with
other girls - I dealt with it. I dealt with the most cold,
empty feeling I could ever imagine. I walked through the
pain. After one recent show in Italy, Flea stood on the
side of the stage sobbing, his body wracked with grief.
On occasion he's found his daughter taking care of him.
"In Australia, I was crying one day", he says, "and she
said, 'Look, Papa, I don't know why you're so sad, but
no matter what, it's going to be OK. You're such a good
person'. It was an amazingly touching thing". Now that
he's feeling better, Flea is trying to abandon all his
superstitions. He used to have a host of them: taking
six steps when walking out of the kitchen, never wearing
black underwear, not leaving a book on the bed because
the ideas might leak out of the pages and into his psyche.
"I was trying to do all these little things to prevent
myself from being hurt," he says. "It's basically losing
trust in the universe. Now I'm not afraid of anything.
Every day now I pray: 'Bring it on.'" In a band where
sensitivity has steadily triumphed over had behaviour,
Flea is the prince of being in touch with his emotions.
"There's all this angry, screaming metal now," he says.
"It's part of a thing that we started, in a lot of ways.
This funky sound with rapping and guitars has been turned
into something very boring: right wing, redneck bulishit.
It was always funny to me,the way the Chili Peppers were
perceived as this macho-jock thing. We took off our shirts
a lot, and Anthony wrote a lot of songs about sex. But
I feel like the music is frequently feminine. I've always
been, like, the girly-boy. I'm just a sensitive little
fuck, you know?" The Day Of John Frusciante's Thirtieth
birthday, the Chili Peppers gather for band business and
a photo shoot. Flea shows up wearing a shirt on which
he has written "Martian + Laker with a magic marker. "I
thought I was going to write something really profound,"
he says with a shrug. "But I just ended up with my dogs's
names. Kiedis arrives and gives Frusciante a hug. During
breaks, the band huddles around a TV, watching the Lakers
dispatch the Miami Heat. Flea kneels on the carpet, about
a foot from the screen, completely focused, "Normally,
at the game, I don't even want anyone talking to me,"
he says. The band and a couple of staffers surprise Frusciante
with a chocolate cake and a vigorous "Happy Birthday",
Kiedis' baritone booming. Frusciante turns red and puts
his hands over his mouth. In three tries, he blows out
the candles, to much applause. Speech, speech!" calls
Smith. Frusciante considers this and takes a step backward.
"Ummmn, nah", he declines. "I'll make a speech for him!"
Flea volunteers and switches into a deep, nineteenth-century-orator
voice. "On this day....", the room dissolves into laughter.
The affection for Frusciante, the band's some-times-wayward
little brother, is palpable. "Coming into early teenagerhood,"
Flea says, "Anthony and me and some close friends, we
really raised each other." The Red Hot Chili Peppers were
brought together by friendship, pulled apart by heroin,
reunited by music. They all still live a 10-minute drive
away from one another; after 17 years as a band they find
themselves an improbable but inseparable family.
(This interview was sent to me by Craig
- Thank You!)
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