NAME: Red Hot Chili Peppers
PROGRESS REPORT: Flea opens up about going back to school, the fine art of collaboration, and the Chili Peppers soon to be released new album
Given all the talk about Nirvana reissues, Soundgarden reunions and generalized nostalgia for the ’90s, it only makes sense that we’d also eventually get around to talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even though the Chili Peppers aren’t explicitly a ’90s band (they’ve been releasing records since 1984), they will forever be cemented in my own thirty-something mind as the band I drove to see at Lollapalooza in 1992 (and during whose set I was accidentally punched in the face) and whose music provided a funky augmentation to all the scowly grunge that permeated the first half of that decade. Of all the alterna-acts to strike gold in the early ’90s, the Chili Peppers might have been the least likely to imagine still having a gangbusters career some 20 years later. (To put their success into a crazy perspective, the band’s last album, 2006’s Stadium Arcadium, debuted at number one simultaneously in 28 countries around the world). After a great many of their forebears died, disappeared, or simply threw in the towel, the Red Hot Chili Peppers would go on to sell over 60 million records, due in no small part to the austere musicianship of guitarists John Frusciante and uber-bassist, part-time movie star, and all-around super collaborator Flea, as well as the band’s hit-making partnership with producer Rick Rubin. On August 30th the band will release their 10th studio album, I’m With You, which will presumably continue their winning streak as the world’s most popular band to ever wear stuffed animals for pants or perform live on stage with socks on their penises. We caught up with Flea to discuss the new record and his recent foray into higher education.
Stereogum: How would you characterize the experience of making I’m With You? How was it different from how you guys have worked before?
Flea: Well there are a few huge differences. The number one difference is John Frusciante left the band, and he was a huge part of our creative process for a long time. I’m so grateful for him. He wrote the principal parts for many of our most popular songs, and the parts for many of our most artistically profound songs, which weren’t necessarily popular. He just gave us so much as a songwriter, as a player, as a human being, and just his relationship to music, which is such a beautiful and pure and powerful one, but we took two years off from the band during that time he left, and I didn’t think I’d want to continue the band without him. But once he left, I realized that dealing with this different situation, it seemed like it would be, I just felt so much love for the band, and love for Anthony, I just wanted to keep doing it and once we made that decision I decided to get Josh, so my point is — I kind of went on a big tangent there — a big difference is having Josh Klinghoffer as our guitar player, because he’s a much different guitar player then John. It makes our band move in a completely different direction, you know? We still sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it’s really a lot different. Josh is a very textural, poetic, and sublime musician, and just comes at it from a different angle than anything that we’ve had before. So we’re just reacting to him, and it makes us play different, so we’re just going a different way, and it’s great. Another difference is, during the time off, I went to school. I went to USC for a year and studied music theory, and got into playing the piano because of that — because I needed the piano to do my homework — and so I started playing piano and writing songs on the piano, so it’s just a much different place. Having never played a chordal instrument before, I just always played the bass and trumpet, I started writing songs on piano. A lot of the songs on the record were written on piano. And Josh also writes on the piano, so all this music was coming from the piano and that’s just never happened before. Stuff had been written on the guitar or on the bass. And it’s not just the fact that it’s being written on a different instrument, but you write something on the piano and you have melody and chords and rhythm and bass and all these things that exist within it and then reinterpret it for a rock band, and just the act of the interpretation, like taking something that exists and reapplying it, that act in itself lends a much different energy to what we’re doing. So, those changes are really big for us, you know, aesthetically and emotionally and spiritually; it’s a much different thing, our career has been a series a lives and deaths and rebirths so it’s just like a very … meaningful and rejuvenating rebirth for us.
Stereogum: That’s so wild. You had never played the piano before at all?
Flea: A little bit, but you know just tinkering around.
Stereogum: Well how was the experience of going back to school? I’m of the opinion that everyone could benefit from going back to school for something.
Flea: I sure did. I mean, I only went for a year, so I only just dipped my foot into the academic pool, but I loved it. I loved it so much. I loved being around everyone wanting to learn and everyone being in that academic environment and professors that really knew their shit, cause I smoked pot all through high school — just barely scraped through high school — and then I was just in a rock band. You know, I worked full time jobs, basically doing manual labor until I could make enough money supporting myself as a musician. So you know, it was just so great. I loved it. I would love to go back and study literature and philosophy, things that really interest me. It was so much fun and I really treasure that time.
Stereogum: When you show up there to start taking classes, do people flip out when they realize who you are or do people leave you alone?
Flea: Yea, I think in the very beginning of it there was some … It caused a little bit of a ruckus, but that calmed down once everybody was just trying to get their work done. You really had to pay attention and there was a lot of homework every night. So, I didn’t really have time. In the very beginning there was a little ruckus and everyone was asking me to take pictures with them all the time, but that faded pretty quickly. I mean, it was just really fun, I loved being there and in my own little way, I liked fucking with the system a little bit. Like, when I was in class I would always ask questions and I would curse like, “What the fuck?” and everyone laughed, you know. It was like I spoke in my normal way and people kind of liked it, because I realized you could. It wasn’t like high school where you’d get sent to the principal’s office, the last time I had been to school was high school in 1980.
Stereogum: This new record marks the sixth album you’ve made with Rick Rubin. I’m always interested in the role that a producer plays when working with a band and clearly you guys have a very special relationship with Rick. How does the process usually work with him?
Flea: Well first, we write all the songs. We wrote for a long period of time for this record, I don’t know how long, like nine months or something before we got with Rick. We had written like 60 songs or something. When everything is written we get together with him and play him all the songs and he makes his comments. Just arrangement comments really, or some that he likes, or there might be a few he might not be as crazy about, or whatever, but he makes his comments on the arrangements, or on rare occasions he’ll just say “look that part isn’t good enough, or that part’s really good and you don’t play it long enough. That should be the centerpiece of the song.” We always try all his ideas and usually he’s right. We usually agree with him, though there are rare occasions when we don’t. When we get to the studio he’s there for the basic tracking and he’s there with Anthony for the vocals. They work on the vocals together. The guitar player and myself do all the rest in terms of all the overdubs and stuff, and then he’s involved with the mixes and we all talk about the mixes and make sure we’re all happy with them. The most valuable thing that Rick does is — because we’re so emotionally involved with the music and we write it and we get excited about it and our process is a very emotional one — Rick comes, and it’s not like he’s coming from a cold place, but he’s coming from a removed place, because he wasn’t involved in the writing and he just has that kind of logical organizational mind, when he comes in from another perspective and thinks in a way that we would never think because we’re so close to it, and will suggest things that just seem ridiculous to us, you know? Because it’s so not the line that we were taking on the song and then but over the years we learned that we should always try it no matter what because in the beginning we’ll be like “Fuck, you’re out of your mind, this is a punk rock song, we’re not going to do the pretty part!” or whatever, but we always try it now, and sometimes it’s like the thing that seems so ridiculous ends up being the main thing that takes it from being an OK song to a great song. And I think there’s also just, from working with him for so long, you know we do it pretty quickly now, there’s so little that really needs to be said, there’s just this kind of telepathic communication.
Stereogum: You are also known for being such a master collaborator. You’ve played on a million people’s records and you’ve played in different kinds of bands with different kinds of people doing different kinds of music. Now, having gone and done some serious academic theory study, does it make you want to make music differently? Do you envision going off and making a record of your own?
Flea: I always think that I will, and then I never really do. I don’t know. I actually made a bunch of music by myself during our time off. I’m thinking of how to release it. I was thinking I would put it out somehow and use it to raise money for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, which is a non-profit music school we have here in LA, which is always just a pain in the ass to raise money for. I’m thinking that’s what I’m going to do with it. I did record a bunch of stuff, but the thing that usually stops me from doing that is that I’m a terrible singer. I made a bunch of instrumental music, and it feels really good, but just as a singer I’m not good. I could probably could kind of get by on being kind of vulnerable and charming for a minute, but you can be vulnerable and charmingly bad too. I just really don’t have the pipes you know.
Stereogum: I’m sure there’s an audience out there for it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with releasing a really beautiful instrumental album if you don’t feel like singing.
Flea: I agree. I made some music that I’m very pleased with. I played everything and it’s a lot of different instruments, I like the way it came out a lot and I play it for people who’s opinion I respect, and they always like it. So I’m thinking I’ll do something with it. I recorded all that stuff and then I was busy working with Thom Yorke and the thing I’ve been doing with Damon Albarn … but then the Chili Peppers started up again.
Stereogum: That must be super fascinating. I’ve never talked to Thom Yorke, but I’ve interviewed Damon Albarn a bunch of times. It must be interesting for you as a musician since I’m assuming the experience of working with either of those guys as opposed to the experience of working with your own band would be very different things.
Flea: Totally different, yeah. Bands develop their own weird ways of doing things. So our way…we just have this weird way of going about making songs. We just get in the room and start jamming and sounds start coming out and we like them, whereas, I don’t specifically know the Radiohead process, but in my situation working with Thom, it was interesting because the majority of what we did was perform from his solo record The Eraser, and it was taking music that was mostly electronic and translating it to a live band situation, you know? And it was really fun because of the electronic rhythms that he did, the rhythms don’t have normal human rhythms that we’re used to — at least western culture human rhythms — and so it was really fun to have to make my body move in a different way than it normally would, to make it happen. Thom is just a fucking phenomenal musician, just a brilliant transcendent, musician, just without thought he just fucking shreds, and he’s incredible. It’s just great, it’s so inspiring for me to play with musicians who just shine so hard you know? And Damon too, Damon is a brilliant fucking musician.
Stereogum: Damon Albarn can apparently do basically anything.
Flea: Yes. He’s great. He’s just such a poetic and great musician. And also the thing I’ve been doing with Damon is with him and Tony Allen, who’s the preeminent Afrobeat drummer on the planet, if not the best drummer in the fucking world. And playing with Tony, for me, is a real dream as a bass player and we really kind of came up with some grooves that are really deep I think. Yeah … it’s really fun.
Stereogum: So I’m assuming that for the next year or so you’ll be pretty firmly rooted in Chili Peppers’ world?
Flea: Yeah, the next couple of years I’m going in deep.
Stereogum: I know for a band, when you reach a certain level, the prospect of touring, no matter what you do, is never going to be simple. It becomes a huge production no matter how you go about it. For you guys, how do you keep it feeling fresh, or how do you keep it feeling sort of simple and not like you are all just cogs inserted into a giant touring machine.
Flea: There’s a couple of things, first of all, it is a big production, and the best way to deal with that, at least for us, is to embrace it. We’re playing big places and we have a big fancy light thing happening and you know it’s gonna be this big mega rock show. The bottom line is that it’s really all about the music, and if were just going up and playing by the numbers, playing the exact same way every night, and doing it like that, it would feel very rote, and it wouldn’t be fun … or exciting, I don’t know if fun is the word, because not everything is fun, it can be meaningful and poignant but not necessarily fun, you know? But, for me the most important thing is that when we’re playing live, there’s a lot of room for improvisation and for failure and that we’re risking and trying different things as opposed to just doing what works. We have to stretch out and improvise to the point where we could, and sometimes do, fall flat on our faces. In doing that you have the potential for transcending, having a truly transcendent performance as well, you know? And I think any band that goes out and just plays the same songs the same way every night, you can’t have that same kind of experience. That doesn’t mean emotional and uplifting things can’t happen; it’s just a lot more rare. For us, just getting into the music and letting the music dictate everything is the thing that makes it really beautiful. And then you can really live inside of it and feel like you’re doing something worthwhile.
Stereogum: I’ve seen you play a bunch of times over the years, and I always think that’s true for what you do. It’s always a kind of jam.
Stereogum: You mentioned the music conservatory. What’s going on with that?
Flea: The Silverlake Conservatory of Music is a nonprofit music school. I got the idea to start it and got together with a couple of friends and opened it ten years ago. We have about 700 students.
Flea: It really is amazing. About 300 of the students go for free, and it’s not about being famous or being a rock star, or anything like that, it’s about technique on a particular instrument and learning to play it. We have private classes, we have ensemble classes, orchestra, jazz band, adult choir, children’s choir. We do recitals. The main thing is that we keep getting better and better. We have it pretty dialed in now. We have great teachers, we cover all the orchestral instruments, and all the band instruments. It’s just hard to raise the dough for it. It costs nearly a million dollars a year to run it. So it’s just this constant thing of, you know, trying to get the money together.
Stereogum: It’s a really good thing. I grew up in a place that didn’t have anything like that in our school and I was always so jealous of kids who could learn instruments.
Flea: I went to LA Public schools and back then you could just pick any instrument you wanted and play in the orchestra. Now they cut out all the funding for that and they don’t have it anymore. And … that sucks.
Stereogum: Yeah, it really sucks.
Flea: And for me, I was a really bad kid, you know? I was robbing houses and doing drugs, and into bad shit, I had no interest in even going to school and the only thing I had that gave me some sense of self and sense of discipline and self-worth was going and playing music in school, because I just connected with it and it gave me something to focus on. A path, you know? It extended to all the rest of my life. I know there are a lot of kids out there like me.
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ I’m With You is due 8/30 via Warner Bros. Records.