Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante is learning to make brilliant mistakes on his own albums. Lots of them. By Patrick Berkery. Photo by Pamela Littky.
It will take you roughly 15 minutes to read this interview with John Frusciante. In that time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist and his frequent collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer, might record basic tracks for six or seven songs and add percussion overdubs. Maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but such an exaggeration illustrates that, when left to his own devices, Frusciante works quickly and quite often. Half a dozen releases are scheduled to be out by year’s end on the Record Collection label, all of which were recorded, mixed and mastered in a six-month period beginning late last year.
The first release was Frusciante’s fifth solo disc, The Will To Death, which came out in June. Tracked in a handful of mad-dash sessions, the album is purposefully raw without sounding rushed. A psychedelic-rock record that’s heavy on mood and melody, Death leaves plenty of open spaces for the slow-motion beauty of Frusciante’s expressive guitar work. Also arriving under Frusciante’s own name this year are the D.C. EP (recorded with Ian MacKaye and Fugazi’s tech/second drummer Jerry Busher) and the full-lengths Inside Of Emptiness and A Sphere In The Heat Of Silence. You have to wonder where he finds the time.
“I’ve rejected a lot of these things you’re supposed to do when you’re an adult,” explains Frusciante. “I have that opportunity because I make a living as a musician. I don’t watch the news. I don’t read the newspaper. I don’t follow politics. I don’t invest my money. For me, life is listening to music, watching movies, reading books and playing with my musical equipment, which for me are like toys.”
“I’ve never seen anybody with such a strong creative will,” says Klinghoffer, who’s worked with PJ Harvey, among others. “I can be rather opinionated, and there are very few people that I’ll waver my opinion to; it’s because I believe in what John wants to accomplish.”
With his avant-rock project Ataxia—featuring Klinghoffer and Fugazi bassist Joe Lally—Frusciante issued the largely improvised Automatic Writing in August. A second Ataxia disc (culled from the same sessions) and a boxed set compiling all of Frusciante’s solo albums are planned for next year.
“The whole thing happened so fast that it’s really beyond me,” says Lally of Ataxia. “I’d never done stuff like that. To have a few practices, take it into the studio, then go do a show, I wasn’t even sure where it stood musically. I was so used to years of playing with three guys where we just slaved over the songs. It’s ideal for John because it’s not normally what would happen with the Chili Peppers. I just tried to hold on for the ride.”
At his home in Los Angeles, Frusciante is back in Chili Peppers mode. The band recently completed a European tour and is at work on a new record. Frusciante would just as soon not revisit his mid-’90s exile from the Chili Peppers and the storied bout with heroin addiction that followed. When asked about the circumstances surrounding the four-track shock-therapy vibes of his solo debut, 1994’s Niandra LaDes And Usually Just A T-Shirt, Frusciante immediately sounds pained, hissing, “That album was not recorded when I was a heroin addict. It was released when I was a heroin addict.”
Creating music—whether touring the globe with musical soulmates Anthony Kiedis, Flea and Chad Smith in a modern-rock juggernaut or doing records on the cheap and on the fly with friends like Klinghoffer and Lally—is what makes Frusciante happiest. You can hear it in his hyper cadence when he discusses it. He sounds like a precocious six-year-old on a sugar bender.
“I don’t feel like I could be capable of making music if the little kid inside me wasn’t really strong,” says the 34-year-old Frusciante. “The same thing that makes me excited to listen to an Aphex Twin record is the same thing that made me want to watch Electric Company when I was a little kid. It’s the part of me being open to things, soaking things in and being excited by the world around me.”
Do you find the Chili Peppers’ grind—spending six to eight months making a record, then touring it for 18 months—to be creatively stifling?
I definitely don’t find it stifling because I consider Flea and Anthony’s belief in me to be responsible for the fact that I make music at all. When they wanted me to be in the band again (Frusciante rejoined the Chili Peppers in 1998 after a six-year break), I was totally out of practice as a musician. I was definitely at a low point creatively. Their confidence in me and my ability to make music is what got me writing songs again. But as far as our schedule goes, there are definitely things I don’t like about being on tour for a year and a half. At a certain point, it’s really hard to think of something new to do that you haven’t done before. You start to feel like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Is that schedule the impetus for making all this music in such a concentrated period?
The reason I’m making all this music is that the last five years have been the most creative period of my life. I was kind of backed up in the amount of songs I’d written compared to how many songs I’d recorded. But the songs I did in the last three years I felt were at another level. So when the Chili Peppers were done with the By The Way tour (in November 2003), I said, “This is my chance.” I asked to have a six-month break—and Flea wanted a six-month break—so during that time, I just recorded as many of my songs as I could. And I managed to record about six albums.
You went a couple of years in the mid-’90s, while battling heroin addiction, without making any music, correct?
Around 1997, I had made a couple of attempts at recording music that failed miserably. I expected to be able to do music just because I was me and because I had written these songs. I had basically been writing in notebooks and looking at art books for five years. And then I just expected to be able to go in and play music like it was 1991. And that wasn’t in the cards. What I needed to do was take some time and play along with records for a good six months before I was capable of doing any kind of recording.
It’s no coincidence the albums the Chili Peppers have made since you rejoined the band (1999’s Californication and 2002’s By The Way) have had a more accomplished melodic sense, compared to the more aggressive punk-funk sound of the earlier records.
Yeah, but not just on Californication or By The Way. On (1991’s) Blood Sugar Sex Magik, you had “I Could Have Lied,” “Breaking The Girl,” “Under The Bridge,” all these things. It’s funny when people think I seem to be more of an influence now. Before I joined the band, I read an interview with Flea where he was asked what direction he wanted the Chili Peppers to go in the future, and he said he wanted to start doing things with more chord changes and melodies. Up to that point, they didn’t have any chord changes or melodic things of note. I thought, “That’s an area I understand.” But over the years, Flea and Anthony have come to be as adept at it as I am. A lot of the time, things people think I wrote are really Flea’s.
How do you determine what you keep for solo projects and what you save for the Chili Peppers?
At this point, let’s say I’m playing this really cool guitar part. If it was six months ago, I might’ve written a song over it myself. But now that it’s time to make a Chili Peppers record, I’d rather save it for the Chili Peppers. With the Chili Peppers’ music, I might write the guitar part for the whole song, but I still don’t know where it’s going. Whereas with my music, I write the guitar part, I write the vocal part, I write the words and I know exactly where the song is going. I have a good idea of what it’s supposed to feel like. I’m open to Josh making up a bass line or a drum part. I like that collaboration, but everything has to fit into my visual image of the song. I have a certain sort of aesthetic echo in my head. In the Chili Peppers, I’m more interested in seeing it go in directions I didn’t expect.
What’s the creative process like when you put yourself on such a tight schedule?
Josh and I rehearse really well, and we know the songs inside-out before we go into the studio. It’s not like we’re ever sitting around going, “How are we going to flesh this out?” It’s always so automatic that we know what it should be. I work fast, and everyone around me knows we’re there to do business. Yeah, you can have fun and joke around while we’re eating or while somebody’s setting up, but when it’s time to record, you record. You don’t sit around on the couch watching TV. Everyone knows that we’re there to do music. I’m paying for it, so let’s do it.
How did you hook up with the Fugazi family?
I met them in 1999 when we had just finished making Californication. They were my favorite band and had been very influential on Californication. I started going to their shows, and they were really gracious and accommodating and welcoming. We became friends right off the bat. I’ve probably seen them 25 times since then.
Being such a fan, was it daunting to work with that crew, particularly Ian MacKaye?
With Ian, it was very similar to how it is when I record here in L.A. There wasn’t any bullshit; there wasn’t any wasting time. Ian definitely had a lot to do with me going in the direction I went on The Will To Death. Ian explained that Fugazi’s Red Medicine—to me, that’s their best album, it’s just a masterpiece—cost $10,000 to record. We had conversations that were a big part in leading me to remember that imperfections are something to be proud of. You should work with those things rather than make recording a war against them. I started putting that challenge on myself: “I’m going to do whatever I have to do to make this record for that amount of money. That’s going to be part of the art now.” Ian’s philosophy is that the economics are part of the art. I had grown up with this Rick Rubin (producer of all Chili Peppers records since Blood Sugar Sex Magik) philosophy, which is you spend whatever amount of money you need to spend to make it the best it can be. I don’t believe that anymore. The Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime—a classic record—they recorded it in two days for $2,000. To me, that’s a challenge. Make a great record for $2,000.
How will you reconcile that mindset when you start recording the next Chili Peppers album?
I’ll just compromise and remember that it’s a band and not my solo record. I can’t be rushing people. At the same time, I can’t let these people senselessly waste money. But I think the Chili Peppers have pretty much straightened this stuff out. [When the Chili Peppers recorded new tracks for Greatest Hits last summer], we figured out a way to do the mixing where we weren’t wasting a bunch of money. Previously, the Chili Peppers wasted a lot of money on mixing; it took way longer than it should have.
Do you want to spend your next Chili Peppers break making more solo records and maybe touring?
That’s something Josh and I plan on doing after the next Chili Peppers cycle. When the Chili Peppers have made another record and we tour for it, hopefully by that time I’ll have a lot more records out. Then Josh and I will put together a proper band and do a real tour, doing it the same way we make records. We’d do a lot of shows in a row, and we’d try to get to a lot of places. We’d have a good variety of music to play, so we wouldn’t be playing the same set every night. I imagine there would be a point where I’d say, “I want six months off from the Chili Peppers,” then Josh and I would just get to work.