interviews

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Pepper-Upper
by Dave Navarro
Details - July 1995

Dave Navarro explains how to get ahead, and keep your head in the music business.

CAREER OPPORTUNITIES
I've never filled out a job application, never stood in line for an interview or struggled to write a resume. I never worked in a video store rewinding tapes or in a 7-eleven pouring Slurpees. I admire Eddie Vedder's work ethic, but I'm not sorry I didn't pump gas.

My first paying job was playing guitar at the Troubadour in Los Angeles when I was fifteen and my friend Steven Perkins and I were in a speed-metal band called Dizastre. We got paid thirty bucks, then went out and drank more than we should have. I knew I'd found my career, and I've never considered another.

A couple years later I set Steve up with my junior high girlfriend. Her brother Eric played in a band with a guy named Perry. They called themselves Jane's Addiction and they needed a drummer. So Steve started drumming. Their guitar player was having personal problems (a source of countless job opportunities), so it wasn't long until they needed a guitar player too. That was 1985, the year I stopped going to Notre Dame High School and started playing with Jane's Addiction. It was my first full time job, and personally and professionally it was the most formative experience I've ever had.

GETTING TO NO
After Jane's Addiction broke up just over three years ago, my manager got a call from Guns N' Roses. He said their guitar player Izzy had left the band and they wanted to know if I'd like to rehearse with them. I was eager to play again...but Guns N' Roses? It wasn't exactly my kind of music. Besides, they had a huge organization, much larger than anything I wanted to be tangled up in. You might say I'm used to a smaller office and a staff that you can get to know. To be honest, the whole thing was frightening. My instincts told me no. I followed them.

PLAYING HARD TO GET
People always say it's easier to find a job, when you have one, but I don't agree. I wasn't with a band when Flea called and asked if I'd do the Lollapalooza tour with the Chili Peppers. Here was this energetic, zany group of funksters who wanted me to pack my bags and go on summer tour. I'd been through a heroin addiction and the murder of my mom and my aunt. I was just coming from a darker place. I wasn't sure I wanted to be Pepper. No, but thanks, I said.

Turning down jobs was getting easier, but I was still a bit panicked. I thought it was only a matter of time before people discovered I'm not as good as they thought and then no one would want me in their band again.

Flea called a year later. Did I want to jam sometime? I'd been to the Chili's studio before to jam with Flea and Rollins--why not? A week later I went over there to check out Flea and Chad. So we were just sort of jamming and having a good time...Then Anthony walked in.

I wasn't expecting him. Chad and Flea didn't look surprised. I felt like I was being cornered. I took a step back and scanned the room for emergency exits. "What's going on here?" I stammered. They ignored me. We started playing, with Anthony adding vocals. It sounded good. When we took a break they popped the question. They wanted me to be their sixth guitar player in the thirteen years they'd been together. I was confused. As far as I knew, they'd hired a guitarist--Jesse Tobias--only a month before. But I figured I'd let their personnel department handle that problem.

FITTING IN AT WORK
The night before my first rehearsal with the Chilis, I had the classic first-day-on-the-job quandary: What am I going to wear to work tomorrow? A Lakers jersey seemed a safe bet, but then I started thinking: I am a guitar player, a misfit. I'm not supposed to fit in. I settled on cut-off sweats and a long black T-shirt.

But no matter what, it'd be a long time before I felt like I fit in. The problem was that the Chili Peppers were used to a dry guitar sound, and I had a more active complex sound. I kept trying to adapt to Flea's bass playing, and he tried to adapt to my style. For a while I thought the Chili Peppers would be moving on to guitarist number seven.

But once we stopped anticipating what the other one wanted, the problem solved itself. I decided, though, I needed a reminder of my impermanence, to keep me honest. So I had some guitar picks made with the band logo on one side and the names of all the Peppers guitar players on the other. I'm at the end of the list, after my name there is a question mark. Who knows how long I'll last?

SOMETIMES YOU GOTTA BE A COMPANY MAN
On a personal level, my colleagues and I sometimes baffle each other. Flea and Anthony always ask: What do you do at night? Who do you hang out with? They still haven't figured me out, thank God. I lead a sexually alternate lifestyle (no, I won't elaborate) which sometimes seeps into my performance. My home decor throws them too. The downstairs rooms are painted black and I have an eight by twelve assassination scene on my dining room wall. There's a coffin in the living room. I guess that's pretty weird. Weird for the Pepper camp anyway.

But every gig involves give and take. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the good of the crew. My first major compromise was at Woodstock--my real debut as a Pepper. I hadn't performed in front of an audience that size in years and I was feeling self-conscious about the show. Then they told me about the giant light bulb costumes we'd be wearing. They were hot, impossible to see out of, and ridiculous looking. No one had ever asked me to wear such an asinine costume before, but I sucked it up and toed the company line. I hit the stage as a giant light bulb. I felt like I was melting, but I was virtually unaware of the 250,000 people in front of me. I hid inside the uniform and just started playing. By the time I emerged from the costume my fear had subsided.

COMPANY BENEFITS
So now that I'm in this famous band, I sometimes get treated better than I ordinarily would, and yet there's not one solitary note of Chili Peppers music in stores or on the radio to which I've contributed. Not one peep! Yet I can walk into the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas and ask for the chips with the name of my band on them. I don't, but I could. Maybe I'll wait for the album to come out in September. Until then I'm resting on their laurels, not mine. And I still get company perks.

I don't know whether we have a good health plan; I just go to the doctor and give my accountant the bill. But I do know that we have a great caterer who cooks us nondairy vegetarian dishes. A few years ago I stopped eating meat and started working out. People ask me, "How can a vegetarian who works out smoke?" It's not about health, it's about vanity: I don't want to get fat. Who cares how pink my lungs are--how do I look.

Flea hasn't mentioned a pension or a 401(k) plan, so I guess I'll start saving for the future. You can't play the guitar and go on tour forever. Well, you can, but I can't. Touring is too unsettling for me. When this job has peaked I'm going to try production. Chad and I have been racking up some production and remixing credits on outside projects. Call it moonlighting. It's one of the amazing, liberating aspects of working as a musician.

A few weeks ago a saw an old friend I hadn't spoken to since I joined the Peppers. She asked "So how's the new job?" I told her it's great. But it's also stressful and exciting and weird. Tumult and unpredictability are just a natural part of the business. Three years ago I'd never have guessed that one day I'd be dressed as a light bulb in front of 250,000 people. Who knows? Three years from now I might grow dreads and sign up with White Zombie or be playing back up for a Kriss Kross reunion tour. It beats working at the DMV.