interviews

this page was updated on 2014.08.14 @ 23:51:12 CDT

Dave Navarro
by Michael Clark
Frontera - #3, Summer 1996

"Do I know Frontera?" asks an excitable Dave Navarro, the current Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist. "I subscribe to it, and El Decapitado. "Really?", questions a gullible writer. "No," laughs Navarro, "I've never heard of Frontera, but I do read El Decapitado. It's a Spanish language magazine about severed heads sold in a Spanish or Mexican supermarket near my house.

And with that, any illusion that this is going to be an easy interview is destroyed. Of course, for the music fan who likes his guitar heroes to be a tad quirky, a little off-balance and with a wit that could cut glass, this is exactly the response you would hope for.

Five years ago, Navarro, the once heroin-addicted, hard-living lead guitarist for the sensual Goth-rock outfit Jane's Addiction, was not of such good humor. Instead of jokes, thoughts of suicide permeated his mind. Two bands, two albums and four years of sobriety later, Navarro, the latest in a long line of Chili Pepper guitarists, is back on top of the modern rock world.

The Chili Peppers re-launched their North American tour in February (last year's tour was canceled when drummer Chad Smith broke his wrist) and will barnstorm the country all summer playing songs from their latest release One Hot Minute, an album unlike any of the Chili Pepper's previous releases, as a result of Navarro's contribution.

When Navarro joined the band in 1993, many naysayers thought he'd be just another six-string casualty in the Chili Peppers line-up, a novelty act that would probably last longer than Jesse Tobias' couple weeks with the band, but less time than John Frusciante or original guitarist Hillel Slovak. Navarro fueled the flame by saying he didn't really like funk music, the band's foundation, and didn't know any of the songs. Now, over two-and-a-half years later, Navarro seems more eager then ever to prove that he and the Chili Peppers (drummer Smith, lead singer Anthony Kiedis, and bassist Flea) are together for a lasting partnership. "The honeymoon's about to kick in," says Navarro by phone from his famed Addams Family-style home in Los Angeles. "In a marriage the people have known each other and formed relationships. The day I joined the Chili Peppers we started forming relationships, so the honeymoon is still coming."

Marriage as a metaphor in this case has never been so appropriate. In order for Navarro, 28, to find happiness he had to divorce himself from a Los Angeles childhood during which he witnessed the murder of his mother and aunt at the hands of his mother's ex-lover. The incident became the open wound that gushed with Navarro's pain-darkened music. To relieve the pain when the music couldn't, Navarro turned to drugs and away from education. He attended Notre Dame High School, a private Catholic school in the San Fernando Valley, before being asked to leave for "bad grades, long hair and questionable ties to the Los Angeles drug community," he says.

"I remember the dean called me into his office and asked me once, 'Dave, why is it that when somebody wants drugs at this school they go to you and Steve (Perkins, a former classmate and band mate in Jane's Addiction who is now the drummer for Porno For Pyros)?'" says Navarro. "I said, 'I don't know, but that Steve is a bad apple."

Looking at his dark black hair and goatee, background as a Catholic school boy, and status as everything from a sex symbol to a guitar influence among Latinos and Latinas, one might get the impression that Navarro is part of an extended Latino family and heritage. In reality, his ties to any community are somewhat blurry. A self-described cultural "mutt", Navarro lists Italian, French, Dutch and Indian, in addition to Spanish, as his personal melting pot genealogy. But his real roots lie below the Hollywood Hills, which is the first link between Navarro and the rest of the Southern California-raised Chili Peppers. "I was born and raised here," says Navarro of Los Angeles, the band's breeding ground.

By the time he met up with Jane's Addiction, Navarro was also very much on his own. Jane's was everything the Chili Peppersare not: dark, moody, atmospheric, and the aural equivalent of a tab of acid. Jane's Addiction crossed over to mainstream radio with the album Ritual De Lo Habitual, in the late '80s, right before Navarro's heroin addiction reached a breaking point. According to Navarro, before the first date of the debut Lollapalooza tour in 1991, he tried to commit suicide in his hotel room. Later that day he got into a physical confrontation with Jane's front-man Perry Farrell. The band limped through the tour, but disbanded soon after.

"There's no bad blood between me and anybody from (Jane's Addiction)," says Navarro with strategic emphasis that implies not all is well between some of the other members. He has spoken with all his former band mates and even made an album under the name Deconstruction with former Jane's bassist Eric Avery, which came out in '91. In fact, it was this project that almost kept the world from hearing the synergy between Navarro and Flea, who plays off Navarro's improvisational riffs, or Anthony Kiedis, whose voice competes with Navarro's dominating guitar.

In hindsight, the lives of Navarro and the Chili Peppers were too parallel to not come crashing together at some point. Of course it took five guitarists and 10 years to get there. The Red Hot Chili Peppers began as the bass-heavy minglings of a bunch of high school buddies raised on Parliament Funkadelic, jazz and Southern California punk. The original line-up, featuring Kiedis, Flea, Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons (now with Pearl Jam), stayed together for five years and three albums, until Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988. The band stood on shaky ground after that as Irons quit and Kiedis started cleaning himself up from his own heroin addiction. In 1989 the band hired drummer Chad Smith, a Michigan native just like Kiedis, and guitarist John Frusciante. The Chili Peppers had their first major radio success with the funked-up cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," from the Mother's Milk album. It was a precursor to the all-encompassing, chart-topping plateau the band would reach with BloodSugarSexMagik in '91, in the form of the funk-rap song "Give It Away" and the ballad, "Under the Bridge."

With fame comes a high-profile and a schedule exhausting enough to make anyone want to run and hide. On a tour date in Japan, shortly before the band was to take the stage, Frusciante said he was going to do just that and quit for stress-related reasons. The Chili Peppers were back to square one: they needed a guitarist, except this time the eyes of the music industry and many new fans were upon the band. With one tour ruined and Lollapalooza on the horizon, the remaining Chili Peppers were pressed to find a new guitarist quickly. They held an unsuccessful open audition hoping the right complement would fall into their laps, and eventually hired ex-Mother Tongue guitarist Jesse Tobias, who they fired weeks later due to personality conflicts.

They also wooed Navarro, who turned the offer down. "They asked me and I simply told them that I couldn't because I was in the middle of Deconstruction," says Navarro about why he didn't initially join the Chili Peppers. "I had just done Lollapalooza the year before and didn't want to do it again, and I didn't feel comfortable just playing guitar without being part of the creative process."

Arik Marshall, a journeyman guitarist, joined the Chili Peppers for the Lollapalooza tour, but he was dumped soon after, leaving the door open for Navarro one more time.

"They trapped me," laughs Navarro of his impending induction into the Chili Peppers in Sept. '93. "Flea, Henry Rollins, Stephen Perkins and I all were jamming together and Flea asked me if I wanted to jam with Chad. I met with them and as we were playing Anthony walked in. We took a cigarette break and they asked me to join." Navarro had finished Deconstruction, and the Chili Peppers were ready to write a new album. It was the perfect chance to join the band, but first he had to play one small gig; sort of a hazing, if you will.

Navarro's first appearance with the Chili Peppers was the now-infamous Woodstock '94 show, dressed as a light bulb and playing to thousands in the audience and millions of TV viewers. "It's like being in a cover band with all the original members," says Navarro of playing the Chili Peppers back catalog of songs, some of which, like "Backwoods" and "Freaky Styley", he had grown very fond of and made his own. Still, it was the creative process and writing that interested him most.

The band spent three months in Hawaii hanging out, getting acquainted, and writing what would become One Hot Minute. Navarro publicly professed his dislike for funk after joining the group, but was stillable to contribute to old-style favorites as well as cuts with an altogether different flavor. "When we were making the record there were songs that I wasn't thrilled with," says Navarro. "But I think there were songs I liked that they weren't thrilled with either. It's part of making friends and compromises."

One Hot Minute is a Chili Peppers career summation. Listeners are reminded of the slap-happy toasting vocals and chunky funk of the band's early work on "Walkabout" and "Warped." Songs like "My Friends," "Aeroplane" and "Tearjerker" represent theeasy-to-sing choruses that have facilitated the Chili Peppers' phenomenal rise to fame. The rest of the album explores new territory with songs like "Deep Kick," "One Big Mob,' and "Coffee Shop," which focus solely on the rock-oriented bombast of Navarro's guitar and the machismo of Kiedis' voice. As is custom, nothing is ever easy for the Chili Peppers. Just as One Hot Minute was delayed a year because of artistic stagnation, the tour was delayed nearly that long because of physical affliction. Originally scheduled to begin last summer, that tour was canceled because of Chad Smith's arm injury.

Their latest tour show was more docile than the mosh-pitting, naked-strutting club dates the band was famous for. Scripted from start to finish, the spontaneity that made it a cult phenomenon has given way to big success and arena showmanship. That's not to say the Chili Peppers' fan base is dwindling; it's just more buttoned-down. On a stop in San Francisco this spring, the band thrilled a sold-out crowd with live favorites like "Give It Away" and "Suck My Kiss," with breaks for ballads and plenty of improvisation from Navarro on many of the One Hot Minute songs. Navarro, never one to follow the rules, broke into Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" when Flea was going to sing some punk, and meandered into his own dark roots between songs by playing riffs by The Cure and The Velvet Underground. It's not exactly the "socks for jocks," zaniness the old Chili Peppers were known for, but, as far as Navarro is concerned, that may have been the point.