interviews

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Red Hot and Rugged
The Chili Peppers Prove the Strong Survive. And Thrive.
by Karyn Bryant with Rich Hoxsey
Smoke - Summer 1996

"Nice car! Can I drive it?" grinned Red Hot Chili Pepper vocalist Anthony Kiedis impishly to my friend, who stood transfixed by his Count Dracula-cum-Cool Hand Luke sex appeal. The car, a brand new 1989 Nissan 200SX, had yet to lose that eau de auto nouveau fragrance the salesmen spray on the upholstery when you drive one out of the lot. Hypnotized, my friend reached into her pocket and slipped her keys (wink, nudge) into his hands.

They sped away from the WBRU radio station parking lot, where I was radio programmer, leaving me along with dynamo Pepper bassist Flea, and Tree (an occasional Pepper back-up musician) to follow their trail of dust through the hilly streets of Providence, Rhode Island. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had just released Mother's Milk, and were on the northeast leg of their tour. "Shotgun!" exclaimed Flea, as we piled into my friend Todd's car.

Todd talked about it for weeks. "I can't believe Flea rode shotgun in my car!" he would stutter like a hyperactive three year-old with $20 to spend in the candy shop. My other friend--the one who was driven by Anthony--floated around the Brown campus for a month with a starry, doe-eyed glaze on her face. True to their image, the Red Hot Chili Peppers left a lasting impression. They've got KA-RAZZ-MA!

It had been a while since I had seen the Red Hots, and I caught up with them briefly at the Madison Square Garden show supporting their newest release, One Hot Minute, and interviewed them each separately later. At the show, where Anthony, Flea (who's real name is Michael Balazary, if you must know, but he's been 'Flea' for so long he has to check his driver's license to make sure), drummer Chad Smith, and guitarist Dave Navarro (a Jane's Addiction alumnus), had just successfully whipped a sold-out arena into a funked-out, sweaty, hedonistic frenzy. Backstage was a busting media event, replete with MTV crews, rock icon Iggy Pop, and scenester hangers-on.

After years of following the Chili Peppers' career, I thought I was over my schoolgirl crush. Maybe it was the post-show adrenaline still running rhough my veins, maybe it was Flea's and Anthony's general lack of of shirts, maybe it was Chad's sparkling blue eyes, maybe it was Dave's blood-wine velvet smoking jacket--I soon found myself sucked in by their allure. They had come a long way since they redefined the words 'tube sock,' and much of their mercurial goofiness has made way for a more suave, brooding honesty. They are, collectively, pop music's new Chairmen of the Board.

Their self-titled debut in 1984 first introduced us to a wildly frenetic energy driven at its core by childhood friends Anthony and Flea. They released Freaky Styley in 1985 and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan in 1986, with soulmate and guitar impresario Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons. Here, Flea began to develop his signature slappy bass lines--no doubt due to some influence of funk-legend George Clinton, who produced Freaky Stylely.

Hillel died tragically in 1988 of a drug overdose, and Flea and Anthony were left to continue with the Chili message after Irons' subsequent resignation from the band. Chad and John Frusciante joined in 1989 to produce Mothers' Milk and the wildly popular Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which went triple platinum, selling over 3 million copies domestically, and over 6 million worldwide. As the group's popularity snowballed, they landed the top spot on the Lollapalooza spectacle.

Guitarist Dave Navarro found his way into the Red Hot lineup after his stint with Jane's Addiction, pillars of the burgeoning LA music scene that, along with the Peppers, helped define 'Alternative' in the early '90s (Jane's was possibly the Dr. Jekyll to the Pepper's Mr. Hyde.) Though, to some, Navarro's move from one LA powerhouse to another may seem natural--the two bands had jammed together in the past--the difference in band dynamics presented somewhat of a hurdle. Said the notoriously gregarious Flea, "When Dave joined the band, I knew him, but it wasn't like we were friends. You know, he's a West Side boy and I'm a punk rocker from Hollywood. The West Side was all rich kids!"

From his room at the ultra-hip Royalton hotel in New York, I spoke with Navarro, whom I hoped might still be wearing the super-suave smoking jacket from the backstage party. When asked how he prepared himself for the transition, Dave replied, "If you expect too much you get let down, and if you don't expect enough then you're sometimes bashed in the head with surprise. So I kind of let it unfold as it did."

Finding a frequency band members can communicate on as people and artists is crucial to the success of any group, and it is obvious the Peppers are all on the same page with One Hot Minute. Flea recalls, "It was a drag for a while. We were suckin' for months. At first, I wanted [Dave] to do what I wanted him to do, and he wanted me to do something else. Then I was trying to do something he'd like, and he'd do likewise. Finally, we relaxed, did our thing, and let it create what it created. We became sensitive to each other's feelings."

"For me, it was really weird," admits Dave, "and, I guess, hard. I was with Jane's Addiction for many years, and we were together as a band long before we ever made a record. We knew each other inside and out: musically, socially, emotionally, and creatively, for that matter."

Dave continues, "When I joined the Chili Peppers, I sat down with them the very first day, and they're like 'Okay, let's write the record.' I had never just sat down with a group of people to write a record. It felt a little stressed, and it lacked the organic quality that I was used to, and in that sense it was difficult. But I think we pulled it together."

Drummer Chad Smith recalls a period of checking out Navarro's style and fit with the band. "Dave's a pro who joined with experience," says Chad. "As far as recording, his style is different. He uses the studio as a tool for different textures and experimentation." Indeed, the added layers and hues Navarro has brought to the team can be heard on One Hot Minute tracks like, "My Friends," and "Warped."

Chad admits, "it was hard [making One Hot Minute], not because of pressures related to previous recordings, but in terms of trying to feel comfortable with the new guy. No matter who he is, it's a difficult thing to do. It's something I went through recording Mother's Milk; you're sort of thrown into Pepper-world."

Flea adds, "Dave's got his own thing going on, and it's a lot different than we've ever been, or are, as musicians or players. We just come from different places musically. I'm into funk and weird jazz, and he's into total white rock music. We're just totally different people, and listen to totally different music, and that creates something new."

The adjustment period pressures also affected Anthony, who adds, "the record was probably harder to write than any other record just 'cause we were going through a major transition as a band. We had no time schedule; we really didn't care how long it took: we just wanted it to be good, so we waited until it was. Then it was done."

Ultimately, however, his greatest pressure was self-inflicted. "I think I've felt it since the first record we ever made. It's not an outside pressure coming from anybody other than myself. I always feel pressured to write something stunning and amazing just because I feel like I'm playing with the best band in the world, and I better fucking do my part to hold up my end of the fort. And it just comes down to four guys wanting to make really good songs and play really well. [Then, to] be loved by people and make people happy."

The broader nuances packed into One Hot Minute are like a sampler from a music critic's encyclopedia of contemporary style. Punk, funk, rock, tribal rhythms, cartoony '80s pop, and spacey jazz-fusion, mix with candidly frank lyrics on an album that should be played at a volume a fraction below the point where speakers are blown. Dave's shimmering guitar work coupled with Flea's rolling, pounding bass belie the lyrics on "Warped," the band's first single. This cut, which may be described as a postscript to the group's 1991 smash "Under the Bridge" documents a darker time in Anthony's life, when the grim spectre of drug addiction wreaked havoc on his spirit.

"My tendency for dependency/is offending me/It's upending me/
I'm pretending, see/To be strong and free/from my dependency/
It's warping me."

"There was definite soul searching," says Anthony, "but it wasn't an intentional effort to write something deep or mature or soul searching. It's just what came out."

What does come out of One Hot Minute is an emotional roller coaster ride, from the heart-wrenching "Tearjerker," a somber elegy mourning a dead friend, to the thick, heady rock epic "One Big Mob," which bears the hallmark sound of hte Peppers' classic album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. "I am you are me," thunders the song's opening line, imparting an almost hippie awareness of membership in the human race. "Everything you ever see," sings Anthony, "is never more than you and me/give it on into the beauty of the mystery."

A cut entitled "Aeroplane" captures the tone of an '80s bubble-pop anthem, and the juxtaposition of that sound against the much darker lyrics ("Looking in my own eyes/I can't find the love I want") demonstrates the sweet-and-sour flavor of the entire album. (Flea's daughter, Clara, sings in the chorus and can be seen in the video as well--she's the little red-haired girl up front.)

"Deep Kick," which traces the origin of the Peppers' early days, also defines their unyielding spirit. "Lots of things seemed futile/but then love and music can save us and did/...it's better to regret something you did/than something you didn't do." The next track, "My Friends," reinforces this sentiment with the lines, "Imagine me taught by tragedy...To give your love/no matter what." I was happy to hear Pea, a minimalist solo ditty from Flea that the group has performed at shows, make an appearance on the album as well.

Coffee Shop, whose refrain gives a nod to proto-punk giant Iggy Pop, also catches the heavy-handed Iggy spirit so well it sounds like something that might appear on his album, Brick by Brick. "I believe Iggy Pop to be the all-time King of Rock. On a pure, rock-out level, no one gets the ball rolling like Iggy," says Anthony. At the Madison Square Garden show, Iggy stepped up on stage for a redux of The Stooges classic, I Wanna Be Your Dog. As they jammed through the refrain, most off the under-25 crowd were left scratching their heads, while those of us old enough to remember vinyl stood in awe of such a historic synthesis.

The Peppers' hero worship is not limited to rock stars. Mother's Milk included a three-minute paean to hoopster Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers. When I asked Flea and Anthony about Magic's return to the game, they both became very excited. "It's the most exciting thing that has happened to me since the birth of my daughter!" proclaims Flea, known for his near-slavish devotion to Clara. "It so amazing and so great for me. It made me so happy. It seriously just sent me over the moon!"

Taking a more philosophical view, Anthony adds, "Well, I nearly cried, you know, I was happy for myself just on a self-centered, loving-the-Lakers-to-pieces level; because now it's time to win championships again. But also just the message that he was sending to the universe. That powerful of a message that one human could spread to the whole world. That it's OK to be handicapped and still do whatever you want to do, and not throw your life away because you have a disease."

One Hot Minute was expected to bolt straight out of the starting gate, but despite sell-out crowds at their tour dates, the release has not yet garnered the anticpated chart success. I expressed my feeling that although it has sold around 1.5 million copies, One Hot Minute should have been a No. 1 record. "I thought so too! I was wrong!" chuckles Flea, whose analysis of charting and moving units in the record business is akin to that of a master chess player plotting the next move.

"I think it's because a lot of people think we're too arty and pretentious and faggy. They were turned off by the Warped thing (a video that includes a kiss between Anthony and Dave) and the dresses in the next video, (My Friends), and the feminine thing." The Chili Peppers are certainly the captains of their own course as far as art direction and videos are concerned. Both Anthony and Flea were involved in the art direction of the album, as they have been since 1987's Uplift.

The band chooses to press people's buttons and play with their preceptions. Flea explains, "We're not consciously trying to appeal to kids in baggy pants and backward baseball caps, who are supposed homeboys. I call it Down Homie Syndrome--all these white kids running around acting like gangsters, wearing baggy pants and house slippers, playing dominoes. Gimme a fucking break. Taking it on as a style is total fucking artificial bullshit. We're not going to pretend that that's our trip. We're just going to be ourselves." About the record sales, I totally don't give a shit. If Aeroplane becomes a big hit--I don't care. What, do I have to prove to myself that I can sell as many records as Mariah Carey to make myself feel good? Fuck that. If all my money and all the shit I have earned was gone tomorrow, I need to be able to be happy. It's not about that."

Dave is less critical of One Hot Minute's slow start in terms of sales. "My personal opinion is that this is a great record that it's doing great. I have the luxury of having had nothing to do with that last record [Blood Sugar Sex Magik], and I can look at this body of work and say 'This is the most successful record I've ever worked on.' And it is. For me it's fine. Nothing's Shocking (Jane's Addiction's brilliant major-label debut), barely sold a million domestically." The point is, the Peppers have made a great record, and though the general public may not embrace it as quickly as expected or hoped, the band's fanbase continue to expand.

If it seems to you that Chili Pepper fans are getting younger with each record release, they're not. Fans that have stuck by the Peppers since the early days are getting older, making room for the throng of younger fans jumping the band's wagon. The thick beat and high-octane funk factor attract the young, resilient bodies that can navigate mosh pits like the sea of bobbing heads down in front at Madison Square Garden. Away from the front lines, older fans and non-moshers alike can groove on the heavily textured rhythms and lyrics that are cerebral enough to actually listen to. I asked the band about their demographically wide fanbase. "I don't think about it," said Anthony. "For one thing I'm nearsighted, so I don't see anybody's face that clearly. It seems like a very useful bunch of folks coming down to just rock out. And I welcome them."

"Now we've got all these 12- and 13-year-olds coming, and we play Backwoods (from 1987's Uplift) and they're like, 'what is this, a new song? I've never heard this,'" laughs Chad. "We've never done the big arena tour before, and it surprises me how young these kids are. What they know is what's on MTV or the radio, so they only know the last record and the one before. It's frustrating--you want to put on a good show and you want to be exciting--at the same time you want to satisfy yourself musically, and we're trying to walk that line. We want to play new songs 'cause they're more fun to play those with Dave, and he's like 'let's play the old ones.' So we're trying to find a nice balance. There's just no way 12- and 13-year-olds are gonna know all your records." But you can bet that many are willing to learn.

According to Flea, "I think we have a pretty loyal [following]. We will always be able to play live. We could be 80 years old, playing a Red Hot Chili Peppers show, and people would still come. I think we've toured so long and we've put in so much work, that people will always be there for us. I don't know if I'll want to do it 'till I'm 80 years old, but it's nice to know. Even though other bands might sell more records, or get over more critics or MTV or whatever, I feel like the people like us. It's really cool. I feel like there's some sort of connection happening that goes beyond sort of normal media shit."

At the photo shoot, while the certifyably red-hot Peppers mugged for the camera like four tattooed Edward G. Robinsons, I asked the band about their cigar preferences. Chad and Dave admitted they were more avid stogie smokers than either Flea or Anthony; though Flea occasionally partakes. "If I see someone smoking one and it looks good, the mood strikes me," said Flea.

When I spoke with Chad, he quipped, "I think Dave likes to hold contraband, and say like, 'Charlie sent me,' so he can be led up to the special Havana selection. Actually, Louis (Chad's drum technician) is really the one who got me into [smoking cigars]. I like Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, Cohiba--they're strong, so you gotta be in the right mood. I know it's kind of trendy right now, but I really enjoy them during certain activities. Watching the Tyson fight, drinking, gambling; if you get dressed up, it's cool."

As we wrapped up our conversations, I asked each of the Peppers about their thoughts on the band, about what it meant to be Red Hot. "It's an all-time high for us, in terms of just how into it we are," proclaims Anthony. "The spirit of the band," said Dave, "is about brothers and friends having a good time together. It doesn't necessarily need to be verbally acknowledged." For Chad, it's about "...being honest, and open. We're certainly four different personalities, [but] I think we have the same musical goals--and that's our common bond."

"From the get-go," says Flea, "I've known that we've been doing our own thing that no one else does. We've always done it our own way, and we don't sound like anyone else. I feel good about that." Another key, he emphasizes, is "just to try to keep being good, working and going forward."

The appeal of the saucy, spicy Red Hot Chili Peppers' candid, cavalier charm seethes through One Hot Minute, and should be enjoyed like a cigar at an outdoor cafe. Spark it up, kick back and enjoy the flavor. Anthony, though, is more modest: "It's really kind of a never-ending accident. Sometimes it comes out good and sometimes it comes out bad. But the credo is, to thine own self be true. Don't be afraid to express your love on a human level, but also on a creative level. Not giving a fuck about what anybody else has to say about what you do, but yourself."