interviews

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What's So Hot About the Chili Peppers?
by Stuart Coupe
Sunday Age - May 5, 1996

The Red Hot Chili Peppers may be the band of the moment but they failed to impress Stuart Coupe, who hopes for more when they hit the stage.

"The band has a very serious unity that I think is what keeps it together, and it's open to anyone who comes within the circle, it doesn't only extend to the four musicians, it extends to anyone who is part of our family," explains Dave Navarro, the guitarist and most recent addition to the line-up of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Navarro utters the above with the air of someone who's just so damn cool you're lucky to be allowed time on the phone to talk to him--and with a sense that he's saying something really, really, insightful and revelationary.

And it just happens to be about the most interesting thing he manages to articulate in a half hour, the majority of his other responses appearing to tax his intellectual resources once more than five words have passed his lips.

But let's face it, aside from the hype, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who started life in 1983, just aren't a particularly interesting rock 'n' roll band to start with. OK, they hit paydirt with 1991's multi-platinum album Blood Sugar Sex Magik and half a decade later the masses get blessed with a new album, One Hot Minute, which pretty much sums up what it offers, although it's a tough call to actually pin down which minute it is. Me, I've never seen them live so maybe that's where everything gels into one of the transcendent rock 'n' roll experiences of the mid-90s. Certainly the press releases splutter words like "blistering", "ballistic" and "awesome" when referring to their live shows. But on the evidence of the records, and the "outrageous" personalities (golly, the two most recognisable members touching tongues on magazine covers) of singer Anthony Kiedis, Australian-born bassist Flea, (just Flea), drummer Chad Smith and Mr. Navarro, it's hard to start salivating about a bunch of predominantly barely literate lyrics ("You are my god/you are my dog" or "We live in the city/We live in the jungle/It's time to be drinking") a swag of recycled funk and rock riffs, and predictable attempts at sensitivity. At the time of our "conversation", Navarro was in St. Louis, Missouri, during a RHCP jaunt across the States. He didn't like the city and if it wasn't for the upcoming show, "I certainly would never be hanging around here."

Navarro confirmed that, yes, the Australian band Silverchair has played a bunch of shows with them on the tour and he thought, "they were very good and honest-very sincere...people seem to like them a lot."

The RHCP's had personally chosen the 'chair to be on the bill, something they insist on doing because "we go out of our way to give a good show to the people who buy tickets." The result of this is that Space Hog and The Toadies were also getting to open shows for the RHCPs in the States. The Chili Peppers current tour of Australia will be their first with Navarro, the band having last been here in 1992 after the release of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. A world tour was postponed last year after Smith broke his wrist.

Navarro has, however, toured the country a number of times as a member of Jane's Addiction, but Mr. Personality gets even more close-mouthed when asked how he finds the Chili Peppers experience after being in both that band and Porno For Pyros.

"I was never a member of Porno For Pyros," he says matter-of-factly. "You obviously didn't do your homework."

This information has come directly from the official Red Hot Chili Peppers biography issued by Warner Music, their international label, a document that is hastily withdrawn and reprinted the day after this interview.

"It's just a different experience," Navarro says of the nature of his past and present employment. "It's two different bands and there are two different line-ups and different frames of mind. It's impossible to compare the two."

And the revelations continue--it wasn't a hard decision to join the RHCPs: "Uuuum, I respect their musicianship and it felt like it would be an opportunity to grow as a musician." Yes, Navarro was once approached to join Guns N' Roses but he wasn't even slightly tempted.

Now being a quarter of a band whose previous album sold more than six million copies worldwide, and performing on one that debuted at No. 1 on the Australian charts and is already double platinum in this country, isn't the worst of ways to spend your days. But up come the shutters again when Navarro is asked about whether the Chili Peppers have been affected by this success, the amount of money floating around and the inevitable temptations that come with this situation.

"What temptations are you referring to" Navarro snaps.

"Well, sex, drugs and generally getting f-----up."

"I could do both of those things penniless-and I have," Navarro says with just a touch of swagger in his voice.

"I personally have been living a sober life for four years and I know from my own experience that money has nothing to do with temptation. Temptation only comes from within. It's very easy for me today to keep my head in the right direction. I wouldn't be in the position I'm in if I was getting f----- up."

And, surprise, surprise, Navarro doesn't feel he can comment on how the others feel about, or are handling, the temptations. Drugs have consistently been associated with the band-original guitarist Hillel Slovak entered rock 'n' roll heaven via a heroin overdose in 1988, while Kiedis has a well-documented association with the drug.

Added to this was Kiedis' conviction in 1989 for indecent exposure and sexual battery following an incident after a concert in Virginia. A year later, during the taping of an MTV Spring Break special in Florida, Flea and Smith jumped offstage, with Flea grabbing a woman and carrying her off on his shoulder and Smith spanking her. The duo were charged and Flea was found guilty of battery, disorderly conduct, and solicitation to commit and unnatural and lascivious act; Smith was found guilty of battery.

Then--and I can feel the excitement mounting--we get on to the creative process. One Hot Minute was produced by maverick figure Rick Rubin, who can and has turned his hand to records by artists as disparate as Johnny Cash, the Beastie Boys, Mick Jagger, LL Cool J, AC/DC and Donovan (yes you read that right--a new album scheduled for later this year) Navarro's got nothing much to offer here--Rubin was the RHCPs first choice as producer, he's like no one else, he became like their fifth member, and was a friend of the band.

All the lyrics on One Hot Minute are credited jointly to the four members, but trying to drag out any information about the interaction between them is, well, try this:

"There's really no way that anything happens with this band or any other band that I've played with," Navarro says. "The formula has always been with me that there is no formula. One song might come from a bass line, one might come from a guitar. We've written songs based on drum patterns and vocal ideas as well, so the creative process is in itself a creative thing. Even the way we come about the creative process is creative."

Hmmmmm.

Asked about the political climate in the States, Navarro explains that "I don't like to get into political issues at all." He doesn't listen to much contemporary music, occasionally opting for older records, but more often than not preferring the silence to contemplate his own visionary thoughts. He doesn't read much because he doesn't "have the patience for it...I can read short stories but that's about it." Yep, the Chili Peppers have an Internet site, but does it interest Navarro? "No."

Given their record sales and fan base the Chili Peppers could have come to Australia and played massive outdoor gigs but, to their (or the promoter's) credit, they've opted for indoor venues, something Navarro prefers.

"We like to keep it relatively intimate and if it's a huge outdoor festival kind of setting it's sometimes hard to feel a connection between yourself and the audience. I know that the four of us really thrive on audience participation and connection in order to put out what we think is a really good show, so I think we are playing places large enough that a lot of people can come and see us but small enough that we still have what we consider that intimate connection."

The Red Hot Chili Peppers may make wonderfully intimate connections with their audience during their Australian tour--you know, that touchy, feely sensation of being ticket number 10,783--but it's gotta be better than what they have to offer on CD.

Repeated exposure to the latter only serves to prove once again that in 1996 it is still possible to fool most of the people most of the time. The first half of this decade has thrown up some truly awesome contemporary rock 'n' roll bands-the Red Hot Chili Peppers, at least on record, are simply not one of them. See them with a sense of expectation--listen to them at your peril.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are at Melbourne Park tomorrow and Tuesday.

transcribed by Gaby