John Frusciante, the guitarist with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and sometime solo artist, is talking fitfully and forlornly about the time, in 1992, when he gave up making music. "Basically, I turned my subconscious brain into my conscious brain and figured out a lot of things that, really, your conscious brain has no business knowing," he says. "Through doing that, everything that had once made my life wonderful, like music or art or books, became ugly... For me, music had always been this thing that was completely separate from any of the bad things in the world, but then I came to realise it was one with them. I couldn't get past that."
Such lengthy, stream-of- consciousness explanations are typical of the man. Sixteen years of being in, then out, and then back in, one of America's biggest-selling rock bands has clearly taken its toll. Now, at 33, he's unrecognisable as the energetic, mohawked 18-year-old who joined the Chili Peppers in 1988, replacing the founding guitarist, Hillel Slovak, who died from a heroin overdose.
With his hunched gait and his shirt tucked into trousers that sit several inches above his waist, he comes across as fragile. His arms still bear the scars of his intense three-year drug addiction, while his speech is slurred and erratic.
We meet at the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel, a faux-medieval monolith high above Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. Frus- ciante is stretched out on his hotel bed and, sat next to him in a squeaky armchair, I feel like a psychiatrist. We're here to talk about his solo album Shadows Collide with People though the conversation keeps winding its way back to his troubled career in the Chili Peppers.
It's clear that the band's huge popularity has never sat well with the sensitive, studiously creative Frusciante. It was in 1991, when the release of Blood Sugar Sex Magik catapulted the band into the mainstream, that he first began to withdraw into himself. When it came to touring the album, he resolved to smoke as much marijuana as possible. "I just did it all day long, every day, non-stop," he says blithely. "I guess there was too much brain activity going on for what I was doing in life. When your life is plane-gig-bus-plane-gig-bus, your brain goes into overdrive."
It wasn't until he quit the band, however, that he became a fully fledged addict. "I did it because I was so unhappy," he says. "Taking drugs like heroin and cocaine made me act like myself rather than just a guy sitting on the couch staring off into space. I found I could enjoy art again, which was really important to me. Most people become drug addicts by mistake but I made a decision to become one. I had got to a point where I felt I had no place in the world and the world had no place for me. I honestly felt closer to death than I did to life."
With all his money feeding his habit, Frusciante soon lost his possessions and home. As his teeth rotted and infection spread throughout his body, many assumed the end was near. Yet he managed to remain in this grim, stupefied state for three years before cleaning up. Three years later, in 1998, a rehabilitated Frusciante was asked back into the band.
"For the first time in my life I felt very clear about who I was," he recalls. "Even though I was on a good path artistically when I was 21, I still felt I was doing it by the skin of my teeth, like I was barely getting away with it. But after coming off drugs I was very confident. I hadn't played guitar much in a few years and with the little bit of technique I had left, I felt very good about what I was doing."
Now, Frusciante eats healthily, practises yoga and has a shiny new set of teeth. He also works on music constantly; he can't remember the last time he spent a day doing anything else. "I'm really proud of the music I've been making in recent years. That's not for any vainglorious reasons. It's just that it's taken a lot of pain and confusion and suffering, not just for me but for the people around me, to get to this point. I know it sounds clichéd, but it's the music more than anything that's made me better."
Less dark than its three predecessors, Shadows Collide with People is Frusciante's most melodic and accessible solo effort yet. Tracks such as "Wednesday's Song" and "Song to Sing When I'm Lonely" could sit on any Chili Peppers album. The songs, he says, were written during the band's 2003 tour. After being away for three or four weeks at a time, he would come home and go straight into the recording studio. "It's a strange way to make a record, but that's the only way to do it," he says. "People are always surprised that I find the time to do all this other work besides playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but to me it seems inconceivable that I could do the Chili Peppers and nothing else."
Frusciante was born in New York in 1970. His mother was a Juilliard-trained pianist and singer who put her career on hold in order to look after the family. Now she sings for her church and provided backing vocals for the Chili Peppers' hit "Under the Bridge."
When, with a rather sinister grin, Frusciante tells me that, when he was four, the voices in his head told him he was going to be a guitarist. He's deadly serious. "The voices had been explaining all these things to me, and by the time I was seven I was seeing these photographs of Jimi Hendrix and Ace Frehley in magazines. Then it all came together. I realised I was supposed to be in a rock band. At the age of 11, I finally picked up the guitar and wrote 25 punk songs in a row."
When his parents separated, Frusciante and his mother moved to Santa Monica. There, he worked studiously at his guitar-playing, copying the chords of his favourite art-rockers - Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson and Frank Zappa. When he was 17 he went to an audition for Zappa's band, but once there he decided he wouldn't bother playing. "I knew how to play every one of his songs, but I saw the way he was with other people and thought, "I don't like the look of this'. So I just walked out."
It was Frusciante's friend DH Peligro from the Dead Kennedys who introduced him to the Chili Peppers' bass player Flea; the three of them would jam together at Flea's house in LA. Less than a year later, Flea asked him if he would like to join the band. "Back then I was pretty naive," Frusciante sighs. "Just being in the band was enough for me, as I was a huge fan. I didn't even think about how I would move on from that and what would come next."
Given Frusciante's reluctance to bask in the limelight, it's ironic that it was he who brought them mainstream success with his funk-inspired guitar arrangements. The band had a series of hits, notably "Give It Away" and "Under the Bridge", though after he quit they faltered badly. It was only when Frusciante returned to the fold that their sales rocketed with 1999's "Californication" and 2002's "By the Way".
Frusciante believes that he's the odd one out in the band. "I look at myself in the mirror, and I see myself as being somebody smaller. I think the fact that I'm that kind of person brings a certain element to the group. Anthony [Kiedis] was destined to be the superstar, and Flea was destined to be the entertainer. But I think my destiny was to be an more introverted guitar-player and songwriter who has learnt how to entertain. If anything, that entertainment aspect of what I do is stifling."
If his work with the Chili Peppers is about having hits and pleasing crowds, his solo work is where he's free to experiment. "I've been doing these tiny shows in LA lately, and that's been really refreshing," he says. "It's a great feeling, a nice personal exchange. I start with a basic direction and just see where it goes.
"With the Chilis I try to make direct communication with the crowd, but it's different when you're playing by yourself in a small room. Every show is unique, and I think that's been really psychologically healthy for me. It's got me to redefine the purpose of performance. After playing to 20,000 people at a time, you can't help but start to wonder what you're doing up there."
Frusciante says he has no expectations for Shadows Collide with People, or indeed any of his solo work. "I don't have aspirations to have a gold record or anything like that," he says. "I've done that. I feel like I write good songs and my music means a lot to me, so I feel like there's a certain amount of people that it'll inevitably mean something to. But I have had more success with the Chili Peppers than I ever dreamt of, and that's quite enough for me. If I have any aspiration now, it's to get on and make as many of my own records as I can."
'Shadows Collide with People' (WEA) is out on MondayReuse content