Red Hot Chili Peppers: American spice

Success for the Red Hot Chili Peppers has not come without a cost, from drug problems to serial bust-ups. Sylvie Simmons finds out how they have preserved sanity and credibility against the odds
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Anthony Kiedis's house, an expanse of glass and whiteness, is right on top of the Hollywood Hills. Walk down the steps into the vast, white, glass-walled entrance hall, and your eyes are drawn to the terrace, where the perfect blue water of a rimless "infinity pool" stretches out into a perfect blue Los Angeles sky. Inside, the walls are hung with photographs, a mixture of old Hollywood and contemporary black-and-whites: Marilyn Monroe; a blur-faced P J Harvey; the proprietor with Buster, his dog. Those last two are right now padding about the kitchen, another vast, glass-walled, white room, whose surfaces heave with jars of vitamins and supplements.

Anthony Kiedis's house, an expanse of glass and whiteness, is right on top of the Hollywood Hills. Walk down the steps into the vast, white, glass-walled entrance hall, and your eyes are drawn to the terrace, where the perfect blue water of a rimless "infinity pool" stretches out into a perfect blue Los Angeles sky. Inside, the walls are hung with photographs, a mixture of old Hollywood and contemporary black-and-whites: Marilyn Monroe; a blur-faced P J Harvey; the proprietor with Buster, his dog. Those last two are right now padding about the kitchen, another vast, glass-walled, white room, whose surfaces heave with jars of vitamins and supplements.

A cup of tea is offered - a long, intricate operation, involving a glass jug of leaves, a plunger, and milk that the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man makes himself by grinding cashew nuts and blending them with filtered springwater. Most rock stars would find dunking a tea bag labour-intensive, but Kiedis is as zealous about his healthy lifestyle as he was about his mid-Eighties one. The one that revolved around scoring heroin.

Listening to a man whose skin literally glows with wellness telling tales of fleapits and crack dens and the various Hollywood squats that for a long time he and his band called home has a similar surreality to watching a safari-suited John Lydon on I'm a Celebrity - Get Me out of Here!, gossiping with Jennie Bond.

"John Lydon", Kiedis is saying, "once made a great stab at poaching Flea [the band's bassist] for Public Image." Nearly got him, too. "And Malcolm McLaren tried to poach the whole band. He sat down with us, watched us rehearse, and then he said, 'OK, here's the plan, guys. We're going to simplify the music completely, so it's just basic, old-school, simple three-chord rock'n'roll, and we'll have Anthony be the focus of attention, and you guys will be the back-up band doing this surf-punk thing.' At which point Flea keeled over and passed out. It could have been what we had smoked - we were very dysfunctional at that point - but I think it was more what McLaren said."

That was 1985, soon after the band Kiedis calls the Red Hots and everyone else calls the Chili Peppers ("Red Hot is a nicer name - stronger; less vegetable") released their second album, Freaky Styley. Produced by George Clinton of Parliament/ Funkadelic, it flew off the shelves not a jot quicker than their self-titled 1984 debut, produced by Gang of Four's Andy Gill. Too funky to be metal, too young to be punk, the band who by current reckoning are one of the three biggest in the world (25 million people bought their past two albums; a little more than half a million tickets have been sold for their current UK tour) were for much of the Eighties, in music-industry terms, several blocks south of nowhere.

By the time of Freaky Styley, Kiedis and Hillel Slovak, the guitarist, were on a downward spiral of heroin use, but it was Slovak who died. The timing wasn't great. A few months before the 26-year-old OD-ed, EMI had detected a buzz around the album and packed the band off on a European promo tour. They rush-released an EP, Abbey Road, named for the cover picture, taken by the British photographer Chris Clunn, of their re-enactment of The Beatles' zebra-crossing shot, naked bar those now-famous socks over their genitals.

Flea: "Hillel's death was just devastating. I was so shocked when it happened, I just fell on the floor, gasping for air. As we started getting older, and drugs became more and more prevalent, Hillel started having a deep sadness to him. I didn't really know how to deal with that sadness, and I don't think he knew how to deal with it."

Jack Irons, the drummer, blamed the band for what happened. Locking himself in his house, refusing to take calls, he suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalised. But they persevered. DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight - the former P-Funk guitarist, who stood in briefly for Slovak when the band sacked him in a previous spat over drugs - and the former Dead Kennedys drummer D H Peligro were hired. Then fired. Peligro was first to go. Flea and Kiedis contacted 30 drummers and started auditioning.

Shortly before his departure, Peligro had introduced Flea and Kiedis to a young guitarist, an 18-year-old unknown named John Frusciante. In 2004, Frusciante looks better than he has in a long time. His glasses make him look bookish, and overall he appears monkish, cloistered. He has a sweet, sad smile, an impressive set of dentures, and arms so scarred, they look like someone tried to melt them with a blowtorch.

Frusciante: "I had so many years of terrible, terrible..." He breaks down. "I'm sorry," he says, turning the tape recorder off and drying his eyes. "Sometimes I get into situations of just being so overwhelmed by what I've been through, so many years of regretting everything, all the things I could have done when I was 22 years old..." The tape is back on. "But I was totally incapable of it; I had just so many mental problems. It wasn't until I was 28 that my brain actually felt like a spacious place. When I was 18, 19, 22, my brain was just clogged all the time - non-stop voices. I couldn't figure out what was going on. There was a lot of confusion inside me, this flood of voices, often contradicting each other, often telling me stuff that would happen in the future, and then it would happen, voices insulting me, telling me what to do.

"I might have made things a bit more balanced if my head had been a little clearer, but it wasn't, with the amount of pot I smoked - 24 hours a day by the time I was 20. I had this feeling that there was something else I needed to do for myself on the inside that had nothing to do with my outward presentation to the world, so playing live in the Chili Peppers was making me severely depressed. If I had quit at the end of Blood Sugar Sex Magik [1991], I think I could have gone through this stuff easier, without becoming a drug addict. But by the time I did leave, hard drugs were the only way I could be happy enough to live and not just be the most hopeless person who can't even listen to music and is about to die. I took a clear-cut decision that I was going to be a drug addict."

Five years later, Frusciante checked what was left of him (teeth rotted out, ravaged veins, arms covered with cigarette burns and scars) into a hospital to clean up. He rejoined the band in time for Californication (1999), replacing the Jane's Addiction guitarist, Dave Navarro, who had been recruited in 1993.

Flea believes that Californication is "the best record the Chili Peppers have ever made". It has sold 15 million copies to date.

The band started recording tracks for the new album last summer, although it's too early - reckons Rick Rubin, who has produced the Chilis' albums since Blood Sugar - to tell which way it's going to go. They'll restart when they get back from this summer's imperial megatour...

"...with James Brown," Flea grins, showing the gap in his teeth. The Chilis bassist comes over all misty-eyed when talking about the Godfather of Soul. He describes getting thrown off the side of the stage on the previous occasion his band shared a bill with Brown ("They didn't believe I was in the band") and being growled at by the great man when he stuck his head into his backstage tent.

"As time has gone by, and it's 21 years, we've just gotten better in public," Flea reflects. "Learnt from our mistakes and held on to the things that are good. There aren't a lot of bands who have done that."

"I don't think you'll know where we fit yet," Kiedis concludes, before showing us to the door, "because we keep sliding around. We keep changing. And we're not done yet."

The full length version of this interview can be seen in the July edition of Mojo, on sale now. The Red Hot Chili Peppers play the City of Manchester Stadium on Friday; Hyde Park, London W1, Saturday, Sunday and 25 June; and the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, on 23 June

Comments