Connect Four: Red Hot Chili Peppers Interviewed

“This is our life’s purpose. This is our mission. This is our gig.”

Compelled by the majestic force of cosmic law to share love far and wide, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ big-hearted journey has been a long and remarkably eventful adventure, and the group’s latest step – delivering their strongest album in 20 years – comes as the stars realigned to guide them. Just don’t call it a comeback.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Black Summer

“We never left,” starts Flea. “We’re just a band; we keep being a band, we keep working, we keep creating.” The Chili Peppers’ legendary founding bassist is slouched down in a cushioned armchair in the front row of his home cinema, a dark refuge in his sun-drenched Malibu oasis. It’s just after 9am, but he’s been up for hours, having run with his dogs in the trails that snake through the mountains that surround his tropical haven. Energy levels are high, and he’s perfectly primed to expound on the dramatic chain of events that his band endured, and which led to the release of the stunning ‘Unlimited Love’, their first album in this mercurial new decade.

Back in the beginning of summer 2016, Clash had enjoyed an audience with Anthony Kiedis, the Chili Peppers’ impossibly well-preserved frontman, ahead of the release of their 11th album, ‘The Getaway’. A lithe and thoroughly expressive affair, enlivened by the fertile production methods of Danger Mouse, it was the second album with guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, and seemed to find the newcomer well and truly settling into the role and defining his place in the Chili Peppers’ legacy of sound. “We were one,” Kiedis said at the time of the band’s dynamic during the record’s creation. “Before, we were trying to let [Josh] in, and now there was no difference between myself or him or Flea; we were all just one thing.”

Then, in December 2019, the group released a statement out of the blue announcing they had parted ways with Klinghoffer, and were reuniting with his predecessor, John Frusciante. Fans were taken by surprise; the shock of suddenly losing Josh was countered with the joy of welcoming back John, whose virtuosic playing can be heard on the Peppers’ most successful and celebrated albums.

It goes without saying that this was an unexpected twist in the saga of the group’s complicated personnel dramas, which lamentably began in its earliest stages. The genesis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers began when Kiedis and Flea teamed up with guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons while at high school in the late-’70s. By 1983, the anarchic group were the buzz of the Los Angeles club scene, and were duly snapped up by EMI. However, before beginning work on their debut, Slovak and Irons quit, choosing to focus on other projects, and were replaced with Jack Sherman (who sadly died in August 2020) and Cliff Martinez respectively, who’d play on 1984’s eponymous, spunky debut. For 1985’s George Clinton-produced, funk-heavy ‘Freaky Styley’, Sherman was out, and Slovak reinstated. Irons ousted Martinez in time for 1987’s ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’, reuniting the four founders until Slovak’s tragic death in 1988. John Frusciante, an 18-year-old superfan, was enlisted on six-string duties, at the same time as drummer Chad Smith succeeded Irons, who’d quit in grief at the loss of his friend.

After their first tentative steps together on 1989’s ‘Mother’s Milk’, the four delivered the group’s breakthrough masterpiece, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ in 1991, penetrating the mainstream with their classic anthem of alienation, ‘Under The Bridge’. Overwhelmed by the album’s soaring success, Frusciante quit in 1992. While Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro joined to record 1995’s ‘One Hot Minute’, Frusciante was battling a serious heroin addiction and crippling depression. Soon after Navarro was let go, a rehabilitated Frusciante accepted the offer to rejoin, and would go on to serve through the group’s brilliant streak of classic albums – 1999’s ‘Californication’, 2002’s ‘By The Way’, and 2006’s ‘Stadium Arcadium’ – until deciding to leave again in 2009. Josh Klinghoffer, who’d played with Frusciante in his side-project, Ataxia, and with the Chili Peppers on their most recent tour, was the obvious candidate for the role, which he’d hold until one fateful day in 2019, when he arrived for a band meeting at Flea’s house only to be told that his services were no longer required.

“There was nothing that he did to merit being fired,” Kiedis says of Josh when Clash calls him en-route to rehearsals. “He was great, a very wonderful human being to co-exist with, and we wouldn’t be together today if it were not for Josh.”

Kiedis attributes the compulsion for change to “some sort of psychic presence in the air,” where the idea of Frusciante re-joining the band had simultaneously occurred to him, Flea, and, most surprisingly, John. Seeds were planted as Flea began spending more time with his old friend again, and the pair discussed the ineffable magic they’d conjured together.

“We both felt a powerful yearning to play with one another and had a very emotional connection on that subject one evening like a year before he came back that felt beautiful, and it felt like that was a great possibility,” says Flea, suggesting that losing Josh and going with John felt like “the right thing to do” based on instinct. “The universe energy is always moving and I just always feel it’s like you live life by trying to be the kind of person that’s present and aware and conscious enough to follow your heart and follow the light as it guides you as life moves, as opposed to like a preconceived idea or something.”

The process of incorporating Frusciante back into the group, Kiedis says, was “transitional,” and began with the airing of any apprehensions within the ranks. “When we got together and had our talks to see how [we] feel,” he went on, “it felt like a lot of the old misgivings and damage had found a way to repair itself or heal to some degree, that in the end, the value of creativity and making music together as a family outweighed any of the differences that we might have personality-wise. Because, it turns out, sometimes those peculiarities of your brethren are really what makes them creative and special and interesting, and as fucked up as I might be, or as fucked up as anyone else in this band might be, that’s kinda what makes them special and it makes them pour the juice that they pour.”

The group had already begun playing and writing together when the COVID-19 pandemic reached California and the state issued a mandatory stay-at-home order, upending their progress thus far. The time off, however, “did not derail us at all,” Kiedis insists, and proved a constructive period for creative and personal growth. For Kiedis, it allowed him the opportunity to focus on writing lyrics to the instrumental jams they’d amassed so far, “because it’s very hard to maintain a like speed with the productivity of my band as a lyricist,” he says. That work began at home in LA, then moved to Hawaii, when Kiedis and Rick Rubin – producer of all Chili Peppers albums, with the exception of ‘The Getaway’, since 1991 – arrived the day before that state locked itself down. “He and I had six months to just wake up, and I could write for a few hours and I could sing for a few hours, and we had this lost-in-time mentality of not paying attention to anything other than the music in front of us,” Keidis explains. “I probably would never have been able to finish my work if not for that time and space.”

Meanwhile, back in LA, the plight of those struggling financially through the health crisis had led Flea to start running a food truck, working with charitable projects to feed low income communities of the city. When at home, the respite afforded Flea the headspace to create and write even more new music, which, as it turned out, was also what Frusciante had busied himself with.

When the Chili Peppers finally regrouped, therefore, they had far more songs than were required to fill an album. Their fertile output was a product of the energy they’d tapped into upon reuniting, where favourite covers and early Peppers songs were joyously jammed to channel the spirit that had originally spurred their younger selves. It also allowed Frusciante, who’d barely touched a guitar in the preceding years while focusing on his quite excellent forays into electronic music, to get reacquainted with his instrument.

Eventually, after much discussion, persuasion and compromise, a final list of 17 tracks were chosen to become ‘Unlimited Love’ (the rest, Kiedis promises, will hopefully be released “when the time is right”). What’s striking about this method is that those successful song choices, when heard at once in the context of a long-player, sound so connected; there is such a cohesion to the album’s sonic landscape, in terms of its influences, its warmth, its shape and its meticulous textures, that it’s almost impossible to believe that these 17 songs were never designed specifically to co-exist.

When Clash tells Kiedis that we detected a dominant ’70s vibe across the album – evident in the slinky Funkadelic grooves of ‘Aquatic Mouth Dance’, the disco strut of ‘She’s A Lover’, the savage Sabbath riffs in ‘These Are The Ways’, the cosmic jazz bass solo in ‘One Way Traffic’ to name but four evocative examples – he’s quick to refute the notion that such motifs were intentional, rather they are merely a consequence of the group’s vast pool of inspiration. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a single discussion about what we want our songs or our records to sound like,” he asserts. “It really comes from so many different places, and none of it is a conversation… We listen to everything. We’ve never had a boundary or a qualification for what can or cannot be a Red Hot Chili Peppers song; we’ll take anything and everything.”

“That’s the thing that I’ve always loved about our band and aspired to with our band,” Flea says, picking up the subject and expanding on the meaning of the album’s title as he goes, “it’s to not let genre or style get in the way of expression. Like, we can just go anywhere we want. It’s unlimited, it’s love, it’s music, it’s beautiful. It’s all valid, it’s all good. You know, never try to stick to a formula, never try to do something that you think, ‘Oh, this is who we are, this is what we do.’ No, we do all of it.”

Really, the album’s cohesion is a reflection of the relationship between these four musicians at this precise point in their lives. Their individual pursuits – from Frusciante’s excursions into jungle music, to Chad Smith laying down beats for Dua Lipa – had brought them to a place that was fully explored in the communal environment of the group’s creative process, which Flea claims is “better than it’s ever been”.

“The record is a time capsule of us now together,” he adds, “loving music, having faith in one another, and just trying to make the most beautiful thing that we can.”

How they will fare when it’s time to fully take the show on the road is another matter, as the pressures and monotony of touring may threaten to dull the edges of the group’s sharpened focus. Embarking on their first ever tour exclusively made up of stadiums, the hope is that not only will the novelty ensure the experience stays fresh, but that playing to so many people at once will enable the band to generate huge amounts of reciprocal love. “I hope to touch hearts,” avows Flea.

The Chili Peppers return to these shores for the first time in almost five years this summer, their London dates clashing with Glastonbury (“I can’t believe we’ve never done it,” Flea enthuses. “I wish we would fucking do it,”) and all the signs point towards Flea’s expectations coming to fruition. Recent performances in LA, New Orleans and Las Vegas corroborate his insistence that the band are “firing on all cylinders”, having documented their very best selves on ‘Unlimited Love’, so excitement levels are high.

But, as Flea maintains, this momentum is simply a continuation of the potent power the quartet have always harnessed.

“I don’t think of it as a reincarnation or a rebirth or anything,” he says, returning to his original point. “I just think of it as we just are still fucking doing it, man, you know? It’s just what we do. This is our life’s purpose. This is our mission. This is our gig.”

Words: Simon Harper

Photography: Clara Balzary and Mini Title

Archive Photography: Gus Van Sant

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