In Conversation: John Frusciante

In Conversation: John Frusciante

On his unexpected - and genuinely fantastic - new electronic album...

Having spent some considerable length of time sharing electronic music under the name Trickfinger, John Frusciante has just released ‘Maya’, his first electronic album under his own name.

Named after his recently-departed cat, ‘Maya’ finds Frusciante reverentially exploring the drum 'n' bass and jungle music that touched him in ways that other genres simply hadn’t. In ‘Maya’, he has created a blistering album of white-hot breakbeat rhythms fused with contemplative, endlessly unpredictable melodies.

We spoke to (recently re-joined) Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Frusciante about his long love affair with electronic music, studios full of trailing patch cables, and the limitless possibilities of music-making machines.

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I was into a lot of different electronic music in the late 1990s but I never talked about it in interviews.

I knew some drum ‘n’ bass music that was popular in America like Roni Size, Dillinja and Goldie, but I had no friends who were into it, so I just followed my nose. At that time, I really liked Orbital, The Future Sound Of London, The Prodigy, The Railway Raver, AFX, Autechre, The Orb and Komakino. I was also really into synth-pop and industrial music.

In the early 2000s, I went out to drum 'n’ bass club nights quite a bit here, but I was not aware of who the artists were. I was just soaking it in. I wasn’t super picky, and I wasn’t opinionated at all. I really loved trance as well, which I soon found out was considered kind of lowbrow by a lot of people, but I still love a lot of that stuff. In the late ‘90s I was buying a variety of whatever I found at Tower Records.

It wasn’t until 2008 that I started to have a lot of friends who were ravers and DJs and stuff, and at that point I started having a lot more awareness of underground electronic music’s history. Friends would give me music files all the time, and I started having an easier time knowing what to buy when it came to 12-inch singles that don’t have cover art and all that. So yeah, I was always into rave, but in general I just kept finding out about more stuff. I discovered breakcore in 2003 and was very excited about that.

As far as me not talking about it in interviews back then, I had different reasons at different times. It’s nice to keep some things to yourself when you are so in the public as I was at that time. It was an area of discovery for me and it felt natural to keep it mostly private. At one point in the early 2000s I decided to talk in interviews about stuff I was into from labels like Mille Plateaux, Touch, and Mego, and then afterwards I wished I hadn’t. I was also really into modern R&B all throughout that time, and I didn’t mention that in interviews either, and when I finally did, I again wished I had kept it to myself.

It’s like when you’re reading a book you really love, and you try to share your excitement about it with someone who hasn’t read it: you register their disinterest, which can take you out of that headspace the book put you in, and dampen your excitement. It’s better to just enjoy your book and have that personal connection with it.

I’m really drawn to hardcore, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass music from the period 1991 – 1996.

It was just a really nice period of growth, where the music kept moving forward and kept getting better. I really love how the drums got so chopped-up and wild around ‘93 - ‘95. I’m interested in a lot of kinds of music: UK garage, dubstep, later drum ‘n’ bass, house, techno, electro, footwork, ghetto house...

Aaron Funk and I first connected from us both liking acid house and 303s, and the early stuff we made together was a lot of different takes on acid. We also would listen to a lot of hardcore and jungle and those just became my favourite kinds of music. I really love sampling, and I love it when music is fast and funky, and I like it when it sounds like people don’t super know what they’re doing. That ‘91 - ‘96 period just seems really free and inventive to me. But when it comes down to it, it just sounds better than other music to me, and so it’s more fun to listen to than anything else.

Who knows why? Maybe because I come from a band – the Red Hot Chili Peppers – that played really fast funk / punk music in the ‘80s. Making ‘Maya’, I was mostly listening to hardcore and jungle, but was definitely being inspired by other things, in particular El-B, Mala, Loefah, Benga, Todd Edwards, Karl ‘Tuff Enuff’ Brown, Wookie, Amit, Seba, Paradox, John B.. Not that I think you can hear their influence on the record, but they were super inspiring, not only musically, but in terms of production as well.

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When I became friends with Aaron Funk, I had already recorded what would become the first two Trickfinger albums, so I was embracing it.

But before that phase, I was just working a lot, making records and touring. I’d just mess with synths and drum machines in my spare time. But in 2007 I got gear that really excited me, and I decided I was gonna be my own engineer and stop working with other musicians. Then Aaron came along and I started making music with somebody in a way I hadn’t even known was possible before that. His inspiration and encouragement definitely meant the world to me. 

Our friend Chris McDonald (Speed Dealer Moms) who built modular synths for us and made music with us was also a great support and opened my mind in all kinds of ways. A lot of people thought I was crazy back then, so it meant a lot to have friends who understood where I was at.

In order to fully concentrate on electronic music, I really had to get to a point where I wasn’t worried about what people were gonna think, and for me that happened in 2007. I didn’t care if I ever released anything again. I just wanted to make weird music with machines.

One nice thing about machines is there’s a lot of possible processes.

I’ve made electronic music in a lot of different ways, but generally, programming a drum machine and then making a TB-303 or a MC-202 part, and gradually adding things has been the normal way I do it: going back and forth between two machines, and developing each part in response to what you added to the last one.

Once you get that going, you start hearing things in your head, and then you make those parts on other machines. You gradually see where it’s going, and add new sections, figure out which parts sound good with which others, figure out ways to manipulate what you’ve programmed on the fly, and just arrange things and jam with yourself until you’ve got a full piece of music. You start with one bar on one machine and the rest proceeds naturally from that. My Trickfinger EP ‘She Smiles Because She Presses The Button’ from earlier this year was made like that – everything recorded live with no overdubs.

On ‘Maya’, it was more about creating limitations, and then trying to make music within that. I’d make like 100 breakbeats, and 15 Yamaha DX7 sounds, and try to make a track mostly from that. Using mostly modular synths and the DX7, I’d just try to fill up the space and keep the music moving forward like DJs do. I’d use other synths as needed, but it was not so much that I heard a part in my head; it was more that I saw a space for a sonic structure.

For example, I’d have a section of drums that needed a certain space filled up around them, so I’d decide to use the Korg PS-3300, and gradually wrangle a part out of it that worked in the space that needed filling. It would sound terrible until it sounded awesome. That’s something that’s come from engineering, where the sonic space I’m trying to fill up is the main thing on my mind, and notes and rhythms are just a means to that end.

The basis for everything on ‘Maya’ was samples and DX7 sounds that had been created when there was no idea for a tune other than a tempo and a key. I’d build from that, trying to make it more about interacting with patches and machines, and not so much about hearing something in my head in advance.

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A lot of fans of guitar music don’t seem to see electronic music clearly.

When I program notes into a sequencer, that’s just the beginning. Then the fun of creating sounds with what I've programmed starts.

On guitar, we think that something has feeling because the notes are bent a certain way, or have a certain kind of vibrato. We hear a person's finger strength and we think that’s feeling. On a synthesiser, you can do those kinds of expressions, but what’s far more interesting is creating sound from scratch. The expression is in the sound itself.

On guitar, the sound is already there under your fingers. You modify it this way and that, but it’s a guitar. I like starting with nothing and gradually creating a sound I’ve never heard before. I may play the notes in a very robotic way, but there's all this feeling that’s gone into the creation of the sound, the various ways it modulates within itself. You put your emotions into making a sound, or a series of sounds, or a stack of sounds. The notes themselves aren’t necessarily the expressive part.

There are so many ways to make spontaneous melodies on machines. I used to program melodies into six MC-202s and then fade them all in and out of each other, or I’d program melodies into all six tracks of two Monomachines and then make new melodies by playing the mute buttons like a piano. Methods like that are neat because while they still wind up sounding like your own sense of melody, there’s also this element of surprise, since you often don’t know what the next notes are going to be as you’re performing it.

The closest thing I can think of to that on guitar is getting feedback, where you’re controlling it but at the same time you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And you can make feedback on synths too, or on mixers and effects processors. I do a lot of that.

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I like taking my sense of melody and funnelling it through situations where it all gets twisted up.

I've made music without melody, like the track ‘A3t1ip’ on my Soundcloud, and I usually try to have sections in my tracks with no melody, but it’s fun for me to use my ability in that area in different ways. Tunes like ‘Zillion’ from ‘Maya’, or the track ‘Lyng Shake’ have melodies that change sonically as the notes move along, so that sometimes the notes are very clear, and at other times there is no distinct note at all, just sound.

I had an MC-202 that was broken that I did the synth melody that comes in at around 3:20 on 'Brand E’ from ‘Maya’. It wasn’t in tune from octave to octave, and so it was in some kind of a micro-tuning. I played the modular with it and it has this feeling like it’s straining, which was intensified by the modulations within the sound.

I really love all the weird melodies in rave music that people made with samples. A lot of my favourite jungle and drum ‘n’ bass isn’t super focused on melody, or doesn’t have any at all, but there’s also labels like Good Looking, and Lucky Spin, where there’s actually a lot of melody and it’s cool.

My melodies are definitely one of the things that separates my music from jungle, but like in jungle, I try to make them supportive of the drums, rather than have them be a focal point like in pop music. That’s something it took years for me to develop, the ability to make melodies that aren’t catchy and don’t draw attention to themselves. That was really hard!

I like to limit how many pieces of gear I use per track, but patch cables going everywhere to me is what having a studio is all about!

My studio is set up so I’m able to send any sound anywhere at any time. It makes me feel very alive when the gear is all wired into each other in a way that’s specific to a track I'm making, and cables are crossing from one side of the studio to the other.

I really like old gear from the early 1980s. For me that was the renaissance of music-making machines. They’re not hard to use once you know them well, but I like wasting time fiddling with them regardless. So even as things have become easier for me, I kind of figure out ways to make them more time consuming anyways. Time flies by because I'm having fun.

I was afraid of the Yamaha DX7 for a long time. I was mainly into analogue synths, and had my hands full with them. But about four years ago I just got deep into the DX7 and ever since it’s become my favourite synth. I sometimes think that even if I didn’t make music, I’d be happy just making sounds on it for the rest of my life. It’s a great relaxed way to spend time, trying to figure out ways to create new sounds within that set of limitations. It’s a great game, but also a very fulfilling means of expression, quite apart from actually using it in a track.

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The music on ‘Maya’ was actually the first daytime music I’d made in a long time.

I used to really like night time for making music, but something switched in me and now I like winding down at night.

I don’t have set hours. I may make music from morning until 2 AM if that’s what feels right that day, but in general it does seem like morning is when you have the most vital energies to give.

‘Maya’ is named after my cat, who died recently.

Maya loved loud music! The noisier and crazier the better!

When I got her and her buddy Aztec, they were about a month old, and I was listening to Venetian Snares all the time and they loved it. Maya was fond of sticking her head in the speakers while I made music. She’d sit on the floor and watch Aaron and I program for a while, and then she’d stick her head in the speaker for a while, then come up and rub my tummy while I programmed, and then sit behind us on the couch and relax and listen so attentively with her ears straight up.

I got her at a shelter. She was really sick from cat herpes when she was a baby, and Aztec and I nursed her back to health. I honestly had never given so much love to any living being before that. She showed me what love was, and we were totally devoted to each other. She was the perfect companion.

She inspired everything I've done from ‘Stadium Arcadium’ with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, right through to all the music I’ve released this year, and she was right there with me, my biggest fan!

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'Maya' is out now.

Words: Mat Smith

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