Me and My Friends
John Frusciante's parallel universe
John Frusciante is pure music. On a hazy, Southern California summer morning on the Sunset Strip, in a hotel conference room, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist vibrates at unknown frequencies, his wiry frame fidgeting to the verge of short circuit at this non-music-making meet. The first question about his universe is all it takes to flip Frusciante's switch. Dead eyes blaze, and even with a mouthful of replacement teeth, words pour out like electric current. Past drug abuse has aged the 34-year-old L.A. dweller another decade, but passion is the fountain of youth.
Actually, Frusciante is weary and admits as much. Two nights ago he played in San Francisco, and last night, he and constant collaborator Josh Klinghoffer trio-ed up with krautrock monarch Michael Rother of Neu! Two guitars, no vocal mics, and Klinghoffer's drum kit equal 70 attentive minutes of metronomic, sometimes dancey guitarchitecture in one full room of the Knitting Factory complex. When Frusciante's bandmate Flea materializes stageside, the room lurches to the left to get a better look. A single, two-minute encore, "Ghost Riders in the Sky," sends everyone home with smiles.
Following the international success of the Chili Peppers' By the Way, documented on last year's mesmerizing Live at Slane Castle DVD and on this summer's 2-CD, import-only Live in Hyde Park, Frusciante uses his downtime to execute another ambitious campaign: Six Albums in Six Months (see sidebar). Which doesn't even include March's major label solo swan song, Shadows Collide With People. It does, however, encompass a frank, often-metaphysical discussion on life and music, which to Frusciante are, of course, synonymous.
Austin Chronicle: How did you hook up with Michael Rother?
John Frusciante: I was going around doing interviews and people would ask me, "Who's your favorite guitarist?" and I'd say, "Michael Rother." This is around the time we were touring for Californication or when we were writing By the Way. I started mentioning it in the press a lot. Eventually, some German interviewer offered to put together an interview with me and Michael. And he did. ...
I'm really honored to be able to introduce Michael's music to people. I think the music he made on his solo records is really beautiful music. Michael's solo records don't have the same wildness that Neu! had, but they have such beautiful melodies, such beautiful chords, such graceful simplicity. I really appreciate that.
At the time of By the Way, I was really influenced by that. Now, I'm in a completely different place musically, so I feel I was doing it out of respect for Michael. Now I like things to be more jagged, and screwed up.
AC: You mentioned By the Way. There's Beach Boys tones on that album, Pet Sounds. Was that Rick Rubin, the band? I hear it in your solo albums, though not as pronounced.
JF: The solo record coming out in November [A Sphere in the Heart of Silence] has a lot of harmonies. More harmonies than By the Way. When we made By the Way, I'd never recorded harmonies in a studio by my own will. Rick had forced me to do backing vocals for Californication, which at the time I wasn't into. It wasn't until Guy Picciotto of Fugazi was so complimentary about my harmonies that it made me think, "Oh, wow harmonies. Great!" [Laughs] Before that, I was like, "Harmonies suck."
When we made By the Way, Anthony [Kiedis] and I discussed me doing a ton of harmonies all over the album. We were gonna make my voice be an equal element to the music as the guitar, bass, or anything else. This is something that Anthony was and is still very in favor of. I wasn't actually listening to the Beach Boys until the last couple of songs that I did. It was toward the very end of the album that I went into an obsessive period about the Beach Boys. While I was making the record, it was more the Beatles, Erasure, Queen.
AC: How much credit does Rick Rubin deserve for the overall sound of By the Way?
JF: Rick is so incorporated into what we do in the band that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what he does, but he definitely infiltrates. I mean he's as much a part of the record as any of us. It's just in a more ethereal, kind of feminine way. You can't say, "Oh, there's Rick." Brian Eno produced records where you can tell he treated the guitar, so you know it's an Eno-produced record. There's nothing like that with Rick, but he's all over the record just in terms of his ideas. The fact that the record is as concise as it is has a lot to do with Rick.
AC: Ethereal is a good word. You don't hear many "mainstream" rock albums that have that quality.
JF: I think a big reason for that is that a lot of elements on By the Way are mixed very soft. I did all kinds of little synthesizer things that are barely audible. A lot of the time my guitar is barely audible. The mix is definitely done in a really subtle way. When you have a lot of things that are just barely at the level of audibility, you tend to feel them more than hear them, and that creates a sort of ethereal quality.
When I made my first solo record after By the Way Shadows Collide With People that whole album had been conceptualized while making By the Way. I wrote the songs at the same time I wrote the songs on By the Way. The demos were made while we were writing By the Way. When we actually recorded [Shadows], it was built into the songs that there was going to be a lot of harmonies, but I didn't want to overdo it, because on By the Way I had done so many. ...
On The Will to Death, I thought it would be a good idea to make a record with very little backing vocals, because we'd done it so much on Shadows. I always have to have a new idea for each album. For The Will to Death, the idea was to have very little backing vocals. There's a lot of other huge differences. In every way, I wanted the opposite of Shadows.
AC: Where does your music come from? Some musicians say they're simply channeling it.
JF: Since I was 4 I've had deep feelings for music. By the time I was 7, I started becoming obsessed about the groups I liked. By the time I was 10, 11, music was the only thing that made life meaningful to me. My excitement about music is what led me to play the guitar in the first place as well as feelings of pain inside me that I didn't know where to direct.
Once I found music as a place to put that energy, I became a much more relaxed person, because I was starting to get aggravated at the age I started playing guitar, when I was, like, 12. I was getting very frustrated and angry, and once I started being able to learn punk songs and bash on my guitar, I became the peaceful person that I'm supposed to be.
It also must come from painful things from when I was a kid, but in general, that stuff takes place on a subconscious level. The most obvious place that it seems to come from is just because I sit around listening to music all the time. It's the most important thing to me. If I'm on tour, I have my headphones on all the time. I'm always playing music. When we go backstage, I go immediately to the CD player, I put on music. I have music going on all the time. Then once I have a chance to sit still and write, ideas start coming to me for songs. It's usually inspired by something that I'm listening to.
At the same time, philosophically, I've definitely been made aware throughout my life especially during the five years that I wasn't a part of the human race that the actual human being itself is not responsible for the ... generator of the music. Music is generated by another realm that's not ...
I could talk about it. It gets on a more intellectual level.
Basically, it's a realm of thought, where thoughts actually create life-forms. If you imagine that every thought in your head, every thought anybody's ever thought didn't just disappear. Every thought left somebody's head and went out into some faraway place in outer space. Every thought that's ever been thought exists there.
Some doctor explained to me that thoughts send out thought waves into the atmosphere, and I realized there's a realm of thought, and those thoughts end up creating life-forms and personalities within the realm of thought. Our thoughts are connected to that place and we learn from that place and that place learns from us. Every thought anybody's ever thought is there, so all knowledge is there. The characters there exist completely with all the knowledge the human race has ever had to offer in all history, but they can't do anything with that knowledge, because they're not people. They don't exist in a place of time.
It's a realm of thought. There's no time there. They can't actually write a song, or write a book, or paint a painting or anything, because they're just thoughts. They have personalities and life-forms just like we do, and they have the ability to communicate with us on a conscious level, whereas we communicate with them, but we do it all subconsciously. We don't realize it's happening.
AC: What's your relationship to death?
JF: [Long pause] Well, it's something that I don't see as being separate from life. ...
Whenever there's any kind of fear of failure, or fear of not being successful, or fear of not being good, those are all just different versions of fear of death. All those things are fear of death. I think the difference between my life before I took my five years away from doing anything and after is that I was scared of so many things before, never realizing that at the heart of it was just a stupid fear of death.
Luckily I had a lot of supernatural experiences that made me see clearly what was going on with death. That it was something that was with me all the time, not something that was going to happen to me someday. The spirits in the place where people's consciousness continues after they're dead are helping me all the time. They're with me all the time.
Now, this time around, I'm playing music with no fear of any kind. Yeah, it comes up every now and then because I'm human, but I have enough experience and knowledge to understand that at the root of it I'm all right because I'm not afraid of dying. It gives me the ability to continue, to always be clear about my purpose here, to always be clear about just who I am, to always be able to face myself. Fear gets in your way of being able to really face yourself, be honest to yourself about who you are.
AC: On your first two solo LPs, Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994) and Smile From the Streets You Hold (1997), a certain amount of fear is palpable, because by To Record Only Water for 10 Days (2001), so is a joy that hadn't been there previously. Is that fair to say?
JF: Yeah. Those first two albums, Smile and Niandra LaDes, a lot of the music was done during a time that I was very happy, but I still wasn't very clear. I didn't know what was going on. I almost felt like I was making music by mistake or something, because I wasn't clear with myself. I didn't have a healthy, interactive relationship with death at that time, so I was being taken advantage of and freaked out a lot. A lot of voices in my head that I was very confused by a lot of confusion. ...
After a while, in general except for an exceptional few people you end up running out of steam. You need to take the initiative. You can't just let your subconscious be your ruler. You have to take the bulls by the horns with your conscious mind. You have to make decisions. You have to take control. You have to leave yourself open to what the subconscious has to offer, because that's where a lot of the great ideas are, but if you don't know how to take charge, the subconscious isn't enough. It's just going to get more and more disparate. That's what happened to me at that time.
When I ran out of steam, I made the decision that I was just going to paint, and I was going to stop doing music for a while. I actually made the decision that I was going to stop playing music forever. That's when I released my first solo album. It had been recorded mostly when I was in the Chili Peppers and just after I quit the Chili Peppers. At the time that I recorded it, I didn't think I was going to release it, and then I decided to release it. Then the second album came out; it was just leftover stuff from that period, with maybe five exceptions.
Then I had a whole five-year period where I was focusing on painting, and drawing, and reading about artists giving myself a kind of art history education.
AC: You didn't play during those five years?
JF: No, I didn't play. The couple attempts I did make at live performances and making recordings failed, because it's not enough to just be John Frusciante, or to be anybody to be Jimi Hendrix. You have to work hard. You can't just expect that because of who you are that's enough to make music.
I had no spirits on my side when I tried making music in '96. I had none of the energy that's inside of me that pushes me to do what I do. I had none of the technique, I had none of the discipline, I had none of the focus. There's no reason why me, who not having played music because I was smoking crack and stuff, there's no reason I should be able to record music. Once I actually stopped taking the drugs I was taking and started living a very simple sort of life ...
I had this tiny little guest house I lived in. I had just enough room for my records and very little else. I just sat there practicing all the time.
After six months I felt like I was good enough to be making little demo recordings and stuff. I had joined the Chili Peppers. If it wasn't for joining the Chili Peppers I would have never put that amount of time into practicing. The only reason that I make music now is because Flea and Anthony had the belief in me that they had when I rejoined the band.
Because I'd play with other people around that time, like Perry Farrell, but he couldn't see it as the future. He had no belief in me. He just knew what I was at one time, and what I was now, which was significantly less than what I had been. Whereas Flea and Anthony saw what I could be. They had a vision. I don't even know that they knew what I could be. To them, they just thought I was great right then. They just thought the sound of us playing together is the greatest thing in the world. It's just a chemistry that's there. I don't think they were thinking, "Oh, in five months he'll be good." They were thinking, "This is the greatest thing in the world right now."
The feeling that that gave me, to actually have these people believe in me ... because nobody believed in me. I could see it in the way people would look at me. I was a loser. Flea and Anthony, to them, I was a winner. Playing with them every day inspired me. I was just playing along with records every day. I started as if I hadn't played guitar before. It was like I had lived another life, and I was starting life again, only I had the ability to learn everything about how to do and how not to do things from this past life. I really was starting from a fresh point. From point A again.
When I was 18, there was a point A. When I joined the Chili Peppers I had the ability to do anything. I had total freedom to do anything. I misused that freedom. I didn't do things right. For the first couple of years, I really fucked off and wasn't disciplined at all. Didn't focus on music at all. So by the time I was 20 and I wasn't actually focusing on music, I was totally off balance.
This time, I was starting from a fresh place. Whether I was a failure, or whether I was a loser, I believed in myself and I knew the right way to do things. I'd thought about things enough. I'd spent enough time regretting things enough to know the right way to do shit. Whether it was practicing guitar, or whether it was how to treat your friends or whether it was how to settle an argument between you and a friend or how to love somebody. I finally had the stuff under my belt, so this time I was going to start again. Because forever it just felt like I was trying to crawl out of a dirt hole. It felt like all my drug addiction and all the bad behavior of my youth had just put me down in a hole, and I could not get out.
I just wanted to get out and get into life. ...
It's been a good path since then, because I've grown and changed and gotten better at a pretty even level. I've stayed disciplined the whole time, and I don't ever lose sight of the fact that in the equation of what makes the music that I make, I'm a very small part of it.
It's the music that I listen to. It's pain. It's the friends that I have, whether they're human beings or spirits. That's where the music comes from. I'm just going on from that line. I was really blessed to be able to start from that fresh point and to have friends who believed in me. It would have been impossible without them.