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By Matt Resnicoff
FLEA: ON TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
"I don't suppose any of you caught the documentary last night on genetic engineering."
Behind the sunglasses, tattoos and the swath of purple bandanna, Dave Navarro had somwthing he couldn't keep from his new band. "They were trying to change the DNA structure in the hemoglobin of pigs," he told them, "to make it a human form so they could store and use the blood. They were basically manufacturing human hemoglobin in pig hosts, for consumption and emergencies."
Anthony Kiedis wasn't exactly bullish on the pig experiment. "That's dangerous business once the government gets involved," he pointed out, and Flea offered a reflective anecdote. "I was drinking something in China once and I kept asking what it was," he said, "and they kept muttering under their breath until I finally heard it-turtle blood." Ethical considerations turned to the dilemma of the basketball pro who left his hometown to play for a winning team elsewhere; the notion of man as the epicenter of nature; the Lankersham Boulevard passerby with bleached hair who Flea taunted with the pointer-pinky devil salute. "That guy was definitely `Spandau Ballet.'" "Naw, that wasn't the New Romantic look. They had puffy shirts." "Hey, remember that film of early Led Zeppelin in puffy shirts, before they got into being cock-rockers?"
What else preoccupied the Red Hot Chili Peppers on this, the eve of their rebirth? They couldn't put it into words. The minute the band adjourned the outdoor lunch and moved into a large practice room, Flea strapped on his bass like a machine gun and started pumping, with Chad Smith eyeing him carefully before kicking in a huge, well-regulated backbeat. Kiedis sang nothing; he just hunched silently over a pad of notes, nodding his head in time to the familiar sound of this rhythm section, and waited for Navarro to shoot it full of the red-hot hemoglobin that will turn it back into a band.
Keeping the Chili Peppers together in the wake of fickle guitarists has become a sort of running risk, but anything becomes less difficult when you do it four times a year. Somehow, after the death of Hillel Slovak, the alienation of Jack Sherman and, since May '92, John Frusciante's secession, Arik Marshall's silent disappearance and the dismissal of one guy Flea hardly remembers, the new group sounded as cohesive as a group can. With almost a decade in Jane'' Addiction as a reference, Navarro knows exactly what will make this connection work-he's relieved to finally be in a band whose drummer gets a say in anything. He had rejected an earlier invitation from Flea (and a similar call from Guns N' Roses) simply because he couldn't throw himself behind music he didn't have a hand in writing. As he spread achingly melodic ideas around the Chili Peppers' funk that afternoon in rehearsal, he signaled how raw communication may unlock the world for them.
The four musicians returned outside and an odd fellow working on a sidecar-style vehicle looked up as they gathered around their collection of new Harleys. "All you guys ever talk about is motorcycles," he said, his face cracking into a toothless grin. "S'fun, innit?"
One large rafter in his home is covered with old backstage passes, the bathroom is awash in gold records, and on the far wall of the den hangs a small population of wooden masks, each face twisted into some bizarre and euphoric contortion. The most ghoulish grin of all belongs to Michael "Flea" Balzary, staring down at ornately carved marble chess figures bought with earnings from the Peppers' multimillion-selling BloodSugarSexMagik. Those sessions' outtakes alone are a fair chunk of multicultural indulgence, from Hendrix's "Little Miss Lover" to the Coneheads soundtrack hit "Soul to Squeeze," and as they surface, they're sustaining the band during this fertile period of reinvention: Just last night the album's producer, Rick Rubin, remixed their version of the Stooges' "Search and Destroy" and sent over some dubs, one called the "Ultra-insane Din Mix," another the "Slightly Cleaner Less Level Mix." "I know one thing," Flea says as he loads the cassette. "We rocked the fuckin' house when we played it."
As the music barrels forth he screams some helpful commentary: "Jim Keltner was in the studio! He knew the guy setting up the drums. We got him all nervous." He's still giggling as it fades. "We also did `Bold as Love'-that song's so beautiful. And this African thing that Rick didn't like, but we tracked it anyway and it's awsome. It's called `Fela's Cock.'"
Flea has delicate hands, the kind you grip in a gentle handshake for fear of hurting them. He jumps through a hatch into a music room, picks up a piccolo trumpet and begins playing Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning." Before being stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome earlier this year, he says, he was playing along daily with Charles Mingus records, and did a Haydn concerto with a pianist at a Sunset Strip rock club. Everyone at that show just stood there, but Flea thought it was beautiful. Flea has never been one to judge his actions by consequence; today, he put a piece of tape over a chest tattoo that reads the name of his ex-wife, another casualty of what he mourns as his worst year ever. It also promises to be the best year yet for his band, to whose success he's committed as much funkpower as he can muster. In the balance of these concerns is the essence of the man all the other bikers call Mister Softee.
MUSICIAN: Les Claypool of Primus said that in the `80s everybody wanted to be Van Halen; now they all want to be you. Instead of focusing on solos, they're beginning to address the groove. But now there's all these bands playing stupid for the sake of playing stupid-I say if they're gonna play clichés, do it with conviction, but I'd much rather hear new ideas.
FLEA: Yeah, I don't wanna hear rehearsed rock `n' roll- it bores the shit out of me. I want to hear innovative music in rock. Youknow, people can say a lot of things about the Chili Peppers, but they can never say we're playing other people's shit, [laughs] `cause we're playing our own shit. To be a modern rock band and not be innovative is to suck. And to suck is to be lame. And to be lame is to be weak . And to be weak is to be a jerk. [chuckles]
MUSICIAN: Well, look at the charts.
FLEA: As far as what's on the charts, it's what comforts people, what makes radio programmers feel safe; they're not sticking their necks out.
MUSICIAN: They did with "Give it Away."
FLEA: Yeah, I guess they did, huh? You think they stuck their necks out with that one?
MUSICIAN: Well, if it fell into a category, it would be on a black station.
FLEA: I know. It was funny that we won a Grammy with that for "Best hard rock song"-it's a slinky funk groove! They should have just said, "'Best white guys with electric instruments.'" Yeah, the Grammy we won was racist. But maybe they were thinking of expanding that category, too. It was by no stretch of the imagination a hard rock song. It was just that we're white and jumping around.
MUSICIAN: Do you get asked to do gigs where you just don't fit, on the basis of celebrity alone?
FLEA: Well, the Jon Hassell situation was that they contacted me through the record company. I felt lucky to be able to play with him; he's an amazing trumpet player. I very infrequently get asked to play with anybody, and it bums me out. I wish more people would call! [laughs] It's such a learning experience to grow as a musician, and to expand creatively and just get better at what I do. It's a feeling of accomplishment.
This friend of mine is producing a record for a lady from Algiers; se's 70 and just wails, this powerful animal-sounding voice. It's crazy in rai music, because they have this traditional North African music with microtonal singing, and it's just that and this crazy-sounding flute and drums. They take different parts of Western music and blend it with traditional Algerian music. Like, on this album they have me, East Bay Ray from the Dead Kennedys and Robert Fripp. I wish that could happen more here; I wish I could play with hardcore rappers, and more free-flowing spontaneous improvisation things. That's heaven.
MUSICIAN: You have this real Miles aesthetic, spontaneous and sudden. Teo Mecero could come in and edit your jams to create a really interesting recording.
FLEA: I would love to make a record like that. Actually, me and John Frusciante and Stephen Perkins-the drummer for Porno for Pyros- jammed a lot, recorded stuff on a four-track, and we've been talking about releasing the best parts. We're thinking about going up to the studio where I played with Hassell and playing for three days and putting out an album. It'd be instrumental rock music without structure, with real emotion. It'd be a beautiful thing.
MUSICIAN: Seeing you rehearse, it seems disruptive for such an interactive group to have to keep realigning itself with new guitar personalities.
FLEA: It can be, but at the same time it can be like stepping into something new. The last record is the best record we made. As far as the string interplay, it was so easy to anticipate each other and communicate.
MUSICIAN: With Fear, you were playing for rage. But you also say you want to get in touch with what's beautiful. Now, is rage any way to connect with positive spirituality?
FLEA: I just try to connect with what's real. Rage is positive spirituality and what's beautiful is positive spirituality. I think instead of doing heroin in a corner, if you're attacking your problems in an artistic way, whether you're massaging and caressing them or beating them to a bloody pulp, you're dealing with them, and if you're playing music and dealing with what's going on in your life, that's what art is. Being vulnerable like that is the one time you can be open to everything. You can be a vehicle for that energy. When you say something true, and painful, whether you say it with words or music…that's the shit.
MUSICIAN: This must all take a toll on your body.
FLEA: Yeah, I'm just getting over being really, really sick. Actually, the last year has been the worst year of my entire life. I had Epstein-Barr, chronic fatigue. The last tour was in South America-it was fun, we played in stadiums with Nirvana, and Ian MacKaye from Fugazi was hanging out. The day I got back I started feeling weird, and I've been up and down for nine months.
MUSICIAN: With chronic fatigue, you can barely function.
FLEA: You get varying levels. I've been really fucked up, dude. I haven't been able to do shit. It's even tough to play; we had to cancel a tour. It's been really traumatic. I'm still a little weak.
MUSICIAN: What do you do to keep your energy up when you travel?
FLEA: Um…chainsmoke, stay up really late, don't sleep well, eat shitty food.
MUSICIAN: Ah, the nutritionist's regimen.
FLEA: Yeah. [laughs] But on the last tour, I'd split up with my wife a while before. I was losing my marbles, man. I was sitting up in hotel rooms throwing tantrums, I mean smashing stuff around. I just could not sleep. I was so stressed out. I was wearing myself down to the nub. It was weird; after about a year-and-a-half I was starting to feel better. I quit smoking, I wasn't drinking, the only thing I was doing was smoking pot. And then boom, I got sick. One thing I learned from being ill is a guy really has to accept where he's at, at that moment in the universe. [laughs] Because otherwise you're just driving yourself bananas. I've been learning about being happy in my skin, you know?
MUSICIAN: It's surprising that all that would happen on the last tour, the culmination of 10 years' work.
FLEA: I know! Making money, playing big places, playing good music, having a hit album. But before Lollapalooza, John was really unhappy. We were building up to him leaving, which he did in the middle of a Japanese tour. It was hell. A tour is such a rough thing, and if you can't live inside the music and the people you play with and have a love thing of brotherhood and cameraderie…That's the shaving grace, because you all stick together and do it. If you can't, you can drive yourself crazy.
MUSICIAN: Was playing a way of getting it out of your system?
FLEA: No. It was great to play, but the communication between the four of us was totally stilted, and I was so tired. I get so physically hyped up when I play, and I just burned out. Once I get up there I was like, "Play." Blank. "That's all that counts. Play good." But I was losing it. And then John was unhappy; he wasn't into the whole fame-rockstar trip at all. He was into finding peace of mind and love somewhere else.
MUSICIAN: Did you audition Buckethead before Arik?
FLEA: Buckethead! Yeah. Right at the same time. We auditioned a few guys. Buckethead. [laughs]
MUSICIAN: He's an out cat.
FLEA: He seemed so sweet and normal. He came in a started jamming, playing all this crazy shit, a lot of fast, crazy runs with a lot of effects. That would be great, but we needed someone who could also kick a groove.
MUSICIAN: Navarro is a wah-wah pumper. He's bringing another thing in.
FLEA: Totally. He has the big, surrounding textural sound, that warm psychedelic motion. It's also vicious. We're learning from each other; you get to know someone by jamming, not by playing some song. When you start jamming, someone just plays their instinct. He starts playing this chordal, melodic guitar, wheras the first thing I do when I pick up a bass is play hard, percussive rhythms. That's my first thing-like shitting. And when something comes naturally, you develop it. Our interpretations of each other create a new sound.
MUSICIAN: More than most people your age in rock bands, you come to music with a sense of history. Did you ever play the upright?
FLEA: I bought an upright and started playing every day, and when I got sick I stopped. I'll get it together. I listen to jazz all the time; my stepdad's a jazz musician. I listen to Coltrane playing "Giant Steps" and totally relate to it on an emotional level, but on a technical level I don't know what's going on. There will be a day when I'll be able to look you in the ye and say I can play "Giant Steps." I wanna learn how to walk over changes.
MUSICIAN: What do you like?
FLEA: A lot of trumpet players. Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis of course, Terence Blanchard, Louis Armstrong, Fats Navarro. And Booker Little, Ornette, Joe Henderson. A year ago I saw one of the greatest shows I ever saw in my life. Ahmad Rashad.
MUSICIAN: Ahmad Rashad is a sports anouncer.
FLEA: Ahmad Jamal. Doy! It was so intense…and he's back for the long bomb! [Laughter] It was this old guy hitting chords on the piano, and his whole body was literally jumping up in the air. And then he would play this gnarly riff and just get up and walk around a little bit, like it was just too hot, he had to get up, you know, it was gonna explode or something! Incredible. And then he started slam-dunking…
MUSICIAN: Is there any translation between trumpet and bass?
FLEA: I can sight-read trumpet really well, and I play complex classical music. I get through jazz tunes, play the heads and kind of eke my way through the changes. I learned on trumpet. And then in eleventh grade Hillel said, "Our bass player's a jerk, why don't you learn to play bass?" But since then, I've never learned to read the bass clef.
MUSICIAN: But if someone wrote out a line in treble clef, you could read it?
FLEA: I could read it in a second. It's lame. I think I'm there, musically, in a lot of good ways, and I don't think learning theory would harm that; it would help drastically. But I don't feel crippled by it except when it comes to jazz, which is one of my favorite things to listen to. It's where the most art happens. So yeah, I gotta learn!
MUSICIAN: When you slap, you hold the bass vertically, and you keep your thumb parallel to the strings; slappers usually rotate their wrists and hit the string with the thumb pointed upward.
FLEA: I think it came from playing punk rock and being low…because no self-respecting punk rocker is gonna hold his bass high-he'd look like a fuckin' jerk. So I had it low, and then probably because my fingers can't reach, I go like that…it comes from wanting to be as cool as Sid Vicious.
MUSICIAN: Maybe that's what gives you flexibility and stamina; you aren't limited to just bouncing the thumb once or twice.
FLEA: Yeah, a lot of it came from playing really hard, too. Because I never learned the funk stuff, Larry Graham, Louis Johnson. I started my own way, which was hitting as hard as I could and screaming at the top of my lungs. That's how I developed my technique, and then I started getting into more intricate things.
MUSICIAN: Will you move more towards five-string?
FLEA: [chuckles] Probably not. I played a five-string on "Funky Monks" and "Righteous and the Wicked." Maybe it's just because I never practice. [raises fists triumphantly, smiling] But there's something about the four string. You see these guys with their big fancy basses with all these strings and knobs and shit. I think of a cool-looking guy playing bass, I think of Sid Vicious, Bootsy-someone with a four-string. With a five-string, you never look as cool. [laughs]
MUSICIAN: Jonas Hellborg has a 10-string. The neck's as wide as a human head.
FLEA: Really? Well, see, I'm sure that guy can play circles around me and do all kinds of high solos and low bassslines, but when you have to many options…I don't know. It's a romantic thing. Like when I call up Mike Watt, I say, "How's the four-string treatin' ya?" `Cause we're the four guys. It might sound kind of silly.
MUSICIAN: Watt says that in the future, bass won't be notes, it'll be just something you feel. No distinction between tones.
FLEA: Which is like a lot of rap music, where you have that electronic kick drum that goes boooom, the Roland 808 or whatever. I love that -that Hollywood Boulevard Iranian mating call.
MUSICIAN: What about moving between the ballad work the band is getting famous on and the funk you epitomize? Is there…
FLEA: …a contradiction there?
MUSICIAN: Well, there's obviously a contradiction. But in terms of the way you conceptualize, is it coming from the same place?
FLEA: It's coming from the exact same place: from guys trying to strike on a groove that feels good. And as much as we're playing something pretty, we're playing something funky or hardcore. Like, "Search and Destroy" sounds beautiful to me. When you love playing, you're capable of playing soft and pretty and loud and aggressive. It's all the effect of the love thing between the guys playing it.
We got famous for "Under the Bridge," because all of a sudden we had a hit song, and some housewife hears it and gets the album [laughs] and it freaks `em out. And now we have the Coneheads song, which is an outtake from the same sessions, and that's another pretty song. I guess pretty songs become hits easier that other ones do.
MUSICIAN: All your gold records and awards are in the bathroom.
FLEA: I just… I'm proud of them and everything. I don't want to be looking at them all the time. [laughs] Some guys just throw them away or keep `em in the closet or something. [pause] It's weird, because I'm proud that we communicated with a lot of people, and I'm proud that we persevered and got over in a commercial way without compromising our sound one iota. We got over by what's probably our greatest artistic achievement. It's amazing for those things to happen together. But the gold record thing…you might as well just put a piece of paper on the wall that says how much money you made. [laughs] "Yeah, my gross fiscal percentage of the Dow Jones…" It's kind of embarrassing that way.
MUSICIAN: How many records have you sold?
FLEA: Golly, I don't know. Most of `em are the last record. [laughs] I think, worldwide, five million. I never expected that to happen. And it happened in a way that was natural and built up to it; it wasn't like bands who get devistated by a huge success from the gitgo and don't know how to deal with it. Like Pearl Jam's first record, all of the sudden they're like the Doors! [laughs]
MUSICIAN: In more ways than one.
FLEA: They sell like 10 billion records! God, I would lose my marbles. We gradually sold more, each record did better than the last, and the last one was a big jump up. I always said, "If we do ever have a hit, it won't be like we're standing on top of a flagpole. We'll be standing on top of a mountain," because we'll have all this shit behind us, all the work we put in. There's substance behind it; we can't be blown over by it. We've done a lot of touring for a lot of years. And I'm sure there are a lot of people who are loyal to us, who have listened throughout the years. It's a good feeling.