How Red Hot Chili Peppers Found Themselves, Again
Sitting in his expansive home movie theater, Flea draws in a deep breath before running his fingers through the messy blonde mohawk that rests atop his head. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist doesn’t speak. He just sits there for a moment and contemplates the question hanging in the air: How, after a decade in the wilderness, did their one-time guitarist John Frusciante end up back in the band?
“There's a lot of ins and outs and in-betweens; hereto, wherefores and stuff,” Flea finally says. “Something like that is never real clear cut.”
It’s been nearly 40 years since Red Hot Chili Peppers initially formed out of the classrooms of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles and began making music. They started as a foursome: Anthony Kiedis on the microphone, Flea on bass, Jack Irons on drums and Hillel Slovak on guitar. Their debut self-titled album dropped in 1984, and since then, they’ve pretty much seen and done it all. There’s been heartbreaking losses -- Slovak’s death in 1988 was a severely existential moment for the band -- platinum plaques, sold-out stadiums, sock underwear, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There simply aren’t many worlds left for the SoCal rockers to conquer.
And yet, while so many of their Gen X contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, the Chilis are still standing; they’re still jamming and still melding unique funk rhythms and savage rock riffs in a way that few others can. The lineup may have shifted over time – Chad Smith, the group’s stalwart percussionist joined the group the same year that Slovak passed – but the character, the mania and the mayhem that drives the band has never faltered.
Their new album, called Unlimited Love, is out today (April 1st). Their producer Rick Rubin, when reached by email, sums up this era as being one for the fans: “If you like the Chili Peppers, you’ll be very pleased with what they are up to these days.”
Perhaps most inexplicably of all for the Chilis in 2022 is that they’re doing it once again with the enigmatic guitar player that was such a crucial force as they created their greatest musical compositions. “He's a one-of-a-kind, John Frusciante,” the group’s singer Anthony Kiedis says by phone, before comparing the guitarist to that legendary Italian Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.
“It's like when your long-lost brother, who's been on a desert island, gets back to civilization and says, ‘Hey, I'm back. I need to be your brother again.’ You don't really have a choice, you're like, ‘I understand you created this thing; we can't deny you that.’ And that's the pickle that we were in.”
As far as reunions go, the prospects of the Chili’s erstwhile guitar savant rejoining the lineup seemed like a dismal prospect prior to 2019. Frusciante had stayed prolific during his years away from the band, cooking up a number of electronic projects under the pseudonym Trickfinger, along with a variety of solo albums. He simply didn’t appear to be very eager to get back on the roller coaster that is the life of a massively successful, rock and roll band. Meanwhile, the Chilis kept plugging along, making new records with his replacement, Josh Klingoffer.
Frusciante was originally inducted into the lineup at the tender age of 18 following the tragic death of original guitarist Hillel Slovak in 1988. Immediately, he began contributing mind-bending musical ideas, and was an integral piece on their early, full-length masterpiece Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991.
Then, a year later, he quit.
The guitarist spent the next half-decade following his departure largely out of the public eye, working on solo projects and battling a heroin addiction, before getting clean and rejoining the band in 1998. Once again, his wild solos and instantly identifiable riffs breathed new life into seminal albums like the multi-platinum monster Californication, along with By The Way, and finally the massive, double-disc set Stadium Arcadium in 2006.
Then he quit again.
The Chilis moved on. Josh Klingoffer assumed six-string responsibilities and recorded two different albums with the band: I’m With You in 2011 and The Getaway in 2016. “Josh is fucking awesome,” Flea is quick to note. “Our band would not have continued without him. He was incredible. Not only a great musician, he's like a helpful person. He's the guy that will drive across town in the middle of the night to bring you a rehearsal tape, because you're curious about what it sounded like.”
Three years passed following the release of The Getaway, and the Chili Peppers started plotting out their next record. But things didn’t feel quite right. The songwriting was taking a lot longer than usual, and there seemed to be a general lack of direction guiding the process. A change was once again in order.
That brings us back to the original question, and the heart of the matter: How did John Frusciante return for his third tour of duty as a Chili Pepper?
It all began one night over dinner. “We're talking and listening to music and hanging out and talking like friends,” Flea recalls. At one point, Flea’s wife and Frusciante’s girlfriend left the room, and suddenly the two old bandmates were alone. “And I was just like, ‘Dude, just from my heart, I fucking miss playing with you.” Tears began streaming down the bass player’s eyes after the admission left his lips.
“I hadn't said that to him, because I wanted to respect what he would want to do,” Flea says. “He was very respectful about what we were doing, even though I imagined it wasn't always easy for him.” And yet, Frusciante apparently felt the same. His eyes began watering, too, as he stared back at his old pal. “He responded to me saying, ‘I really miss playing with you too.’” The conversation continued from there. Shortly afterward, Flea approached Kiedis and laid it on him: “I was like, ‘Dude, I feel like John might want to come back to the band.’”
Red Hot Chili Peppers had reached a crossroads. No matter what they chose to do, a difficult conversation would have to follow. “Through a little bit of cosmic meditation, we arrived at the place where we really had no choice,” Kiedis says. “It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to Josh, but it was also heart opening to have John back.”
Klingoffer was understandably hurt, but then again, what’s the old saying? When God closes a door, he opens a window? “The greatest silver lining of that whole emotional escapade was that months later, Josh joined Pearl Jam, which I'm pretty sure is his favorite band in the whole world,” Kiedis notes. “It wasn't like I felt guilty, because I knew that we did what we had to do, but it did make me feel joy for Josh.”
With Frusciante officially back on board, the immediate goal became seeing what kind of chemistry still existed between the four of them. “He clearly did not want to pick up where we had left off 15 years earlier with Stadium Arcadium,” Kiedis says. “He wanted to just go back and be humble and start at zero and just play music together. And maybe cover a bunch of old blue songs until we found ourselves again and started from a new place, not the expectations of what we had done in the past.
“So, we did that. We went back to our early Red Hot Chili Peppers record one, two and three. And we played some songs off that. And then eventually he just started unloading this collection of song ideas that he had inside of him, that he had quietly amassed over the decade.”
Flea, it seemed, was newly inspired by some recent dalliances with the piano and synth. At one point during recording, Frusciante handled bass duties while Flea played around on the ivories. He also added in some horn parts and arrangements on a few different tracks. Nevertheless, as one of the greatest bass players in the history of modern rock, he reserved his greatest contributions for the lowest end of the sonic spectrum.
Even after all these years, Kiedis is still amazed by what his buddy on bass can accomplish. “He's a rhythmic monster, but he also has that ability to listen to deep space and hear court progressions and things that are just begging to become songs. When he picks up his bass to warm up for a band practice, I just like singing along with him. It's a very natural experience.”
The simple act of jamming has always been a crucial component to the Chilis’ creative process. Improvisation. Groove. It all matters. “We're not a band who put shit on a computer,” Flea says. “We play together in a room looking at each other, feeling each other, and John brings a lot. There's a whole lot of John and it's not just playing, but it's also his feeling about music, about who he is. His music is him. It's his soul. It's his mission.”
Flea wasn’t the only person to recognize that specific, electric alchemy. “John channels musical energy from other realms, and the psychic connection between John and Flea is extraordinary,” Rubin says. “They fit together perfectly. Being back in the room with Flea, John, Anthony and Chad again was deeply emotional. We are all friends, still seeing them come together to together again to make music was thrilling.”
Where before Frusciante had rejoined the lineup, the issue had been a lack of material, suddenly a new problem reared its head. They had too much. “We did have a good 50 pieces of music,” Kiedis says. “It's a mixed bag of pressure. Like, how the hell am I ever going to write lyrics for this many pieces?”
Then, just as the whole process was really gaining steam, the pandemic hit. The world shut down. All of a sudden, Kiedis has nothing but time on his hands to contemplate and work on the fruits of their cojoined labor. “I went away with probably 15 songs finished, but I had another 20 songs to work on,” he says. “And so, for six months, the world shut down and I had nothing to do, but wake up and write music every day, or wake up in the middle of the night and write lyrics for months on end.”
Kiedis let his emotions and imagination run wild over the eclectic array of rhythms and lead lines. He even spent several months hanging out with Rubin at his home studio in the Hawaiian island of Kauai, working out different lyrical ideas. “It isn't a pre-contemplated theme, for me,” Kiedis explains. “It's just writing anything and everything that comes out of my heart. There is this referring to some bygone eras, like in the song ‘Poster Child.’ There's just references to the road that we've seen along the way, and a song called ‘Aquatic Mouth Dance.’ Same thing. It's like, ‘How did we get here?’ Well, this is the story of how we got here. Survival and just being a part of whatever moment. We were alive in the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, the 2000s.”
Rubin has worked with the Chilis going all the way back to Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and on nearly every record since. (The only exception was 2016’s The Getaway, which was supervised by Danger Mouse.) Rubin has had a front-row seat to some of the band’s greatest achievements, and darkest moments. From the producer’s view, Kiedis managed to reach new heights with his writing on Unlimited Love. “He went from mainly rapping to writing more and more memorable melodies, and with each outing he continues to get better,” Rubin says. “For me, the lyrics on these sessions were his most beautiful and emotional.”
One of the first songs that really came together during those initial jam sessions was the album’s lead single; a moody, chorus-inflected rocker titled “Black Summer.” The idea was initially sparked by Frusciante. “When he brought it in, I think he was hearing it as a grunged out, almost Kurt Cobain-esque piece of music,” Kiedis recalls. “Then for some reason when I heard it, I heard the verses more like ancient folk.” And that’s where the strength of this particular lineup of Red Hot Chili Peppers really comes into focus.
“Even though he had this idea, when he heard me interpreting the melody of the verse, he never questioned me or he never said, ‘No, no, I wanted it to be like this,” Kiedis says. “He's like, ‘That's what Anthony's bringing. That's what Anthony's hearing. That's what it's going to be.’ Which is a great moment in the songwriting landscape when somebody is that open-minded to allow their musical children to be interpreted by who they're working with rather than being married to the idea.”
The band’s new album title emerged from a line that Kiedis penned for the song “She’s a Lover.” Amongst a handful of solid choices, Unlimited Love just seemed to fit. “The thing that I love about it is, I feel like the most valuable gift that I'm capable of… is just building bridges in a time of much divisiveness, like in this country and worldwide,” Flea says. “In my travels in the world… which covers a pretty wide fucking spectrum of people, from the projects to billionaire mansions; to rockstar life, to very humble working-class life -- I want to build bridges of love. And I want those bridges to be traveled by loving acts of kindness and people doing good fucking shit.”
With roughly 50 pieces of music recorded for Unlimited Love, the band had a tough task of trying to whittle it down to a modestly digestible size that could at least fit across two pieces of vinyl. They went about it democratically. “Once we've all voted, including Rick, we tally up the scores," Kiedis says. "And then we look at variety. It's like, okay, so these were the songs that out the most votes, but is it the best bouquet? And so then we have a revisit and we make sure that we're speaking to a varied palette of feelings and ideas and the songs.”
So, what then, about those songs that didn’t make the record? Any chance the world might get a chance to hear those as well? “I think you very well might,” Kiedis teases. “If history is any indication, we could go on forever, but I think more will be revealed by the end of this tour. If we can survive this tour and get along and have a good time and not physically collapse, then I think anything is possible for us.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers are also in the midst of preparing to hit the road for their first-ever stadium-size tour. They’ve played the big venues and festivals before, but nothing like the sustained scale of their upcoming run. “I like playing festivals, I like playing laundromats, I like playing dive bars, I like playing house parties,” Kiedis says. “So, a stadium's just another venue and we will figure out how to bring the music to the person in the very last row.”
They won’t be alone, of course. The band is bringing out an eclectic, and frankly awesome, array of artists to open the show for them. Among the names are The Strokes, Haim, St. Vincent, Beck, Anderson Paak, A$AP Rocky, Thundercat, and King Princess. When talk turns to touring, Flea’s voice noticeably rises. “I just want the fucking best acts we can get,” he says. “Some bands, it's real important to them, that no one that can steal the show from them. I'm like, ‘Try to fucking take the stage. Go out there. Let me see what you got, because I got no fucking problem rocking a motherfucker.’”
When they do hit the stage, they’ll have the opportunity to finally air out some of the fresh material they’ve been sitting on and waiting to share for nearly three years. They couldn’t be more stoked. They didn’t know what to expect when Frusciante agreed to come back, but the results became so much more than they bargained for.
“I didn't have a concrete expectation, and I've known John long enough to know that this is a human being who is in a perpetual state of personal evolution,” Kiedis says. “When I met him, he was a teenager. He has some of that same electricity that he's always had, but he's very evolved and he's a lot more open and forgiving and maybe pliable than he was as a younger John.” That has to feel good in the studio, right? “I was excited,” Kiedis confirms. “And I also know that he brings the goods.”
More than anything, that’s what the Chilis know what they’re getting with Frusciante back in the fold: The goods. Unlimited Love is a record loaded with tasty solos, savage riffs, and instantly catchy melodies. Frusciante put his stamp on this collection of songs, but the sum of the Chilis is always so much more than its individual parts.
“It's a record that goes together in a way that covers a good swath of what we've been doing,” Flea says. “And there's a bunch of other songs that are really different. I think it's all good. We're not thinking about what anyone else is doing, what anyone's going to think about it, what an audience is going to think about it, only about ourselves being lost in the process and having faith in one another.”
Faith is what led Red Hot Chili Peppers to take a chance on an 18-year old kid named John Frusciante to help them pick up the pieces all those years ago, following the tragic death of Slovak. Faith allowed them to endure after Frusciante left the lineup. Not just once, but twice. But it’s love that brought them together. Love that sustained them through all the ups and down. Love that keeps them all coming back. Hearing them tell it, the supply is unlimited.
Studio photos by Sandy Kim and Clara Balzary
Live photos by Ben Kaye
Archival photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Illustration by Steven Fiche