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John Frusciante, Circa 2004: A Previously Unpublished and Detailed Interview with the Red Hot Chili Peppers Guitarist
December 2019 brought with it exciting news for fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as longtime guitarist John Frusciante rejoined the mix, resuming the duties that Josh Klinghoffer served since 2009.
Five years before leaving the Chili Peppers in 2009, Frusciante granted rock journalist Steve Rosen an in-depth interview about a number of topics in and out of the realm of the Chili Peppers, including his 2004 solo record Shadows Collide with People (which featured musical colleague Josh Klinghoffer), Enjoy the archival and previously unpublished interview below in audio format, followed by the full transcript.
John Frusciante, the resurrected guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the creator of a handful of esoteric solo albums, might best be categorized as a minimalist player, an anti-guitar figure eschewing lengthy solos, solos with more than a dozen notes, the application of finger vibrato, and the use of a tremolo bar – even though his main instrument is a 1962 Fender Stratocaster. On his newest solo album, Shadows Collide With People, all these textures are employed, or not employed as the case may be.
Self-produced, the record features Frusciante playing guitar, keyboards, bass, percussion, and singing. He is accompanied by longtime musical associate Josh Klinghoffer, a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, dabbling with these same pieces.
On a picture perfect Southern California afternoon, John talked about his unique approach to playing and writing. Seated on a sixth floor balcony of the legendary Chateau Marmont – the place where John Belushi gulped his last breath and Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson called home for several weeks – Frusciante gazed out over the Hollywood Hills. Having endured seven kinds of physical and mental hell with past addictions and depression, the Chili Peppers player was as content and subdued as a baby with a bottle. The sun shining and a gentle breeze softly caressing the leaves on the trees, John Frusciante tried to make sense of John Frusciante. It didn’t always work, but here are those insights and recollections.
What is the overriding attraction for you in wanting to record a solo album separate from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
JF: I don’t write lyrics in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I’m a songwriter. What I do in the Chili Peppers has more to do with putting little pieces together because I’m leaving a lot in the hands of three other people.
What I consider myself to be above all else is a songwriter, and this is why I write songs. In the Chili Peppers I might write a whole song but it’s still just a guitar part. I’ve been writing lyrics since I was eleven years old and I’ve been getting better and better at it. And there are so many more from this period of time that aren’t on this [album]. There were about fourteen songs that were contenders to be for The Brown Bunny soundtrack for Vincent Gallo’s movie and five of them ended up on the soundtrack album.
The stuff that I do in Brown Bunny is very sad music, and it’s music that’s not meant to have drums, it’s just meant to have acoustic guitar and maybe a few electric guitar overdubs and a vocal. And the stuff that was on this album was meant to be very elaborately produced. We were excited about albums like Violator by Depeche Mode where there’s a very extreme type of production.
You would characterize your production on this album as extreme?
JF: Yeah, I’m really using the studio like an effect rather than just using the studio to represent a realistic representation of what we sound like playing together. I’m using things like compression and echo and reverb in a very extreme kind of way.
If we look at a track like “Carvel,” the opening song of the album, how would you describe its development? How do your songs evolve?
JF: The first thing we did was make a demo recording of that song; most of the songs on this album we made 8-track cassette demos of. That was usually where most of the experimenting happened, you know? How did it go? Oh, I remember … I did that demo pretty much by myself. I recorded the guitar, Josh overdubbed drums, I did a synth bass, and I took my Mellotron sounds which I had on samples on an Emulator and I just tried to use sounds that I didn’t normally use. I used one sound for the intro, I used another sound for the verse, I used another sound for the third section – I tried to use a different sound for every section. And then Josh and I always make up our [vocal] harmonies once something is in the demo form. And that’s probably the final stage of it.
For the actual tracking sessions in the studio, what was that routine like?
JF: In this case, Josh had written all the drum parts so pretty much it was me and Josh sitting in a room teaching these drum parts to Chad and Josh would usually play bass and I’d play guitar. There were some songs where I was meant to play bass on ‘em so it was just me and Chad tracking them.
The sound and feel of your rhythm guitar parts are so uniquely you – where did this come from? Can you describe your approach to rhythm playing, the way you strum?
JF: It’s just something that comes from playing a while. I mean I can recognize most of my favorite guitar players playing. There’s something that makes no two people’s muscles and skin and the electricity in an individual’s body like no one else. You can hear somebody like Jeff Beck playing one note and you know who it is.
As I’ve grown as a musician, I’ve gotten more comfortable with sounding like myself. I think a lot of guitar players cover themselves up in ways, and I’ve gotten more into the idea of having my playing be in kind of a naked state.
Physically speaking, how do you approach the rhythmic aspect of your style? Is it a forceful strumming, is it reckless?
JF: I definitely do both; I definitely do play as hard as you can play a lot of the time. In the last few years I’ve definitely gotten into the things that can be done with gentle playing, certain harmonics and things that only come out if you play gentle. And then when you play hard it really means something as well.
In a sense, you bring an acoustic rhythm approach to your electric playing. Would you agree with that?
JF: I guess so; I play both things a lot but what you’re talking about is how I strum really hard. It’s hard to say if one influences the other because I don’t give a lot of thought to it. As far as the strength of my right wrist goes, that comes from punk, from playing all down strokes. Punk is what I started playing and that’s where all that power comes from.
And then part of it comes from having played funk so much with Flea.
We spent endless thousands of hours playing funk grooves together, and that’s probably where a lot of the delicacy and the finesse in my right wrist comes from. It’s probably my main place that I express myself, through playing rhythm guitar, but at same time it’s not something that I’m that conscious of.
Would you describe yourself as a soloist in the traditional sense? Even your approach to soloing has a very rhythmic element about it and doesn’t usually come from just some sort of bluesy scale.
JF: I’m more interested in doing things texturally with the guitar and trying to come up with ways of playing that I find interesting. And for me, the rock star guitar soloing approach is a dead end. I don’t see that many people ever taking it anywhere. And to me the most interesting guitar players that we’ve had over the last twenty years have not been soloists.
They’ve been people like Bernard Sumner from Joy Division and New Order, Johnny Marr from The Smiths, Johnny Greenwood in Radiohead, Kurt Cobain in Nirvana … none of these people were soloists. These people all did interesting things with their sound and they do interesting lead guitar things, but it’s not flashy. To me that guitar playing kind of reached a peak with Jimmy Page and I don’t really think anybody’s ever taken it any further than Jimmy Page.
Eddie Van Halen I thought went to an interesting place with it, but again I don’t think it ever went anywhere from there. I’d love it if somebody came along and was doing some kind of flashy lead guitar playing that interested me. I find that the people who take it in a more interesting direction are people who more work with sound and the ways in which an electric guitar can be turned into many different instruments.
If you just limit yourself to the electric guitar from the blues-lead guitar standpoint, it’s just a few instruments. But if you look at what Keith Levene did with Public Image Ltd. on their first couple of albums, it’s a different instrument for every song.
Electric guitar is such a versatile thing. To me it’s the greatest instrument that was ever invented. It can be so many things and it’s just endless – the instrument that Robert Fripp played is not the instrument that Jimi Hendrix played, is not the instrument that John McGeoch in Magazine played.
Sometimes live in the Chili Peppers I get into that flashy rockstar lead guitar thing, but it’s more because of the energy of playing in front of an audience. It’s not something that I’m interested in musically, it’s more something I do because I get off on the interaction between the audience and the excitement that’s generated in the exchange of love. And a lot of the time that will make me play in a way that’s more blues-based and flashy and stuff.
If you’ve ever seen me live you might have seen more of a glimpse of me as a lead guitar player but usually if I’m thinking more of music and what I’m interested in like when I’m making a record, to me lead guitar playing should make a textural sonic statement within the song or it should be something that is a melody as beautiful as something that you would sing.
Which brings us to the next track, “Second Walk” – that little overdriven lead passage, where does that come from? Do you sit down and go over the changes and come up with a riff or is it off the cuff? Is it the same approach with the Chilis?
JF: It’s usually like first take. I guess what happens a lot of times in the Chili Peppers is the first time we decide to make a solo section in a song I’m really against having any solo sections. I wasn’t into it. I go through periods where when I’m recording I’m not into it and when I’m on tour, I want the solos all to be longer. On tour I’ll go up there and solo for ten minutes.
You touched on a key factor of your soloing which is the melodic aspect – where do those choices of notes come from?
JF: I usually try to create some sort of interesting juxtaposition between what Flea’s playing and whatever I’m playing. I try to work with the space between what we do. I’m more thinking about shaping the space that’s between what the guitar and bass is doing rather than, “What can I do over this?” If Flea is putting the pole over here [gestures to the side with left hand], I’m going to put a pole over here [gestures with right hand] and thereby creating this color in-between us. The theoretical things that I think of have more to do with creating space.
Does a song like “Dosed” on the last Chili Peppers album represent this light and dark aspect you’re talking about?
JF: That actually came from when the rest of the band was outside taking a break during rehearsal, I was in there and I had that Line 6 green loop pedal. I made a loop of one guitar part and then I added another part and then another part. I had those three guitar parts playing and then I was playing over that. And then when everybody else came in I had this beautiful loop going and that’s what that is.
On the record, I played each part as its own guitar part so we could spread it out in stereo and stuff.
What about a track like “Can’t Stop”? The groove on that is extraordinarily seamless.
JF: Yeah, my timing is pretty good. I know that’s just what I was playing with Chad when we were tracking it and that’s usually what it is. I usually don’t fix things. There’s not much editing or punching in my [rhythm] tracks.
On the new solo record, are you thinking in those same terms? Rhythmically and solo-wise?
JF: I’m not thinking so much about the space between me and somebody else, I’m just thinking about how to embellish a song of mine. Something like the solo at the end of “Omission,” it was really just the idea of having this grand ending and then having a solo with a really small Tom Verlaine-type tone. That’s probably a [Fender] Jaguar.
Shadows Collide With People is peppered with all sorts of keyboard sounds. Does playing against a keyboard pad bring out different elements of your playing? As opposed to the Chilis which is simply a trio?
JF: It was just all part of my idea for this record; I wanted it to have a lot of different keyboard sounds and I wanted to center it around having unusual sounds coming one after the other. For us when we made the demos, that was really the fun part of it. Finding really interesting synthesizer sounds to color the songs.
And virtually every song has at the heart of it an acoustic guitar.
JF: I write the songs on acoustic guitar and that was also part of my concept for the record. In the song “Omission” when it gets really fast towards the end of it, I could have easily put an electric guitar there, it would have made sense. But the idea was to have the electric guitar missing and the acoustic guitar strumming really hard and fast. Part of my idea for the sound of the record was not to overstate things with electric guitar that could be simply stated with acoustic guitar.
Jumping back to the Chilis for a moment, how do you describe the rhythm track that’s going on in “Cabron”?
JF: That’s inspired by Martin Barre’s guitar playing in Jethro Tull on “Aqualung.” That’s where that song comes from because I’d learned all the songs on Aqualung because he’s using the capo all the time on that album. I just started to write something like that.
The fact that it ended up sounding like this Mexican-sounding thing has more to do with Anthony’s vocal and Chad’s drums than it does with my guitar part. If you just analyze the guitar part, it’s coming more from a prog rock standpoint. It was a real flashy kind of busy guitar thing and it was a funny thing for Anthony to want to build a song around, because I had just written it as this guitar piece.
In a sense, do you balance Anthony’s melodic and rhythmic vocals with your guitar parts? In a type of call and answer routine?
JF: No, his vocal answers my guitar part. The guitar always comes before the vocals in the Chili Peppers so when you hear the guitar and the vocals doing the same thing it’s usually because he’s singing along to my guitar. For instance, on “Don’t Forget Me,” my idea for the verse was to go back and forth between a real machine-like kind of sound to a real flowing sound. I go back and forth between the left hand trills to the machine-like thing.
That song is an example of Flea playing the same bass line over and over for like a half-hour while I play different guitar parts over it. And those were probably just the first guitar parts I played. Then he stepped on his fuzz and I stepped on my wah-wah pedal and turned it to the trebliest position and that’s what the chorus. You should try to hear a live version of that song because on the record Rick [Rubin] made the harmonies much louder and turned the guitar down in the chorus. The idea for the chorus of that song is a really overdriven, heavy over the edge kinda thing. We put out a live version of it as a B-side on one of the singles for this album and that’s where you can hear what the original intention of that section was.
Can you describe what you’re doing in the verse on that repeated figure?
JF: That sound you’re talking about is an echo set on triplets for the whole song. If I’m picking sixteenth notes – dooga dooga dooga dooga – with the triplet echo going it makes it sound like doodladoodladoodladoodla … And actually the person I was thinking of when I came up with that was Daniel Ash; there’s a Bauhaus song called “Double Dare” I was thinking about [from In The Flat Field].
There are several instrumentals on your album. Does the guitar have to change the approach when there’s no vocal with which to contend?
JF: The instrumental songs on here, I don’t think they have guitar. “23 go in to End” has guitar but it’s not me or Josh [Klinghoffer]. It’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and he’s playing slide guitar. We just basically spent a whole day feeling like we were under water making this very ambient piece of music.
We were inspired by Brian Eno’s ambient records and we were inspired by Edgar Froese’s record, Epsilon In Malaysian Pale. “Negative 00 Ghost 27” is a sound I set up on the modular synthesizer to process a choir sound from a Mellotron; I set up the sound and then I had Josh come in and turn the Mellotron into this feedbacky, sort of harsh sounding thing. I brought Josh in and five minutes later we had what you hear on the record.
And on the other end of the spectrum is a track like “Water,” which seems to embody a sixties approach, maybe reminiscent of The Kinks or The Who’s “Happy Jack” period?
JF: Josh and I both love the Kinks and I suppose I was listening to the album Arthur a lot during the time we were making this record. But when I wrote that song I was trying to write something like the Talking Heads. And for the outro I was playing Chad [Smith] an Aphex Twin beat where the drums are always going off time and I tried to get him to do something along those lines; you’re playing some really fast drum beat and the drums are off time.
As the producer, can you sense when a little solo passage is right? When you’ve chosen the right notes and the perfect complementary tone?
JF: I’m never unclear about what’s good or what’s not good. I always am very sure of myself.
Jumping back to the Chilis for a moment, does Rick Rubin hear your guitar parts with the same ears as you do? Does he understand what you’re trying to create?
JF: Well, I do produce my guitars with the Chilis, Rick doesn’t have anything to do with them. Rick more has to do with the drums and the vocals and the mixing; when it comes to my guitar playing he leaves me alone and when it comes to Flea’s bass playing he leaves him alone. He might suggest things to Flea occasionally or to me he might say, “On ‘Warm Tape,’ you should do an answer thing like George Harrison does with a 12-string guitar on some Beatles song.” And it worked perfectly with what I was thinking because I’d already done an overdub so it ended up being a slide guitar being answered by a 12-string guitar. So he’ll throw little ideas my way but he won’t say, “That guitar part is not working.”
Are any of the songs on your album tracks that might have worked with the Chili Peppers?
JF: I think the song “Cut-Out” has a chord or two in common with “I Could Die For You” on the Chili Peppers album. I’d used the chord in one of my songs and then I thought, “I should use that chord in a Chili Peppers song.” Sometimes the ideas cross over but in general it’s very clear to me when I’m supposed to write the lyrics to a song of mine. And when it comes to the Chili Peppers, when I come up with a guitar part and don’t know where else to take it, I’m not thinking of a vocal. I’m thinking of something that is interesting in and of itself as a guitar part. Whereas in my songs, I might not find the guitar parts that interesting, it’s more in the relation to the vocals and what I’m imagining the synthesizers might be doing.
What is the initial seed for the songs on your album?
JF: My songs are all written at the moment they’re written. If I get an idea for a song, I just sit there until it’s finished …. whether it takes five minutes or three hours. I always finish it or I never finish it. I can understand why you’d be confused if you thought that my songs were put together in pieces; that’s how I do Chili Peppers stuff, putting things together in pieces. For my songs I conceive them in that one moment.
If we were writing the primer on how to achieve the John Frusciante guitar tone, how would you describe that?
JF: Hitting the guitar really hard. Using those orange Tortex picks [Jim Dunlop]. And I use gauge .010 strings and if I’m playing the [Gretsch] White Falcon, I use .012s.
Why is the Stratocaster the instrument you’re so comfortable with?
JF: Well, I just didn’t have a Les Paul; I got one recently. Now the main guitars that I find myself using are a Telecaster and the Les Paul; between the two of those you can get any kind of sound. The Les Paul is a ’69 but I wish I had a ’59. I love the Les Paul I have. But I think as far as the way I sound it has a lot to do with the Telecaster. And lately I’ve started playing through Vox amps and stopped playing through Marshalls. But it still sounds like me. Oh, and another thing is, if I’m playing a two-note chord, or a three-note chord, I’m still hitting all the strings. I’m just blocking the strings I’m not using with my left hand.
With my thumb or my other fingers … even if the chord is just a double-stop, even if it’s just two notes, I’m hitting all the strings. And I think that has a lot to do with it because most people will be playing a two-note chord in the middle of the guitar and they’re only picking those two notes because they’re scared to hit the other strings.
Say the part on “Can’t Stop,” somebody will just learn that and play the individual notes that I’m playing. I’m hitting all the strings for every one of the notes even though I’m not ever hitting two notes at once. It’s a single note line but I’m hitting all the strings and I’m just blocking all the ones with my left hand that aren’t being played. If I just sat there and played each note it wouldn’t sound like me at all. It’s a much more percussive thing.
It comes very naturally to me but I’ve become conscious of it when I’ve shown people my things and I realize what I’m doing.
“The Slaughter” was an interesting track with Flea and Chad playing together.
Yeah, he plays upright bass on there. When I wrote that song I was just trying to use certain chords. It goes from an Ab to A and then this diminished chord [1st fret fifth string, 2nd fret fourth string, open G, 2nd fret second string], then to a B and C#m and this diminished chord [3rd fret fifth string, 4th fret fourth string, 3rd fret third string, 4th fret second string], E and then an F#m6, E and F#m6. But the big change is Am6 to Amaj7. I’m always looking for interesting things to do; going from Am6 to Amaj 7 is an unusual thing and it doesn’t happen in that many songs.
When you can make something like that make sense, when you can make odd chords like that make sense in the context of a song, that’s what I’m always looking for. I was proud of that song because I was using certain chords. I know I’m not the only songwriter who uses that as their main reason for writing a song. That’s what’s fun about writing songs, it’s like a little mathematical game of trying to do something interesting.
Usually I’ll see somebody else use a chord. I’ll see Paul McCartney use a chord or John Lennon and I try to figure out a way to use that chord myself. But sometimes it just comes from practicing and learning things like Charles Mingus songs, and this probably came from some jazz thing I was working on. I’m always fascinated with how people use chords in different ways and Charles Mingus was definitely one of the main people I was studying at the time.
What about your finger vibrato? You’ve never really spoken about that part of your playing that much. You don’t really hear a lot of finger vibrato in your playing.
JF: That’s a conscious decision; it’s not that I can’t do it. Because I feel like people overdo it. Again, I feel like Jimi Hendrix he did that to its full degree; no one is going to do it more than that, nobody is going to do it better than that. I guess during the time of Blood Sugar … and stuff I was into doing more Jimi Hendrix vibrato and things like that but since then, in the last five years, the guitar players who I am inspired by are ones who don’t actually have enough technical ability to be able to do something like that.
I don’t think someone like Matthew Ashman has enough finger strength to even do that. But that’s the guitar playing that I find interesting. So I end up taking on those people’s limitations. What I find interesting in guitar playing is the various limitations that people work within and the types of creativity that comes out of working within those limitations. I’ll take on the limitations of a guitar player who I admire. They’re not doing something because they can’t do it, I don’t do it because I think it’s cool not to do it. You know what I mean?
I seem to remember on the solo on “Minor Thing” on the Chili Peppers record I’m doing vibrato and it’s pretty smooth. It just went with that kind of distortion sound. It’s a color I can pull out but I only want to pull it out as a color, I don’t want it to be something I depend on. What I’ve accomplished by making it a point of not doing vibrato is I’ve found more colorful ways of arranging notes and more delicate artistically balancing the things that I’m playing. The notes have to more speak for themselves and the rhythms have to speak for themselves.
Whereas you can dress up some uninteresting notes with vibrato and make them sound interesting, that doesn’t seem like a challenge to me. I’d rather find some notes that in and of themselves with no vibrato, are interesting. And like I say, if I come along to a situation where it needs vibrato, I can do it. But I’d rather sound like I don’t have the ability to be able to do it because I find it exciting when I listen to people who don’t have that ability.
Even the use of your tremolo bar on the Stratocaster is pretty limited.
JF: Nowadays that’s how it is but if you would have met me when I was seventeen you wouldn’t have said that. Yeah, I mostly use the bar live for feedback. That’s where I enjoy using it. I guess it’s just one of those things where it’s been used in a lot of different ways and I guess I want to do something new. So it’s usually a subtle approach.
At the end of the day, Shadows Collide With People is a perfect reflection of you as a guitarist?
JF: Yeah, it’s exactly what I set out to create. The earlier records are all demos; none of those were ever really conceived as, “I’m gonna make a record.” This was more like I had a certain group of songs and I was collaborating with Josh and we were always singing harmonies together and we knew we wanted to make a record with a lot of harmonies and a lot of keyboard parts and a lot of songs with interesting chords.
But not a lot of guitar!
JF: Not a lot of guitar playing and flashy bass playing. The idea for the record was all clear in our heads. Josh is a great guitar player and I’m known for being a guitar player and we knew right from the day before we went into the studio. We thought, “Should we add any guitar solos to this record?” [Much laughter]. And he said, “It’s not a very guitar-oriented record.” That’s not what we were doing on this record.
I’m sure someday we’ll do a record with a lot of guitar.
November 20, 2020
November 17, 2020