Bad Influence: Flea on Jazz, Drugs and His Role in 'Low Down'

The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist revisits his trumpet-playing past in the gritty Joe Albany biopic

Flea as Hobbs in 'Low Down.' Credit: Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

When Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea began preparing for his role in the movie Low Down, a rough-hewn biopic about jazz pianist and onetime Charlie Parker and Miles Davis accompanist Joe Albany, it came easily to him. In his growing-up years, he had learned to play the trumpet, like his character Lester Hobbs, and he also spent time indulging his character's favorite vice: heroin. And by his own estimation, "I did it a lot," he says.

"Before we'd do a shot, I'd sit by myself and really imagine doing heroin, even to the point of reminding myself of doing the whole fucking crazy thing," says the 52-year-old, who is sitting in the lobby of a hip hotel on New York's Lower East Side. The bassist, who hasn't touched hard drugs since 1992, pantomimes the motions of finding a vein and preparing a needle. Between the musician's partially purple hair, sports jacket, green-and-yellow T-shirt and socks-and-sandals combo, it makes for a striking vision amidst the tourists eating their brunch. "I could taste it and feel it," he says. "It wasn't emotionally hard to go back to that part of my life for the role. I love my life and my mistakes and my triumphs, all of it."

Part of Flea's interest in the movie was because it was told from the perspective of Albany's daughter, played by Elle Fanning. He had a similar youth, both in good and bad ways, to that of Amy-Jo Albany, who wrote the 2003 book Low Down: Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood about her experience of growing up with her dad. Both Flea and Amy-Jo had grown up with impromptu living-room jazz jams erupting about them and both coped with an irrational, unpredictable father figure — in Flea's case, his stepdad. The movie, which Flea and fellow Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis executive produced, stars John Hawkes as the elder Albany and features performances by Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage and Orange Is the New Black's Taryn Manning, among others. But what makes Low Down notable is the way it shows the love, hardships and affinity for music that come from such a relationship, by presenting Albany's story in an utterly immersive way.

Given the parallels between Amy-Jo's story and your experience growing up, what goes through your head when you're watching the movie?
For me, the whole thing just feels very dreamy. Obviously, it's a sad thing  – having a drug addict parent as a little kid and stuff. My greatest hope is that people see the freedom and the joy that's there, too. Amy and I grew up in very similar circumstances: We're the same age, and I grew up in Hollywood with a junkie jazz musician parent that's like absolutely crazy. I read the script and I was like, "Holy fuck." We were [both] like, yeah, there were the hard parts – the challenging parts of dealing with someone with a substance abuse problem and the bummer of it – but there was also the music, man. I was a kid, and those guys would be in my living room, playing, jamming, I just couldn't believe that people could do that. It gave me such a high watermark for what human beings are capable of in my life. So I hope that you get that a little bit in the movie.

Were you familiar with Joe Albany before this movie?
No. I knew his name, but I didn't know much about him. When I got together with Amy, I went and got a recording of his. I grew up with those same types of guys. My house was full of these L.A. jazz guys at the time, always coming in and out. My stepdad was the one who hung out with them. It was like a weird little cult, a subset of a culture. It was all these guys who grew up in the Forties and the Fifties loving Bird, Fats Navarro, Mingus, Lester Young – jazz was the coolest thing on earth and they dedicated their lives to this incredibly sophisticated, deep art form. Come the Seventies, no one gave a fuck and these guys they just really couldn't catch a break. They had shitty jobs. My stepdad would fix cars in a backyard. He was a great bass player, man, playing hotel lobbies, playing bullshit. He was a fucking serious bebop player.

What was it like growing up with your stepdad?
God bless him, it was very difficult. He wasn't as successful as Joe Albany. He barely did any recording, but he was a great player. He was subject to these real, crazy, violent outbursts, just irrational, crazy emotional behavior. I was a kid. I didn't know drugs and alcohol and what they did. My mom got together with him when I was six or seven years old. It was just this really insane behavior that was frightening. At the same time, he was like, "Listen to this record" and he'd have these jam sessions all the time. Like I said, the music part of it was amazing. He was a really loving guy, too, but drugs make people crazy. 

How did you handle the craziness at that age?
I was scared to sleep in the house, 'cause I didn't know what was going to happen. I just wanted things to be OK. I just wanted peace and harmony. And when we had it, it was great, but we often didn't.

Did you compare childhoods with Amy?
Well, it's such a personal movie about a father and daughter. [But] everything in that movie, I relate to so much. Every scene. Like when she sleeps in the bath tub, when I was a kid, I used to go sleep in the backyard all rolled up in a carpet...because I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen.

We talked a lot about growing up. Being the same age, growing up in the same town, we both kind of like got into punk rock at the time and were both wild in the street and all that. It's crazy that we didn't meet, though I vaguely remember it in the dusty corner of my mind that I saw her in the supermarket once in like '83 and kind of hit on her, like invited her to a Chili Peppers show, when we were just starting out. But I didn't really get to know her until this project.

When did you start playing trumpet?
I started playing trumpet when I was 11 years old. All I wanted to be was a jazz trumpet player when I grew up. That was my goal in life. Later in high school, I met Hillel Slovak, who was the original guitar player of the Chili Peppers, and we became really close. We had a band and we didn't like the bass player, so I started playing bass and I got a bass two weeks later.

when i was a kid, I used to sleep in the backyard, all rolled up in a carpet...because I was scared.

How often do you play trumpet now?
Lately, not much. I had been playing a lot until five years ago. I went through a period of playing really intensely and I just got so busy, being a dad and all. I set it down for a few years and then I got it back together, started practicing for this movie and got back into playing it a lot. And then after the movie I stopped again.

You got to play it a bit in the movie, though.
Yeah, well, truth be told, I did play pretty much exactly what you hear, but, because of the sound quality, they had someone redo it. So I can't lie. But I swear to you, I did actually play that shit. The guy who played it is probably better than me, though.

Was your character as a whole easy to play?
It was hard, 'cause the guy's a junkie, he's a pretty pathetic character and he kind of spirals down. Each time you see him, he gets worse and, at the end, he's a disaster to the point where he freaks Joe and Elle out. I was like, "OK, I gotta really tap this thing," and that was a challenge for me 'cause at this point in my life, I'm basically a pretty together dude. I don't drink or smoke or do drugs. I exercise, I have a big career, I'm a parent and I run a music school. I do all this shit. I was a little like, "OK, I gotta really get there." Like I said, I really felt it. Out of love for those guys, I could just feel being there, like that.

You talked about your own experience with heroin earlier. You were able to quit cold turkey?
I was never a junkie. I was never strung out, but I did stop doing drugs. In '92 I got really sick and I just wanted to be healthy because, even though I did drugs and stuff, I played basketball every day and jammed with my buddies. I got chronic fatigue and I got all fucked up. So I was like whatever it takes I just wanted to clean my body out completely and be healthy. I just stayed that way.

You said you weren't that familiar with Joe Albany before the film. What struck you when you finally listened to his music?
He's just a beautiful pianist. You feel the power and the love when he's playing. He's a virtuoso who has a unique, really lyrical style with kind of a hard edge to it, too. He's a beautiful player.

It seems like making this music was a special experience for you.
When I was acting, I was completely in the moment and letting the thing come through. I felt so emotional about this movie, 'cause of my stepdad and the music, the way that I grew up. I was really able to let go and just let that love and caring come through, and be the character. I have never been able to do that before in acting. That was really cool for me.