Cult funk-punkers the Red Hot Chili Peppers faced tragedy and rebuilt for 1989's 'Mother's Milk.' The new guy looks back, 25 years later
For the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1988 was the type of year that could destroy far more established bands. They had slowly built a cult audience with their first three records — their latest, 1987's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, even cracking the bottom half of the Billboard 200 — but celebration was cut short when founding member, guitarist Hillel Slovak, passed away in June 1988, at age 26, from a heroin overdose. A grieving Jack Irons, unable to continue, left shortly after. Frontman Anthony Kiedis entered rehab. The band attempted to trudge forward with a new lineup including P-Funk guitarist DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight and Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro, but both would be fired within months.
The Peppers didn't begin their second life until they connected with a teenage Slovak fan named John Frusciante and a hard-rock loving, heavy-hitting behemoth named Chad Smith. Smith had moved to L.A. from Detroit in August of 1988 — and by December he was drumming in the band. It would establish the longest-standing line-up in the Peppers, eventually responsible for 19 million records sold.
August 16th marks the 25th anniversary of Mother's Milk, the album that set the Peppers on a path for MTV stardom, festival headlining and, eventually, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Smith looks back at the moment that changed his life, re-invented his band, and ultimately made the world a little freakier.
So, all of this this did not take long after you arrived in California.
No. [Denise Zoom] knew that they were looking for a drummer, and my friend, Newt Cole, who was dating Denise, said, "I got your guy. I'm friends with Chad, man. He eats drums for breakfast." Unbeknownst to me, that's how I was presented to the Chili Peppers. So, when I go in to audition, I'm bringing my drums in to the little crappy, shit-hole hully-gully rehearsal place in Silver Lake, and I look at Flea and he goes, "What is that, your breakfast?" And I'm like, "What?" He's this little, short guy with a funny Mohawk. And they're looking at me like, "Who is this Midwestern galoot, hairy, bandana-wearing... Get this guy out of here."
At the time, there was that big Sunset Strip [scene]: The Guns N' Roses, Mötley Crüe thing was happening at that time, big-time. So they were like, anti that – the Peppers weren't about that at all. Nor was I, I just looked that way 'cause I'm from Detroit. So as soon as we start playing, man, that all went out the window.
"We did a little 10-day tour and I made $10,000. And I was like, "I'm fuckin' rich!"
So you were like 26 around this time?
Yeah, I just turned 27 in '88 by the time I met them in December. Anthony and Flea were 26 — birthdays always within two weeks of us —and John was like, 18. He was brand new — never been in a band, playing in his favorite band, and he was just a ball of energy. I mean, at the time, everything we did was fast and hard and y'know, it was exciting. I didn't know that much about the band — "Oh, yeah, y'know, the guys with the socks on their dicks and they're kind of crazy."
As soon as I joined, we went right into writing songs — I think they had a couple songs prior to that. Of course, we did the Stevie Wonder cover ["Higher Ground"], which was sort of our breakthrough thing on MTV and all that. But it was like get right in there and started writing. I may have done one gig at the Roxy or something — or half a gig on some other band's equipment — but we just went right into writing and music and it was pretty exciting and fun. And in a couple months, maybe, we were recording by February or March, which is a pretty short time compared to now. We take six to nine months to write music. But it was that initial excitement of new guys in a band, new music. It felt kind of magical and felt like a new chapter for the band. Anthony was newly sober. It was definitely a new thing for us, and I loved it. I thought, "This is great!"
We did a little tour of, like, Florida. Literally, when I joined the band, I had like $20 in my Bank of America checking account. And we did a little 10-day tour and I made $10,000. And I was like, "I'm fuckin' rich!" I've never even seen that kind of money, or anything with a "thousand" behind it. I couldn't believe it — I was like, "This is amazing! Oh my God!" It was incredible, like I hit the lottery, man. It was amazing.
What was the last steady job that you had? Did you work in L.A.?
I did, yeah. My friend that I slept on his couch… He moved to California and he was working in production — on films and commercials and music videos. So he got me a job working for a company called Boyington Films and they did commercials and some rock videos. The first rock video I worked on — which was literally only a month after I moved out there — was Keith Richards's first solo album, Talk is Cheap. The song was called "Take It So Hard," and I'm of course a huge Rolling Stones fan. There were little mountains in the background — made out of tinfoil and plywood, fake mountains — so I helped make those, but I got to go be on the set, during the video shoot, in Hollywood. I was so excited like, "Wow — breathing the same air as Keith Richards. Wow!"
And I was halfway hoping he wasn't going to come in or talk to the director like, "Oh, I don't think the angle of shot is quite right. I don't know about this or that." He was like, two hours late, came stumbling out of the limo, big bag of coke and a switchblade. And I was like, "Yes! Rock lives!" They actually plugged in and played, between takes. Steve Jordan, I remember, was playing bass. I was just like, "Wow, this is the coolest thing ever." And I worked on some other videos — y'know, art department stuff. P.A.: get the coffee, set up the lights, run the spotlights, paint the car in the Huey Lewis video — whatever it was. That was my main thing up until I joined the Peppers.
Then we started doing videos for Mother's Milk. We did our first two videos back-to-back — and I had the same company that I'd been working for. So the same director I was working with, was now setting up my drums. I was like, "I got it," and they're like, "No, no, I got it, it's our job. You're the talent, now!" [laughs] So it was a little bit of a change.
The best beat on the record has to be "Magic Johnson."
I'll tell you about that. That's obviously like a marching cadence, and it's actually the drum, marching-band cadence from Flea and Anthony's alma mater, Fairfax High School in Hollywood. I think Jack Irons, who played with the band before me, I'm sure that he played it 'cause he went to Fairfax, so that's probably where it came from.
But, I remember we laid it down, and at the time, the working title was "Fairfax High." And then we cut all the tracks, and I think maybe went back to Michigan to visit my family or somewhere for a week or so. I came back and I was excited to hear it — they were putting overdubs on it. Anthony was like, "Oh, man, wait until you hear what we did to 'Fairfax,' it's so great." And you have to remember: Me being from Michigan, I was a big Detroit Pistons fan, all right? And we love our basketball, obviously. And those guys are big Laker fans. So at the time, the Lakers and Pistons were going at it in the Finals, and the Lakers had lost and beat the Pistons, I think, in '88. And then the next year the Pistons came back and beat the Lakers. So we had this good rivalry going.
And so I come back, and Anthony's there and he's, "Oh, you're going to love this!" "Oh, cool, I can't wait to hear it." And he plays it for me… "L.A. Lakers / Fast-break makers..." And I'm like, "What?! What is this?! No! I hate this!" I mean, I've come to love the Lakers. I support the Lakers — unless they're playing my Pistons, 'cause I'm loyal to my hometown in all sports.
Did you have to bone up on your punk rock to play "Punk Rock Classic"?
I had to get schooled on it a little bit, for sure. They were like, "Here, listen to this." I remember Anthony gave me a cassette early on like, "We do the hard thing, the punk thing, but also the funk — it's a really important part of our band." And I remember he gave me a Meters tape and was like, "Listen to 'Cissy Strut.' Listen to this Funkadelic stuff." I knew of the bands, but like, study it. I was into Tower of Power, James Brown, of course Sly and the Family Stone, but yeah, definitely along with the punk rock thing, yeah, I had to kind of wrap my head around it. Reggae, too. I couldn't play a reggae beat out of a fuckin' paper bag, but… "Listen to Bad Brains, man — Bad Brains is the most ferocious band ever!" So yeah, I really had to do my homework.
Did you guys ever hear back from Stevie on the "Higher Ground" cover?
I think Flea saw him at a music store, and Stevie's handler brought Flea over to Stevie, who was sitting at a keyboard of some sort, and he said, "Stevie, Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers is here." I don't remember exactly what the exchange was, and Stevie was like, "Oh, yeah, I heard that!" and he played — because the bass part, at the beginning, is different than the clavinet part. And if I remember correctly, Flea told me that Stevie played Flea's rendition. [Laughs] I thought that was pretty cool. I mean it was pretty popular. Stevie's getting paid, man!
Are there any updates on that 25th Anniversary reissue of the record?
It's coming; it's coming down the pipes. Yeah, I think there's some bonus goodies, as they like to put in there. I'm pretty sure I okayed a mix for a live show from Cleveland, around that time on the Mother's Milk tour, that probably will go on as a bonus disc. I know it's being re-mastered, but I think all the bonus tracks may have been out already; I'm not sure. We did have a couple things that weren't finished that now people like to put out, a la Jimmy Page. I heard there's an alternative version of "Stairway to Heaven" coming out. [Laughs] I don't know, man. We did do a version of "Stairway to Heaven" for Mother's Milk, so maybe we should put that out before he does. [Laughs].
What's next for you?
I'm on my way to the studio; we're going to record some new stuff with the Peppers. We're doing "fancy demos": We go in and sort of see what we got. Then I go over and record with LL Cool J tonight; I'm doing a song with him. He's so positive; he's such a positive guy. "Yo, man! It's gonna be so great! You can just get in there and slam it and kill it and crush it! We're gonna make history, man!" I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I got a great job.