Once death-defying clowns, the band members grow up to be sensitive white males
THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS are chilling in the lounge at Andora Studios, a recording facility in Hollywood, Calif., where they're sorting through the final mixes for their first album in four years.
"What if we call the new album Hypersensitive?" Anthony Kiedis wonders aloud. The band's 32-year-old lead singer and lyricist – legs propped up on a plush L-shaped couch, his long chestnut tresses shimmering in the dim lamplight – poses this seemingly absurd question to his band mates with so much solemnity that it stifles all chatter.
Flea, the band's wiry bass player, is seated cross-legged to Kiedis' left, his rubbery countenance twisted in thought. In a heartbeat he snaps to attention and blurts out, "How about The Sensitives?"
"I could go for both of those," says guitarist Dave Navarro, sagely stroking his red-devil goatee. "I think that Sensitive is good, too. Or Los Sensitivos."
"How about Ritual de Sensitivos?" adds drummer Chad Smith with a half-stifled chuckle. (The reference is to Ritual de lo Habitual, the most popular album by Jane's Addiction, Navarro's previous band.) The moment's intense mood has been shattered.
But Kiedis persists. "Let's still consider Hypersensitive," he says, now almost whispering.
Flea, blue eyes afire, jumps in again: "Yeah, and we can have a guy on the cover with a big syringe that says SENSITIVE inside!"
At last, consensus. During the past few weeks, the new Chili Peppers album has held far more unlikely titles, intriguing howlers like Turtlehead, Black Fish Ferris Wheel, The Blight Album and The Good and Bad Moods of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. For a while, everything about the album – such as which of the 20 tracks recorded would appear on the album, their order, their titles – has been in flux, subject to the band's daily whims. But now all four band members are raising their arms in unison – imagine the Marx Brothers doing the Three Musketeers – as Flea leads the cheer: "All for Hypersensitive and one for Hypersensitive!"
Needless to say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers do not dub their long-awaited sixth studio album Hypersensitive or The Sensitives or, for that matter, any of the above. Later a new name is settled on: One Hot Minute. It is, in fact, the perfect title for the latest from rock's reigning punk-funk maestros.
Once irrevocably associated with drugs, death and sex, which earned them a reputation as one of the most consistently controversial rock acts of the last decade, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have mellowed. But if their offstage antics aren't as death defying as they used to be, the Chili Peppers on disc are walking a much higher wire. Gone for the most part are the marauding, free-form jams that made them famous. What remains is a lightning distillation of everything that first made the band matter: Imagine butt-shaking funk played at skate-punk speed wrapped in a vaguely Zeppelinesque grandeur. But tempered by experience, today's Chili Peppers are more introspective, more Zen-like, more attuned to their respective psyches.
Indeed, a kinder, gentler camaraderie has all but subsumed the thuggish frat-boy bonds on which the Chili Peppers first staked their career. The wholesale change manifests itself most clearly on "My Friends," the bittersweet sequel to the breakthrough single "Under the Bridge." If "Bridge" found Kiedis repenting for his own mortal transgressions, then "Friends" reveals the changed man looking outward ("My friends are so depressed/I feel the question of your loneliness"). For a few minutes, anyway, this achingly poignant ballad swaps the trademark Chili Pepper id for a conspicuous generosity of spirit. Can happy thoughts have demolished angry punk aggression? Has brotherly love replaced free love all in a flash?
"Yep," Dave Navarro says drolly, thumbing the silver hoop that dangles through his navy tank top from his right nipple. "We're all really fucking sensitive."
TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO, THE RED Hot Chili Peppers were at the opposite end of the world, both literally and spiritually. The final leg of the band's triumphant 1992 tour found it playing South America with Nirvana. BloodSugarSexMagik, the 1991 album that sold zillions and generated two megahit singles ("Give It Away" and "Under the Bridge"), had catapulted the Chili Peppers from underground cultdom to the loftiest heights of pop celebrity. Lollapalooza headliners, Grammy Award winners, MTV darlings – to the world, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the clown princes of alternative rock.
But within the band's ranks, matters were never as rosy, even as a mammoth wave of success cascaded over the band. The Chili Peppers limped to Lollapalooza '92 after guitarist John Frusciante announced in midtour, in Japan, that he was quitting the group for stress-related reasons. Seeking a replacement, the band first approached Dave Navarro, newly available since the 1991 breakup of Jane's Addiction, but at the time the guitarist was committed to Deconstruction, a project begun with former Jane's bassist Eric Avery. Fortunately the headlining Peppers found an able replacement, guitar whiz Arik Marshall, to play the high-profile summer festival. Still, despite a banner year, the band had lost its cohesiveness and drive.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were by no means strangers to despair. In June 1988, the band suffered a devastating blow when founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose. (Jack Irons, the group's first drummer, quit soon after.) Slovak was Kiedis' and Flea's best friend from their days back at Hollywood's Fairfax High School; the three formed the band's creative core. "Hillel knew exactly what he wanted," recalls funk legend George Clinton, who produced Freaky Styley (1985), the Peppers' hard-driving second album. "His first run of a solo would always be really slick and jazzy and articulated, just to impress you, and then he'd play it real fast with a punk edge. And I'd be like 'Oh, OK. You mean to do it like that.' "
Slovak's death spurred Kiedis into kicking a heroin habit of his own and miraculously ushered the band into its most prodigious period. By 1989 the Chili Peppers had hired Smith and Frusciante and recorded Mother's Milk (1989), attracting some commercial and critical notice. For its follow-up, BloodSugarSexMagik, they signed on rap and metal impresario Rick Rubin as their producer and swapped their frustrating tenure with EMI for a fresh deal with Warner Bros. "It seemed that the band had gotten to a point where they were really ready to do what it took to make a great record," says Rubin, who also produced One Hot Minute. "It had a lot to do with them getting sober and taking the craft of it much more seriously."
But even after BloodSugar's triumph, the band's future remained precarious. "We were confused as all hell," says Kiedis, admitting that while the Chili Peppers were "successful in terms of Webster's definition," fame and fortune had left them off balance.
As soon as the band returned from Brazil, Flea fell ill. "I was extraordinarily rundown from being on tour," he says. Although the bassist's condition was later diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, he cites more salient factors. "I had gotten divorced not too long before, I missed my daughter, and I didn't feel close to anyone. I couldn't sleep. I'd sit in my room, crying and shit – I was bumming out." It would be more than a year before Flea regained full strength.
Furthermore, the band was finding it difficult to write new material with its new hired hand, a realization that sparked the dismissal of Marshall and the mad quest for his replacement. "We tried a couple thousand guitar players, which was really absurd and naive of us," says Kiedis, "to think that we could audition people, strangers from all over, and find somebody."
One particularly freewheeling session revolved around Jesse Tobias, who quit Mother Tongue, a Los Angeles band on the rise, to join the Chili Peppers. Within weeks, however, his new band mates had a change of heart. The chemistry wasn't right, they said; besides, Navarro had suddenly made himself available. Today the band characterizes the decision to oust Tobias as inevitable but regrettably callous. "Jesse made his own bed," says Flea, "but we bought him the sheets and the mattress."
Enter Dave Navarro, who became an official Pepper on Sept. 5, 1993. Despite the prolonged overture made by the Chili Peppers to snag him, the muscular guitarist says he had his initial reservations. "I had a stereotypical notion of this band," says Navarro, who admits he didn't own a single Chili Peppers album before enlisting. "I expected them to be funky, wacky, funny, cute – all of the things that I generally don't have in my personal existence. Thankfully I was wrong."
In truth, bad vibes and the repeated personnel changes had taken their toll "We were like Spinal Tap," says Smith, "except it was the guitar player that kept exploding." On Oct. 31 1993, the band lost yet another close friend to drugs, the actor River Phoenix. ("He was one of the most beautiful and loving guys I ever met," says Flea.) The pileup of catastrophes forced the Chili Peppers to reconsider everything they did – everything, that is, except their goony, not-so-wholesome stage persona (remember, this is the band that made its name performing frank sex romps like "Party on Your Pussy" and "Sir Psycho Sexy" totally naked except for strategically placed athletic hose). "The socks on our dicks, the way we jump around onstage," says Flea, "all that shit has always been a natural extension of the music"
In that light the Chili Pepper legend was daunting even for Navarro, a veteran rocker and recovering addict himself. "I just told myself that if there was some crazy thing that I didn't want to do, I just wouldn't do it," the guitarist says. True to form, the band tested Navarro's limits almost immediately by electing to don oversize light-bulb head masks for his first major live gig – Woodstock '94.
"When Dave first started playing with us, it was awkward," says Flea. "That had a lot to with the fact that we grew up listening to different music. It took us a while to get to the point where we each just did our thing and did them together – but that's when we started creating a new sound."
A three-month working holiday in Hawaii didn't hurt, either. Through Iron John-like bonding activities like scuba diving, motorcycling and hiking, the Chili Peppers lit upon a new communal verve. As Kiedis lovingly describes it, "We ate a lot of food together, drank some coffee, smelled each other's farts." They also wrote three-quarters of the music for One Hot Minute.
Unfortunately, Kiedis hit a creative impasse upon returning to Los Angeles. "I became heavily surrounded, wrapped up and engulfed in a personal unsolved tragedy," he says cryptically. Although he was writing throughout this period, difficulties arose in "chiseling out the ideas and the sounds that I wanted to add" to the new songs. It's a credit to Kiedis' artistic mettle that he was able to work through his problems in song. Whether it's the soulful sprawl of "One Hot Minute," the funk smorgasbord of "One Big Mob" or the Led Zeppelin-meets-a-snake-charmer thud of "Coffee Shop," the new album finds the brash frontman looking inward.
"I don't think the 'Under the Bridge' people are going to be so thrilled with the new album," says Navarro, referring to fans who came to the band by way of its most radio-friendly single. "This is a darker record," Flea confirms, "and it's a pretty sad record." Aside from a few slower, plaintive songs like "Tearjerker" and "My Friends," One Hot Minute is also the groundbreaking hard-rock album that longtime Chili Peppers fans have heretofore only dreamed about.
Considering how many times rock's canvas has been painted over during the last few years, it's not surprising that the Chili Peppers sat on One Hot Minute for more than a year and a half. In 1992, when they shared the charts with raging upstarts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers were unwillingly cast as alternative's peppy but poppy elder statesmen. Acknowledged as innovators, one of the first white acts to mix funk and rap with heavy metal, they were nonetheless pegged as hopelessly shallow party animals. But in comparison with 1995 superstars – watery Überwimps like Hootie and the Blowfish and the Gin Blossoms – the Red Hot Chili Peppers seem heavier than plutonium.
Over time, the Chili Peppers' unfashionably upbeat approach (wearing silly outfits, mugging for the camera) has served them in good stead, somehow transforming them from cavorting buffoons into consummate entertainers. That show-must-go-on Pepper professionalism surprised Tony Bennett, the veteran crooner, when he swapped outfits with the band for a comedy bit during the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. "They rehearsed it over and over again before we went onstage – more so than a lot of my contemporaries would have," Bennett says. "Then they made it look completely spontaneous."
"We really like to have fun – that's probably why people like our band," says Smith. "People have this image in their minds of what the Chili Peppers are like, but Jimi Hendrix was the mellowest, most soulful, soft-spoken, coolest guy, and then you'd get him onstage, and he'd go wild. You'll find that, too, with Flea and Anthony – they're articulate, smart people who are cultured, not just knuckle-headed funk guys with funny hair jumping around."
ANTHONY KIEDIS LIVES HIGH UP in the Hollywood Hills, mere blocks away from the D in the legendary HOLLYWOOD sign. Arriving at noon on a particularly bright day, I hear a recording of 13-year-old Frankie Lymon singing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" twittering through the house as Kiedis tends to a visiting phone repairman. Later, Kiedis says he relates to the late Lymon, a squeaky-clean '50s teen idol who died a dope addict. Kiedis has, of course, long been at peace with the gap between Hollywood's glitzy image and its grimy nuts and bolts. The closer one lives to the HOLLYWOOD sign, the more one is reminded that it's just a bunch of big white letters hammered to stilts.
Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., Kiedis was raised in Los Angeles, where he moved at age 11 with his father, a struggling character actor who called himself Blackie Dammett. "L.A. will always be my filthy, dirty, trashy, disgusting, poisonous home," Kiedis says, "because these streets speak to me, and this is where I grew up – this is me."
The decor of Kiedis' abode, which is built on a dramatic precipice that watches over the city, bears testament to his simpatico relationship with his surroundings. The clusters of purple plaster grapes that cling to the moldings in the main living space complement the violet glass nipples on the female-shaped stone fireplace. These in turn match the room's latest coup de grâce, three head-to-waist nude female mannequins artfully arranged on the pool table. "They give the room a special presence," Kiedis says as though he'd chosen perfect chiffon curtains.
Face to face, the hormone-charged banshee that Kiedis embodies onstage is in faint evidence. Ineffably polite and soft-spoken, the singer is happy to spend the afternoon breezily extolling the virtues of love, beauty and kindness as though hawking a new line of hair-care products. Candid but cautious, Kiedis explains that his respect for life's gentler virtues has always been as much a part of him as his hearty and perhaps more publicized appreciation for raunch.
"What I've spoken about so many times is my situation with my dad from age 11 to 16, because we lived together like brothers, which was really beautiful – but it was also very sad," says Kiedis, who first ran Hollywood's sex-and-drugs gantlet at his proud father's side. Kiedis adds with a wizened frown, "A lot of things happened during that time that would be major contributors to the illnesses and psychotic episodes of my young-adult life." Only recently did he realize that it was his mother, "an incredibly tender and loving person," who provided the emotional groundwork that helped him make it over later hurdles like drug addiction and depression.
Another previously unsung Kiedis role model was the '60s pop icon and punch line Sonny Bono. In the mid-70s, Bono dated a former companion of Kiedis' father; Kiedis kept in touch and hung around the Bono compound when the going got tough at home.
"As a kid, Tony was really delightful, and he had this tremendous imagination," says Bono, now a Republican U.S. congressman from California. The former entertainer says he welcomed Kiedis as an older influence on his daughter Chastity: "She was much younger than he was, but he would always invent these games to play with her."
Though Kiedis says he loathes Bono's conservative politics and hasn't talked to the performer and politician in years, he will acknowledge that Cher's ex was at the time "actually very nice to me," inviting him on ski trips and buying him "expensive gifts that my father could not afford to give me."
It was only years later, when fame and riches were his, that Kiedis understood the toll that years of self-destructive behavior had taken. "My Siamese tragedy ghost was pinning me down," he says, his eyes now acquiring an irksome hippie glint. "Then I suddenly realized it was a huge part of my life to be in a constant state of service to everyone I come in contact with and that I have a really powerful and beautiful purpose in this life."
Coincidentally, the lag time between Dave Navarro's joining the band and the recording of One Hot Minute provided a much-needed opportunity for all parties to seek common musical ground. "It's a bummer that the new album has taken so long," says Smith, whose easy surferspeak belies his Detroit roots. "Now people are waiting for the Holy Grail or something – the melding of two great rock bands. But we're basically a new band with new priorities."
LISTENING TO HIM TALK AT home in his den, surrounded by his endless collection of jazz CDs and a wall of African masks, it's almost possible to envision Flea, 32, as a mild-mannered adult.
In these homey environs, Flea's confession that "being a good father is pretty much my No. 1 concern in life" sounds less incongruous than it reads on paper. (His daughter, Clara, is 7 years old.) But to hear the wildest, punk-rockingest funkateer ever to larrup his way across the concert stage complain that "L.A. has changed so much since I was a kid – there's freaks and weirdos and unsavory characters and people that mean ill harm everywhere" calls for a little stock taking. The only giveaway that Flea is not your run-of-the-mill suburbanite dad is the Mercedes-Benz parked in front of his house – it's painted like a clown car in all the colors of the rainbow.
Flea earned himself an early reputation as a showoff. "As a kid, I was either completely introverted and scared to death of people," he says, "or I was pulling down my pants and screaming at the top of my lungs." Extreme behavior became a confidence builder as well as a way to get attention. "When I found drugs, I thought I'd found the greatest thing," Flea says. "All you do is snort this shit up your nose or stick this needle in your arm, and you're a fucking genius."
Like Kiedis, Flea – born Michael Balzary in Melbourne, Australia – arrived in Los Angeles at age 11, after his parents divorced and his mother remarried. According to Flea, his stepfather, Walter Urban Jr., a jazz bassist, "was an alcoholic and a junkie and very violent," a situation that made it scary for Flea, as a kid, to come home sometimes. (Urban, who has been sober for 20 years, acknowledges his former heroin addition but claims that by the time he married Flea's mother, it was primarily alcohol that fueled his erratic behavior.) "There was a lot of things I had to deal with that lads shouldn't have to deal with," Flea says.
Flea met Kiedis in 10th grade at Fairfax High. "I had this guy in a headlock," he says, "and Anthony told me to let go of him, or he'd kick the shit out of me."
The two teens, who shared an early taste for mind-opening experiences and mind-bending drugs, became fast friends. Adventuresome and reckless, they once shaved their heads into mohawks and hid on an Amtrak train headed for San Francisco. After getting kicked off in Santa Barbara, they were picked up hitchhiking by a "large-chested woman with a beautiful voice named Dawn," according to Kiedis. An hour later, Dawn pulled over. "She gets out of the car, and she comes back as a man," Kiedis says. "She had changed her clothes, and her voice was much lower. She said, 'My name is Don now.' "
The ensuing tale of drugs, police and "maniacal teenage behavior" in San Francisco was the inspiration for One Hot Minute's "Deep Kick." The end result was a Chili Peppers first – their only song with lyrics co-written by the two band founders.
"Deep Kick" takes listeners back to an inviolate time when drugs were the entryway to a wild new world for two seemingly invincible 17-year-olds. "In the beginning we learned stuff and opened our minds," Flea says, "but we hurt ourselves immeasurably as far as our awareness of what was going on around us, causing us feelings of guilt and fear later on in our lives.
"I'm not going to sit here and say all drugs are bad – I might go smoke a joint one time," Flea continues. "But in general I think anything that interferes with someone being clear and being able to listen to themselves is something that they're only going to be trying to clean out of themselves later if they ever try to get their lives together to really do shit." Flea believes that because he never felt he was truly an addict, it took him even longer than Kiedis to get straight.
But whereas the old Flea smoked pot every day for 15 years, the new Flea practices Kundalini yoga daily. While the former Flea played briefly in Fear, once Los Angeles' most notorious hardcore outfit, the new Flea talks excitedly about a diverse album of "stories and music" he is planning with John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards. Never mind the Flea of yore, who was once arrested (with Smith) for allegedly assaulting a young woman at a 1990 MTV beach party. The new Flea says things like, "The most important thing in the world to me now is being a kind person." And though Flea acknowledges his demeanor of late is "really unpunk," he also says with stone-faced seriousness, "I don't think there's anything more hard-core than being loving." On "Pea," the album's lone acoustic number, Flea adds, "I'm a pacifist/So I can fuck your shit up."
The truest evidence of Flea's improved state of mind, however, is the breadth of emotions expressed in the music on One Hot Minute, much of which originated with his ideas. Deeper emotions inspired deeper grooves. For "Transcending," an elegy for River Phoenix, Flea developed a mystical, spiraling chord progression. Along the way he discovered compositional abilities he didn't even know he had. "For the first time, I felt like the burden was on me," he says, "because of the way Dave creates. He's more of a reactor. So I sat down and did a lot of writing."
FOR A BAND SEEMINGLY haunted by the specter of death, selecting Dave Navarro, 28, as its newest member couldn't have been more appropriate. When Navarro was 15, an unimaginably horrific event altered his worldview: His mother and aunt were brutally murdered by his mother's ex-boyfriend. From that point on, Navarro had no choice but to view life in direct contrast to its opposite.
"Tragedy brought me where I am," says Navarro, resting his glass of mineral water on a coffee table in the living room of his West Hollywood home. (Or, rather, the coffin table – it's a hardwood casket that just happens to match the piano.) "If my mom hadn't died, I wouldn't have turned to music as intensely as I did."
Navarro, too, grew up in Los Angeles. When his mother was killed, he moved in with his father and sought solace in drugs and music. His earliest guitar hero was Jimi Hendrix, but he claims he "never had grandiose dreams of being a rock star."
Jane's Addiction began, according to Navarro, as "one of those incestuous L.A. kind of relationship things." Navarro went to school with drummer Stephen Perkins; he dated the sister of bass player Eric Avery. With one semester left of high school, Navarro dropped out and plugged into what became one of the most popular, innovative bands of the late 1980s. Despite the subsequent chaos, Navarro still describes the Jane's Addiction years, 1986 to 1991, as "probably the greatest of my life."
Jane's Addiction self-destructed in 1991 after headlining the first Lollapalooza festival, a brainchild of the band's lead singer, Perry Farrell. Navarro admits his own heroin problem was instrumental in the breakup. "The day of the first show of Lollapalooza, I tried to commit suicide in my hotel room," he says. "And that very same day, Perry and I got into a physical fight backstage." It was only after Jane's Addiction disbanded that Navarro was able to properly attack his problems at their roots.
"After my mother was killed, everything was about escape," Navarro says. "I tried to escape school, I tried to escape by using drugs, but the No. 1 thing that I was already into intensely was music." Only after Jane's Addiction broke up was Navarro able to conquer the drugs and concentrate on the music. By the time he met with the Chili Peppers, his mental state was surprisingly compatible with theirs. "We all had really personal, major issues to deal with while we were making this record," he says.
"On a core level, telepathically, Dave and I were always connected," says Kiedis. "We both came out of a very near fatal junkiedom, and we both made it to the other side of that without frying our spirit or our mind or our body. If you strip away all of his cynicism and sarcasm, he's just pure love, that guy – and he's interesting as hell."
Navarro is also not the dark, brooding hombre one might expect. Modest to a fault ("Sometimes I feel like the luckiest motherfucker in the world because I believe that I have no talent"), he also sports a particularly dry and mordant sense of humor. One whole wall in his vista-view living room is papered with the famous Vietnam War photo of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan holding a gun to a prisoner's temple. But this is not a death wish – it's a sight gag, Navarro explains, an hommage to his favorite filmmaker, Woody Allen: "He had that exact picture that size behind him in Stardust Memories." In the stairwell to the bedroom, a mannequin swathed in black cloth hangs by its feet ("my ex-wife," he quips); a life-size human skeleton reclines at the foot of Navarro's bed.
"The Dave Navarro sound, which is very orchestrated and built up in layers, changed the whole Chili Peppers sound," says Rick Rubin. "All the guitar players they've had before fit into a very similar school of guitar playing, and yet nothing about what a Chili Pepper guitar player historically has been fits Dave."
And against all odds, Navarro turned out to be exactly the kind of sensitive, talented, independent soul the band was looking for. No hired hand, he eagerly states his biases: He hates both funk music and basketball – two Chili Peppers staples – as well as a handful of the songs on One Hot Minute. Yet he unfailingly respects his new band mates, thrilled to be playing with a world-class band once again. Likewise, the others marvel at their good fortune to have divined another perfect mate so late in the game.
"Thinking now in retrospect," says Flea, "when Dave joined the band, it was really such a gift. The overall sadness of this album is positive because it's all about transcending that and getting through it. And I don't think that we would have been able to express that without Dave."
"Yeah, it was one of those noncoincidental coincidences," Kiedis says. "Where Dave was coming from in terms of pain and agony and lust for life was very similar to where we were coming from."
As far as the viability of the new lineup, Kiedis directs any and all detractors to the album itself: "If someone says, 'This isn't what I expected,' I would say, 'Hallelujah!' And if someone says, 'This isn't what they used to sound like,' I would say, 'Damn straight.' And as far as getting old and boring, I think we're going in the opposite direction, 'cause to me getting old and boring is just repeating yourself over and over again. The songs we've written and the way we've played them are as exciting and hard-ass as anything we've ever played. It's just a different space. We're different people. We're growing."