Red-Hot Reunion

After a four-year layoff, the Chili Peppers regroup with Blood Sugar Sex Magik guitarist John Frusciante

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Frank Sinatra cut hits in this room. Brian Wilson masterminded the Beach Boys' 1966 jewel, Pet Sounds, here. Tonight, in Studio Two at Ocean Way Recording (the former United Western Studios), in Los Angeles, the star on the control-room couch -- soaking in the deafening playback of fresh work -- is Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, the thirty-six-year-old live-wire bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He is wearing a dark-green sweat shirt that says RAT SOUND and underneath, in smaller letters, FUCK YOU. And he is bouncing on the sofa with spring-action delight to the hip-hop crunch of "All Around the World," one of the twenty-eight songs rushed to tape in the last three weeks by a reunited, revitalized Chili Peppers.

"Anthony still has to write words to go there," Flea yells -- meaning singer Anthony Kiedis -- over the sound of his own frantic bass, the iron-bicep crack of Chad Smith's drumming and the chicken-peck funk of prodigal guitarist John Frusciante, who is back in the band after a six-year sabbatical. Given his agit-rap singing style, Kiedis' wordless hyperbark in the chorus sounds just fine. The problem is that Flea, Smith and Frusciante have been uncorking new instrumental pieces so quickly since Frusciante's return early last summer that Kiedis, who writes the lyrics and melodies, has been struggling, happily, to keep up.

Flea points to the proof: two big scoreboards on the wall, marking the rapid progress of the Chili Peppers' forthcoming album -- produced by Rick Rubin and as yet unnamed, it's to be released June 8th on Warner Bros. with heavy touring to follow. The band isn't sure which songs will be on the finished record, but particularly juicy titles include "Phfat Dance," "I Like Dirt," "Purple Stain" and "Gong Li," named after the Chinese actress.

"Phfat Dance" doesn't have words yet, either, but it has a hard, sassy kick and a nifty, backward-lead guitar break. "Scar Tissue," which does have lyrics, features a strutting rhythm running under Kiedis' pensive vocal. "Parallel Universe" is a hip, mongrel blend of rat-a-tat riffing, a fried-disco beat in the verse and a big, rock-out surge in the chorus. "It's a little soft here," Flea says apologetically of the guitar in the rough mix. At that point, as if on cue, Frusciante's instrument bolts out of the speakers in a mad-dog distortion seizure.

"A lot of these songs started as jams," Flea says as Kiedis, Frusciante and Rubin -- who produced the band's last album with Frusciante, 1991's breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik -- pop in and out of the studio, preparing for a hard night's labor. "As soon as John came back into the band," Flea goes on, "we jammed in my garage all summer. Then we did the album in three weeks." Basic tracks, in fact, were done in five days.

"Flea first brought it up," notes Kiedis later, between vocal overdubs. "He said, 'What do you think of playing with John again?' I said, 'That would be a dream. But what are the odds that the chemistry would work for even a minute?' And he said, 'Yeah, the odds are a million to one.' But from the first time we got together to play, I felt completely levitated.

"Yeah, there's an instability factor. I couldn't take the time to go over the history of discombobulation that this band has been through," Kiedis says, referring to, among other things, the 1988 fatal overdose of original guitarist Hillel Slovak and the three guitarists, including Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction, who zipped through the Peppers in Frusciante's absence. "We all know not to project how many years this thing is going to work. Right now, it's working like crazy."

It has not been a cakewalk for any of the Chili Peppers. When Frusciante abruptly quit in May 1992, leaving the band guitarless on the eve of headlining Lollapalooza, he began a long haul through depression and heroin addiction. Aside from two bleak, potent solo albums of songs mostly written while he was still a Pepper, Frusciante withdrew from music to the point where, for a time, he stopped playing guitar entirely. He claims he's never even heard One Hot Minute, the 1995 album the Chili Peppers made with Navarro.

"I was very confused when I quit the band," says Frusciante, a thin, shy fellow, now twenty-nine, who speaks in a pillowy whisper. "It got into my head that stardom was something evil. If you were a rock star, you were trying to put people on." He smiles. "I don't see it that way anymore."

Frusciante's sudden exit hurt Kiedis badly; the two did not speak for years. "I just hoped, for his sake, that he would be all right," Kiedis says now, "that he would be happy and OK with himself." In 1997, Kiedis made contact, visiting Frusciante at a drug-treatment facility where the guitarist was getting clean."It wasn't anything to do with music. It was because I was happy that he was considering coming back to our world," Kiedis insists. "And it felt amazing when we finally came face to face again. Whatever happened before, it was all over with."

Kiedis, 36, is frank about his own ongoing struggle with addiction. When asked whether he worries about Frusciante's fragility since the guitarist rejoined the band, Kiedis says with a warm, honest grin, "I worry more about mine. He's been cleaner longer than I have at this point." During Frusciante's wilderness years, Kiedis -- who wrote about his darkest drug days in the Chili Peppers' Top Five hit, "Under the Bridge" -- went through what he calls "these spurts where I would go out and use. And everything would crumble. I'd slip back and forth. Over the last four years, the lion's share of my time has been clean. All it takes is a short while of me using to really get dark and upset the balance. But it's good now."

Kiedis credits Flea and Smith with keeping the Chili Peppers alive, if barely at times, over the last seven years: "Flea was beyond patient and beyond compassionate. There was me going back and forth, John quitting, things not panning out with Dave. I can't believe he was willing to hang in there as long as he did. Chad, too."

Actually, Flea was so distressed by the band's stalled career -- he describes the year before Frusciante's return as "the year of nothing" -- that he planned to make a solo album. After three months of jamming with Frusciante in the garage and at coming-out shows last June in New York and Washington, D.C. (including an abbreviated set at the Tibetan Freedom Concert), the bassist hit his own brick wall: a personal-relationship crisis that, he says, left him at times "in the fetal position, crying."

"There were times when we were playing," Flea admits, wincing a bit, "I'd be thinking, 'Man, I hurt so bad.' I was saying these mantras to myself. 'You really hurt right now. But play this music, because it's good.'"

Even choosing a producer for the new album was more hassle than necessary. The Chili Peppers immediately went to Rubin -- who promptly said yes -- then, just as quickly, decided to look around. Rubin graciously made some recommendations; the band, staring the magic Blood Sugar combination in the face, came back to him.

"They had been writing a lot," says Rubin. "They hadn't made a record in a while, which was a positive thing. There was a lot of energy there; they were ready."

Rubin points out that he was first approached about producing the Chili Peppers long before Blood Sugar, when Slovak was still alive. "They were really in bad shape, drugwise," Rubin recalls. "I walked into the room thinking, 'This is bad.' I didn't want to do it. Then when I met them for Blood Sugar, they were like a different band, completely in control, ready to do something good. This new record -- it's the closest they've come to that same energy."I don't know if they're in exactly the same place," Rubin adds. When the Chili Peppers made Blood Sugar, "they'd never really had any success. They hadn't broken through and dealt with all the bullshit that comes with being a big band. They're more grown-up now than they were then."

The Chili Peppers' attempt to make an album big enough to accommodate old-school jollies like "Phfat Dance" as well as recent lessons learned is reflected in two of Kiedis' favorite new songs. The title suggests otherwise, but "Californication" is not a sex-funk romp -- it's a bittersweet thing about bright possibility and broken promises. "It's about California and Hollywood having such a profound effect on the planet," Kiedis explains, "of the good and the bad of that. Of how people dream of this weird, magical place that is really kind of the end of the world, the Western Hemisphere's last stop."

It was in California, though, that he, Flea and Frusciante wrote a shot of acoustic bonhomie provisionally called "Road Trippin'," a song that came out of a surfing trip and that opens with the line, "Road trippin' with my two favorite allies."

"We're all pretty much on the novice surf tip," Kiedis says, "but nothing is better than getting up with the sunrise and paddling out, even if you're not a great surfer." In a break from playing last year, the three loaded Flea's truck with snacks and music (David Bowie, the Germs, the Cure) and drove up to Big Sur to ride some waves. "As soon as we got there, we started a fire; they started playing, and I started writing," Kiedis says. "By the end of the day, I had this song about our trip -- that we were together after all this time and doing something as pure as surfing and writing music.

"If I've learned anything through the freaky tribulations of this experience," Kiedis says of the Chili Peppers' new life and music, "it's that all of the setbacks, all of the losses and all of the gains -- it's all for a reason. You never get sick for no reason. And things turned out just the way they were supposed to. I don't think we would have what we have right now if all that messed-up stuff hadn't happened."

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