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Interview: The Radical Rebirth of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

With a new guitarist and killer new LP, the band blasts back into action

Michael 'Flea' Balzary, Anthony Kiedis, Chad Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers

Michael 'Flea' Balzary, Anthony Kiedis and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform on stage at O2 Arena on November 9, 2011 in London, United Kingdom.

Neil Lupin/Redferns/Getty

JOSH KLINGHOFFER, THE Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new guitarist, can tell you the exact day he started writing songs with the band: October 12th, 2009. His predecessor, John Frusciante, had already quit, although he would not make an official announcement until December. Klinghoffer had previously worked with the Chili Peppers, as a side-man on their last tour. But that day, in Los Angeles, he was playing with singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea and drum­mer Chad Smith for the first time as a potential member.

Klinghoffer, Flea and Smith were “just jamming around,” the guitarist remembers, “when Anthony walked in and said, ‘We lost a good man today.'” Brendan Mullen, who ran the historic L.A. punk club the Masque and was a close friend of the Chili Peppers, had died of a stroke. “It was a weird way to start,” Klinghoffer, 31, says — “a beginning and an end. Some­how that song came out of it.”

He is referring to “Brendan’s Death Song,” a dynamic requi­em for Mullen — part acoustic mourning, part galloping hard-rock send-off — on the Chili Peppers’ new album, I’m With You. “Anthony started singing, and we started jamming,” Flea recalls, still amazed. “That was the first song for the album.” The quartet wrote most of an­other tune that day, a funky, dark thing laced with snaky riffing and later titled “Annie Wants a Baby.” It also made the album, which was produced by Rick Rubin and comes out Au­gust 30th on Warner Bros.

“Thank God for transfor­mation,” Kiedis says, sitting in the living room of his Malibu home. “Historically, it’s been imposed on us. Every time things seem like they can sail smoothly, something cata­strophic happens.”

The singer turns and smiles at Klinghoffer, who is next to him on a couch. “I know now that when that happens,” Kiedis says, “something beautiful is going to come out of it.”

“We’re always looking to grow musically, but it’s like the universe conspires for it to be that way,” Flea affirms cheer­fully in his own Malibu home, a short drive from Kiedis’, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “Josh is not a guitar virtuoso like John. He’s a textural guy who also plays drums and piano. But there is no person on the planet we could have gotten who was better. And he was al­ready playing with us.”

The Chili Peppers have a 28-year history of tumult: internal tensions; drugtroubles, includ­ing the fatal overdose of origi­nal guitarist Hillel Slovak in 1988; and an extraordinary pa­rade of guitar players. The band has also matured from a raw fusion of punk and cartoon hip-hop to a rhythmically assured hard-pop hit machine that has sold more than 60 million al­bums worldwide. I’m With You has plenty of the Chili Peppers’ trademark funk-rock shove and swing. One track, “Mon­archy of Roses,” had the work­ing title “Disco Sabbath”; it’s easy to hear why.

But the album marks a shift from what Flea describes as “a Led Zeppelin kind of band, with big riffs and defined parts” to something closer to the clas­sic Rolling Stones, with an em­phasis on “songs, vibe and feel­ing.” “Even You Brutus?” is a heavy ballad powered by dark chimes of piano and peaking with a chorus that mid-Seven­ties Aerosmith would envy.

I’m With You also features Kiedis’ strongest, most melodically focused singing on rec­ord. Rubin, who has produced the Chili Peppers’ albums for two decades, says that “while we were doing vocals, I heard a song from [1999’s] Californication on the radio. I was shocked by how much better Anthony was now. From the beginning of the band, he had a long way to go. He didn’t sing on the first four albums — all he did was rap.”

“This is a new band,” Smith contends, sitting on the floor at Flea’s place. “We have the same name, but it’s a new band.”

It was a rough rebirth. In 2007, after a long world tour promoting 2006’s Stadium Arcadium, Kiedis, Smith, Flea and Frusciante went on hiatus. Flea, whose real name is Michael Balzary, insisted on two years. And he wasn’t sure he was comingback. “That was a thought in my head,” he con­fesses. “I just knew I needed to get away.” He played with Patti Smith and toured with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Flea also enrolled at the Universi­ty of Southern California, tak­ing courses in music theory and composition. His home­work included analyzing Bach fugues. “It made it easier to write songs,” Flea says. “I wrote a lot of stuff at the piano. I’d never done that before.”

Smith spent his time off with his young sons and playing with Chickenfoot. Kiedis went through a romantic break­up and cared for his new son, Everly, now three. At one point, the singer was hospitalized for two weeks after his gallblad­der erupted “like a grenade,” as he puts it. (He spent his recov­ery period surfing.) Frusciante quit before the Chili Peppers expected to end the hiatus, but the other members didn’t try to change his mind. “He wasn’t horribly happy,” Kiedis says. “And it seemed obvious Josh was the person for that job.”

Born in Los Angeles, Kling-hoffer quit school at 15 to focus on music. (He is distantly re­lated to Leon Klinghoffer, who was murdered by terror­ists aboard the Achille Lauro in 1985. “He was a fourth or fifth cousin of my grandfather,” Josh says.) For the past decade, as a sideman, Klinghoffer has worked with artists such as Beck and PJ Harvey, as well as leading his own projects. Even before he toured with the Chili Peppers, Klinghoffer appeared on some of Frusciante’s solo records. “He’s not John,” Rubin says, “but Josh speaks John’s language better than anyone else, just from years of playing with him.”

“There is no question this is a beginning,” Kiedis says of I’m With You. “I know when we write mediocre stuff and when we write good stuff. And I can’t wait to play this. We’ve only re­hearsed as a live band for two weeks. On Day One, I was glad we didn’t have a show that night — it wasn’t happening. But by Day 10, I was like, ‘If we had a show tonight, we could pull this off.'”

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