Bad Influence: Flea on Jazz, Drugs and His Role in ‘Low Down’
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.
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