September 30, 1998
Gaucho Grill restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Good food, excellent chicken dishes.
I'd meet him about eight months earlier when the band was doing day-long interviews for the Californication
album. He made a point of stopping by and asking me, Hey, Steven, how are you?
He spent several minutes talking to me while Warner Bros. press reps stood by in various poses of annoyed displeasure. Other journalists were waiting to talk to him and he was keeping them waiting. He paid them no attention. This describes perfectly the type of person Chad Smith
is if you've met him, he remembers you. There is no posing involved.
And that's why the story about this story becomes so intriguing. Several times during the discussion, he would pound on the table in emphasis of a point or pretend he was playing air drums by stomping his feet on the floor in imitation of striking an invisible bass. Two girls at the next table keep glancing his way, shooting dirty look and wondering why this guy is making so much noise. They may recognize him but still, they cut him no slack. You would think that Smith would have retaliated with a Mind your own business smirk or completely ignored them. Rather, when the girls look over for the third time, he apologizes for making so much racket. Such is the dichotomy that is Chad Smith.
Chad Smith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers
' drummer since late 1988 when he replaced Jack Irons, is seated at a table at a Sunset Boulevard restaurant. Outside, the famed street is alive with the sounds of cars and motorcycles, and inside, the establishment is noisy with the buzz of people conversing and the chomp of customers masticating. The man hailing from St. Paul, Minnesota is, not too surprisingly, a pretty animated individual.
Just like the rest of his Red Hot Chili Peppers band. On the outside, they are tattooed warriors, loud, irreverent, and anti-social. On the inside, as this interview will reveal, it is a band of trained musicians who have risen from the ranks of Los Angeles no names to become an important part of musical culture. The loud voices and boisterousness is just a mask well, for Flea
and lead singer Anthony Kiedis
it may be a mask that rarely comes off and behind it are four tremendously creative individuals who have created a brand of rock-meets-funk that no one has ever heard before.
After overdoses and breakups and a changing musical climate, the principals finally reunited for a second time. Guitarist John Frusciante
, the Stratocaster-playing ex-heroin shooter responsible for much of the sound on their groundbreaking Blood Sex Sugar Magik
album, returned to replace Dave Navarro
. At the time of this conversation, the group was hard at work on a new album that would be released later this year (1998) or the beginning of next year (this would be the Californication album that would ultimately become the group's biggest seller with an astounding 15,000,000 copies sold).
Chad is an unusual person. A big guy (he jokes that he always looks so short because he's sitting behind a drum kit), standing at well over six feet, he speaks with an honesty and openness and directness you'd normally associate with a much smaller person. Drinking lemonade and lunching on the restaurant's house specialty some spicy chicken thing he talked about Frusciante's return, making records, and the life of a Pepper.
We began our conversation with a brief overview of his work on external projects. During his career, Smith has played on some 500 albums including Dave Navarro and Glenn Hughes solo albums; the Dixie Chicks (Taking the Long Way, 2006); Fishbone (The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerk, 2000); Johnny Cash (Unearthed, 2003, and many, many others.
UG: Before we start talking about the new album and the Peppers' past, can you talk a bit about some of the outside projects you've been involved in?
I've been doing some remixes with Dave (Navarro). I just did a thing with Traci Lords (a one-time porno queen turned actress) and she brought along her boyfriend and we played cards with him and I lost about $200. We should have done this at the Record Plant where they have a Jacuzzi and then we could have played strip poker (Chad is just joking). She should really stick to what she does best. I was in Boston doing a charity hockey game and she was there promoting her record or something and I ran into her in a club. She said she was going to do a remix of one of her songs (Fallen Angel') and I think she had heard something else we did Janet Jackon or something (Chad and Dave remixed Jackson's What'll I Do'). She wanted to make it a little more rock so we scrapped everything and me and Dave played on the track and then we came down and had her listen to it. The verses needed a little more so I'm sitting at a board with an engineer and she turns down all the lights in the vocal booth and we told her we'd play the track and she should just sing along. I can't see her and I lean over to Dave and ask, Is she singing?' and he says, No.' We stop tape and do it again and the same thing. Dave goes, Could you just sing a little a cappella into the mic?' and she goes, Fuck you! I'm not singing by myself; I don't want you guys to hear me.' She was too embarrassed. So that was pretty funny.
Getting back to the Chili Peppers proper, it seems that you have your old guitar player, John Frusciante, back.
We were doing some dates at the end of the year at the end of the Jane's Addiction tour; we had some makeup dates because I wiped out on my motorcycle and we had to cancel Hawaii and Vegas. I separated my shoulder. And the time before that, Anthony had a motorcycle accident so it's always something; we're notorious for that. Dave was not in any condition to play music so I guess Flea and Anthony had been hanging out with John and I didn't really know. I hadn't seen John for a while and the last thing I heard he'd got arrested for drugs and he was pretty bad. He quit the band, on and off. He got arrested and thrown in jail and part of his thing was to go through rehab and he was doing pretty good. Anthony visited him.
So, unbeknownst to me, some of the songwriting creative processes were difficult with Dave. He works differently than John; he's more of a reactive than an active songwriter. If you bring ideas to Dave, he's really good at putting his ideas on top of that. With the Chili Peppers, everyone sort of jams together and bounces ideas off of each other instead of one guy coming in and going, Here's my part, what do you think of this?' With us, it's more of a four-way, communal writing vibe. And that wasn't really the way he was used to writing. And with John, it's more, especially with Flea and Anthony, (it) felt more comfortable writing the way we used to write. So Flea called me and said he was watching a Lakers (basketball team) game and why don't I cover over? He calls me back a little bit later and tells me to come back at five because Anthony is coming. I knew something was up so I come over and sit down and I go, What's up?' They tell me they want to fire Dave and get John back in the band. If somebody doesn't want to work with somebody in a band, there's nothing you can say. Because I had been working on a record with Dave called the Spread, sort of a side project.
It's not hard to guess that you were really close to Dave. You worked with him on these outside projects and all that stuff. And he always said he felt the strongest bond with you.
"John was into getting high and just tired of the whole thing; it was time to go. He thought people were trying to kill him so he was out of there."
Yeah; we did this record and we hung out and I really like him; he's a great guy. Talented. I thought it was the drug thing but they said not really; they said creatively it would be better with John. I could have quit but I like playing in the band and we'll see how it goes. I was cautiously optimistic.
When did John first quit the band?
During a Japanese tour in '92 (supporting the Blood Sugar Sex Magik record). He had just had enough; he didn't want to travel; didn't want to play live; didn't want to do videos; didn't want to do interviews; didn't want to talk to anybody. Very anti-social. He was into getting high and just tired of the whole thing; it was time to go. He thought people were trying to kill him so he was out of there. He wanted to leave now, twenty minutes before we were supposed to play in Japan. So we had to cancel gigs in Japan, all of Australia and New Zealand where we'd never been and the record was number one. Kind of a bummer.
But that was six years ago and a lot of things changed and now it's going great. We're writing song. It sort of feels like the Blood record but different obviously. Everybody has grown up a little bit and there's definitely a heightened sense of renewed energy and the juices are flowing and everyone is real positive. So if everybody stays off the crack pipe, we should get a record out. I'm excited about it. We've actually recorded about twenty songs up at Daniel Lanois' studio; ten of them are finished and ten of them are almost done; it came out really good.
Can you recognize elements from the Blood Sugar Sex Magik album? Or does it feel completely new?
Yeah, it's kind of a natural progression of where we left off. John is a very rhythmic player where David had a big, layered, textured sound. John is more funk-influenced, cleaner rhythm and more space for the drums. When I recorded with Dave, he'd have fifteen guitar tracks and I'd say, Dude, you don't need two of those (tracks) and three of those' and we just had to strip it away. But that's kind of the way he works. It's murder for a drummer who needs some acoustic room on a tape; he did compromise.
Those are the main differences between the two guitarists: John is more of a minimalist where Dave likes to layer the sound?
Yeah. They're both fantastic musicians; one is not better than the other. It's just a different style.
How did Dave feel when he learned he was getting his walking papers? Did you feel bad or guilty in any way because of the bond you'd developed?
He was bummed; he asked, What did I do?' He was really crushed and I felt really bad. Because him and I were friends and he probably felt I was in on abandoning him. But like I say, when there are four creative people, unless I said, You guys are wrong and I want to pursue something else and I'm gonna quit.' But I didn't feel there was any reason to do that because I didn't know what was going to happen. With John coming in, I didn't know if that was going to work out. The way things work out with this band, everything is great but tomorrow everything could be fucked up again. It's kinda like having a girlfriend when it's good, it's great but when it's not you think about the good times. It's work. Being in a band is one of the hardest things in the world; I spend more times with these guys than I did with my wife or my girlfriend (Chad is recently divorced). You have to find people that you not only get along with personally but then you have the same musical goals you have.
What's so intriguing about the band is its history several drummers had come and gone before you joined and there have been a whole list of guitarists. And yet, the group has always been able to maintain this consistent sound and integrity.
We've been fortunate to have really great players in the band. Jack Irons and Cliff Martinez were great (both drummers pre-dated Smith's arrival: the former played on the first self-titled album in 1984 and the latter appeared on Freaky Stylie, the 1985 follow-up). I met them after I joined. I really wasn't a fan of the band; I don't think I had any of their records. I had a good friend who liked them whose name was Newt. Denise Zoom, who was married to Billy Zoom from X, was fucking John and then she was fucking my friend, Newt. So Newt was the connection. John told Newt they were looking for a drummer; Newt told Zoom he knew a drummer and Zoom told John he knew a drummer. It's all very incestuous. Zoom said, I know a guy who eats drums for breakfast.' I went down and had a great time.
You joined the band about the same time as John?
John joined a little bit before me; I joined like December '89 and he joined around August. About two months after I joined we were recording Mother's Milk. Boom! Thrust into Chili Pepperdom. For me, I was so excited making music. You know, it was exciting and I thought it was pretty cool. I liked some of the songs but we didn't really have a vibe together. The way we recorded, we didn't all record together. Me and Flea did the basics and John would overdub. So it was a little kind of rushed. You can tell the differences between that and then two years later with Blood We had toured, hung out together, got to know each other musically and personally and wrote all the songs together.
So that was a big reason why the Blood album sounded like it did. And Rick Rubin (producer); he's a character. He's smart, has similar musical tastes as we have. He has a good basis in all that early rap stuff and in the rock end: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles. We matured a little bit as songwriters; he helped us write better songs than we did in the past. Some of them were just jams we made into songs; he helped us to craft our songs.
Rick Rubin actually participated in the arrangements on Blood Sugar Sex Magik? He cut down verses and helped definite choruses and solo sections, for example?
Yes, exactly. Telling you not to play a fill in there, don't crash there. At first it was, Hey, you're not a drummer you don't tell me what to play.' We had a couple clashes but 80 per cent of the time he was right. So we trusted him and he had a lot of good suggestions. And Brendan O'Brien was a fantastic engineer. So for those two months recording in that house (the band recorded at illusionist Harry Houdini's house in Laurel Canyon; it is a marvelous structure that is reported to be inhabited by ghosts to this day), everything we tried worked. There was never any forcing of anything.
Could you sense something special being created while the album was coming together?
Absolutely. We thought we were doing something really cool; that's a good feeling. Rick was excited and we had a great time. The house was great; we had this crazy ex-Playboy bunny cook. And psychics would come in and tell us about the ghosts. The house wasn't' a studio but we just brought stuff in; a mobile truck, all the best gear. Love and Rockets was in there and they burned down the kitchen. We did a Robert Johnson cover (They're Red Hot') and we recorded it outside; it was like one in the morning and you can hear the cars going by and shit.
How did you record your drums?
I had two drum sets and one was in the main area room and another one was in this room which was like all tile and glass; a smaller room. Really loud, real loud. And two mics. I think we did Give It Away' in there. There was a mic on the kick, one on the snare, and just two in the room, and that was it. Brendan would go, Where does this mic go?' It never mattered to him. He'd say, Use the gray one because it matches his snare. Put that one up.' And that was it. Because my other experiences were one of these things (Chad stomps foot on ground to simulate hitting a kick drum) and you were burned out by the time you had to play. He was ready in five minutes; he was so great. It makes creating so much easier and more enjoyable.
I've been in a lot of different recording situations and if you've got a guy who knows what he's doing, and the drummer is a good drummer and hits them and are tuned fairly well, close enough, it shouldn't' be difficult to get a pretty good drum sound. It's the times when a guy changes a mic and he moves it in and he moves it out, and he changes it again, and he switches the phase, you know you're in trouble.
Since were talking about drums specifically, what are you playing on that breakdown section of Breaking the Girl?' It sounds like you're banging on anvils and things.
All that percussion stuff? Yeah, we just wanted to make the section sound metallic. So we sent out the runner guy from the house to go to the dump yard and bring back big metallic pipes and stuff. And we sat on the ground in the foyer and Flea had this big pipe and was beating it (Chad imitates the part with spoons on the restaurant table and incurs another mean glance from the girls' neighboring table) and I'm playing brake drums (from a car) and Anthony was playing a garbage can or something. Then we all kind of switched and double-tracked it and Brendan put a mic out there and would say, OK, now you sit closer, you sit farther' and it was done in half-an-hour.
It has that Maxwell's Silver Hammer' effect to it.
"A lot of things changed and now it's going great. We're writing song. It sort of feels like the Blood record but different obviously."
Yeah, a little bit, right; I don't know why we did that.
When you start with a great idea, adding pieces simply makes the track come more alive. As opposed to beginning with a less than stellar song that only sags under the weight of all these embroideries.
Yeah; that song would stand on its own on acoustic guitar like any good song.
The rhythm track with you and Flea on Suck My Kiss' is so beautifully locked in.
That's kind of our rock song; the chorus is John kind of listening to AC/DC. Very AC/DC influence on his part (Chad sings the chorus guitar line). It's pretty straight ahead rock number for us anyway. Rock as far as we do it. That's fun to play live sometimes; kids love it. We have done it live back in the days but not so much anymore.
Are there a group of songs that the band is required to play during every concert? There must be certain tracks that have become concert standards.
We have to play, because the little kids have paid their $20 to come and see us, Give It Away' which is always a good party song. And Under the Bridge' we play a lot (Smith wrinkles his nose in slight disgust).
I'm guessing you're making that face because there's really not much for a drummer to do on those songs.
I don't do anything; cross stick. Yeah, those were my parts but Rick helped me to mold it. When we were doing that, it was never our goal or saying, this is a great song, it's gonna be a number one hit.' Up until that point, the Chili Peppers had some success with Mother's Milk; we sold some records (the Stevie Wonder cover of Higher Ground' received radio play) and people liked us. But we never thought we'd be selling millions of albums, this little bunch of knuckleheads. We definitely did our things and it sounds like us but we never had any Top 40 aspirations or anything. So it wasn't like, Oh, here is this great song, we better really make it great because it's gonna be a big Number One hit.' We just thought of it as another cool song, slower than stuff we'd done before. So I don't really remember dissecting my parts that much. Just kind of coming in when the bass came in; Flea and I kind of locked in, my bass drum and his guitar towards the end; the second verse. And the drums came in and I remember Rick saying, What would John Bonham play here?'
Under the Bridge' sounds like the type of song where John came in with a completed guitar part.
I think so. Actually Anthony had the melody and the words early on. There were lots of times when we would come up with the music and Anthony would come up with the stuff after. Anthony was driving around in his car, feeling really lonely and stuff, and he came up with the melody and the words and stuff. And he was kinda shy when he wanted to sing it to us. He'd go (Chad imitates in a shy fashion), I've got this song' and he was kinda embarrassed and a little shy. And I think him and John probably worked out the verses and stuff.
So we played that one (live), Give It Away,' and The Power of Equality' is one that we really like (from Blood ). I like that song, it's a good live song. We've been playing, I Could Have Lied,' too. If You Have To Ask' we've been playing, that's a good funk number. We don't do Breaking the Girl.'
Whose idea was it to bring in cover tunes? EMI even released some albums made up entirely of covers like Essential: Under the Covers that had various re-mix versions of songs like Higher Ground.
The Chili Peppers have always done cover songs since their first record (on the Red Hot Chili Peppers album, the band covered Frank Zappa's Mommy Where's Daddy;' on Freaky Stylie they covered the Meters' Hollywood (Africa)' and If You Want Me To Stay' by Sly & The Family Stone; and on the third album, Uplift Mofo Party Plan, the group recorded Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues'). It's really just paying homage to people who are musical geniuses that we really admire and were influenced by. People like bob Dylan and Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder and Hank Williams, Jr., and Robert Johnson. I think the last record, One Hot Minute, was the only record we didn't have any covers on. There was the Ohio Players with Love Rollercoaster' from the Beavis & Butthead soundtrack; Search and Destroy' by Iggy Pop. It's fun playing that stuff.
Did you ever have the chance to meet any of your heroes?
Yeah, I met Stevie Wonder at Guitar Center and a guy came up to him and told him I was Chad from the Chili Peppers and he said, Yeah, I really liked the way you did my song; I liked the way that Flea guy played my part.' He was playing a clavinet and he played it the way Flea played that bass part. He was imitating the way someone else was doing him. I don't know anybody else; most of them are dead. Iggy came up and played with us at Madison Square Garden and did an encore of I Wanna Be Your Drug' or something and he was climbing on the fucking light poles and shit. He's a character.
Returning to the Blood album, Mellowhip Slinky in B Major' had a great sort of quasi-shuffle groove; sort of a Bernard Purdie thing.
Kind of; but I'm not shuffling just with the right hand because I'm playing the snare with the right hand getting all those little accents in there. Probably I can't do that Purdie thing and this was easier. But it sounds like it ha a lot of space. I get asked about that at drum clinics sometimes.
It is difficult to pinpoint your influences. What makes the RHCP so interesting is that each musician really is a gifted player. During the 80s, when the band was really emerging, a lot of the punk bands around weren't really known for their instrumental gifts. It's hard to imagine you were influenced by the Germs, for instance.
Right, they had more attitude. It kinda depends on the song because we play the hardest, fastest kind of song and then we'll do the slowest, prettiest Neil Young kind of song. A lot of bands just have their one thing and that's what they do. So from song to song you still have to be yourself and not xound like Zigaboo (Modeliste) from the Meters. Sometimes I think I want to play like some skinny, little tea drinking Englishman on a song and py myself in that place. Not to be Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker or John Bonham or any of those guys which I'm not gonna be anyway because it's still me. I try and just be influenced by everything and just drummers of this band or that guy. The best thing about drummers like John Bonham and Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell is their personality comes through the music and how they play. And any good musician has that: Dave sounds like Dave and John sounds like John and Flea. You listen to the Police and you go, That's Stewart Copeland.' He has that personality, he does that hi-hat shit; Phil Collins, he has his sound, he has his thing. John Bonham, obviously, these kinds of guys have that. There are so many generic kinds of sounds nowadays in pop music on the radio so I just try and be myself and adapt to the certain song.
As if you maybe become a character in the song? The English tea drinker as you mentioned, or a biker or
Whatever; a big greasy biker. I usually don't have trouble getting into the vibe of a song. You asked me about Breaking the Girl,' what I'm playing is a kind of lame sounding polka or something. I'm playing this thing in three and I was trying to think like Manic Depression,' the Hendrix song, that tom thing, and that's almost what our track is. And it works and it becomes a part of the song. I've always been into taking suggestions from other people in the band. If we're writing a song, I'll get into a habit of going right to the kick, snare, and hi-hat instead of thinking in a different way; toms or something. The way a non-drummer would. Flea is s very interesting pedestrian drummer and he'll play a straight roll on a tom and I'll move it around but I wouldn't have thought like that. I kind of digest his version and make it more drum-oriented.
You've been a constant in the band's evolution for many years now. If you left the band, it would be hard to think of them in the same way. They wouldn't same the either.
That's very flattering but I don't know if that's true. I think the band is Flea and Anthony. You always want to think you're irreplaceable but I'm sure they could get another drummer and it would be different and it should be. It's hard to find someone with their own thing. We went through an auditioning process before we got Dave and listened to like hundreds of guys. And no one had their own thing.
Zander (Schloss, Thelonius Monster) tried to come out after John left (following the Blood Sugar Sex Magik album) and we flew him to Australia to do some dates but there just wasn't enough time. He had like four days or something and it didn't work. Arik (Marshall) did the Lollapalooza tour with us and he's a great player but we tried to write songs with him after that and it didn't work out. There just wasn't any writing spark there. And then we auditioned all those people and then we got Dave.
The first time you heard Dave play, did you know he was the right person?
"I knew something was up so I come over and sit down and I go, What's up?' They tell me they want to fire Dave and get John back in the band."
We knew him from Jane's Addiction and around town and blah blah blah. We jammed twice and it was cool; he was into it. It just felt like he was more of a peer; he had been in a band and knew everything. Obviously he had a different style than John but still we knew he was someone we could make great music with. And he was a cool guy to be in a band with. Most of these people you couldn't hang out with for ten minutes no matter how good he was.
Was Jane's Addiction an influence on the band?
Oh, yeah; they're just one of the best rock bands in the last ten years. I loved them. Not that you would hear their influence on our music but just appreciating another band that was innovative and the drumming (Stephen Perkins) and everything. And I know Flea loved them too.
It must have been a confusing time when the Blood album came out, you sell millions of albums, and John leaves. What were you thinking?
It had kind of been going in that direction for a while. Pretty much as soon as we started touring in November, I think the album came out in September (1991), it was a drag. He didn't want to play; it was like Spinal Tap. We only saw him on stage and it was really weird. The four of us were really tight and it got to be a dysfunctional family for a while. We went to Europe and it got really weird but it was sort of a relief. John was a big part of the band and definitely the Blood Sugar record and he just didn't want to do it anymore. And you can't force somebody to do something like that.
After the Blood record came out, there were some compilation type records: The Abbey Road EP, What Hits? Plasma Shaft, and Out in L.A. What were those records about?
The first record was from '88 and right before I joined. What Hits? Was EMI cashing in on our catalog because we went to Warner Brothers. Plasma Shaft was some sort of import and Out in L.A. was more EMI bullshit.
The next studio record after Blood was One Hot Minute.
Yeah, four years later, because we went through all that shit looking for guitar players, touring, blah blah blah.
One Hot Minute was Dave's first record with the band what did that feel like?
It was different because of what I said before, his working situation. I think Perry (Farrell, Jane's Addiction) came up with a lot of things and threw the ideas to Dave. So I think Dave felt some pressure being the new guy and getting to know each other. It took a little while to feel comfortable with that. And Anthony just didn't have a lot of lyrics and melodies for the songs. We went in and recorded them and for half of the songs he didn't know what he was going to do. So it took a long time for him to figure that out. That held the record up for about a year; we recorded basic tracks in July of '94 and then we went and played Woodstock, a European tour, came back and played some dates with the Rolling Stones and Christmas came and nothing was happening.
This time, for the new album, al the songs are finished, all the words like on Blood Sugar For this new record, we've played four or five of the new songs. On One Hot Minute we did none of that; we'd write them, play them a few times, Rick (Rubin) would come in and go, Yeah, yeah.' So we weren't prepared like we should have been.
You obviously like working with Rick Rubin; will he be producing the new album?
We haven't decided yet; some people want him, some people don't. We like him but he's very busy and hard for him to be completely focused. We need somebody here. We were gonna work with Michael Bienhorn who we worked with before (Uplift Mofo Party Plan and Mother's Milk) but he's got No Doubt coming up and he's busy. So I don't think we'll use him.
Have you ever thought about producing the album internally?
It's been brought up but I don't think we should. Too many cooks in the kitchen and we need a chief chef. We've been thinking about Scott Litt from REM and Daniel Lanois who is doing U2 right now. Anybody good is working.
Any working titles yet?
Ass Killer, that's the name of the album; the label will love that title (laughs).
The band has always displayed this sort of controlled lunacy but when it comes right down to it, the music has always been the most important part of it. Is that true?
Yeah. A lot of people, especially in Europe, don't get it. When we were out for Mother's Milk, there was all the sensationalism about these wild guys and socks on their dicks and they couldn't see past the entertainment aspect. They thought we were a joke band. Especially the press they called us punk, funk, surf, tattoos, and they never got into the music. It was a little disappointing but as much as we joke around and some of the words in the songs might be a little light, we take the music very seriously. When we're playing, it's all about hitting the groove Hard! And that's the important thing.
Interview by Steven Rosen