As with so much else that originates from California, musicians on the East Coast are not overly impressed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. According to a vocalist from a less celebrated New York rock group, Anthony Kiedis has neither an ear for music nor can he sing. And Flea, the bassist, wields his instrument like a bat and is quite incapable of producing an innovative melody, scoffs another Manhattan musician. And, for 25 years, the band has done nothing but stubbornly stick to its signature formula of smooth funk and catchy rhythms.
But criticism like this from the other side of the continent cuts no ice with the four sunny Californians, smacking as it does of sour grapes. With over 65 million albums sold, 7 Grammy awards and nine international hits, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are among the foremost rock bands in the world. They also have a reputation for not letting anybody dictate their actions. Survivors of a turbulent quarter of a century that has included fatalities, changing band members, and revolutionary changes in the music business, the band has managed to never fall from their audience's graces. As it happens, founding members Kiedis and Flea created a brand which is as unconventional as it is distinctive.
Fans can tell if you’re truthful and if it comes from the heart. I hope that’s the reason why people have connected with it for all these years.
"We never followed trends just because they were popular and have always made a genuine effort to produce music that we like," says percussionist Chad Smith, who has been a band member for 23 years now. Leaning back in the white leather couch at the Los Angeles hotel and stuffing a handful of potato chips into his mouth, he explains that he believes fans can tell if you’re truthful and whether the music comes from the heart – and, he hopes, this is the reason why people have connected with them for so many years. Although he openly admits, that Lady Luck certainly also contributed a hand. "We're four guys who want to bring positive energy into the world. We've been really lucky that way." Kiedis, the lead singer, currently sporting a neat mustache that sets off his sparkling brown eyes, agrees with the band's percussionist.
I could have never asked for a better family than the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or a better job, and I could not have written a more interesting script, if I tried my hardest, for the history of this band.
That said, it wasn't always easy. Kiedis was 12 years old when he left his mother in Michigan to live with his father in Hollywood, who not only introduced him to drugs, but also took charge of Kiedis’s sexual initiation, lending his 18-year-old girlfriend to his son for the express purpose. Then, at the age of 15, Anthony broke his back in an attempt to jump into a swimming pool from the 5th storey of a house. Unfortunately, he didn't quite hit the target. "That changed me for good," Kiedis says today.
Small wonder, then, that the wild teenager and Australian Michael Balzary, better known by his nickname Flea, got on like a house on fire. As a young boy, Balzary moved with his parents first to New York, and then, after their divorce, with his mother and stepfather, jazz musician Walter Abdul Urban, to Los Angeles. Urban developed into a violent alcoholic, and Flea lived in constant fear of him, taking recourse to marihuana to escape the reality of his home situation whenever he could. The third to join the party was Hillel Slovak, also a newcomer to Los Angeles, whose family had made their way there via New York from Israel. The three of them became inseparable, and drugs were their constant companion.
"Back then I had no idea how to go about writing a song," Kiedis says today. "Hillel knew so much about music and showed me the way." The way, after a few initial concerts in Los Angeles clubs, led steeply upward. Their first album, entitled simply "The Red Hot Chili Peppers", sold over 300'000 copies and got a lot of airtime. But, by then, both Kiedis and Slovak had become heroin addicts, a habit which was detrimental to their music and ended up killing Slovak in 1988.
Their friend's death came as a shock to the band and – for a while at least – they turned their backs on drugs. John Frusciante joined them as a new guitarist, and the dependable Chad Smith became their percussionist. After three albums, in 1990, the band changed labels to Warner Brothers and hired producer Rick Rubin to record "Blood Sugar Sex Magik". Featuring the hit "Give It Away", the album turned the Chili Peppers into superstars.
And that is how it’s been ever since. Still today, the meanwhile legendary Rubin continues to produce their albums at Warner Brothers with them. The music magnate emphasizes that when he decides to accept a project, it's less about the music than about the people behind the music. "They have to be personalities that I enjoy spending time with. Then I’m like the team coach."
Quite obviously: The Red Hot Chili Peppers and their allies in music are a dedicated team not only when working together, but also outside of the studio. This friendship and closeness is what transforms the band into a brand, more so even than their music. "This is my family," says Kiedis. Of course, it's up to each member to hold his ego in check and accept the others as they are. "If you have no consideration for the others when you work together, things start becoming uncomfortable," states the singer who has meanwhile kicked his drug habit. "I don't presume to give other people advice about drugs – I just know that they don't work for me anymore," the 49-year old says with conviction. Smith adds, "Life in the band is like being in a marriage where, in the end, love survives all the ups and downs."
The band is convinced that their new album "I'm With You" – the first the Chili Peppers have recorded since guitarist Frusciante left the group and after a three-year break – will reach record heights. New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer is extremely talented and fits in with the rest of the band perfectly, despite being 25 years younger. "We're probably in the most prolific phase of writing ever, and the album sounds damn hot," Kiedis says, who once was voted "sexiest man alive". And he is not exaggerating. The sound of the album is smooth and satisfying, and great tracks like "Police Station" or "Happiness Loves Company" contain all the ingredients to turn into chart busters. Yet, despite stomping basses and funky riffs, time has mellowed the spicy red peppers a degree or two.
Through the large picture window of the hotel Casa Del Mar where the interview is taking place, singer and drummer gaze down on a group of people playing on the Santa Monica beach. "What're they doing?" Smith asks. With a sly dig at the East Coast critics, the vocalist says, "They're having fun – that's what we do in California!"
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