Red Hot Chili Peppers: ‘People misbehave and make mistakes. They don’t know better’

As they reunite for their 12th album, the punk-funk rockers are trying to age gracefully after a youth full of sex and drugs. So why does Anthony Kiedis hang up after a difficult question?

If there was any doubt to how massive the Red Hot Chili Peppers still are, last month they got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on the very streets they used to stalk as teenage punks. Here in Los Angeles, they are everywhere. In a bodega on Melrose Avenue, amid the lingerie shops and trash-filled lots, the city’s unofficial theme tune wafts out of the speakers: “First born unicorn / Hardcore soft porn / Dream of Californ-i-cay-tioooon”. I half expect Flea and Anthony Kiedis to wander in, long-haired and bare-chested; those teenagers who ended up in one of the world’s most enduring bands.

It’s not quite the meet-cute I had imagined, then, when I finally see them in the pixellated flesh on separate Zooms and one phone call: drummer Chad Smith in his home office, bassist Flea in his home cinema and frontman Kiedis dialling in from the warehouse where the band is rehearsing for a stadium tour. There is a new album, Unlimited Love, their 12th – significant because it’s the first in nearly two decades with guitarist John Frusciante back in the fold, but also because the band has survived for 39 years without resorting to a breakup and reunion. “I thought we’d implode at some point, like most bands do,” says Smith.

They have had a fair go, what with the drug hell and lineup changes. The last time this lineup was together was in the mid-00s. Californication – their 1999 ground zero, my most-worn cassette – had sold 15m, follow-up By the Way included huge singles, and their 2006 double album, Stadium Arcadium, was a US No 1. Critics said it was either the best thing they had ever done or that it failed to harmonise their two sides: edgy funk-rap mavericks and radio-friendly pop-rockers. Frusciante quietly left soon after. Although it was for less dramatic reasons than the first time, in 1992, when he was shooting so much heroin that his teeth fell out.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers in Minneapolis … (from left) Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, Flea and DH Peligro.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988 … (from left) Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, Flea and DH Peligro. Photograph: Jim Steinfeldt/Getty Images

The guitarist had joined the band at 18, “and by the time he was 21, we went from this little club band to Under the Bridge,” says Smith. “It was a lot.” Frusciante’s second exit was different. “There was no animosity. My take is that he wanted to do his own thing, where you didn’t have to compromise and [deal with] photoshoots and interviews.” Indeed, he seems to have rejoined on the proviso that he doesn’t have to do much of the latter, and isn’t available for this piece. Smith never considered that he would come back: “I thought that ship had sailed.”

But in late 2019, Flea and Frusciante started jamming together. “I can’t think of another musical connection I’ve seen that’s as strong as theirs,” Rick Rubin, their long-serving producer, who is back again on Unlimited Love, once said. There was only one problem: the Chilis already had a guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer, who had replaced Frusciante in 2009. Klinghoffer got a text from Flea, calling him over to his house. When he arrived, the band was waiting in the back yard, ready to deliver the bad news: he was out. He would later tell Rolling Stone that “it truly felt like a death”.

“Flea was like: ‘We’re gonna have John back. We love you, but we feel like there’s unfinished business,’” says Smith of that meeting. “It was fucking hard. Josh sat there, the rug pulled out from under him. There was a pause of about 15 seconds. And then he turns to us and goes: ‘I’m really happy for you guys.’ What a class act.” There was a silver lining for the sacked guitarist: eight days later, Eddie Vedder rang Klinghoffer and asked him to join Pearl Jam’s touring band.

Frusciante back in the fold was, in some ways, a risk. The last solo release he did was rooted in rave and he said was unsure if he could still write rock. But the rest of the band were looking to start afresh. “We were getting ready to make another record and we weren’t feeling confident,” says Smith. For 2016’s The Getaway, they had swapped Rubin, who had overseen their previous six albums, for Danger Mouse and loosely experimented with disco. But in the six years following, it sounds like the Chilis were a little lost. “It was hard to get us all on the same page and having faith in one another,” Flea says.

As soon as they were jamming once again, however, ideas flowed freely. “Every possible fear of the muse disappearing has proven so far to be irrational,” says Kiedis. “We had a momentous shift in chemistry by getting John back in.” No sooner had they regrouped than the pandemic happened – but for the newly fired-up Chilis, it was a blessing in disguise. They jammed for months, on a diet of old blues, rock’n’roll and New York Dolls, and came to Rubin’s studio with more than 100 songs. “We have a reputation for being a bunch of lunatics, but we take the music very seriously,” adds Flea.

Ah yes, that reputation. A 2004 NME profile once wagered: “If you need any decent reasons to dismiss the band for ever” it’s down to early “moronic” songs such as Mommy Where’s Daddy – about incest – and Special Secret Song Inside (Party On Your Pussy) – go figure. To some disdainful critics, the band has never shaken off that image: puerile, sleazy, silly. Or, as Smith puts it: “Young Chad, early on in Chili Peppers, would have drank all your booze, done all your drugs. I would have fucked your girlfriend and not given a shit about any of it.”

So it’s interesting that their first three albums – their 1984 eponymous debut, the 1985 George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley and 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan – were among the material that Frusciante asked the band to play through when they were finding their feet again. “Songs we really hadn’t played in a long time,” says Smith. “My thought was: John wanted to reconnect with the band that he fell in love with.”

For Kiedis, it was about getting “back to basics – let’s just play music together with no expectations”. But he admits that revisiting that era was “a bit awkward. It feels a little like going backwards and I’ve grown into a new place. But I did see the value in the exercise, because it was a time where there was really nothing other than having fun and being obnoxious, brazen, crass – all of these characteristics that we had as young 20-year-olds.”

Unlimited Love has a few songs that speak to this unbridled attitude; these songs tend to be heavier, whereas the album is also airier and wistful elsewhere. One track is called, bluntly, The Great Apes. On One Way Traffic, meanwhile, Kiedis laments: “When did life get so damn cautious?” – though he’s not up for expanding on it now. “I don’t really get into this self-analysis,” he sighs. “Maybe I was referencing the world around me, maybe a part of myself.” It’s a shame he won’t dig deeper because there are themes of ageing and alienation, the US, their eternal muse, California, and – despite the softer innuendoes these days – love and sex, which are compelling against the long shadow of three musicians who have seen it all, now entering their 60s. (Frusciante, a whipper-snapper, is 52.)

Other songs are less oblique: Poster Child and the skronky-jazz of Aquatic Mouth Dance hark back to the 80s LA punk scene that Flea and Kiedis rolled with, from their old haunt the Starwood to John Doe from influential LA punks X. For Flea, it was a reminder that he’s still Jenny from the block. “We’re very privileged people – we have refrigerators full of food, nice houses and we jet off to wherever the fuck we want,” he says. “But when I hear [Kiedis] singing: ‘Please tell me can you spare / A pillow for my head and hair?’, we lived that for a long time. Where are we gonna get food today? Where am I going to sleep? Being fucked up on drugs. Anthony and I have a bond in that way that is so deep, from having nothing and hustling together. And I love how it relates to who we are today.”

Who and where they are today is complicated, perhaps, by the paradigm shift in culture since they have been away. The last Chilis album came out a year before #MeToo asked us to look differently at how we’ve lionised famous men, their privilege and behaviour. It’s a time that looks back less favourably, you might say, at a group of dudes who once billed themselves as “utter perpetrators of hardcore, bone-crunching mayhem sex things from heaven” and paraded around with socks on their cocks.

“I always wanted to stir the pot,” says Flea, who also said in his excellent 2019 memoir, Acid for the Children, that he was, at times, a bit of a jerk. “I wanted to be offensive, and it didn’t matter whether it was women, other men, rightwing people, leftwing people, I’d want to say something that would piss them off, just to be contrarian, to get things going. And I always saw so much hypocrisy on every side of every fence.”

He recalls writing one of his “stream-of-consciousness” blogs, Fleamail, in 2000, and signing off with the words “the feminist movement I mock”. “I love feminism, I just wrote that,” he says, though it prompted Kathi Wilcox, bassist in riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, to email him, saying: “That’s offensive to me.” He says now: “And I remember in that moment, being like: ‘Oh shit, I can’t just say anything, even though I have a good heart inside.’”

On stage in 2004 … (from left) Flea, Kiedis and Frusciante.
On stage in 2004 … (from left) Flea, Kiedis and Frusciante. Photograph: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Flea came to terms with that chaos-baiting part of himself “a long time ago, nearly 30 years, when I stopped drinking and doing drugs. People misbehave and make mistakes, they don’t know better.” Being spiritually attuned these days, he has had “many reckonings with myself in regards to everything, not just women”. But regarding the content of their songs, he deflects to Kiedis. “I didn’t write those lyrics and I feel like I can’t speak for them, or speak for Anthony, in terms of sexuality and the objectification of women,” he says, although he suggests he sees a difference in being “in awe of a woman and taking delight in that sensuality and eroticism, and being disrespectful”.

Personally, I love the songs about sex, trying to have sex and period sex – they are hotwired to my early teens, before I had awakenings of my own, and I surmise that it’s a similar story for every generation of kids that discovers the Chilis’ balls-out nonsense scatting and psychedelic doo-wop laments about Hollywood’s seedy side. Though some of their songs might sit less easily now. One on Stadium Arcadium, called She’s Only 18, Kiedis wrote about dating Heather Christie, the mother of his son Everly, when he was 41. That’s not to say that men over twice the age of someone can’t write about them as an object of sexual desire, or flash back to their younger selves. But it doesn’t stop others from getting the ick.

The stickier subject is Kiedis’s 2004 memoir, Scar Tissue. Among the well-publicised revelations about his lost childhood is a passage where he admits to having sex with a minor when he was 23 or 24, knowing that she was 14, which he also said inspired his 1985 song Catholic School Girls Rule. This is all out there on bookshelves, though reviewers at the time tended to focus on the shocking experiences Kiedis had as a child himself (drugs, sex, partying), under the guidance of his father, who died last year. The book was of its time in the sense that no one batted an eye – or even dared question it.

He has thought twice about some of Scar Tissue now, surely? “I had low-level regret the minute the very first person ever read that book,” says Kiedis. “But as time went by, my regrets disappeared into realising that the book did something much better than I ever intended for it to do. In the end, the stories were not the important thing, as much as this thematic notion that one could be at death’s door, and somehow survive.” He would receive messages from people in rehab and prison saying: “‘Your book kept me company and it made me realise that it could change my life.’ That’s a much better reason to have written the book.”

I say I was thinking more specifically about the Catholic School Girls Rule passage, but before I’ve got a chance to ask whether he has reflected on what he wrote, Kiedis shoots back: “I don’t know what you’re searching for with that one. But it doesn’t seem like any good can come out of discussing that.” Then the line goes dead.

Conveniently, Flea and Kiedis claim not to have thumbed each other’s autobiographies. “I’m scared to read his book,” says the bassist. Outside the studio, the Red Hot Chili Peppers appear to operate as four separate entities, with Flea’s and Kiedis’s knotty double helix at the centre. Says Flea: “If Anthony and I sat in a room and spoke for an hour like we’re doing right now, he and I would walk away with completely different impressions of what happened. I’m not saying one truth is more important than another truth. We just are different people.”

In 1990 … (from left) Flea, Smith, Kiedis and Frusciante.
In 1990 … (from left) Flea, Smith, Kiedis and Frusciante. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Perhaps that’s the key to the band lasting like it has: ignoring each other. “A long time ago, we established a sort of unspoken musical language, where we don’t need to speak a lot,” says Flea. “We don’t, like, hang out on a Friday night,” says Smith. “But we have this thing that’s special.”

In that respect, Unlimited Love is both a necessary sentiment and a bit of a cop out. It speaks to the current moment of a divided world – left versus right, masked or unmasked, says Flea, who also talks a lot about building bridges – and it surveys the Chilis’ past while making them relevant in the present, as rock titans who have lasted against the odds. Although I do wonder if the earnest bridge-building sidesteps accountability.

Each period of the band, says Flea, is “a growing experience. Every record is a time capsule, and to tie anybody, especially an artist that always continues to evolve and change, to something they did 30 years ago, 10 years ago, even five years ago … People might do something idiotic and have awakenings.”

But what if that something is illegal, or unforgivable? Flea, in his tie-dye Miles Davis hoodie, remains philosophical. “If you go back through history,” he says, “through all the greatest, timeless art [that] changed culture for ever, and then you have to go through every single person and investigate the quality of their character, to see if the words [or] music is worth paying attention to because of the quality of the character of the person that made it … At what point … ?

“I know this one thing for sure,” he continues. “The art remains the same. You could look at a painting 20 years ago you didn’t understand and you didn’t like it. Twenty years later, you look at [it and think]: ‘This is touching my heart in a way that I can’t believe’, because the art stayed the same, you changed. Wagner’s operas sound the same, the way that we look at them changes. Picasso’s art stays the same. A hundred years from now, people will look at it, and they’ll think about it completely differently than we [do] now.”

Flea, Frusciante, Smith and Kiedis.
(From left) Flea, Frusciante, Smith and Kiedis. Photograph: Sandy Kim

Is it possible, then, to be fun-loving, sleazy rock’n’rollers now? Or has culture moved to a point where it no longer accommodates that? “It’s absolutely possible,” says Flea, with fizzy vim. “Let your freak flag fly. Say what you need to say, don’t worry about what people think. And build bridges of love out into the universe.”

But Smith is not so sure if you can be that band in 2022. “Probably not. You have to be a little more careful. Things have changed. And good, as it should. Change is good. Nobody wants to see 60-year-old guys with socks on their dicks.”

• Unlimited Love is out now on Warner Records. Red Hot Chili Peppers tour the UK and Ireland in June

Contributor

Kate Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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