The Agony and Ecstasy of John Frusciante
The legendary guitarist waxes philosophical about hip-hop, sampling, and his turbulent time in "the band."
Illustration by Jessica Butler
I remember the day my first Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD came in the mail. The title of Blood Sugar Sex Magik freaked me out so I’d ordered the Greatest Hits. I listened like a young lion tasting its first gazelle: ripping apart “Californication,” sucking marrow out of “Otherside,” picking “Scar Tissue” from my teeth. The Chillis conveyed bloody-raw emotion with sweet, fleshy hooks. John Frusciante anchored the sentiment with finesse. His deceptively simple riffs drip with innocence and experience. Youth never tasted so obvious.
A decade later I’m on the phone with the publicist for a man whom many consider the best modern guitarist. “If you want a happy Frusciante, there’s one topic you should avoid: The Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
Frusciante’s tumultuous relationship with the Chi Peps is legendary. He quit in 1992, bristling at the band’s popularity. He struggled with drugs and depression for years before rejoining in ’98 for Californication, and quit again in 2009. That’s when he dropped off the map for most of the world. His creative output hasn’t slowed: in the last three years he’s produced a hip-hop album for Wu-Tang affiliates Black Knights and released three solo albums, each stranger than the last. His latest, Enclosure, came out this April. It contains drum & bass, hip-hop, IDM skitters, murky samples, 80s drums, wide-eyed falsetto, and a healthy dose of shredding. Everything comes together on "Fanfare." Frusciante wails and croons over a background choir, epic Italo-ish synths, and big 80s drums, concluding with a spaced-out solo. It’s easily the weirdest music from anyone in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Frusciante guitar god” returns 73,000 Google results. For most people he'll always be that gorgeous, longhaired 20-year-old shredding his nuts off in front of stadium crowds. A rock god, channeling mind-melting solos from the void while Kiedis and Flea made power moves up front. It worked for a while. But Frusciante’s exit from the Chillis and subsequent releases show a tension between his public image and artistic heart: For Frusciante, the guitar was always just a means to an end.
“Music for me is just this sacred temple that I get to be in…being catchy? That’s not a musical skill you can develop!…I have to always be studying all different types music...otherwise I would just kill myself.”
As gods go Frusciante is less Bacchus (ahem, Kiedis) then Hephaestus, the blacksmith deity. He’s a masterful technician with a mystical heart. Over the course of an hour-long phone conversation he described his devotion to music as craft. He invoked the role of the soul in sampling, waxed theoretically about hip-hop, and unprompted, discussed his time with “the band.” Simple questions provoked unwinding, knotty responses. The tone of his voice never changed but I could feel the decades of pent-up frustration in his dissection of band dynamics and the music industry. Equally present was the purpose and clarity he finds in composition, the quasi-religious belief in music as a transcendent force. He’s brilliant, idiosyncratic, and unquestionably based. He listens to music in his "special chair." He may be humanity’s last hope. He's the one, the only, John Frusciante.
Noisey: How did you start making electronic music?
John Frusciante: About a year before I rejoined the Red Hot Chili Peppers I could see in my head that my style of songwriting and electronic instruments would work really well together, synthesizers and drum machines and stuff and breakbeats. It wasn’t until 2006 that I started to become aware of the instruments that a person like me could really sink their teeth into. So, you know, my discovery of all the old Roland instruments from the 80s, those are the kind of instruments that would appeal to somebody with my kind of mind.
Tell me about your sampling technique.
Sampling gives me the opportunity to study the music sonically, and study the details of the relationships of rhythms from one note to note. It was intimidating for me to get into at first because I was so locked into thinking of music and recording as something I would mangle. I’d hear people like Autechre and Venetian Snares, but I didn’t have any idea how a recording is transformed into a different piece of music. With sampling, your soul finds its way into the music to transform it into something else. Sometimes people get so into thinking of music as something that’s supposed to be pleasurable that you forget that, any instrument, it's like having a war. I’ve never let up that aspect of my relationship with guitar. If its not me wrestling with something, I feel like I’m not doing anything, and with samples its absolutely the same thing. It’s like being in a battle against the sample. It’s engaging in the worship of the force of music, and I think the idea of music as possession is a faulty way for a musician to think of the history of music.
Music as possession?
Yeah, I don’t think people should think of their written songs as their possession. While I think it’s fine for business people to think of music as property I think it’s had a disastrous effect on the way musicians think, for them to have such a greedy attitude about something as boundless as music. Folk music was handed from one person to another over generations. I don’t see what business the music business has in forcing everybody to think of it in terms of being a bunch of possessions. Music’s not an object, it’s a force greater than us and we should have more of a religious attitude towards it.
I think its really scary for people to think of themselves not as an individual creative agent but as a point of interface with something bigger.
I have a feeling like I’m in church or something when I’m making music because it feels like its something that descends down and reveals itself to me. It feels like a craft. So I just work on the skill part of it, the craft part of it, and I allow the more mystical parts of it to be something I’m aware of as a student or…
[Laughs] Yeah okay, as a receiver, as someone who believes in the force of the power of the essence of music as something greater than myself.
Tell me about your Trickfinger alias.
Oh, well that name was just something my wife said from time to time when I’d do something fancy on the guitar [laughs]. It's also what my rappers call me.
How did you first start working with the Black Knights?
I’d done a song with Monk before, who I met through RZA, and we spent a good deal of time hanging out over the last 6 years or so. I felt like "Ok, now hip-hop could be interesting for me, because I could be thinking of it as the creation of sonic space and the creation of rhythmic variation of space, which is what groove is.” We’ve made like 50 songs in the last year and the first eleven are the ones we put on our first album.
For more interviews, check our talks with Mike Shinoda, Childish Gambino, and Fred Durst.
What’s your favorite rap album of the last few years?
Oh I don’t like any, I don’t think.
What’s missing for you?
In the last twenty years, I've wished hip-hop had more samples. I love whenever RZA makes hip-hop. He's my favorite producer. Dr. Dre's first couple of Eminem albums were, for me, the most ambitious example of an artist trying to preserve the essence of hip-hop without employing the free use of samples. But in general I like older music. When something’s brand new you don’t know what it's leading to, you only know what it's coming from. I should point out I don’t make hip-hop because I love hip-hop any more than any other kind of music. I find that hip-hop is a really malleable form that absorbs any other style of music. With hip-hop it can be synth pop, it can be classical, it can be jazz. As long as the beat is hard, melodically the music can be anything.
Yeah, there are no limitations.
When you perform in a rock band the singer is listening to the music and the music depends on the singer, like the musicians are listening to him, and following him, and they’re all trying to play on time in order so he can follow them, and they’re following him, it's this weird combination of all the various members listening to each other In different ways and there are certain hierarchies that are in place because of that, whereas in hip-hop the music has total independence from the rapper. If the rapper is way off time from the music, that doesn’t make the musicians play off time because the music is what it is, the beat is immutable until after the rapper raps. While they’re rapping the music is on its own.
So you feel greater freedom as a producer?
Writing songs with a singer, there are all kinds of musical interactions, the singer might have an idea of something the music should be and the music has to be something the singer could sing to, and can memorize and all that. With an MC, as long as those snares are where they’re supposed to be, and they can rap to it and it doesn’t throw them off time, you can have all these musical liberties that a person in a traditional songwriting situation would never have.
And I appreciate the independence I have from them, because I’ve always trusted my creative vision. I found it really draining and exhausting to have to argue with people about music. Like I said, music for me is just this sacred temple that I get to be in, it doesn’t need to be a source of aggravation or a source of frustration or a reason to argue with your friend or a reason to hurt somebody’s feelings, or make somebody feel bad. I always had to deal with that kind of shit, so its such a pleasure to have it be nothing but something the people I’m making it with just feel like “we get to be inside this together.” it’s a celebration. As long as there aren’t all these planning stages and as long as jobs aren’t palmed off to other people who are hired and all that, it seems to me that music can just be the creation of a sonic composition directly from mans intelligence. Personality conflicts don’t need to enter in to it to make music, and giving people orders isn’t necessary to make a piece of music. I always thought they were, but it turns out they’re not.
Tell me more about the frustrations you’ve encountered over the years in the studio.
Music can really be just a productive act, it doesn’t have to be a matter of “no, I don’t like that” or “that part’s not doin' it for me.” But that’s the kind of shit in studios, that’s all it ever is! You’re either saying yes to something or saying no to something. These aren’t musical terms, you know? You’re not getting any closer to understanding music by choosing that as a way of creating music. Things you aim at in a pop band, like being catchy? Being accessible? That’s not a musical skill you can develop! I just think it’s a waste, so much money is spent by professional pop artists and hip-hop artists aiming at these goals that are not musical ones, they’re just goals of trying to appeal to the average person. That was never the goal of classical composers, or jazz musicians. If you’re thinking in a way that has nothing to do with music you’re disrespecting music. You’re treating it like it’s an object that’s there to serve you rather than something that’s greater than you, that you’re lucky to be a part of.
You’re illustrating a distinction between music to please and music to elevate.
For me, that’s what music is for. I love listening to religious music and stuff, like Bach, when Bach would write his choral things. It’s the spirit of worshipping something, its something greater than you that you don’t understand and you’re so lucky to be able to have terms to think in that give you a slightly better understanding of it. You’ll strive your whole life, and you still wont really understand it, but you will have been making music and growing throughout that time, you know? But critical sense, it’s just not sufficient to help the body of music grow because it’s using music like its something there—like you say—to serve human desire. I definitely have a desire to hear music, that’s hardwired into me, but as far as having a desire to get attention from people for making that music, as far as wanting to use it to maximize the amount of money that I’m gonna get from it or something, I just refuse to think that way. I’m glad I immersed myself as much as I did when I was in the band because I have to think in musical terms in order to be happy, otherwise I would just kill myself, you know?
Can you tell me specifically about how these dynamics played out in the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
Something about the impact of the first couple of years of being in the band, when I was twenty, the impact that had on me, it divorced me from that sort of way of seeing things and I became extremely unhappy with my songwriting, unhappy with my guitar playing, unhappy being in the band, it was miserable for me. That’s how I know, from that experience of the first couple years that I was in the band, I know that it’s not my privilege of music as something that’s there to serve me. If I think of it that way, if I think ‘I want people to think of me this way’ or ‘I want people to think of me that way’ so I’m gonna do this musical task and this musical task, I would’ve just killed myself or something. It felt awful, it felt awful for me to be thinking that way so after that I just started really making a point of not living the—I couldn’t use Flea and Anthony as role models, because they’re different than me. They’re great entertainers and they don’t need to work at music as much as I do to be effective at doing it. I have to be studying all forms of pop music, jazz, classical, electronic music, and rock music. That’s how I have to live in order to be in sync with myself, you know? So then there was that time when I was like 21 where I started really getting into my zone when I was in my house, and I stopped looking at life like I was some entertainer popular guy. I started really making sure that I was always developing as a musician. But then when we went on tour for Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, I fell apart because I stopped doing that. Whereas when I rejoined the band in '98, I made sure that I always had my headphones, I always had a CD player, I always had a way to sit in my room and sit in my special chair and practice guitar. What I didn’t understand the first timewas that if I don’t cultivate my understanding of music constantly, I fall apart.
I didn’t really know what was going on inside myself, I just knew I felt like my life was just this magical place that I was be able to live, when we were recording Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik and writing for it. By the time we were a few months into the tour I just felt like a has-been or something. Like, "Yeah I used to have it going, now it’s over for me." It’s crazy to think of a 22-year-old kid thinking that but I really thought that it was the end. I really did just give up, I didn’t think of it like "I’ll get home, practice a lot, get my head back in music." I didn’t even think that was an option, I was so miserable from being taken away from my sources of happiness and joy. But ever since 1998, I’ve made sure that I’m always immersed in music, and its never failed me, and it’s been a consistent growing period that whole time.
You felt trapped by the album, unable to flex creative muscle.
Yeah, it’s weird; I’m different from most professional musicians in that way. Generally, professional musicians, you finish a record and you go, "Ah right, we're done!" When you’re done with the whole album there’s this feeling of "Now the fun begins!", you know? Here's the object people are going to buy, and the object’s going to sell us, and everyone’s going to applaud and take photographs. For most professional musicians that’s an exciting phase to be in, but for me it was always a bummer. It felt like I’d lost a dear friend at the point that a record was finished, you know? That whole thing of using a record to promote yourself and treating music like it’s something you’re using in order to earn the maximum amount of money, it doesn’t sit well with me. It would be the feeling of being unfaithful to your wife. You’re so lucky to be given music, to all of a sudden treat it like its just your slave or something, it never felt respectful to me. If I’m not living and thinking in constant devotion to music and never diverting from thinking of it as something bigger than me, I would fall apart.
Ezra Marcus's Twitter is full of blood, sugar, and magik but no sex. You can change that - @ezra_marc
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