Red Hot Chili Peppers on John Frusciante’s Return for New Album — and Their 40-Year Journey From ‘Hollywood Street Kids’ to a Walk of Fame Star
On March 31, the Red Hot Chili Peppers will become the 2,717th recipients of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There’s a good case to be made that at least a couple members of the enduring rock band that is synonymous with Los Angeles have had a closer connection to the sidewalks of Hollywood — literally — than any of the 2,716 honorees that preceded them.
“I’m pretty sure that I have inadvertently vomited on Hollywood Walk of Fame stars in my lifetime,” Anthony Kiedis says, with a tinge of romanticism as he recalls a misspent youth prior to the group’s formation nearly 40 years ago. “I’ve certainly slept on top of Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame stars in my lifetime. I’ve trod upon them not as a tourist but as a person running from the authorities or possibly running from somebody that I owed money to.”
Similarly, Flea recalls being a “Hollywood street kid… playing kazoo and beating on a trash can lid with a hat out to get money” when he was just 11 years old. He remembers being 15 with Kiedis, running around Hollywood in the wee hours of the night, “doing stupid little crimes, hustling for food. I’ve walked over every one of those stars — every sidewalk, every crack, every one of them. To be recognized and be a part of the physical fabric of those sidewalks means a lot to me.”
The occasion arrives as singer Kiedis, bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith have reunited with off-again, on-again guitarist John Frusciante for a new Rick Rubin-produced album, “Unlimited Love,” set for release on April 1. This summer, the band will pull off its first U.S. stadium tour as a headliner.
The Chili Peppers are not cowed by size at this late date, having been top of the bill at plenty of festivals. “In Europe, we’ve been doing shows that big for a long time,” Smith notes. Still, fulfilling their ballpark-sized destiny in America feels different. “I went to the Super Bowl and I’m looking around SoFi Stadium, like, ‘Fuck, we’ve sold this thing out? People are gonna be way the fuck up there.’ It’s more than just going into an arena and getting some cool lights and off you go. We’ve done that for 30 years. You have to do something to entertain these people” — the nosebleeds above the nosebleeds — “and make it a great show. You’ve got to get your balls out. And we just got ’em out.”
It’s a heady, and long, way from when Flea and Kiedis first met at age 15 at Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School in the late 1970s, where they were “immediately in love and at war. We were kindred spirits, bonded by this desire to break free of everything that we saw as constricting: every rule that didn’t make sense, every hypocrisy, every injustice,” says Flea.
Adds Kiedis: “Our friendship was actually born out of several confrontations. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you want to go play basketball?’ It was like, ‘If you write on my desk, I’ll get suspended from school,’ and so we just started writing on each other’s desks, seeing if we could get each other in trouble. It was like, here’s this guy who’s as much of a misfit as myself — let’s see what kind of shenanigans we can get into. There was a healthy spirit of brotherly ‘I’ll kick your ass’ competition. And that still exists, but in a slightly more resolved way.”
Eventually, they pushed each other creatively, fusing Flea’s background in jazz with Kiedis’ love for punk-rock. “There’s an unspoken, unwritten law of Red Hot Chili Peppers where anything goes, anything is welcome,” Kiedis says. “Let’s never shut the door on a particular musical vibe because it doesn’t fit under our category — we’ve never had that. We came out of a world that was inspired by punk and funk and mayhem, but we also were listening to jazz every day, Hank Williams every day, Black Flag or whatever. We were never against trying anything, and that still goes.”
Flea points to a seminal moment in the band’s pre-history. When he and Kiedis were just out of high school, the singer went to see Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. “He came home just literally shaking with excitement over the show,” says Flea. “‘It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I can do this — I’m gonna be a rapper.’ And I was like, ‘Great. Let me write some funky-ass grooves for you.’”
The band quickly became an L.A. club staple known for its fusion of funk and punk — and, yes, hip-hop — recruiting George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic to produce sophomore album “Freaky Styley.” From the earliest days, Kiedis says he realized that the band was “a beautiful vehicle to care for and to be a part of. From day one, I was like, ‘All right, this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.’ We were too full of piss and vinegar to be told that we weren’t completely successful within weeks of starting. We never lost that spirit where we thought we were winning the whole time,” he says.
An early test of the band’s strength came in 1988 when original guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a drug overdose. To replace Slovak, a teenage Frusciante joined the group, which he already looked up to as superstars.“Him joining the Chili Peppers was like me joining Led Zeppelin or something,” jokes Smith.
Later that same year, Smith came in for his audition, to replace original drummer Jack Irons. He remembers Kiedis rolling his eyes at his unfashionable long hair and Guns N’ Roses wanna-be bandana, as if this might be the fastest thumbs-down ever. Then they started playing. “Everything was fast and hard back then, like James Brown on speed,” laughs Smith. “Eighteen-year-old John Frusciante breaks a string on his orange Ibanez guitar, and I’ve never seen anyone change a string faster in my life — like he was part of a pit crew! He just didn’t want to miss out on the jam, the energy in the room was so exciting.”
Thus was solidified the classic lineup that has come back together and that a new generation of fans will be seeing this summer, as they tour with Frusciante for the first time since 2009. But it feels like old home week in other ways. Rubin produced “Unlimited Love,” as he did the Chili Peppers’ breakthrough as true rock behemoths, 1991’s “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” That seven-times-platinum album marked a pivot from the band’s funk-rock origins to a more streamlined alternative rock sound.
“We were still on that upward trajectory where anything was possible, and we were completely obnoxious and didn’t feel apologetic for it because we hadn’t learned our lessons yet,” Kiedis says. “It’s that beautiful time of life where your creativity is just coming out of your armpits, and it’s OK to be an idiot because you’re young enough to not know better.”
They came to power, as it were, alongside the Seattle grunge groups, albeit with the angst buried a lot deeper. What set the Chili Peppers apart from their contemporaries was an inherent sense of raunch and silliness — from X-rated lyrics to ultra-scanty tour uniforms — that took them decades to shed… and maybe it’s wrong to suggest the molting was ever quite complete.
“We take our music and our concerts very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves that serious,” Smith says. “I mean, guys that wear socks on their dicks? How fuckin’ serious can you be?” He alludes to the legendary cover art of 1988’s “Abbey Road E.P.” that featured the members all but nude — a photo taken before Smith joined the band, but replicated in person with some tube socks since.
Rubin has seen them at their best, and worst. The latter happened when he first came by the Chili Peppers’ studio in the ‘80s, and they were admittedly strung out on drugs. “There was a lot of heroin going on in the band, and I remember that day, we weren’t really getting along,” Flea recalls. “Rick told me later it was like walking into a fucking mausoleum. Years later, after Hillel died and everybody got sober, and John joined the band, we were really on a positive energy vibe.”
Rubin had a better visit with them after a show at the Greek Theater. Flea recalls him raving, “‘You guys are incredible. I love you. I want to make a record.’ … In the studio there was this looseness with him that was just about: Let the wild stallion free. Let him gallop happily.”
“Blood Sugar Sex Magik” was followed by another album that was certified for 7 million in U.S. sales, “Californication,” regarded as the band’s greatest worldwide commercial success. This record, along with 2002’s “By the Way,” saw the band further distancing from Kiedis’ rap-rock freeform style — which nearly became water under the bridge, as it were — and leaning heavily into guitar-driven melodic ballads, such as “Scar Tissue” and “Otherside.”
With more of a premium put on vocals, and on music that became more thoughtful and introspective, Kiedis learned some valuable lessons about taking care of his voice. “When your instrument is made of skin cells, anything can happen at any given moment,” he says. “It can be better than you ever thought it can be or just completely fail for weeks on end.”
When Frusciante left the band for a second time in 2009, that really seemed to be it for him, and they drafted Josh Klinghoffer into the lineup for a full decade. And yet Frusciante never left Flea’s friendship circle. Smith says that a few years ago, Flea and Frusciante “were hanging out a little bit, even more, and John wanted to play guitar in a band again, and he was like, ‘The only band I want to be in is the Red Hot Chili Peppers.’ And we do have a special chemistry in the four of us, you know? And he’s dedicated, man. He’s into it. He’s killing it.”
So are the Chili Peppers and Frusciante kind of like… Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor? “We’re the Liz and Richard of rock ‘n’ roll!” agrees Smith, cracking up. “Seventh time or whatever it is… no, only the third time back in the band. The third time’s a charm! I think we’ve got more to say together, and I know John thinks that.”
But not being polygamous, the band had to part ways with Klinghoffer. “That was not easy,” admits Kiedis. “There was no graceful way to go about it, and we loved and cared for Josh and so, obviously, when that moment happened, it was with love and care and appreciation for who he is. He knows that and, I think, hopefully kind of understood in a painful, fucked-up way, like, ‘I get it.’”
Adds Kiedis, “My favorite part about that whole emotionally difficult experience was that, some months later, Josh went from thinking that he had been given this upsetting news to an even better set of circumstances for him. Because many times when we were playing music together and traveling, it was revealed to me that here’s this super-nerdy, intellectual music geek whose whose true love is Pearl Jam — which I always found peculiar, fascinating and wonderful, to know that he was so moved by that music. And then he loses the job in our band, and a few months later, he becomes the guitarist for Eddie Vedder.” Klinghoffer has been a key part of the Pearl Jam frontman’s solo band, on record and tour… playing alongside, incidentally, Chad Smith. Says Kiedis, “It was like, ‘Thank you, universe. You cleaned up what could have been a bit of an emotional mess.’ This really works out for everyone, and we all get to go on making music.”
In 2020, when Kiedis, Flea, Smith and Frusciante got together in a room to write music for the first time in 15 years, the pandemic intervened and some tour dates they had scheduled for that year were canceled, allowing them to work on material without interruption from January through October of that year. “Maybe it’s because John was gone for so long, but there was a real breaking of the dam when it came to writing music in that time period,” Kiedis says. “One of the strange silver linings of the world shutting down was that we didn’t have anything to do but write music.”
Then, that fall, the band asked Rubin to listen to roughs of their new songs without necessarily knowing if he’d want to participate. Says Smith, “I think Rick was excited that John has rejoined our group. We wanted to get somebody’s outside objective feedback. And he was really emotional, man. He wasn’t like, ‘I think this verse should go longer, and what about the turnaround… ’ He was just in the moment of, ‘Wow, I never thought this was going to happen again.’ … He’s a music fan, and he loves our band so much. We always put a bunch of shit around the good stuff, and he’s good at clearing that out. He’s like a good archeologist.”
Kiedis puts it this way: “Rick is the single greatest human listener that I’ve ever encountered in my life by a longshot. And that is a lost art form. Nobody listens. And Rick can listen like a black belt.”
The sessions, which ran into 2021, resulted in the band’s abundant and exploratory 12th studio album, the 17-track “Unlimited Love.”
Of the first single, “Black Summer,” Kiedis says, “musically, that was something John presented early on in the process, and I connected with the spirit of what he was playing. It seemed like something he had written from the heart. So I spent many hours driving around until those particular words filled the void, and when they did, they felt honest and accurate.”
The spirit of the Chilis is evident in their willingness to follow songs down unexpected paths. Take “Bastards of Light,” which, according to Kiedis, “started off as a grunge-punk vibe, and then by the time it was finished, became this open, airy, ’80s synth mood with just a little bit of fire.”
Flea points out that the record includes some multi-horn improv on “Aquatic Mouth Dance” (another Frusciante idea). “There were four other horn players and myself, and we basically blew our brains out in the mode of the great free-jazz players like Albert Ayler.” Kiedis admits he “sat with that song for months before I knew what the hell I was supposed to do” to add lyrics over the chaos, but now “that’s my favorite part of the record.”
Adds Smith: “We all love making music with each other, after all these years. It’s inspiring to go at 11 and not have anything, and at 3 you’ve got most of a song. To be able to do that at this point, we’re the luckiest guys in the world. Good job if you can get it! I’m 60 now. I don’t think I’m going to try to be an intern at the law firm of Dewey, Cheatem and Howe. I’m not going to work at McDonald’s flipping burgers. I like playing drums. I like my band. I’m making a decision right now: The rock ’n’ roll thing — I think I’m going to stick with it.”
Getting their Walk of Fame star just outside the new Amoeba Music location is cause for a bit of self-effacing humor but mostly memories of the past and even a little reverence for their own immortality.
“A lot of honors that we’ve gotten or not gotten, we don’t give a fuck about,” says Flea. “But this one is actually really beautiful for me, and to be a part of that history, to be where Groucho Marx is and Marilyn Monroe is, means a lot to me.”
Agrees Kiedis: “Flea and I lived on Hollywood Boulevard back before it had been cleaned up and gentrified and turned back into the attraction that it is today, so I do have a relationship with the boulevard and the stars. I have seen them for my entire life. Sometimes I look down and I see a Nina Simone or somebody like that, and I’m like, ‘Yes, this person should be remembered! I hope somebody sees this and goes home and listens to a record.’ Or sometimes I see someone and I’m like, ‘Damn, how’d they get a star? That’s weird!’ But in the end, you know, it’s a cool little object for people to spit their gum onto — and it’s exciting.”