Cover Story: The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Once death-defying clowns, the Red Hot Chili Peppers grow up to be sensitive white males

Alec FoegePosted Oct 19, 1995 12:00 AM

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are chilling in the lounge at Andora Studios, a recording facility in Hollywood, Calif., where they're sorting through the final mixes for their first album in four years.

"What if we call the new album Hypersensitive? Anthony Kiedis wonders aloud. The band's 32-year-old lead singer and lyricist--legs propped up on a plush L-shaped couch, his long chestnut tresses shimmering in the dim lamplight--poses this seemingly absurd question to his band mates with so much solemnity that it stifles all chatter.

Flea, the band's wiry bass player, is seated cross-legged to Kiedis' left, his rubbery countenance twisted in thought. In a heartbeat he snaps to attention and blurts out, "How about The Sensitives?"

"I could go for both of those," guitarist Dave Navarro, sagely stroking his red-devil goatee. "I think that Sensitive is good, too. Or Los Sensitivos."

"How about Ritual de Sensitivos?" adds drummer Chad Smith with a half-stifled chuckle. (The reference is to Ritual de lo Habitual, the most popular album by Jane's Addiction, Navarro's previous band.) The moment's intense mood has been shattered. But Kiedis persists. "Let's still consider Hypersensitive," he says, now almost whispering. Flea, blue eyes afire, jumps in again: "Yeah, and we can have a guy on the cover with a big syringe that says SENSITIVE inside!"

At last, consensus. During the past few weeks, the new Chili Peppers album has held far more unlikely titles, intriguing howlers like Turtlehead, Black Fish Ferris Wheel, The Blight Album and The Good and Bad Moods of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. For a while, everything about the album--such as which of the 20 tracks recorded would appear on the album, their order, their titles--has been in flux, subject to the band's daily whims. But now all four band members are raising their arms in unison--imagine the Marx Brothers doing the Three Musketeers--as Flea leads the cheer: All for Hypersensitive and one for Hypersensitive!" Needless to say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers do not dub their long-awaited sixth studio album Hypersensitive or The Sensitives or, for that matter, any of the above. Later a new name is settled on: One Hot Minute. It is, in fact, the perfect title for the latest from rock's reigning punk-funk maestros. Once irrevocably associated with drugs, death and sex, which earned them a reputation as one of the most consistently controversial rock acts of the last decade, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have mellowed. But if their offstage antics aren't as death defying as they used to be, the Chili Peppers on disc are walking a much higher wire. Gone for the most part are the marauding free-form jams that made them famous. What remains is a lightning distillation of everything that first made the band matter: Imagine butt-shaking funk played at skate-punk speed wrapped in a vaguely Zeppelinesque grandeur. But tempered by experience, today's Chili Peppers are more introspective, more Zen-like, more attuned to their respective psyches.

Indeed, a kinder, gentler camaraderie has all but subsumed the thuggish frat-boy bonds on which the Chili Peppers first staked their career. The wholesale change manifests itself most clearly on "My Friends," the bittersweet sequel to the breakthrough single "Under the Bridge." If "Bridge" found Kiedis repenting for his own mortal transgressions, then "Friends" reveals the changed man looking outward (My friends are so depressed/I feel the question of your loneliness"). For a few minutes, anyway, this achingly poignant ballad swaps the trademark Chili Pepper id for a conspicuous generosity of spirit. Can happy thoughts have demolished angry punk aggression? Has brotherly love replaced free love all in a flash?

"Yep," Dave Navarro says drolly, thumbing the silver hoop that dangles through his navy tank top from his right nipple. "We're all really fucking sensitive."

Two and a half years ago, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were at the opposite end of the world, both literally and spiritually. The final leg of the band's triumphant 1992 tour found it playing South America with Nirvana.

BloodSugarSexMagik, the 1991 album that sold zillions and generated two megahit singles ("Give It Away" and "Under the Bridge"), had catapulted the Chili Peppers from underground cultdom to the loftiest heights of pop celebrity. Lollapalooza headliners, Grammy Award winners, MTV darlings--to the world, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the clown princes of alternative rock.

But within the band's ranks, matters were never as rosy, even as a mammoth wave of success cascaded over the band The Chili Peppers limped to Lollapalooza '92 after guitarist John Frusciante announced in midtour, in Japan, that he was quitting the group for stress-related reasons. Seeking a replacement, the band first approached Dave Navarro, newly available since the 1991 breakup of Jane's Addiction, but at the time the guitarist was committed to Deconstruction, a project begun with former Jane's bassist Eric Avery. Fortunately the headlining Peppers found an able replacement, guitar whiz Arik Marshall, to play the high-profile summer festival. Still, despite a banner year, the band had lost its cohesiveness and drive.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were by no means strangers to despair. In June 1988, the band suffered a devastating blow when founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose. (Jack Irons, the group's first drummer, quit soon after.) Slovak was Kiedis' and Flea's best friend from their days back at Hollywood's Fairfax High School; the three formed the band's creative core. "Hillel knew exactly what he wanted," recalls funk legend George Clinton, who produced Freaky Styley (1985), the Peppers' hard-driving second album. "His first run of a solo would always be really slick and jazzy and articulated, just to impress you, and then he'd play it real fast with a punk edge. And I'd be like 'Oh, OK. You mean to do it like that.'"

Slovak's death spurred Kiedis into kicking a heroin habit of his own and miraculously ushered the band into its most prodigious period. By 1989 the Chili Peppers had hired Smith and Frusciante and recorded Mother's Milk (1989), attracting some commercial and critical notice. For its follow-up, BloodSugarSexMagik, they signed on rap and metal impresario Rick Rubin as their producer and swapped their frustrating tenure with EMI for a fresh deal with Warner Bros. It seemed that the band had gotten to a point where they were really ready to do what it took to make a great record," says Rubin, who also produced One Hot Minute. "It had a lot to do with them getting sober and taking the craft of it much more seriously."

But even after BloodSugar's triumph, the band's future remained precarious. "We were confused as all hell," says Kiedis, admitting that while the Chili Peppers were "successful in terms of Webster's definition," fame and fortune had left them off balance.

As soon as the band returned from Brazil, Flea fell ill. "I was extraordinarily rundown from being on tour," he says. Although the bassist's condition was later diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, he cites more salient factors. "I had gotten divorced not too long before, I missed my daughter, and I didn't feel close to anyone. I couldn't sleep. I'd sit in my room, crying and shit--I was bumming out." It would be more than a year before Flea regained full strength. Furthermore, the band was finding it difficult to write new material with its new hired hand, a realization chat sparked the dismissal of Marshall and the mad quest for his replacement. "We tried a couple thousand guitar players, which was really absurd and naive of us," says Kiedis, "to think that we could audition people, strangers from all over, and find somebody."

One particularly freewheeling session revolved around Jesse Tobias, who quit Mother Tongue, a Los Angeles band on the rise, to join the Chili Peppers. Within weeks, however, his new band mates had a change of heart. The chemistry wasn't right, they said; besides, Navarro had suddenly made himself available. Today the band characterizes the decision to oust Tobias as inevitable but regrettably callous. "Jesse made his own bed," says Flea, "but we bought him the sheets and the mattress."

Enter Dave Navarro, who became an official Pepper on Sept. 5, 1993. Despite the prolonged overture made by the Chili Peppers to snag him, the muscular guitarist says he had his initial reservation. "I had a stereotypical notion of this band," says Navarro, who admits he didn't own a single Chili Peppers album before enlisting. "I expected them to be funky, wacky, funny, cute--all of the things that I generally don't have in my personal existence. Thankfully I was wrong."


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Cover photograph by Anton Corbijn


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