Hard work, not muse, behind Chili Peppers' artful songs Peppers discover bold new sound

Posted: August 06, 2002

NEW YORK — Of all the myths surrounding the rock-and-roll creative process, the one that least applies to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' acclaimed By the Way comes under the heading "divine inspiration."

"I'm sure people in bands have experienced some kind of superhuman burst of songwriting," guitarist John Frusciante said last month, as he sat in a candlelit trailer on Ellis Island, where the Chili Peppers performed at a concert for families and businesses affected by the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack. "I want to believe that happens sometimes. Not to us, though. And not this time."

To arrive at the 16 surprisingly artful songs of By the Way - which has sold more than 500,000 copies and, after four weeks, is still No. 8 on the Billboard 200 albums chart - the Peppers didn't wait for their muse to visit. Instead, Frusciante says, they adopted a lunch-pail strategy.

"Every day for six or seven months, we rehearsed in a room, playing new music," a tape recorder capturing every stray idea and fleeting jam. "No matter what we did the previous day, we'd force ourselves to do something different the next day. That was all we cared about: It was always new stuff, every day."

The discipline led to a mongrel-rock triumph, a set of bold, sweeping songs that bolster the Peppers' signature rhythmic agitation with unconventional melodies and tranquil vocal harmonies. Even those who know the band's contemplative latter-day hits - anthems such as 1991's "Under the Bridge" and 1999's "Scar Tissue" - have been surprised by the finessed hooks and sheer ambition of the songs. It's as though a popular pulp-fiction writer went away for a year and came back with The Grapes of Wrath.

Frusciante, 31, says that when he and his fellow Peppers (vocalist Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith) reconvened after the 2000 Californication tour, the rock pioneers whose blend of hip-hop beats and hard guitars paved the way for Limp Bizkit discovered they shared one goal: to go beyond what they had done. Not just a little bit, but in radical ways.

The quartet generated literally hundreds of song ideas evoking everything from California surf culture to menacing hard-core hip-hop. They logged them all, and though no one expressed preferences at the time, they ended up agreeing on the music that took the biggest leaps.

"We wanted to move on," Frusciante says. Not just because the band's territory had become crowded with pale imitators, but because "we were . . . interested in exploring music in different ways. It's not like we were thinking about pleasing this audience or that audience. We recorded stuff that was harder than just about anything we've ever done - there was no conscious effort to avoid stuff like that. But when we picked our favorites, we tended to go for the best songs."

Frusciante says his contributions to the project grew out of old-fashioned studying. Before rehearsals started, he spent months learning musical theory and how to play piano. He tried out different kinds of chord sequences and experimented with a blueprint more intricate than the typical verse-chorus.

"The piano really changed my writing," the guitarist says, explaining that he found himself listening to music he had never examined closely before - pieces by Charles Mingus, Elton John and Burt Bacharach. "Suddenly I was using chords that are bigger and fuller than your standard major or minor triad, and that allowed the melodies to expand. The two things work hand in hand: When the chords start to have more depth, you have more options to fit the melodies into them. You don't have to go with the most basic line."

There's proof of that axiom throughout By the Way: in the gentle, ascending line at the heart of "Dosed"; in the tossed-off, almost scatted refrain of "This Is the Place"; and the pulsating affirmation "nothing better than love and service" that defines "Universally Speaking." Though all four Peppers helped write the songs, it's impossible to miss Frusciante's stamp. His are the moments of radiant positivity; his hooks are more irrepressibly upbeat than anything in the band's thick songbook.

Frusciante's growth is the latest in a string of miracles that have kept the L.A. band aloft for 19 years. Frusciante joined the Chili Peppers in 1988, after the heroin overdose death of guitarist Hillel Slovak. Back then, the band was known for its sexualized white-boy funk. Of its first few albums, the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley (1985) is the most listenable, while 1989's Mother's Milk, which featured Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," was commercially successful. The Chilis pursued a more ragtag approach with 1991's BloodSugarSexMagik, alternating between strident rap-influenced chants and more traditional rock, a combination that proved to be a multi-platinum success.

Plagued by his own drug problems, Frusciante left the band just before it headlined Lollapalooza in 1992, and rejoined before 1999's Californication. His experiences have inspired several songs on the themes of addiction and recovery, including some of the more powerful cuts on By the Way.

More important, Frusciante says, he has learned to respect the creative process. "I've come close to dying a lot of times, and a couple of my close friends have died. I think in the past I took my ability to create something out of nothing for granted.

"There's something about the permanence of losing people that changes the way you think, and somehow affects your ability to write something that's going to last and probably outlive you . . . . It took me a certain amount of living to respect what a gift it is to sit down and make up a song."

Contact Tom Moon at 215-854-4965 or tmoon@phillynews.com.

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