“I THOUGHT: IF I’M GETTING BACK INTO MAKING ROCK MUSIC, LET’S GO TO THE ROOTS OF IT”
When he left the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Frusciante kept in shape by playing jazz solos and learning prog rock chord progressions. Now, having rejoined the band, he has gone even deeper with a musical and artistic workout – inspired by plugging into electric blues and 50s rock ’n’ roll. What’s more, he’s feeling great about the old gang being back together. “It is,” he says, “a magic feeling!”
In the end, it was a simple reason that led John Frusciante to return to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I really wanted that challenge of trying to work in a democratic band,” he says, “with people that I respect and people that I have a chemistry with. I felt that to move forward as a soul and as a human being, had to accept that challenge. I felt that it would be good for me to try to work harmoniously with them, and not have my ego be the thing that was driving me forward, but to have love and respect for them. That was the thing: to try to be a part of a whole.”
Frusciante is talking to Total Guitar from his home in Los Angeles, the city where the Red Hot Chili Peppers formed back in 1983. With his long hair unkempt under a wooly hat, his face unshaven, wearing black-rimmed glasses and his lean frame clad in a loose fitting yellow t-shirt, the guitarist looks pretty much the same as he did 16 years ago, when the double album Stadium Arcadium gave the band its first ever US number one. But it was in the wake of that album’s success that John quit the band - the second time he had done so, having previously bailed in 1992, both exits prompted by his discomfort with the pressures of fame.
Following his departure in 2009, the Chili Peppers went on to release two albums with another accomplished guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer. Frusciante, meanwhile, pursued his love of electronic music and modular synths, in an effort to make music that stood apart from the band with which he made his name, and with entirely personal – and non-commercial – aspirations.
So it came as a surprise when the Chili Peppers issued a social media communique in late 2019 announcing Frusciante’s return, and with it, the potential for a new album – their first with John in the fold since Stadium Arcadium. The fruits of their labour, Unlimited Love, finds the band reunited with superproducer Rick Rubin, showcasing 17 tracks that run the gamut of their collective influences, from breezy funk to progressive rock and hardcore punk. In short, the chemistry between John, bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith and frontman Anthony Kiedis has resurfaced intact, a musical formulation unimpacted by the decade-plus break and even a global pandemic.
Naturally, there’s a lot to talk about, and John is certainly in the mood to talk - so much so
“I WANTED TO IMAGINE THAT I WAS A GUY COMING UP AT THE SAME TIME AS THE BEATLES OR JIMI HENDRIX”
that his conversation with TG extends beyond its allotted 45 minutes to more than two hours. He loves to discuss the subjects closest to his heart - the art of making music, the gear he uses, the sense of anticipation ahead of the band’s return to the live stage. He is also candid about his reasons for leaving the band over a decade ago, and what ultimately brought him back to his musical brothers.
“I’ve done a lot of reflection on the causes of my quitting the band the last time that I don’t think I had the mental space to be aware of at the time,” he says. “It was like, ‘I just really don’t want to do all this living in this world of fame and publicity; I just want to concentrate on making electronic music and making music just to make music, and not to make people happy, not to be successful.’ And that was just what I needed at the time.
“But I looked back and realised that with some of the personal stresses between me and other members of the band, I saw my own part of it more than I think I saw it back in 2009. And while I think no one person is at fault in a situation where somebody quits a band, I’d grown enough as a person to see my side in it, as opposed to just playing the victim.”
A NEW BEGINNING
It’s hard to overstate the impact that John Frusciante has had on generations of guitarists. With his sparse, feeldriven lines on the Chili Peppers’ 1991 breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik, he introduced 90s players to a wiry, exhilarating blend of funk and post‑punk. And in his second phase with the band, a run of three expansive, diverse, multi-million selling albums - Californication, By The Way and Stadium Arcadium - kept adventurous textures and guitar solos at the forefront of mainstream rock, at a time when pop-punk and nu-metal ruled the airwaves.
For this third phase, the reunited band took their tentative first steps in the rehearsal room. Rather than begin writing straight off the bat, they played material from the earliest Chili Peppers albums – released when John was a fan rather than a member of the band – in a bid to reconnect with the roots of the group. Meanwhile, band members suggested covers of classic tracks – Some Other Guy by Richie Barrett, Trash by the New York Dolls,
Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s Hot Little Mama and the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset all received a workout – which injected fresh energy into rehearsals.
“I didn’t want to feel any pressure about writing stuff, because that would have been overwhelming,” John recalls. “So for a month or two, we were just playing songs by other people, and playing really early Chili Peppers stuff. We just had a lot of fun. And luckily that spirit of fun ended up staying with us throughout the whole writing process, even after those songs had been phased out and replaced by going there every day being excited about the new stuff wewere bringing in, or the jams that we were turning into songs.”
And boy, did they have a lot of songs. By the time the band hit Rubin’s Shangri-la studio in 2021, they had 45 tracks ready to go, with a further three written during the sessions. All were ultimately recorded, leaving more than enough material for a follow-up record. “I definitely feel like we saved some of the best stuff for the potential next album,” John teases. But, he adds, he never had the intention to write quite so many songs.
“You know, I was ready to stop when we had, like, twenty – I felt like that was good enough,” he laughs. “But one thing led to another and somebody or other kept encouraging me to keep bringing in more songs. So, before we knew it, we had way more songs than we’d ever written for a record before.”
For his part, John had to readjust his guitar playing to write rock music again. During his electronic music wilderness, any time with a guitar in his lap was more often spent appreciating music than composing it. He learned every solo recorded by jazz great Charlie Christian, and took inspiration from the chord progressions in landmark 70s albums by progressive rock legends Genesis. It helped him reconnect with his love of the instrument.
“I developed a real fan relationship with the different forms of rock music, without it having anything to do with my identity,” he explains. “So when I went back to playing in the band, I knew it would affect what I wrote.”
Accordingly, the guitarist had a vision for where he wanted to take his compositions, and it harked back to the origins of the genre he was returning to.
As he explains: “I really wanted to focus on where I see the beginning of rock music in history - the rock ’n’ roll of the late-50s, and the electric blues that took place throughout the 40s and 50s. I wanted to imagine that I was a guy coming up at the same time as The Beatles or Cream or Jimi Hendrix, to see: ‘What would I have done to embellish upon that foundation?’ I felt like as long as I’m getting back into making rock music, let’s go to the roots of it.
“I’d spent so much time on other records specifically focusing on Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Rather than do that again, I thought, ‘Let’s focus on Elvis and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and Freddie King and Albert King, and Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent and Ricky Nelson - and then, okay, so how would I try to do something beyond this?’”
Those plans would change shape once John began collaborating with the band. To warm up for recording each day, he would play through Jeff Beck’s classic albums Truth, Blow By Blow and Wired. But equally, he was re-immersing himself in the textural approach of Siouxsie And The Banshees’ John Mcgeoch, as well as Greg Ginn’s abrasive riffs in Black Flag. His approach became an amalgamation of all those