Red Hot Chili Peppers: “We feel fresh, like a new band”

In an exclusive interview, the rock aristocrats talk reuniting with guitarist John Frusciante and how they “pushed each other in a positive way” for riff-tastic new album ‘Unlimited Love’

Anthony Kiedis is laughing – a warm, low-pitched chuckle that sounds like a panther purring. The cause of his mirth? A particularly comical 1994 NME cover we’ve just reminded him about. On it, the band he’s led since high school sit astride huge Harley Davidsons in the baking Californian sun. Bright red (hot) letters, stamped across the image, declare: “SOCKS AND DRUGS AND ROCK AND ROLL: THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS GET THEIR CHOPPERS OUT”.

“I remember that shoot well,” Kiedis chortles down the line from a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles. “That was with [then-guitarist] Dave Navarro, and it was Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, California, not far from the very beautiful Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It was a sunny day and Flea had an absolute growth of a beard – and we were deep into our motorbike riding. We had actually formed an anti-motorcycle club where our names were Softy, Easy, Gentle and Courteous.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Credit: Sandy Kim

Later, on a separate Zoom call, we show the same cover to Flea, who finds it just as funny. But even more entertaining for the ebullient bass wizard is a smaller panel tucked away in the cover’s top right-hand corner. It demands the Rolling Stones “GET THEIR WHEELCHAIRS OUT” on that year’s US tour. Mick Jagger and co. were then in their early 50s; Flea and Kiedis both turn 60 this year. “I guess it’s lucky that the Stones are still touring then,” Flea sniggers. “At the time they were pioneering being an old band – but as long as they keep going, we don’t seem so old!”

Fast-forward to 2022, almost 40 years since they formed in 1983, and the LA rock aristocrats are back on the cover again – photographed by Oscar-winning director and close personal friend Gus Van Sant. The accompanying piece, we’ll say up front, features no motorbikes. What it does feature is an exclusive reveal of the Peppers’ new album, ‘Unlimited Love’. Due on April 1, it’s their first in six years and finds them reunited with axeman John Frusciante, who’s been in and out of the band since the late ’80s and last appeared on 2006’s seven million-selling space odyssey ‘Stadium Arcadium’.

“The biggest event was John returning to the band. That was the most monumental change in our lives” – Anthony Kiedis

Crammed full of melancholic riffmaking, anthemic choruses and softly-sung melodies, ‘Unlimited Love’ has a lot in common with other Frusciante-era classics like 1999’s ‘Californication’ and 2002’s ‘By The Way’. Yet some of its tracks – grungy tub-thumper ‘These Are The Ways’, acoustic ballad ‘Tangelo’ – are like nothing we’ve heard from the Chilis. This is the sound of a band perfectly in tune with its history, yet uninterested in repeating it.

“I really didn’t want to tell the same old story that we’ve been hearing for the last 50 years in rock music,” Kiedis says defiantly. “I liked reaching out in 10,000 directions and seeing what was out there. We weren’t limiting ourselves but trying to tap into something that is honest and emotional. Hopefully we’ve said something that hasn’t been said before, or at least said it in a way that hasn’t.

“The biggest event, honestly, was John returning to the band. That was the most monumental change in our lives. And God was I down for anything and everything.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Credit: Sandy Kim

We last found the Chilis in an exploratory mood. While 2011’s ‘I’m With You’, which saw former tour understudy Josh Klinghoffer replace Frusciante, felt like a continuation of previous efforts, 2016’s ‘The Getaway’ broke new ground. We got piano-led prog on ‘Dreams Of A Samurai’, a disco-flecked dancefloor filler in ‘Go Robot’ and neon visuals sprayed across the video for lead single ‘Dark Necessities’. NME’s review called the album an “an attempt to move forward”, which took “their sound in a new and exciting direction”. That summer, when the Chilis headlined Reading and Leeds festival, it was, we said, “a triumphant return” “after nine years away”.

Next, following a bonkers, 18-month-long global tour that took in four continents, 29 countries and $73.5million, another album was mooted. Everyone started to write, but a little into the process, Kiedis and Flea realised something wasn’t clicking.

“It was going slowly and without a real definitive drive to it. It was just sort of meandering,” Kiedis says. “And then both Flea and I had a zeitgeist of a feeling inside of ourselves independently which was: ‘It would be really nice to involve John somehow in this process.’ It had been a long time and he was making himself known in our circles again after having been in his very own circle.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers cover interview
Red Hot Chili Peppers on the cover of NME. Photography by Gus Van Sant

And Kiedis is right: by late 2019, the famously private Frusciante had been out and about a bit more. He was in touch with Flea – they’d even been spotted at basketball games together. Yet his reemergence was never a given. He’d spent the past decade making mostly electronic music. Did he even know how to be a Red Hot Chili Pepper anymore?

“It felt like [rejoining] might be in the air,” Frusciante says today, video-chatting from his “music room” at home in LA. He’s fully reclined on a foldable lounge chair, while cables snake their way around him and into the many bits of tech he’s been tinkering with. His cat, a squashy-faced ragamuffin called Francis, regularly sashays into frame. John’s always been the most media-shy of the four – a gentle, quiet man transformed with a six-string in his hands – so it’s reassuring to see him so relaxed. “Flea had put the idea [of rejoining] in my head,” he continues, “and I was sitting there with the guitar thinking that I hadn’t written any rock music in so long. Could I still do that?”

He needn’t have worried. The song he wrote that day was so good it became the band’s first single in five years. ‘Black Summer’, out today, opens with a few bars of simple, sorrowful guitar licks, before frontman Anthony Kiedis’ smooth baritone takes over. “The archer’s on the run / And no one stands alone behind the sun,” he croons wistfully, until a bone-crunching riff kicks-off the track’s euphoric refrain. Frusciante follows up with a squealing solo that will no doubt please fans, a portion of whom had hoped he might eventually come back.

Of course, one more Pepper in the pot means less space for others – and the band were sad to let Klinghoffer go. “It was a big shift for us, parting ways with Josh,” says Flea, his brow furrowed behind a pair of giant aviator sunglasses. “He’s been with us for 10 years, and it was an emotionally difficult thing to do. Not only was he a great musician, he was also a thoughtful, supportive team-player – a communally-minded, kind and intelligent person. But artistically, in terms of being able to speak the same [musical] language, it was easier working with John. Getting back into a room and starting to play and letting the thing unfold… was really exciting.”

There was still one other key man they needed to enlist, though. Super-producer Rick Rubin has collaborated with everyone from Kanye West to Lady Gaga, but his most consistent commercial success has arguably come thanks to the Chilis. Behind the boards on all but one record since 1991’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’, Rubin is to Anthony, Flea, John and drummer Chad Smith, what George Martin was to John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Credit: Sandy Kim

Getting Rick back was “an obvious choice”, says Kiedis, despite a one-album sojourn to Danger Mouse (who twiddled knobs for Adele’s ‘25’ and The Black Keys’ ‘El Camino’) for ‘The Getaway’. Rubin’s presence is stitched into the tapestry of the band, having been present for nearly all of their most memorable music. In fact, he’s so emotionally attached to the group that seeing Frusciante back in the fold proved too much.

“I [was invited to] the first rehearsal after John rejoined and it made me cry,” Rubin recently told pro-wrestler Chris Jericho on his podcast Talk Is Jericho. “It was so thrilling to see that group of people back together because they made such great music for so long and it really hit me in an emotional way.”

Unfortunately, no sooner had those magical practice sessions got going than they had to stop. It was early 2020 and COVID-19 raged across the planet. Holed up in their respective West Coast homes, each Pepper took the time to pen tunes instead. When the time finally came to start recording – one year later at Rubin’s legendary Shangri-La studio in Malibu – they had more than 100 brand new songs to pick from.

“Parting ways with [guitarist] Josh Klinghoffer was a big shift. It was emotionally difficult” – Flea

The tunes that made it onto ‘Unlimited Love’ are among the best the band have written. There’s soulful jam ‘She’s A Lover’, jazzy bop ‘Aquatic Mouth Dance’, the distorted surf-rock of ‘White Braids and Pillow Chair’ and the slow-burning entry ‘Veronica’, which hides an epic outro that owes a debt to The Beatles’ ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’. Vocally, Kiedis has never sounded better than when he’s pairing powerful pop hooks with snarling gutter-punk on future live staple ‘Bastards Of Light’. The whole thing feels like an instant rebirth.

“We feel fresh, like a new band,” confirms Frusciante, going on to explain how a change in collective outlook helped foster creativity. “I put a lot less of my ego [into it] than I had previously and I think that was true with everybody. It wasn’t so much a competition thing as really wanting to give a part of ourselves to one another [and] being excited to listen to what the others were bringing in. Sometimes in the past, like on ‘By The Way’ for example, or [1989 album] ‘Mother’s Milk’, one person would feel stifled at the expense of another. This time it felt very much like people who care about each other and are genuinely excited for everybody else to be the best that they can be.”

Kiedis agrees: “The dynamic was very healthy, productive and creative. Sometimes [we] can be a little too competitive and it can lead to discord, but [this time] we really pushed each other in a positive way.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Credit: Gus Van Sant

In June, the foursome hit the road for a run of dates that includes their first ever headline US stadium tour. They’ve played massive venues before, including stadiums – three sold-out nights at London’s Hyde Park isn’t to be sniffed at – but never exclusively. It was Flea’s idea, apparently, and he finally managed to persuade Kiedis that it’ll work. “They’re tricky places to fill up with the feeling we want to fill them up with,” confides the frontman. “But we wanted to do something that we’ve not really done. So we’re gonna try to build a beautiful stage and make it feel right in this oversized environment.”

Looking to the past for inspiration, Kiedis names fellow mustachioed maestro Freddie Mercury as someone it would be good to study. Queen’s success at blowing away monster crowds under lights was, after all, unrivalled. Both bands have similar war stories of backstage partying, too: in his 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue, Anthony recalls witnessing a booze-fuelled feud between Ice Cube’s crew and Scottish shoegazers the Jesus and Mary Chain, while Freddie was famed for his penchant for serving platters of cocaine at parties.

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Credit: Sandy Kim

Tour life is, unsurprisingly, a bit more low-key now: the band prefer to keep things relaxed ahead of blitzing their audience. Gone are the days of all-nighters. “We’re not spring chickens anymore!” jokes drummer Chad Smith. “We all have our own little rooms and we have a communal [space] where we hang out together… 30 years ago it was chaotic, but now we just have our tea and sit around reading the newspaper!”

Chad might be content to relax into old age, but his lead singer doesn’t seem to share that view. On new album track ‘One Way Traffic’, an energetic boogie with a hip-hop groove, he rails – as he puts it today – against “maturing” and “becoming a bit boring”: “Friends got married, had them dogs / Now they read those catalogues / This commerce makes me nauseous / When did life get so damn cautious?” Could all this be a reaction to hitting the big six-oh?

“Don’t be surprised if another wheelbarrow of songs comes your way in the near future” – Anthony Kiedis

“60 don’t mean shit to me,” he says, shutting down the question immediately. “I don’t put a lot of value or weight in birthdays, milestones, round numbers, odd numbers or even numbers.”

Still, it’s comforting to reminisce sometimes. After nearly four decades in the business, the boys have experienced their fair share of elation, adrenaline and even heartbreaking loss. Tragically, co-founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, whom Kiedis had known since they were teenagers, died in 1988 from a heroin overdose (and was replaced by Frusciante). The four founding best pals had just started to build a dedicated cult fanbase thanks to their breakthrough third album ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’, which saw them debut on the Billboard 200 album chart. Does Slovak’s upcoming 60th next month (he, Flea and Kiedis were born seven months apart) mean his presence has been more keenly felt at rehearsals?

“The energy of Hillel Slovak has never truly faded,” says Kiedis, taking his time to pick the appropriate words before recalling one of his biggest regrets, from late 1983, when the Chilis were still a fledgling psych outfit with few prospects. Slovak and drummer Jack Irons had quit briefly to focus on rival outfit What Is This?, who had already scored a record deal.

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Credit: Gus Van Sant

“I wish Hillel hadn’t missed out on that first recording [self-titled debut ‘The Red Hot Chili Peppers’] in the first year,” Kiedis remembers. “We did some TV shows in 1984 and I look at them now and think: ‘Damn, I wish Hillel would have been there for that. He was a creator of the band. That was his baby.’” He pauses, wrenching his mind back to the moment. “Anyway, it was meant to be the way it was meant to be and it all fleshed out the way life goes… But Hillel’s still there in our hearts, whether it’s 30, 40, 50, 60 or even 100.”

Crikey! Does Kiedis think he’ll be getting down to ‘Give It Away’ as a pensioner?

“I don’t spend too much time future-tripping,” he laughs. “I know what we have to do today. We have to get really good at playing these songs live and then it depends on the emotional health of the band. Tour is one of the great survival tests and we’ll see what happens. I’m always optimistic, and I see no reason to ever stop doing what we’re doing.”

So what’s next after ‘Unlimited Love’ and its round-the-globe victory lap? Not another six-year wait for more music, please?

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Credit: Sandy Kim

“Oh no,” says Kiedis, with the air of someone delivering good news. “We’re gonna put out music by the handful – literally. Don’t be surprised if another wheelbarrow of songs comes your way in the near future. We have a lot of shit to turn people onto.” We push him for extra details, but Kiedis declines to elaborate. The band have been hit by leaks a lot in the past, so it’s no surprise he wants to keep schtum.

Frusciante is happier to elaborate, mind. He says there’s a “loose plan” for a second album after ‘Unlimited Love’ – and that the band “recorded almost 50 pieces of music” during the Rubin sessions: “We definitely have enough material that we love.” Even more excitingly, he adds that this other project “has a relaxed energy that’s distinct from the intensity of the record that we’ve made here”.

If we are indeed about to enter a new, more prolific phase of the band, then ‘Unlimited Love’ is the perfect album to usher it in. Fresh, fearless and, of course, funky, it’s got every strand of the Red Hot Chili Peppers running through its DNA – plus a bonus strain in John Frusciante. It’s a good thing they’re not a biker gang anymore, because the California indestructibles won’t be riding off into the distance anytime soon. They’ve got plenty left to do.

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new single ‘Black Summer’ is out now. 12th album ‘Unlimited Love’ is due April 1

More Stories: