Many moons, presidents, and hairstyles have come and gone since Anthony Kiedis and Michael “Flea” Balzary met in the hallways of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were born. Along the way, the pair has discovered new amalgams of punk and funk; weathered the departures (and, in some cases, the arrivals) of too many members to name here; survived their own personal struggles with addiction, as well as the death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak; and crafted a body of work as singularly smart, funny, tragic, adventurous, weird, spiritual, and liberating as any in the pantheon of modern rock.
The Chili Peppers’ music has always felt remarkably un-self-conscious, like it was written and shaped by teens in a garage with no regard for the fact that anyone else might be listening—despite the fact that people have been listening, and in great numbers, for nearly three decades now. But beyond all of the drama and trauma and lineup changes, it’s the relationship between Kiedis and Flea that has remained at the core of what the Chili Peppers do. It’s a brotherhood that has changed and evolved over the years. But it’s also a bond that has succeeded where so many other great partnerships in rock history have not—be it John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, or even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards-—and has allowed the Chili Peppers to continue making music that’s alive with the same kinds of possibilities that seemed to exist when they were young funk-punks, and the notion that they might one day invent a new way to wear tube socks was but a glimmer in their eyes.
We caught up with Kiedis and Flea, both now 48, in Tokyo, where they were preparing to play a show with new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer in support of their latest record, I’m With You (Warner Bros.), which was released in August. The album marks the beginning of yet another chapter for the Chili Peppers—the group’s first in more than a decade not to feature the otherworldly guitar work of John Frusciante, who left the band for the second time in 2008. (He famously first quit mid-tour in 1992—interestingly enough, in Japan.) Flea spoke first.
DIMITRI EHRLICH: The title of the new album is I’m With You. Who is with who?
FLEA: Well, everybody who knows that they’re with everybody is with everybody.
EHRLICH: Okay . . .
FLEA: Everybody . . . And they’re lonely.
EHRLICH: This is your first album with Josh Klinghoffer. How has that affected the chemistry for you?
FLEA: Well, having a completely different personality involved changes everything. The time with John was beautiful, but it ran its course for a variety of reasons. And Josh is a cool, artistic guy with a lot of integrity. So it’s been beautiful, too.
EHRLICH: Not so long ago, you began taking music theory classes at the University of Southern California. What have you learned?
FLEA: It helped enormously in putting songs together. I don’t think there are any rules, one way or the other, but I think it’s great to know the theory—it’s like amazing, magical stuff. When you make music, you’re forming these invisible vibrations in the air into different shapes and consistencies and speeds in order to create music, and understanding how the math of that works just gives you more colors to paint with, and allows you to get to what you want quicker. That said, there have been a zillion incredible songwriters who don’t know any of it. But I loved it and would love to learn more. I feel like I just barely scratched the surface of it.
EHRLICH: You’re appearing in the documentary The Other F Word, which is about how a variety of punk rockers have handled fatherhood, and going from rebel to domestic authority figure. Why did you decide to participate in the film?
FLEA: It’s funny that you bring that up. I did it because the filmmakers seemed like nice people with their hearts in the right place. I told them that I didn’t want my younger daughter in it because she wasn’t old enough to make the decision about something like that, but my older daughter wanted to do it, so we did it. I don’t really agree with the whole concept of the film, to tell you the truth. I think it’s a powerful movie, and there are parts of the film that are really good. There are also people in it whose viewpoints I drastically disagree with, in terms of being a dad. But the whole idea of making the transition from rebel to authority figure is bullshit. If you live a rebellious lifestyle, then you rebel against things because they go against your ideals and the integrity of who you are as a person. I don’t see why that changes when you have a kid. You teach your kids about your beliefs and tell them what you think is right and the conclusions that you’ve come to from living in the world, and then they can make their own decisions. But I don’t like the concept that being an authority figure is different from being a rebel. I just don’t see it like that.
EHRLICH: Do you find that you are a different kind of father than your dad was with you?
FLEA: I had a father and I also had a stepfather. My father was out of my life when I was pretty young—when I was 7 years old, he was gone. I didn’t see him for the rest of my childhood. Then I had a stepfather who was around from when I was 8 until I left home as a teenager . . . And I’m really not much like either of them at all in my parenting techniques.
EHRLICH: I know your stepdad kind of turned you on to jazz and had a huge influence on your life musically.
FLEA: Yeah, very much so. He was a brilliant musician. It wasn’t like we ever played together much or he ever really taught me anything, but just seeing him play . . . When I was a kid, I saw him play bebop with a bunch of other jazz guys, jamming in our living room. It just devastated me in a good way—turned my world upside down as to what was possible and what people do with instruments.
EHRLICH: I understand that he was also a heavy drinker and that one of the ways you coped with that was by smoking weed . . .
FLEA: Yes, my stepfather had a history of drug and alcohol abuse—and yes, that was difficult as a child because it was a very topsy-turvy household for a variety of reasons, and one of them was a substance-abuse situation. But when I started getting high as a kid, it wasn’t necessarily . . . I mean, it was to get high. [laughs] People get high for a variety of reasons. They do it because it’s fun and it’s an adventure. They do it because they have a community that they do it with for the mutual experience of it. So I think all of those reasons come into play. In terms of how much I did it because I wanted to escape the disharmony in my household, I can’t say. Similarly, when I decided to stop doing drugs, the reasons I did that were many.
EHRLICH: When you and Anthony first met in high school, you had a confrontation. Do you remember what the fight was about?
FLEA: Yeah. There was this guy named Tony Sherr, who was my friend, and I had him in a headlock, and . . . What’s it called when you rub your knuckles on someone’s head?
EHRLICH: A noogie?
FLEA: A noogie, yeah. I was giving this guy a noogie, and Anthony came up to me and was like, “Lay off him.” Anthony had just moved to L.A., and Tony Sherr was his only friend, so he saw me delivering a noogie to his only friend and told me to leave the guy alone. Anthony looked pretty scary back then, so I did what he said. But that confrontation was pretty short-lived. Within days we became inseparable best friends, and we’ve been like that forever.
EHRLICH: He’s still your best friend?
FLEA: I think he probably is. You know, it’s funny, there’s so much work in our relationship—all the work we do with the band—and we know each other so well, but then there are times that we are antagonistic with one other, too. So I think what we have is actually more like a brotherly relationship, but we’re definitely best friends and love each other very much.
EHRLICH: You’ve played on a lot of records by artists outside the Chili Peppers, but you’ve never released a solo album. I know, though, there are some plans now to do a mainly instrumental album that you’ve been recording in your house with guest spots by Patti Smith and some of the kids from the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, which is the music school in Los Angeles that you helped start. Why has it taken so long for you to do a solo record?
FLEA: Mainly, it took so long because I’m not really a singer, so the idea of making songs with me singing, which I’ve tried a few times, just never really works. But during our last break, I recorded a bunch of instrumental music, and, yeah, Patti sang on some stuff, and the kids from my school sang on some stuff. I’m going to put it out, but, right now, I don’t want to confuse the issue with the Chili Peppers record. It might come out next year.
EHRLICH: In November 2007, your home in Malibu was burned down by a wildfire. You were not living there at the time, but did you lose anything of personal or emotional value?
FLEA: I did. I lost a piano that I really loved. Luckily almost all my stuff was out of there because I’d already moved, but losing things like my art or my instruments would have been heartbreaking. I say this with a lot of respect to my friend Butch Walker, who was living there, and who’s also a musician and lost everything—every tape he’d ever recorded, all his guitars, everything. But I found out that my house was on fire very early in the morning, while everything was burning, and I was living just a few miles away from there. So I booked over because I heard that the neighborhood was on fire and I wanted to see how my house was doing. I came running down the street and I saw my neighbor and she said, “Oh, don’t worry. Our block is fine. It’s the next block over that’s on fire.” And I was like, “Oh, thank god.” But I kept running down the street because my house is at the very end, in this cul-de-sac, and when I got there it was just engulfed in flames. It was like a raging fire. So I sat there looking at the house burn and I’ve got to tell you—with all respect to Butch and all the people who lost everything—it was kind of a beautiful thing to see. I lived in that home for seven years, and I could see all the memories, everything that I knew from that place, just kind of visually forming into shape, and then disappearing up into the sky. It was kind of like how they say you see your life flash before your eyes when you die. It was my life in that house, dissolving. It was a real purging. It felt like the fire was so mighty. Who am I to argue with this power?
EHRLICH: On several occasions you’ve played completely naked. What if it got cold out?
FLEA: Wait, can you hold on one second? I’ve got to take a leak.
[Flea goes to the bathroom and returns a few minutes later.]
FLEA: So what if it got cold out while I was naked?
FLEA: Lucky for me, the mightiness of my cock and balls withstands all temperatures and all situations.
[A few days later, Anthony Kiedis calls from Tokyo.]
EHRLICH: I asked Flea this, but the title of the new album is I’m With You. So who is with who?
ANTHONY KIEDIS: At the moment, you would be with me. But it’s an indefinable and all encompassing “I’m with you”—in the spiritual sense, the sexual sense, and the sense of the human race. It can be a one-on-one or it could be a one-on-all.
EHRLICH: This is your first full album with Josh Klinghoffer. How has he affected the chemistry as a band?
ANTHONY KIEDIS: Josh Klinghoffer . . . My goodness, what a find, what a stroke of good fortune. It’s a big change in so much as you have four guys writing music, and if you change one of them, everything is going to change. But we were really due for that. The way things went with John [Frusciante] wanting to move on actually turned out to be a genuine blessing—we were kind of forced to rethink ourselves.
EHRLICH: You first performed in 1983 under the name Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. The audience was about 30 people. Do you remember what you wore for that show?
KIEDIS: If memory serves, I wore a dark crimson-colored paisley jacket that came down to just above my knees or so and, quite possibly, a backwards fluorescent orange hunting cap.
EHRLICH: What size socks do you wear?
KIEDIS: What size socks? What a reference! Or is that an inference?
EHRLICH: Do you have to use adhesive tape on the sock if it gets cold?
KIEDIS: No. There are two things about the socks. The first thing is that sock has to come off your foot—there’s no, like, wearing a clean sock. That thing has to come off your foot and go onto your cock. And the other thing is that it’s really the balls that keep it on. If you just put it on your dick, you wouldn’t have a great success rate. The sock needs to go over the whole package.
EHRLICH: So it’s all about the elastic at the top. . . In the late-80s, before Chad Smith joined the band, he was told he had to shave his head, but he refused to. How important is hair to the Chili Pepper DNA?
KIEDIS: It wasn’t about what kind of hair you had to have—it was more about what kind of hair you couldn’t have. He had the “couldn’t have” hair at that point in time.
EHRLICH: Like a mullet?
KIEDIS: No, it was more like early-1980s Sunset Strip teased-up hairspray hair. More than anything, though, it was a test to see what his commitment level was. We were like, “This dude has ridiculous hair. If he really wants to be our drummer, then he’ll show his commitment by shaving his head.” It wasn’t so much that we were trying to control his style—we just wanted to see if he had the passion for us. The fact that he said, “No, fuck you. I won’t shave it,” actually spoke even more strongly of his character—like, here’s a guy who’s not going to bow down and do what we say. He’s been like that ever since. Chad is his own man.
EHRLICH: In the mid-’90s, you briefly opened on tour for The Rolling Stones, which many people would think was a dream come true. But you’ve said that it was sort of awful. Why?
KIEDIS: [laughs] Well, I can’t totally blame it on The Stones—who I’ve since, by the way, come to love. Their music from the ’60s and ’70s—
EHRLICH: Yeah, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll, Black and Blue, up to Some Girls, are eight incredible records in a row.
KIEDIS: Yes—up to Some Girls. But I didn’t grow up listening to The Rolling Stones, and even at the time that we opened for them, I wasn’t that familiar with their stuff. In the last five years, I have really loved discovering the history of them and how incredibly meaningful they were to the world, and still are in a really bizarre way. But opening for them isn’t a great job. Their show is about them, and it’s set up for them. We had issues with sound and lighting, and we were relegated to a very small postage stamp of the stage—you know, like, “Okay, you guys can’t go left or right of here, and don’t step on Mick’s imported teak wood dance floor. That’s a no-no.” So you’re kind of playing when people are filing in with their merchandise and programs and they’re not really paying attention. You’re pouring your heart into this performance you believe in and people are kind of waiting around to hear “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” So, no fault of The Rolling Stones, it just isn’t really a great gig, and it wasn’t a great one for us because we really believed in what we were doing, and the audience just wasn’t there for us.
EHRLICH: You’ve said you would turn down requests for The Chili Peppers’ music to be used on shows like Glee and American Idol. Why?
KIEDIS: We’ve turned down a lot of requests over the years. You kind of have to go with your gut. This music is very near and dear to our hearts, and we don’t always want it used to serve other people’s purposes—especially if it’s something that we don’t understand or feel close to, like a television show. There have been lots of large corporations that have asked us to use music for advertising, and if we don’t believe in what they’re selling, we just say no, regardless of the monetary loss. I’ve never watched those shows that you mentioned, but I don’t feel like they resonate with us or our music, so we’ll just carry on without them.
EHRLICH: In your book, Scar Tissue, you recount an event where, with your father’s blessing, you lost your virginity shortly before your 12th birthday to his then 18-year-old girlfriend. In retrospect, what impact do you think that had on your life?
KIEDIS: Hmmm . . . It just happened. Good, bad, or indifferent, I had to deal with that situation. In the early ’70s, there was still that kind of free love movement happening in the town where I was. I think my dad thought that was a generous and kind thing for him to do, to share his girlfriend with his son. Because the era he had grown up with was so sexually repressed that I think he swung the pendulum a little bit too far . . . I wouldn’t do that with my son. I would let my son go and find his own organic sexual experiences in life. But I think my dad was doing the best he could . . . In retrospect, it seems like maybe a 12-year-old boy isn’t quite emotionally ready for an experience like that. But I had a lot of experiences that I probably wasn’t technically ready for, and the sum total of them got me to where I am today, so I don’t regret it. I just don’t think that I would repeat it with my own kid.
EHRLICH: Your dad was an actor and a part of the ’70s rock scene. As a kid, you got to hang out with all these different rock stars like Keith Moon and Alice Cooper and the members of Led Zeppelin.
KIEDIS: I never really thought in terms of the concept of being a rock star—being around people like that just seemed like normal day-in-the-life stuff to me. Those were just the surroundings I grew up in. I think the concept of rock stardom has turned into something shallow and meaningless. I don’t really believe in that concept anymore of, “Oh, you’re a rock star so you can live excessively” or whatever. There probably hasn’t been a bona fide rock star since the late ’70s.
EHRLICH: Tell me about the documentary Bob and the Monster, about the musician—and now drug counselor—Bob Forrest of Celebrity Rehab. You and your son, Everly Bear, both appear in the film, right?
KIEDIS: Yeah. I actually haven’t seen the finished product, but Bob is a wonderful old friend of mine. The truth is, I’m not really a fan of his television show, but I’m a huge fan of him as a human being and as a musician and as a friend, so that’s where my involvement comes from. He’s a guy who Flea and I met in 1983 when the two of us were homeless because we decided to buy leather jackets instead of paying our rent. We’d spent the last $300 we had, so we were walking Hollywood Boulevard, literally, carrying brown paper bags with whatever belongings we had—and we ran into Bob Forrest, who we had heard of because he’d DJ’d at a punk-rock club called Cathay de Grande. We told him we were homeless and he was like, “My wife just left me this morning. Why don’t you guys come and live in my apartment?” Bob’s place was about two blocks away from where we were on Hollywood Boulevard, so we were like, “Sure!” We ended up living with him and becoming lifelong friends. We were there for the beginning of his band, Thelonious Monster, and he was there for the beginning of our band. He’s a guy who’s been through the war and lived to tell the tale, and I think he brings an incredible service to the world of people who are struggling with addiction.
EHRLICH: In one of the new songs, “Factory of Faith,” you sing, “I was really quite a jerk.” When you look back on your days of drugs and booze, do you feel like there was anything you said or did where you can say it was really not part of your personality?
KIEDIS: Well, I mean, I’ve never had to be intoxicated to be a jerk. I can slip into that on my own right. That song is more about who I used to be, and who I would maybe like to be now and in the future. I think it’s more about just being selfish and self-centered and less conscious of other people’s feelings . . . So I was just referencing that I had been a jerk, but not necessarily because of drugs and alcohol.
EHRLICH: Who is your best friend in the world?
KIEDIS: I would have to say the person with whom I am most in love is definitely my son, Everly Bear. Although I’m his dad, I’m also his friend. And I have a few friends that I think would go to bat for me no matter what. Flea is definitely one of them. Guy Oseary is one of them . . . Wow, that’s a tough one. What I’ve realized over the years is that I have some pretty good friends.
Click here to preview songs from the new album.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a Contributing Music Editor for Interview.