John Frusciante Is Building Something Better Than the Real World
The former guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers is using obsessive electronic programming to navigate the good days and the bad.
John Frusciante is having a bad day. He pretty much says as much when he rebuffs the very first question I ask him over the phone—What have you been up to today?—with a groan: "I'm not really going to talk about that." Stammering, I explain that I'd intended the query merely as an ice-breaker, an easy way of loosening things up before submerging ourselves into the frigid waters of his latest electronic release, an EP for the Los Angeles label Acid Test called Foregrow. "It's not easy," Frusciante says. "It's not something I want to talk about with the public."
Over the years, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist has experienced things that no one should have to live in full-view of society. After joining that band in 1988, he left the group midway through a tour in support of the group's chart-smashing 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, overwhelmed by the experience of suddenly rocketing to fame. He sunk into a period of drug addiction and mental illness, struggles depicted in a documentary by Johnny Depp and in interviews in national publications (see the 1996 article in an Arizona newspaper that ends: "I don't care whether I live or die"). He lost a friend, the beloved actor River Phoenix, to a drug overdose outside a show Frusciante played at the LA's Viper Room in 1993. According to his former bandmate Anthony Kiedis' memoir, he finally ditched drugs in 1997, after entering rehab. But even over the last half-decade, during which he's been relatively quiet, he's battled stalkers in court, and is currently in the midst of a divorce case that became public after TMZ unearthed court records suggesting his ex-wife Nicole Turley is seeking tens of thousands of dollars—monthly—in alimony payments.
Lost behind all the tabloid drama is the truly singular solo work he's made in his time away from the band that made him famous. (Frusciante rejoined the Red Hot Chili Peppers for another of their most successful stints from 1998 to 2009, but left again when his "musical interests [led him] in a different direction"). Over the years, he's toyed with distended ambient music, sprightly guitar pop, weirdo tape projects, acid house, and now largely unclassifiable electronic experiments—seeming to follow his every whim far beyond its logical endpoint, and without any specific audience in mind. Foregrow, which he released on Record Store Day, is composed of dizzy drum machine programming, beautiful latticework synth lines, and a vocal ballad whose lyrics he describes as a "vivid pre-life memory." In its alluring strangeness, it feels like a compelling conversation from behind a one-way mirror; he can see out, but even his most devout fans will struggle to peer past the veneer.
After struggling through the (un)pleasantries, what Frusciante will talk about—and excitedly—is the jittery music he's been making since diving headlong into the world of analog electronic programming almost a decade ago. His approach to actually releasing these works is casual—2015's compelling bomb of acid house fractals Trickfinger was actually recorded in 2007, and the just-released Foregrow was recorded in 2009—but he works on them as part of his daily life, at home, away from the rest of the world. In conversation, he's likely to go off on tangents about programming modular synthesizers, or the very specific challenges of working in the same room with someone as meticulous as he (recently, that means Venetian Snares' Aaron Funk, with whom he has a project called Speed Dealer Moms). Or he'll get wrapped up talking about the chord progressions of Beatles and Genesis songs. Or, as he did in my case, he'll just bail altogether.
Our first interview on a mid-April afternoon was cut short after just ten minutes, when Frusciante felt unable to properly express himself, distracted by whatever it was that was occupying his morning on the day that I called him. But two days later, he was back, offering meditations on the way that his obsessive music-making has interacted with his life, both at his best and worst moments. Read our edited conversations below.
THUMP: I read that Foregrow was made in 2009. Do you have a lot of material that's just stored away?
John Frusciante: Lately I've built up a lot of stuff like that. I was making music [in 2008 and 2009] without the intention of it being released. It's a mindset that I think is really valuable when it comes to learning, without having the self-consciousness of knowing that it's going to be for other people—when it's just for you and your friends.
But lately, in the last four or five months, I've started doing material that I see as conceptually bound together—and then even the music that I was making back in 2014 turned out to be conceptually bound together. What I've fallen into in the last couple of years has been unexpected and has revealed itself to me rather than me trying to achieve an object.
So you're saying that this release and the Trickfinger release from 2015 were not meant to be consumed by the public.
Yeah, not at all. They were specifically to learn. When a band goes into a studio to make a record, there's a pressure around it and a consciousness of the fact that you're doing it for a specific public. When you take that out of the equation, then you find yourself being more adventurous. That's how it is a lot of the time for musicians before they ever become famous; that's where the most growing takes place.
Are there any specific things that you were listening to or thinking about when making this new stuff? It's almost weird talking about Foregrow because it's probably not where your head's at today.
Yeah... I can do it. Actually I feel really uncomfortable talking...You know what? I'm sorry. It has nothing to do with you, I'm just not in a really good state of mind today and I can see that this interview isn't going to go well so I'm going to have to have to bow out of it.
Are you sure? You can take this conversation wherever you want it to go.
I was in a poor state of mind before the interview and I was questioning whether or not I should do it and I didn't want to cancel so late. But I've had a tough morning. I'm really not in any kind of a state of mind to do an interview.
Sorry if there was anything I was doing that made you feel worse.
No. [It was] absolutely nothing you were doing. I have my mind on other things now. I thought maybe the interview could distract me from... To be honest with you, your first question, what I was doing before you called—I was reading a book, a 900-page book that I'm halfway through and that I'm obsessed with. And I kept reading the same paragraph over and over. My brain's just not able to concentrate right now because I'm distracted by some other things.
The following day a representative from the label emails me at 7 pm to tell me that John wants to speak to me again, but that it has to be right away. A cursory Google search doesn't turn up any relevant information as to what may be going on in John's private life, but a search of Los Angeles' family court records suggests that there is another hearing planned in his ongoing divorce this month. That said, John never confirms to me that this is what was weighing on him. I give him another call.
How are you doing today? Are you feeling any better?
Yeah I feel fine today.
Can you talk at all about the bad headspace?
[Laughs] I don't really do interviews about my private life, you know?
Maybe this is another way to talk about it: your music has always seemed like it's this sublimation of whatever's going on in your life at the time. Is that a fair characterization?
I stopped writing songs in the traditional manner a long time ago. Back then, perhaps the lyrics were a glimpse into what was going on in my mind in the time. But as far as what I do with electronic music, it's such a natural part of my existence. I'm sure that it reflects my life, I'm sure it reflects the things that I'm thinking about, but a lot of those things are like...numbers.
I have thoughts that are completely musical thoughts. Those consume a lot of my headspace. I think a lot of the time with my music, I'm trying to fill in gaps that I see in the music that other people are making. Because I'm a lover of all types of music from all different times in history, I see good musical ideas that in my mind had a long way to go before they were exhausted. I try to fill in those holes a lot of the time, to bridge those gaps.
Is that why, for example, you were making acid house in 2007?
Well, that was just to learn the vocabulary, you know? When you play guitar, you're doing one thing at one time, but when I was doing that acid house thing, I was playing 15 machines at the same time; you have to get used to having your mind on a lot of things at once. A lot of my heroes in electronic music, like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher—that was their starting point, so I figured if I'm going to spend the rest of my life being a composer in the modern sense, then I needed to learn how to start doing that.
Is the desire to learn these new forms a big part of your drive to make music these days?
I'm constantly trying to understand more and constantly trying make things difficult for myself, to create challenges. I do this thing where I'll start putting a piece of music together and then I'll destroy it—do things to sabotage myself [so I] have that challenge of putting it back together in a new form. It's one of the great things about electronic music in comparison to traditional musicianship: you find yourself being able to have a back and forth with the machines. You don't know exactly where you're going.
In that sense, is making electronic music escapist for you?
Escaping from what?
Being in your own head. The mundanities of life.
There's not much person to me. There never has been. I think of myself as kind of a non-person. Looking back at my life, I've always been most at home with art and with creativity. From another person's perspective it might look selfish or that I'm escaping from the real world, but for me, the world of art and music is the real world and the rest is a place that I don't really understand.
Has it always been that way?
As a child, at about the age of 11, I started feeling like I was going crazy. I started to have the feeling that I may be somebody who would wind up murdering people without having the ability to prevent myself from doing it. My interactions with human beings were so difficult that it was starting to make me feel like I was losing control of my mind. And that's when I started playing guitar. I went from being a guy who was strictly into punk rock to somebody who loved 60s music and all those ideals. Then I couldn't imagine myself killing anybody or anything like that.
That's what I had going on inside me. That's what the world was bringing out inside me without that recourse [to] creation. I get out a lot things by making music [where I] think the only other way to get them out would be by doing things that are destructive to other people or destructive to myself. There's definitely a part of me that needs to be left alone and hidden from the rest of the world.
So music became a framework for you to interact with the world.
Not only that, but the fact that I've had such good luck with the business people that have been with me throughout my career has freed me up to not have to think about the mundane aspects of life. At this point in my life, for the last 8 years or so, because of all the good hard work that I did and they did, I'm generally a person who gets to decide what he wants to spend his day doing every day.
I don't really think I live in the real world that a lot of people live in. I got into the music industry when I was 18 years old, and I had never had a job other than picking weeds for my grandfather and sweeping rocks off the driveway and feeding the horses and stuff like that. That was the only job I'd had in my life before being in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What would be an escape for some people is just my natural habitat.
Is there something about electronic music that's made electronic especially absorbing in this way? It's been your main way of expressing yourself for the better part of a decade now.
It's hard to explain to people who aren't devout musicians themselves. Whether I practice along with a record or whether I'm making [my own] music, I get the sensation of going inside of something in the same way that you'd go inside a house and be separate from the world. I notice it especially with using things like the modular synthesizer or the [Elektron] Monomachine or the [Roland MC-202]. When I'm making music I cease to exist, [but] also the outside world ceases to exist and I'm in a world that I've created.