ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 11, 1996
By Steve Newton
That Flea guy is a real character. For my phone interview with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ wildman bassist, I was instructed to call and ask for Mr. Ugly Stupid, the moniker Flea goes by when he’s on the road. But I started feeling a tad sassy as I dialed the number of his Phoenix hotel, so when the desk receptionist answered, I tried pulling a fast one.
“Mr. Ugly Stinky, please.”
“I’m sorry, who?”
“Uh…Mr. Ugly Stupid.”
Talk about top-level security precautions. Only when the precise password was revealed did the call get forwarded to Flea’s room, where he was waiting, strumming a guitar and “workin’ on a little something”. Flea’s been coming up with a lot of interesting “little somethings” since moving from New York to the musical mecca of Hollywood at age 11.
“As a musical place it was great,” says Flea of his successful sojourn in Tinseltown. “As a youngster I saw a lot of great jazz, and rock music, and I got into punk-rock there. It’s a very cultural blend of all different kinds of musics in Los Angeles, and lucky for me it made me realize that there’s no particular kind of music that is better than another—each variety of music has something good to offer. It’s all music, you know.”
As well as being a prime musical melting pot, L.A. had an open-mindedness that allowed Flea to meet lots of similarly free-spirited players, leading to the formation of the RHCP in the early ’80s. The newest member of the quartet is former Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros guitarist Dave Navarro, who made his recording debut with the band on its current One Hot Minute CD and will be here when it plays the Pacific Coliseum on Saturday (April 13).
“I knew him for a long time just as an acquaintance,” says Flea, “and then when we were getting ready to do the ’92 Lollapalooza, [guitarist] John Frusciante left the band. We actually asked Dave to join the band then, but he was busy doing another project, so we got someone else who didn’t work out. We got someone else after that who wasn’t working out, and then I heard from my lawyer—who is also Dave’s lawyer—that Dave was looking for something to do, and he wished that he had never turned down our job in the first place.
“So we got him, and it’s worked out really good. He’s a good guitar player, and I think that we made a good record, and we’re playin’ good shows. And it’s a good thing, you know. We’re a good rock band.”
Navarro played his first gig with the Peppers at Woodstock ’94, and from all reports of that performance, the word “good” could be used yet again. According to Flea, Navarro’s style is a lot different from that of Frusciante, who had replaced heroin overdoser Hillel Slovak in 1988. Frusciante was with the band during its biggest-selling album, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
“It’s drastically different,” says Flea of Navarro’s six-string approach, “and it brings a completely different colour. John has a much dryer sound, and is a much more direct musician. Recording with John, he’ll play a song once and go, ‘Yup, sounds good, okay,’ but Dave is very much into doing like 10 tracks of guitar on one song, and putting them all together and blending them.”
The Chili Peppers have done well themselves by blending things, especially when it comes to the diverse musical forms of funk, rap, punk, and thrash. The group has seen a lot of fads come and go since its genre-bending debut of ’84, but when asked to compare the attributes of ’80s music to that of today, Flea gets diplomatic on me.
“I don’t think the music from any time is better than any other time,” he says. “You know, from every period of music there’s beautiful music to be heard; I think sometimes you have to search a little bit harder to find it. I think now kids are less likely to search for good music because of the fast-food popular culture that we’re dealing with, because of MTV and the media, which is reaching right down into everyone’s bedroom. I would like to see people be more inspired to search for good music, because when people search for good music, then there’s more likely to be more good music created.”
There he goes with that word again. We’ve only been chatting for 10 minutes, and already Flea has used “good” 11 times. I guess it’s time for me to give it a whirl by describing Flea as a good bass player—although he’s much more than that. He combines instrumental mastery with a kind of gleefully demented outlook that’s perfectly suited to the Peppers’ hyperactive image.
And when he’s not leaping around the stage with a flaming helmet strapped to his noggin, or showing off the latest in spiral haircuts, Flea can be seen on the movie screen, thanks to a burgeoning acting career that includes parts in My Own Private Idaho and Back to the Future, Part 2. It’s no wonder that someone’s keen accounting skills have left him with lots to show for his showbiz activities, like a house on the beach in his birthplace of Australia.
“I’m not worried about having a place to live or having food to eat,” he says, “or having the musical equipment that I want to have. And I like the idea of being able to travel. I’m very grateful. I’m very very very grateful to have the material things that I have.”
Financial freedom aside, Flea has to go through the same tragedies and trials as anyone, whether dealing with the death of a good friend—he wrote the new tune “Transcending” for late actor pal River Phoenix—or being the victim of unprovoked street violence. The latter inspired Flea to lash back with One Hot Minute’s wrathful “Pea”, which is targeted at “the guys who beat the shit out of me at the Mayfair on Franklin & Bronson”. “You’re big and tough and macho,” sings Flea in that bitter little ditty. “You can kick my ass. So fucking what.”
And what reason could the “homophobic redneck dicks” of “Pea” have for hurting a Flea?
“Because I’m a punk-rocker. Yeah.”