IN THE ZONE:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
Stephen SPAZ Schnee
What do you do if you are one of the most famous guitarists in Rock music, you’ve sold millions of albums and you’ve created some of the most beloved Alternative Rock music of the last three decades? In former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante’s case, he looked within himself to create some of the most exciting music of his career. Rather than follow a tried and true formula, John created a new one. Then he created another new one. And then another… He didn’t just move forward, he also moved over, under, sideways, down. While other musicians would have chosen to follow a safe route and keep knocking out the same records over and over, Frusciante has created something entirely different from the ground up. With each phase of his career, it’s as if he has set new rules and boundaries for his music and then moved on once he had taken those rules as far as they could go. With each release, it seems that Frusciante’s mind is an endless well of creative energy.
Over the last few years, Frusciante has embraced Electronica and has managed to create music that features familiar elements yet remains fresh and new. Mixing Dubstep, Hip Hop, Synthpop, House and Experimental Rock with Blues, Gospel, and any other style that suits his fancy, his last few albums have added new life to the sometimes derivative Electronic music scene. If it’s been done before, Frusciante creates something new out of it. Every musical step he makes takes him further than where he started yet brings him closer to his unique musical vision – a vision that is always expanding. His 2014 album Enclosure follows – and expands upon – the journey that began with 2012’s Letur-Lefr EP and PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone album and continued with 2013’s Outsides EP. Recorded at the same time as his collaboration with Hip Hop heavyweights (and Wu-Tang Clan offshoot) Black Knights, Enclosure is an album filled with layers of wonder. For every beautiful melodic passage, you are met with body-shattering Dubstep rhythms and musical twists and turns. The more times you hear it, the more layers you are able to peel off and discover new sounds.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with John about the Enclosure album and much more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: The songs on Enclosure, much like your recent solo material are very unconventional in the sense that they add all of these interesting layers to the recordings. Do you intend to sort of challenge the listener or is it just challenging yourself as a musician?
JOHN FRUSCIANTE: I definitely put a lot of time into challenging myself. I had about a three year period when I was learning my electronic instruments where nothing I was doing was intended to be released at all. I was working completely just to educate myself and to learn and to learn how to put the same degree of expression into electronic instruments as I was into a guitar prior to that - which takes years to be able to do that. It’s so easy to fall into familiar patterns on an instrument that you know really well, but on electronic instruments, to make them expressive and to really put yourself into them and to have the same kind fluid interaction with the instrument, is a whole different ballgame. So, during those years, I made about 50 hours of music with my friend Aaron Funk, which was also music specifically not intended to be released. I just think there’s a lot that musicians can learn if you really take the public out of the equation And just make it about yourself in a kind of communion with music. So, gradually, that state of mind ended up being just the way that I thought. Even if I was intending on doing a record, I’m not specifically trying to do something that’s gonna affect the listener… I’m not really considering the public or the average person. I spend all my time studying records and making music. The music that I make, as unconventional as it sounds, is always inspired by some form of tradition. I examine what people have done with music in the past and I specifically try to do things that haven’t been done, but that are continuations of old ideas. Like, the way music has grown in history… It’s always been so trend-based in the last 50 years that as soon as the trend stops, some certain new musical principle also stops evolving. So, I look at history and the way that some little period of time that I like, some idea was developing then, and then it got replaced by something else, and I just try to carry on that specific aspect of that idea that I thought had somewhere else to go. You know, you have examples all over the place in music history. Progressive Rock sort of came to a stop sometime around Punk Rock’s emergence… or Surf music stopped after the Beatles. It’s happened like that so often and so I pick up on things that I like and I try to put them in a new context and move them forward, and I try to combine various traditions such as the production style of one album, but the guitar style of another album... just combining different styles in as free a way as possible. I guess a lot of people, they fit into a genre or they’re a part of a certain trend or a certain musical movement and I’ve really removed myself from being a part of any specific trend or genre.
SPAZ: Regarding the tracks on Enclosure, did you record them with the intention of putting them on the same album or were these recordings that you just felt pieced together well?
JOHN: Ever since PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, that’s everything that I’ve recorded. Like, I conceived of them as an album and I did one after the other. Like, PBX and Outsides and Enclosure were just all the songs that I recorded within like a year and a half period. I was also doing Black Knights while I was making Enclosure. Ever since I started making music to be released, everything I’ve done has been on the albums. These last three months have been the first time in the last few years that I’ve made music again specifically not to be released, which is what I’m doing now. But yeah, I definitely maintained a kind of a consistency that I didn’t have when I was in a band in terms of - there’s no excess. It’s like when I used to be just a conventional musician, I used to write so many songs that I never even had a chance to record. Like, now I don’t really write songs that often, but when I do, they get recorded and when I record something, it gets released. That’s very different from how it is – say in a Rock band where you have lots of leftover songs, they write way more than they need, they don’t know which ones are good and which ones are bad, they sort through everything, critiquing which ones are the best. I don’t do anything like that. Everything I do is to express something and give it to the world.
SPAZ: I find there’s a lot of beauty and emotion in these melodies. Like with “Cinch,” once the listener gains a footing in the song, it just becomes this sort of overwhelmingly powerful emotional wall of sound. Now, how do you find these melodies? Do they come to you before you pick up an instrument? Do they come while you’re recording?
JOHN: I guess it depends. One thing I do a lot of the time is write chord progressions that I know are going to make it difficult for me to play guitar over. There are certain kinds of chord progressions that every guitar player knows and that’s usually what guitar players write to solo over because you don’t have to use your mind that much, and it comes very naturally. Like if a person wants to play in a Buddhist style or if they want to play in a pretty style or whatever, there are certain kinds of chord progressions you write and you can just play and you don’t have to worry about anything. So, I don’t really write those kind of chord progressions too often anymore. I write ones that would be challenging for a guitar player to solo over, and so it takes me a while to learn, to get used to them, and to get comfortable enough with playing over them before I can really play freely, before I can improvise things. So I started with those chords and I recorded a very simple guitar part then a slightly more complicated guitar part and built the guitar parts like that – did them in the order of complexity until the last one that I recorded was the one that’s soloing. But, I would have never been able to do that guitar solo had I not done all the simpler guitar parts that you hear around the guitar solo. So, I find that if my attention is on music, if my attention is on the inner workings of the music, the theoretical aspects of it, I find that if I just keep pressing on that, melodic ideas gradually present themselves. One amazing thing that I’ve noticed, having played a lot of long guitar solos in the last few years, I’ll do like say three guitar solos over the same 10 minute piece of music and I go through them because a lot of the time it’s a technique I like to do to edit between the solos for compositional reasons, not to fix mistakes. It’s more to be able to make the guitar do things that it wouldn’t be able to do because your left hand on a guitar has to be in one place or another at any given time, and I can do guitar parts where it has basically the affect as if your hand was the whole size of the neck, you know. And I’ll notice in these 10 minute solos that they often do the same thing at the same time despite that I haven’t memorized anything. It’s just music presenting the ideas because my attention was on music’s nature itself. I think when you turn your attention to the inherent nature of music, that music presents ideas which are much more organized than anything you could ever think of. Because, for me to be playing the same exact thing at the same time like 8 minutes into a solo that never repeats, that’s something that.. a person can’t memorize that much material…. yet, they’re fully in correspondence with each other, the strangest kind of rhythmic interactions or melodies. It’s one of my feelings that people obsessing on the impression that they’re gonna make with the music denies them the ability to form a communion between their intelligence and the nature of music itself… because the nature of music itself has a lot more to offer to musicians than what the public has to offer – like money and praise and all those things, you know? There’s a lot of wonder to be found if all you do is just focus your attention on the nature of music itself.
SPAZ: What inspired the shift towards Electronic music? To me, it seems like it’s a logical extension of your never ending musical exploration.
JOHN: We seem to not have noticed that without electronics there would be no recording, you know what I mean? The whole fact that there is recordings is an electronic medium. Like the fact that we hear music through all these circuitries that takes place in studios, electronics are the only reason why we have Rock music with the amplification and microphones and speakers. It’s like everything about the way we’ve developed has been due to electronics. So, the idea that Rock musicians think that these certain electronic instruments like drum machines or synthesizers aren’t part of the Rock vocabulary or something, it’s not right. I’m using the machines and the electronics that can be the most useful to a musician who wants to do everything themselves and doesn’t want to have to rely on engineers and doesn’t want to have to rely on session musicians or a band. I was hearing music by people like Autechre and Venetian Snares, and it was amazing to me that these people were even more self-sufficient than classical composers were. Classical composers still had to depend on an orchestra, and they had to depend on a conductor, they had to go through a lot of hassle in order to get their music performed, and they had to deal with a lot of inaccuracy. I’m hearing these people and it was breathtaking to me that their music was a pure product of their minds and that there wasn’t even a physical instrument that was in between them and the realization of the music. This is something that’s only really been possible in the last 30 years to really do it on any kind of a grand scale. To me, these people were taking advantage of it. In Rock music, if somebody wanted to have a more electronic sound they’d get a producer who was good with electronics or something or they’d hire a bunch of people to do all the hard work for them. I just really admired that these people without engineers and without telling anybody what to do - they were self-sufficient to be able to create their own music on a grand scale. So, it was inspiring to me. The only real example that I had of somebody who was like a traditional, conventional instrumentalist and was also a programmer of the highest caliber was Squarepusher (AKA British musician Tom Jenkinson). When you see no Rock musicians doing it and you see a certain group of electronic musicians doing it, you wonder is it even possible for a Rock musician to fucking think that way, you know? Is it only people who are like computer geniuses and stuff? But the fact that he (Jenkinson) was a virtuoso bass player and the fact that he was a great virtuoso programmer inspired me to know that it was possible. So, gradually, the two parts of my brain just sort of taught each other. The songwriter in me and the guitar player in me has had a massive impact on the way I use samples and in the way that I program machines and the way that I use samples. And the way I use samples has also had a tremendous impact on me as a guitar player. It’s caused me as a musician to not think of music as an idea I’m conveying into an instrument, but to think of music as the creation of sound. As a guitar player now I really look at the instrument in its electronic sense in terms of how I’m trying to get a lot of sound out of it. If I have to play three or four strings or intentionally make a lot of mistakes in order to get more sound out of it, I do all kinds of things like that because I think of it as a thing to make sound on now, not as a thing to display my physical prowess.
SPAZ: I noticed on this album that rhythm plays such a big role. Do you use these dynamic rhythms to convey an emotion?
JOHN: Yeah. On these albums, I’ve really looked to counter what would be the predictable drums that you would have in a particular song. I really like writing songs that are slow and then programming drums that are fast. I like the juxtaposition of the two things and so I like doing drums that are off time in various ways or drums that are a completely different feel. I like to juxtapose several different conceptions of the rhythm at once. I gradually learned how to make fast drums that feel slow because I’m adhering to a slow vocal performance and so when I first tried to put fast drums with that, they sounded too jerky or too jumpy or whatever, and it took me a while to be able to retain what was good about the slow groove of the vocal and the guitars, but also be in a completely different tempo zone.
SPAZ: Yeah, like I said, it’s all about layers and once the listener peels away these layers, there’s these beautiful melodies in there… these powerful, different kinds of music that sort of combine and just become powerful.
JOHN: It’s a great advantage when you’re able to work in the particular fashion that I work in to be able to come at the same idea from several angles. When you’re recording Rock music in the conventional way, the tendency is to try to adhere to what you’re doing. You’re trying to lock into what the other instruments are doing. You’re trying to express the same idea that they’re trying to express. You want to be in line with them. With this particular method and me being the only musician, I’m able to come at the idea from several angles and to look at the music in different ways and completely transform a previous performance by a later performance. I’ve tried to find a connection between is traditional songwriting and the various forms of music that have come from people programming because in programmed music, drums have replaced melody as being the top element of the musical hierarchy. Melody forever was the top element and then with Hip Hop and Acid House and Jungle and all kinds of House music, the drums have been the central instrument. I had kind of lost my interest in traditional songwriting and Rock music and I’d learned how to make music despite one of my main gifts is melody, I strive to make music that respect drums as being the top priority or the top element in the musical hierarchy of elements. So, as I found that even though I didn’t care about songwriting anymore, I still continued to do it just because it was a way.. it’s part of who I am. I can’t really get rid of it, you know? So, I strive to continue forward what I see as being the progression that’s taking place with drums being the main instrument and find a connection point between that and traditional songwriting. At first, it seemed like a struggle or seemed like something that I didn’t see how those two parts are made to fit together. Gradually it became a really natural thing and I found I was able to bring things out of my songs that I didn’t know were there. I’m able to know as a songwriter that I have no idea where the song’s gonna go because what’s fun about programming and making music in this way is that anything can go in any direction at a time and it’s not because you had an idea, but because a certain way presented itself in the middle of your creative process and you followed that direction. It’s really nice in Electronic music that you can make music without having a written song and I’ve definitely done a lot of that, but I found that creating a fusion between the two has been really interesting.
SPAZ: Do you remember the exact moment when you realized that you were going to be a musician? Or was it a series of events?
JOHN: No, it was just ingrained in my head when I was four-years-old. It was just embedded - it wasn’t ever a decision. It was more something that I just knew that I was supposed to do. And, the feelings that I had hearing music at that time were feelings on such a higher level than anything that I felt in any other part of life. I felt a sense of enclosure in music when I heard it. I didn’t really know much about music back then, but as time went by, certain pieces of music would catch my ear. It was like years before I ever actually started playing instrument, I could tell which music related to what I was supposed to do and which….. and those are the most meaningful moments of my childhood.
Thanks to John Frusciante
Special thanks to Jordan Tappis, Julian Chavez and Dana House