Since leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers—for the second time—in 2009, John Frusciante has remained largely absent from the mainstream public eye.
But that doesn’t mean the guitarist hasn’t been busy writing, recording and releasing new music. In fact, his output in the past few years has been staggering in both quantity and scope. It encompasses full-length solo albums (2012’s experimental and electronic PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone), genre-mashing EPs (2012’s Letur-Lefr and 2013’s Outsides), one-off compositions distributed as free downloads (the 10-minute guitar solo piece “Wayne”), collaborations (with, among many others, singer—and his wife—Nicole Turley, and At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez), and even production work (for Wu-Tang Clan¬–affiliated rap act Black Knights).
But no matter what project he is pursuing these days, the common thread is that Frusciante is always, in one form or another, making music. Which is not quite the same thing as playing music.
“What’s important to me is being in the creative process,” he says. “I used to be really frustrated when I was in a rock band with everybody’s obsession with being done at the end of the day. I don’t think that should be the goal, like, ‘Oh, great, now we’re finished. Now we can go on to the more important task of promoting ourselves or getting out onstage.’ To me, being in the studio and recording and being creative—that’s its own reward. And the best things that happen come during the process, not after the process. So I’m glad I get to live in the studio and immerse myself in music.”
And, apparently, finish projects on his own schedule. In this regard, Frusciante’s latest offering is Enclosure, a 10-song effort that he wrote and recorded mostly in 2012, at the same time that he was producing the Black Knights record Medieval Chambers. Like his past few solo releases, Enclosure finds Frusciante delving further into his fascination with electronic sounds. Also as with most of his solo work, he sings and plays all of the instruments—which in addition to guitar consists mostly of drum machines and synths—creating wildly divergent and impressionistic sonic landscapes that are alternately trippy (“Run”), ominous (“Shining Desert”), disorienting (“Crowded”) and poignant (“Fanfare”). There is also a healthy dose of the lauded guitarist’s inimitable lead work, such as in the kinetic single-note squiggles that jolt through “Stage,” and the angular, acid-laced runs that span practically the length of the six-plus-minute instrumental, “Cinch.”
To that end, while Frusciante of late seems to be most enraptured by electronic instrumentation, he points out that fans of his guitar playing will find plenty to love in his solo catalog. “There’s actually a lot more featured guitar here than there is on any Chili Peppers album,” he says. “Soloing on a Chili Peppers album means you do a little 20 or 30 seconds in the middle of the song. But I’ve got 10-minute solos on some of this stuff. So the guitar always plays a big part in my music.”
But perhaps most significant is the fact that, whether he’s playing guitar, singing, or even programming a synthesizer or drum machine, Frusciante’s solo output is in every instance an unfiltered and unobstructed construct of his own creative mind. “As a musician, I desire to hear my complete vision realized,” he says. “I’m not interested in seeing how other people want to change what I do, or how their own musical talents offset what I do. I want to do the whole thing myself. It’s not a matter of wanting to have control—it’s a matter of wanting to be in the creative process without human considerations and without business considerations
affecting the music.”
On the eve of the release of Enclosure, Frusciante took some time to speak with Guitar World about his creative process, his love of electronic instruments and how he approaches the guitar solo in his current work. He also spoke with surprising candor about some of the artistic challenges he faced during his time in the Chili Peppers and explained why, while he is perhaps more committed than ever to making music in a studio, he may never play live on a stage again.
Your solo music encompasses many different sounds and styles. For those who only know you from your work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it’s pretty outside what they’re used to hearing from you.
When you’re in a popular band, you tend to do what you think the audience of that band will respond to. But my tastes have always been very different from that style. But [in the Chili Peppers] I was aiming at writing things I knew Anthony [Kiedis] would want to sing over and Flea would want to play bass over and Chad [Smith] would sound good playing drums over. So you get into a situation where you’re aiming your musicality in a direction that’s for the audience of the band and the members of the band and the managers of the band and the record label of the band. But the music that I make now, it’s not directed at any specific audience or any specific business interests or anything like that. I specifically don’t make music in order to make other people happy; I make music that makes me happy. So I understand how from the outside [the music I’m making now] would be surprising based on what I’ve done before. But for anybody who knows me they know I’m doing exactly what I want to do.
While there’s plenty of guitar, the music is generally not riff-based. You’ve sometimes referred to what you do as progressive synth-pop. How does your guitar fit into that sound?
I’ve trained myself as a musician in the last six years to learn to think more like a keyboard player than a guitar player. Not that I really play keyboards—I program numbers into machines and that’s where the synthesizers come from in my music. But as a guitar player, I can play along with Rick Wakeman’s stuff in Yes or Tony Banks’ stuff in Genesis, and I think how those people think. So when I write chord progressions now, they have more in common with that style. And when I solo, I want there to be some interesting modulations or other things to play over. I’m looking for something that a guitar player wouldn’t normally want to solo over.
When you approach these longer guitar pieces—songs like “Same,” from 2010’s Outside, or, on the new album, like on “Cinch”—what are you looking to achieve?
I’m trying to challenge myself. I try to do things that would be inconvenient for a guitar player to solo over. That’s what’s fun for me—to see the correspondence between my imagination and my habits and my intelligence. I want them to all coordinate with one another and to have a hard time doing so. Like, I don’t want to just be soloing over a vamp in E or something. I want the chords to be changing, I want the key to be modulating. I want it to be something that a blues guitar player couldn’t just sit down and play along with. Looking over history I notice you have these people who are really good at soloing over modulations, like George Harrison or Jeff Beck or Mick Ronson. But I notice they don’t play as wildly as guys like Frank Zappa or Jimi Hendrix. And the reason Frank Zappa or Jimi Hendrix played more wildly is because they soloed mostly over vamps. So what I try to do is play over the types of progressions that people like Mick Ronson or George Harrison had to solo over but do it in a way that is as wild as Jimi Hendrix or Frank Zappa.
You also write and perform all of the backing instrumentation, which tends to consist mostly of synthesizer, drum machines and samples. What led to your interest in electronic instruments?
As far as electronic instruments, you just have to understand that the reason I learned to play all these instruments is I believe in my own vision of music, and I didn’t want to just contribute to a piece of music like I did when I was in a band. I want to create a piece of music by myself. So I want to play drums the way I want drums to sound and play synthesizers the way I want synthesizer to sound. And I want to use samples because I feel they’re the strongest and most powerful instrument in the world. So that’s the reason these are the instruments I play, because as a musician I desire to hear my complete vision realized.
The fact that you record alone and at home helps.
It does. Enclosure has been sitting around for a year, but I’m just releasing it now. There was never any pressure on me from an outside source. That used to be really annoying. It’s not helpful to be surrounded by people who are only concerned with when you’re going to be done when you actually really enjoy being in the process. It’s distracting.
All the stuff that happens after the music is recorded—the marketing, the interviews, the appearances—they’re all things you have no interest in being a part of again.
I don’t think that’s how a musician needs to think. I mean, I think Beethoven wrote great music. He wasn’t thinking that people should like his charm or the smile on his face or the fucking witty things he had to say, you know? [laughs] He kept his mind on music, and so he got better and better with doing music throughout his life. Regardless of how the public responded to what he was doing, he wasn’t using them as his guide. And I think a musician can live a long and healthy life that way. If you’re always thinking about whether what you’re doing is relatable or accessible or catchy, these are things that are not musical skills. They’re ways that you can kiss ass to the audience or kiss ass to business people. You can’t develop them directly by practice of your instrument. So in my mind the things that professional musicians work toward, they’re not musical goals; they’re goals of finance and popularity and visibility. To me, I don’t understand it. You only have so much space mentally, and you only have so much time that you’re here.
How does playing live factor into this?
With the Chili Peppers, I was in the band for, like, 10 years this last time. And we spent more time on tour than we did writing, by far. For me, that’s not a way for a musician to live his life. I can see how if you’re an attention seeker that’s a great way to live your life. But for somebody who loves musical practice it’s really challenging to be in a band like that. I managed to be on tour and practice every day before and after the shows and spend some days off reading. But you’re going against the grain if you do that in the rock and roll business. Most people in the rock and roll business are happy to spend the better part of their time strategizing as to how they can make more money or how they can be more popular. I don’t think that’s a healthy way of life for a musician.
So even the actual act of playing music onstage began to lose its appeal to you?
Well, yeah, because you’re repeating yourself over and over. You might throw in an extra little riff somewhere, or you might do a little improvisation at the end of the show, but basically you’re doing the same thing every night. And the audience is experiencing it as if it’s the first time it’s happened, but you’re aware that you’ve been doing it every night for the last year and a half. You’re acting like you’re all excited about it, but you’re not excited about it. You’ve done it all before. It’s just a big game of pretend that the audience somehow believes. And none of the people onstage are actually as sincere as they appear to be, and they’re not nearly as excited as they appear to be. I just don’t believe in that game of pretending with music in order to make money and get attention. I feel like there’s a certain amount of money that a person can make where you don’t need to be guided by that anymore. And somehow in the professional music industry it just seems like people who go for these long careers, they never cease to be excited about the idea of making more money.
Do you plan on playing your own material live at some point?
Ummm…no. I don’t think being an entertainer is what I was born to be. I think it’s something that I adapted to and something that I forced. But I don’t feel like it’s who I really am. Flea and Anthony and Chad to me are natural-born entertainers. I’m not. It’s not what I was put here to do.
You’d prefer to make your music in the studio.
Yeah. Going up onstage to me just seems like…it’s a parade. You’re sort of using your physical presence like a prop or something. It’s not really a musical endeavor. And I think all these generations who have come since MTV came on should remember music is not a visual thing. It’s a sound. It’s a disturbance of air molecules. It’s not a face somebody makes or an outfit somebody wears. Now what we think of as a real musician is someone who we see up onstage hitting his instrument and doing his gyrations and making his faces. But I think people should remember that it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the most powerful musicians in the world were composers. They weren’t even there when you were hearing the music. They spent their time in isolation, writing.
In your own writing and recording what guitars have you been using lately?
I’ve been playing Yamaha SG-2000s mostly, from the late Seventies and early Eighties. They’re my favorite kind of guitar. You can get a lot of tonal variety out of them, and in terms of the wood they’re very heavy guitars, so they have a very fat sound. Much fatter than Strats. I also have a few SG-1500s, and also an Ibanez Artist and a Carvin Allan Holdsworth. The Carvin is an interesting guitar—it’s hollow inside but it doesn’t have f-holes. So it has a different sound to it. I also have a Roland G303 guitar, which you use with a GR300 guitar synthesizer.
In the Chili Peppers you were always associated with vintage Strats.
I used to play guitars from the Sixties and Seventies, but now I’m more into guitars from the early Eighties. Incidentally, that’s also the same time period when most of the sequencers and drum machines I use were made. I just think it was a really good time for electronic instruments.
From a guitar-building standpoint, the early Eighties is not a period that is usually fetishized.
Yeah, and it seems funny to me, because those guitars kick ass. When I started playing Strats, they weren’t popular guitars. At that time people were playing heavy metal guitars. My first vintage Strat I probably bought for 800 bucks. They weren’t sought after at all. But I played them for so long and I got used to that characteristic thing that the old single-coil-pickup guitars have. But the Yamaha SGs, the guitar is balanced harmonically the same way a piano or an organ is. Whether it’s the lowest note on the instrument or the highest one, it has an equal kind of breadth. And you don’t have as much roundness to the sound, where the note starts thinner and then gets thicker…all that kind of stuff. You get a straight, fat, consistent sound on every fret of every string. It’s a great instrument for me, especially given what I was saying about thinking like a keyboard player when I play guitar.
How about amps?
Mostly I use a Marshall [Silver] Jubilee. I have the head right next to me in my studio and then the cabinet is a separate room. When I’m recording I’ll also sometimes send the sound back into the room through some speakers and have it picked up again by an ambient microphone. Then I’ll combine that room sound with the original close-miked sound. So a lot of the guitar sounds on the record, it’s not only the sound of the guitar at the time that I played it.
Do you tend to record your music pretty quickly?
I would say things move pretty fast around here. I probably have two or three songs going in any period of time. But like I said earlier, what’s important to me is not actually finishing things, it’s being in the creative process. The reason I strive to excel with music is because of my mind’s capacity to explore. It’s the exploring part that’s interesting to me. Not getting a result.
The fact that you write and record at home makes it possible to immerse yourself in that creative process to whatever degree you want.
My life is pretty much doing music all day every day. But I also spend a fair amount of time just laying around and reading books or watching TV or hanging out with my wife. I do music for a few days, then I go away from it for a few days. For me it’s not work.
That sounds like a nice way to live.
It’s how I’ve decided to live. I tend to let music factors guide me rather than factors of finance. And to me, music is fun and it’s relaxing and it’s interesting and it’s stimulating. And I don’t have to balance it with somebody pushing me in this direction or that direction. I don’t have needs from the outside world. So I would say my life is pretty even. There’s not a whole lot of stress in my life.
Photo: Neil Zlozower/atlasicons.com