Grill Yr Idols: John Frusciante on fame, free jazz and the genius of Public Enemy

Jeremy Judelson was a marketing intern at media outlet Mass Appeal when he snatched the chance to interview his idol, not knowing where his relationship with the reclusive musician would lead. A year later, he shares his rare conversation with the media-shy guitar-god-turned-synth-wielder, spanning hip-hop, Ornette Coleman, and why he may never play live again.

John Frusciante has gone through many evolutions in his career. He joined his favorite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as a guitarist in 1988 at the age of 17. He spent the next 20 years in and out of the band, experiencing all the unimaginable highs and disturbing lows that rock and roll stardom has to offer. Throughout it all, he remained a prolific solo artist, his albums ranging from the drug-addled four-track experiments of Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994) to the acoustic folk-rock shamanism of Curtains (2005) and the enveloping studio mastery of The Empyrean (2009).

After leaving the Chili Peppers for the final time in 2007, his solo output began to span a wholly new set of styles: experimental electro-pop, acid house, atonal jungle-rock fusion, and old school hip-hop. His latest release, The Foregrow EP, released last month via Acid Test, is a selection of tracks made during 2009 and 2010, a period in which Frusciante had just begun using the Renoise DAW to track and edit his wild synthesizer journeys. For anyone who’s already a fan of his modular creations, it’s a record that will delight and enthral. For everyone else, welcome to the world of Frusciante.

The first time I heard music from his solo catalog was in 2010. It was a beautiful, chilly Sunday during Thanksgiving break and I was home from my freshman year at Wesleyan University. It was mid-afternoon and I was smoking a spliff in my friend’s Columbia dorm room. We thought it would be funny to go to the Hayden Planetarium stoned. He put on Shadows Collide with People, Frusciante’s 2004 solo record. Looking back, hundreds of listens later, I still remember the force that dug into me as album opener ‘Carvel’, with the barely audible click of a hi-hat, took a head-first dive into a one-of-a-kind, egoless rock and roll anthem. It was as spiritual and visceral as any song I had ever heard. Each track drew me further into its world of shimmering soundscapes and skeletal pop songs.

At the time, I was struggling at college with a mental health triumvirate of anxiety, compulsions, and depression. And while that first listen to Shadows was a gasp of fresh air that I needed, it didn’t last long. I returned to Connecticut for the second half of the semester and a bitter winter threw me into a dark hole. I didn’t leave my room much beyond going to class. I spent hours screaming into pillows and learned how to really smoke pot. During this time, for reasons I have only just begun to grasp, Frusciante became important to me. I made him an idol, a legend, but also a dependable friend. His story became my passion – the rock star turned reclusive auteur, the junkie turned spiritualist, the guitarist gone electronic. No number of YouTube interviews could satiate my hero-worship. It’s a weird thing when you adore a public person – you feel like you know them, yet the appeal of the whole exchange is that you never actually meet them. They can never really be your friend.

I graduated college in 2014, the same year that Frusciante began releasing hip-hop with the Black Knights, a Wu Tang-affiliated rap duo he had met through RZA. In 2015, I was interning at media outlet Mass Appeal when the collaboration’s second album was announced. My internship was in marketing, and although I didn’t necessarily want to be a music journalist, I wasn’t ruling it out. When I pitched the editor a review of the upcoming LP, The Almighty, he suggested I reach out for an interview. I contacted the Black Knights, who go by the names Rugged Monk and Crisis the Sharpshooter. They agreed to a phone call and I mustered up the courage to ask if John would be able to join. “Lol I know for a fact he isn’t doing no media type shit,” Crisis responded.

I tried to reassure him. “If there’s any part of him that’s scared it will be another Heavyweights Radio interview where I don’t know what he’s all about, you could assure him that’s not the case. No Chili Peppers questions.”

He replied: “He is is very private. We have no problem asking but he has no problem saying no.”

I knew this. I felt guilty at the prospect of imposing upon him, and selfish for trying to talk with him. I felt unqualified even asking. Yet, I already had. It didn’t seem realistic that he would say yes – if I could pull this off, then why couldn’t anybody? In spite of my doubts, it worked. I was put in touch with someone at his label, and two days later, John and I were set to speak over the phone.

John Frusciante

“When I heard Public Enemy’s second record, the production on it blew my mind”

I spent the next two days constantly questioning myself: “What the fuck am I doing?” The whole thing was too perfect, and it scared me. But I prepared well. I returned to all of the old interviews, and the new ones. I asked my planetarium buddy Jacob what questions he would ask. I couldn’t help but see this moment as a turning point, some sort of narrative fulfilment in the arc of my relationship with John and his music. What was this going to mean for me me? Was it the end of the story or the beginning? How do I let him know what his music has meant to me? Do I want to?

When it came time to call him, I breathed deep and dialed. I felt like a conman until the moment he picked up.

“This is John.” It was odd to hear the voice addressing me, the same voice that I had spent thousands of hours listening to. We spent two hours talking, and since the context of the interview was his new album, I started by asking him about how he got into hip-hop.

“Initially I wasn’t interested in hip-hop, because I was a young kid learning how to play guitar and admiring drummers, and drum machines just didn’t sound as expressive to me as real drummers,” he recalled. “Then when I heard Public Enemy’s second record, the production on it blew my mind. I had no idea that sampling and drum machines could be so expressive. What Hank Shocklee was doing on there was just so remarkable from a musical standpoint, to be creating this collage from so many different things and transforming little pieces of music into one piece of art.”

At first he was “mystified” by how the music came to exist, but over the years he began to understand the technical aspects of sampling and discover the expressive capabilities it held. His first foray into sampling was Sect in Sgt, a 15-minute synthesis of breakbeats, classic rock samples and musique concréte. He heard the piece in its entirety during a dream and tried to replicate it precisely. Finding his own way into this sample-based music made him realise he could attempt to make hip-hop as well, as he did on a trio of albums with Wu-affiliated rap duo the Black Knights.

“Music like Autechre and Venetian Snares and Aphex and Squarepusher, [it’s] an extension of what Hank Shocklee had been doing with Public Enemy,” he explained. “This music that felt like it just came out of the air by magic or something.” (His belief in a near-mystical source of human creativity came up in conversation again and again.)

Talking about the Black Knights, he seemed nervous about saying the right thing, and openly acknowledged that his partnership with Rugged Monk and Crisis was an unusual match. “There’s a lot of things about each other that we’ll never understand. In a lot of ways I think I’m a mystery to them, and they are certainly a mystery to me.” There were no doubts in the studio, though – the rappers trusted him with all of the music, and he trusted them with all of the rhymes.

“Music like Autechre and Venetian Snares is an extension of what Hank Shocklee had been doing with Public Enemy”

“In the rock world, there’s a lot of second-guessing and people being unsure of themselves and people hiring producers to make them better than they are. Monk and Crisis didn’t require anything like that. They believed in what they wrote and they went up to the mic and did it. I’ve always had that same kind of confidence as a guitar player.” In recognizing each other as opposites, each side of the relationship become more whole. “I’ve always had [friendships] like that,” he stuttered, “where we tend to find a peace in arguing with each other. Not about music – our roles there are specifically defined – but just about life and race and politics or social conventions.”

After talking about hip-hop, I brought bring up his interest in free jazz – a genre that could be seen as a project of political and social, as well as musical, liberation. Frusciante played with Alice Coltrane-esque chord progressions and Sonny Sharrock-style guitar leads on The Outsides EP, and even has a tattoo of the album art from free jazz magus Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head. Coleman had died a few weeks prior to our interview, so I asked if he had any words to say about him.

He paused. “You’re kidding, I didn’t know that.” I apologized for being the bearer of bad news. He was flustered. “Fuck, I keep finding out about people like two weeks afterwards. Damn, pretty close to Charlie Haden, too.” I asked how their music influenced him but he was speechless; the news had hit him like a truck. “I’m just in shock about Ornette. Can I call you back?” He hung up.

I got a call back the next day. He began by saying that he didn’t want to talk about Coleman, but only a few minutes passed before he returned to the subject naturally. “For me as a musician, the whole point is to take as much from history as possible,” he said. “[Coleman] found freedom because he understood tradition, and he grew and learned and taught his entire life because he had that. He was a gentle person, a humble person, and a mild-­mannered, shy person. As a musician he appeared to be some sort of anarchist or something, but the reason he was able to progress throughout his whole life and be just as good when he was 80 years old as when he was 30 is that he never stopped educating himself.”

Musicians should never stop studying, he continued. “You’re only going to make money if you play all original material. That puts a really weird thing in musicians’ heads, and it seems like in hip-­hop especially, there’s no understanding of that kind of learning – that type of learning that every jazz musician had to do, that every folk musician had to do, that every rock musician had to do in the early days, which is spending years playing other people’s music. And with rap, with my friends, they were playing a CD of The Chronic or 36 Chambers, and I’m playing guitar along with it and Monk’s rapping along with it, and when we did that together it was kinda like studying together. It was like the teacher was coming out of the speakers and we were the students.”

By the end of our second call, all I wanted to do was go play along to some Frusciante records.

“I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself in the way that I did when I was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers”

For months afterwards, I ignored the situation. I used a single quote in a piece for Mass Appeal and moved on to another job. In a way, I felt that as long as I kept the interview out of the public eye, our relationship was an authentic friendship rather than a professional engagement.

Less than a year afterwards, John announced that he would be releasing The Foregrow EP. I felt incapable of having his number in my phone and not using it. I unthinkingly sent him a text to see if he would talk to me about the new record. I waited a day and then he agreed: “Sure.”

This time things came more naturally. He knew that our last interview hadn’t come to anything more than a single quote. He seemed a bit confused. Why would this kid go through a whole two-hour interview for one lousy quote?

The Foregrow EP was rumored to be influenced by John Carpenter and footwork. Turns out that was just clickbait for music nerds. He quickly dispelled both of those claims, assuring me that when the EP was recorded in 2009, he had heard neither the horror director’s synth scores nor the Chicago dance style, although since then he had become interested in the latter. The incident hinted at how Frusciante loves to hide within his art, particularly under his new guise. “I’ve always been very careful about how I incorporate guitar into electronic music. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself as a guitarist in the way that I did when I was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I wanted to be inside the music, not standing outside of it to grab your attention.”

The EP came out on LA label Acid Test, run by Oliver Bristow. “He picked out the songs, not me,” said Frusciante. “The stuff on that Trickfinger album was recorded in 2007, despite the album saying that it was recorded in 2008 – that was a mistake. And by 2009, after I had already started working with Aaron Funk [Venetian Snares], I switched from recording directly from the machines into the mixer, then a CD burner, to recording on the computer on Renoise. Still using my machines, but Renoise became the recorder so I could do overdubs and stuff like in the second song, ‘Expre’act’, where the tempo is constantly shifting. That has been something I’ve been dying to do, because it’s something that Autechre has done wonderful things with, and Venetian Snares as well. That’s something you can’t do if you’re just syncing all your machines to each other without a master clock coming from the computer.”

It seemed that John had his talking points for the album prepared, and he was very to-the-point, which seemed odd. At the end of our interview he apologized for having drunk too much coffee. “What was also really exciting to me about having a computer was the fact that I could do what amounts to editing, where one section of music is totally unlike the next section of music,” he continued caffeinatedly. “I always liked it in progressive rock when a band like Yes would have a long piece of music with various sections that were clearly not done all in one pass. Where the entire atmosphere and environment is completely different and it’s like a different song. I was trying to do that same thing within a six or seven minute song.” There’s a lack of good prog-rock these days, he agreed, “and what parades as it is bullshit. I don’t consider it to be progressive rock, it’s all just heavy metal bullshit or whatever.”

Despite his tenure in one of the world’s biggest bands, he’s wary of rock star manoeuvres describing his recent music as “a bunch of weird anti-rock star guitar solos”. He continues, “Kurt Cobain’s improvisations are very impressive guitar solos because it’s more about his energy, his looseness, not trying to impress you with the flying fingers or whatever. Not adhering to things like staying in the right key – just play whatever note you want. That’s how it is in electronic music.” Frusciante’s anti-rock star ideal is a rejection of the highly technical guitar playing that dominated the airwaves in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “That’s why I’ve always been very careful about how I incorporate guitar into electronic music. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself as a guitarist in the way that I did when I was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I wanted to be inside the music, not standing outside of it to grab your attention.”

John Frusciante

“The best musicians often have to hide themselves in order to be appealing to people. That’s what David Bowie was a master at”

His unmistakeable voice has provided similar difficulties. When I showed my friends Frusciante’s electronic music, they’d hardly believe it was the dude from the Chili Peppers – until he began singing. His backing vocals were an integral component of the band’s pop success; it’s hard to remove yourself when the world has already heard so much of you.

In a recent post on his website, he wrote about a set of lyrical rules that began to coalesce for him in 1997 – a philosophy that would allow him to mask his individuality, as he explained. “I was living in the house of a woman who was a witch and an occultist, and she gave me a copy of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Lies. I was reading that and I also had the book that Ian Curtis’ wife’s wrote [with Joy Division lyrics in the back] and I saw a connection between the two of them, which was that the person was hidden, the personality was hidden, and they weren’t going to any great [lengths] to make the meaning of what they said clear. And yet you feel that they were revealing more of themselves than they would be if they were singing some romantic, sentimental ballad or something.”

The attention-grabbing aspect of his rock stardom still seemed to loom large as a perceived obstacle to Frusciante’s creativity. Of course, it always had. In the old interviews I’d watched so many times, he always rejected the “image as the thing,” the idea of the artist as an object, a cult of personality.

“You can’t possibly appeal to people and be sincere all the time. Oftentimes the best musicians have to hide themselves in order to be appealing to people. That’s what David Bowie was a master at. He was hiding all the time. He was always interviewed as a persona, and he was hidden as a person inside that persona. And I think that was the correct way to deal with a world in which it’s understood that if you want the backing of a record company, you have to sell yourself. If you’re gonna be fake and if you’re gonna be insincere, make it into an art form! And that’s what Bowie did. But not everybody has that talent.”

He’s fond of John Lennon’s 1971 Rolling Stone interview, the one where he disavowed Beatles mythology, shit-talked his ex-bandmates, and called his fans a bunch of bourgeois hypocrites. Frusciante may not have Lennon’s sarcastic and political edge, but he wants to address his fans similarly, to tell them their idol is a mirage. That’s what Frusciante meant when he said he “no longer makes music for an audience” – he wasn’t referring to individuals, but the audience more broadly, the monolithic social force that limits and defines popular art. He hoped to obliterate its influence.

The last question I asked him was about live performance – why was it no longer attractive to him? His last solo gig was in 2005, but selfishly, I held on to the hope of one day seeing him play.

“Music comes from the inside of the musician,” he responded, “and when you’re on tour, you’re so aware all the time of the impression you’re making on the people looking at you and listening to you. It gives you the feeling of being an object. And I think most musicians would be lying if they said that they didn’t, after touring for a long time, just think of an audience as a bunch of objects themselves. They objectify you, and you in turn objectify them. They respond the same way to the same things every night. They seem like machines at a certain point.”

It doesn’t surprise me that he is more comfortable making music with machines these days. People try desperately not to be automatons, yet when they are part of that crowd, that’s exactly what they become. The night after our second conversation, I closed my eyes with Shadows blasting in my headphones and heard a line that had never quite made sense before: “Omit myself as a favor to God. Suffer fate cause it’s the only lift you’ve got.” It struck me that, just as Ornette Coleman’s humility allowed him to become a visionary, Frusciante tries to keep his ego out of his art, in the hope of being a vessel for something greater.



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