John Frusciante Collaborates with Flea Johnny Mar and Josh Klinghoffer on The Empyrean

April 1, 2009

WHEN GP LAST SPOKE TO JOHN FRUSCIANTE back in 2006, the Red Hot Chili Peppers had recently completed their mega-successful Stadium Arcadium album and were preparing to embark on a world tour. With the tour complete, the guitarist shifted his focus to his solo career, releasing an ambitious new album that stands in high contrast to the intentional minimalism of his previous six solo records (all of which he recorded in only six months during 2004).

The Empyrean [Record Collection] is an aural tour de force featuring Frusciante’s longtime collaborator Josh Klinghoffer on drums and keyboards, with contributions from Peppers bassist Flea, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, the Sonus String Quartet, and gospel vocalists Donald Taylor and the New Dimension Singers. The album was recorded to a pair of 24-track analog recorders in Frusciante’s home studio, then mixed to tape oldschool- style—without automation—by Frusciante, Klinghoffer, and engineer Adam Samuels. In addition to the many instruments and voices used, Frusciante and Klinghoffer created elaborate “treatments” for most of the tracks, using tape-manipulation and an array of vintage hardware processors and modular synths. The result is a highly dynamic and musically adventurous recording that only reveals its myriad mysteries upon repeated listening.

But The Empyrean isn’t just about compelling songs and psychedelic sounds. The record showcases some of Frusciante’s finest guitar playing to date, including the majestically plaintive nine-minute-long solo on “Before the Beginning,” the Fripp-inspired fuzz solo on “Enough of Me,” and the Hendrix-y wah excursions on “Unreachable.” While not a total departure from Frusciante’s previous solo albums, The Empyrean is arguably his most fully realized work, at times approaching the fiery heights evoked by the title.

Did you have an underlying concept while making The Empyrean?

Yes, both in terms of the lyrics and the music. In the past, lyrics would just come to me while I was writing a song, and I viewed my role as mostly getting out of the way and giving form to some energy that already existed in whatever plane is connected to my imagination. I was also concerned as much with the sound of the words as with the words themselves, because if you sing something with conviction it conveys emotional meaning apart from any literal meaning the words may have. But in this case, I had something very specific that I wanted to convey lyrically, and I did revision after revision, so that every line meant something, at least to me, which was a new challenge. What the words will mean to other people will depend on where they are in their lives, and what their interests are, though meaning may also be conveyed directly to their unconscious whether they consciously understand the words or not.

Musically, I wanted the songs to be more keyboard based—using electric piano, organ, and synthesizers—and not have so much jangly rhythm guitar, because the sound of a rhythm guitar eats up the sounds of the other instruments. When you write songs on guitar, you tend to hear them that way, and I’ve made a lot of records where I just recorded the same guitar part I was playing when I wrote the song. On this album, I played rhythm guitar on the basic tracks to serve as a guide as to how the songs should feel while the other musicians were tracking their parts—but we very seldom used what I’d played in the final mixes. That way, the musicians’ interpretations and embellishments combined to create parts that sounded very magical when you took away the guitar— like the instruments were floating. Something’s holding the parts together, but you don’t know what it is. Sometimes people do that sort of thing with a click track, but we don’t use click tracks. It was just my human groove.

Another part of the concept was to create a lot of movement between sections of a song using tape edits. You jump from one atmosphere to another, so the verse sounds like it is taking place in one acoustical space, and the chorus sounds like it’s taking place in a completely different space, with completely different instruments playing. There would be new reverbs, echoes, treatments, vocal sounds, etc., for each section. That’s how they used to do it in the ’70s, but it’s been so long since people did it like that, I feel we did a fresh take.

How did you manage to make everything flow together so well with such abrupt edits?

I’ve found that if you leave one thing the same, the edit is believable, no matter how much everything else changes. For example, if the drums remain in the same place, it doesn’t matter if everything else in the mix changes to a different place—you still buy the edit, and the changes sound as if they just happened magically. We’d usually test the edits on a computer beforehand, to make sure that they were going to work, because if you start cutting up your tape and it doesn’t work, you end up with a mess all over the floor, and you don’t know what’s where.

What were Johnny Marr’s contributions to the album?

He played rhythm guitars on “Central” and “Enough of Me.” One of his parts on “Central” involved harmonics played in a cool way. I wish I could remember what he was doing because it was really awesome and I’d never seen anybody do anything like it before.

Did you play the long solo on “Before the Beginning” all the way through, or was it a comp of different takes?

It was a comp, probably of three takes. I had some melodies swimming around in my head, but I didn’t really know what I was going to do until we began recording. We had a lot of fun blending the parts to make the solo more fully express what I was feeling, and to create a sense of musical balance. I don’t like “fixing” things in a computer, but I do like the way that you can use creative mixing or sound treatments to continue to express yourself after you have played something. We recorded and mixed that song in two days.

The solo tones on that song are spectacular and seem to morph into and out of each other. How did you get those sounds, and what is going on in the mix?

I played my Stratocaster while standing in front of a Marshall, and I probably used a Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion and a Mosrite Fuzzrite, along with the guitar’s volume control, to get sounds from mildly distorted to blasting. I also used an Ibanez WH-10 wah to get feedback at different frequencies, and I may have added a tiny bit of Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb. Once the guitar tracks were recorded, I flipped the tape over and recorded five or six tracks of different kinds of echoes and reverbs throughout the length of the song, then flipped the tape back over so that those effects would play in reverse. After that, I listened back to find the bits I liked, and equalized them to make them fit together—sometimes using extreme EQ, like filtering out everything but the highest frequencies of the echo or reverb. While mixing, I cross-faded and combined the effects in various ways to emphasize the performance that was already there. For example, if a note already sounded like it was rising up, I’d do something to make it sound even more like it was rising.

What sorts of delay and reverb processors did you use?

We used an Echoplex and a Roland Space Echo for tape delay, but we also used a Delta Lab Effectron digital delay. For reverb, I have a huge EMT plate reverb—it’s about 12 feet long and nearly as tall as me—and an EMT 250 digital reverb. The EMT 250 was the first digital reverb ever made, back in 1976, and it is still my favorite digital reverb. I really like the old digital stuff combined with analog sounds and recordings.

What’s an example of how you used modular synthesizers to create treatments?

There are several harmony guitars playing mostly long notes that come in at the end of “Unreachable,” which I ran into a low-pass filter set to sample-and-hold mode and controlled with a keyboard. So, when I pressed the lowest note on the keyboard, you’d hear only the lowest frequencies coming through the filter, and when I pressed the highest key, it would be the same as having the filter knob turned all the way up and the filter totally open—and pressing any of the keys in between would give you something within that range. I more or less played a drumbeat on the keyboard, but instead of notes coming out, the cutoff frequency on the filter changed, and that changed the sound of the guitars. I also did the same thing using a high-pass filter, and I recorded multiple takes of each type, and combined them during the mix. When you are filtering harmony guitars, you’re taking certain notes out of the equation, depending on where the cutoff frequency is set. So, by doing several takes of it, I was hearing all of the notes that I wanted to hear at various times, which gave the part some variety.

There’s a great backwards-sounding wah solo on “Unreachable.” Is that another example of reversed reverb?

Yes. The guitar solo isn’t reversed, only the reverb sound. We recorded several types of reverb—a thick one, a long one, etc.—to use at different times. The reverb tracks sound pretty much like reversed guitar, and sometimes you hear more of them than the straight guitar track. For example, at the beginning, when I’m doing the Hendrix-like trills with two notes, hammering on and pulling off really quickly, at first the guitar sounds as if it is playing forward, and then, halfway through, all of a sudden it sounds reversed.

How did you get the supersaturated solo tone on “Enough of Me”?

I played my Strat through an Electro-Harmonix English Muff’n fuzz and a Fender Bassman. I started with the deadest sound a Strat can make by using the middle pickup and turning the guitar’s tone control all the way down, which works well with that particular pedal. The English Muff’n creates a really rich distortion sound when you boost the lows and mids, and it’s definitely my favorite pedal for getting that sort of sound. That solo involves displaced octaves and huge jumps from string to string, which is something that I’ve become more interested in. You almost have to speed up your brain and divide it so that you can think in two directions at once.

Speaking of thinking in two directions at once, describe the warm-up exercise you do before performing.

I play scales, but with the accents totally disconnected from the time signature and arrangement of the notes. For example, I might play groups of five notes, but accent every seventh note, so my right hand is thinking one way and my left hand is thinking another. I’ll choose a scale, such as harmonic minor, and run through it playing just the first five notes, then go back to the second note of the scale and play the next five notes, then go back to the third, etc. I’ll run through that scale from low to high, and then from high to low, and once my left hand knows what to do, I’ll take my mind off my left hand, and focus on playing the accents on every sixth or seventh beat. Determining where you are going to place your accents by conscious choice—rather than just playing them in predictable ways based on how the notes are grouped—frees you up and allows you to play more expressively.

When changing up the accents, do you tap your foot to keep track of the underlying pulse?

No. Tapping my foot would be an additional thing to concentrate on [laughs]. The main benefit from the exercise is to gain more control over how loudly or softly you play a particular note, which is a huge part of phrasing. What people call soul, or the right feeling of a piece, is a lot about what kind of muscular force is being applied to the instrument with your right hand, combined with how you are moving the string in terms of pressure and vibrato with the left hand. When learning, say, a Hendrix solo, first you learn the notes, then you practice it enough to be able to play it without forgetting anything, then you start listening to exactly how the notes are being played, which is an entirely different thing. There are people who call some of the things that Hendrix and Page played “sloppy,” but they were actually putting a lot more variation into the sound from one note to another, whether that was because there was some noise in there, or two notes were being combined for a moment, or a non-intentional harmonic was being played. To me, that is much more exciting than hearing someone playing fast, with all the notes sounding alike—something which is only impressive to other guitar players.

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