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John Frusciante Shifts From Avant-Pop to Hip-Hop

August 14, 2014
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John Frusciante couldn’t care less about fame—much less the attention, ego gratification, and other less-substantial rewards that typically accompany it. Even while a member of one of the most successful rock bands in history, he mostly avoided the trappings of celebrity, instead spending up to ten hours a day playing the guitar or otherwise working on music, in service to his muse. And since parting ways with the Red Hot Chili Peppers six years ago, he has not only largely reinvented his approach to guitar playing, but also mastered the art of sample manipulation and digital editing, and delved deeper into the world of modular synthesis, culminating in the establishment of a mostly one-man, composer-centric musical universe.

“It seemed to me that AFX, Venetian Snares, and other people who were adventurous with electronics had created a new musical vocabulary, a new way of conceiving music,” says Frusciante. “They could make music without conventional theory or any of the technical prerequisites that we used to think were necessary, using nothing but sound. I spent five years learning that language—about the same time it took me to learn how to play guitar—because I felt that it could have many applications besides the way it was already being used.”

Those applications are evidenced on Frusciante’s three most recent solo releases, PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone (2012), Outsides (2013), and 2014’s Enclosure—all released on the Record Collection label. The music on these diverse discs ranges from adventurous but relatively accessible avant-pop songs to a sort of progressive electonica to largely atonal sonic constructions inspired by experimental jazz and 20th Century classical music. Amidst this cornucopia of aural delights there’s lots of inspired guitar playing, not least of all the ten-minute guitar solo on “Same” [from Outsides], which brilliantly crisscrosses continual chord modulations.

Frusciante has also recorded three hip-hop albums with rappers Rugged Monk and Crisis, a.k.a. Black Knights, the first of which, Medieval Chamber [Record Collection] was released earlier this year. Besides producing the albums, Frusciante wrote and recorded all the music, drawing on the same skills displayed on his solo recordings. “As long as the beat is hard and something that rappers will respond to creatively, the music can be literally any style you want,” he enthuses. “I’ve felt freer doing this album than I have doing anything else.”

Why did you decide to leave the Chili Peppers at a time that the band was massively successful?

At the time we started our last tour, I thought that I would probably be happy to do it for another few years, but no longer. I had no interest in being a rock star for the rest of my life. But during the tour, mostly as a result of listening to people like Autechre, Venetian Snares, and AFX, I gradually realized that I wanted to be able to translate my ideas directly from my imagination into complete musical works, without filtering them through an engineer or other musicians. The technology is there to liberate artists that already have a complete vision, and I’ve always been one of those people. I can trust my own creative instincts, and what I hear in my head.

When you are in a band, everybody thinks they know the best way to do things, and you can encounter opposition when you are trying to realize your creative ideas. And when you are in a popular band, it is particularly difficult to go beyond the parameters that you’ve established, and what it is that people like about you. You don’t even know you’re doing it. You think you’re being really different from one record to the next, but then you realize, well, not really, because you’re tightly constrained within what the concept of the band is.

For example, I was in Japan for one of our last shows and I was practicing in my room, playing along with all these acid house songs. I was trying to play guitar in the way that people programmed the Roland TB-303, and I realized, “Wow, this is a lot like Robert Fripp’s style of jumping octaves and wide intervals.” After a while I started getting a feel for it, so when I went to sound check I played that way while jamming with Flea and the drum roadie, and it was awesome. But then I got onstage with the band and started playing that way, and spiritually it just could not happen. When you are in front of 15,000 people, and have that reciprocal connection with the audience, if they’re familiar with you playing like, say, Jimi Hendrix, and you don’t play like that, it isn’t going to work. Like, Eddie Van Halen is always going to go onstage and be Eddie Van Halen—he can’t be anybody else, even if he really wanted to be. It’s almost like your creativity is restricted within those expectations, and I didn’t want to live the rest of my life with my creativity restricted. I wanted to explore new things.

Was there a specific experience that led to your getting more deeply involved in electronic music?

I had a dream in which I was sitting in my house listening to a 20-minute-long piece of music that I’d made out of nothing but samples. It was one band followed by another, with sort of segueing elements between them. There was a Beatles section, a Pink Floyd section, a Talking Heads section, etc. So, I listened to the whole thing in my dream and the last thing I thought before waking was, “Once you’ve done this, you’ll be able to do anything.”

Throughout the next year I worked on recreating that piece, little by little. It was intimidating at first, but by the time I had completed the entire 20 minutes, about eight months later, I had come to feel that sitting down with a bunch of samples was the same thing as sitting down with my guitar. You can stream the piece online. It’s called “Sect In Sgt,” released under the name TrickFinger [see More Online].

Briefly describe the ways in which you use technology to realize the music that you are hearing in your head.

Renoise is my main DAW, and I also use some drum machines, sequencers, and other hardware, along with my Doepfer, Arp, and other modular synthesizers. A lot of the pieces on PBX and Enclosure began as guitar ideas, and I developed them from there—but some began with me just sitting in the studio with a computer and various devices. In those cases, there are all sorts of ways that I might get started, and they may not involve composition in the usual sense at all. For example, I might begin by finding two things that can be placed in opposition, like two samples that really don’t have anything to do with each other, and then I’ll try to find some common ground between them, some way of sitting them together. When working with Renoise, I tend to think in terms of the sonic spaces that I’m portraying, and that has as much to do with the intervals between one sound and another, or one rhythmic location and another, as it does the actual sounds. And instead of being so concerned about having a performance be in time, like a guitarist or other instrumentalist might, I’ve become more interested in finding interesting ways for things to be off time, because that’s really where the music is.

Elaborate on that.

Once I started thinking this way, I went back and studied the old music by bands like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles from a different angle, and I was able to see that they weren’t concerned about playing off time. They could play in time easily, but the object was more to find grooves, and grooves involve the instruments being slightly off time with one another. I can hear this with my ears now, but if I load a sample of their music into Renoise I can also see it visually. For example, on “The Song Remains the Same,” you can hear that the guitar is really pushing, and the bass and drums are more relaxed. It’s that contrast that creates the tension that makes the music so exciting. And there’s also an order that the musicians play in, based on who is listening to whom. For instance, in Black Sabbath the bass is generally first, the drums are generally second, and the guitar is generally third. They may all play a note at the same time, but it isn’t actually at the same time—and that is the sound of the band. Every group has a distinct sound because of this order, though they aren’t necessarily conscious of it, and, of course, there are exceptions when the order will change momentarily.

I found that grooves are comprised of this and traditional music theory gave me no means of examining this part of music. Growing up, learning from records and CDs, I think I was aware of it on a subconscious level, and I did notice that when I was in a band that I would try to switch what I felt was our general order of groove, but you have no words for this when you’re a musician. It’s just a sense of things that you have when you are in a band that has that chemistry. I’ve never looked at a sample of the Chili Peppers, but my guess is that Flea’s first and Chad’s second and I’m third. I remember trying to be first, but I just couldn’t do it. That’s not how the other guys were listening, and you’re just kind of stuck with how you are.

How does composing for Black Knights differ from composing your other music?

The primary difference, at least for my last few records, is that when working on my own music generally the ideas start as traditional musical ideas, whereas with Black Knights everything starts with samples.

“Never Let Go” was an early Black Knights single release. What are a few of the techniques you used to create that piece?

That was the third piece we ever did together, when we were just getting started, and it is a really simple one. It’s basically the drum break from “When the Levee Breaks,” a Synton Fenix synthesizer, the guys’ voices, and the full chorus from Anne Murray’s cover of “Danny’s Song.” The first step was probably to run the Anne Murray part out to an analog equalizer and an analog compressor to remove as much of the drums and bass as possible, and bring out her vocals. Then, I calculated the general tempo of the vocal part and manipulated the drum sample so that it was in the same general vicinity time-wise, before putting it through the EQ to fatten up the snare and tighten up the kick. I was also able to emphasize the unconventional drum miking they used and add more of the room sound by boosting the room’s resonant frequency, which brought out that little swirly thing that’s going on with the staircase that they recorded the drums through. Without going into a lot of detail, the next step was to chop up the two parts and work with them in various ways to get them to flow together and groove correctly, which wasn’t easy, not least of all because of the way the drums were recorded. On most drum recordings, the loudest point is right at the beginning of the drum hit, but in that case the loudest point is fairly far into it because he’s far away from the microphones and they have the room sounds really loud. So, it starts soft and gets louder, swelling into the loudest part for each drum hit. Then, I repeated the process so that I had three distinct versions of the chorus, added the synth bass line, and added the voices and processed them in a lot of different ways using the synth modules, the room, and other stuff. There’s much more to it, but that’s a quick overview of the process.

How did you use the room to process the voices?

I have a room in my studio that was professionally built to be great for recording guitar amps, but it ended up being a place where I have two big speakers and a tile wall, a curved wooden wall, and a linoleum floor. I can press a couple of buttons and any sound that’s in my computer will be blasting through the speakers, where it will be picked up by microphones placed in various positions in the room, and the sounds fed back into my Neve 8088 console. It’s kind of like an acoustic echo chamber, but more elaborate, and I use subtractive EQ and other techniques to further control the sound. On “Never Let Go,” I think I sent Monk’s voice into the room backwards, recorded it, and then reversed that recording and placed it slightly ahead of his main vocal track, so there are certain portions of the rap where it sounds like the room is swelling into his voice. The year that I recorded Outsides, Enclosure, and the first Black Knights album was my first year of working with the room a lot, and it gradually became just another instrument for me. I’m just focusing my engineering skills on the creative act. We tend to think of professional engineers as these people hired by the record label. The artist gets to boss them around and they’re not actually generating creative ideas, they’re just responding to other people’s wishes.

You’re adopting the Les Paul model.

Exactly. For Les Paul, engineering and electronics and playing guitar were all one thing. I think that’s a wonderful model. And you can see that no one followed in his footsteps. He was doing that stuff in 1948, but who was doing it even a decade later?

Joe Meek, who greatly admired Les Paul, is the only person I can think of.

Yeah, Joe Meek was kind of like that.

Returning to guitar playing, describe a little more fully how you adapted the synthprogramming concept to your approach.

The first time I used the technique on a recording was for the solo on “Enough of Me.” At that point I wasn’t hearing what the notes were going to sound like, I was just seeing the positions of the scales and hoping that it sounded good, and comping the solo together afterwards to give it a more cohesive flow. But as I worked on it I began to develop my ear so that if I played a note on the A string at the 5th fret, followed by a note on the high-E string at the 7th fret, I could hear the interval in my mind before I played it. Another result of this is that the tone of high and low notes that are far apart is so different that if you’re alternating high note-low note-high note-low note, what it ends up sounding like to the ear is two separate melodies coexisting. By the time I got to PBX, I had pretty much fully developed the technique.

When evolving your guitar playing, how do you find the right balance between honoring your roots and tradition, and playing new things in new ways?

Everything I do has its roots in other things that have been done before, and one thing that I do specifically is to look at musical styles from the past to see where certain trends, certain evolutions, just ended because they were no longer fashionable. I then try to pick up where those lines left off—whether the foundation was some aspect of synthpop or progressive rock or jazz or whatever. I try to use that as a basic starting point and continue the same thought process.

At the same time, I’m continually trying to break down my habits and conditioning, both as a composer and a guitarist. One of the most important things about getting into electronic music was rearranging the hierarchy of musical elements so that the drums were at the top instead of melody. I was born with a really strong sense of melody, and melody has been primary in most music nearly forever— but in forms like hip-hop, house, and techno you don’t even need melody to create music. So, even when I would start a piece with just drums, I would hear melodies in my head, and I had to use them. For the first two or three years of making electronic music it was difficult for me to force my sense of melody into that compositional framework. It wasn’t until I did the last ten minutes of “Sect In Sgt” that I felt like I could make a complete-sounding piece of music without needing melody.

And it’s the same with my guitar playing. There were the theoretical and physical parts of learning to play, but I knew that once I had those things under my control it was my natural sense of melody that was going to be coming through. We all have our own way of bending notes, and our own vibrato, etc., and we can get very comfortable with those things. But I wanted to break down my habits and conditioning as a fun exercise. A lot of musicians tend to rely on their conditioning, especially if they want to fit in with what’s popular or cool—but I had no reason to do that.

Switching from a Strat to a Yamaha SG while recording PBX was part of that process. You can’t bend strings in the same way on the SG, or use the same sort of vibrato, or use some of your other go-to moves. I’ve always liked creating difficulties and surmounting them, and playing the SG is definitely more difficult than playing a Strat.

Challenges aside, there must be something that you really like about Yamaha SGs for them to have become your primary guitars on the albums.

I do like them, and I have six or seven. Besides forcing me to play differently, though, they also gave me a lot of insight into how many other guitarists play. One thing I have done constantly throughout my life is to play along with CDs, or LPs, or whatever I have. I think that’s the best form of musical education, because you aren’t just studying written notes on a page—you’re studying the subtleties of interpretation and expression, and the actual sounds. We take living in the recording age for granted, but it provides amazing opportunities. You see that in artists like Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. I remember when I was a kid thinking, “Jimi Hendrix doesn’t even know how to read music, and he plays guitar like that!” Or for Paul McCartney to have as much mastery over harmony as he did, without knowing about intervals. He got that from imitating records.

With the Yamaha SG, I could play along with guitar players who were playing, say, Les Pauls, and feel like the sound matched what I was hearing on the record. For example, if you learn Robert Fripp’s solos on a Strat, the sound and feel just don’t match, and things like vibrato and bends are completely different. You know that you would have never played those things on a Strat. The tones don’t match, whereas if you play a Strat along with Adrian Belew or Jimi Hendrix they do. So, there were all these guitarists whose playing had been a little mysterious to me, and I suddenly found it easier to incorporate aspects of their styles into my style through imitation. People like Robert Fripp, Mick Ronson, Tony Iommi, and particularly John McGeoch from Siouxsie and the Banshees, who played a Yamaha SG, which is why I bought one in the first place. It was an approach to the guitar that I’d been blind to my whole life because I had always played Strat-type instruments.

Do you think it has as much to do with the scale length and just the feel of the neck as it does the pickups and the sound?

When I play along with CDs, I don’t ever plug my guitar in. I’m only talking about the acoustical properties of the guitar itself. The SG is made from very thick, heavy wood. One reason having the right type of guitar is so important is that when I learn how to play something, I get every single note, and I make sure that my hands are moving exactly like that player’s hands moved. For example, when I woke up the other morning, Jeff Beck’s “Star Cycle” was in my head. I had learned the solo before at some point, so I memorized it quickly—but I probably played along with the song 30 more times throughout the day and night, and by the end of the night I was positive that I was moving my hands exactly like he had moved his. I’m always on the right fret, and the right string, and every vibrato is at exactly the same speed as his, every bend is exactly the same, etc. I can do that because there’s some similarity between the guitar that I was playing—a Performance guitar—and the guitar he played.

When learning things by listening to recordings, you are actually traveling back in time to the exact moment that the part was played, and you get to reflect on that moment. You get to be a mirror to their experience of that moment. And you also get to analyze the relationship between the notes that they chose and the notes played by the other instruments, which provides insight into their thought processes, because harmonic context can explain a lot. Those sorts of things are endlessly fascinating for me.

But it takes a lot of time to learn in that way.

I’ve been doing it consistently for 30 years. In fact, the only time in my life that I’ve spent more time actually making music rather than playing along with recordings was during the past five years—and even then I spent nearly half my time doing it. Usually when people are rock stars they’re not spending ten hours a day learning stuff off CDs, but that’s how I lived while I was on tour with the Chili Peppers, and that’s how I lived when we were writing for records. It was the main thing I spent my time doing. As far as staying rooted in tradition, that’s where my inspiration comes from. I can’t go from just watching TV to making music. I have to sit down and play along with Vol. 4 or something and then I feel like, “Okay, I’m in the zone now.” But what have I done when I’ve done that? I’ve gone back in time. I’ve aligned my spirit and my mind with Black Sabbath’s.

Does the music that you play along with influence the music that you are composing at the time?

I don’t normally make music in response to the music I’m listening to. It really works the other way around. I listen to particular music because it’s along the lines of what I’m already doing. For example, these days, professional engineers tend to want each and every sound to be recorded with lots of high frequencies, so you get a bright overall sound. But if you listen to old recordings by bands like the Velvet Underground or Black Sabbath, the sounds are often very muted, which I find pleasant. And it was the same with a lot of early electronic music, though that was usually just because they were at a primitive stage, and the recordings got brighter as the artists became better engineers with better gear. But I really like that muted sound, so when I was working on PBX and the first Black Knights album, I made a point of listening to a lot of records that had that warm sound.

There are lots of fantastic guitar sounds on your recent records, including some great distortion tones. Did you get those with an amp, multiple amps, or pedals?

That’s another thing that’s different about playing the Yamaha SG. With a Strat, I couldn’t get distortion just going straight into my Marshall Jubilee, but with the SG I can, so I don’t think I used any pedals for distortion on those recordings. One of the things I did do a lot was to process the guitar sounds using my modular synths. Something in particular that I do is use the Roland TR-606 drum machine, which is synched to the computer, to send rhythmic pulses to the various synth modules so that they transform sounds in time with the music. I’ll typically record these parts one bar at a time, so that specific effects are in perfect alignment with a guitar part, or even a particular note. There are all these options. In the end, it sounds as if the module is being triggered by the guitarist’s mind in real time.

There’s a great reversed guitar solo on “Fanfare,” but it isn’t just reversed, there are some other things going on, too.

As I recall, I listened to the music backwards while playing the solo, then flipped the solo track. To get it to play exactly in time with the music I set the recorder to begin recording automatically at the beginning of a bar, and then stopped it exactly where the last bar ended. Then, I probably reversed that recording and played the forward version into the room, which added extra backwardness because the room sound on that track comes up backwards before the original backwards guitar sound on the other track. I probably also sent the original backwards sound into the room to get the room sound to come in after the guitar notes, as well.

Was the Yamaha SG the only guitar you played on the last few records, or were there others?

I played a white Roland G-303 guitar along with a GR-300 synth on some pieces. For example, on “Cinch” I combined it with the SG parts on the arpeggio thing toward the beginning when the drums speed up, and I edited it back and forth with a Carvin nylon-string acoustic throughout the solo on “Breathiac,” so they appear to be continuations of the same train of thought. I also have a Roland GR-500 synth, and I played it on “Scratch,” but then I mostly switched back to the GR-300 when I got into an ’80s King Crimson phase. The solo on “Shelf” was played on an Ibanez Artist, and the solo on “Same” was played on a Carvin Allan Holdsworth model.

I also have a Performance guitar, made by a guy named Kunio Sugai in North Hollywood. I played it on a ten-minute solo on a song called “Wayne” that I recorded a few months ago when a friend of mine died. It’s kind of like a Strat, and has a great whammy bar system that stays in tune really well. After three years of mostly playing the SG, I’ve found myself playing that guitar more and more.

What is creativity?

Creativity is everywhere, all the time. It’s the nature of who we are. As for artistic creativity, I think a lot of people put it on a pedestal, and imagine it is something they can’t quite grasp—but it’s the most natural thing in the world. Of course, there are lots of ways that you can work against it, and that aren’t helpful, like if you look at your art as something that you want to get something back from the world for. Then you’re not in creativity mode anymore—you’re in attention-receiving mode or something like that. Having been in this business for a long time, I’ve noticed that typically guitar players will practice a lot and search a lot before they become famous, and then when they become famous they will stop searching and just freeze. They’ll say, “Okay, this is what everybody likes me for, so this is what I’ll be.” To me, that’s when the relationship to creativity ends.

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