If you were to imagine Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to be a passionate, intense, high-energy dynamo of a person, you’d be right—to a point. Of course, as anyone who has seen him on stage can attest, the man plays with the passion of a punk-funk zealot, head-banging and carrying on, jumping around like his wingless namesake. But sit and talk with Flea—born Michael Balzary in Melbourne, Australia, in 1962—and that boiling-over boisterousness settles into a simmer, the wild-eyed look softening to a gentle, thoughtful gaze.
It’s been 27 years since the Red Hot Chili Peppers brought their fusion of punk and funk to the fore with their self-titled debut [EMI, 1984], so it would be fair to wonder if Flea has lost any of the edge that characterized such trademark RHCP albums as 1985’s Freaky Styley and 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. He hasn’t. One could also ask if the band’s steady flow of guitarists—Hillel Slovak, John Frusciante, Dave Navarro, Josh Klinghoffer—has spoiled the surf for the SoCal crew. It hasn’t. I’m With You, the band’s first album since 2005’s double-disc Stadium Arcadium and the debut of guitarist Klinghoffer, has all the heat and flavor of classic Chili Peppers.
During a hiatus following the tour for Stadium Arcadium, Flea took the chance to hit the books, studying jazz and classical theory—especially the piano works of Bach—at the University of Southern California. He has emerged with a deeper understanding of harmony and songcraft, a reinvigorated sense of curiosity and wonder, and a host of fresh musical ideas. On the eve of releasing I’m With You, Flea sat for a spell to chat with BP.
How much has the addition of Josh Klinghoffer on guitar changed the Chili Peppers band dynamic?
A lot! John [Frusciante] and I had established such a language together—if I started playing bass with John, we’d make awesome grooves that we didn’t need to talk about or think about. With Josh, we’d start playing something and I’d be like, ‘Okay, when is he going to do that magic thing where we create the cosmic perfect groove?” and he just wouldn’t do it. But then I realized that I was sitting there waiting for something because it’s what I was used to, and that I need to let Josh be Josh. As soon as I let it be what it was naturally supposed to be, it ended up being great—something beautiful and completely different. Josh has such a unique feeling for how chords fit together. His sense of harmony, melody, and chord progressions is rooted in tradition, but very unique. So reacting to what he’s doing changed what we all did.
What does he bring out in your playing?
When he’s playing texturally, I want to go the opposite way and play really hard and angular. Plus, the chord structures he puts together are so unique they make me think differently in terms of melody, composition, and improvisation.
Did you set out any personal goals in preparing to make this record?
I just wanted to make good music. I wanted to get deep in touch with the whole creative process and nurture my relationship with the divine source of music. In terms of making the record, I started writing on the piano a lot, which I had never done before. I went to school for a year and analyzed Bach chorales, learning how chords move and where the push/pull and tension/release come from. I sat at the piano doing my homework for school, and I started writing songs on the piano. All that stuff really changed my bass playing. It gave me insight into different ways to move through chords—vertically, horizontally, melodically, supportively, and by pedaling underneath moving chords. I always did that stuff by intuition, but having a better understanding gave me a clearer picture of what I can do as a bass player, and how I can apply my particular aesthetic.
Working on piano changed everything in terms of my writing style, allowing me to bring ideas to the band and say, “These are chords, this is the rhythm.” Then the band would take the idea and start playing it, and I’d start playing it on bass—something I hadn’t yet done at that stage in the writing process. It used to be that everything would start with guitar or bass. Reinterpreting a song that was written on piano was a completely new element of our creative process.
You play piano on “Happiness Loves Company.” How did that song come together?
On that one, I could play piano because Josh played bass on a Fender Bass VI. For us, it’s all about tracking live together and finding that magic feel, that intangible quality you get when playing with other people—which oddly enough, is kind of becoming a lost art. People aren’t doing it anymore, not in youth culture music. Everybody’s piecing shit together. That’s a perfectly fine way of doing things, but it’s aiming for something different—for sonic perfection. We’d much rather have something with mistakes if it means the overall feel is good.
You mentioned studying. Where did you go to school, and what did you get out of it?
I took theory, composition and jazz trumpet at the University of Southern California. The main thing I got out of that experience was my theory class, and the big thing was Bach, who blew my mind in a way that Hendrix did to me when I was a kid, or Charlie Parker. I always appreciated classical music, but not to the point where I really delved into it. I took classes with a theory professor, Professor Neal Desby, and I also studied with him privately. I was really getting into Bach. The shit that guy did is the pinnacle of human experience, of human intellect and of what people can do. It’s something to aspire to. It’s just amazing.
I spent a lot of time just looking at music—looking at a Bach piece, going through it and analyzing exactly what’s going on and what the chords are doing. That was really fun, and I look forward to doing more of that. I only scraped the surface, but I feel like I’m coming much more into my own as a musician, as an artist, and it is really inspiring. And I just loved being in that environment with people learning and teachers knowing their shit so well.
What else have you done to broaden your understanding of music?
In the last couple of years I’ve gone to Ethiopia and Nigeria to study music—not academic study, but just going out to see music every night, jamming with as many Ethiopians and Nigerians as I could.
What’s the root of the song “Ethiopia?”
I was in Ethiopia and I woke up one morning, picked up my bass, and started playing that. It’s not an Ethiopian groove, but it was influenced by everything that was going on. I’d go out to a club to see bands play, and I’d be sitting there trying to figure out what they were doing. Meanwhile, all the Ethiopians were out dancing, having a great time and just totally feeling it.
In this new batch of music, what are you most looking forward to playing live?
I like it all. The thing that’s most exciting for me about the new album is that it’s really dynamic. Plus, the songs are all great launching pads—live, we’ll stretch them into jams for us to improvise around.
“Monarchy of Roses” has a cool, Bernard Edwards/Chic-type feel. What was the story behind that bass line?
When Josh joined, he and I jammed a couple times in my basement, and we played a part that was psychedelic and hard rock and then broke into a festive, disco-type section. He and I had talked about how cool it would be to see someone play Sabbath-y type music and then break into a full-on Michael Jackson, disco groove. For me, those two feelings really belong together; I see head-banging and disco-rocking as one and the same.
Speaking of Michael Jackson, I get a Sly Stone meets “Smooth Criminal” vibe on “Look Around.” What’s the story there?
That came from a jam. Sometimes we’ll just jam for a couple hours, then go back later, listen to tapes, and pick out good parts. The bridge came to me when I was sitting on my porch playing bass and waiting for someone to come over and go surfing.
Do you record every jam?
We haven’t always, but we did mostly for this album. Sometimes I don’t like recording the jams because I feel like it makes us self-conscious. The best part about jamming is doing it as if it isn’t necessarily a means to an end.
Did you play the trumpet parts on the album?
No, that’s Mike Bulger, who teaches at the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. I quit playing trumpet about a year and a half ago. When we started writing this record, I decided I was starting to really like writing songs on piano, and staying on top of my bass playing while being a dad and whatnot, I just couldn’t pull in a third instrument that I’d need to practice every day. So I decided to set it down.
In the past few years, you’ve played live with Thom Yorke and Atoms For Peace. How did that come about?
I’ve known Thom for years, and he wanted to get something together mostly to play his record The Eraser, which is mostly electronic. He wanted to incorporate that into a live band context, which is really great because the way that music was recorded—with loops and computers and electronics—the grooves and the feels are not natural, human grooves. When you’re just being cerebral and using a machine, you’re more likely to create rhythms you wouldn’t normally play, especially the ones that we grew up with in Western culture. So it was a challenge to play, but it was exciting to get into it. It opened up something in me rhythmically and harmonically.
More than that, it was just great to play with a phenomenal musician like Thom Yorke. He is a brilliant, amazing musician. It’s inspiring to be around people whose bodies vibrate music in such an awesome way. [Percussionist] Mauro Refosco, [drummer] Joey Waronker, and [keyboardist] Nigel Godrich are great musicians, too. Mauro plays on the Chili record a lot, too.
If you were trying to recreate electronic music, was there much freedom in your interpretation of the bass lines?
Totally. Tom wanted me to be me. He wanted to get a deep groove where I make it happen, and it worked out really well like that. I loved that experience and look forward to doing it more in the future.
Besides Atoms for Peace, what other things have you been doing?
I’ve been doing a project with [songwriter /producer] Damon Albarn and [drummer] Tony Allen. It’s really fun. Tony Allen is the best drummer on the planet.
Do you choose different basses for different settings? How do you go about making your gear choices?
I’m pretty free-flowing with that stuff. I get the best out of whatever’s around. I actually just found a bass amp that I love—the new Acoustic 360 head and 361 cabinet.
What basses did you use for this record?
Old Fenders. I used my ’61 Jazz and I used another ’61 Jazz that my friend Damien Hirst put butterflies all over. One day he asked me, “What’s the best bass ever made?” I said, “Well, the ’61 Fender Jazz Bass.” I thought it was a strange question, but then a year later he presented me with that bass.
You also have a Höfner 500/1. How often do you play that?
Not as much as I would like. I actually started playing the Höfner in Atoms For Peace. The song “Atoms For Peace” has a loop-y synth bass sound that goes real high. I went for that sound with the Höfner.
What other basses are you playing?
The Modulus basses are great, and the guys there have been so nice to me. For the last ten years that’s all I played on tour.
I started to make my own basses, the Flea Bass. But the business side of things was so frustrating that I just couldn’t continue. It was so hard for me to do what I wanted to really do—to make a quality, affordable bass for kids. I love the idea of it, and I really wanted to try to give something great to bass players, but I didn’t enjoy the business in any way at any time.
What’s new at your music school, the Silverlake Conservatory of Music?
We have 700 students and we’re just continuing to teach music. There, it’s not about becoming a famous rock star. It’s all about studying music and technique on a particular instrument. We teach all the orchestral and band instruments, and we have private classes and ensemble classes. The school is doing great, but the hard part is trying to raise the money to keep it going.
What are some of the core values you try to instill?
I think the biggest one is to understand what an incredible, magic experience it is to play an instrument, and how much it gives. It’s such a great metaphor for life—the more discipline and care you’re willing to put into it, the more you get out of it. Not only do you get so much out of it because you feel yourself growing as a musician and you’re starting to resonate with this thing, but you’re also capable of giving a gift to people through it. It’s just great in every way.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers album Blood Sugar Sex Magik is 20 years old this year. When you think of the player you were when you recorded that album, what goes through your mind?
It was a really exciting time. All of us, but John [Frusciante] and I in particular, were connecting in a way that was really beautiful. We lived together and were jamming all the time. We were coming up with grooves and ideas, hanging out, and having a good time. John was starting to grow as a songwriter, Anthony was starting to reach out as a melodic singer a lot more, and Chad began to feel comfortable in the band. We always had this live energy, but for the first time, we managed to not only get that energy in the studio but also to shape it into the craft of songwriting, which became a lot stronger. It was a very magical time for us and I’m grateful for that.
You started playing upright bass a few years ago. How’s that going?
I had been playing upright a lot before we made By The Way, but I haven’t really been playing it lately. I pick it up sometimes, but to be good you need to play it all the time. But lately I’ve been working on my jazz bass playing— walking bass lines and changes—on electric bass. I got The Evolving Bassist by Rufus Reid, and I just love that book. I’ve never really played out of books as a bass player, but I feel it’s a big frontier for me to be able to sit in with bebop dudes and rock that shit.
Have you ever thought about doing taking bass lessons?
I’ve come close, but I haven’t. I would love to. I feel so feeble as a bass player compared to the really great guys. I’m going deep into Chili Pepper world right now, but I really want to keep working on jazz, and hopefully by the time this Chili Pepper tour ends, I’ll be ready to play some serious jazz.
The one thing I always feel good about myself as a musician is that I have my own unique way of feeling music. Everybody does, but I feel like the one thing that really helped me was learning how to embrace mine. Maybe it was good that I never had any academic instruction in the beginning, because I just went with what I felt. Now I just want to learn the rules, and the only reason I want them is so I can break them. If you’re not breaking free of something, you’re not really free. It’s exciting.
It’s a delicate balance to have that knowledge base and still be able to emote musically.
Studying can only do you good. Everyone who is great studied in one way or another whether they just studied from records, but they studied.
What’s something you’re listening to these days?
Lately I’ve really been into J Dilla, a hip-hop producer who died when he was pretty young. His way of putting together samples, his synth playing, and his sense of melody, rhythmic movement, and counterpoint were phenomenal. His music touches me deeply, particularly the Ruff Draft EP and Shining and Jay Stay Paid. I still listen to a lot of Bach, Beethoven chamber music, Billy Holiday, and a lot of jazz, especially trumpet players like Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Louie Armstrong, of course. And all the Charlie Parker records. I’m really into this Aphex Twin series called Analord.
Of course, my favorite electric bass player is Squarepusher. I love listening to him. He hasn’t been breaking out the virtuoso bass playing lately. He’s been going into a more songcraft direction, but there are some wicked solos on Shobaleader One: d'Demonstrator, the record he put out last year. He also put out a record [Solo Electric Bass, Vol. 1] that’s live in Paris and it’s just him on 6-string bass for like an hour, no machines, no nothing. It’s deep. My favorite Squarepusher record is Ultravisitor, though. He’s so good and so unique.
You mentioned listening to Chili Pepper stuff. Are you very critical of your own playing?
No. I always think we can get better, but I figure what we did is what we did. During the writing process, we write the best songs we can, being the type of band that we are, then we to track and do overdubs, trying to be thoughtful and nurturing each step of the way. [When it’s done], I listen to what we did and make sure that it feels right, double-checking the mastering.
You have some cool filter and fuzz effects on the album. What effects are you using?
The fuzz is the Malekko B:Assmaster. It’s the best fuzz pedal I’ve ever had for bass. Everyone likes being the B:Assmaster! [Laughs.] I can’t remember the name of the envelope filter. I used a Moogerfooger Phase Shifter, too.
Is there anything you can think about anything that you feel like rapping about?
Just as a musician, I love playing music. The more that I learn about it, the more fun it is and the more I love it. It never gets tired. It constantly refreshes itself in such an exciting way if you’re willing to not be lazy. I have a lazy streak—don’t get me wrong—but I love learning during time off. It’s fun for me. And I feel so excited to get out and play live and I love the bass. It’s a great instrument.