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Sat January 15, 2011
Music

The Red Hot Chili Peppers: Blood, Sugar, Sex and Magic

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:31 am

Over the 25 years they've been together, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have survived drug addictions, overdoses and the ever-fickle music scene. They still managed to record nine albums, including Grammy-award-winners Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Stadium Arcadium.

Their first book, The Red Hot Chili Peppers: An Oral/Visual History, is an inside look at their journey. The band's bassist, Michael Balzary, spoke to Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz about the early days and explains why his band spends so much time naked.

Balzary's not really sure where his nickname -- Flea -- came from. It might have originated with his longtime bandmate, Anthony Kiedis, or old friend and founding Chili Pepper Hillel Slovak, but it definitely fits.

"I was always jumping around a lot," he says, "and I am a little guy."

His background is in jazz; Balzary was raised in a jazz household and started playing the trumpet in junior high. In high school he met Slovak, who played guitar in a rock band. He would watch the band rehearse and says he thought it looked really different.

"They were having so much fun, and it was so not regimented and not controlled," Balzary says. "It really felt good to me to get away from what my parents wanted and what they were teaching me in school."

When the band sacked their bass player, Balzary stepped in. Two weeks later he was on stage at a nightclub in Hollywood.

Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988, but not before co-founding the Chili Peppers and making a profound impression on Balzary.

"If it weren't for him, I never would have played the bass, never would have had the Chili Peppers," he says. "But more than that, he was a brother, a beloved friend."

Slovak, Kiedis and Balzary lived together for a time and could often be found undressed. Balzary says it all started as a joke between the roommates, but then they took it outside.

Right after signing with EMI Records, Balzary and Kiedis pulled a stunt that almost got them dropped. "We said we wanted to meet the president of the company," he says. Denied, they tracked him down in a high-level meeting, stripped, jumped on the table and danced around.

"The last thing it was was calculated," he says. "The expressions on their faces were something that I hold dear to my heart."

The band wasn't goofing off all the time, though. Of all their nine albums, a couple stand out for Balzary. "I felt like Californication really captured us as a band," he says. "It captured the feeling that the band gives me when we play. It was a real all-for-one, one-for-all feeling when we made it." He says their latest, Stadium Arcadium, encompassed all the band has done over their history.

After all their time together and success, Balzary says he still loves to hear his band's music on the radio, especially when he's in the car. "I wonder if the guy next to me can hear it!"

The Chili Peppers will have new songs on the radio soon. They're recording now, and the band shows no sign of slowing down.

"We love music," Balzary says. "We're willing to put in the work and we're willing to put in the time."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the biggest bands in the world. Two of the founders, Anthony Kiedis and Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, met at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. And with their friend Hillel Slovak, they created what's become their signature mix of L.A. funk, punk and psychedelic rock.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: After more than a quarter century together, the band's put together an oral/visual history, a kind of scrapbook of photos and memories. It's called "The Red Hot Chili Peppers."

Many critics have called Flea among the greatest living bass players in the world. But few of his fans know that his background is actually in jazz.

FLEA (Bassist, Red Hot Chili Peppers): I started playing trumpet when I was a kid in junior high school.

RAZ: And you were raised in a jazz household, I think.

FLEA: I was, yeah. My stepdad, who came into the picture when I was about seven years old, was a jazz musician. And I was exposed to a lot of great jazz at a very young age, and it was a huge inspiration for me. But then, when I was in high school, I met Hillel Slovak and he played guitar in a rock band. And I used to go by and see them rehearse sometimes and I thought, like, they were having so much fun and it was so not regimented and not controlled and not -there were no authority figures around. They were just doing what they wanted and having a good time.

And, you know, it really felt good to me to get away from what my parents wanted and what they were teaching me in school. And then it turned out that Hillel told me that they weren't happy with their bass player and how do I feel about learning to play the bass. And next thing you know, like, two weeks later, I was on stage at Dizzary's(ph), a nightclub in Hollywood, rocking.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: When you look through this book and you flip through it, it almost feels like you're looking through a private scrapbook at times. And then you realize that actually flipping through the pages, you guys are naked on a lot of these pages. It becomes clear that throughout, sort of the history of the band, you guys really must have loved or liked being naked. What is it about nudity?

FLEA: For us, it was just a silly joke. You know, we do it around the house. Like Hillel and Anthony and I all lived together and we'd do it just to be funny, you know? And then it was like, well, this is a bold look, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Well, I mean, there's a story that you guys even ran naked through the offices of EMI during like a high-level meeting at one point.

FLEA: Oh, totally. Yeah. That was great. We had just signed with them, and we were pretty low on the totem pole. And I think a lot of people in the company really didn't even like us and at a certain point, like, openly wanted to get rid of us, you know, because they just thought that we were ridiculous.

And so, Anthony and I showed up at the record company one day and we said we wanted to meet the president of the company because we heard he was around and we had never met him. And we went, let's meet him. Oh no, and they said, oh, no. He's in a meeting right now with the heads, international heads have come in and they're having a big board meeting.

And we said oh, okay. And we were just walking through the company. I think Anthony and I had smoked a joint or something. And he was like, you know, we should take off our clothes and run in that meeting and jump up on the table and dance around. That'll freak him out. And, you know, the last thing it was, was calculated, you know? And so, I was like, great idea, and we did it. And, you know, they were really pissed off and we danced around. The expressions on their faces was something that I hold dear to my heart. And then we put on our clothes and ran out of there.

RAZ: You guys had "Higher Ground" under EMI, which was your first sort of (unintelligible).

FLEA: Oh, yeah. Yup.

(Soundbite of song, "Higher Ground")

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) People, keep on driving...

RAZ: And my personal favorite, "Magic Johnson," as an L.A. Laker fan. I always penetrating a lane like a bullet train or wanting to.

FLEA: I hate to burst your bubble but triple double trouble, is coming to your town and it's going to make rubble.

(Soundbite of song, "Magic Johnson")

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) Penetrating the lane like a bullet train, comes the magic blood a telepathic brain. Knucklehead suckers better duck when the buck comes through like a truck. Scott stops, pops and drops it in, on his way back gets a little skin, from the hand of a man named A.C. Green, slam so hard it break your TV screen. Worthy's hot with his tomahawk, take it to the hole make your mamma talk. I hate to burst your bubble but triple double trouble, is coming to your town and he's going to make rubble.

RAZ: Flea, this book is, I mean, I think it's fair to say it's almost a love letter to Hillel Slovak. And of course, he died of a heroin overdose in 1988. And a lot of what you write in the book, especially in the beginning, is about him and his influence on you and his impact on you.

FLEA: Yeah. Well, certainly, he had a profound impact on me. If it weren't for him, I never would have played the bass and, you know, never would have had the Chili Peppers or anything like that. Not to mention that he's also a founding member of the band and a huge influence on our direction, you know, that launching pad that got us going.

But more than that, you know, he was a brother, a beloved friend and just a beautiful person and a great artist. You know, I have paintings hanging in my house that he made that are just beautiful paintings that he did when he was a teenager, you know, these beautiful, deep oil paintings. And, you know, any gratitude that we can show to him would - doesn't come close to measuring, you know, the love and gratitude that we have for him.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Flea. He's the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We're talking about the new book, "The Red Hot Chili Peppers: An Oral Visual History."

Flea, I know it's an unfair question...

FLEA: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...and I hate to ask this question of artists, but it's always something that people are interested in knowing. What are your favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers records?

FLEA: You know, it's hard as the years go by because you hear them so much, you know? And I really - like the time when I really like them is when we make them, you know? I felt like "Californication" really captured us as a band.

(Soundbite of song, "Californication")

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) Psychic skies from China try to steal your mind elation. And little girls from Sweden dream of silver screen quotations. And if you want these kind of dreams, it's Californication.

FLEA: It was a real all-for-one-one-for-all feeling when we made it.

RAZ: It was a sort of a millennial album, just at the turn of the millennium.

FLEA: It was. Yeah. Yeah. That one, I feel like - and the last one, "Stadium Arcadium," I felt like, you know, as a band we've continued to grow as time has gone by. And, you know, I feel like all our records are different, but I felt like "Stadium Arcadium" was a record that really encompassed everything that we had done from our beginning until that time.

(Soundbite of song, "Snow (Hey Oh)")

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) Come to decide that the things that I tried were in my life just to get high on. When I sit alone, come get a little known but I need more than myself this time. Step from the road to the sea to the sky, and I do believe it, we rely on. When I lay it on, come get to play it on, all my life to sacrifice. Hey oh, listen what I say, oh.

RAZ: And you guys are in the studio now again.

FLEA: Yeah, yeah. We're making a new record right now. We're very excited about it. You know, after our last world tour for "Stadium," we took two years off just to get away from it because it was really - we had just been worked to the bone. And during that time, I went to USC for a year and studied music, which I had never done. I studied, you know, classical theory and Bach and stuff like that. And it really felt like it opened up new doors for me as a musician.

And I started playing the piano. And for this record, for the first time, wrote - you know, almost all of my writing contributions come from the piano, which is a new thing for me and a new feeling and sound for the band.

RAZ: Well, you're going to have to come to Washington, D.C. and play at the Kennedy Center, a piano solo night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLEA: Well, I do have a fantasy of a Flea plays Bach record. So I'm working on it.

RAZ: Well, we will definitely talk to you when you put that out.

FLEA: Yeah.

RAZ: That's Flea. He's the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band's first book is called "The Red Hot Chili Peppers: An Oral/Visual History." It's in bookstores now.

Flea, thank you so much.

FLEA: Okay, man. Thanks for having me on.

RAZ: Before you go - Flea?

FLEA: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: Before you go, I know that you're in L.A. and I'm in Washington. Is there any chance that you'd play a little Bach for us?

FLEA: Oh, a little Bach for you?

RAZ: Yeah.

FLEA: Yeah.

RAZ: I know you have a piano there where you are.

FLEA: Okay. Yeah, yeah. Well, it's just a funky old piano in a lounge here.

RAZ: Yeah.

FLEA: I'll play you a little Bach.

RAZ: Great.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. You can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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