Chad Smith's Red Hot Return
With a new guitar player, a fresh outlook, and their first album in five years, the red hot Chili peppers are poised to sear their way back to rock’s top spot.
A glance at his watch on this Tuesday night reminds Chad Smith he should already be at home in front of the Lakers playoff game — it’s well after 10:00, and Kobe’s on the court with a sprained ankle. Instead, Smith kicks back in front of an elaborate console. Hologram images of Lennon and Hendrix stare from the far wall as he pulls out a CD marked “RHCP Approved Main Mixes.” He’s seated to my right just down the hall from the master class he gave earlier at The Collective School Of Music in the heart of Manhattan’s Chelsea district. And he’s weighing which of the new, never-before-heard Red Hot Chili Peppers songs to unleash on me first.
“Ah, this makes me nervous,” Smith winces 30 seconds into the eruption of one titled “Look Around.” New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer sounds as if he’s stepped right into those big shoes vacated by his predecessor, as rock music’s singular rhythm section hits the eardrum with fresh ammunition. It’s all too much for Smith. Grinning from ear to ear, he leaps out of his chair and paces into the control room for a moment as the studio walls absorb this virgin music, months from public release.
Smith would later tell me that DRUM! gave him his first cover story 20 years ago, and so it would be DRUM! that would get the first listen to the first Chili Peppers album in five years.
“I haven’t played it for anybody,” he says under his breath as he readies the next cut, “except for my wife, who’ll be like, ‘What’s that? I like that one!’”
Distortion bursts suddenly from the speakers, then a dark Sabbath-like riff roars over Smith’s militant kick drum. Singer Anthony Kiedis sneers over the chaos: “The crimson tide is flowing through your fingers as you sleep...” These first bars might well be the most unsettling of any Chili Peppers record. Yet just as the discord reaches its peak, the song crashes into balance. “Monarchy Of Roses” is jilted, upturned to reveal a rainbow throbbing with the bounce of a discotheque that eventually leads back to heavy metal. It’s pure, melodic gold.
with Flea directing the band: “Rollin’, everybody,” he announces. “It starts with bass.” As his funk begins to thump, Smith enters in 7/4, an odd time signature groove he says was inspired by Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron and former Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Flea’s crafted piano chops make for a welcome addition to “Even You, Brutus?,” and “Happiness Loves Company,” and Smith explores Afrobeat elements on “Did I Let You Know.”
To listen to these veterans emerge from their longest- ever time-off is to hear them interrupt any speculation of their demise. With three-fourths of the lineup intact for more than 20 years, they’ve still got something to say.
Burned out by two decades of an unforgiving album-tour- album cycle, the Red Hot Chili Peppers agreed to cool it for at least a year in 2008. They walked away from the stage, the studio, and each other. Then, in the middle of the break, guitarist John Frusciante left to pursue solo work full-time. Though the move extended the group’s absence from the public eye another year, his amicable exit allowed the Chili Peppers time to plant new seeds.
“I thought he might come around one day and go, ‘Yep! I’m ready!’ But he never did, and that’s fine,” Smith says. “He’s probably the best musician I’ve ever known and played with. He’s just fantastic and I love him. But we want to keep going.”
There would be no audition process to replace Frusciante, the band decided. They’d known Josh Klinghoffer since 1997, and he played alongside Frusciante during the final months of 2007’s Stadium Arcadium tour; he was the obvious choice.
As it turns out, the guitarist had a secret connection to the guy behind the kit that made his selection that much sweeter. “My first musical instrument was drums when I was nine years old or so,” Klinghoffer says. “I had the Chad Smith instructional video as a kid. When I used to go on tour with them opening up, I used to perch myself behind John’s amps and hang out with Chris Warren, Chad’s drum tech, and just watch Chad like a hawk.”
Klinghoffer will never forget the day he got the call. It came July 20, 2009, while he watched a ballgame at Dodger Stadium. Flea was on the line, asking him to join Red Hot Chili Peppers. The request startled Klinghoffer, but Flea had to know whether the band could survive losing Frusciante.
“Within a couple of minutes of playing together we sort of knew that it was the right decision,” Klinghoffer says of the band’s first session that October. “Pretty much from day one until we finished our writing process we were coming up with stuff that we loved.”
The band announced its reformed lineup to the world a couple of months later. In February 2010, Klinghoffer and Flea traveled to Ethiopia, where they spent six days making music with local musicians. That adventure abroad, coupled with the bassist’s year of studying musical theory, hits home on I’m With You, with hints of jazz, classical, and roots music never before heard on a Chili Peppers record.
The first day together, the band penned “Brendan’s Death Song” to memorialize the late Brendan Mullen, the Los Angeles club promoter who booked the band’s first gig in 1983. They spent the next 11 months writing, compiling a trove of potential material that by August was whittled down and ready for preproduction at Beach Boys guitarist Al Jardine’s ranch, in Big Sur, California. There they were joined by longtime producer Rick Rubin, who remained at the helm through the final tracking sessions in L.A. from September to February.
“When Chad is playing, you never have to worry or think twice if the drums will do their job,” says Rubin. “Chad is the solid-rock foundation on which the Chili Peppers are built. He brings mighty power and great vibes, so much so I have asked him to play on many other recordings.”
Over the years Rubin has invited Smith to track with the late Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks, and Kid Rock, among others. Producer and engineer Ryan Hewitt, who most recently worked with one of Smith’s other bands, Bombastic Meatbats, says “he can listen to a song, or even a description of a song by an artist he’s playing with, and nail the arrangement within two takes.” And Smith has played with plenty of performers — his body of work between Peppers projects reads like a laundry list, a dream résumé boasting gigs with some of his heroes, and others with musicians half his age.
While on vacation in April, Smith recorded an album with Outernational, a young band discovered by Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello. Its members, most of whom were children when Smith joined the Chili Peppers in 1988, piled into their van and drove from New York City to his house in Malibu. They inherited some of Smith’s endurance and expertise from the three-day session, and he in turn drew inspiration and energy from their youth. Smith has since performed with them at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood.
“I think it’s so rare to find rock drummers in the last 25 years who just come with that level of force, fierceness, velocity, power, and enthusiasm who aren’t stiff as a brick,” says Outernational singer Miles Slay. “And not only is he the opposite of that, but he’s the best.”
Though he’llcelebrate his 50th birthday in October, Smith never shook that youthful enthusiasm that got him into the craft at age seven. So it’s only fitting he share how he’s evolved as a musician with a roomful of those pushing for a similar future.
For most of the students squeezed into these ten rows of metal chairs, this is the closest they’ll ever get to a rock star. Tonight, a few hours before our listening session at The Collective, Smith sits on an amp and offers them a message of love straight from the heart.
“I would suggest playing with other people,” he offers. “I’ve been married to the Chili Peppers for 21 years, right? And then I have these other things that I do when I’m not doing that, and those are like my mistresses. And then when I go back and play with the Peppers,” he continues, “I have new positions for them.”
A 12-year-old boy giggling from the middle row interrupts the informal lecture. Resembling a young Anthony Kiedis, the boy is the youngest here by several years among this group of mostly college students.
“What are you laughing about?” Smith shakes his head with a smile. “That’s not funny.”
“It’s okay,” another student pipes up. “He watches South Park.”
No musical experience matches meeting and playing with those of different personalities, styles, and instruments, Smith explains, and he’s about to prove it.
“Come on up,” he calls out to a petite high-school girl with a bass guitar across her lap. Then a guitarist in his late twenties volunteers, and heads to the front to join the impromptu lineup. “We’re gonna improvise,” Smith tells them as he sits behind the Pearl kit.
“I can’t stress this enough,” he says before they begin. “These things on the side of your head — your ears — these are the most important thing. Listening to what is going on in any musical situation is good for everyone. Drummers especially.”
Once they pick a key, a jam is born between Smith and the two students, five minutes of raw funk that sounds composed, even rehearsed — but it’s hatching in front of the class, note by note.
For Estrella Arias, who just turned 18, playing bass with Smith tonight taught her an invaluable lesson. “His energy is so great,” she says, “and he reminded me that the most important thing is to enjoy it. There wouldn’t be any point otherwise.”
Smith should be enjoying his last few weeks of free time before he heads back to Los Angeles to rehearse those new songs with Red Hot Chili Peppers. But he appears at home here in this modest room on the building’s seventh floor, instructing these students to stick with their instruments.
“You’re lucky to find what you’re passionate about at an early age,” he tells them after the jam. “The only way I made it was going to music class.”