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John Frusciante's Creative Explosion

January 1, 2005
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John Frusciante is a man of extremes. At the tender age of 33, he's already experienced the best and worst that life has to offer. The former refers to his continuing fame and success as the guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The latter involves the depths of depravity to which he descended during a long spell as a drug addict in the mid-'90s. When he resurfaced after rehab, his body was so ravished that he needed a new set of teeth and skin grafts to repair the needle scars on parts of his skin.

Frusciante's two tours of duty with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (1988-92 and 1998 — present) predate and post-date his lengthy descent into depravity. During both stints he's been a driving creative force in the band, adding a strong melodic and rhythmic identity with his distinct guitar playing and songwriting.

Frusciante has more creative capacity than he can channel through the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He also has a solo career that began ten years ago when he released his first album, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt (American Recordings, 1994). It was recorded at home on a cassette 4-track and a hi-fi stereo system. The follow-up, Smile From the Streets You Hold (Birdman, 1997), was made with the same low-tech gear as its predecessor. Frusciante notoriously claimed that he put the latter album out purely for drug money.

Solo album number three, To Record Only Water for Ten Days (Warner Brothers, 2001), was recorded at Frusciante's home on a digital 8-track. He made elaborate use of MIDI and sequencers on that album, and in terms of sonic, arrangement, and production qualities, it was a big step forward. In early 2004, Frusciante released Shadows Collide with People (Warner Brothers, 2004), his first big-production solo record. It was engineered in part by Red Hot Chili Peppers' engineer Jim Scott and recorded mainly at the prestigious Cello Studios in Los Angeles. The release dates of those four solo works would lead one to expect solo album number five to be released sometime in 2007 or 2008. Instead, Frusciante is scheduled to have released six additional albums by the end of January 2005.

PRODIGIOUS PRODUCTION

Frusciante recently finished an amazingly ambitious production schedule. He recorded one album per month in a period of extreme creativity from late 2003 through 2004. The results are now being released at an almost-monthly rate on the Record Collection label.

FIG. 1: Frusciante released Automatic Writing under the band name Ataxia. The CD also features Josh Klinghoffer and Fugazi bassist Joe Lally.

The first release (in June 2004) is titled The Will to Death, a collection of songs played in the studio by Frusciante and his current musical partner, 22-year old drummer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer. The next release, in August 2004, is an album under the band name Ataxia called Automatic Writing and features Frusciante, Klinghoffer, and bassist Joe Lally of Fugazi (see Fig. 1). Automatic Writing is full of circular bass riffs and Frusciante wailing on his guitar. That album was followed in September 2004 by a short solo album titled DC EP (see Fig. 2), which was recorded in Washington, DC, and features drummer Jerry Busher.

Frusciante's fourth release, Inside of Emptiness, was released in October 2004, followed a month later by A Sphere in the Heart of Silence, on which Klinghoffer is an equal collaborator. Frusciante will release Curtains, which he refers to as his “acoustic album,” in late January 2005. In addition to those six releases, Frusciante also wrote the film score to the Vincent Gallo movie The Brown Bunny.

Six CDs in seven months sounds extreme, and some might worry that Frusciante has descended into another episode in which the emphasis is on the “mad” part of his oft-applied “mad-genius” moniker. But during the long conversation from which this article was culled, the guitarist came across as the embodiment of calm and composure.

FIG. 1: Frusciante released Automatic Writing under the band name Ataxia. The CD also features Josh Klinghoffer and Fugazi bassist Joe Lally.

When asked “what's driving you?” Frusciante laughed: “Well, at the moment, nothing. I'm in a completely different phase, having a break, and getting ready to record the next Chili Peppers record. These six records were recorded in a period of six months after coming home from touring with the Chili Peppers for one-and-a-half years. I made a list of all the songs I had and they totaled about 70. My objective was to record as many songs as I could during the break that I had. In the midst of doing that, I was writing some of my best songs, so some of these albums have as many new songs as old songs. It was definitely the most productive time of my life.”

PERFECT IMPERFECTION

The speed at which Frusciante committed the songs to (analog) tape is astonishing. But his career has always been one of extremes. His first two solo albums were recorded in a haphazard and chaotic fashion. When the spirit took him, he committed material to 4-track cassette tape without any demoing or preproduction — largely without production of any kind.

Then, as he worked on To Record Only Water for Ten Days and especially on Shadows Collide with People (as well as on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication), he was bitten by the perfection bug. He explains on his Web site, “I was sick and tired of people dismissing my records as being f----d up and unprofessional.” And so Shadows Collide with People was recorded at Cello, a top-of-the-line studio, with Scott, a top-of-the-line engineer.

“There''s no better random generator than a human being.”

But Frusciante now calls the Shadows Collide with People recording experience “frustrating.” Although he doesn't disown the album, he speaks with more affection about the demos he made for it with Klinghoffer on a Tascam 488 mkII 8-track cassette recorder. (The demos are downloadable from Frusciante's Web site, www.johnfrusciante.com.)

On his Web site, the guitarist writes that after recording Shadows Collide with People, he began “noticing that albums I had loved my whole life had tons of things I would [at the time of recording Shadows Collide with People] have insisted on redoing. Slightly off-pitch vocals, instruments going slightly out of time with one another, as well as straight-up mistakes — all of these things prevail triumphantly on Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Rolling Stones, Van Der Graaf Generator, Butthole Surfers, and countless other records — even The Beatles — that I have always loved. I realized that I had sharpened my sense of perfection to the point where, were they under my supervision, those records would have been cleaned up to the point of being inferior.”

Having come to his realization, Frusciante decided to radically change the way he was recording, mostly by working fast and leaving many of the mistakes. “This record is a celebration of flaws,” Frusciante enthuses on his Web site about The Will to Death.

LO-FI JUNK

Very little preproduction occurred for the 12 songs on The Will to Death. Frusciante demoed them in his living room in guitar-vocal fashion, which allowed Klinghoffer to prepare some drum parts and Frusciante to improve his singing. “Hearing yourself sing is a big part of going into a studio and nailing it,” said Frusciante. They also recorded some simple guitar-vocal-drum versions in their rehearsal studio. “That was the closest we got to making demos,” he commented. “I may put them on the Internet. They sound like we were in outer space on a spaceship or something. We'd listen to them, and we'd think of overdubs. But we usually made up overdubs in the studio.”

“I vowed I wasn''t going to record anything on digital anymore.”

Frusciante wasn't focused on overdubs anyway, because he wanted The Will to Death to sound spacious and raw, getting away from the high-production values of Shadows Collide with People. Together with Ryan Hewitt — an up-and-coming engineer who had taken over from Jim Scott halfway through the recording of Shadows Collide with People and who went on to engineer most of Frusciante's subsequent material — Frusciante recorded and mixed 12 songs in 5 days at 2 top Los Angeles studios, Mad Dog and Larrabee. Given that he garners a lot of his inspiration from recordings of the early 1970s, it's not surprising that Frusciante recorded “as if it were 1971” — that is, on 16-track 2-inch tape, mixed down to ¼-inch, and without using computers.

“Many of those records were recorded in a day,” explains Frusciante. “We were taking our inspiration from groups who recorded quickly because they had to. My reasons for working quickly weren't monetary, but it is an artistic challenge to do a record for a certain amount of money. I now make records for $10,000, and by working so quickly I could record in the best studios. When people write about The Will to Death as being lo-fi, that's bulls — t. It was recorded on the best equipment there is. It's just not recorded on a f-----g computer. A computer is not better quality than a 16-track, and just so that people know it, a 16-track 2-inch sounds better than 24-track 2-inch because each track has more space.

“You get a fatter sound with 16-track, which is why I use it. I'm not trying to record lo-fi, I'm trying to record quickly, because that's the best way to capture excitement. As long as people can stand up to the pressure, music comes alive when they are creating it fast. If you can't handle the pressure, then you give up or are forced to take longer. And after the experience of making Shadows Collide with People, Josh and I got used to top studios to the point where we weren't intimidated by them anymore.”

MUSEUM OF ROCK

So what is Frusciante's problem with computers? Not wanting to be seen as a Luddite, the guitarist offers the following caveat: “I won't sit here and go on like some anticomputer person, because a lot of the music I really like is recorded on or generated with computers. I think many people are doing adventurous and wonderful things with computers.”

Frusciante continues to say that he far prefers analog recording “for the vibe that I feel my music should have, in terms of sonic warmth. I want my recordings to fill the room and be comforting, even if it's a really distorted, loud, f----d-up sound. I'm probably one of the few people that go into a mastering place and insist that no computers are used. I want it to be analog all the way until it's pressed into vinyl. For CD pressing, I ask for the music to be mastered to 1630 [U-Matic] tape, which sounds really good. The same EQ is applied for vinyl and CD mastering.”

Frusciante's antipathy toward digital recording was in part fueled by his experience working with an 8-track digital recorder for To Record Only Water for Ten Days. “When we came to mix that record, I realized how bad it sounded. After that album, I vowed that I wasn't going to record anything on digital anymore. Shadows Collide with People was recorded on a Neve desk and an analog 24-track, and we used an old Scully 8-track for the drums because it made them sound warmer. I wanted that album to sound as warm as possible.

“My friend Vincent Gallo opened my eyes to what you're losing when you record things digitally and the degree to which the older equipment is better than the new stuff. My home stereo is the greatest thing in the world. For instance, I have Western Electric speakers from 1949, and they're the best-sounding speakers I've ever heard, for any kind of music.”

Clearly Frusciante has joined the company of some of the world's most eminent engineers and producers who believe that analog sounds better than digital, and that old equipment is often better than new gear. Like many of his fellow analog-lovers, Frusciante has taken to buying up the old studio gear that's on the market as digital workstations become the norm and established studios close. As a result, the guitarist's modest residence in the Hollywood Hills now looks a little like a museum of rock recording.

“I have an API desk from 1972 that's from The Record Plant,” Frusciante reveals. “It's the board that Television and Kiss recorded on, and I think even John Lennon worked with it. I also have a 1-inch Ampex 8-track recorder from 1970, on which King Crimson recorded In the Court of the Crimson King. And I have six old 1176 compressors, a Fair-child, three Lang equalizers [a PEQ4 and two PEQ2s], two Pultec [EQP-IA3] equalizers, an EMT plate reverb, and an EMT 250 digital reverb. I also have a Studer A800 24-track recorder, but it's not here because my house isn't big enough to hold it. I'm trying to find a place, separate from my house, for a studio.”

Frusciante suddenly stops in his tracks and exclaims worriedly, “I'm nervous talking about this stuff. I've never spoken about this to a magazine before.”

While more details about the contents of his new home studio aren't forthcoming, he does explain the reasons for starting his own studio. “It's really good to have the equipment that I love working on in my own place. Also, for the amount of money that I spent on Shadows Collide with People, I could have bought lots of studio equipment and had it forever. And I love the idea of being able to create music all the time without having to book studio time. A lot of the time the best studios in town are already booked, while in other cases, studios you like may close.”

OLD STUFF

Frusciante proudly states that his latest CD, Curtains, was recorded at his home. “We used the Ampex 8-track. That album sounds so good. We usually seemed to have enough tracks for the instruments that we played, which were mostly acoustic guitar, upright bass, and drums. We used only one or two microphones to record the drums. I've never had such a good vocal and acoustic guitar sound as I do on that album. We bounced tracks where necessary — for instance, with the backing vocals. We'd do three tracks of harmonies, bounce them to one track, do the same again, put one of the two resulting tracks on the right and the other on the left, have a lead vocal in the middle, and another harmony in the middle behind the lead vocal.”

Most would find this restriction to left, right, and center too limiting and would prefer to pan the seven or so backing vocals in a wide spread. But sharp panning is another one of the techniques from the 1960s that Frusciante believes was ahead of its time. The Will to Death is especially full of extreme panning. “In the 1960s, when stereo was first introduced, they didn't have pan pots — just left, right, and center.

“When I made The Will to Death I didn't know that, but I did notice that I loved the way, for instance, Peter Hammill's voice is completely in one speaker on his song ‘The Birds’ from his album Fool's Mate [Charisma/Buddah, 1971]. That one vocal in one speaker sounds bigger than any of the other vocals on the record, it sounds like a mouth 5-feet high. When you put information on two speakers you're compromising it, because two speakers are never exactly the same. There will always be the slightest difference and there'll be some phasing. When you have information coming from only one speaker, it's not compromised at all. It's there in its pure form and has a great deal of presence.”

SYNTH MAVEN

Although he is known as a guitar player, Frusciante is also an enthusiastic synthesizer user. Not surprisingly, his synths mainly date from the late '60s to early '70s. His collection includes a Doepfer A100 modular synthesizer, a Mellotron, a Minimoog, and a 1970 ARP 2500. “For a long time I was using mainly the Doepfer. I was more interested in using the LFO and gates and treating other instruments with it. I wasn't interested in using a synthesizer's oscillators. But the ARP 2500 has renewed my interest in oscillators completely, because they sound incredible. It's the same thing with guitars and recording equipment — the old stuff sounds better, louder, warmer, and more soothing.

“On The Will to Death I used mainly the Doepfer. I didn't use the oscillators at all. I used a Minimoog for a couple of things. It was important for me not to use synthesizers too much on that album, because I was thinking more in terms of how miraculous the sound of a drum set or a guitar can be. It was more important for me to capture those sonic things that in a lot of ways are simple — for instance, the way you hear the drums dancing around the room and the way that a vocal sounds really late at night in a dark room. Those are the things that keep me interested in wanting to listen to music repeatedly.”

Although there are some interesting synthesizer applications on The Will to Death (see the sidebar “Frusciante's Production Notes”), Frusciante's interest in electronic sounds is most striking on Shadows Collide with People, which has a number of instrumental synthesizer tracks that have obscure names such as “- 00 Ghost 27” and “Failure 33 Object.”

“Because Josh and I had done elaborate demos for that album, when we were in the studio it was largely a matter of connecting the dots and getting similar sounds as on the demos,” explains Frusciante. Sometimes we'd sit for half an hour trying to re-create a synthesizer sound that we had two years ago. We ended up taking breaks during recording to quickly record these instrumental electronic compositions that we created right then and there.”

Despite his preference for vintage modular synthesizers, Frusciante is not averse to samples and more modern synths. Frusciante extensively used his Clavia Nord Lead 2, a Casio SK-1, and the Akai MPC3000 on the album To Record Only Water for Ten Days. Other electronic instruments used during Frusciante's recent recording spree include a Chamberlain, a Moog Voyager, an Arp String Ensemble, a Korg MS10, and a late-1970s Synare analog drum synthesizer.

Although Frusciante recently acquired a genuine Mellotron, sampling, modern synthesis, and programming are clearly not where his heart lies. “There are people doing interesting things with programming, like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Squarepusher,” he observes. “They use things that sound like flaws to me. I have no interest in programming that strives for perfection. Also, an interesting patch doesn't make music interesting. That's not music. Music is a variety of sounds all happening together. And there's no better random generator than a human being, with all those little inconsistencies, faults, and random things that happen in your voice and fingers. Those are the things that give personality, character, and vibrancy to music, which makes you want to listen to certain records over and over again.”

Perhaps Frusciante isn't so extreme after all.


Paul Tingen is a writer and musician living in Scotland. He is the author of Miles Beyond, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, a book on early weird funk experimentation. For more information, visit www.tingen.co.uk.

FRUSCIANTE'S PRODUCTION NOTES

The following are Frusciante's comments regarding the production of selected tracks from two of his solo CDs (see Fig. A and Fig. B).

Shadows Collide with People

“Carvel.” “The opening section of that track was made by messing around with the Doepfer A100 and creating what sounds like electronic cueing. I put the Minimoog through an echo and played the melody that you hear on that.”

FIG. A: Shadows Collide with People

“- 00 Ghost27.” “I'd been listening to an experimental electronic album at my house. I can't remember what it was, but two seconds of it stirred my mind. It sounded like a Mellotron choir through a really distorted, screaming, feedbacky synth. I went into the studio the next day to try to re-create what I thought I had heard. I had a Mellotron choir sound on an E-mu module, and I put it through the Doepfer. You take an audio signal and use it to control a filter and dial knobs in a way that creates screaming feedback. It was one of those moments when music descends upon you.”

“Regret.” “I put my voice through the Minimoog on this song. That's an LFO controlling a filter on the Minimoog. Our normal way of doing things is if I'm treating myself, I'll usually record the vocal, do a send from the board, treat it, and then send it back onto tape.”

“Omission.” “I put Josh's voice through a VCA and had the LFO opening and closing that VCA really fast on the Doepfer.”

The Will to Death

“A Doubt.” “That really distorted guitar that comes in at the end has been put through the Doepfer. That's the best fuzz tone I've ever had. It's so dirty and f----d-up sounding, and it's from playing the guitar through a synthesizer.”

FIG. B: The Will to Death

“An Exercise.” “The bubbling, feedback-like, squelchy sound at the end is an example of the ways you can generate feedback by running the audio out of a filter on the Doepfer and then back into the same filter. You get feedback, and you can control it with the knobs to get it just right. It's one of my favorite sounds.”

“Loss.” “Josh plays organ at the end, which is going through my Doepfer, making it sound like feedback. It's like the organ has whammy bar and is going through a Marshall stack. We often do this: he'll play an instrument and I'll treat it with a synthesizer simultaneously.”

“A Loop.” “The snare drum is going through the Doepfer, and there are also some backward guitars. We just turned the 2-inch tape over, and I soloed over the track two or three times. Then we turned the tape back again, and I soloed over that.”

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