Half of the Red Hot Chili Peppers are sitting opposite me on a pair of sumptuously plump sofas in a corner suite at the top of a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, California. Outside the window to my left is the Pacific, while outside the one to my right are the fleshpots and fairgrounds of Venice Beach. It’s 2pm and the sun thumps down in thick, exhausting waves. Even the guy lying flat on his back by the pool, the one with his legs artfully spread so his inner thighs don’t miss out, yanks his towel up in submission and retreats to the tented shade by the bar. On the beach, huge bulldozers roll back and forth endlessly shifting sand, their reverse gear beeps punctuating our every sentence.
Bass player Michael “Flea” Balzary — incredibly, this advert for perpetual adolescence is now 48 — is explaining something about how his love of surfing informs his love of songwriting, and I’m trying to keep up, but his outfit and demeanor aren’t helping me concentrate. Flea has been so enormously famous for so long now that he has successfully slipped all regular behavioral moorings and is gleefully sailing out across his own mental seascape, a blissed-out, UV-grizzled grin worn like a tattered pirate’s flag.
“The apparatus has to serve our improbability and improvisation,” he pronounces, in answer to a question asking how a band formed nearly 30 years ago keep things interesting for themselves on yet another global tour. “Being good and playing the songs is not enough. Being entertaining isn’t enough — I don’t give a shit about that. We must improvise and we must experiment and we must do things that might go wrong and everything we bring — the people and the equipment — must serve us in that goal.”
Whatever you might think of Red Hot Chili Peppers, you can’t help but admire someone who has such lofty ideals for their pop group. Especially one dressed in a monogrammed romper-suit the same shade of screechingly psychedelic baby blue that he has dyed his hair.
“Ultimately, whether people like this new record, or us as a band, is irrelevant to me,” says Flea. “But talking about it all is fun.”
On the other sofa, none-more-relaxed drummer Chad Smith, 49, shifts quietly in his seat, a dinner plate-sized luxo-watch hanging off his wrist the only clue to his not-your-regular-Joe status. It is day three of the promotional activity for their new album, I’m With You, and everyone is trying to settle into their proper roles.
I ask Flea and Smith if the record’s title means they are understanding of others, or accompanying them.
“Either way! You can take it anyway you like, sir,” Flea says, thrumming with energy. “I’m going to take it to an air force base and play it in zero gravity.”
“You know, I appreciate Flea a lot in this process,” Smith offers, slowly pulling a bottle of sparkling water from an elaborately carved silver ice bucket. “He’s more articulate, he does a lot of the heavy lifting.”
I’m With You is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 10th studio album — quite a feat for a band formed as “a joke,” a one-off prank in Los Angeles in 1983. The record touches on surf music, disco, funk, the 1970s space jazz of George Duke and Herbie Hancock (“I take that as a huge compliment,” Flea says), even the glam-pop of T-Rex (“Oh, now that’s made my day,” singer Anthony Kiedis says later). If you have already decided you can’t stand them, it won’t change your mind, but it does reveal a band that is just as in awe of the possibilities of music as ever. Considering that their history is littered with drug abuse, death and very near death, the Chili Peppers have maintained a level of surprising fecundity: Kiedis and Flea talk of “shitloads” of material no one but them and long-term producer Rick Rubin has ever even heard.