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Changing Channels

Photo by Mike Piscitelli

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time talking to guitarist-composer John Frusciante, best known as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but also recognized by those close to him as a bit of a seeker — of new ways of making music, and new ways of unlocking the doors of perception. Frusciante is in the final stages of a very ambitious dream project, which is to record and release an album a month for up to a year. So far, one has been released, The Will to Death. The second, Automatic Writing, due August 10, is the first half of a collection that’ll come out under the band name Ataxia, recorded with Fugazi bassist Joe Lally and Bicycle Thief drummer Josh Klinghoffer, the latter of whom also collaborates with Frusciante on The Will to Death and the forthcoming albums in the series.

These wide-ranging (acoustic/electric, vocal/instrumental, short-form/long-sprawl) recordings reject modernity’s emphasis on painstakingly slow and scientific methods for constructing pop product with digital perfection. Frusciante’s new music is all recorded and mixed on magnetic tape as quickly and spontaneously as humanly possible, with 16 tracks at most. He is, he says, fed up with the way late-vintage studio technology has stultified the creative process. In order to be immersed in the moment, with the possibility of glimpsing the future, he feels, it’s important to look to the past. Music’s “spirits,” he says, would tell you the same.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: These records are different from the way most pop music is conceived and created.

JOHN FRUSCIANTE: I wanted to make records inexpensively, and I wanted to make them quickly. I would listen to something like Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album, where if he played a guitar solo, there was one take, maybe two, and any musician who was playing with him had to be good enough to be able to do shit in a couple of takes. All the great recorded music from the ’50s was played live [in the studio], to the ’60s, where a record was often made in a few hours.

And I was inspired by the great performances people do when they go live on a radio show and perform, when the pressure’s on, and they respond to that. We did a little test where we had two days in the studio and we mainly recorded three songs in those two days, and once we saw that we could go that quickly, we just started going off — we did basically six records in six months.

 

With the same kind of technical setup?

I have a certain amount of equipment that I bring to studios myself, but we go to studios that have tape machines, and we put 16 tracks on 24-track machines. Once we started doing The Will to Death, we started doing other things to be contrary to the way people do it nowadays; we really tried to pay attention to the way the people did it in the old days. In the old days, you didn’t wait till the mix to make decisions, you had to make decisions while you were recording.

That steamy, exotic quality that dub producer Lee Perry got had a lot to do with the fact that he used four-tracks and crammed so much into the recordings, so the tracks bled and smeared all over each other.

On my machine, when you take three tracks and mix them onto one track, they sound better after the bounce than they did before. There’s something about squeezing in that space that’s really a wonderful thing.

Analog sounds the best to me, and I feel that’s how my music should be recorded. I’m not gonna go on a big tirade against computers, because a lot of music I really love is done on them. I would point out, though, that somehow, as convenient as computers make things, albums take longer to record now than they did in the ’50s or the ’70s. So I don’t know if the convenience is actually convenient; I think it’s just the illusion of convenience, and in actuality it makes things more complicated.

 

Might be that the computer confronts the musician with an infinity of choices; that can be paralyzing. You, however, talk about working with restrictions. When you know you only have 8 tracks or 16 tracks . . .

. . . You have to work with it, and it brings the best out of you. Magnetic tape is the way I like doing it; it’s really fun for me. I like doing first takes, I don’t like doing multiple takes, I don’t like comping, I don’t like doing all that bullshit. For me, the first take has a special excitement to it.

 

How are the Ataxia albums different conceptually from the others in the series?

The pieces start out as jams by Joe Lally and Josh and myself; then I put vocals over them, then those vocals turn the jams into songs, although the bass lines are very repetitive — it’s very Public Image–inspired, real repetitive bass lines, or a big dub sound on the bass, and lots of fucked-up guitar playing, lots of dynamics and so on.

 

When musicians have focused on capturing spontaneity and giving it a shape — rather than using music to express their egos — it has resulted in a lot of timeless music.

That was a big part of making these records. As human beings, we have these factors of randomness that come into anything we do. We’re not in control of how it’s gonna come out; if I plan on singing a note, my voice might crack on that note, or be a bit wobbly — the idea is to be ready for things like that to happen, and welcome them.

I like seeing the music change over the course of time. I’m in a phase where I like playing guitar that’s out of my control, either that there’s so much energy coming through me that I’m matching it that way, or just playing in a way that leaves a lot open to noise and feedback. You hear a lot of that on the Ataxia and Inside of Emptiness records [the latter will be the fourth in the set].

 

It stands to reason that when you keep the ego out of it, you have a better chance of making music that stands the test of time, because it’s both part of you and beyond you.

There’s energy around us all the time that’s as responsible for the music that people make as the people who make it are, and the more egotistical control a person puts toward what they do, the less these spirits have of working through the people. When those spirits work, it’s within those elements that are uncontrollable.

You can see spirits on walls that are cracking: You see icons and events going on, and people doing things. This is the unseen world, and this is where it shows through in our world. Because we live in a linear time continuum, if we look at a wall that’s been falling apart for 10 years, and we see faces in it, to our eyes it looks like they’re still. But in a place where they don’t have a relationship with time, that’s the reality. That’s the spirits’ way of connecting with us. If I play guitar in such a way that I’m totally in control, those spirits don’t have a chance to come through; they might have come through in the original thought or conception, but they have no place in the performance of it. If I just grab my guitar and I start jamming the pick into the pickups with a really loud sound, and just putting all the energy I can into it but not actually playing any notes, I’m not responsible for the sound that comes out; the energy that came through me is responsible for the sound that comes out.

By the way, I’m not saying my music comes from the spirits and yours doesn’t; all the crap music everywhere in the world, it all comes from spirits. Crappy music comes from crappy spirits.

 

It must be satisfying to have nearly completed this major project.

All I know is that the six months when I recorded this music was the most productive time of my life, and I’ll always remember it as the first time in my life that I ever felt like I was one with my dreams.

 

John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer perform with ex-Neu! guitarist Michael Rother at the Knitting Factory on Thursday, August 5. See Scoring the Clubs.


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