John Frusciante Q&A: On His Electronic Evolution and Why He's Done With Rock Bands

John Frusciante
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In an exclusive interview, Frusciante talks about his new EP of abstract electronic music, why he left the Chili Peppers and the "funnest musical collaboration I've ever had with anybody in my life"

Guitarist John Frusciante, absent from the stage since quitting Red Hot Chili Peppers five years ago, has since adopted drum machines, synthesizers and a computer as his main instruments.

Today his creations are confined to his living room, where Frusciante experiments with and engineers what he calls Progressive Synth Pop. "Outsides," a 20-minute EP of abstract electronic music due Aug. 27, consists of self-described "out" pieces that underscore a departure from traditional rock and public expectation. "I needed to specifically make music that I know wouldn’t sell in order to learn things," Frusciante told Billboard during an exclusive, hour-long telephone conversation in late July. "And I’m gonna keep doing that for the rest of my life."

Frusciante explained his years of education and growth as a solo musician since leaving the band dynamic—and why he’ll never go back. "When it comes down to it I probably have a lot more in common with old classical composers from the 1700s than I do with the rock stars of today," he said. "I don't even think of the guitar in the same way anymore. I’ve learned to think more like a pianist, where I have a wider view of music." That view has recently opened another door for Frusciante, as album producer for the Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated hip-hop group Black Knights. Their first collaboration, "The Medieval Chamber," will release on indie label Record Collection in December. These are excerpts from the interview: 

Billboard: "Outsides" begins with a song that includes a 10-minute guitar solo. Is that the longest solo on record that you know of?
John Frusciante: Oh, no, no. Frank Zappa took quite a few extended solos around that length. Yeah, and Jimi Hendrix also did. If you listen to live recordings of Jimi Hendrix, a song like "Machine Gun" usually has a 10-minute solo quite often.

Do guitar solos require any sort of structure, or even practice? 
Especially in the case of this one, it reflects the music, you know? I mean, any guitar solo should reflect the music that it’s soloing over and not just be existing in its own sort of little world. But that’s what a lot of people who in the Seventies played extended solos, they would just kind of get lost in their own world, and so they became what I would consider to be a kind of a lazy area for guitar players. But in this one it’s reflective of the song, which is something that Frank Zappa wasn’t doing with his extended solos, because he would depart from the song and have a very simple section that he could easily solo over without having to think about too much other than his own playing. And I’ve studied these solos my whole life, I love them, but I see the difference between them and a song. I think a solo moves forward the way a song does, because it’s reflective of the chords that I’m considering as I’m soloing, and at the same time I’m going as much out on a limb as Frank Zappa used to, in terms of just going crazy on the instrument.

Yet you’ve taken on additional instruments, and you also record your music at home. 
For me, living and making music, they’re one thing. It’s not like a job that I go to a studio to do, or a chore that I have to get myself in the mood to do, or something. It’s the thing that I need to do every day. I got good advice from a manager a long time ago, suggesting that instead of spending money on recording budgets that I get my own studio. And he sure was right. [...] Progressive rock was a style of music that began with The Beatles, where they started incorporating aspects of jazz and aspects of classical music and aspects of music from other cultures into rock music, and it became apparent that rock music was a malleable form of music, like on the second side of “Abbey Road,” where every song is connected to the next one. And bands like Genesis and King Crimson and Yes were basically, for me, carrying on what The Beatles had started, by challenging tradition, basically, and challenging the general way that things were done. So I really admired what those bands did my whole life, and that really wasn’t a part of what I did when I was in the band. We didn’t do 15-minute songs or stray away from traditional formulas too much. And synthpop for me is just rock music made with synthesizers and drum machines. Really, my instrument now is the entire mix of instruments.  

You play so many. Have any ever intimidated you? 
I bought a clarinet, and I wanted to learn how to play that but it interfered with my singing. And I think there would be a time period if I learned it where it would make my throat tense, at least briefly, until I learned how to breathe properly. So yeah, I’ve had this clarinet sitting around for, like, a year and haven’t learned it. You know, that’s the beauty of the technology of sampling: You can play any instrument or any combination of instruments. You basically have the history of recorded music to play as your instrument. And I’m pretty adept at that. So there’s really no need to learn how to play other instruments since I can do that.

How does selling your music through a platform like Topspin differ from having the backing of major labels and distributors?  
In this environment of music and the way that it’s being consumed today, I think we’re seeing the ill effects of business-minded thinking being applied to artists, and artists learning to think more like businessmen and more like celebrities than musicians. So luckily I removed myself from that world, and every day for the last five years or so I’ve thought specifically about new places to go and finding new challenges for myself. And part of that meant that I spent about three years making music that I had absolutely no intention to release. [...] These have been the most helpful things to my music growth. When you get in a band, especially a band that’s popular, you don’t even realize that you’re doing it because it’s so natural to do, but you basically stick to proven formulas and things that have proven themselves able to sell to people. And by doing that very little growth takes place over a period of years. Whereas I feel like a completely different musician now than I was five years ago, with a completely different range of things that I can do and things that I’m good at. There would be no chance to get good at those kind of things in the environment that I was in as a popular rock musician, in this day and age.  

When did it hit you that you were no longer flourishing creatively within the band dynamic?
Well, as I said, I had always wanted to do electronic music and I had only dabbled in it throughout the 10 years or whatever it was that I was in the band after rejoining [in 1998]. And it’s one of those things like anything else that you have to do it every day for years to get good at it. And so it was always something that I wanted to do but we were so well-received as a band that it didn’t really occur to me to quit until Flea came to me at one point and said, “I want to take a two-year break after this tour.” And he said that to me about halfway through the [2007 “Stadium Arcadium”] tour, and when he said it I was kind of shocked, 'cause I thought we were on a roll, let’s just keep moving with this, you know? But once he said it to me, my mind started thinking, "What would I do with that two years if I had two years to just do whatever I wanted?" And by about four months later I was so excited about quitting the band I didn’t even want it to be a two-year thing anymore. I just knew that I didn’t ever want to be in the band again, you know? And I didn’t actually quit until several months after we were already on the break, but I knew I wanted to quit months before the tour was over. I was determined to. Because there were so many electronic musicians who I loved what they did, and I knew that musically I had grasped an understanding of it from learning it on my guitar. But I also knew that until I learned how to program the old machines that Roland made from the early Eighties that I wasn’t going to be able to actually create the music involving the musical principles that were inherent in what those people were doing. So in the middle of that tour I got a TB-303 machine and carried that around from hotel room to hotel room, and I got a TR-606 drum machine and I carried that from hotel room to hotel room. It was a whole new way of thinking, it was a whole new way of creating music, and it was like going to music school in a lot of ways because it caused me to start considering music from a completely different angle. Which for a long time, I guess for about a year, was a strain in various ways, but as soon as I became comfortable, once the tour was over, I started setting it up where I could program a bunch of machines all at once. It didn’t at all at that point have the complexity of what I could do, say, with a guitar or what I could do with other people. I didn’t care. I was happy to do the simplest little Acid track and just be able to play with the knobs on the machine. I was just so happy to be doing something that had no connection to the habits that I’d gotten into as a rock guitar player.

Would you consider performing your new music, even for a small crowd?
No, I have no interest in playing live. I really don’t think of myself as a performer anymore. It was never something that came naturally to me. It was something that I adapted to, but it was never really an expression of who I was. [...] I’m not a performer. I don’t appreciate the effect that audiences have on me, because for me music is something that comes from inside of me. And music is something that I immerse myself in, and when I’m in front of an audience, I can’t ignore my surroundings and I can’t ignore the way they make me feel. They make me feel good, the audiences. But then I find that I’m not so much reaching inside myself to create something, but I’m more trying to meet with their expectations. And I’m trying to do something that’s entertaining to them. And that’s just not me. I’m not interested in meeting people’s expectations and I’m not interested in pleasing people. I’m glad I did it successfully for so long, but when it comes down to it I probably have a lot more in common with old classical composers from the 1700s than I do with the rock stars of today, you know? I think more in terms of creating a full composition, and that’s really what makes me happy to be alive and excited to live every day, is the ability to create from scratch an entire piece of music. I’m more comfortable doing that than I ever was doing anything. It makes me happier than playing the guitar did. And so, entertaining people, I just don’t think it’s my bag, you know?

What other music will you make this year?
For the last six months, I only make hip-hop now. But it’s been a year that I’ve been working with these artists called Black Knights. And we’ve had a really successful collaboration. [...] Due to technology, we have a musical relationship in which nobody tells anybody what to do, nobody restricts anybody, nobody argues with anybody. My job is making the music, their job is rapping, and we don’t get in each other’s way at all. We all want to hear the same record, is how I think of it. [...] I wouldn’t be any happier if I had, like, Ice Cube or Ol’ Dirty Bastard. I love their raps as much as I love any of the rapping on old records that I love. It’s the music that I want to hear, and I can go in any direction that I want with it. The rules of hip-hop are really pleasing for me and they allow me to be completely free. Hip-hop, like rock music, it can absorb any style. And I think it can do so even better than rock music can. And so I can make it synthpop, I can make it totally abstract and weird stuff, I can make it purely sound with no melody, I can make it rock, I can make it whatever I want. It’s the form of music where I can be completely free. My main interest is in polyrhythms and grooves and sound. And that’s another reason I would never be in a rock band. Because in a rock band you have to attend to pitch and rhythm. But in these modern times with musical technology being what it is, we have the gift of being able to attend to sound and the details of rhythm. When you’re in a band you tell the drummer, “I want this kind of beat,” or something. But with technology I can actually make exactly the beat that I want to make, that grooves and slows down and speeds up exactly how I want it to, exactly conforming to my imagination, not just like a sort of a copy of my imagination or an interpretation of my imagination. It’s actually what I’m hearing in my head is what’s coming out the speakers. So making hip-hop, this is like the funnest musical collaboration I’ve ever had with anybody in my life. And it’s the purest.