Born March 5th, 1970, in Queens, New York, John Anthony Frusciante has donned many toques (literally and figuratively) thus far in his musical career, including, but not limited to: producer, songwriter, arranger, collaborator, and of course performer on many of the world’s largest stages.
The fact that he has done so much and affected so many in such a relatively short span of time may even come as a surprise to John Frusciante himself at this point, who never really envisioned himself as becoming a mainstream success in the first place. Ideologically, as far as we can tell, John has historically connected the most with the punk rock ethos of not giving a fuck, and sees himself as an experimental artist who is always searching of fresh ideas (“art” meaning on all levels, not just painting and/or music).
Early on, John worshipped at the altar of The Germs, so that should tell you something right there about where he came from. That said, being a rock star was on his radar back then too, but just the parts that involved girls and drugs mainly. The rest of it he was reluctant to embrace, but he eventually did, if only for a time.
Much of John’s worldwide renown admittedly comes from his joining forces with one of the world’s biggest bands – the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who he joined up with in 1988 after the death of one of John’s personal guitar heroes at the time, Hillel Slovak, whom he was briefly acquainted with before Hillel overdosed and tragically died. It was a slightly odd fit, since Frusciante wasn’t exactly a disciple of the P-funk (as Flea and Anthony were) when he joined the band. He was more of a Hendrix guy – not that Hendrix isn’t funky, we should say, but still…
What we find interesting is that even before Hillel’s death, John was being drawn in the direction of the Chili Peppers, and, to an extent, almost felt as if he was in the band already. How so? Well, back in the early days of the Chili Peppers (that is to say the early to mid ’80’s), there was little separation between the band and their audience, of which John was often a part of at that time, being an avid fan.
Mosh pits and a general melange of band and audience was the way of it in those time, John has said of his involvement in those shows where he was in attendance, “That’s great about the band, the audience feels no different from the band at all.” This was made possible by the small, intense, and intimate shows the band played around this time. Indeed, John has said that if they ever got big, it would ruin the vibe for him. And – guess what? – the band did get huge and it kind of bummed him out, despite bringing worldwide fame and success. Of course, all things considered, one might argue that for such a whimsical chap, John did alright with that initial burst of fame – he just didn’t prefer it or want to remain there.
Initially, before things got weird and the band was playing increasingly huge shows, it was this distinct tribal magnetism that first drew John Frusciante towards the band, first as a fan, and eventually as a full member who went on to write the band’s biggest hits.
Here’s a quick clip that seemed to sum up John’s initial reaction to being in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 🙂
It wasn’t long before he connected with the band via shows that soon enough he met and jammed with Flea by way of D.H. Peligro, and the two created a lifelong bond. When John was invited into the band, it helped that he was already familiar with most of Hillel’s guitar parts, being a hardcore fan who practiced guitar constantly, drawing on influences of all kinds from Zappa, to Hendrix, to the Germs, and countless others – including the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
For John Fruciante, first becoming a Red Hot Chili Pepper was a day of joy which involved bouncing off the walls of his home, but a reality check wasn’t far away. Recording Mother’s Milk, while surely fun on some level, taught John a lot in the ways of studio wizardry, and the music business in general, as he got to record a big album first hand with guitars that sounded like “1000 garbage trucks dumping trash into George Bush’s anal cavity” (or something to that effect).
Having never been in such a recording situation as he was then at age 18 (or whatever), it wasn’t long before John had to start to define his sound in the band, which was, in one way, simple as he could follow in the footsteps of Hillel Slovak, keeping that slinky sound he’d already established. And yet, there was much jockeying for control of the guitar sound as John was being forced to play in an uncharacteristically “metal” style thanks to the influence of producer Michael Beinhorn, who had worked on the previous album, which is, of course, the Uplift Mofo Party Plan. You can easily hear that type of super crunchy guitar tone on songs like “Good Time Boys”…
As Beinhorn had some kind of experience and seniority, John deferred to what he thought would be best. As it was, John was a newcomer in the recording studio environment and just a kid in the eyes of Beinhorn, who wasn’t exactly the band’s biggest fan and the sound he was going for wasn’t exactly “sex funk from heaven”. That said, it is sometimes in these scenarios that are the most educational, where we learn what works and what doesn’t.
In any case, despite drugs and other problems, Mother’s Milk got done, and, thanks to an energetic Stevie Wonder cover of Higher Ground cover that was featured on the album that got picked up by rock radio stations, the band was on its way to stardom. It was at this time that they started showing up on big TV shows like Letterman, and capturing the heart of the nation with their energy.
Certainly, good times were had periodically in the next few years in the band for John, such as the recording of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which he has said was one of the best times of his life working on music he believed in. This was chronicled in the amazing Funky Monks documentary, about the recording of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, shown below.
However, the band dynamic started heading south once the tour for that album got under way. Being the temperament that he was at the time, it is well documented that John was not prepared for the subsequent years where the Red Hot Chili Peppers skyrocketed to international success. Being a huge fan of the small-scale RHCP, the larger scale version of the band quickly made John miserable, as is evidenced by many of their performances in support of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. What he was apparently hoping for when he joined the RHCP was a cult following, and instead, what happened was mega-stardom.
One performance which always sticks out to fans as John becoming disenchanted with the band is John’s “experimental” version of Under The Bridge that they played on Saturday Night Live AKA international and live TV, where John decided to change the arrangement of the song at the last second, possibly just to fuck with Anthony, who was already hard pressed to sing the song due to it being a fussy song with a tricky melody to sing for him. Anyway, that’s what Anthony said in his book but if you watch the actually performance it wasn’t too bad and obviously did nothing to stifle the bands career.
As the story goes, shit went down and John left the band (for the first time), only to find himself face to face with full blown drug addiction. Clearly shit around this time was fucked up and John endured some troubled times, infamously holing himself up and focusing on 4-track recording, drugs, and visual art. Being in a band was now something he was not “up” for, nor was he in any shape to attempt even if he wanted to go back to it, and this went on for years, taking him to the brink of death and seeing others die around him from drugs like his friend River Pheonix.
Here’s a glimpse into John Frusciante’s world via the documentary “Stuff” from around this time, which was, as most would say, fairly bleak. That said, despite hopping between dimensions and having his teeth rot, John managed to remain somewhat upbeat.
Anyway, most of us know what happened next with John in regards to the Chili Peppers. There was his triumphant return in 1999 with Californication, which was definitely a new phase for the band and a new brotherhood was born, as John started living clean and really started to value and love his bandmates with a renewed energy.
At this point we want to sidestep the RHCP a little bit, since the story of that band is not entirely John’s story, although it was and probably still is a big part of his life in many ways, being such a formative experience.
During his drug days, John released a couple of solo albums that showed that he could do an entire album on his own, no problem, although they’re pretty trippy and low-fi. Here we’re talking about “Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt” and “Smile From The Streets You Hold”.
When he released To Record Only Water For Ten Days in 2001, the world was re-introduced to John Frusciante as a recording artist, and one who was able to produce music on his own that was different (and some might argue better) than his output in the Chili Peppers.
And so began a new direction in the early to mid-2000’s for John Frusciante, who was not only producing a inarguably high quality output of music now on his own aside from RHCP, but also was beginning to collaborate with other musicians more, such as he did in Ataxia with Joe Lally and Josh Klinghoffer, as well as extensive collaborations with The Mars Volta. His creative output had become very robust, as he released six albums in a six month span, and all this time he was still working with the Chili Peppers, which saw the release of By The Way and the double album Stadium Arcadium in that short span of years.
Other interests John had at this time included lots of multi-tracking, as well as further expanding on his chord vocabulary, harmonic sensibilities, and interest in other instruments including various synthesizers like the mellotron.
John Frusciante, always searching for new things to fuel his fire, finally decided to abandon conventional rock music altogether and dove headlong into electronic, IDM, and acid house music. For some longtime fans, this was considered to be a very confusing move, as by this point John was considered a rock guitar god. What was he doing?! Of course, lots of people (eg. those on the internet) dismissed this move as being just plain baffling, and did not follow John down this road.
On the other hand, electronic music as a whole is a vast and highly creative and experimental field, and yet very suited to more private types, and so John basically fit right in with all of these shadowy figures who made their music late at night and for whomever might listen. Actually, as many music fans know, EDM actually can get quite huge, with certain DJs being enormously popular, but, so far as we know, John didn’t start working with sequencers to be the next Skrillex.
By this time, it seemed as though John was drawing away from the public eye and essentially playing by his own rules. He no longer cared to be a rock star, or even a solo musician who is there to give fans what they expect. As such, his fanbase was looking more to his back catalogue for the John they thought they knew. Developing new fans seemed to be John’s new MO, and, as any indie musician can tell you, this is always a tough thing to do and persistence is key, especially when you’ve garnered such a reputation as one type of musician for so long.
This much was clear when Speed Dealer Moms came about in 2010, seeing John collaborate with Aaron Funk AKA Venetian Snares and Chris McDonald – that a new phase was beginning. If you were a John Frusciante fan at this time, you could feel the change in the air in regards to what was to come. Recorded around the same time as Speed Dealer Moms was Letur-Lefr, which saw release in 2012, and further perplexed fans and delivered the clear message not to cling to expectations any longer. Once PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone came out in the latter months of 2012, that seemed to be the end of John Frusciante the funk guitar god and the true beginning of John Frusciante the musician who did whatever the fuck he felt like.
Still, John did not put the guitar down and leave it down. On projects like Kimono Kult, John once again was back on the guitar, although most RHCP fans would likely never recognize it, as the music was too far removed from anything John was previously associated with. Simultaneously, John was fusing his music with hip hop, working with the Black Knights and RZA.
2015 saw the release of Trickfinger, a self-titled EDM album where John Frusciante AKA Trickfinger finds himself producing music that sounds more along the lines of Aphex Twin’s early work than it does any of the music we’ve previously heard from him. Even the album artwork has much more in common with the likes of, say, Squarepusher than other reference points one might name. At the same time, if you’ve followed John’s music long enough, he has his own melodic and rhythmic sensibility which is quite easy to pick out upon repeated listens to Trickfinger. So if you’re a fan of his earlier work, this is still the same guy you know and love – just don’t expect much in the way of guitars.
So, we ask again, who is John Frusciante? The man is certainly an enigma on many levels, but one thing that seems apparent is that he has a muse and he must follow it when it comes to the music he makes.