John Frusciante (AKA Trickfinger) isn’t interested in performing. These days, the man who captivated massive stadium crowds with his fretwork is content slicing up samples in his LA studio with cats and a fleet of synthesizers for company. He no longer makes music solely with the intent to release it; in fact, he never intended to release his latest record, an acid house LP that arrived in April on Absurd sublabel Acid Test.
News of the former Chili Peppers’ guitarist making dance music may have raised a few purists’ eyebrows. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when rave was seeding itself in LA, Frusciante had joined the band, recorded Mother’s Milk and BloodSugarSexMagik, and quit for the first time. What followed was a well-documented descent into heroin addiction. But for anyone familiar with Frusciante’s more recent solo output, acid isn’t much of a stretch. By the time he sobered up and rejoined the band for the now-classic Californication, he had discovered synthpop and jungle, and on his final tour eight years ago, he staved off boredom between shows by learning to use a Roland TB-303. The resulting Trickfinger LP, whose live jams involve up to 15 pieces of gear, only made it out of his studio as a Christmas gift for some of Frusciante’s friends, eventually landing in the hands of Acid Test’s Oliver Bristow.
Frusciante has since produced for Wu-Tang-affiliated hip-hop duo Black Knights, collaborated with Venetian Snares as Speed Dealer Moms, and played on Duran Duran’s new album, but hardware and digital engineering remain his primary fascinations. In a recent phone conversation, Frusciante walked us through the records that converted him to dance music.
You just released a record on an Absurd’s acid-geared sublabel, which is a bit of a change in direction for you. Did you have much of a relationship with rave in its early days?
I didn’t like it. Before I joined [the Red Hot Chili Peppers], the band used to talk shit about drum machines in interviews—they kept being compared to the Beastie Boys because they were white, and a lot of their beats back then were kind of similar to jungle. They used to play really fast funk, a bit like when jungle producers speed up samples of soul and funk, so I had an ear for it. I heard jungle beats in my head long before that kind of music was ever made; it’s a logical progression from Jimi Hendrix’ “Fire” drums and things like that. But during the ’90s, I was in such a different world that I didn’t have any awareness of rave culture.
Right. It was a bit of a strange time, overall.
Yeah, and I was a drug addict for most of the time, anyway. I had little awareness of what was going on outside of my house and the weird drug culture that I lived in, which wasn’t about ecstasy. When I stopped being a drug addict, I started going out dancing at jungle clubs and meeting people who put on raves. But yeah, I kind of missed the ’90s.
I remember hearing you talk about your first encounters with rave and feeling everyone around you was unified and on ecstasy.
Yeah, you could hear it right off the records. You didn’t have to be in the club to imagine what it was like, which is how punk was for me as a little kid. When I was into punk, I was 10 or 11 years old. I wasn’t old enough to go out to the shows, but I really wanted to. At that time in LA, violence was a big thing at punk shows, and that seemed exciting to me. I couldn’t be a part of it, so I just listened to the records and imagined the atmosphere around the music. I still feel that when I listen to old rave records from the ’90s. We forget that such a big part of music is what our minds are capable of adding to it. The particular way the human mind creates or hears music is half of what the music is. Music in and of itself doesn’t has any complete value.
Maybe we underestimate imagination.
What the imagination gives to the experience of listening is a big thing. Punk and rave and the original pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll: those periods of music are really important because they were pure energy. The atmosphere around the music was apparent. For me, a lot of the electronic music that’s made today doesn’t seem to be made for people’s imaginations. I don’t hear a lot of atmosphere; I hear a lot of compression. It’s an unfortunate direction. I like when music has mystery around it. There are still individuals making music around the world that has atmosphere and imagination, and who are obscure and unknown. I hope that one day our industry figures out a way to promote this kind of thing, instead of music that drills itself into our heads and is promoted to death. It was really nice for me as a kid to listen to punk rock and have very little idea who the singer of Black Flag was, or who the singer of the Germs was. I just knew I lived in the same city as them, and I knew I breathed the same air as them, and that was enough to set my imagination aflame.
Tell me about some of the records you pulled out when we started talking about rave.
One is a record on the label Suburban Bass. The artist is Johnny Jungle, and the tracks are “Killa Sound” and “What’s On Ya Mind.” It came out in 1995. It’s one of these records that, as simple as it is, I could play over and over and never get tired of it. The overall production is really simple: breakbeats chopped up in a really innovative way, low bass, and samples. The simplicity and spaciousness of it; every little detail of the samples; the really soft sounds that you hear are really wondrous to me. You wouldn’t even notice that stuff if you had a bunch of synthesizers all over it. It’s just a record I could never get tired of.
Another one I pulled out was Komakino, Energy Trance EP. Komakino is a couple of guys from Germany, and again, there isn’t that much information about them. I saw it one day in a record store and bought it because the cover looked cool and they were named after a Joy Division song. But it’s such huge-sounding music. These guys don’t have much—from what I can tell, a 909, an 808, a 303, an Alpha Juno synth and a computer. It’s the opposite of Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares: it’s not sophisticated. It’s kind of stupid music. But they have a great sense of melody, a basic sense of harmony and the Western modes, modulation, key changing and stuff like that. I’ve found very little techno or trance that I loved so much as their music. I’ve bought everything that they’ve ever made and every remix they ever did. At a certain point they stopped producing, and their last couple of 12″s aren’t so good, but almost everything that they’ve done has a very special place in my heart.
The last one I pulled is from the artist Pure White, who also goes by Orca and DJ Crystal, and the record is called 4 AM. Again I know nothing about him, and again, it’s just one of these records that I never get tired of hearing. I once told my friend that if I died and went to heaven and this was the only song playing there, I would be fine. It’s jungle, so the drums are chopped up in a really clever way. I don’t know where the chorus he samples is from, but he seems to understand how to interact with it. There’s a great contrast between the hardness of the beat and the beauty of the chorus, but the song doesn’t sound poppy—it’s really dirty, grungy, and distorted. In electronic music, people have steered in the opposite direction. Everyone wants pristine sound with lots of high-end, real clear, and it makes me happy when I hear people not trying to make everything sound perfect.
How did you find these records?
I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around the world and seeing what record stores had in their electronic section, but it helps to have friends who have grown up around that kind of thing. Aaron (Funk, AKA Venetian Snares) gave me billions upon billions of ’90s rave MP3s, and for a long time those MP3s were the main thing I listened to. It was like a radio station where I could always see the artist and track, and I could always find vinyl versions on Discogs. When I used to dance at jungle clubs, I didn’t have friends who were DJs or producers, so I would take it all in but not know what I was hearing. I didn’t want to collect the music I was out dancing to, because I couldn’t imagine it not in a club.
I had a similar experience when I first started listening to electronic music. I didn’t know what I was hearing, but it was very contextual.
Yeah, and one of the beautiful things about it is hearing it in the kind of space it’s meant to be heard in: a room where people are dancing. When I became friends with Aaron, in 2008, I found out about a lot more stuff than I ever knew about from going to record stores. People are kind of snobby at record stores, I’ve found. They don’t really want to help you that much. There were always certain records in my collection that were nothing like anything else, and I would think, “God, I want more music like this.” That was my feeling the first time I ever heard a 303. And I’d always loved The Prodigy ever since finding their early stuff in like, 1999, but I didn’t know that there was tons of music like that, or that they were great records to listen to at home. You could play them over and over again like a Beatles record.
Do you remember where you were going out in LA?
There was a night in Silver Lake, Concrete Jungle, and it happened at a club called Spaceland. Nowadays Silver Lake is real hipster, but back then it was mainly a Mexican part of town. I would go there every Thursday. There was a couple others around town at that time, but that was my favorite.
What happened to it?
They started combining jungle and hip-hop, and I thought it was really offensive. I had no interest in dancing to hip-hop, and the people that started coming were doing all their crazy shit on the floor. When people dance to jungle, they stay in their own little place, they don’t really get in each other’s way, they’re not doing anything fancy. But when people dance to hip hop, they’re either just acting really cool or they’re showing off. So I stopped going there, and pretty shortly after that the club went under. I ran into one of the DJs from that club recently, when the hip-hop artists that I work with, Black Knights, were doing a show. He asked me why I stopped going, and I said it was because they’d brought in the hip-hop. He was like, “You didn’t like that?” and I said, “I would imagine there were a lot of people who didn’t like that.”
So how did you transition then, and start working with a hip-hop group?
That was a real conscious choice. For about five years, starting with the acid stuff that’s on the Trickfinger record and up until around 2012, I didn’t want to make any particular style of music. My goal was to start making music that was more experimental and abstract, and had to be teaching me something in the process of making it. I always wanted to be challenging myself and do something that I hadn’t done before. Eventually I fell into making what I thought of as another form of progressive rock, but instead of combining classical, rock, and jazz I was combining jungle, synthpop, and what you might call IDM.
Yeah, I was going to ask if you’d ever tried to make jungle.
There are jungle drums on my albums Enclosure and PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone. Both those records have a lot of breakbeats, but there are also guitars and synthesizers. I was trying to do my version of what Black Sabbath or Depeche Mode would sound like with jungle drums. Going faster was a big challenge. Around when I was making acid house stuff, I programmed a jungle-type beat into my Machinedrum that played really nicely at 168 bpm. I was really proud of myself—it didn’t sound tense, the way drum machines have a tendency to sound when you speed them up.
Over a period of three years, I got to a point where I could chop up drums and make them sound relaxed at 250 bpm. To be able to do it, your brain has to literally think in all those little increments at that speed, which a conventional musician has no idea how to do. When you’re playing a guitar fast, you’re not thinking of the accentuation of each note, you’re just playing a bunch of notes next to each other. But when you’re chopping up drums, your head has to be inside of every little beat, and you have to know what step of the bar every beat is on. Beyond 250, 260 bpm, I don’t think it’s possible anymore. You can’t even call it bpm because they aren’t quarter notes anymore, and your brain starts playing tricks on you. That used to happen to me at around 160, but gradually I sped up my brain to be able to do really really fast beats, as fast as I’ve ever heard anybody do.
I combined that with the different musical styles and did two records in progressive synthpop style, and at that point I felt like I had nothing more to say in that direction. So I decided to work within one specific genre. I make music so that I can learn and grow, but it always helps to have human beings in mind. It becomes a challenge to make something that person would like. I felt disconnected from my electronic music friends one night, and I was getting along well with my rapper friends, so I decided to start making hip-hop. I did that for a year and a half or so. Made three records.
Are you still doing it?
No. For the last year and a half I made the decision to stop making music for anybody and with no intention of releasing it, which is what I was doing between 2008 and 2012. I felt that if I took the public into consideration at all, I wasn’t going to grow and I wasn’t going to learn. Being an electronic musician meant I had to woodshed for a while, so I have a good few years’ worth of material from that period that’s never been released.
Do you see yourself continuing to work with acid and hardware?
In my band with Aaron Funk, Speed Dealer Moms, we’ve made a lot of acid house in odd time signatures, but over a few years our music morphed into being more abstract. The 303 was my favorite instrument during that period of time, but I gradually got really good on the 202, and that’s become my main sequencer. The 202 is a hard machine to program, and people usually do really simple, repetitive things on it, but I figured out how to make the 202 pretty much the same to me as playing the guitar. There’s no limit to how I can rhythmically move and think. Since I grew up as a guitar player, it became the way I was best able to express myself. The 202 and samples—those are my favorite instruments.
As far as making acid house, I don’t have any desire to. Recently I’ve been making really abstract music out of samples. I don’t have any preconceived idea of what I’m going to do going into it, I just let the samples guide me, and gradually add in synthesizers and drum machines to it to round it out. At this point I have no audience. I make tracks and I don’t finish them or send them to anybody, and consequently I get to live with the music. The music becomes the atmosphere that I’m living in. I either make really beautiful music that comes from classical, or I make music where the tempo is moving the whole time, and there’s no melodic or rhythmic center. It’s just disorienting music that’s falling apart.
It’s interesting that you say you let the samples map your direction for you. EB has spoken with a couple artists recently, like Nina Kraviz and Mark Leckey, who talk about “ghost in the machine” experiences where synthesizers have their own will, so to speak.
A synthesizer, where you have to connect each component, mirrors a human body, and it’s a mirror of nature as well, contained within one thing. A simple example is that a filter is like your mouth and the oscillator is like the wind coming out of your throat. When you’re dealing with elements like electricity, you’re dealing with an energy source from a mysterious place that we have inside us and makes us alive, you know? And you’re manipulating it. You get to be like a god on the outside, directing it. You could also say the synthesizer is like the parts of your brain that tell your body to do something.
But samples also mirror life, because recording itself is a mirror of sound, and you have the various atmospheres and the various human energies that have contributed to the sound of the history of recorded music. And so for me, there are the same infinite possibilities contained in samples as there are in synthesizers. I can’t imagine getting tired of either samples or synthesizers for that reason: there’s an endless amount of things to discover and an endless amount of ways to manipulate them.
Header Image: Ben Gibbs
Published May 22, 2015.