Children are born, but a friend dies. A new guitarist arrives as the old one leaves. And a band is reborn after an overdue break. Beginnings and endings.
That's I'm With You, truly the beginning of a new era for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The 10th album of the Los Angeles band's singular career sees the band refreshed, renewed, once again working with producer Rick Rubin (their fifth partnership, including the last album, 2006's monster Stadium Arcadium two-CD tour de force). It expands the same combination of funk and finesse, intensity and tenderness that's made the Peppers sine qua non in modern rock, but with a new set of life experiences from the intervening years that coalesced into a dynamically fresh start.
The album was released on Aug. 30, followed by festival appearances in Asia and Latin America and a European swing through the end of the year and a full U.S., Europe and Australia concert schedule in 2012.
I'm With You was written collectively by the four members – founding singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith (who's been with the band since 1989) and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (the new guy, though he's been a long-time friend of the band and served as second guitarist on much of the Stadium Arcadium tour). That process, coming after the band took two years off following its 2006-2007 world tour. happened in a full year of sessions starting in a Hollywood basement and continuing in the unlikely idyll of Big Sur, where they used a studio converted from a barn at Beach Boy Al Jardine's spread. Recording was done in Los Angeles and at Malibu's Shangri-La Studios. The result is the most heartfelt, playful and accomplished album in the band's career, which is really saying something from the artists that gave us "Give It Away," "Under the Bridge" and "Californication."
"It's a new beginning for us," says Smith. "We're very fortunate to be able to do what we love to do. During our time off everyone, I felt, had grown as people and as musicians. I think that's very reflected in taking risks and growing as a band and as band members and as people. That's all in there, and that's all in the pie."
The very opening of the album heralds the tour de force to follow, with an exuberant flurry of drums and metallic guitar fanfare opening the multi-faceted, multi-chromatic "Monarchy of Roses." The song, which Kiedis says is about the "monarchy of friendships" in the community that continues to nurture the Peppers, mixes funk and hard rock (the working title at one point was "Disco Sabbath") as only the Peppers can. And that kick-off introduces Klinghoffer loud and clear – no surprise to his band mates.
"I called up Josh and asked him if he wanted to be in the band and he wasn't sure because he had a lot going on and wasn't motivated by fame and power," says Flea, about the origins of that song and the current roster. "He just wants to follow his muse. He thought about it and then started thinking he wanted to do it, so I said 'Well, come over. Let's jam.' We sad down in my little basement and played, just the two of us. We started playing the beginning, the Sabbath-y, heavy part. We kind of looked at each other like, 'This is good.'"
"We had a decade-plus history together, knowing each other and playing with each other and playing with friends," says Klinghoffer, who had collaborated with Frusciante on various projects as well as played with such L.A. bands as Thelonious Monster. "It did seem more seamless to me than you would think, but I just think that's because there was a lot of love for each other in the room from day one and before."
Still, he brings a distinct and wide-ranging approach to playing and writing that is clear throughout the albums. But that's just one of what proves to be many new elements. Flea brought some new approaches to the album by writing some on piano (he studied piano and music theory at USC during the hiatus), Klinghoffer added dimensions to the sound not just with is playing but with his writing and some complementary vocals, while Smith brought in an array of textures beyond past Peppers recordings, teaming often with Brazilian-born percussionist Mauro Refosco (who worked with Flea in the Atoms for Peace all-star ensemble) and in several songs joined by Latin-percussion great Lenny Castro. Pianist Greg Kurstin (The Bird and the Bee) also appears on several tracks and Mike Bolger added trumpet to "Take Me Home."
Even some of the most familiar Chili Peppers trademarks and territories sound nicely, well, unfamiliar here both by the Klinghoffer infusion and the spirit the others brought to the project following the time off. The Flea bass that pops open funky "Factory of Faith" and "Annie Wants a Baby," the flash-rock rush of "Goodbye Hooray," the loose-limbed turnarounds in the closing jam of "Ethiopia" (inspired by Flea and Klinghoffer getting lost in that country while on a music charity organization trip), the speak-sing-piano lure of "Even You Brutus?" and the wide, joyous, familial embrace of the closing "Dance, Dance, Dance."
And Kiedis provided his richest set of highly personal observations and colorful characters – largely drawn from the band's fertile Hollywood community with varying degrees of reality, such as the titular figures of "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" and "Annie Wants a Baby." Speaking of babies, he credits the birth of his first child for some of a new attitude, noting that he's no longer "the most important person in my life." This all figures in to the songs.
"If you put four guys in a small room every day for a year to write music, eventually the truth is going to come out," says Kiedis. "Eventually the representation of where we're at in our lives is going to end up in the music, in the lyrics, in the arrangements of the songs and the feelings of the songs. That's what we did. We decided we're not going to write until we have 10 good songs, we're not going to write until we have 20 good songs. We're going to write for one year. That way we can let the truth come out."
That year got off to a poignant, if personally painful, start. It was Oct. 12, 2009, Klinghoffer had been invited to replace John Frusciante, who shortly before had decided to leave the band, and this was the first official writing session for the reconstituted quartet after the two-year break. Just before coming in, though, Kiedis got the news that Brendan Mullen – who had given the band its first gig in 1983 at Hollywood's Club Lingerie and remained a friend, fan and mentor through the years – had passed away following a stroke three days after his 60th birthday. After Kiedis arrived and shared the sad word, Klinghoffer, in his first act as a full Chili Pepper, started strumming a plangent acoustic guitar progression.
"Without any discussion, Josh started playing those chords and clearly the idea of dying and the beauty of dying and the everything of dying was on my mind," Kiedis says, adding that at the time of his death, Mullen was collaborating with the band on a book, Brendan's Death Song, about its career.
A melody quickly emerged to the singer, but it took months for "Brendan's Death Song" song to take shape, as if the subject was too much to process in the early days. But when it take shape, it happened organically, an elegy to a close friend that, as Kiedis says, "goes on this journey," a trek that in many ways is the path the band has taken in all those years.
"I mean, obviously when someone that you care about a lot dies it's such a poignant thing," says Flea. "It's mourning and having this incredible sense of loss, but also huge appreciation for them and who they were in your life and who they were in the world and your own appreciation for life and how much to treasure it. Your priorities become so apparent when you're dealing with the death of a loved one."
But the song's not about death. It's about life. As is the whole album. That starts with the energy infusion of the lineup. And the title – which also originated with Klinghoffer — says it all.
"It instigates solidarity right off the bat," says Kiedis. "It has a very good feeling and it's something that brings people together. It's not an alienator. It's just like a little chandelier of sunlight above the songs. Or not."
And it perfectly captures not just the spirit of this album, but the entire span of the Red Hot Chili Peppers – from when Flea and Kiedis first shared their love of music in high school to welcoming young Klinghoffer into the fold, from when they first walked in to Club Lingerie and convinced Mullen to give them a gig to headlining the biggest festivals and venues on five continents. It's about celebrating the group, community, family. They're with us. We're with them.