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A new beginning for the Chili Peppers

After a rough patch, the veteran L.A. band is back with a new guitarist and a new album due out this month.

August 07, 2011|By Steve Appleford, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A FRESH OUTLOOK: The Chili Peppers -- Chad Smith, left, Josh Klinghoffer, Anthony Kiedis and Flea -- have a new album, "I'm With You," due out this month.
A FRESH OUTLOOK: The Chili Peppers -- Chad Smith, left, Josh Klinghoffer,… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

The first day of rehearsals was another momentous occasion for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was fall 2009, more than three years since the band last toured, and the rockers were beginning the hard work of rebirth with a new guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer. Singer Anthony Kiedis was already en route when he got a disheartening text: Brendan Mullen, local rock club impresario and author, had died of a stroke while celebrating his 60th birthday.

Mullen was a friend but also much more. In 1983, he gave the young Chili Peppers a crucial break in their fledgling career, booking them to play Club Lingerie in Hollywood after Kiedis and bassist Flea played him their demo tape on a boombox while they danced. Mullen saw something in their crazed punk-funk fusion. Decades later, Mullen was writing an oral history on the Chili Peppers, spending long hours interviewing and reminiscing on their shared histories, but now he was gone.

At rehearsal, the mood was grim. "It was sort of a sad hello," Klinghoffer remembers of that first day. "Everybody lost a good friend."

Within the first hour were the beginnings of something called "Brendan's Death Song." It appears on the band's new album, "I'm With You," and starts with a melancholic vocal and acoustic guitar that builds toward a stormy instrumental break true to the emotion of Mullen's days as a central figure in the original L.A. punk scene. "Let me live," sings Kiedis, "so when it's time to die, even the reaper cries."

In a remembrance published in The Times days later, Flea described Mullen as "an intellectual, a musician, a writer, a partier and a regular dude." He also represented a punk-rock community that first inspired and then embraced the Chili Peppers as they carried forward the ethos of that Hollywood underground as a multiplatinum rock band. "I really looked up to X and the Weirdos and the Germs," Flea, 48, says today of that scene. "They were mythological heroes to me. I felt like it was a great duty and responsibility for me to hold up that end of the bargain, to be a good L.A. band."

That mission required another new beginning during the making of "I'm With You," to be released Aug. 30 by Warner Bros. Its 14 songs document a veteran band expanding its voice with the arrival of Klinghoffer, a sometime sideman for PJ Harvey and Beck, who became a Chili Pepper after the exit of guitarist John Frusciante. The new album comes a full five years after the band's last release, the two-disc "Stadium Arcadium," the Chili Peppers' first No. 1 album and the winner of five Grammy Awards.

"It feels like a new band," says Rick Rubin, producer of all Chili Peppers albums since "Blood Sugar Sex Magik" in 1991. "The time off reinvigorated them, and they were hungry to write music."

The results are both familiar and unpredictable, from the straight-ahead funk of "Look Around" to the bright, euphoric piano romp "Happiness Loves Company." There is "Monarchy of Roses," a disco/metal mutation that began as a Flea-Klinghoffer jam, and includes a vocal message that explores "the psyche of friendships within a city," says Kiedis, "and the way your connection with different circles of people can really influence your life."

Lyrics swing sharply from messages of hope to the eternal challenge of human entanglements, as the music wanders with a new buoyancy through sounds funky, jazzy and dreamy, and sudden instrumental jams that are some of the best, most startling moments of the album. The result owes much to the textural, layered approach of Klinghoffer. "Josh kind of creeps up on you," says Flea, who was born Michael Balzary. "He'll rock violently — it's not that. But he's just more subtle."

The new guy

Klinghoffer hasn't been a rock star long. With his first album as a Chili Pepper now behind him, he curls up in a chair on the back patio of a Venice Beach photography studio, smiling, unshaven and bundled up. He's here to be photographed for the cover of a guitar magazine, and inside is his colorful collection of vintage Sears guitars. Today marks his second interview ever.

Sitting beside him is Kiedis, 48, wearing a trucker hat for the punk band Off!, and a seemingly calmer, more self-contained presence than during the band's frantic first decade. "Were we impolite?" he asks with a knowing grin. "We had our moments. We were very immature lads."

When the Chili Peppers returned from the lengthy "Stadium Arcadium" tour in 2007, the mood was dark, and the quartet agreed to take an open-ended break. Within months, Frusciante — an essential writer and player for nearly two decades in and out of the band — had quit permanently.

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