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Inside Frusciante's home studio—where Enclosure was hatched.
I remember when I made the transition to following my heart: I was listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” solo, and I thought, “This is good guitar playing.” In no way is something by Steve Vai better just because he does fancier things or because his muscles are stronger. This music coming out of this guitar is as good as music can be. Television’s Marquee Moon album gave me a similar feeling. They weren’t particularly muscular players, but it’s a very guitar-oriented record. There’s lots of soloing, and it’s beautiful music. I realized that I didn’t have to put so much intention into my playing, and that I didn’t have to make impressing the listener such a focal point of my practicing and performing. That’s the reason I played the way that I did on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and my first solo album. I was specifically not trying to be impressive, but to command the relationship between my imagination and the instrument.
How did you conceptually select songs for Enclosure?
My object was not to feature my songs, but to use the songs as a place to express myself sonically and rhythmically, with the drums as the primary instrument—more so than the melody. That’s really the change that’s taken place in the last 30 years in electronic-based forms of music. Drums have moved to the top of the hierarchy of musical elements, and typical chord changes or other elements aren’t a necessity in making music. In some ways I can go farther out than I’d be able to go if I didn’t have a song beneath me. For instance, the stuff I’ve done with chopping up jazz drum solos, doing drums that are in time with the song on certain accents and off time on other hits. I haven’t heard anybody go that far with sampling and chopping up off-time drums.
Like on “Crowded”?
Yeah, for sure. I’m particularly proud of that song. I felt like I’d reached my peak.
So some of those drums sound live, but aren’t?
No, they’re chopped-up breakbeats, where you take a recording of something like the famous “amen break” and chop it into as many pieces as possible. It’s just like slicing tape, only you’re able to cut much more precisely. Rearranging the order, changing the speed, changing the sound—it’s an area of expression absolutely equal to playing an instrument. Composers have never had the opportunity to be so detailed with rhythm. People working with tape could never edit with such rhythmic precision. It’s an incredible thing to be able to do. God, if I would have known how to do this when I was a teenager, I would’ve been so happy!
But it’s probably not easy for everyone to grasp! It sounds complex.
It’s just like anything else: You practice for about five years, and it’s not hard anymore. Your mind starts forming a sense of groove. For a traditional musician, groove is something you feel, not something you think about. Boy, the struggles people have with teaching people how to have better groove—it’s like they don’t have the language for it. I have my own numerical form of theory, and I could never stop learning from it. As much as there will always be things for me to figure out on my guitar off of CDs, there will always be things to study on the computer when it comes to groove and programming and being fully conscious of the degrees of “off-timeness.” That's what groove is: varying degrees of off-timeness and varying degrees of accent and non-accent. There’s just tons to study there.
Speaking of "off-timeness," you have a knack for creating tension—like when you sing against the tempo of your songs. How do you approach this?
For Enclosure, the vocals were recorded before the instrumentation was complete. I’d start a song by programming a really simple one- or two-bar drum-machine thing, just a steady guide to sing and play guitar to. That could have been a problem, because normally people sing to fit the atmosphere that’s there, and if there’s only a guitar and a simple drum machine they’d tend to sing timidly. I learned not to do that. That initial vocal take you hear on the record is me giving my all.
The New Style
John Frusciante is pumped up about a project he just wrapped with the Black Knights, a hip-hop duo featuring Wu-Tang affiliates Crisis the Sharpshoota and Rugged Monk. At first it was just friends hanging out and rapping over beats, but eventually the songs grew into a trilogy of albums (to be released at six-month intervals) and a new way for Frusciante to make music socially. He created the soundscapes for the Black Knights’ lyrics.
“I discovered a new type of band/collaboration,” says Frusciante. “It’s really fun, and I'm as free as when I’m working alone. We have arguments all the time, but they take place within the music.”
The first of these albums, Medieval Chamber, appeared in January. According to Crisis, Medieval Chamber represents the musicians getting to know each other musically, but the trio really hits its stride with the second album, The Almighty (due this summer).
“John is so musically inclined,” says Crisis. “I learn something every time we hang out on the music tip. It’s like rapping with a band. All his beats really have feeling, and that’s what’s missing from hip-hop right now. It’s easy to catch a concept from them, too.”
Frusciante produces, plays guitar, and uses his own vocals as samples. Says Crisis: “John puts beats together beautifully. He engineers the session, cleans it up, and gives it its own feel and own world beautifully. He plays the guitar beautifully. He sings beautifully. Whatever he brings to the table, we’re all for it!”
There’s still a lot of guitar on this album. Do you use rhythm guitar as a tracking guide before laying down other parts?
Yes, I’d record the guitar as a basis for everything else, but then I’d think purely in terms of sonic composition and try to move away from the initial concept.
What are you doing with the guitar parts on “Cinch”? It’s basically a six-minute guitar solo.
I was most interested in learning to see the guitar more like a piano player sees a keyboard. Certain things that come naturally to keyboardists don’t come naturally to guitarists. Inverting chords is really easy on piano, because the notes look the same in every register, but on guitar you need to work in various positions on various areas of the neck. For instance, one of my favorite musicians is Tony Banks, the keyboard player from Genesis. I’ve loved his music my whole life, but I couldn’t write chord progressions like the things he did on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Foxtrot. It was mysterious to me because I had a deep emotional connection to the music, but I couldn't learn it on guitar. I definitely couldn’t write things along those lines! It’s basically this swift ability to be able to modulate, to shift from one key or mode to another in the midst of a chord progression.
I was stuck writing chord progressions that shared the same seven notes, like Am-C-G-F-Em. If you move to D major, something has shifted—what was F is now F#. That can be inconvenient when you’re soloing, because you’re liable to make mistakes and make an idiot of yourself.
One of my rules was to not use the low strings as a guide to what key I’m in, like “B minor equals 7th fret, G minor equals 3rd fret.” In songs like “Cinch,” there’s a modulation on almost every chord. But just because my tonal center changes doesn’t mean I have to move to a different fret. When I was in the Chili Peppers, I made the chord changes I soloed over easy so I didn’t have to keep switching keys. Now I do the opposite.