There’s a battle being waged in John Frusciante’s mind. In his musical world of juxtapositions and genre marriages, the traditional spars with the far-out, and mathematical equations somehow compute into expressions of feeling. The guitar will always be a bedrock instrument for the former Red Hot Chili Pepper, but his new weapons of choice are machines. “The Roland MC-202 [an early-’80s synthesizer/sequencer] is one of my favorite instruments,” he says. “The same goes for drum machines, samplers, the computer, and other synthesizers.”
For Frusciante, the main appeal of these instruments is that once you learn to manipulate them, you can produce all types of instrumental sounds instantly. Frusciante actually has six MC-202s, which he uses in various combinations to translate guitar parts into synthesized parts. With multiple machines, he can manipulate a single guitar string per machine, and then endlessly refine each string’s sound.
“At this point I’m as fluent in programming as I am on guitar,” he says. “Since I’ve learned the language and integrated it with my natural tendencies as a musician, it sometimes feels like I’m a commander in a war. Like there’s fu**ed-up shit going on, and I have to fix it. Like there are two sides arguing, and one side has to win and one side has to lose. One side has to be captured and enslaved to the other side. In some ways it’s probably not that different from playing a war video game. I read books about subjects like war because they remind me of how I think when I make music.”
Frusciante emphasizes the fact that programmed instruments are “obedient to the mind”— a composer’s most important instrument. He now feels there are no physical obstacles between the music in his imagination and the sounds he creates. He says he’s equally inspired by 20th-century classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Iannis Xenakis, and more recent electronic experimentalists like Tom “Squarepusher” Jenkinson, who is both a classical bass virtuoso and a master programmer.
Frusciante says he was introduced to electronic music when he formed Speed Dealer Moms, an “experimental acid house” group, with friends Aaron Funk and Chris McDonald. Six years later, Frusciante has released Enclosure, his 11th solo album, which relies heavily on programming. He views it as a personal musical breakthrough, a marriage of intricate guitar compositions and the electronica knowledge he acquired while creating prior albums like The Empyrean and PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone.
“It’s a great time to be a musician,” says the prolific Frusciante. He tells Premier Guitar why he feels so strongly about that while candidly describing his recent music-making process.
Can you tell us how you fell in love with guitar and why you wanted to play?
When I was a little kid, it seemed clear that if I learned how to play an instrument, I’d be able to play the music I heard in my head, music I’d never heard in the real world. My parents wouldn't get me an electric guitar, though. I tried to start playing when I was 7, but I thought acoustic was boring—it wasn’t the sound that I wanted to hear. I managed to get an electric guitar when I was 12. As a little kid in Santa Monica, Led Zeppelin and Kiss were the big things. I would hear Jimmy Page and wonder how a person’s hands could get those sounds. Guitar for me has always been about the sound of the instrument, not the physicality. Physicality is just this thing between your imagination and the sound that comes out.
Is expression the same for you on all instruments? Or is guitar a special tool?
The guitar is the best way for me to study other people’s music. Since I started playing, I’ve probably spent more time learning off records than doing any other activity in life. Doing that has so many values, among them the ability to think about music in intellectual terms. Not just hearing what you like and enjoy, but analyzing it and getting inside the heads of the people who played or wrote it. I like learning all the parts of a piece of music so I really know why I feel what I feel in the best terms that my mind is capable of understanding. I like to play one of the parts, but be able to visualize the rest of the parts and think about their relationship to each other in terms of intervals and rhythmic spaces.
In a statement attached to your Outsides EP, you said, “Rock music is electronic music.” What do you mean?
Traditional musicians have this prejudice that if someone’s not physically doing something you can see, then they aren’t a legitimate musician. That’s just ignorance. In the years 1500, 1600, 1700, or 1800, those at the top of the musical hierarchy were composers. And composers weren’t doing anything that people would gawk at—they thought of music in their minds and had tools at their disposal to create it, the most powerful tool being music notation. Instrumentalists served at the pleasure of the composer. They were not like lead guitarists today. A great violinist was somebody who performed the music of great composers, and if they stood out for having particularly expressive technique, they might be featured in a concerto or something. Traditional musicians get lost in thinking that the physicality of an instrument has some inherent value unto itself.
You’re a technically gifted guitarist—but would you say you’re more of a “gut” player?
When I was growing up I had a guitar teacher who told me that because I couldn't play scales picking every note fast, I wasn’t a good guitarist. I think that attitude is wrong. For one thing, I don't think picking every note sounds very good. I know from chopping up samples that the beginning of a guitar note is the sound of the pick, and it lasts a pretty long time. If you pick every note and play very fast, you hear what people like Yngwie sound like. I love Yngwie’s playing, but it’s not the greatest sound to be picking every note, because you hear more of the pick attack than the sound of the note. Allan Holdsworth doesn’t pick every note, and I consider it a more expressive way to play fast. There’s more tonal variety. There’s more room for expression. In the ’80s, guitarists thought that because somebody played cleanly, or could pick every note fast, or do a lot of fancy tricks, that made them a good guitar player. Guitar playing got lost on that road to a certain degree. It’s not as if being studious and practicing are not advantageous for a guitar player—they are! But the goals are to see the instrument clearly in your mind, produce beautiful music, and express something.