Red Hot Chili Peppers Remember Taylor Hawkins and Kurt Cobain Before Performing 3 Songs in Stern Show Debut
Anthony Kiedis, Chad Smith, Flea, and John Frusciante sit with Howard on the heels of their new album, “Unlimited Love”April 5, 2022
It was a show for the ages on Tuesday as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sat down with Howard for the very first time. Singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist John Frusciante, and drummer Chad Smith joined the Stern Show for an epic, two-hour long interview touching upon everything from the recent loss of friend and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Taylor Hawkins to fond memories of the band’s short-lived tour with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The chart-topping superstars also performed live in the SiriusXM Garage in Los Angeles, wowing listeners with energetic renditions of two all-time classics as well as the latest single from their brand-new album “Unlimited Love.”
Arriving last Friday, the band’s 12th studio effort doubles as its first with Frusciante since 2006’s “Stadium Arcadium.” The on-again, off-again guitarist’s career with the Peppers has been more of a roller coaster than a straight line. Frusciante replaced founding guitarist Hillel Slovak after his death in 1988, and quickly became an instrumental part of the increasingly popular band’s sound. John quit the band in 1992, rejoined in 1998, parted ways with them again in 2009, and—after spending a decade making solo electronic music—reunited with Kiedis and company once more in 2019.
“What made you ready to come back for this album?” Howard wondered.
“It’s a certain amount of soul searching that I’d done. It seemed like I had changed and grown enough as a person to where it felt like it would be a beautiful thing to have another chance to do it right,” Frusciante told him.
“You’ve got to be in sync with four people,” he continued. “It’s an intense thing to do, and I’ve found for myself I’ve needed to clear my head of it, and figure out who I am as a person, and I’ve really wanted to have that closeness and interaction again.”
“John seems to be that catalyst, that guy who makes you guys elevate your game,” Howard told the band. “Every time John is in the band, the band just seems like it goes to a certain level.”
“He’s more than a catalyst,” Kiedis said. “He’s our brother. He’s our family. I think just being around him and seeing how much he pours into what he does is infections, it’s contagious, it’s inspiring.”
Howard wondered if it had been easy for Chad, Anthony, and Flea to welcome John into the fold for the third time.
“There was definitely something in the air because without knowing John wanted to come back and without knowing Flea had interactions with John musically, suddenly I felt overwhelmed with the feeling: ‘How do we get John back?’” Anthony said, adding. “I was shocked when Flea told me that John was interested, and he had been playing with John.”
“There were no hard feelings. There were no resentments. There were no regrets,” Kiedis made a point of adding. “It was time for a change.”
Chad Pays Homage to Taylor Hawkins
In addition to celebrating the band’s new album, Chad made a point of celebrating the life and musical contributions of drummer Taylor Hawkins, who passed away unexpectedly last month at the age of 50. Rocking out Tuesday morning on a bass drum that read “Taylor,” Chad told Howard precisely how much the late Foo Fighters drummer meant to him.
“I loved Taylor. He was one of my best friends … We’re still shocked and so saddened by his passing,” Smith said, explaining the Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters had grown close touring together in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. “He loved life, you know. He was a real beacon full of positive energy. I’m going to miss him so much.”
Howard admitted he was also quite fond of Taylor, who had appeared many times as a guest on the Stern Show. As Chad explained it, the feeling was mutual.
“He loved you, Howard,” Smith said, explaining Taylor had helped convince Chad to bring the Chili Peppers onto the Stern Show in the first place.
The two drummers were such great friends that Chad asked Taylor to be godfather to his son Beckett. “He goes … ‘Yeah, what do I got to do?’” Smith recalled with a laugh. “I go, ‘Not really anything.’ He goes, ‘Great, I can do that.’”
Nirvana Made Them Nervous
As one of rock and roll’s most enduringly popular acts, the Chili Peppers have played alongside scores of legendary bands at the heights of their fame. On Tuesday, the quartet reminisced about touring on the heels of its multi-platinum breakthrough album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” in 1991 and getting the chance to headline for everyone from Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins to Nirvana, which had just dropped its seminal album “Nevermind.”
“It was an amazing time in music,” Howard said. “What was that tour like?”
“With Nirvana there was just a heavy magic to them, like just this feeling that they were this powerful entity to be respected,” Flea recalled.
“When we were still playing in clubs, it really felt like a life-or-death thing—like we had to succeed at what we were doing,” John recalled of the Chili Peppers’ earlier years on the road. “Our shows had to have an energy. Our shows had to move people. People had to be dancing … We put ourselves under that pressure of wanting to be good.”
“You know who was good?” Kiedis interrupted. “Nirvana. When we played with them, they were just good. I mean, that was a life changer.”
“For me, that feeling John is so beautifully describing, it was just natural … to have an energy, to have a passion, to have a live-or-die aesthetic to everything we did,” he continued. “But I feel like Nirvana had that naturally as well. They were certainly good at their instruments and songwriting and chemistry and all that, but then they also just had a combustibility that came with birth or came from god or came from the planets or something.”
Howard was curious about Anthony’s interactions with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
“I was usually pretty nervous whenever I was hanging around with him just because I was in awe,” Kiedis said, explaining Cobain was usually quite shy. “But Flea and I had some nice moments with him at some MTV show where we snuck away backstage and just sat with him while he was getting ready to play, and that was a nice experience.”
“[Cobain] was loose and warm and inviting and relaxed,” Kiedis recalled, adding, “He was a beautiful dude and he left us with a ton of unbelievable music and energy.”
Covering Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’
The Chili Peppers have successfully covered numerous tunes over the years, from the classic Jimi Hendrix cut “Castles Made of Sand” to the funky Ohio Players tune “Love Rollercoaster,” but none garnered as much attention as their unique rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”
Howard was curious how such an ambitious and courageous cover came to be.
“Flea was saying what a good idea it would be to do a heavy metal version of ‘Higher Ground,’ John recalled. “For us, it was like, ‘It sounds like a cool idea. Let’s try it.’”
The cover came out decades ago, but as Chad told Howard it was only recently that he ran into Stevie and heard the recording icon’s firsthand opinion of it. “[My friend] said, ‘Hey Stevie, what do you think of the Chili Peppers? Did you like the way they covered ‘Higher Ground’? [Stevie] goes, ‘I like the publishing checks,’” Smith recalled with a laugh.
Flea’s relationship with Stevie, meanwhile, got of to an inauspicious start. “I had a funny experience with him once in a hotel lobby in Detroit,” he said, explaining he’d always been a big fan of Stevie’s and ran down to the lobby as soon as he learned he was there. “I said, ‘Stevie, hi, I’m Flea. I play in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I just wanted to say hello. We played your cover, and I love you.’ I kind of waited, and I felt awkward … and he ignored me,” Flea continued, saying it wasn’t until he walked away that Wonder acknowledged him and then immediately asked the band to perform at one of his fundraisers.
“Since then, I’ve met him a number of times and he’s always been really generous of spirit and kind and engaging,” Flea added.
“Under the Bridge”
The Peppers kicked their trio performances off with “Under the Bridge,” which, despite being one of their biggest songs, started in a very small way. “I wrote a little poem to myself, which was on the very last page of my notebook and, sitting with [“Blood Sugar Sex Magik” producer] Rick Rubin, he’s like, ‘… Well, what’s this poem on the back page?’” Anthony recalled after confirming the lyrics came at a time when he felt like he had alienated himself from others. “So, I sang it to him, and he said, ‘That’s a song.’”
Though Anthony’s words had a “built-in melody,” the music itself was inspired partially by punk rockers the Minutemen and primarily by “Castles Made of Sand,” “Bold as Love,” and “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix. “They’re all in this category of this certain style of guitar playing and chord changes,” John said of the “Axis: Bold as Love” tracks. “We covered ‘Castles Made of Sand’ all through the ‘Mother’s Milk’ tour, so it was in the back of my head that we could do a song like that someday. And, when Anthony had the ‘Under the Bridge’ idea, it just seemed like that would be a perfect place to do a song of that type.”
As far as that unmistakable choral ending, the band wound up getting a little help from another mother—John’s. “We needed John’s mom and her church choir to end it,” Anthony noted.
“It just seemed like she was the right person to do it,” John added.
“These Are the Ways”
Switching gears to something off the new album, Kiedis and company prepared to play “These Are the Ways.”
Kiedis told Howard the song was borne from a “beautiful arrangement” and lyrical melody John had brought to the band. “It almost felt like a classical orchestra because it just kept crescendo-ing as the song went further, and really all I had to do is fill in some lyrical blanks,” Kiedis said. “My job is to listen to what they’re playing, and go drive around my car, and listen some more, and wait until some words start falling down into their place, write them down, and refine it a little bit.
The band confessed they were “slightly” under-rehearsed and had only performed “These Are the Ways” one other time. “We played it the other night at the Henry Fonda,” Kiedis said, adding that, unlike a few of their previous stadium hits, this one was suitable for any venue. “I like the songs on this record because to me they make sense in a club, a laundromat, a stadium, on the moon—just about anywhere.”
“Are you nervous?” Howard asked him.
“I would be nervous either way … I try to [get nervous]. It makes me feel good. The juices are flowing. I care,” Kiedis said before turning to Flea. “You nervous?” he asked his bandmate.
“Yeah, a little bit. Just enough. I know how it goes and I’m ready,” Flea responded before diving into the song.
“Give It Away”
The Chili Peppers closed things out with ‘Give It Away,” a fitting choice considering they end most of their shows with the “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” lead single. “It’s just a nice sentiment to leave them with, and also to leave ourselves with, and it’s hard to follow,” Anthony explained. “It does not get old. It’s a song that has been fun to play 10,000 times without getting too boring.”
The idea of the song came from one of Anthony’s former girlfriends—German singer Nina Hagen. “She impregnated me with this thought of, ‘Give your stuff away, you’ll feel better,’” he said before recalling Nina told him it felt good after giving him her leather jacket. “That idea stuck with me, but really my memory is of Flea playing that bass line and … the minute I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s going to be nice to sing to.’”
“For me, many of my most long-lasting musical ideas … come from jamming with the band, with these three guys and in the spur of the moment when I just play something ‘cause I want to honor them and I want them to be happy,” Flea noted of his contribution to the hit.
For the actual writing of the words, Anthony described what turned out to be an arduous experience. “I definitely freestyled in rehearsal, and we just kept it,” he said. “But I did sit there on the couch next to the microphone furiously writing lyrics to the last second before recording because there was verse to fill.”
After blowing Howard and co-host Robin Quivers away with their intense live version, Anthony confirmed that even he was stirred up by his bass player’s wild movements during the performance. “I saw a reflection to my left, and I thought, ‘Somebody in the lobby is getting down,’” he said before adding, “Then I realized it was Flea. … It’s inspiring.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Unlimited Love” is available now. Click here and use code STERN at checkout to buy the album for just $5.