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Out of Their Tree

By: Alan Light

Two years ago, Red Hot Chili Peppers went to Europe to play in front of the largest crowds of their 20-plus-year career. After surviving numerous personnel changes, drug problems, erratic recordings, relationship dramas, and assorted crises that have broken up countless bands, the Peppers had released back-to-back multiplatinum albums — 1999’s Californication and 2002’s By the Way. Against all odds, they had reached genuine superstar status, and this jaunt saw them headlining three nights at London’s massive Hyde Park. But for Flea — from day one, the bass-playing yin to singer Anthony Kiedis’ yang — these looked like the last shows he would ever perform with the group.

“To tell you the truth, I really didn’t think I’d be here right now doing this,” he says, sprawled barefoot on the floor of a sun-dappled practice room — lined with books and classic punk-rock photos and posters — in his idyllic, rambling Malibu home. “A multitude of things had built up, and it just wasn’t a comfortable time. The band had always been a sanctuary for me — no matter what was going on in my life, the band was a place where I could just be myself and rock. All of a sudden it didn’t feel like that, and I just thought it was time for me to not do it anymore.”

Flea, born Michael Balzary in Australia 43 years ago, is truly the pivot point of the Chili Peppers. With guitarist John Frusciante, he forges the riffs that are the basis of their songs. Alongside drummer Chad Smith, they make up one of rock’s most versatile and powerful rhythm sections, the backbone of the band even at its lowest points. And with his high school friend Kiedis, Flea gives the Chili Peppers a style and soul that has come to symbolize the spirit of latter-day Los Angeles. So while the band has persevered through lineup changes that resemble a game of rock’n’roll musical chairs, Flea’s departure would be serious business indeed.

Eventually, that cloud lifted, the Chili Peppers got back to work, and the result is their ninth studio album, Stadium Arcadium — a 28-song, double-disc set that adds up to some of the best work of their career. Working once again with longtime producer Rick Rubin, the band returned to the Hollywood house where they recorded their 1991 breakthrough, BloodSugarSexMagik, and emerged with a record that mixes old-school Chili Peppers funk with mature melodicism — plus a supersize dose of Frusciante’s flamethrower guitar. From the Zeppelin-esque crunch of “Readymade” to the delicate slink of “Hey,” it’s a powerhouse statement of purpose, an album that Flea describes as “the sum of everything that we are as a band.”

The making of Stadium Arcadium was as notable as the outcome. During the almost yearlong recording process, this notoriously fractious gang of four were able to put aside their differences, their competitiveness, and cohere better than ever. “This time,” says Kiedis, “those egos — and when I say ‘those egos,’ I mean all of us — were feeling decent and confident, respectful, as excited about the other guys’ stuff as we were about our own. If someone came in with a great chord change for a song or a great rhythm or a great groove, by the time it was finished, everybody had jizzed all over it, and it had become a real community piece of property.”

To read the rest of the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover story, pick up the May issue of Spin on newsstands everywhere, or subscribe now!