Flea can’t pinpoint the exact moment he knew the Red Hot Chili Peppers needed to take a different direction on their new album, The Getaway, out June 17th, but he vividly recalls the feeling. “I felt like we we were starting to do the same thing we’ve always done,” the bassist tells Rolling Stone. “I could kind of feel it on the last record [2011’s I’m With You.] I knew what we were gonna do or how we were gonna do it before we even did it.”
He decided it was time for a big change: Rick Rubin, who had produced every RHCP album back to 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, would sit this one out. In his place they brought in Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who radically switched up their working methods. We spoke with Flea about the band’s creative breakthrough, his devastating snowboarding accident that significantly delayed the recording, their ongoing tour and what the future might hold for Atoms for Peace.
First off, tell me how your broke your arm snowboarding.
Oh, dude, it was crazy. I was at this fancy ski resort in Montana. I had been snowboarding for three days. I was having the greatest time of my life and the funny part of the story is this: I was snowboarding with Anthony [Kiedis] and we ran into Lars Ulrich. He had a house up there so we were snowboarding down with Lars’ kids and me and Anthony. We are laughing down the mountain – hooting and hollering, having the greatest time.
Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers have the same managers. At one point we stopped to have a cup of tea. I said to Lars, “We should take a picture of one of us lying in the snow all misshapen and stuff, like Pollyanna when she falls off the house. And take a picture and trick [our management company] Q Prime that one of us broke our leg.” We were laughing about it and literally 40 seconds later, we were jetting down a mountain going like 50 miles an hour, and I just whipped out so bad. I couldn’t see and I had this flat spot on the mountain and bam: I just smashed my arm. I broke it in like five places and got really bad nerve damage. Big pieces of bone got shorn off. I just completely fucking trashed my arm. It was a big, big complicated surgery to get it all back and six months of not being able to play bass.
What happened after you fell?
They stuck a jar of Vicodin down my throat and I was on a morphine drip in the ambulance. I went to the hospital in Montana. I went back to L.A. to have the surgery done. It was hard. It was a very difficult, painful, sad experience.
What was the moment of impact like? How painful was it?
When the bone initially broke, I knew it really hurt. My arm started swelling up right away, and I thought I just really tweaked it. I didn’t want to accept that it was broken. They tried to put me in one of those little sleds so I could be carried down by the ski patrol. I refused to go. I snowboarded down the mountain. I thought I just tweaked it, but when I got down the mountain I was like, “OK, I think I really broke it.” That’s when they put me in an ambulance. I thought at worst I just broke it and I’d be in a cast for a month or two. And then a gal looked at my X-rays and said, “There are big pieces of bone shorn off. You broke it in five places. There’s nerve damage. This is going to be a major surgery.”
How long ago did this happen?
This happened in February of last year. We were just about to record our record then. I was so bummed and it just kind of dawned on me that I felt like I let everybody down because we couldn’t record our record, but we had written all our stuff. I was just really, really sad. I had a long rehab process. I had a really great surgeon, Doctor John Itamura. And I got better and now I’m totally back on top.
I’m sure part of you worried the accident would permanently impact your bass playing.
Yeah, man. It wasn’t so scary when I wasn’t playing. There were four or five months where I didn’t play at all. I just sat on the couch all day. During that part, I just figured I’d be able to play again. What was really scary was when I started to play again. I went to play just one little note and a bunch of pain shot up my arm. It hurt so bad. For the first month I was just trying to play the simplest things and my hand wouldn’t do it. I just thought, “Fuck!” What was scarier than never being able to play again was not being able to do what I’ve always done, not being free, not being able to do my thing and continue as a bass player.
It was about three months of playing before I was able to go in and record our record. I still wasn’t there all the way. There were a few things my hand didn’t want to do, but it’s all back now. It’s totally fine. I’m happy and I’m grateful.
Was Danger Mouse attached to the record before the accident or did he enter the picture afterwards?
He was attached before, but I think we all sort of felt differently about it. There was a lot of confusion about what the right thing to do was. We weren’t really sure. We wanted to use a different process from what we were used to. Even though I felt I wanted to be out of my comfort zone and make myself vulnerable and do something new, I didn’t know what my right direction was out of my comfort zone.
Brian [Danger Mouse] wanted us to create in the studio. But the way we’ve always created was we went into the rehearsal studio, wrote all the stuff, put all the songs together and then Rick [Rubin] would come in during the last period and go through them with us and help us organize them. He’d tell us what was good and what wasn’t. It was a really healthy relationship. And then the studio was just a place to document all the work we’d done in the rehearsal studio.
Brian was saying, “OK, you wrote all these songs. Some I like, some I don’t. But I really want you guys to create and write in the studio with me there.” He’s from a hip-hop background and that’s how he puts down tracks. You put down a drum machine and add bass, piano and guitar, whatever it is. I was real hesitant to do that. It wasn’t because I didn’t like the idea of doing that process. I just didn’t want to lose the mightiness of us as a band, the raw identity. We played together and improvised. We had a spontaneity and a warmth, the human interaction that happens when you do that. I was worried that if we did too much of what he wanted to do, we would lose what was great about us. I was also worried that if we moved too far the other way, he wouldn’t get what he was good at. I was just like, “Fuck, we might end up getting stuck in this middle ground.”
“I just didn’t want to lose the mightiness of us as a band, the raw identity.”
I just thought, “Well, look, we’ll go in and in the first week if it’s not happening, we’re out of there.” I was going to do what he wanted and embrace it and see what happened. The greatest hope in my mind was that we would be able to be ourselves, as powerful as we could be, and he’ll be himself in his most empowered way. It could be something new for us both. On the first day, it was apparent to me that was what was going to happen. I really felt great about it because we started writing in a different way. It was really fun and I started finding there was a thoughtfulness when we recorded like that and wrote like that, that we didn’t get otherwise.
Did any of the pre-accident songs make the album?
Writers write and record way more than we need. Of the 13 songs on the record, I believe that eight came from before. Five of them were written with Brian in the studio.
The last record was the first one with Josh Klinghoffer on guitar. I imagine you feel the band has really jelled more as a foursome since then.
Totally. John [Frusciante] was such a huge creative force in our band as a musician, a songwriter and a guy with his own aesthetic and sense of self. When Josh joined it was such a big change. We made the last record with Josh, but we had never played a show with him. He joined the band and the next day we tried to write a record. We recorded it having never played a show, really not knowing him. I mean, I knew him peripherally. He was a friend of John’s and we were acquaintances and we could chat, but I really didn’t know him, especially as intimately as you get to know someone when you’re in a band together. We hadn’t really established a language yet with each other.
After five years in the road and a million arguments and telling each other we love each other, we’ve had time to establish that language, so making this record was a lot more fluid and easy and more natural in that way. We’ve really started to build up that vernacular and that kind of communication artistically as well as personally.
I’m sensing that a lot of these songs are about heartbreak and loss. Is that fair?
Umm … Yeah. I think that you have to talk to Anthony about that because he writes the words, but yeah, I think there is a lot of that in there for him. And, you know, we all obviously have emotional challenges in life. Ummm … Yeah …
The fans were thrilled to hear “Aeroplane” in concert recently. It had been almost 20 years. Do you think this tour is going to feature more rare songs like that?
I hope so. It’s fun to play ones that we haven’t played in a long time. We were just having lunch and I was thinking about the band. I had this image in my head of this big, multicolored orb with all these different textures and colors, and we keep building it like a planet. Every time we grow, we keep what we’ve had, but we keep adding these other layers. And I was thinking about how important it is as we keep layering onto this giant orb so it keeps growing like a snowball, creating momentum, that we always have to remember the center of it, too. That’s where we started, and we always play the earlier stuff just to keep it alive all the way through so it has more power. That’s kind of a hippie thing to say, but that’s my thoughts on this.
“Anthony’s my fucking soulmate. What can I say?”
I think one of the reasons you guys have lasted so much longer than most bands is that you and Anthony are still really tight. You even spend your free time together. So many bands have members that absolutely despise each other and it corrodes everything.
We’ve gone through phases. I definitely love the guy. He’s my fucking soulmate. What can I say? I guess our relationship is some kind of weird psychological study, almost like a north and south magnet. They kind of repel each other, but they have to be together for the earth to live. Our relationship is kind of a trip. Even before we were in a band together, it was this powerful thing. When we were together, we would always whip some shit up and create chaos and freak out the squares.
Earlier today, I was thinking about the times when we would sulk and be mad at each other. We’d get our feelings hurt by one another. I think that back when we were young we really needed each other. We were both kind of street kids. We relied on each other. When then around the time that Blood Sugar came out and everyone got a million dollars, a nice house, a car, a washer and dryer and fancy rugs. All of a sudden our lives became really separate. We weren’t living together in a little apartment. We had different sets of friends. There was a lot of anger and judgement in our friendship. It was really difficult.
Now we’re in a place that is so much nicer. We can just be happy and relaxed and support each other even when we don’t agree. That’s taken us a long time to figure out how to do.
Considering everything you’ve been through together, it’s a miracle the band is still going so strong.
We’re on the verge of 35 years. It’s fucking insane. Who would have thunk that a bunch of dumbasses like us would continue to remain cohesive in some sort or fashion? It’s hard for me to understand, too. Obviously, I want to age gracefully and be a kind person and shit, but really I want to just play music and get better at is as I go. The energy of what it is keeps us coming back and keeps us rocking. The exciting thing is that with this band I still feel curious. I still feel this feeling of forward momentum. I look forward to seeing what’s going to happen. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. It’s not predictable yet, and that’s cool, man.
Finally, do you think that Atoms for Peace are going to record and tour again?
I don’t know. I love those guys. I’m in touch with them and I love playing with them. Thom [Yorke] just put out a Radiohead record and is definitely going to go on tour. We’ve got this Chili Peppers album and we’re getting ready to tour, so we’re both going to our home bases for a while.