Shining a Light on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante’s Decade Out of the Spotlight

The California rock band's most celebrated guitarist returns after a long, strange time away

John Frusciante

Outside the Spotlight takes a look at what famous musicians work on while not facing the bright lights of their most famous gigs. We revisit this 2019 article as John Frusciante drops his first solo album under his own name in six years, Maya.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers came close to breaking the Internet on Sunday by suddenly announcing a shakeup of their current lineup. For fans of the band, this wasn’t particularly surprising. The band has had over a dozen members in its lifetime, with over half of that coming from guitarist turnover alone. What made this announcement particularly newsworthy is that the band were welcoming back the guitarist who led the charge on their most celebrated records and during their most successful periods.

John Frusciante is back.

It’s still difficult to believe considering the semi-reclusive nature the prolific musician enjoys. In fact, fans wondered if the announcement was even true at first, with many speculating the band’s Instagram had been hacked by an overzealous fan. But it’s true: John Frusciante is in and Josh Klinghoffer, the band’s guitarist since 2009, is out.

This return will be Frusciante’s third stint with the band as he previously joined in 1988 after the death of Hillel Slovak and recorded Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik with the band before departing amidst the band’s rocket to stardom and his own descent into troubled drug addiction. He would rejoin in 1998 and become a major catalyst for the band’s evolvement from funk-rock jokesters to stadium-rock icons. He appeared on the next three Peppers records — Californication, By the Way, and Stadium Arcadium — while also maintaining his own vibrant and diverse solo career.

But after the tremendous success of Stadium Arcadium and the subsequent world tour, the band was burnt out, going on an extended hiatus in 2008 that Frusciante would not return from. By the end of 2009, the band had officially announced Frusciante’s departure and was ready to enter its new phase with the addition of Josh Klinghoffer, a longtime friend and collaborator of Frusciante. Since then, the band have continued to release high-profile records and headline big festivals and tours.

But what exactly has John Frusciante been up to in the 10 years since he left the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

To start, let’s go back to before the public announcement. The Chili Peppers announced his departure exactly a decade ago in December of 2009, but at the beginning of the year, Frusciante released The Empyrean, his eighth solo album overall and first since his hyper-productive output in 2004-2005 that saw the release of six albums and one EP beginning with Shadows Collide with People and ending with Curtains.

Featuring contributions by Johnny Marr, Flea, and his eventual successor, Josh Klinghoffer, Empyrean was Frusciante’s most ambitious work up to that point, an existential and psychoactive concept album that takes place within the mind. The album expanded on his atypical song structures, with movements and acts popping up in a single song, most notably in “Unreachable”, a sprawling rock achievement split into two exhilarating parts that stands as one of the most impressive moments in Frusciante’s solo career.

Fans hailed the record as a masterpiece and as they debated its ranking on his ever-growing list of records, few realized that the record served as a conclusion to that period of Frusciante’s career, one filled with unconventional art-rock songs that were driven by strong vocal melodies and dynamic instrumentation. Instead, Frusciante would turn his attention toward electronica, something he previously dabbled in alongside Josh Klinghoffer on 2004’s A Sphere in the Heart of Silence, as well as committing more to experimental sounds and avant-garde approaches.

Frusciante began the new decade with little surprises to fans who had followed his career up until that point, with his first two releases being in collaboration with Omar Rodríguez-López, a partnership that had proved formidable and diverse in the 2000s as an (un)official member of The Mars Volta, in Rodríguez-López’s own prolific solo career, and even on a Red Hot Chili Peppers song in 2006 (“Especially In Michigan”).

The two released the eponymously named Omar Rodriguez Lopez & John Frusciante in April of 2010 followed by Sepulcros de Miel in May, both records with a much more experimental sound than fans of the Chili Peppers and even The Mars Volta were accustomed to. Frusciante would again pop up on one of Omar Rodríguez-López’s records later in the decade when the Texan musician released Arañas en la Sombra, an album comprised of early Mars Volta recordings.

The biggest taste of what was to come came in December of 2010 when Speed Dealer Moms, a trio comprised of Frusciante, Aaron Funk (Venetian Snares), and Chris McDonald (The Alison Project), released their debut EP comprised of two lengthy electronic tracks that modulate confidently between IDM and drum ‘n’ bass. Though the band had formed a few years earlier while Frusciante was still an official member of the Chili Peppers, it set the stage for much of Frusciante’s recorded output over the next several years with record after record reveling in deeply abstract electronica.

In 2012, Frusciante finally let fans know the direction of his musical ambition as he released the Letur-Lefr EP and the full-length album PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, two inexplicably named records that were described as “very different from each other” by the reserved musician, but tethered together by a sense of departure, exploration, and nonconformity that was unlike anything heard before in his solo career. If the titles — both notably peculiar in a catalogue that contains To Record Water for Only Ten Days and Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt — didn’t raise eyebrows, the sounds within immediately did, even for the most hardcore fan.

Around this time, Frusciante released a statement describing his work as “Progressive Synth Pop,” further elaborating that he combines “aspects of many styles of music and create my own musical forms by way of electronic instruments.” All of this perfectly defines both Letur-Lefr and PBX, though the EP still retained hallmarks of Frusciante’s past solo work, stitched together with spastic rhythms and vocals in an abstract mélange.

On the other hand, PBX, with tracks like “Sam” and “Bike”, was a more defined and cohesive statement, even if it combined divergent sounds like breakbeat, glitch, art-rock, and hip-hop. All together, the nine-track record resembles an avant-garde electronic playground, where one could imagine the likes of Mart Garson and Liam Howlett freely frolicking while Frank Zappa remains stuck in the entrance, marveling at what’s before him.

In between PBX and Letur-Lefr, Frusciante also debuted his Trickfinger alias, allowing him an avenue upon which he could freely explore acid house music with a glitched out compass acting as his guide. He would release his debut EP, Sect in Sgt, in July of 2012 before releasing his debut self-titled album in 2015. In 2017, he would release Trickfinger II as well as the Foregrow EP, the latter of which was released under his own name but featured music conceived around the time of Trickfinger and Speed Dealer Moms.

In 2013, Frusciante, under his own name, released Outsides, a three song EP self-described as “free jazz” that was seen as a return to his more accessible solo offerings. The EP featured a 10-minute guitar solo and two abstract compositions, all of which were in line with the type of experimentation Frusciante was dabbling in on his most accessible album, Shadows Collide with People. Here were pieces that could be consumed more as complimentary interludes instead of integral pieces — stray, errant thoughts instead of in-depth, unorthodox simulations. The EP, alongside a separate 10-minute guitar piece entitled “Wayne” (a tribute to a friend and tour vendor for the Chili Peppers), pointed to a mending of the two Frusciante’s — the art-rock auteur and the electronic vagrant – which would become much more apparent on 2014’s Enclosure.

On this record, Frusciante’s crowning solo achievement of the 2010s, the musician combined vocal and song formats that highlighted the best of his solo records, while still maintaining strong elements of drum ‘n’ bass and IDM that had come to be his preferred sound over the last several years. Songs like “Sleep” exist in a limbo between 2005’s Curtains and 2012’s Letur-Lefr, with its somber and emphatic approach being braced by a frenetic rhythm and restless melody. The album’s circular artwork seemed somewhat inspired by the “Circle One” philosophy of The Germs, Frusciante’s childhood idols, all of which pointed to Enclosure being a perfect encapsulation of the music of John Frusciante from his past to present, even if it remains a divisive, challenging, and evasive record.

In 2015, Frusciante endorsed the Bandcamp platform, putting out several standalone recordings and random collections for free, including a heartfelt cover of “Fight for Love,” a Spanish pop song sung by Will Ferrell in 2012’s Spanish-American comedy Casa de mi padre. These releases, abstract and even tongue-in-cheek, confirmed what fans had always known about John Frusciante: just when you think you have all the answers, he changes the questions.

Outside of his own music and side projects, Frusciante popped up on dozens of releases throughout the decade too. At the height of his popularity in the 2000s, Frusciante was appearing on songs by Macy Gray, Wu-Tang Clan, and even Johnny Cash. His collaborations in the 2010s were not as high profile, but even more diverse as he appeared on punk rock songs (Le Butcherettes), modern New Wave (Duran Duran), jazz (Dewa Budjana), hip-hop fusion (AcHoZeN), and alt-country (Amanda Jo Williams).

Frusciante even became notable for his production over the last decade. Though he had previously done some mixing and mastering for LA rock act Warpaint, Frusciante established his studio presence as a producer for the Black Knights, affiliates of the Wu-Tang Clan that released several records shaped and influenced by Frusciante’s musical encyclopedia.

Most notably of all of these side projects in the 2010s though was his time with the musical collective Swahili Blonde, an LA-based project headed up by Nicole Turley, an eclectic artist who Frusciante would marry in 2011. Frusciante appeared on several of the group’s releases in the beginning part of the decade, most notably 2011’s Man Meat, as well as contributing to several side projects that splintered off from the group, most notably Kimono Kult’s 2014 record Hiding in the Light, which also featured Omar Rodríguez-López.

Turley made frequent appearances alongside Frusciante from 2011 to 2014, in collaborations and on Frusciante’s own work, providing vocals to “In Your Eyes” from Letur-Lefr. All of this pointed to a blossoming relationship between the two, but by 2015, that relationship had soured with Turley filing for divorce in May of 2015, citing irreconcilable differences. By October of that year, the pair was officially divorced after a lengthy court battle, which turned particularly acrimonious when court documents revealed John Frusciante had disparaged Turley’s musical career by stating, “I don’t know if you can call her recording efforts a hobby or a pastime, … but it seems improper to characterize Nicole as a professional musician.”

Outside of this personal setback, Frusciante remained out of the headlines for most of the 2010s, save for a divisive article in 2015 where he claimed he has “no audience,” a quote he later clarified and elaborated on his personal website after claiming the article took his words out of context. Public appearances were even more sparse, except for his regular attendance at the annual Johnny Ramone Tribute at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and sporadic sightings at record stores picking up classic jazz records.

But perhaps John Frusciante’s biggest moment in the 2010s came when he just decided to stay home.

In April of 2012, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and while members of band’s past and present showed up, their most successful and popular guitarist declined an appearance. Some were taken aback by this news, leading to speculation of a strained relationship between the band and the guitar virtuoso, even as Flea continued to gush over Frusciante’s talent and friendship any chance he got.

But for most people, this decision just backed up Frusciante’s uncomfortable relationship in the spotlight, one that defined both of his previous runs with the band. While the two exits were under different circumstances, both stemmed from the same core problem: a prolific artist struggling to balance his own desires with the ever-changing responsibilities of being a world-renowned rock star.

Red Hot Chili Peppers with John Frusciante
Red Hot Chili Peppers with John Frusciante

And it’s this reality that makes the recent news most shocking. Frusciante has relished flying under the radar the last decade, covering everything from hip-hop to trance. But now, he’s back with in a rock band with millions of fans who expect something at least in the ballpark of their most famous work.

The Trickfinger sound won’t exactly fly here, and neither will album titles like PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone. But what will work is Frusciante’s ever-changing musical palette, one that constantly challenged the band to be bigger and better than they were before and led to their most commercially and critically successful periods. Who knows if Frusciante will push the band to those heights again. Who knows what this new-old version of the band will even sound like.

We can speculate all we want now that Frusciante is back in the fold, but all we really know for sure is that we’re not going to miss any second of it.


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