Classic interview: Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith on Californication

Rhythm November 1999 cover with Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Rhythm November 1999 cover with Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

This interview originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of Rhythm. (Words: Louise King)

 A big man in every sense, Chad Smith is one of the most explosive rock drummers in the world. As his band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, return with a shattering performance at Reading and an album that many consider their  finest yet, Rhythm spends a day in their wild and crazy world. 

Slight Return

It's gone two o'clock in the afternoon, but following a seriously heavy session at a star-studded Versace party last night, Chad Smith still hasn‘t surfaced. We were supposed to be meeting over an hour ago, and I've all but given up hope of him ever appearing when, barefoot and sporting jogging bottoms, T-shirt and trademark back-to-front baseball cap, he ambles out of the lift at London’s Metropolitan Hotel, towering over his fellow passengers. 

Black wraparound shades conceal jaded eyes, but the familiar mischievous grin is still firmly intact as he strides across the foyer to greet Rhythm. Back in the UK for the first time in four years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are promoting their magnificent new album Californication. 

It’s a record that many people thought would never materialise. The band’s turbulent history has been well documented, and worldwide success and megastardom for the Chilis have always gone hand in hand with the demons of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. 

Even so, two years ago persistent rumours of the band’s imminent demise for once seemed alarmingly plausible, after their attempts to start work on the follow-up to One Hot Minute failed miserably. The catalyst for the band’s dramatic rejuvenation was the return of John Frusciante to the fold after the departure of guitarist Dave Navarro to team up with old band Jane’s Addiction for their reunion tour. 

After playing on Mother's Milk and BloodSugarSexMagik, Frusciante had quit the band in 1993, suffering from a serious drug problem. No one was more surprised than Chad when Flea (bass) and Anthony Kiedis (vocals) suggested that Frusciante rejoin them early last year ‘I hadn't had much contact with John, nor had Anthony,” Chad explains in between large swigs on a bottle of mineral water he's grabbed from the hotel suite in which we're now settled. “Flea had played with him here and there, but I had no idea how it would all work out “ 

Chad Smith on stage in London during the Californication tour, 1999

Chad smith on stage in London during the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication tour, 1999 (Image credit: Jill Douglas/Redferns/Getty)

Red Hot For Teacher

As soon as the quartet got into a room together and started to play, though, any doubts Chad had previously harboured immediately evaporated. “Oh, it was great,” he beams. “John is a beautiful, talented and incredibly inspiring musician to me. There was a time when I thought he was going to die. He was immersed in a lifestyle that he had chosen, but for him - as a friend and a person that I care about - to be back among the living, playing music again was fantastic. It's something I never dreamed would happen.” 

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Chad grew up on a varied musical diet that included everything from Led Zeppelin and Hendrix to Deep Purple, Sly And The Family Stone and Motown. His first encounter with a pair of drum sticks came at the tender age of seven, and he considers himself lucky to have found something he was so passionate about at such an early age. 

“I was just drawn to it.” he says. “At that stage obviously I wasn't thinking about being a big rock star — all I wanted was to be able to play the drum fills on the forty-fives I was listening to at the time. Drumming made me feel good, and I've tried to keep hold of those feelings it generated in me as a kid. 

I remember how I felt at fourteen when I had Kiss posters on my wall and I used to go to their gigs - it was awesome.” Even though Chad never took lessons himself (choosing instead to follow the inherently rock ‘n’ roll route of playing along to records and enrolling in as many school bands as would have him), he is quick to recognise the benefits of a good teacher. 

“If you can find someone who's good - and being a good teacher is a difficult thing - they will help you progress a lot quicker.” he says. “I can play and show you what ! do but it’s probably not technically right, it just works for me in the Chili Peppers.” He cites John Bonham. Mitch Mitchell. Ringo Starr, John Densmore, Neil Peart and Buddy Rich - “the greatest drummer in the world”, as he puts it - amongst his biggest influences and freely admits to pilfering plenty from all of them over the years. "Oh I steal loads of stuff,” he confesses with a chuckle, “so go ahead and steal from me if there’s anything I do that you like. Everyone has their own personality that comes through on the drums, so it’s never going to sound exactly like me when you play it anyway ” 

Few who attended Drums in The Bush in 1995 will forget Chad's blistering performance. Certainly, his powerful. flamboyant playing. coupled with an amiable and larger-than-life personality, have kept him in demand as a drum clinician. His mischievous antics at such events have been known to get him into trouble, though. 

On one infamous occasion he offered his drum kit to the first person to get up and dance naked. Cue mad all-nude stampede to the front of the stage. “I like doing clinics and ! would have loved the chance to see some of my heroes in that environment when [ was younger,” he says. “A lot of drum stores don’t like my style of clinic, though - they get really uptight and think that I'm going to pull my dick out and spill virgin blood.” 

He guffaws before continuing. “But seriously, people who come to see me play know of me because I’m in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I've got to be me, you know? I'm not going to sit there and say, ‘Now we are going to do the clave’, am I?” 

Me and My Friends

During the course of his eleven years with the Chilis, Chad has had the chance to meet many of the drummers he looked up to as a fledgling player. And an appearance on TFI Friday the day before the interview gave him and the rest of the band the chance to catch up with their close buddies and fellow mega-rockers Aerosmith. 

“They like our band and they come and see us when we play in Boston in 1976 I never imagined I'd be in a big rock band, travelling the world playing music and making records and I certainly never dreamed that I'd be hanging out with Joey Kramer.’ he grins. 

“It's kind of strange to meet your idols — sometimes you don’t want to because there might be hassles that ruin the impression you have of them. Fortunately, though, all my experiences have been good.” 

Chad's appearance at Drums In The Bush also brought him face to face with another living legend - the one and only Ginger Baker. “Originally they wanted me to play last but I just said, ‘Dude, no f***ing way am I going on after Ginger Baker’. Ginger was kind of cranky, which is good because that’s sort of what I expected. It was an honour to be on the same bill as him - he's a genius, and it was a cool, fun day.” 

Ask Chad if there are any musicians - chiefly those no longer in the land of the living - who he would have relished the opportunity to hang out with, and the floodgates open. 

"I'd love to have had the chance to chat with Jimi Hendrix. He is the coolest musician of all time, if you ask me. And then I'd like to have gone out and partied with Keith Moon and played drums with John Bonham - probably have partied with him too, actually,” 

Moonie, Bonzo and Chad out on the razz together. Doesn't bear thinking about, does it? But while we're on the subject of partying, I’m keen to hear more about that Versace bash last night. “Oh it was weird,” Chad Proclaims. “All Saints were playing, and just as I walked in I heard the beginning of that song of ours they did a cover of  (‘Under The Bridge’) I was just like, ‘Oh My God! You are kidding me!’ I met a couple of them and they were very sweet and down to earth. But it was quite a bizarre experience." 

The shades have now been removed to reveal those distinctive blue eyes: a couple of bottles of water seem to have eased the hangover thirst. I'm slightly concerned though - the band are due to leave the hotel for the airport in less than an hour, and, as Chad keeps reminding me, he hasn’t actually packed yet. 

During this crammed, whistle-stop trip to the UK, the Child Peppers also managed to find time to play a storming gig at London’s Camden Palace. The opportunity to perform at such intimate venues is something Chad clearly relishes. “I had a great time. It was hot and sweaty and we rocked” he raves. “I like the smaller shows - they’re really cool. There’s a good vibe and I like the contact we get with the audience. Of course, there’s something to be said for big stadium gigs as well, but they seem to be less about the music and more about the overall performance.”

Over the years, Kiedis, Frusciante, Flea and Chad have weathered many storms together, and there is obviously a very close personal and musical bond between the four of them. “I am so privileged to be working with these incredible musicians who are caring, giving and smart. And great to make music with.” Chad says with unmistakable sincerity.

As one of the funkiest rhythm sections on the planet, Chad and Flea have a formidable reputation for firing off one another when they play, and Chad has nothing but praise for his effervescent partner in crime. 

“Flea used to be this slap guy, you know. He did that to death and everyone copied him, but he’s grown out of it now. Now I see him as the James Jamerson of the new millennium - he’s really melodic, very musical and great fun to play with. “My job is to keep time, but Flea keeps great time too, which is awesome because then everyone is not just counting on me to keep things in line, and live we can go crazy. We’ve been together for so long now, there isn’t really a lot of discussion; we just play; and when it feels good we all know it.”

Chad is proud of the way his style of playing has evolved during his time with the Chili Peppers. He strongly feels that his experiences in life have played as important a role in his development as the impressive line-up of musicians he’s worked with over the years. 

“Hopefully I’m still improving,” he says. “Or they would have thrown me out by now. What happens to us day-to-day makes us the person that we are, and that all contributes to the artist and musician that we become. This is what I love to do and I’m passionate about it, so I try to seek out things that will enhance my life, my playing and my music.”

Right On Time

The clock is ticking away, and I’m expecting the interview to finish any minute. when Chad suggests we carry on talking while he packs. Apologising for the state of his room - which, in fact, is surprisingly tidy - he proceeds to literally throw his belongings into an already overflowing case while he raves about a recent discovery he made in Stockholm. 

“You'll never guess what I found there,” he shouts from the bathroom. “An old Ludwig Vistalite Tivoli set with the lights. We were driving past this shop and it was lit-up in the window. I nearly shit myself and yelled at the car to stop. It was the coolest drum set that I had ever seen and was in perfect condition just had to have it. I went back to the shop the next day. The guy had all these vintage snare drums as well. It's kind of crazy - I have to travel to Stockholm to find good old American drums. Anyway | bought a ’58  WFL brass snare and the Tivoli set. It'll be great in my house at Christmas time.” 

Chad is not a big collector of gear, though he confesses to having a fetish for snare drums. He also admits that it's rare for him to play drums by himself at home. preferring instead to interact with other players when he practises. 

“Then you're playing music, which is what I really want to do.” he explains. “I'm not a melodic jazz or solo guy, and it’s more fun me to play with other people. Practising with other people also makes you more musical. To young players I always say, ‘Practice with people who are better than you - it'll help you improve. I was lucky, my elder brother played guitar and put up with me.” 

As we head down to reception to join Frusciante, Kiedis and Flea, who are already waiting for the car to take them to the airport, Chad points out that in a few hours time they'll be enjoying pasta in Milan. The band’s European press schedule is hectic, but Chad's having a good time. 

“I get to visit great places,” he says “I meet loads of people and it’s good to have friends in different countries. I'm fortunate, really, because | don't have to say much in the interviews that we do. I don't like to talk too much about our music, you see — my advice to people is just listen to our records and come see us live." 

"Our music should be about your own personal experience, and reading too much about it can take something away from that. I know where the music is at, but putting it into words is difficult. I leave that to Anthony and Flea and just tell a few jokes.” 

So, apart from Rhythm, nobody has shown much interest in your drums or your playing on the album then? “God no,” he shrugs. “Everyone else is too busy asking us about drugs and Anthony's new haircut to worry about what instruments we play.