Road To The Grammys: Chili Peppers Experiment With Sounds, Wu-Tang Beats On Stadium Arcadium

'There was a very fluid momentum,' producer Rick Rubin says of recording process for Album of the Year nominee.

With eight studio albums and two decades of experience under their belts, you’d think the Red Hot Chili Peppers would have mastered a method to the madness that is making records. In a way, they have.

They knew all along they wanted Rick Rubin to produce their most recent LP, Stadium Arcadium, having worked with him on 1991′s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1995′s One Hot Minute, 1999′s Californication, and 2002′s By the Way.

“He really has earned his place as the producer of this band,” said frontman Anthony Kiedis. “He has improved his game consistently. He just gets better and better. He’s willing to work harder and harder. His intuition flourishes. We have been so willing to grow and change as a band, and he’s also come along for that ride. He has the same love for music today that I think teenagers get when they’re 17 and they fall in love with the wonderful world of music.”

Still, as successful as they’ve been, the Chili Peppers aren’t the kind of guys who consider themselves above experimentation. Hell, they still derive inspiration for their songs from some unusual outside sources. For instance, before there was “Dani California” — the lead-off single from the Peppers’ Grammy-nominated, funk-filled double-LP — there was “Wu-Tang.”

“The working title for ‘Dani California’ was always ‘Wu-Tang,’ ” explained Rubin, who produced the Los Angeles-based band’s ninth offering — which is up for six Grammys, including nods for Album of the Year and Best Rock Album (see “Mary J. Blige, Chili Peppers Top Grammy Nominations List” ). “I don’t even know if it came from a particular song or a feel that [guitarist] John [Frusciante] and [bassist] Flea had about what Wu-Tang’s first album sounded like, but I knew they were influenced by it.”

According to engineer Andrew Scheps — who has worked with Audioslave, the Mars Volta, Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z — the drum groove for “Dani” was based on the beats drummer Chad Smith loved from Wu-Tang’s 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Interestingly, Smith collaborated with the Wu, as well as Audioslave/ Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, on a cover of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F— Wit,” which appeared on the 2000 compilation Loud Rocks.

“I think they knew pretty early on that that was what they wanted to be the first single,” Scheps said. From the beginning of what ended up being a yearlong recording process in Rubin’s Los Angeles-area mansion (see “Peppers Say Return To Sex Scene Yielded Different Magik ), “they knew exactly where that song was going to go. So in a way, it was a surprise that it wasn’t a big surprise that this was the first single. But it was that kind of hip-hop groove from the Wu-Tang songs that they wanted to write a rock song around, and that was the idea that got it started.”

And “Dani California” — which is nominated for the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and Best Rock Song — made quite an impression on the band’s fans, as Stadium Arcadium became the Peppers’ first album to debut at #1 on the Billboard album sales chart, scanning 442,000 copies during its first week in stores (see “Red Hot Chili Peppers Cruise To First Billboard #1 Debut” ).

But the recording of Arcadium, which was initially conceived as three individual albums the band hoped to release six months apart, was a rather unique experience for the band.

“They decided to work shorter hours,” Rubin explained. “In the past, [the] writing mode would be a very exhaustive process and they would be in there for a long period of time and it’d be tiring. In this version, they worked less days a week but carried it on as long as it took. And they took a lot of breaks. So there was much more of a freshness — there was never the drudgery of showing up on the 100th day and trying to [energize]. Just naturally, as an experiment, they decided to see what this felt like, and by cutting down their hours, they ended up being much, much, much more productive.”

And with 38 songs to track, time was a valued commodity that was never wasted by the band. According to several people who worked on the LP, the Chili Peppers didn’t bog down the process with repeated takes. The idea wasn’t to make these songs as perfect as technology could make them, but to maintain the natural, raw feel of the band — to make a record that sounded like it was tracked during the 1970s. Hence, the album was recorded in a single room, with all of the players present all at the same time, something the boys weren’t accustomed to.

“Recording-wise, it went very quickly,” Rubin added. “There was a very fluid momentum. Everyone always plays at the same time, but typically the instruments are really isolated from each other for control over the sounds later. John thought it would be an interesting concept for this album for all the instruments to be in the room at the same time, so all the instruments are bleeding into each other, and that was the first time we had done that.”

“They’re pros, and they’re incredibly talented,” said engineer Ryan Hewitt, who has worked with artists like Blink 182 and had a hand in By the Way. “They rehearse their stuff, they look at each other, they lock in, and they just go for it, and Rick really pushes for that. He wants a natural, organic feel, and so does the band. They don’t play to a click track. Everything was done on tape. There’s no ProTools involved. What you hear from the band is exactly what they played, when they played it. There’s no trickery involved in the music on this record. It all came out of the fingers and hands of these guys.”

Much like “Dani California,” Hewitt said most of the tracks were captured in three takes. Later on is where the experimentation would come in. “On ‘Dani,’ at the end, it goes into that guitar solo,” Hewitt said. “Well, John wanted to double-track it, so it was a bigger, thicker sound. So really, there are two guitars playing at that point. And he did that solo in one take. The solo you hear on the record is the solo he played in the room, with the band — that was one take, done. And then he went in to double it. He listened to it a couple of times and played it exactly the same. Again, in maybe two takes. It was perfectly similar — or as perfect as you can get.”

For his part, Flea used a variety of bass amps during Arcadium‘s creation and tried to capture just the right sound for each respective song, often using different amps for each and every song he worked on. Smith tried recording overdubs in narrow hallways and different rooms in Rubin’s mansion, to see if perhaps he could beef up the tom-toms, for instance. Frusciante relied heavily on his 40-year-old modular synthesizer to tweak his guitar parts at times.

“When you listen to ‘Dani California,’ the guitars are always changing, and there’s all these effects going on, created with the modular synthesizer after he played them,” Hewitt said. “So you have this endless palette to choose from to make those sounds, and John would never use the same sound twice. That was real exciting. At times, we would record the guitars at a different speed, so we’d change the speed of the tape so when he was listening to it, it was going really slow or really fast — at least compared to its normal speed. Then, when you play it back, it’s like this totally different sound. At the end of ‘Wet Sand,’ it sounds like there’s a harpsichord when really it’s three guitars playing the harmony to each other at twice the tape speed.”

And Frusciante insisted that those slight imperfections be left in to give the LP more character. “He has an instinct to leave imperfections in a record,” Hewitt said. “He’s a huge fan of 1960s, 1970s music, where there’s just stuff that’s blatantly wrong on certain records. It’s not perfect. John recognizes when to let go of things. There are other times when we’ll sit there trying to fix one note forever until it is perfect. But there are some things that are, to me, really obvious — Chad dropped a stick in one song, and that was left in. You can tell because he’s playing kind of weird. He’s trying to find his other stick, but it keeps going, and he’s playing with one arm. It’s things you don’t notice when listening to the song because it was so good and the groove is so tight. If you listen to the guitar by itself, it might sound a little funny in one spot. But because the band is so tight, that kind of thing is not going to stick out, and it will add to the cool factor.”

According to Scheps, Stadium Arcadium marks a new beginning for one of his favorite bands and will go down as one of the most important LPs of the band’s career.

“To me, By the Way seemed to be the first record in whatever direction they were going, and Stadium is where they’re starting to realize it,” he said. “It’s less grooves and more songs, and Anthony is just singing his ass off. … And now he’s a great singer. They were doing more of the same, but they were a lot more confident at it because they’d been doing it for a while, and they were just better at it. It seems as though this could be — and it’s ridiculous, because they have been making records for so long — but this could be the beginning of the next set of records they make.”

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