LOS ANGELES -- Call it a remarkable comeback or just a turn of fortune, but for Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Californication is a clear reflection of the funk-rock band's state of mind these days.
And while the album may be the frantic Chili Peppers' most mellow, pop-oriented project to date, Flea said they never planned it that way.
"It's just really what came out, what felt good," he said, speaking in the band's studio here. "Maybe it's like if you play a cosmic trip-hop funk jam for a long time, it feels fresh to do something new."
After several years of trying to regain their footing, the Red Hot Chili Peppers say their collective magic has returned for their seventh album, Californication. Judging from the album's first-week sales, record buyers agree. The band's first release since 1995 debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, selling nearly 200,000 copies since its June 8 release.
That is the band's highest chart debut, according to Gayle Fine, spokesperson for the Chili Peppers' management company, Q Prime.
Though Californication has been heavily promoted, both through the release of its songs online and through more conventional means, Fine said the success of the record so far was due to its musical strength. Nonetheless, some record stores were not expecting the album to do as well as it has.
"It was a remarkable surprise," said Joe Kvidera, general manager of a Tower Records store in Chicago. It was #2 at his store.
Kvidera attributed the high sales to the popularity of the single "Scar Tissue" (RealAudio excerpt) and its accompanying video, which has been in heavy rotation at radio stations and on MTV.
Earlier this month, the radio-industry trade magazine Radio & Records reported that the song had closed out the entire R&R Alternative Panel, a survey of the top alternative-rock stations in the U.S. In its first week, the song was picked up by all 87 stations on the panel, a feat not achieved since U2's "Discotheque" hit big in 1996, according to R&R general manager Sky Daniels.
The bandmembers -- singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea (born Michael Balzary) and drummer Chad Smith, all 36 years old -- said the return of lead guitarist John Frusciante, 29, after a seven-year absence from the group, had much to do with the band's revitalized spirit and Californication's equally revitalized sound.
"There's a chemistry that we have, the four of us -- John, Flea, Anthony and Chad -- that is very unique. We care about making really good music," said Smith, who injured himself in a motorcycle accident during the band's hiatus.
The accident was one in a series of mishaps that plagued the band in the past two years. Kiedis also was hurt in a separate motorcycle crash and the band was forced to end its performance at the Mt. Fuji Rock Festival in Japan two summers ago when a lightning storm crashed down on its show.
"We're hitting a groove right now and it's very exciting," Smith said.
One element that distinguishes songs such as "Scar Tissue" from the past work of the band -- which released its self-titled debut in 1984 -- is the lush backing vocals, many of which were sung by Frusciante at the prodding of veteran producer Rick Rubin.
"Rick is very adept at figuring out different strengths of the people in the band. And he was well aware that John is a good singer and a good inventor of parts and ideas and harmonies and how two notes touch each other," Kiedis said.
Kiedis' vocals hit a new height of strength and melody on the album as well, according to his bandmates and critics. "To tell you the truth, we were all really excited about Anthony's vocals," Frusciante said. "It just sounded so good."
Though he said he has never listened to 1995's One Hot Minute, which featured former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, Frusciante seems to have segued right back into the group.
Navarro left the band last year just before Frusciante rejoined. So far on tour, the Chili Peppers have avoided playing any tracks from One Hot Minute, such as the hit "Aeroplane."
Though One Hot Minute was its most recent album prior to Californication, the band sees its latest work as the follow-up to 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Kiedis said. That album featured the band's biggest hit, "Under the Bridge"
(RealAudio excerpt), which the Chili Peppers seemed to draw on for Californication. It also featured the funky, uptempo hit "Give It Away."
Frusciante, who also played on 1989's Mother's Milk, left the band after recording Blood Sugar, citing personal issues, including drug problems.