Flea: Unlimited Love

The funky low-end legend dives deep into the two new Chili Peppers albums, his wild life as an entertainer & his insatiable love of bass

Flea: Unlimited Love

Photo by Sandy Kim

The funky low-end legend dives deep into the two new Chili Peppers albums, his wild life as an entertainer & his insatiable love of bass

Photo by David Mushegain

It might seem obvious if you have ever seen him talk on camera or perform live, but Flea isn’t the kind of person to sit still for long. Since we last checked in with him in 2020, he’s been astoundingly busy with his many passions that lie both within and beyond the realm of music. In that span, he’s released a book, Acid for the Children [Grand Central Publishing]; got married; had his third child; expanded his music school, the Silverlake Conservatory of Music; and acted in a few major movie and television roles, including Babylon [2022] and Obi Wan Kenobi [2022]. The Red Hot Chili Peppers released two albums in 2022, Unlimited Love and Return of the Dream Canteen [both Warner Records], and then hit the road for an extensive tour that remains ongoing.  

“I still need to learn how to say no to things, so that I actually have time to relax and just play bass,” he says. “But I love making things that have potential to be beautiful. I love making albums and creating music, acting, and putting my energy into things that are in no way ends to making money. I always have a burning feeling inside that’s driven by an artistic yearning to create something, but it’s also a survival instinct. It keeps me going. But, yeah, the last few years have been pretty wild.”

We are able to catch Flea on a brief off day from touring while relaxing comfortably at his Los Angeles home with his three-month-old son. He sits in front of a wall of basses, from which he excitedly pulls down several throughout our talk, including a beautiful custom build made by his son-in-law Wylie Gelber from the band Dawes. The 60-year-old bass icon sports pink hair and wide-brimmed glasses, and he smiles big and frequently, exposing the gap in the center top of his teeth. He’s very much comfortable in his own skin, and every word out of his mouth is genuine and full of energetic conviction. His wife, fashion designer Melody Ehsani, walks into the room and questions Flea about her missing computer charger as he’s mid-sentence. “Flea is a thief!” she adds jokingly. “I want all of your readers to know that.” “Well, I was a little punk ass thief as a kid. I guess it never really left me,” he smiles back.

Photo by Mariah Tauger

This blissful guy, born Michael Peter Balzary, has a lot to be happy about at the moment. His two recent album releases have once again thrust the Chili Peppers to the top of the charts and have inspired bassists all over the world to pick up their 4-strings to learn his new lines (see transcription sidebar). The records have a young and hungry feel, which is remarkable for a band that has been at it for 41 years. The return of guitarist John Frusciante fueled the creative flow for this prolific wave of songwriting, which Flea, singer Anthony Kiedis, and drummer Chad Smith will all readily admit. Flea’s focus on melody and counterpoint stand out on “Eddie,” “Reach Out,” and “The Great Apes,” where he dances his bass around Kiedis’ vocals and Frusciante’s guitar lines. “Tippa My Tongue,” “Peace and Love,” “Aquatic Mouth Dance,” “Bella,” and so many other tracks give us the throwback funk and rapid slap that made us fanatics of his playing many years ago.

As on all Chili Peppers albums, Flea’s tone sits proudly in the front of the mixes, now fueled by his collection of Fender Jazz Basses and his recent conversion to Ampeg SVT rigs. Although he has played many basses over the years, he seems to have landed on Jazzes — and while he can’t explain why that is in particular, he now has two series of Fender Signature basses that boast his name. The more we talk basses in general, the more apparent it is that they’re just different paintbrushes he uses to create his art. He’s casual on the topic of gear, but very serious about creativity. He never hesitates to answer any question, although his responses tend to wander and always seem to lead to spirituality and love. Still, there was one question that garnered a concise answer: Why are the Red Hot Chili Peppers still so interesting and relevant? “Because we’re the baddest, hardest-rocking motherfuckers on the planet. That’s it.”    

Photo by Sandy Kim

You’ve always been upfront about not being just a bass player, but also an entertainer. What does that mean to you these days?

I am an entertainer. For me, most of the musicians that I really like don’t give you just a cerebral or emotional experience, they give you a physical and visceral experience. The way that I play, even when no one is watching, it’s the way my body moves — and I exaggerate that theatrically, live. I might not be jumping around my house while I practice, but I definitely do that in the studio. I’m always conscious of the rhythm, and I love playing behind the kick drum and moving my bass within everything that’s going on around me. I love [producer/rapper] J Dilla for how he placed and moved everything back and forth within the beats and rhythms, but I also love the aggressive punk-rock players who play ahead of the beat. I like studio pros who sit right in the middle of the kick drum every single time, to no fail, like Jamerson and Duck Dunn. I’m very conscious of that kind of stuff — but for me, the way that I’m able to articulate those musical feelings is physical. It comes from a holistic mind/body/spirit place, which is part of performance, as well. And on top of all of that, it’s like, dude, let’s fucking rock! You know?

You’ve been on the road for the better part of the past two years, and you’re going to continue for months ahead. How different is touring now versus earlier in your career?

It’s funny because I abandoned the days of touring being a non-stop party long ago. Now, it’s more of a monk-like experience for me. I take my walks, I go to museums, but otherwise I’m in a room practicing and meditating, doing everything I can to be prepared. I take touring and performing shows very seriously. You play until you drop dead. You keep moving, you keep jumping, you keep dancing, and you perform. These people worked hard to come to your show, so you make sure you give them every penny’s worth. That is my life’s mission: to honor the people who come to our shows and to uplift them. I speak for the whole band in saying that we’re disciples of the show. A life dedicated to art is a good life, and mine is a life dedicated to making art.

Photo by David Mushegain

Have you observed your fans and the people in the audience evolving over the years?

Our band is kind of a phenomenon, because when I look out at the audience, the front is all acne-faced teenagers who have always been there for us, but we also have grandparents and little kids and people of all ages. I love that. I want to play for everybody. My only yearning is for it to be more that way, ethnically, racially, and culturally. For the most part, I’ve always thought of our band as a time capsule of where we are in that moment, but something I’ve always thought about since I was a kid is how to connect all of those things. When I was growing up I wanted to be a jazz trumpeter like Louis Armstrong, but our school, like most, was separated where the white kids were listening to Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and Bowie, the black kids liked P-Funk, Cameo, and the Bar-Kays — and I always loved both. That’s why I loved Earth, Wind & Fire, because everybody loved them. Everybody loved Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s the power of music transcending all of these categories, which oftentimes are territorial and petty. I’m yearning to do that with our music.

You released two albums within six months that sound inspired and hungry. Did it feel that way when you were creating them?

We were so in the moment, just trying to make it good, that we definitely felt that. But truthfully, it’s beyond our control; you can’t calculate a feeling like that. We’re just playing and getting off on our music. For us, we get in the room and we start playing, and hopefully we hypnotize ourselves. As musicians we all have egos and we can all be petty and argue and get our feelings hurt, which is little-kid shit. But a lot of that went away this time. We were so grateful to be playing together that we got lost in it. We gave it everything we had. Every single day was something good; we came into the room and there was a good idea. All the quality records that we’ve made, that’s what happens, and [this time] it was just constant. I think we had a lot of built-up energy that was waiting to come out for a while, so when it did, it felt like an explosion.

Photo by Clara Balzary

Obviously having John come back to the band must have been a big spark plug.

It was huge — it was a big shift, and a profound one. As life goes by, he’s come and gone a few times, but we share a language we’ve built together. This is a band that started long before we met him, but he’s such a pure and earnest and focused musician, and the music we make together is so exciting to me. For this process, John was fastidious with everything we did. He turned over every single stone during the songwriting. If we had only a riff or an idea, John would be sitting there singing harmonies and playing synthesizers and writing different ideas that could come next. It was a rush of energy having him back. I love him so much.    

You and Anthony have been lifelong friends who started the band in high school. How would you say he’s evolved as a singer?

Anthony is a very interesting casework as a musician, because he doesn’t even think of himself as one. In the beginning, he wanted to call the band Idiot & the Three Geniuses. He’d say, you guys play music and I’m just here yelling. But as time has gone by, he keeps getting better. It’s awesome to me, because most singers are gifted naturally when they’re young; they come out in rock bands and they’re good looking, and they can sing high and low, and they’ve got it all in the beginning. For Anthony, pitch and rhythmic concept and all of this stuff was new to him because he had never thought about it. We just kind of did the band as a joke, and all of a sudden, it blew up from the start. Pretty instantly we started selling out clubs in L.A., and suddenly he was in this position of being the lead singer in a band. But over time, he just keeps becoming more musical. He used to rap in an almost chanting kind of way; then John came in and was really good with creating melodies and choruses, and Anthony started singing these flowing melodies with beginnings and ends and arcs that flow. They are now vehicles for inflection and musical sensibility and sensitivity. I’m so proud of Anthony for his diligence and focus through the years in a way that’s much different from anyone else. Now I get so much inspiration from what he writes that it can affect how I play.

Flea and Keidis in 1986

Do you consciously latch your bass lines onto Anthony’s melodies and cadences?

It’s not always conscious. I just react to what’s going on around me. Usually, the music comes before the vocals. Sometimes we don’t really know what the vocal is when we go in to record a song, because he’s still writing. Oftentimes I’ll be playing a melody on the bass and he’ll pick up on it and start singing to it. Then I might go back and write a counter-melody, and we can go in circles like that until we find what sounds best harmonically. Adding John into that mix gives it limitless possibilities. Obviously, my role as a bass player is to make the bed for those guys to lay their harmonies on, but I’ve always been one to step out and give my lines melody. On Unlimited Love and Return of the Dream Canteen I turned to melodic playing more than ever, because the songs felt so organic and natural to play. I just love playing bass, man. It never gets old.

Photo by David Mushegain

The two albums propelled bassists to grab their instruments and try to figure out what you’re doing. What was inspiring you when you were writing the bass lines?

I just want to play well and create good feelings, and love my bandmates and honor them, honor the music, honor the people who came before me, and honor the people who listen to it. I want to play stuff that resonates. It’s funny that you mention bass players trying to play my stuff, because I’ve never really learned other people’s bass lines.

Not even stuff that blows you away?

Not even Pino Palladino’s playing on D’Angelo’s Voodoo. I love it so much, but I’ll never learn it. For me, it’s a feeling. I listen to how much he lays back in that shit, and I feel it deeply. In one way, it’s good because I can only play my own style. But in another way, I need ear training. I’m not that great at it; I have a hard time hearing something and playing it correctly. I struggle to learn things I could easily play, but I’ve never put the time into it. It’s something I want to start working on more and getting better at taking the time to do.

After playing Spectors, Stingrays, and Modulus and Wal basses, how did you arrive at Fender Jazz Basses?

I don’t know, man — they just feel so good. It’s been hard for me to commit to one type of bass, but I guess I just fell into these and they feel right. I still have different basses that I play. My wife got me a Gibson Grabber for my birthday, with the sliding pickup [holds it up and plays it]. It’s so fucking cool. I have a lot of basses I love to play. For me it’s an endless romance. It’s infinite.

As someone who made a major impact on bass, how does it feel when you see young bass heroes like Thundercat and MonoNeon?

I love it, man. Love it. Love Mono, love Thundercat. There are so many great bass players, and I see new ones all the time, thanks to Instagram and social media. When I was a kid, if you knew someone who could play Jaco’s “Portrait of Tracy,” then they were onto some educated and adept shit. The way Mono plays it is unreal. No one sounds like him, with the microtones and the atonal stuff; he doesn’t give a shit. He dives for it. His depth of funk and his eccentricities and wildness is some deep Memphis shit. He’s one of a kind, truly.

Flea and MonoNeon

Thundercat is a dear friend, and I love him so much. I was just talking to him about how he grew up with Kamasi Washington and all these other local jazz players, and how all of their dads were players, too. When they were nine years old they had to learn a new jazz tune every week in school, including the changes and the melody, and they had to be able to solo over it. They were deeply connected to the music at a very young age, and then they went and advanced it. It’s so beautiful and impressive. I grew up around a lot of jazz and I loved it, but I didn’t really get that kind of nurturing. I was more in the street doing stuff. But everyone’s got a different path. I’m truly blown away by all of the young, talented bass players out there, and it’s very exciting to me. I’m in awe of them. I actually learn so much from them. It makes my heart soar with joy. 

Flea and Thundercat

RHCP originated in a time before cell phones, internet, and social media. Is it odd to see old videos, interviews, and articles pop up now? Do you dig social media?

I mean, like everyone, I’m kind of addicted to it. I’ll look at my phone when I go have a pee pee, and all of a sudden 30 minutes go by, and I’m like, What the hell am I doing? It can also be awful, and when I see something bad, I feel like I lose a part of my soul that I’ll never get back. But then again, I found MonoNeon on social media, so it’s a good thing, too. The big downside of it is that clearly the attention span of people is getting much smaller. When I was a kid, you went out and you bought an album because you heard about it or you liked the cover, and you came home and put it on and you sat down and you listened. Like, I listened to it from start to finish. It’s rare now for a young person to have the ability and wherewithal to sit and take it all in. For young musicians to be heard now, they have to package it in 30-second bites. You have to do some trick to get noticed, like show your ass or something. Now, I’m the first one to go running out onstage naked and show my ass, so I’m not judging in that way. I just want depth for people. I want people to have the opportunity to go deep into something. Because the deeper you go into something beautiful, the deeper you go into yourself. People who know themselves and work through their trauma are much more likely to do beautiful things and to build bridges of love. That’s why I struggle with social media.   

Flea in Obi Wan [2022]
Flea in Babylon [2022]

As a longtime actor, how does acting and playing music inform one another, and what can we, as musicians, learn from acting?

Look at someone like David Bowie, who was a great actor and a legendary figure in music. He was able to shift gears and do both while always genuinely being himself. It’s funny that you ask, because I’ve thought about that recently. I grew up in Hollywood. I love movies and I love acting. For me, it’s sacred — films are a sacred thing. And for years I did bit parts here and there, but only in recent years did I really get serious about it. And what I found was ultimately, there are a lot of similarities to writing and playing music, but it engages a completely different part of me, creatively. The ultimate goal for any art form is the same, which is to learn this technique, learn these skills, and then use all of that to get lost in it. You can get to a place where you’re gone and this magic is working through you. Like with bass, you’re doing all of your work to get to a point where, when it’s time to play, you let go and let it come through you naturally, and you go as deep as you possibly can. Your subconscious allows you to react to what’s going on around you. It’s the same with acting.

Photo by David Mushegain

At 60, what are the keys to maintaining your hectic pace and busy life?

Extreme focus, dedication, belief, faith, and caring. Every time we play a concert, I don’t take a single person in that audience for granted. Not one. They bought a ticket, they got a babysitter or freed up their night, and they got in their cars, in an Uber, or on a bus to get there. They had to work hard and maybe dig into money that they were saving up for something important, but they chose to spend it to fucking see us. I just I love them. I love human beings; I care about them, and our music is an opportunity to uplift them. I take it dead seriously. I’m giving it all I got until I can’t anymore. My body is a temple, and I do everything I can to have a healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spirit, and healthy heart, so that I can perform the way that I do. I’m not above smoking a joint once in a while or having a drink if I want one, but you bet your ass that as long as I can stand and hold my bass, I’m going to be jumping around on that stage like a motherfucker, making people happy. Because that’s what makes me happy. –BM

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Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria

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