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Monday 18 November 2019

‘There were many things f**ked up about my childhood - nudity was not one’ - Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on his memoir

With a new memoir out, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea tells John Meagher about his violent upbringing, drug addiction and not always seeing eye-to-eye with frontman Anthony Kiedis

Reflection: Flea says that in writing his memoir, he realised he had been a jerk in the past
Reflection: Flea says that in writing his memoir, he realised he had been a jerk in the past

It is hard to imagine Flea being nervous about anything. This is a preening showman who seems to be in his element throwing shapes with his bass guitar in front of thousands of adoring fans.

With the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he has played some of the biggest shows this country has ever seen, including one in front of 110,000 people at the Phoenix Park in 2004 - the all-time record crowd for a rock concert in Ireland - and yet he says he is anxious about the imminent release of a project very close to his heart.

Acid for the Children is his first book, a memoir of his childhood and early adulthood. It is searingly honest about an upbringing that was about as far from the norm as you can get. And he is jittery about doing the promotional rounds for it.

"Did you read the whole book?" he asks, at the beginning. "What did you think of it?" And, later, as our conversation draws to a close, he seems unusually grateful that someone has read all of it. "Thanks, man, for reading all of the book. I was worried when I started doing this that they [journalists] wouldn't read it and I'd be asked dumb questions."

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Part of the reason for the nerves, he concedes, is the fact that he has written so candidly about the intimate details of his life. Nothing has been left out, including his once gargantuan appetite for hard drugs. "I'm really grateful that I'm still here to tell the tale," he says. "A few friends died at much too young an age. I knew that I was lucky to escape, to be able to get myself out of that drug addiction. Thank God. I count myself amazingly lucky to have a healthy life, spiritually and emotionally as well as physically.

"And the relationships in my life are healthy too." Just weeks after chatting to Review, he gets married for the second time.

Born Michael Balzary in Melbourne, Australia, he and has family moved to the US when he was four. He says those first few years 'Down Under' helped form his character - and his love of nature - but America, especially Los Angeles, moulded his boyhood and an approach to life that remains unconventional.

"My family were different to everyone else," he says, "although I didn't really know that at the time. There were some moments where the other kids would say how weird it was, but when you're growing up, your normal is whatever you're used to.

"In my house, everyone used to walk around naked - my mom, stepdad, sister, me. It was normal for us. I've a friend who says to this day, 'Man, I'd come over to your house and your dad would open the door and be naked.' He said that was wrong and messed up, and I responded to him to say that there were many things that were unhealthy and fucked up about my childhood, but nudity was not one of them.

"The nudity was fine for me. But [Flea's stepfather] going on violent rampages and shooting guns out of the windows at cops bothered me. Being completely irrational and crazy from being a drug addict - that bothered me, too. But a bit of nudity - that was fine."

Music has long played a key part in his life. He says he started to become very aware of the power of song at the age of seven, and he realised he could become a musician too when he heard a seminal US punk album while in his late teens.

"Listening to the Germs' album (GI) changed my life forever," he says. "Before, I'd always judged music by how great the players were - how virtuosic they were. It was people like Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker - and when I started liking rock, it was prog. But here I was, lying on the floor and listening to (GI)turned up loud, and it was trashed-out punk rock with two or three chords per song and it was great.

"It was like an earth-shattering moment, going to the core of who I am. 'Oh my God, it doesn't matter how adept you are on your instrument, it's all about the motivation and intent and the music being a vessel for that.' And that can be just as profound as the most complex of music.

"Sometimes," he adds, "all that sophistication can be an impediment to expression. It's still one of my favourite records ever made."

After gravitating towards the bass, he joined a handful of go-nowhere bands, but it was the group that he founded with another teen from an unorthodox background, Anthony Kiedis, that would ensure Flea left his own indelible mark on music. They originally called themselves Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, before settling on the less unwieldy Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea has played on every one of their albums to date and there will likely be another one next year.

"In the new year, we'll get into recording and take it from there. We never put a time on it and we get it done when we can. We're great workers and very diligent."

The group may not be on a world tour at present, but they are active. The day after this interview, they travel to Singapore for a one-off performance.

Kiedis - it was the frontman who gave Flea his nickname because he was so jumpy - is an important part of the memoir and one gets a sense that both men wouldn't be who they are today without the other.

Kiedis wrote an acclaimed autobiography, Scar Tissue, some years ago but Flea has not yet read it. "It's not out of any disrespect," he says. "I'm just scared to read it. And maybe now I've written this book, I should.

"Anthony and I are such different people. I know that there are things he wrote about in his book that we wouldn't see eye-to-eye on. You know, the parts of his life that intersect with mine. We would look at those things so differently, it would be very hard to read."

If his bandmate's book might be difficult to read, aspects of this one were exceptionally hard to write. The passage about the death of original Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak is deeply moving. "I think about him all the time," he says. "I've such a sense of loss at his death, but at the same time an appreciation for what he did when he was alive. I'm so glad to have been there for some of it and to try to capture the beauty of his life.

"The words just flowed out of me, but when I'd read them out loud to my editor, that was difficult. I can't read those words out loud without breaking down in tears."

When he first decided to write a book, he thought it was going to be purely about the band, but as he started putting the words down, he had a change of heart. "I thought, 'Why would I be so arrogant to think that people would want to read about my life?' But once I started, I felt I was on this journey of self-discovery and I started finding beauty in it, especially in those murky, dreamlike memories."

He says he is glad he didn't wind up writing "a rock-star book" and he says that "anything to do with celebrity makes me uncomfortable". But the look-back on his early years wasn't always easy. "Some of it was difficult for me," he says. "There were times when I'd recall something I did and I realised I was an asshole. When you do something that hurts someone else, you sort of rationalise it. But then you look back and realise you were being a jerk."

He is not sure if there will be a second volume of his memoir, one that takes the reader on a journey through the rollercoaster years of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but few would bet against it. "I loved the process of writing," he says, "of getting the words down on the page. It's a creative outlet for me that I want to explore more." No ghostwriter need apply.

He says he is looking forward to what his band achieves in the future. "The goal is always to make the best music we've ever done," he says, adding that his creative juices have been on fire lately. A couple of months ago, he and Thom Yorke released a wonderfully evocative single, 'Daily Battles', which was written specifically for the forthcoming movie Motherless Brooklyn - written and directed by Edward Norton, who also stars in the film.

Flea is close to the Radiohead frontman, having played with him on and off since 2006. As a bassist, he has a soft spot for other exponents of the four-stringed instrument, including Adam Clayton. "He's a real gentleman," he says of the U2 man. "Just so kind and thoughtful, and I look up to someone like him, someone who's been quarter of a band that's been able to touch so many hearts.

"And that's what all this is about - you want to touch people's hearts, whether you're making music or writing a book. That's the essence of it."

'Acid for the Children', published by Headline, is out now

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