In Defense of John Frusciante (Does He Need Defending? Probably Not, But I'm Still Gonna Do It)

In Defense of John Frusciante (Does He Need Defending? Probably Not, But I'm Still Gonna Do It)
Photo by Rick Kern via Getty Images

Don't worry, he's alive and well, and he hasn't done anything cancelable (that I'm aware of). I'm writing the type of glowing career retrospective usually reserved for obituaries or image rehabilitations simply because I was already spending a lot of time thinking about occasional Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante this week. Okay, I might spend a lot of time thinking about occasional Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante most weeks.

This particular spiral was sparked by a run-of-the-mill tweet from the Small Albums blog ("listening to John Frusciante solo albums. AMA") that is indicative of how little it takes to get my mind racing about Frusciante. As if sliding down a fireman's pole towards a dire instance of my services being needed, I immediately, compulsively shared my personal ranking of said solo albums. A couple days later, when Radiohead's "Just" came on at work, I tweeted about a specific riff in the song being Frusciante-esque:

Just kidding, this was the tweet:

The responses ranged from "I don't hear it," to "why are you ruining this song for me," to "wow yeah you're right," to "you'd have to be a moron to think that John Frusciante was the first guy to play clean octaves on a Strat—haven't you ever heard of Jimi Hendrix, Stax Records and/or George Benson?!"

For the most part, I played a stupid game and won fittingly stupid prizes, but I did get some slight mental stimulation when I began thinking about Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the same context. Beyond the hypothetical "Just" similarities, both bands are avowed fans of one another: Radiohead's Ed O'Brien called In Rainbows cut "Reckoner" an "homage" to Frusciante's playing; Thom Yorke was once filmed visibly rocking out to RHCP's "By The Way"; Yorke and RHCP bassist Flea formed the band Atoms of Peace together; and in a hilariously on-the-nose moment, onetime Frusciante replacement Josh Klinghoffer covered Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" during an RHCP concert at the pyramids of Giza.

Both are among the most popular rock bands left standing, seemingly capable of packing out stadiums and festival headlining spots until the apocalypse, and both have comparable Spotify monthly listener counts (26 million for Radiohead, 33 million for RHCP). That's where the similarities end. I know plenty of people who would, or regularly do, call Radiohead their favorite band; I know just one guy who'd say the same about RHCP. While Radiohead has plenty of haters, I usually find that people dislike them either because they're viewed as too pretentious or because they're not weird enough (or too boring) to justify their hype, rather than any reasons of visceral repulsion. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are legitimately many peoples' least favorite band.

Listen, I get it. Few things have been out of vogue longer than slap bass, clumsy white boy rapping, and shirtless machismo. Anthony Kiedis is the most easily caricatured frontperson in music. If you could make ChatGPT chug a full jug of Carlo Rossi and then asked it to write a song about California, it would poop out 100% feasible Kiedis lyrics.

I would have zero interest in The Red Hot Chili Peppers if Frusciante was not in the band, and I know this because I've never liked any of the albums they released before he joined in 1989, during his 1992-1998 hiatus, or during his 2009-2019 hiatus. Even during the yearlong period that I called them my favorite band (I was in Seventh Grade, okay?), I was repelled every time I tried dipping my toes into the Frusciante-less One Hot Minute or The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. But with Frusciante on board, especially in the fertile period between 1999's Californication and 2002's By The Way, the band left behind the funk/punk/hard rock origins that I never enjoyed, and morphed into something much prettier (and perhaps 0.5% "smarter").

The songs that stick with me to this day are the most Frusciante-heavy ones. The lovely "This Velvet Glove" is, gun to my head, probably the only Californication song I'd ride for in 2024, but Frusciante took on a larger role on By The Way, playing more keyboards and contributing more backing vocals, and it's chock full of songs I still love dearly: "Universally Speaking," "This Is the Place," "Dosed," "Tear," "Venice Queen," and if you catch me on the right day, "I Could Die For You." You still have to dodge shockingly dumb Kiedis-isms left and right, and Rick Rubin's "loudness war" production renders the intricacies of the mix inaudible, but I could never let that distract me from some of the most gorgeous Californian pop-rock released in my lifetime. (I should note that although I spent the latter, formative years of my childhood in Washington State, I was initially a Navy brat who was born in San Diego and later moved back for a couple years during elementary school. I still feel phantom puka shells around my neck from time to time.)

Despite occasionally enjoying the other three core members' contributions, and never once denying Flea and drummer Chad Smith's respective talents, The Red Hot Chili Peppers are more or less John Frusciante to me. Frusciante, on the other hand, is far more than RHCP.

Once I was old enough to realize that this wavy, Hendrix-influenced guitarist with the angelic falsetto was the primary force behind my enjoyment of the band—I think shortly after 2006's Stadium Arcadium came out—I started venturing into his solo discography. Even back then, it was imposing: seven albums and a handful of EPs, most of which were difficult to find on iTunes, on CD, or even on Limewire. Little did I know, I was also barely scratching the surface of side projects, pseudonyms, and guest appearances on other artists' work. What's more, Frusciante only got more prolific in the years since—in 2006, he hadn't even learned the intricacies of electronic drum programming from breakcore mastermind Venetian Snares, which opened up a whole new can of worms for him.

I've still only experienced a sliver of the Frusciante-verse. I've never, for instance, checked out his work with the Wu-Tang-affiliated rap group Black Knights, or Swahili Blonde, his experimental band with his ex-wife, or his collaborations on solo albums by Omar Rodríguez-López of At The Drive-In/The Mars Volta. There are also parts of his ouvré that simply don't interest me, particularly the mid-2010s-to-early-2020s period when he almost entirely stopped singing and playing guitar in favor of electronic composition. But even within my familiar sliver, dude's got a wealth of eclectic material, ranging from nearly as accessible as RHCP to unlistenably experimental. I've always felt that Frusciante being a member of a wildly successful, at least partially unhip band has precluded him from getting the degree of critical evaluation that I think his work outside of RHCP deserves, but maybe I'm just biased.

I'm going to briefly highlight eight of my favorite non-RHCP Frusciante moments in chronological order. Decide for yourself whether he's worthy of being remembered for more than the "Under the Bridge" riff!

(Again, if you want to see embedded videos in this newsletter, you have to open it in your browser. For some reason they don't show up in the email version)

"I'm Always" from Smile From The Streets You Hold (1997)

Depending on your opinion, Frusciante's first two solo albums are either impossibly painful to listen to, or master strokes of outsider art genius akin to cult classics by Skip Spence and Syd Barrett. I tend to err on the former side, but I can't deny the glimpses of brilliance.

Long story short: the first time he left RHCP was against his will, as he was even more addicted to heroin than Kiedis was. After he got sober in the late '90s, he tried to remove both 1995's Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt and Smile From The Streets You Hold from circulation, specifically saying that the latter made him uncomfortable because he released it "for drug money." There are some uncomfortable moments on both albums (don't, for instance, look up the title of the song that immediately follows "I'm Always" on the tracklist), but even through Frusciante's addled haze, songs like this one hint at the vivid creativity that would persist once he got his life together.

"Murderers" from To Record Only Water for Ten Days (2001)

Remember the thing about Radiohead's "Reckoner" being inspired by Frusciante? It's this type of tasty, tuneful playing that Ed O'Brien was talking about. His first solo release since getting sober, hitting it big once again with Californication, and signing a solo deal with Warner, To Record Water... mostly consists of sketches that nevertheless mark a drastic improvement in fidelity and clarity from the '90s Frusciante albums. "Going Inside" also slaps.

"Omission" from Shadows Collide With People (2004)

In the four years between By The Way and Stadium Arcadium, Frusciante made up for lost time, releasing four solo albums. Shadows Collide With People was the first physical release I got my hands on, asking my dad to look for it in record stores when he went on a work trip to Chicago (thanks Dad, I know you were shocked to see a used CD priced at $18.99 in 2007). Though it's way too long, it's the single richest, most vibrant showcase of pop songwriting talent in Frusciante's solo discography. It's also his first collaboration with Josh Klinghoffer, who, for those of you keeping score at home, would go on to replace him in RHCP in 2009 after he left on more amicable terms. Vocals-wise, Klinghoffer acts as the Frusciante to Frusciante's Kiedis on this album, adding a ton of texture and emotion.

"The Past Recedes" from Curtains (2005)

Outside of Shadows Collide With People, most of the material that Frusciante released in this fertile period was acoustic-based, which usually isn't as interesting to me, with a few exceptions. This opening track from Curtains a stunner, proving that he could've been a singer-songwriter in the mold of Ray LaMontagne or David Gray had he wanted to.

"L'Via L'Viaquez" from The Mars Volta's Frances The Mute (2005)

As previously mentioned, Frusciante struck up a close relationship with Omar Rodríguez-López, another preternaturally talented, formerly opioid-addicted guitarist, in the 2000s. Frusciante is credited with contributions on all of The Mars Volta's first five albums of Latin-tinged prog-metal, but it's often unclear what he's playing underneath Rodríguez-López's adventurous lead parts. Not so on the 12-minute "L'Via L'Viaquez," on which he's credited with the "first two guitar solos." That should tell you something about the scope of what The Mars Volta were doing at the time, and it also shows Frusciante's ability to adapt to more wildly outré styles than his main band was playing.

"Unreachable" from The Empyrean (2009)

Far and away my favorite Frusciante release is the proggy, ambitious Empyrean. For all of their brilliance, most of his solo albums feel like unorganized, overlong data dumps of whatever tracks he'd been working on in his spare time, and this is the exception that plays like a carefully crafted epic. He pulled out all of the stops for The Empyrean, from a cover of Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren," to contributions from Flea and The Smiths' Johnny Marr, to the frequent presence of a full orchestra. You have to hear it in full to truly appreciate the full sweep, but if there's one song that functions as a microcosm of the grandeur, it's "Unreachable."

"In My Light" from the Letur-Lefr EP (2012)

By 2012, I thought the time in my life when I'd be thoroughly surprised by what Frusciante was doing outside of RHCP was long past, but goddamn it, the man proved me wrong yet again. This five-track EP was really the first peep from him as a solo artist since he left the Peppers for the last time (to date), and it's a head-blown merging of his existing guitar-pop with synthy, electronic fare that he'd never really hinted at since To Record Only Water... The whole thing's worth a listen, but with its shifting between epic rock, drum-n-bass, and even a cameo from The RZA himself, closing track "In My Light" is a banger that satisfies beyond the initial shock value.

"Ratiug" from PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone (2012)

Released just a couple of months after Letur-Lefr, this full length is very clearly a stylistic continuation of the weirdo lane Frusciante carved out on the EP—well, as much as you can call something this radically hyperactive a "continuation" of anything. Unlike the fully electronic material that followed, PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone cedes equal limelight to Frusciante's vocals, guitar playing, pop songwriting, and newfound affinity for breakbeat samples. I hope he gets back to this vibe someday, but if anything's predictable about his career trajectory, he's gonna follow his arrow wherever it takes him.

Plug 2

I realize I haven't plugged any writing—my own or others'—in several weeks. That ends now! In the 11th hour of finishing this up, I encountered one of the best Pitchfork reviews I've read in months: Brad Shoup's take on the new self-titled album by Bleachers, better known by most as the band that functions as super producer Jack Antonoff's day job. I've never found much to admire about this love letter to New Jersey that doubles as a musical act (though I did find myself bawling at a festival set of theirs six or seven years ago—don't ask). But I've admired Brad's work for years. He's as relentless a listener as you'll find in this jaded world, and his Bleachers review is the pinnacle of a form I'd describe as "I wouldn't have listened to this album, and still won't, but I know the writer describes it to a T."

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #21

Been Stellar - "Passing Judgement"

Genre: hooky post-punk // RIYL: Iceage, Cloud Nothings

The predominant modern wave of post-punk is a talky, explicitly political, hyper-British style that's never clicked with me. This Been Stellar song clearly falls under the very loose, very wide, very old post-punk umbrella, but to my ears it's more visceral and infectious than everything else that gets slapped with that tag nowadays. This is ultimately inconsequential to the song's greatness, but my ears initially perked up because its intro sounds so very similar to The Killers' GOATed album opener "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine." Scream from New York, NY is out 6/14.

Bloomsday - "Dollar Slice"

Genre: country-tinged indie folk // RIYL: witty lyrics, lap steel guitar

I've been impressed with what Beach Fossils frontman Dustin Payseur has been doing with his Bayonet Records label in the past few years. Avid Inbox Infinity readers will remember how enthralled I've become with recent signee Mei Semones, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Bloomsday is a project fronted by Brooklyn singer-songwriter Iris James Garrison, and their lyrics are just phenomenal. "Eggs over easy/Just how you like me/'Cuz you're always running"—that's brilliant. Heart of the Artichoke is out 6/7.

Lawrence Hart & Giulia Tess - "Trust"

Lawrence Hart · Trust

Genre: clubby IDM // RIYL: Jon Hopkins, Jamie xx

I want to give yet another shoutout to every publicist who sends me under-the-radar electronic stuff, because despite having very little vocabulary to describe why I like what I like, I fucking love dance music. "Trust" is just undeniable—carefully crafted and spellbinding throughout its five-minute runtime despite its tasteful lack of sonic diversity and jump-cuts.

Mutilation Barbecue - "Xenomorphic Organ Rearrangement"

Genre: gloriously dumb death metal // RIYL: brute force, the Boss HM-2 pedal

Although I'm a huge metal guy—to the degree that I've been typecast into the role of one of Pitchfork's few remaining contributors who are interested in reviewing metal albums—I find myself glossing over metal promo emails to a far higher degree than most other genres. The main explanation, I think, is that most underground metal bands that I'd get excited about don't hire publicists, and the ones that do tend to be much more high-sheen than the stuff I tend to like. But there's always something that clicks. This week, that's Mutilation Barbecue, who sound exactly like you think they would. Amalgamations of Gore is out 3/29.

One Step Closer - "Leap Years"

Genre: melodic hardcore // RIYL: the idea of Turnstile becoming a mid-2000s mall punk band

I tend to feel much less at home with hardcore punk than most forms of metal writ large, but I enjoy whenever I hear bands stray away from standard d-beat and/or breakdown-centric formulas. I've heard of One Step Closer, a band that hails from the seemingly always-fertile Wilkes-Barre, PA punk scene, but I'd never listened to them until this promo landed in my inbox this week. I like "Leap Years" because it retains typical HxC structures but treats melodies with a much more unbridled enthusiasm than most bands of their ilk. All You Embrace is out 5/17.

Rico Nasty & Boys Noize - "Arintintin"

Genre: gloriously dumb pop-dance // RIYL: Vengaboys, ATC, '90s Eurodance

Okay, I'm fully convinced that Rico can pull off any style of music under the sun. For those unfamiliar, she's a rapper from the DMV area whose career is less than a decade old, but she's already roped metallic rage-rap, 100 Gecs-assisted hyperpop, and spacey R&B into her self-coined descriptor of "sugar trap." Now she's paired up with German electro-house survivor Boys Noize (who, it should be noted, has a successful track record with American rap/R&B artists like Frank Ocean, Ty Dolla $ign, and Abra) for a dumb-as-hell slapper that sounds like something that Nordic savants would've smuggled onto the US pop charts in the '90s.

This Is Lorelei - "Dancing in the Club"

Genre: bedroom pop // RIYL: big emotions in small packages

With the risk of losing some subscribers, I'll reveal that last year's much-hyped album by New York's Water From Your Eyes never really connected with me. This week I got emails about new singles by two separate projects from members of that band, and as proof that I maintain an open mind, I listened to both! "Dancing in the Club," by Nate Amos (aka This Is Lorelei) is the one that stuck. The auto-tuned vocals singing very '70s melodies over micro-production that includes a riff that sounds like Blink-182's "Adam's Song" just did it for me, I guess! Box for Buddy, Box for Star is out 6/14.

Track of the Week

American Culture Feat. Midwife - "Let It Go"

Genre: sloppy Madchester revival // RIYL: Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine's "Soon"

I'll let you read about this Denver band's wild backstory on your own, but their latest single doesn't need any of the traumatic intrigue to provide a hook of its own. The rest of American Culture's upcoming album is more in-line with their ramshackle, pop-minded punk roots (akin to Girls in my mind), but "Let It Go" is pure '80s/'90s Factory Records goodness. Hey Brother, It's Been a While is out 5/3.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson