Frusciante threw himself into classic dance music machines. After forming a project with Venetian Snares called Speed Dealer Moms and releasing a steady stream of solo and collaborative work, he announced his biggest left turn yet: an album of analog dance music on Acid Test, a heady imprint previously dedicated to techno auteurs like Tin Man and Donato Dozzy.
Called Trickfinger, it was never meant to see the light of day. "The original version of the songs were part of a Christmas gift given to close friends of John's in 2008," explains Oliver Bristow, who owns Acid Test. That belies its uncommon virtuosity, which veteran Los Angeles producer John Tejada put this way: "What I don’t think many people realize is Trickfinger was purely made on Roland gear with no computer. It's multiple real 303s and 606s etc all synced up—the way classic acid was, but none of those records ever took arrangements to that level with multiple boxes. It's quite an impressive achievement." In a sun-soaked room not far from the beach in Los Angeles, surrounded by records, synths and cigarettes, Frusciante explained his career's improbable turn.
I really love the note you wrote with the record. I thought that was really interesting in terms of methodology.
I spent three years making music before I decided to start releasing music again, and the first thing that came out, I just kind of gave an explanation of the change that had happened in those years. [Absurd Recordings] just took an excerpt from that and reprinted it as the liner notes to the record.
You were leaving your old band, and you were interested in different modes of musical communication. I think you've also said that at that time, the idea of starting from scratch was pretty attractive to you.
I think for a time I had that kind of disease in my head that's standard in pop/rock music, where as a musician you don't really feel like—you can never actually be an engineer. You can never make a great-sounding record without employing a staff of professionals and being in a big studio. A home studio can never sound as good as a big, expensive studio.
I had all those misapprehensions about the relationship between musicianship and engineering. I guess in all kinds of areas I was seeing that drumming was being taken further by programmers than it was by drummers. I was seeing new kinds of melodies that you would only think of if you were programming something, rather than playing something with your fingers. And engineering—I just saw that people like Autechre and Squarepusher are taking engineering to a level of artistic expression that just doesn't exist for professionals in the industry. I worked with great engineers who were professional engineers, but not artists; they were just guys trained not to make mistakes, and "don't fuck it up" was basically their philosophy.
You can't be an artist with that kind of setup. I saw what was happening in electronic music as actually progressing somewhere and actually moving forward, the same way I feel that musicianship did in the late '60s and '70s.
Eventually I realized I was hearing music in my head that I had no idea how to create. I heard in my head that really slow, Black Sabbath-type riffs would sound really good with really fast breakbeats on them, and I'd never heard anybody combine super slow with super fast in that way. I heard in my head how it would work, but I knew it was going to be a long time before I was able to do something like that. I thought I'd already reached kind of a peak with what I'd done with traditional rock music, and I wanted to learn to start thinking like these [electronic producers] and actually doing what was in my head—these musical principles that I was hearing in my head.
Acid stuff was a start for me to learn to start thinking in numbers rather than physical movement. Numbers were already a big way I thought in terms of the guitar, but yeah, using numbers for rhythm was a different way of thinking for me. The acid stuff was the beginning of me learning to think in a completely different way, but it was about three years after that that I was able to do the really fast breakbeats with the Black Sabbath-y stuff. It seems like it was a good two years before I even got started using samples, really. I felt like I needed a few years of training under my belt understanding step programming before I was going to jump into chopping up breakbeats.
The last track on Trickfinger has a subtle vocal sample that sounds like an early Armand Van Helden rave track.
Those were baby steps. At a certain point I just forced myself. I had a dream that I was listening to a piece of music, and it was completely made out of samples of rock bands, one rock band after the other, but it was totally abstract.
To express myself completely with no machines, just samples, had been a goal of mine for a while. In rock music, playing a traditional instrument, your mind says to do something and you command your hands to do it. But with sampling and with the old Roland machines, you can really have no idea where you're going and no pre-conceived idea at all. I prefer that, but initially it's pretty scary. I don't even care about the result, I just do the work, and I've developed enough of a process where I can trust that. How things are going to end up isn't a huge concern for me.
Coming from a very popular group, is there a level of wanting to take ego out of the equation completely, to surrender control and make it as little about me as possible?
The object is to learn, not to be a part of a scene or to make an impression on people or anything like that. Educating myself has been the thing I've been addicted to since I was 12—I've always seen learning as its own reward. Some of that takes place over many years, the way my mind works. I spent my whole life memorizing music off of records and CDs. In the last few years, my whole life has been concentrated in the learning department of electronic music, from doing that acid stuff to doing that all-sample stuff. I'm gradually getting all these weapons in my arsenal. Now it's the most natural thing in the world to work with samples, whereas before that was a scary idea to me, and learning gradually how to combine different styles of music that I've never heard combined before and opening my mind to learning music from this different angle—gradually from sampling, I'd learn about music in this way that's correlative to that. With samples, you begin to analyze the microrhythms and music-between-notes that are difficult to understand otherwise.
The unevenness that ends up creating a groove has been a point of study for me, and things like speeding up and slowing down tempos—things that you can't really do as a normal musician. Most everything I did last year, I'd start with samples of classical music. I'd chop up five minutes of classical music into 150 little slices and make music out of that and then learn what's in there on my synthesizers or guitar and make a bassline. I'm not making my own bassline—I'm making one with what I programmed out of Chopin. But it's my chord progression, not [Chopin's].
I'm using the songwriter portion of myself when I'm writing music. It's essentially what I do when I get out my guitar and play along to music. I'm not thinking of new parts—I'm learning them. I can write stuff that a guy would never write because your brain won't memorize it. It's a reverse-engineering kind of writing music. I've gradually come to see the work I do as someone who sits around and plays guitar with records as being the other side of what I do when I create music, the idea that my brain would one day work like that was a magical dream for me which I slowly turned into a reality.
It's true experimental music because, to an extent, you're not making a value judgment on whether you get a good result or a bad result, you have faith in the process.
I think talent is something that someone is born with, and that if you work on educating yourself all the time, that gives your talent the ability to flourish. And if you don't practice and study and learn and change and grow, you might have a lot of talent, but if you're just going after that, "I just want people to like this or I hope I can hang onto the fans that I already have," whatever it is, I think that stifles talent. That's one of the sad things I saw happening all around me in rock music, just people being so concerned about promoting themselves and pleasing their audiences and competing with other popular groups. It's like, when the fuck do you actually have time to get better at what you're doing and cultivate your talents? Even in the underground when somebody makes themselves well-known in a particular scene, the audience becomes your authority of something, you do a kind of pre-editing with yourself.
I did that when I was in my band, and that was my job. To a certain degree, you obviously want to do music you like, but you do it within the boundaries of what your audience is ready to accept. At a certain point I'd had enough of doing that, and I'd done it for long enough to have a life for myself. And so for the last seven years I've taken full advantage of that. I don't make music ever to make an audience happy, and I don't make music to try to please people. I make music with the express purpose of making sure I'm always learning something, and I'm always attempting things that I haven't attempted before. It would be really sad for me if all of a sudden I was like, "Acid house people really like me now I'm just going to make acid house." I could never do it—I just have to be always moving forward and changing. I don't think our industry really has a place for people who think that way, so it was just a matter of abandoning any notion of being a popular musician. Their desires are the opposite of what a musician who's devoted to music actually is, because they want to hear something familiar, and as a devoted musician you want to do something that hasn't been done before.
That's one of the things that I admire about Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares and Squarepusher. In comparison with rock musicians, it seems like the music is their guide, as opposed to having a fanbase and making themselves as popular as possible. I wanted to have that same intellectual freedom for myself.
Tell me about how your setup came together.
It got to a point that there were so many machines around me that my cats couldn't come up with a way to get to me—they'd be meowing on the other side of it, so I had to start making a little space where they could actually come through. The album was recorded onto a CD burner—no computer. Just the 909 would be the master and all the other machines would be a slave to that.
I had my rock studio in the house set up more like a traditional rock studio, where the board was in one room and the instruments in another. I started tearing stuff out of the rock studio and integrating it into my electronic studio. I thought they would be separate, but eventually I realized that I didn't want to do that ever again—I never wanted to hire an engineer again. I finished the album I was doing, but my electronic studio now takes up half the rooms. Now it's set up really differently. I play my drums from the computer, poly synths from the computer, I don't even know if I was using any poly synths on the acid stuff. Certain things are the same—I still program the [Elektron] Monomachine or the Machinedrum or the [Roland TR-] 606. I have one [of the latter] where every single output has been converted into a trig-out. There are certain drum machines I program, but for the most part I have a wall of drum machines behind me that I program from the computer alone. So now my setup is really organized, every song [on the album] was a different setup and would be torn down after every song.
Some of the drum programming and the fills on "Sain" have an almost IDM level of complexity.
The music on "Sain"—that took me like two weeks to program the drums. The rest of the music I did in a day. I just did all those drums on the [Roland] R-8. When I listen to that acid stuff, I think that's part of it—that I had to work so hard to do some of it. It was a struggle for me for the first three years of making electronic music, which is why I wasn't releasing music. I like struggling, and I wanted to challenge my brain in that way. But I did hope that one day making music would be as easy for me as it was Aaron Funk [Venetian Snares] and stuff, and in our work together he was just faster than me.
What do you spend, say, two weeks on now?
There's not really anything I spend two weeks on now [laughs]. Back then it could be anything: a Monomachine part, a Machinedrum part or an R-8 part. Now, I guess I can get results pretty quick. It's nice to be able to make music fast.
You and Aaron Funk are sitting on 40 or 50 hours worth of material. How did you end up linking up with him?
One nice thing was to make acquaintances with people who grew up around techno, industrial and jungle. When I made that acid stuff, my friends were still people from rock music. It was calming to have friends who didn't think that way and grew up going to raves; it settled me in a certain way, just making music where they don't care about releasing it or whether it makes sense to people. We make so much music, and we're like, "I don't know what the fuck this would sound like to anybody but us." It's nice to have a collaborator like that. It's rare. Most people, the second something gets good, they start telling you what other people will think of it, and it's a real distraction to me, so that's been nice.
I'm used to collaborations with people where you have a purpose in common, you're making a record together, you show up at the place you're supposed to show up at the right time. I would always stay later. To have someone else who wants to work for 14 hours straight, 15 hours straight—you don't find professionals who want to stay in the studio for that long. But with Aaron, our sleep schedule would get later and later. We'd be waking up at 8 o'clock at night. We would live together for two weeks every time we'd do a session, so the music ends up being an outgrowth of actually living together rather than living and making music being two separate things. That's been really refreshing for me. Especially when it's your own record, you feel like you're imposing yourself on people. You're keeping them away from their life or the bar they want to go to or whatever.
In this day and age it just seems like, if people really love making music together, they should also really love being around each other as people, and music should come from the friendship. It shouldn't be the friendship is there because of the musical collaboration. To me that seems backwards, but that's what it was in my old band—we didn't sit around, hang out and listen to records or anything.
Is the communal aspect of live performance something you're interested in?
I've been to Autechre shows where people are dancing, but I've also been at shows where they're sitting on the floor with their head in their hands. I have friends here in town who put on raves and stuff like that, but I've never been drawn to doing that. I guess because I played so much live music for a long time, it seems really foreign to me to go on stage and do that. Aaron and I tried to do it a couple times, and it was as if the universe was against it happening. Playing live is not something I have any interest in. I've definitely had my fill of it. Performing for me is just repugnant. I appreciate the idea of being on stage and people responding with their bodies. I like being a part of it from the audience perspective.
The ATP that Autechre curated, where Aphex Twin was headlining the whole thing—there was this feeling that every single person in the room was on ecstasy, you just felt one with everyone in the room. He was the master on stage; we were all his subjects. I've had that feeling at jungle clubs and at raves, but I really prefer being on the other end of it.
You seem attracted to lone genius types who are functioning in their own space. At the same time, collaboration seems pretty important to you.
When I started doing that acid stuff, I thought I was going to stop making music with people. I didn't think I would end up in a friendship like I did with Aaron—I just thought I'm finished working with people. I didn't know that there could be collaborations where you could just both be responding to your imagination and be confident enough in your imaginations to not be like, "What do you think? Is this good enough?"
I think in general, the greatest, most important ideas that have ever occurred in mankind have come from individuals, people who are not worried about what others think but had some kind of internal guidance from their imagination, and who made it their objective to do their will, regardless of the danger it might put them in, or regardless of whether people might want to kill them or disagree with them. I think it's really important for people to trust their inner guidance and not let the outside world be their guide. To me, letting the outside world be your guide is like being a slave, and I think that who we really have to thank for any progress mankind has ever made have been leaders, people who were uncompromising and people who spent time cultivating their imaginations and weren't afraid to be alone and weren't afraid to be different.
When I made that transition to making electronic music, I was reading a lot of Aleister Crowley and reading all these Thelema books, and it's all about doing your will. And I saw people like Aaron and Autechre and Richard D. James—musically it seemed like their life and philosophy was totally correlative to what I was reading about in the Thelema books. People around me thought I was doing my will because the people were screaming, and I'm playing the guitar, but I knew that I wasn't.
I saw that ability in electronic music to, as a single person, create an entire piece of music. Those are the kinds of leaders we had when we had classical composers. Back when composers were actually the leaders of music, there was one man who would have 150 people do what they said. Now this was possible without having anyone do what they said, because I don't like telling people what to do, and I definitely don't like people telling me what to do. Telling people what to do seems like the worst thing that you could do to yourself, but with machines, you don't lose anything by commanding them, you don't have disappointments the way a composer might with the musicians not playing the way he hears in his head.
In general, in society, it's getting harder and harder for people to figure out how to be leaders, and I see electronic music as this area where you're free to be master and leader and not have these kinds of complications that come up when it's actual human beings that you're having to lead.