The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea is Helping Children Groove: A Q&A About The Benefit Show for His School, Acting, and More

by Brad Wete

 Flea | all images by Gary Leonard

Flea | all images by Gary Leonard

Usually the fastest way to hear the word “No” is by being impoverished. That unfortunate truth hits young creatives hard when it comes those looking to learn how to play instruments in the public school system, where funds for music programs have been slashed annually for decades now. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea has spent the better part of the last 20 years trying to help that cause, starting the Silverlake Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. There he and his team of teachers provide instruments and tutelage for kids in need.

Though some pay $25 a week to attend, Flea reveals that, “If you qualify for lunch tickets at [your public school] school, you qualify for free lessons at our place. We’re always trying to increase the scholarship program. We have about 200 kids going for free right now. It's just a question of money. We have to pay the teachers, and run the school." This Saturday (September 9), the non-profit hosts their annual benefit concert and art auction. Alison Mosshart, Shepard Fairey, Ed Ruscha and Jonas Wood pieces will be on sale. Anderson .Paak, Robert Plant, and, yes, the Peppers will heat up the stage.

We talked to Flea. about the school, why he only recently became a math nerd, and how he fell into acting.

As a student yourself when did your relationship with music first began as a student?

In junior high in the public school system in Bancroft Junior High in Hollywood. As a kid my stepdad was a jazz musician, he played with a lot of great jazz musicians on a jazz scene and these dudes would come over my house and just jam in the living room. And as a kid seeing that and my parents split up a little while before that and we didn’t have a musical household at all. And then we moved in with this new dude and all of a sudden I was seeing all of these guys play bebop and play jazz in the living room.

It was so eye-opening for me and it just like blew my mind as a kid and that's really where my education started with music. I was just like, “Oh my god. This is possible; human beings can do this.” Like if they would have parted the sea like Moses or the dogs started speaking in Latin, it would not have been anymore magical than seeing that.

I couldn’t believe it that they could do it. I started playing trumpet and wanted to be a jazz musician in junior high at Bancroft, then at Fairfax High School in LA. I just came up in the LA public school system playing in the band, the marching band, the jazz band, the orchestra, the play productions. Whatever they did.

Were you good as an overall student? Or was music where you excelled and tried most?

Well, to be honest, I was a terrible student. I was a real wild kid. I was out running in the street getting in trouble. Petty crime, drugs. I always liked to read a lot, so I did well in literature type classes, but It was really music. And I like basketball a lot. So music and basketball were really the things that I loved. But I didn't do really well in my other classes.

Music was really important to me. And when I got into high school, I got progressively wilder. When you get older you start finding more wild things you can do. Music was the thing that kept me going. I showed up to school because of music, I barely graduated high school. It’s funny, because I just couldn't pay attention to math and sciences and stuff like that. I just always like failed them. Later on—I’m 54 now—and eight years ago when I was 46 I went to college for a year and studied music.

I had never really studied music academically outside of public school and junior high and I had always gone on emotion and intuition. But when I went and studied it all of a sudden I was learning music academically for the first time at a high level. And it was so exciting for me, the way when I was analyzing the great classical composers and stuff I realized how math is related to things. I was so fascinated with that it was all of a sudden it seemed so beautiful to me.

Like when I was thinking about it in terms of how fast things vibrate you know to make certain pitches and if you divide these vibrations up into slower vibrations and faster vibrations and littler pieces and bigger pieces and the way they interact and the infinite ways they that could relate to each other mathematically all of a sudden math became a like beautiful thing to me. I wish I could have made that correlation when I was a kid. I would have been a well-rounded kid and gotten a better education.

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When did you start thinking beyond your own personal goals and working towards grander ones, like this school?

I've always been a lifelong student of music. I’ve always been interested in learning more about music myself. And I'm always learning in one way or another. But when I got the idea for the school it was after the Chili Peppers had already we had achieved much more mainstream success. It was in the mid ‘90s I was at a Knicks game in New York City at the Garden. And I sat next to this woman and started chatting with her and it turned out that she was a music teacher from Fairfax High, where I went to high school which was a trip.

We were chatting and she said, “Why don't you come down and talk to the kids at the school about a career in music and what that looks like and stuff?” I said “Yeah, I would love to.” So a couple months later I find myself at Fairfax and I go to talk to these kids.

I walk into this room where I used to play in a 16-piece orchestra and a big marching band and any kid could pick any instrument they want and the school would give it to you and teach you how to play it and you would join a big group and play it. I went in there and they had no instruments. They had a boom box. That's basically a music appreciation class with a volunteer teacher, They might have had an acoustic guitar or bongos lying around or something.

It used to be that we had a huge choir a huge orchestra. I graduated high school in 1980, right around the time where they cut out all of the music programs in the LA public schools. And that really opened my eyes and it really broke my heart. I thought about it and I really took it for granted in high school because that's just what we got. It made me want to start thinking that I wanted to start a music school.

A while after that I read this great book called Songs for The Unsung by Horace Tapscott, a great LA jazz musician. He had started a music school in the late ‘60s. He kind of sacrificed a lot to make that happen, he and Billy Haggins who is a great jazz drummer started this thing. And it went for a long time, like 20 or 30 years. Until Billy Haggins died. And I read his book and he wrote it so profoundly and I remember the day I was down in Mexico and I read that book and I closed the final page and I was in tears; It was so beautiful. And I was like “I'm starting a music school no matter what I don't care. Here we are 17 years later, we have 800 students and any kid who can't afford can go for free we give them instruments. It’s a beautiful thing.

Through these fundraisers we ran it out of a storefront for like 14 years and then a couple of years ago, we bought our own building and now we have this beautiful building space. The fundraiser’s this weekend and it's going to be great and the Chili Peppers are playing. We pretty much play it every year. Randy Newman is playing who is just an American treasure. And Anderson .Paak is playing. He is just a great. I loved his last album so much and it’s really kind of him to show up and do it.

So many people have done it in the past we’ve had Neil Young, Tracy Chapman, Patti smith, Metallica, Eddie Vedder, Roy Hargrove, Bruno Mars did it. So many people have done it for us it's a really special thing. We auction great art, we have musical performances, a nice dinner, people pay a bunch of cash to come and all the money goes to the school and it's great.

You branch out every now and then to do some acting. It was just announced that you've gotten a new role in Boy Erased with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Where are you as far as acting is concerned and how excited are you about upcoming roles?

It’s funny because before the Chili Peppers started, I did my first movie Suburbia directed by Penelope Spheeris. It was kind of like a punk rock movie. And she kind of picked kids off the street and put them in this movie. I met her because I was playing in this punk band and she met me and said, “You would be perfect for this movie.” And ever since then I've had this funny little movie career. I’ve had some small parts and had really great things, and done some bad things and kind of figured out how to do it.

But over the last few years I've kind of picked up, getting involved with people who have me doing some really cool stuff. I've really been taking the craft of acting more seriously and putting time and energy into really learning about it, like I did with music. You learn your scales and technique and all that stuff. With acting I kind of winged it for a long time and just kind of learning how I can give it my most to it. So that’s what's going on now, I'm doing this movie Boy Erased right now and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

Written by Brad Wete