Flea Goes Back To School As a member of the multiplatinum rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea wouldn't seem to need higher education to further his career. But the bassist has just enrolled as a freshman at USC's music program. For Flea, it's an opportunity to learn the academic side of music.
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Flea Goes Back To School

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Flea Goes Back To School

Flea Goes Back To School

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There's always more to learn about life, but why would you go to music school if you already know how to play bass like this?

(Soundbite of bass guitar)

SEABROOK: That's Flea, the bass player with the multi, multi, multi platinum band, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea has just enrolled in the music program at the University of Southern California. He's a freshman, and he joins me now by phone. Welcome, Flea.

Mr. FLEA (Bass Player, Red Hot Chili Peppers): Hi.

SEABROOK: Why are you studying music?

Mr. FLEA: I love it. Basically, I studied, you know, music at the most remedial level, you know, through the Los Angeles public schools and a little bit of private instruction when I was a kid. But, you know, all of my career, all that I've done is really been based on emotion and intuition and just kind of gravitating towards what sounds good. And I've never really been that sophisticated in terms of harmonic or, you know, the real academic knowledge of music. And that's something that I've always wanted to learn, and I have the opportunity to do it now, so I'm doing it.

SEABROOK: How about the other students? How are they dealing with you?

Mr. FLEA: There are some times, you know, I have a few little like autograph things. And, you know, like once someone brought someone into the class that I knew they were there to look at me, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEA: But mostly, you know, everyone is there like really focusing on learning, and it's such a studious environment that I just - it really doesn't bother me.

SEABROOK: Can I tell you, the Red Hot Chili Peppers album "Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik" defines college for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEA: That's cool, hey!

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: It was like the soundtrack of my freshmen and sophomore years. So what must it be like to be a freshmen yourself at USC with all these kids?

Mr. FLEA: Well, it's really fun. I mean, sometimes, it's kind of bizarre. You know, the other day, I was late to class, and I was running across campus on a hot day. And it was like, you know, it's full speed and a backpack full of books, my notebook, and I'm like, I'm going to be tardy. I'm going to be tardy, I got to - I'm running...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEA: And I kind of looked at myself from the outside for a second, and I'm like, what are you doing, man? You're 45 years old. You know, you're a successful musician. You don't need money, and you're like running to like - and you're worried about being tardy and getting in trouble, but the learning is just great.

SEABROOK: So what are you learning?

Mr. FLEA: Well, at the moment, I'm studying Bach chorales, you know, four part harmony in the way that Bach wrote it in the mid 1700s and learning how to write those, and it's just amazing. I mean, Bach is such a phenomenal, mind bogglingly good musician and composer, so studying that stuff and kind of figuring out how he did it.

SEABROOK: It's pretty far distance from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, huh?

Mr. FLEA: It is in one way, but in another way, it's not. I mean, music is made up out of these building blocks and studying how these blocks go together and what the blocks consist of and the mass of how it works is - it's all the same stuff. It's just, you know, different aesthetics that we're talking about, you know? And like I said earlier, I've always kind of operated on my heart and my intuition and what felt good, and to just really activate the cerebral part of myself and the academic part of myself, which I've never done. Because when I was a kid, and it was time to go to college, I was like, oh, college. You know, college is for people who don't have the street smarts to make it on their own.


Mr. FLEA: You know, and then I got in a van and hit the road and started working and being in a band.

SEABROOK: But this isn't your first involvement in music education? You founded a music conservatory a few years back.

Mr. FLEA: Yeah, I started a music school seven or eight years ago. It's a nonprofit school. It's called the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. And, you know, because when I went to public school in Los Angeles, and I was always kind of a disaster. I was running around on the street getting in trouble, and music...


Mr. FLEA: Oh, yeah!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEA: I got into a lot of trouble, yeah. And music was the one discipline and steady thing in my life that I had. And when I went back to my high school, and I think it was '99, and saw that the music department was completely dismantled and gone because of Proposition 13 that passed in 1980 when I graduated, it was so depressing. So anyways, I was inspired to start the school, and it's been going now for seven years. We have about 600 students.


Mr. FLEA: You know, our philosophy is, we just want to give music education to any kid that wants it. And if you can't afford it, it's free.


Mr. FLEA: Yeah.

SEABROOK: Flea is the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a freshman at the USC School of Music. Thank you so much.

Mr. FLEA: Oh, thanks for having me. It's a - thanks for the time.

SEABROOK: If you're in L.A., tonight, you can catch Flea and his friends, including Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, at a benefit concert for Flea's Silverlake Conservatory.

Finally tonight, we have these words on life and learning from the 16th century French Writer Michel de Montaigne in his essay of "Experience." He wrote, we must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If the musician liked only one kind, what would he have to say?

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