These qualities can make the difference between an average, run-of-the-mill band and a top-rate group that creates a distinctive musical niche for itself.
But which of these qualities is the most important, and why?"I'd have to put them in the opposite order," said Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, speaking recently from his Malibu home. "First, attitude; then vision and technique. Because attitude, in terms of your commitment to what you're doing and being yourself when you do it, is most important.
"Then, knowing yourself and having a vision of who you are - which will extend to your music - you have to have that. Then, technique, in that playing at various levels of musical sophistication can be the difference between being a really good two-chord punk band or being (jazz saxophone icon) Wayne Shorter, who I've been listening to since I was a kid.
"Both types of music - jazz and punk - are equally valid to me. I love Wayne's 'Speak No Evil,' which is one of the greatest records of all time. But I like the Germs' first album just as well. And the type of free improvisation you find in good jazz is a real big part of what we do in our live shows."
Flea's response, like his love of jazz, might surprise fans who only know his hyperactive stage persona in the Peppers - currently on tour to promote its chart-topping double album, "Stadium Arcadium."
Now 43, Flea co-founded the hard-rocking punk/funk/metal/hip-hop band in 1983 with vocalist Anthony Kiedis. The Australian-born bassist (real name: Michael Balzary) and Kiedis had first teamed up in 1978, when they formed a band while both were students at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. At the time, Flea was a devoted jazz fan and budding trumpeter who idolized Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan.
"My stepfather was a jazz musician and used to jam at my house with his buddies. They played bebop and standards, and it was shocking to me," he recalled. "I was about 8 or 9 years old, and I could not believe that human beings could create music like that. It was truly mind-blowing. I knew they were performing a magical act, and I wanted to do that."
Flea took up the bass after he met the Peppers' first guitarist, Israeli-born Hillel Slovak, who died of a drug overdose in 1988.
"Hillel had a rock band called Anthem, and they had a bass player they were unhappy with. He suggested I learn to play bass, and that changed everything for me. Punk had the same passion and commitment that I heard in jazz," said Flea, who became a member of the hardcore punk band Fear before joining the Peppers.
The first of the Peppers' many lineups teamed him with Kiedis, Slovak and Jack Irons (who would later fill the drum chair in Pearl Jam). But the Peppers didn't really hit its stride, artistically or commercially, until the release of 1991's "BloodSugarSexMagik."
That album, which sold more than 4 million copies and yielded the atypically introspective hit, "Under the Bridge," marked a quantum leap forward for the band. The Peppers had previously been distinguished by its chaotic, near-amateurish performances, as well as by a reputation for causing trouble and for performing virtually nude (apart from the band members' strategically placed tube socks).
With each successive album, including the 28-song "Stadium Arcadium," the Peppers' music has grown more accomplished and refined, Kiedis' often silly lyrics notwithstanding. (The band's new album includes such inane couplets as: Wrap me in your cinnamon / Especially in Michigan.) Yet, despite the evolution of the Peppers - three of whose members are in their 40s - Flea believes the group's impetus for making music today is much the same as it was 20 years ago.
"I would say it's mostly very similar," he said. "The basic thing of just finding music that's really exciting to play and feeling that sense of togetherness - the core of it - is the same as when we started.
"The thing that has changed over the years is, well, I guess there's a work aspect to it that wasn't there before. To keep a band going for a long time and to keep it interesting on stage and when you make records (takes) a lot of work. So there's an element of this blue-collar work ethic that wasn't there when we were kids. ...
"And if you're a very democratic band, like us, there's lot of talking to be done. The excitement of playing is the same, and so is the excitement of feeling like we're just scratching the surface of this immensely huge thing that is music."
But for every success the Peppers have achieved, there have been nearly as many trials and tribulations.
Slovak's replacement on guitar, John Frusciante, was only 18 when he joined in 1988. After quitting four years later, he began a near-fatal period of drug abuse that included heroin. Now straight and sober, Frusciante is back in the band. But he still has scars on his arms as a grim reminder of when he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.
Kiedis also battled heroin addiction in the 1980s and 1990s, while Flea and drummer Chad Smith pleaded guilty to charges of battery after sexually harassing a young woman attending a 1990 spring-break concert by the Peppers in Florida.
Older and wiser, Flea sounds like a man who has learned from his past travails.
"I don't know how much suffering has to do with making good music," he said. "I know there are times when it's really tense and we make great music, and there are times when it's very relaxed and we make music that I like. It can vary from day to day.
"We take certain aspects of ourselves really seriously because we know it takes a lot of work to make good rock records. And even though our shows have a wacky and wild feeling, we take them very seriously. We're most appreciative of, and grateful to, all these people who come to see us, and we pour our hearts out every time we get on stage. The excitement and curiosity we have about music has never changed."
A REVERENCE FOR JAZZ GREATS
Punk rock may have changed his life, but Flea credits jazz for making him want to become a musician.
Here are three favorite jazz recordings Flea cites as essential for Peppers' fans to hear:
- Dizzy Gillespie, "Salt Peanuts" (1945, Savoy)
The lowdown: This bebop classic, featuring Charlie Parker on alto sax and Gillespie on both trumpet and vocals, sounds as fresh today as it did 61 years ago.
Flea: "I met Dizzy when I was 13 and it was a highlight of my life. There are Peppers' songs, for sure, that have that 'Salt Peanuts' riff in them."
- Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue" (1959, Sony)
The lowdown: Hailed as one of the most brilliant and lyrical albums in any idiom, this highly influential classic features pianist Bill Evans and sax titans John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderly. It utilizes a classically inspired modal approach, which eschews conventional chord changes in favor of melodies and solos based on scales. The result is a marvel of simplicity and sophistication, finely calibrated tension and cathartic release.
Flea: "This is a great album for anyone."
- John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme" (1964, Impulse!)
The lowdown: Conceived as "a prayer to God," this epic album is among the most intense and moving works in all of jazz. A marvel of improvisational ingenuity and charged ensemble work - drummer Elvin Jones plays like a man possessed - it sounds new every time.
Flea: "What Dizzy, Miles and 'Trane all have in common is they completely sound like themselves and there's no confusing them with anyone else. They are all unique and fearless. Because of that, their music is completely innovative."