Say what you will about the 90s, during the arms race to find the next big thing in grunge major labels greenlit some of the most avant-garde sonic experiments of the time, one of which was Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt, the solo debut by Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante.
Since joining RHCP at age 18, Frusciante experienced the groups’ meteoric rise to fame with their breakthrough album, Mother’s Milk, in 1988, and brought a frenetic energy that pushed the band into more leftfield territory. During the time he was making Blood Sugar Sex Magik with producer Rick Rubin and touring in support of the album, Frusciante made a series of four-track home recordings, between 1990 and 1992, which would later be released on Rubin’s label, American Recordings, as Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt, in 1994.
Unlike his bandmates, Frusciante was looking over the precipice of impending global celebrity and dreaded what lay ahead. Following his abrupt departure from the band, in 1992, he would retreat into his art and release a turbulent and raw DIY effort that was unfortunately overshadowed by his serious drug addiction.
Given his association with one of the biggest arena acts in the world, Frusciante’s abstract departure was an affront to the cargo-short-sporting, hops-consuming average Chili Peppers fan, but it yielded something akin to musical rebellion. One might even call it beautifully unhinged. On the cover, Frusciante is dressed in 20s drag, an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s alter-ego Rrose Sélavy – fitting for a boy who grew up idolising Ziggy Stardust.
Presented as a cohesive whole, the album is essentially two-homemade records combined: the more song-based Niandra Lades and, on the flipside, a collection of more atmospheric instrumentals, Usually Just A T-Shirt. Inviting comparisons to other rock eccentrics who have ventured into the unknown, such as Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Syd Barrett, Frusciante became unmoored from the exacting pop confines of his former group and used the intimacy and immediacy of home recordings to explore all the bizarre nooks and crannies of his psyche.
Both a one-man-band and essentially a recluse, Frusciante no longer needed to pretend he was devoted to anything but the pursuit of music. Armed with acoustic and electric guitars, a piano and a four-track machine, he took the DIY maxim to heart and recorded, mixed, produced and mastered the entire record on his own.
Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt is not an album in a traditional sense, with an overarching narrative or musical cohesion. Fruscinate keeps you on your toes; experimenting with layered vocals and reverse tape effects, it can feel like a stream-of-consciousness within an underlying melodic framework. With its tape-speed manipulations and chopped-up psychedelia, ‘Running Away Into You’ sounds like a Radiohead B-side on crack. Clearly a masterful guitarist, Frusciante eschews conventional song structure and opts for a more pared-down production for the first half of Niandra Lades, using his voice as an instrument, both wavering (‘My Smile Is A Rifle’) and unabashed (‘Been Insane’, one of the most accessible songs on the album). This contradictory nature is also present in the lyrics, which can feel intensely personal on more expositional songs such as ‘Blood On My Neck From Success’, and deliberately vague on the likes of ‘Ten To Butter Blood Voodoo’.
One of the most surprising moments on the record is Frusciante’s bluegrass reworking of Bad Brain’s ‘Big Takeover’. “Sometimes I’ll walk around singing punk rock songs to myself, but as if they were regular songs instead of punk rock songs, you know, slow it down and make a melody instead of just yelling them out,” Frusciante told a RHCP fan zine. “And then the idea occurred me to record it like a Led Zeppelin ballad with mandolins and stuff.”
Fans of Frusciante’s signature guitar style will appreciate his fretwork on the album’s second half, while he changes gears on ‘Curtains’, trading in his guitar for a piano and hammering away with pomp and circumstance. Even when he’s aiming for more emotional resonance, Frusciante’s way with words manages to make a song about toxic relationships something of a hilarious observation, as is the case with ‘Your P__y’s Glued To A Building On Fire’.
Frusciante would go on to have an on-again, off-again relationship with Red Hot Chili Peppers, releasing solo records in the interim before rejoining the band from 1998-2007, after he got clean and returned to music. Due to its out-of-print status, Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt has become something of a rarity among collectors, and is often overshadowed by Frusciante’s association with one of the biggest bands in the world.
While most listeners find the album to be somewhere on the spectrum between peculiar oddity or offbeat brilliance, like its creator, Frusciante’s cult classic remains an enigmatic work worth puzzling out.