Flea hops on a new idea: Teaching music

Pop Music

October 21, 2001|By Susan Carpenter | Susan Carpenter,Special to the Sun

LOS ANGELES -- Rock star or headmaster?

Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' impish bass player, will be both once his Silverlake Conservatory of Music opens its doors this month. "See that kid?" he asks, pointing to a child running past the back door. "Future tuba player."

Sandwiched between a meat store and a storage area on Sunset Boulevard, the school is another addition to the ever-gentrifying hipster neighborhood of Silver Lake. The former thrift shop, once crammed with unwanted clothes and dusty knickknacks, is now a beautifully rendered practice studio with eight rooms, each named after a tone in the diatonic scale --do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti and do.

"I've been teaching all these years in boarded-up old bathrooms and closets," says Keith Barry, a high school friend of Flea's who will be the conservatory's dean of education. "That's your typical private lesson space, and I'm happy to be there, but this facility is going to be gorgeous."

Inside, the school has the feel of an Art Deco train station, with retro ceiling lamps and two-tone green walls. Eventually those walls will be decorated with portraits of iconoclastic musicians: John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Igor Stravinsky and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye.

That gallery is symbolic not only of Flea's musical taste and influences, but also of the school's overall take on music instruction.

"I would want to teach a kid Germs songs as much as I would want to teach them Bartok or Haydn," says Flea, 39, whose real name is Michael Balzary. "When I was a kid I played in symphony orchestras and I played punk rock, and it's just as valid to me."

More than 20 teachers will rent space from the school, offering classes that range from clarinet and lap-steel guitar to electric bass and vocals. "Master classes" will also be available in Afro-Cuban percussion, string quartets and other disciplines.

Flea, who is financially backing the school, plans to teach a few lessons a week in trumpet and bass.

He'll probably limit his commitment to two-month blocks because of the Chili Peppers' schedule -- the group will soon be in the studio making the follow-up to its 1999 hit "Californication," which has sold more than 8 million copies.

When Flea speaks about the conservatory, he is dead serious -- a bit of a disconnect from his goofball image. Is this the same guy who once sported a sock on his privates for an album cover?

Flea's earnestness about the school stems from his own upbringing. The stepson of jazz bassist Walter Urban Jr., he grew up in a house teeming with musicians but strapped for cash. A gifted trumpet player, he was able to take private lessons only because he won a scholarship.

"I was lucky, and I got it and I loved it. For me, it was the greatest thing in the world," Flea says.

Eventually, he hopes to turn the conservatory into a nonprofit and subsidize half of its students with free lessons and instruments.

Sitting in a corner where a small stage will be built, Flea says he envisions the school as a creative community center of sorts. The stage will be used primarily for recitals -- "kids blowing clarinets and teary-eyed parents and stuff," he says -- but also for orchestra, jazz and vocal performances, and poetry readings.

Other members of the Chili Peppers may also teach some clinics, says Flea, who will certainly rank as the biggest rock star ever to engage in such a face-to-face relationship with the public. Is there any concern that some will sign up for lessons only to bask in the glow of celebrity presence?

"If that's the initial thing that brings them in, then that's fine," says Pete Weiss, 42, the school's chief of operations. "Maybe at that point ... they'll be able to look at themselves and feel good." Though the name Silverlake Conservatory of Music may seem a little square for a guy whose band likes to play in the buff, Flea says, "I wanted to have a name that was serious because this is going to be a serious academic school."

The kids are not, he says with a smile, "gonna be coming in cursing and acting like me."

Susan Carpenter is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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