Even guitar gods sometimes get bored. In his years with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Frusciante became known as one of the world’s most formidable players, while his shape-shifting solo music explored the breadth of the instrument’s capabilities: psychedelic shredding, power-pop crunch, full-on noise. “I love rock music,” Frusciante tells Apple Music. “It’s very meaningful to me, and I’ve studied it quite a bit more than most rock musicians.” But he reached a point where the surprise wore off. “The things I think are the best, I know how to play all of them,” he says. “I’ve learned them multiple times throughout my life. Whereas electronic music still feels to me the way rock music felt when I was a teenager. I’m still constantly learning from it.” A tribute to ’90s jungle and the frenetic sounds of IDM musicians like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Luke Vibert, Maya, his 13th solo album, is a thrilling testament to Frusciante’s passion—and also to his aptitude for new skills.
Maya isn’t Frusciante’s first electronic outing. In 2010, he teamed up with Venetian Snares’ Aaron Funk in the breakcore group Speed Dealer Moms, then paired drill ’n’ bass with grunge on 2012’s PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone. He began putting out stripped-down acid tracks under his Trickfinger alias in 2015—“mainly just because it seemed simple enough,” he says—but Maya immediately stands out, both in style and assuredness. From the chiming synths and chock-a-block percussion of the opening “Brand E,” it would be easy to mistake the album for a lost classic from the peak years of Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label. Sped-up breaks give the acidic “Usbrup Pensul” (even the titles are authentically IDM) the feel of a pinball game played back on fast-forward; “Pleasure Explanation” flips Wagon Christ-like trip-hop into jump-up drum ’n’ bass; and “Blind Aim,” glowing like a sunrise, channels all the exuberance of early breakbeat hardcore. Those IDM references are no accident, says Frusciante: Aphex and his ilk constitute his most listened-to music, though while he was recording the album, he immersed himself in ’90s jungle pioneers like Doc Scott and Dillinja. “Between that and my love for abstract things like Mark Fell and Pita,” he says, “I was trying to make the drums more abstract than jungle, to take it to points where the rhythm starts to feel like it’s falling apart.”
If Maya sounds like a major step up in ambition, that’s no accident. “I wanted to spend a year just making things as hard as for myself as possible,” he says. “I started programming in specific ways that were challenging, and focusing on specific machines that were the hardest to use. After a year of that, I developed enough skills where when I started doing Maya, I could make tracks as quickly as I ever made them.” Much of the album’s cohesiveness derives from his relatively stripped-down toolbox of modular synths, a Yamaha DX7 keyboard, and just one drum machine per track. “There’s a certain power that comes out of trying to get the most out of one drum machine,” he says. “Each drum machine has its own capacity to receive human energy.” There were exceptions, however. The dizzying breaks of “Reach Out” were cobbled together out of so many different samples that even Frusciante can’t quite untangle his Frankenstein’s monster. “It gets to the point you don't even know what breaks you're using anymore,” he laughs, “because you're putting so many together and you've mangled them so much.”
But for all the album’s high-tech experiments and dazzling formal complexity, the colorful leads of tracks like “Brand E” and “Flying,” which nod to Jean-Michel Jarre and Art of Noise, underscore Frusciante’s emphasis on musicality. “I have a thing with melody and rhythm,” he says, “and Maya was really just me making music that I would want to listen to.” Perhaps for that reason, it’s named after his cat, who died after 15 years with Frusciante. (“She’d sit in the studio and listen,” he recalls. “She’d knead my stomach while I practiced guitar, and while I was programming machines, she was in my lap.”) The result is an album that is as emotional as the most vulnerable singer-songwriter records in his catalog—just cut from different cloth. “I don't think music is better just because it's more complex,” Frusciante says. “It's really about the soul.”