A conversation with Josh Klinghoffer
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Interview by Dan Harpaz smoovtunes.com
I had the chance to chat on the phone with Josh Klinghoffer, the newest Red Hot Chili Pepper who, at 32, snatched Stevie Wonder’s record as the youngest artist ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He candidly discusses his double life as a world-famous guitarist and as a struggling indie rocker with a pet project called Dot Hacker. Formed in 2008 during his tour musician days, the band released an eponymous EP in February and plans to release its first debut album Inhibition in digital, CD, and limited vinyl on Tuesday, May 1st. After speaking at length about his growth as a lyricist, his penchant for electronic music, and his jazz listening-sessions with Flea, Josh graciously invited me to the sold out Red Hot Chili Peppers show at the Prudential Center in Newark on May 4th at 8pm, which I will review by Monday, May 7th.
SMOOVTUNES: Josh, I appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. It’s for my own blog, Smoovtunes (with a V).
JOSH: Oh, okay cool. I like that name (laughs).
I had a chance to listen to the Dot Hacker record— I love it, by the way. The band first assembled in 2008, recorded on-and-off, and finished the record around your 30th birthday. Did the album remain untouched for two years?
Thank you. Since October 3, 2009, nothing has been done to it apart from mastering. We had it mastered professionally for the vinyl— for the release on May 1st. But nothing’s been recorded on it or changed since then.
As a musician, you must have found it very tempting to make revisions. Was it difficult to restrain yourself?
Yeah. It was difficult in the sense that when I listen to it now, I feel like we would just do a different job of making the record. At the time, based on people being in town or not, certain decisions were made. And if I had my druthers, we would all be there and it would all be done in a lot more concentrated of a block of time, and it would sound this way or that way. But on the flipside of that, I think it’s a very honest documentation— it’s a great representation of where those four people in that band were at the time. And I’m so thankful and grateful that it’s coming out, because it could have very easily evaporated—
Into the abyss of shelved records.
That’s right, our iTunes folder.
The fans will thank you for not letting that happen. The record captures a snapshot in the band’s experience. Do you have concrete plans to tour with the material, and will you be playing songs from your backlog that didn’t appear on the record?
As of right now, there are no specific plans, but we will definitely be playing this year. Due to my schedule with the Chili Peppers, I’m sort of booked— our tour is booked until the end of the year. But we do have two-week breaks every two weeks. So I am sure Dot Hacker will have a week of shows here and there, hopefully. Everyone wants to do that. We have tons of new things that we’ve begun and that we know how to play. We’ll just go a couple of months without actually getting together, so it’s hard to keep things fresh when you don’t get to play all the time.
That sounds like a serious juggling act.
Yeah, a little bit. But luckily, I love both things very much and I get to exercise different aspects of myself and my musicianship and creativity in both bands. So it’s a little bit of a juggling act because they’re different roles in the band, but it’s always me and I always can’t help but be myself in both things. The only thing that makes it a little weird is how much attention one of them is getting as opposed to the other one. It feels a little unbalanced, but that’s totally fine with me.
It’s a bit of a dichotomy.
There have been times when I get upset that one of them is simply not able to play. I might be home for two weeks and one guy is off touring with someone and it drives me up the wall. But I can’t do anything about that.
So you’re traveling on a tour bus caravan one week, and the next week, you’re driving a van?
I’ll do anything. The Chili Peppers travel well and it’s really amazing to be a part of this, but I have no problems getting in the van and driving— anything to play. I’m so thankful this record is coming out and that the band might be in people’s consciousness to where we could roll into town and play for even a small amount of people. I love that idea. That was always my dream as a kid— it was always my goal to form a band with friends, and go out on the road, and just have a good time. And I did it with other people’s bands, and other artists, and I started from the bottom, and every time I did another tour, it sort of seemed to be getting bigger in venue size and bigger scheduling, and it was as if my band was getting more popular with each record— it just didn’t happen to be my band (laughs).
You were looking for a home as a musician, and you’ve found two.
Yeah, I’m the baby in the band at 32 years of age in Dot Hacker, and I’m the baby in the band in the other band too (laughs). But I think both bands still want very much to have an active, creative existence. The Chili Peppers just happen to be the kind of band where you put a record out, and you have to go play for the entire world, which is a wonderful thing. I don’t think it’ll be long before another Chili Peppers album. I think everyone wants to keep working and creating. And the same with the other band too.
You’ve mentioned in another interview that you used to focus on your songwriting and lyrics before joining the Chili Peppers. Once you joined, you had to focus on your chops again, because the music is so technical and aggressive. How has your approach to the instrument changed?
Yeah, I definitely approach it differently just because time has moved on and I’ve listened to a ton of different music, and I think about things differently. Since recording or writing with Dot Hacker, I’ve just played a lot more guitar by being in the Chili Peppers. Doing a year’s worth of songwriting and jamming, and getting to know Flea and Chad as musicians. Just spending hours touching the guitar, which is something I hadn’t really done in a long time. When I was focusing on songwriting, I played the guitar a little bit, and I would write on guitar. But I was doing a lot of piano writing, and synthesizer programmer— just getting sounds and constructing songs from that direction. I wasn’t focused on being technical on the guitar at all. I think I never really had until I joined the Chili Peppers. For me, when I started playing with the Chili Peppers, I think that was my biggest fear—that John was so technically proficient, and such an amazing guitar player and I’m a different kind of guitar player and always have been. I loved playing songs that he wrote, and I just hoped that people weren’t expecting someone to come in and do exactly the same thing.
I really loved I’m With You. I was surprised to read in an interview that soloing never came easily to you. You said that you prefer to step on a pedal and create soundscapes. Does that imply you’re a gearhead?
I can definitely be accused of being a gearhead, yeah. Soloing— it’s not that it never came easily to me. It’s just that I never wanted to do it (laughs). When I started playing the guitar, I was just figuring out the way the song went, and the voicing of the chords, and listening to bands like The Smiths— more architectural guitar playing, not lead guitar playing. I never really had an interest in learning how to solo, and when I thought of soloing, I thought— I always loved people like Slash (laughs) and Jimmy Page people who could really solo but I always thought it didn’t really have a place in the music I was interested in playing. Even John Frusciante’s soloing— I love it and I think it’s great, but when I write a song, I’ll never say, “Okay, well okay after this chorus, there’s a guitar solo.” That’s just not the way I think of writing songs.
I can’t imagine John Frusciante writes that way either.
No, I don’t think so to a degree, but I think there are definitely songs in the Chili Peppers’ catalogue that have guitar solo sections. And I know he does like to solo. That’s totally different for me— I don’t want to hear a guitar solo. Really, I’d rather sample a voice and play it on a Casio SK-1. That sounds more interesting to me— I’ve heard that less than I’ve heard guitar solos.
Did Anthony, Chad, and Flea ever encourage you to solo and designate certain sections of songs to your lead guitar playing?
A little bit. There were times when Flea was like, “Go for it! Go for it!” There’s a bit of all of us that just wants to rock and wail on our instruments, and that was cool about playing with them. Tonight, when we play live, I will solo and there will be moments to express myself that way. I do enjoy it— I just see it as something I never really grew up doing or focusing on. I’m a little timid about it. It’s just an erroneous idea I have that you have to be like Eddie Van Halen rather than Kurt Cobain, or something (laughs). Oh yeah, back to the original thing— I am a gearhead (laughs).
Part of “being the baby” in the Chili Peppers entailed rounding out your knowledge of the classics in music. The Chili Peppers were shocked, for instance, that you hadn’t listened to Defunkt when you joined them. Have you identified any areas in music that you wish you knew more about?
I’m always looking for new stuff to listen to. Certainly, I like just hanging out with Flea. Every time, I think he mentions a new jazz record— even if I’ve heard it, I haven’t really sat down with it and listened to it to understand it the way he does.
More specifically, some musicians are on the prowl for new music, while others tend to absorb through osmosis. Where do you think you fall on the spectrum?
I think I am the kind of person who’s always looking for new music and new sounds to inspire me, but I have noticed, and it’s not something that I’m proud to say— in the last year or so— I have so much music that I already owned that I’ve been listening to the same things, just so I don’t spread myself too thin. And I’ve been listening not to one particular artist, but to a lot of African compilations and listening to the way they play the guitar and they solo— they’re almost soloing the whole song in certain cases. I’ve just been listening to the recordings and to the way that I imagined the band is set up in the room, rather than going to record stores and looking for tons of different new artists. Especially when we were making the Chili Peppers record, I was constantly looking for new sounds to inspire me when it came to recording. I’m not an engineer, but I have real keen desires for the way things sound. And I don’t know if you want to quote me on this or not, but the way the Chili Peppers record sounds is not as crazy or organic sounding as I would like it to be, so I was always trying to push the envelope in that regard.
I’ve noticed I also listen to sounds first and study lyrics later, forcing myself to make more associations with the music so that I appreciate it on another level—
Yeah, that’s exactly how I am too. I used to so begrudgingly write lyrics. Because it was such a bother to me— I have this amazing song that I can’t get out of my head. No one knows it because I haven’t finished it, but I’m walking around on tour listening to my demo recording of it and there’s something so annoying to me that I have to sit down and come up with emotional verbal presentations (laughs). But I’m the first person to point out a Leonard Cohen lyric or listen to someone’s lyric writing and understanding why that’s so important. Working has never been something that I’ve done when it came to songwriting or music— it just sort of happened or I came up with it, and I had it for myself. And I was always touring with other people, so it was never something I had to work at. That’s what Dot Hacker’s been for me. It’s an exercise in actually finishing songs, presenting them. When I was younger and I would make demos, I was always accused of using too many effects on my voice, or hiding the lyrics. And it was just simply from not having the big-enough balls to be like, “This is my song, this is what I’m saying!” I feel like, still, with Dot Hacker, at times, there’s a little bit of that. I feel like the lyrics are more comfortable with me now. I can get behind them; I phrase them more confidently. And it’ll be cool— when we go further, it’ll be different.
About lyrics— and let me know how we’re doing on time, by the way—
I think this is the last interview I’m doing today, so we can go as long as you want (laughs).
On lyrics— in one Chili Peppers interview, you guys cited a hip-hop favorite: J Dilla. Can you think of any hip hop you’ve listened to lately that’s changed your perspective on the way you phrase and put together lyrics?
I can’t say that I’ve been listening to any new hip-hop lately. I’ve been listening to a lot of Lil Wayne stuff, and I like the way he phrases (laughs).
It doesn’t necessarily have to be new hip-hop— J Dilla’s Donuts isn’t new by any means, but you cited it as a recent favorite among the Chili Peppers.
I’ve been into J Dilla for a while. I think Flea’s gotten into it on this tour pretty hardcore. He got into it around the time that documentary was released somewhat recently. I think definitely for me— phrasing and songwriting— I would like to be as hip-hop as I could. I love the way that— and lyric writing— I love approaching lyrics like that. I think it’s such a different way of exposing yourself lyrically.
So maybe I have the title of my story now. “Josh Klinghoffer Plans to MC on the Next Dot Hacker Record.”
Yeah, absolutely (laughs). There’s something so funny to me— I’ll fucking rap my ass off in the car when no one’s around, but there’s something about doing that over the music we make. I would love for the next thing we make to sound nothing like a rock band and sound like a hip hop record.
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