Gearphoria: Interview with Josh Klinghoffer

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Josh Klinghoffer has a gear Problem

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Interview by Luke Johnson
Photos by Dan Elkan and Simon Weller

It’s not uncommon for an aspiring guitarist to learn to play by jamming out the hits of the day. What is uncommon is for that young guitarist to find himself playing those very same songs decades later in front of tens of thousands of people every night as a starring member of the band he idolized as a teenager.
That is the situation Josh Klinghoffer finds himself in as the latest guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s the kind of fairy tale rock-and-roll story that would seem made up… if it wasn’t true. After developing a close friendship with John Frusciante around the time the Californication album was released, Klinghoffer sharpened his guitar skills and started touring with artists like Beck and PJ Harvey. Eventually, the Chili Peppers asked him to tour with them. Not long after Frusciante and the band parted ways for what will likely be the last time, Klinghoffer joined full time. He contributed significantly to the band’s 2011 release, I’m With You, and at age 32 became the youngest inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when the band was honored earlier this year.
Unassuming and thoughtful, Klinghoffer seems more excited to play with some of the greatest musicians of his generation than he is about his sudden stardom. But he’s eagerly awaiting an upcoming break from the band to focus on Dot Hacker, a more experimental project that he helms, with savvy instrumentation and tenor vocals that echo Robert Plant. GEARPHORIA chatted with Klinghoffer from his house in LA, where he was recovering from a broken foot amidst a Candyland of classic guitars, synth modules, keyboards and a mountain of pedals.

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GEARPHORIA: How are you feeling? You’re on a short break from a pretty grueling tour, we’d guess.
JOSH: Yeah, it’s been… a little over a year? But I broke my foot recently. Anthony (Kiedis) had broken his foot at the beginning of the year. But yeah, I’m on a little break. We have one more two week leg later in November and them we’re off the rest of the year. Then we do Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa for a little under a month, and then we do Mexico in March and that’s it.

GEARPHORIA: Your foot’s a little banged up, huh?
JOSH: Yeah it is, but it’s nearly back to normal.

GEARPHORIA: How exactly did you break it?
JOSH: It was just really bad timing. The monitors engineer that had been with us since the beginning of the tour decided it was time to step away. So he left when we played our Staples (Center) show, which was pretty much a year to the day to our first show back in Hong Kong, and I just thought that, a year in, you should just have yout shit dialed and not be playing your hometown arena show, in front of all your parents friends, with a brand new monitors engineer. It was his first show. So I had a horrible show in LA at Staples. The second show, I soldiered through it but it was still really bad, and the third show with this guy one night, I just had enough and I kicked a monitor really hard.

GEARPHORIA: And you paid the price.
JOSH: Paid the price… But, I mean, it made me think of something else from that point on. The sound was no longer the issue and now my foot… it changed things, it was kind of negative and painful, but it did change things. I mean, I don’t relax very much and I don’t slow down and it kinda forced me to.

GEARPHORIA: I know you had toured a lot with the Chili Peppers and other bands in the past. But does it feel different touring when it’s your band?
JOSH: Hmm, not really. I’ve been close to it for so long and I kinda know the ins and outs of how that particular tour works. And I’ve done lots of different tours. It kinda just feels like ans extension of what I’ve always done. With each tour I’ve ever done, my role and the venue sizes, get a little bigger. It just kind of seems like a natural progression, in a weird way… Being someone that people, like, give a shit about and do things for is a kind weird, and that’s new.

GEARPHORIA: When you were approached to be in the Chili Peppers full time, it sounded like you had a bit of trepidation at first. Obviously it’s a pretty high-profile gig, but what were your early thoughts?
JOSH: Well, obviously it would be an amazing opportunity just to be a part of that band. But at the time, I had just started trying to work on the band with Jonathan (Hischke), the Dot Hacker band. And I just had to ask myself every possible question about joining. I mean, do I want my life to change in that way? Did I want to step into a situation that was that high profile? Did I want to walk into a situation where I’m going to be compared, or just even mentioned, contrasted, with John (Frusciante) everywhere I went? Those kind of things. Did I want the personal relationships I had in place to change, possibly?
While a second ago I said it seemed like a natural progression to be on that kind of tour, it definitely did seem like a big jump to, all of a sudden, go from pretty much broke, wondering what I was gonna do with my own music or where I was gonna live to, just, a big money-making situation that has a very busy schedule and is very demanding. And it’s great, I mean, at the end of the day, just the opportunity to play music and explore musical relationships with these people that I had admired for a long time. And in the end, absolutely, the pros outweigh the cons. But yeah, I had to really think about it.

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GEARPHORIA: So what’s next for Dot Hacker? I suppose it’s been tough to find time to work on it lately.
JOSH: Yeah, really just whenever there’s time and we’re all free and all around, we try and get work in. I have all of December off and I think the other guys too. I really lament the fact that it’s not everybody’s prime main focus at this point. We’re just writing new songs and hopefully going to record a new album in the new year. It’s a funny band because I don’t know how many people give a shit. But at least we’ll have a good time doing it.

GEARPHORIA: Dot Hacker’s first album, Inhibition, came out in May. We’ve spun it over the last couple of weeks and have really been enjoying it. Every time through we have a new favorite track, and it works very well as a cohesive piece. But what were the sessions like? Were you able to find a solid chunk of time to get it all down or was it recorded more in fragments?
JOSH: It was kind of recorded in fragments. There was always something or other. Either in the writing, or when we decided we were going to record, there was always something. Someone’s going away to tour with some band. And when we started recording, Clint (Walsh), the other guitar player, had to leave like eight days after we started. So we had a solid eight days of tracking and we had most of it done, the initial seven or eight songs. And then over the next couple of months, in chunks. So it was pretty much an ongoing session from March of that year till October, but it wasn’t solid work.

GEARPHORIA: A song like the title track has a lot, sonically, sort of bubbling beneath the surface. That is kind of consistent throughout the record — a lot of stuff going on in the periphery that converges into something more powerful than the sum of its parts. Could you talk a little about the instrumentation and songwriting and how the record’s sound evolved?
JOSH: Well, that particular song is one that was done after the initial tracking and it was only tracked with me and Eric (Gardner) the drummer, and then Jonathan put his takes on later. But yeah, we wrote most of (the album) together in our little practice space. Some of it was borne out of jams. And then a lot of it is stuff I had kind of lingering around for a while. It really came together when we recorded it, especially the lyrics and singing. We kind of were writing and rehearsing in fragments and then all of a sudden we realized we had to get something recorded soon because Clint was going out of town. So yeah, a lot of the songwriting happened while we were recording, which always sort of unsettled me about the album and still kind of does a little bit, but that’s just been this band’s process. I write songs and I write melodies and tons of lyrics and I have them on, you know, 15 different pads of paper and notebooks all over the house. It’s been my terrible, lazy writing process for a long time. It’s hard for me to even justify finishing a song if I don’t have a band to play it with. I’ve always been able to record stuff on my own and play everything but there’s something that’s just never been that interesting about that to me. I just kind of leave them unfinished until I have the band to play it with.

GEARPHORIA: We know you’re a bit of a sucker for wordplay. From what we can make out on Inhibition, it does sound like you’re playing with language on some of the lyrics there. We think we hear something on ‘Order/Disorder’, you say something like “wreck or mend you”, which we think is pretty awesome.
JOSH: (laughs) Thank you. I think that was one of the hidden messages I actually etched in the vinyl. You know, like the hidden messages in the run-out groove next to the label? When the vinyl record is cut, whoever’s doing it takes a little pointed pin and can scratch, like, a catalog number in that space. So you can write whatever you want in there. I know Joy Division did it all the time. But that ‘wreck or mend you’ one is the little hidden message I wrote in one of the sides of the vinyl.

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GEARPHORIA: Was there a piece of gear, a pedal or a guitar or something, that you discovered or tended to rely on as you worked on Inhibition?
JOSH: Well on the song ‘Inhibition’ I used a Moog Bass Murf, but I can’t say there’s one specific thing. I did a lot of treatments on different keyboards and guitars that I would put through the Korg MS-20 synthesizer and use the filters on that. I think at the time I was trying to keep my guitar as clean as possible. When we tracked I used whatever effect at the time, some reverb or whatever. But Clint is generally a very effected player so I tried to stay as dry as possible. And also Jonathan gets so many different tones out of his pedals and he really adds a lot with the bass. So I approached that album, guitarwise, as clean as I could.

GEARPHORIA: When you’re buying equipment, do you come at it with a sort of collector’s mentality? Are you looking for rare and cool pieces? Or are you looking more at what sound it might offer you?
JOSH: I’ve never considered myself a collector. I think I’ve kind of been buying a lot of stuff lately, being like sort of a weird fanatic. Like I see something and I get it. I don’t know, it’s kind of unhealthy (laughs). Recently, I kind of admitted to myself that I might be collecting all the old Fender colors. Like when I see a cool piece in those custom Fender colors? But I’ve never been that much of a collector. I’ve always wanted pieces that I like… I’m looking at my music room right now and I gotta say, it’s pretty full of shit.

GEARPHORIA: What’s the most recent guitar you bought?
JOSH: Oh man. I’ve been getting so much lately. The other day in Milwaukee I bought a Gibson Melody Maker. I’m holding it right now, a pelham blue Melody Maker. I think it’s a ‘67. I recently bought, off the guy from The Hives, this Gibson ES-295. It’s a big gold hollow-body from 1958. It’s pretty incredible. Geordie from Killing Joke plays one. I bought recently a Trixon drum set —
it’s getting a little crazy. Now I’m just buying all the cool stuff I liked when I was a kid. I’m like ‘Ooh, I want one of those.’

GEARPHORIA: It’s well known that you have a very close professional and personal friendship with John Frusciante. What sort of influence has he had on you as a guitarist and as a musician?

JOSH: Guitar-wise, when I first got into Blood Sugar… I wasn’t a guitarist at all. I played drums. I didn’t know anything about the guitar. I guess I started playing guitar around the time he put out his first solo album, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-shirt. It’s all home recordings on a four-track. It was just, like, really personal recordings that he never really intended to relase, I think. But that album, and just the kind of honesty, I guess, that surrounds those recordings was really influential and guiding to me.

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GEARPHORIA: What has it been like taking over for someone like him, someone who has left such an indelible imprint both on the band and on you personally?
JOSH: It’s an honor, first of all, that they would think that it was a good idea. It’s definitely weird at times, if I think about it. I mean he’s someone that people are really attached to. Sometimes there have been points throughout this tour that I’ve gotten kind of dark because, I mean, I said it felt sort of natural and I’ve been on lots of tours before. But in the end it’s been similar to lots of previous tours because I’ve just been playing someone else’s music. I kind of start getting annoyed that I’m not playing my own music and I’m just doing someone else’s song. In the Chili Peppers, it hasn’t felt like that lately, I’ve just been having a good time. There are certain songs, I just care about them so much as songs. It’s just a crazy journey that I’ve been on. Like, I play “I Could Have Lied”. I mean, I was playing that in my bedroom when I first was learning to play guitar, marveling at the solo. And then it’s like, “Oh my God, I have to do a solo right now. Hold on!” It kinda… it’s just such a very interesting story.

GEARPHORIA: How does songwriting work in the Chili Peppers? How is it different than what happens in, say, Dot Hacker?
JOSH: Obviously, they had just had like a non-stop eight-to 10-year working relationship with the three of those guys, musically, not to mention Anthony. But me joining, no matter how much it was a new beginning or whatever, it had parameters and it had familiarities to those guys. I mean, like, Flea starts playing a groove on the bass and John would jump in the way he jumps in and we’ve all heard the way he jumps in. And for me to get over… I mean there’s still times I don’t totally feel free. Just like, “OK, how should I do this? Should I do what I feel? Does that sound too much like John? Should I do something completely different?’ We’re still ironing those things out. We’ve had to spend a lot of time jamming, that’s what I’m getting at. For this album, we’d just get together every day of the week and play and jam and since the band had taken, like, a two-year break, Flea had amassed a bunch of songs that he had been writing. And since I had never really had my own band, I had tons of songs. So I just kinda went through my back catalog of songs and looked at which ones I thought Anthony would sound good singing and then I wrote a ton of new ones while we were playing. I mean, it’s really easy for me to come up with songs if I’m not the one who has to sing them (laughs). So Flea would come in with songs and chord structures and I would come in with songs. But Anthony is always there and whatever he reacts to the most are kind of the ones that bubble to the top. And we had so many songs just because we had to do it for so long. We recorded 50 songs for the album and we had tons more nearly finished but we kind of drew the line at 50 and we put out 14, which I still thought was too many. But there was a bunch of songs that we all didn’t want to evaporate so we decided to put out a 7-inch single, basically one a month. We’ve released four of them already, and there’s a total of nine, so 17 or 18 more songs.
B-sides don’t really exist anymore so we just thought it’d be a cool thing to put out some vinyl.

GEARPHORIA: It’s great to hear that after all these years the band is still so prolific.
JOSH: Yeah, the I’m With You album totally feels like Mother’s Milk to me. Like, John had that one album where he didn’t feel totally comfortable and that’s kinda the same to me. I like the songs but, like, I wasn’t a big fan of working with Rick Rubin, and the whole thing was just sort of new to me. I’m really looking forward to writing new songs and putting out another album as soon as
we can. I just like watching the relationships grow, musically. And ultimately, there was no way I would have ever turned down the Chili Peppers. I mean if I have an opportunity to form musical relationships, let alone personal relationships, with people as driven as Flea and Chad (Smith), who have such a great rapport, and Anthony, someone who I think is just, like, completely unique and just amazing at what he does. And if I had the opportunity to really foster those relationships, there’s no way I could say no to it. And in the Dot Hacker band, those relationships have grown a lot, and I think you’ll hear that in the next bunch of songs we come up with.
When I talked to John about joining the (Chili Peppers), the one thing he said that stuck out to me was ‘It’s an amazing feeling to come up with a part in the morning and go to rehearsal and jam it with those guys.’ And it’s totally true. To come up with something and have the opportunity, and not everyone does, to come up with a thing that I think Flea will sound great playing and within an hour it’s a song that people will be interested to hear. I mean, that’s a rare thing.

GEARPHORIA: How do you think being a full-time member of the band has changed you or affected you as a musician?
JOSH: I don’t know. It’s probably made me a little more confident and I’d like to say it’s made me work harder, but I have this problem that I never think I’m working hard enough. So I know the kind of guitar player that I want to be and I don’t feel like I’m there yet. But it’s allowing me to just be me, and I think that’s separate from being the kind of person that thinks I have to be different from what I am. I think just being in this band and being able to play more has allowed me to be more comfortable being myself.

GEARPHORIA: Do you hear or see a difference in the band since you joined?
JOSH: I think so, I mean song-wise, the album feels very collaborative to me. There were a lot of songs that I brought in. I tend to write complete things, like, ‘Here’s this part and this part and this part and they go together like this and that’s kind of it and we can change it if you want, but why?’ It’s kind of a problem I have. But a lot of the songs that I wrote start-to-finish that turned into Chili Peppers songs are being released now on these singles. So I definitely did affect, and maybe updated, their sound. But because we jumped on tour and are playing a lot of the old songs, I’m not sure where we stand on developing a new identity. But I definitely think… I can’t speak specifically because I don’t know, but I do know that the relationships in the band had become very tense. And there was a lot of weird tension creatively in the band for a long time. I think By The Way was really, kind of, debilitating. And then it kind of relaxed a bit for the Stadium Arcadium album. But I think my being there and John not being there offers kind of a new thing for the band, a new vibe, interpersonally and creatively.

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GEARPHORIA: From looking at some pictures of your pedal board, you seem to favor some boutique brands. Just wondering how you got hooked up with Kevin Wilson and Wilson Effects.

JOSH: Let me see if I can remember… I think perhaps Chris Warren, who plays keyboard a little bit on stage with us — he was Chad’s drum tech for years — he was searching around the internet when we were always looking for the Ibanez WH-10 wah pedal. That’s the wah that John used and it’s just hands down the best wah pedal I’ve ever heard. It’s just so good, especially for this band to sound like this band. But they’re shitty and they’re old and they’re plastic so you can break them very easily. So, doing some online research, Chris found this guy, Kevin Wilson, who was making a clone of that called The Ten Spot. So I think he emailed him and said he was working with the Chili Peppers and their new guitar player and said we wanted to try out his Ten Spot. And he was a big fan so we started an email conversation. I’m always looking for Tone Benders, like that fuzz, the best fuzz… and he makes clones of that. So he just sent us a bunch of stuff and we found that they sounded the best on stage, they’re durable and consistent. Old tone benders don’t seem to have as much output as you need nowadays.

GEARPHORIA: Are there any other boutique brands you gravitate towards?
JOSH: We got a bunch of Devi Ever pedals. I use some of her stuff on the record, but I don’t take it out on tour because I just haven’t found a place for it. But I have a lot of her stuff, which is cool. I’m in my pedal closet right now, looking… This company called Last Gasp Art Laboratories. It’s a Japanese company. They have some cool stuff. I use this pedal of theirs called a Cyber Psychic on the record. It’s got what’s called an Oscillifilter, so it’s an oscillating filter, and I recently replaced it with a pedal called the MS-20 Brain Freeze, made by Robot Factory. It’s a clone of that filter section of that synthesizer I was talking about using a lot on the Dot Hacker album. And that guy makes this pedal called a Pocket Synth, or something like that, which I use on the solo for ‘Give It Away’. Like every night me and my tech will dial up a different weird sound, and it’s got, like, LFOs in it and so it will sound like a tremolo and it’ll oscillate. It’s kind of mystery fuzz, when the solo comes. Since I’ve been one-footed, since the surgery, I lost my second pedal board. One of the blessings in disguise since breaking my foot has been that I finally realized that my tone is completely affected by how many pedals the signal is going through, so when I was forced to sit down and have only one foot to operate pedals, the right-side board, which contains most of the shit that I would use for one song or stuff that I needed but didn’t really use much, all that stuff got put on a Voodoo Lab switching system, like a looping system. It’s shit that I had never done before, like, I never had any time for that stuff. But I discovered how much putting your signal through all those pedals affects your tone.

GEARPHORIA: So you pared down a little bit.
JOSH: Yeah, we lost the right-hand board. It’s in the back now and Ian (Sheppard) just puts the shit in when I need it.

GEARPHORIA: So what would you say is right now your number one guitar?
JOSH: Well, on tour, I recently got this 1960 Fender Strat that has a really thin neck and it also has a sunburst neck. Fender made it for the NAMM show of the time, whatever you called the NAMM show back in 1960, a trade show where they were showing you that if you wanted it they could sunburst your neck. That has kinda been my go-to Strat on stage. I love it. I’ve got a couple cool Jaguars recently that I like, you know, the colors. I have one right now in my hand… I like Jaguars a lot.

GEARPHORIA: Do you think Dot Hacker will make it out on the road any time soon?
Josh: I think so, hopefully next year. I don’t know what kind of fan base it has. I would love to go tour with them, I would absolutely love it. I just don’t know how realistic it would be to just jump out on the road. Anything we can do I’m gonna do. Chili Peppers are done in March and we’re taking at least three months off before we start writing again, I guess. And I hope to spend every waking moment of that with The Dots.

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