Dot Hacker: Psychic Friends Network
What do you do in your downtime when you play guitar in one of the most popular and influential bands of the last 30 years—a band that fills stadiums and plays the friggin’ Super Bowl? If you’re Josh Klinghoffer—pal of the Red Hot Chili Peppers since the late ’90s, touring member since 2007, and full-timer since 2009—you form another band so you can exorcise your prog-y shoegaze demons, of course.
Only in his Dot Hacker quartet, Klinghoffer doesn’t have to worry about comparisons to Strat-master John Frusciante. On 2012’s Inhibition and this year’s two Hacker LPs, How’s Your Process (Work) and How’s Your Process (Play), he’s not just the guitar guy: He takes center stage as bandleader, singer, guitarist, and synth player.
Not that the 34-year-old L.A. native spends much time thinking about the big shoes he filled in the Peppers. He’s a close friend and frequent collaborator with the 6-string genius behind RHCP hits like “Under the Bridge,” the Grammy-winning “Give It Away,” and “The Zephyr Song.” And, in general, one of Klinghoffer’s key strengths seems to be his mature ability to chill with musicians from across the creative spectrum—often musicians many years his senior.
In fact, this is a recurring theme in Klinghoffer’s musical story. The bonds he forges with players he falls in with through luck, fate, or brains, all seem to lead to something bigger, better, or at least refreshingly different. His path to the Peppers wouldn’t have materialized had it not been for the friendship he struck with Bob Forrest (frontman for cult post-punk outfit Thelonious Monster) when he was recruited to Forrest’s Bicycle Thief project at the age of 17. Forrest, in turn, happened to be tight with Frusciante, Flea, and Chili singer Anthony Kiedis, so being in that circle eventually paved the way to taking over when Frusciante departed to resume his solo career.
But Klinghoffer’s abilities and amiabilities led him onward even after he’d landed that coveted gig. In 2006, between Chili engagements, he went on the road with yet more friends—Danger Mouse and CeeLo Green from neo-soul outfit Gnarls Barkley. Just for fun. That’s where he met guitarist Clint Walsh and the seeds of Dot Hacker were sown.
“We became friends pretty instantly,” Klinghoffer says. Walsh adds, “The next thing I knew, we were moving forward with our plans: Josh introduced me to Jonathan [Hischke], our bass player, and I introduced him to Eric [Gardner,
also from a Gnarls Barkley touring lineup]. We had a space, we were writing songs, and it just went really smoothly. Everything felt right about it.”
A cynic might look at all these connections and call it simple networking, but Dot Hacker seems like more than just a band: The four mates are so close they’ve instituted a daily song-sharing regimen to draw closer and understand each other better. The day of our interview, Gardner had suggested Ornette Coleman’s “Humpty Dumpty,” featuring late bass great Charlie Haden. “We sent texts around saying, ‘Let’s learn that and play it tomorrow,’” says Klinghoffer. “The way Clint and I turned up having learned it was totally different—he could play it far better than I could.”
It goes without saying that Klinghoffer’s musical interests are all over the map: He plays in the punk-funkiest band on the planet, yet when asked about formative influences he mentions Depeche Mode and Morrissey in the same breath as Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, and, yes, the Peppers. And then there’s the Dot Hacker sound itself: Falsetto lithium-dream vocals float over soundscapes smeared in manically droning vintage guitars, amps, and synthesizers, each awash in reverb, echo, and tremolo, and each ricocheting off the others one minute, then slithering around and through them the next—all in a way that’s somehow loose, organic, and unpredictable, yet prevented from disintegrating into ambient oblivion by the confines of Hischke and Gardner’s hypnotically pulsating and remarkably dynamic rhythm section.
To get insight into the “process” behind Klinghoffer and Walsh’s work and play—as well as their toys/tools—we spoke to them just after the midsummer release of How’s Your Process (Work), which preceded the (Play) album by three months.
Josh, you’ve been kicking around the phrase “How’s your process?” for quite some time—there are YouTube videos from more than a year ago where you’re wearing a t-shirt that says it. What’s the story there?
Josh Klinghoffer: I heard someone say it one time. Just out of the corner of my ear, I heard someone ask that question, and I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. There were all sorts of things going on in that room that made it a 50-sided question. I love things that have multiple meanings—or could have multiple meanings—and make you look at a thing in a thousand different ways. That name really applies to this band—asking ourselves how our process is and thinking about how we work and want to continue to work. I was so compelled by it when I heard it that I made that shirt and wore it around on the tour. I’m always asking myself if I could be doing what I’m doing better, or whether the term “better” is bullshit. Like, if you’re doing it at all, it might be as good as you could be doing it at the moment. I don’t know … you’re just always looking at yourself and wondering if you’re doing everything you’re doing as well as you can be doing it for yourself, other people, your bandmates, your family, or your friends. I just think it’s a good question to ask yourself all the time.
Photo by Rachel Martin.
Speaking of work/play processes, how do Dot Hacker songs typically develop—do you guys just get together and jam?
Clint Walsh: It’s some of everything. Josh writes stuff and brings it to us, and we react to it. I’ll write stuff and do the same. Sometimes songs are born out of jams. There’s no real rhyme or reason. The only caveat is that you have to hear what somebody brought in—everything deserves a chance to be heard.
Klinghoffer: Sometimes the amount of time we get to spend together dictates how much certain things get worked on, but in the end hopefully they all wind up sounding like this band. Like, I’ll listen to songs that were born out of a jam that sound more constructed and worked on than a song that took five years to complete.
Walsh: Josh is also really good at cataloging. I don't think I've ever been in a band with somebody so on top of rehearsals. Listening to your practices helps so much. I’m really thankful that part is there.
Klinghoffer: Yeah, we record everything. We spent all of the last two weeks rehearsing for this tour, and I’m kind of kicking myself for recording, like, 90 percent of it. But just in the little bit I listened to in order to catalog it in the computer, I heard things that I couldn’t really pick out at practice. It helped me know how to approach the song the next time we played it. I don’t know how—because time is going by very quickly these days—but there are still pieces of music we jammed on at the beginning of the band’s existence that I know will someday be a song. Also, when we jam there are a lot of lyrics and song ideas vocally that I have to dig for and listen to. I’ve become very … “anal”—is that the right word?—about my recording and cataloging. [Laughs.]
Walsh: No, “diligent” is a better word.
Both of you also play keyboards. How does that dynamic work, and how does it affect your guitar roles?
Walsh: Josh is much more proficient as a piano player than I am. We both kind of allow each other the space to do whatever we want to do on whatever instrument. I tend to favor certain types of keyboard sounds and use them more as either a counter-melodic instrument or with a pad-type approach. I think both of us are different musicians on the different instruments that we play, too.
You mean the different form factor—the different physicality of the instrument itself—makes you approach music differently?
Klinghoffer: Writing songs on piano or coming up with progressions on the keyboard is a lot more exciting to me, because I’m far less familiar with it than I am with the guitar. It still has a really exciting, unknown aspect to it.
Walsh: Yeah, I'd agree with that. It takes you out of your comfort zone.
Klinghoffer: People have been saying it for a long time now, but anything that you can do to change or even slightly modify a general rock-band format [is great] … I mean, we are essentially two guitarists/keyboardists, plus bass and drums. When I come in with a song that’s on piano and Clint looks at the guitar or keyboard, it’s a bit of freedom. If I want to just do one note on the synth and twist a couple of delay knobs, there’s freedom to fill a lot of different kinds of space.
Josh, do you use the same guitar rig you use with the Peppers?
Klinghoffer: Absolutely not, because I would never set that up myself. No, no, no—that rig is built for higher volumes and more arm strength than mine. [Laughs.]
We did a Rig Rundown with your Chili Peppers tech a couple of years ago, and I’m pretty sure you had more pedals than anyone we’ve ever talked to. Was it, like, three or four different pedalboards?
Klinghoffer: I think at that time it was three. I don’t know what I was thinking [laughs]. Not too long after you guys filmed that, I wound up breaking my foot and was sort of confined to a chair and in one place onstage. Since I could only use one foot, we shrunk down to one board and Ian [Sheppard, RHCP guitar tech] controlled a couple of things that were only used in one or two songs from a controller offstage. After that, we realized how much signal I was losing by going through all those pedals. I didn’t really need all of it. A lot of it was just hung over from past Chili Peppers songs that required a certain thing, or from a recollection of a jam that sounded great when I first started playing with them, but that I wound up never using again. I made it through the rest of the tour with the one board I’d shrunk it down to. The next time we go out of town, I’m really going to try and use just what we need.
With Dot Hacker—because we don’t often get the luxury of soundchecks, or because we’re loading the gear ourselves—I really try to have my shit as tight as possible. I use one amp, preferably as small as it can be while still sounding big and good. I try to use as few pedals as possible. I even kicked myself for throwing two extra pedals that I felt like I didn’t need on my board last weekend. I really try to have as little gear and as few cables as possible.
Photo by Rachel Martin.
Let’s talk about the rigs you used for the album.
Klinghoffer: The album is a different story. We just kind of had fun with what was around at the time. I've amassed a lot of cool amps over the last few years, and Clint and I both have a lot of cool guitars. I think that, amp-wise … [to Clint] what did you record through?
Walsh: I used an old Deluxe Reverb.
Like, a blackface?
Walsh: It’s one of the ’68s with the aluminum drip, so silverface I guess—though that year is still technically a blackface. I used a [Roland] JC-120 for a few things. I really liked the combination of those two. Josh brought in a lot of cool stuff that he’d gotten over the last few years. Some of the amps I’d never heard of, and some of it was just like a candy store.
Klinghoffer: When we did the live tracking, the basic tracks were done over a few different sessions. I used an old Fender Super—like, a late-’50s Fender Super. And a Danelectro DS-100—that’s sort of been my secret weapon for Dot Hacker in the studio on this last album. During overdubs, we used a Watkins Dominator and a Watkins Scout a lot.
Walsh: There’s a song called “First in Forever” on the How’s Your Process (Work), and I remember Josh overdubbed his guitar with a Marshall … like a 4x15 or something.
Klinghoffer: I think it was a white Super Lead 100 with matching 4x15 cabinets. We miked it with some room mics. I’ll never forget how that sounded—it was huge.
So that’s yours, Josh?
Klinghoffer: Yeah, I think we found it somewhere in England. Ian and I have been looking for anything interesting. I play the Marshall Major onstage [with RHCP], so we’re always looking for Majors—especially if they’re in different colors. We found that 4x15 cabinet with a matching head….
Walsh: It’s the size of a safe—a refrigerator!
Klinghoffer: Yeah, it’s the biggest cabinet I've ever seen. It has an enclosed back, obviously, but the low end and the clarity of the low end is just unmatchable.
Is it a stock, factory cab or a custom thing?
Klinghoffer: That's a good question. I actually have no idea. Maybe it was a bass thing?
Walsh: [Laughs.] Yeah, maybe it was something made for Lemmy [Kilmister, Motörhead bassist].
Tell us more about the Danelectro DS-100 that you said was key to this album. Is that, like, a 6x12 cab with a head the size of a small combo amp?
Klinghoffer: Yeah, kind of. It’s very similar to the Silvertone 1485—the one with six speakers that I use onstage with the Chili Peppers, and that Jack White uses.
What do you like about it?
Klinghoffer: It’s just very clear. It’s got great bottom end, great top, and a great clean sound. If you turn it up, it’s huge. Sometimes a certain amplifier or piece of equipment is underwhelming, but with this amp that’s never the case: You plug in and you sound like a champ.
Walsh: I know I said this about the Marshall, but the DS-100—the one that Josh has—is one of the best amps I’ve ever heard. It’s got clarity in all frequencies, it’s really full sounding, and it takes pedals really well.
Which guitars did you guys use most on the new albums?
Klinghoffer: I used an old ’64 or ’65 Jazzmaster quite a bit. There was one session where I used this cool, custom prototype—there were only three made or something. I think it’s called a Harmony Glenwood. I think it was Harmony’s answer to the SG or the Les Paul Custom. If you google, like, 1961—around there—it was Harmony’s three-pickup answer to that, but I don’t think it ever went into production.
Does it have humbuckers and sound similar to a vintage SG?
Klinghoffer: I guess they’re humbuckers—they look like humbuckers. To me, it doesn’t sound too big. It’s actually pretty modest sounding. It has a short-scale neck … it’s a strange guitar. Those are the two guitars I remember using the most, but there were probably others here or there. I’ve been buying a lot of gear over the last couple of years, so whatever caught my eye that morning might have been brought down. I know I used my all-rosewood Tele on a couple songs.
What about you, Clint?
Walsh: Josh has a ’59 Strat with a rosewood fretboard. It’s a two-tone sunburst, and it sounds like no other guitar. I used that for a lot of stuff. I haven’t been partial to Strats for a long time, but I started playing them a little more with this band, and I feel like single-coils—at least on my end—really help with versatility. It’s easier to make the guitar sound less like a guitar when you have single-coils. [Pauses, then laughs.] I don’t really know how much I believe that!
You mean you’re able to get more diverse sounds out of your pedalboard with single-coils?
Walsh: I think so. I don’t know if I’m just looking for an excuse, but I generally use single-coils with this band. I used a ’62 Jazzmaster on this record, and Josh’s ’59 Strat. I have a ’52 relic Nash Tele that I love. That was on it. I think I played another Jazzmaster that Josh has. I basically stuck with those. I think there are a couple of tracks of a Yamaha 12-string acoustic that Josh and I both have, which we love.
Klinghoffer: A red-label from the ’60s.
Walsh: Yeah. I think we also used a Martin D-12.
Klinghoffer: Or one of those little mahogany Martins from the ’40s.
Photo by Rachel Martin.
How about pedals?
Walsh: How much time do you have? [Laughs.]
Klinghoffer: When possible on this album, I tried to dial in my tones—we’re talking overdrives and distortions—from the amp. If we were doing a heavier song, I tried to hike the amp up and leave it at that. But you can’t quote me on that being the case all the way around. With Dot Hacker, I usually use a [Ibanez] TS808—an original Tube Screamer—as my main overdrive. There’s a variety of fuzz pedals laying around—anything from the old [Univox] Super-Fuzz to [ZVEX] Fuzz Factorys to all manner of Big Muffs and weird boutique things. Between Clint, myself, and Jonathan, we have tons of stuff. I used a Boss CE-2 Chorus, and we’re both big fans of the Boss VB-2 Vibrato and the Boss DM-2 [analog delay]. Those are my staples—the Boss DM-2, the CE-2, and the VB-2.
Walsh: Yep, same here.
You can tell there are quite a few effects on the new albums’ guitar parts, but they’re almost mystifyingly subtle—yet powerful and effective. What’s the secret to absorbing your effects into your repertoire without making them be your repertoire?
Klinghoffer: Since all four of us have spent time serving other peoples’ songs, it’s a really nice place for all of us to get serious and explore sounds that we’ve always wanted to hear—like a dying bee, or a choking grandmother. We probably spend too much time trying to choke grandma, but … yeah. [Laughs.]
In this band, one distinction between Clint and myself when we’re both playing guitar is that I’m less effected than he is. It’s usually me who’s playing the chords and being married to whatever is easiest to sing to. He’s kind of more ethereal or colorful. Throughout the course of the band’s existence, Clint has dialed up a couple of amazing cocktails of effects that run in tandem, and I think that answers your question—you’re not jumping to one effect to do one thing, but kind of using a variety of things to serve a song. Also, sometimes the parts and tones aren’t solidified when the song goes down—we wait until the vocals are down and we leave as much space as we can. Sometimes we don’t leave that much, but we try and find sounds that provide the best use of space that the song requires. I might throw down a really simple part at the zero hour, and he might do the same thing at the last minute—throw down, like, a two-note melody you can’t really hear. That’s the beauty of this band: We work for the whole or the team. It’s not about one part. That actually comes back to haunt us when we try and play live—because there are lots of little things in the recordings. I think we just are all about making the song an enjoyable and interesting experience rather than, “Okay, here’s the chorus—now the tone has to change.”
Josh Klinghoffer strums his naked-toned Firebird while Clint Walsh veers from ethereal washes to wailing Strat slapback on this track from How’s Your Process (Work).
What’s that vibrato on the dark, thumpy guitar in “Whatever You Want”? It has this warm, swampy, vintage vibe.
Klinghoffer: There’s kind of a collection of guitars there. We used the Fender Vibratone speaker, a sort of Fender Leslie speaker they put out in the ’60s. And there’s a track of Clint playing guitar and me live-treating his guitar through this amazing Montgomery Ward Supro-like amplifier. All I know is that it’s a Montgomery Ward 50-watt head.
Walsh: With a crazy-responsive EQ.
Klinghoffer: Yeah—the high and low knobs are crazy. It’s kind of like a live vibe pedal.
How about that trippy, Leslie-type effect on the trebly counterpoint lead in the same song—same stuff?
Walsh: I think that’s the VB-2 with maybe some of the Strymon TimeLine delay, which is really good when you go beyond the presets—you can create some really cool sounds. Maybe we even had some [Fulltone] OCD for a little drive.
How about the warbling guitars in “First in Forever”?
Klinghoffer: I wrote the guitar part on a borrowed Gibson 120-T [thinline archtop] with flatwound strings. It has one [Melody Maker-style] pickup and one volume and one tone knob. I wound up having to give that guitar back, but I always said that when we got around to recording that song I would either use my friend’s or get another one. I had to get another one. It’s pretty much a simple, untreated guitar through the amp for the main part of that song.
Josh, is it weird to go from playing funky Chili Peppers stuff to the moody, atmospheric, borderline avant-garde Dot Hacker stuff?
Klinghoffer: I feel like both bands could do either kinds of music if they wanted to. There are things that I bring into a Chili Peppers context that sound more like Dot Hacker, and the Dot Hacker guys all have an appreciation for the kind of music that the Chili Peppers play. It’s only confusing sometimes with the roles: When you’re the guitar player in a band with a very prominent and incredible lead singer, and then you go to another band where you’re the lead singer, that’s the only thing that’s kind of confusing. But I welcome it. It’s amazing to watch my brain have to deal with that stuff. I never really admitted to myself that I wanted to do that until we got this band going. This band taught me how to be comfortable doing that—how to be comfortable with myself—and that you should believe in who you are. I probably can’t not be myself to a fault sometimes, but I think I’ve also learned how to be who I’m supposed to be in certain situations and serve those situations correctly.