When it comes to Josh Klinghoffer’s musical output, it helps to have Google and Wikipedia handy to keep track of his voluminous work on dozens of projects by everyone from PJ Harvey and Gnarls Barkley to his own bands Dot Hacker and Pluralone. Of course, the 42-year-old Los Angeles native is best known for his 10-year stint playing guitar in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which ended in 2019. Since then, he joined Pearl Jam as a touring member and wrote and recorded with Eddie Vedder on his latest solo album, Earthling. And in tandem with Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and producer/guitarist Andrew Watt, Klinghoffer just wrapped a short U.S. tour with Vedder in support of the project, during which he was forced to miss a Chicago show after contracting COVID-19 on the road.
Klinghoffer had planned to inaugurate his stint with Pearl Jam by opening its 2020 tour with a Pluralone set each night and then joining the band to help flesh out the new songs from Gigaton. But when the pandemic forced the tour’s postponement, he got busy with his Dot Hacker bandmates Clint Walsh, Jonathan Hischke and Eric Gardner in hopes of making that group’s first album since 2017’s N°3. As Klinghoffer tells SPIN, things didn’t go quite as planned, but what came out of it was his third Pluralone album in as many years, This Is the Show, which will be released March 17 on ORG Music.
Klinghoffer will celebrate the project with a March 19 livestream concert through Moment House, which also features a separately ticketed “after party” set with songs performed by request. And with the 2020 Pearl Jam dates now having been rescheduled for May and September, Klinghoffer is eagerly anticipating his first proper tour with the band, following a quick run of four festival dates last fall.
Firstly, how are you feeling post-COVID?
I’m feeling totally fine from that, unless there’s lingering tiredness. That’s the only thing I’ve wondered, like, man, am I normally this tired? I felt fine the day after the first night of sickness, so it was kind of a quick one for me. It would have been so hard to avoid that happening. In a way, it made the tour have this even more epic and poetic lasting effect on all of us. It was extra adverse. It was the craziest tour I’ve ever been a part of just because of the emotions involved … the excitement, the rehearsing and the blow that Ed was sick, which was one of my biggest fears. The beginning of a tour is always a little weird, because you’re finding your sea legs. Pretty much the minute that happened, I felt like I had a look on-stage with Ed at the beginning of the first Chicago show. In his eyes, he was kind of saying, I’m good now. He had just been sick. Then at those first couple shows in New York, it was all new songs and the album wasn’t out yet. Once the album was out, he had this look like, ok, we’re on now. And then I missed the next show because I got COVID too [Laughs].
When did you find time to make this record? How did it come about?
The origin story for this album is that it was originally meant to be a COVID-era, 2020 Dot Hacker album. Our friend Juan [Alderete] who played bass in Mars Volta had a serious bicycle accident early in 2020. When I first started writing songs for I Don’t Feel Well and was working on music all day every day, I had written a song for him. I sent the demo around to everyone in this little group of friends that was supporting his wife and keeping abreast of his developments. Everyone in the friend group added something to this song, including all the Dot Hacker guys. After that, we said, let’s do a song. We did “Divination” and put that out. We were excited, so we had another long Zoom meeting and thought, let’s just do a whole album. Come on. We’ll do it the same way, where I write it, Clint produces it and you guys communicate with him, but once I write it and record a vocal, I’m done. This is very much not how I’ve ever done anything — certainly not in that band in the past. I’d never taken my hands off and let it be what it became.
We got to work on that and I wrote 10 or 12 songs really fast. It just didn’t take off how we’d hoped. But Clint and I were having a blast working with each other, so we just carried on. Once I’d written it and sent it to him, he was in charge. But he was having a hard time getting on the same page with the other guys. We thought, let’s just keep going. You just keep working on the songs. When you’re ready to play them for me, we’ll finish them together. That’s basically what we did. All the songs were written late 2020/early 2021. We finished them up when I went to New York for a couple of months last March and April. He worked on them all year while I was working with Ed.
Clearly it was fun to be working with Clint again, even though you were doing it in a new way.
He and I had the most difficult time being in Dot Hacker together because we both play guitar. Because of my being in the Chili Peppers and my schedule, all the material usually came from me, and those guys were always struggling with, are we in a band, or are we just Josh’s backup band? To me, I was like, well, I’m just writing songs because I’m singing them. Isn’t that how it works? I was being a little naive that this would be OK with everybody. It was a double-edged sword being in Dot Hacker at the same time as the Chili Peppers.
To my ears, there’s more of a focus on synths here than on I Don’t Feel Well.
Clint works in his home studio and he’s gotten into a groove with the way he works. He did a cover record of Lou Reed’s Berlin with the film composer Clint Mansell. He has a taste and an aesthetic with how he hears things right now. His aesthetic is firmly planted in the ‘80s. I love that. Often when I’d hear his production on a song I’d sent him, my first instinct would be, whoa, that’s totally not what I was hearing. All I had to do was listen a couple more times with an open mind, and suddenly I was in love with it. For me, that was the greatest thing about this record: letting go. I’ve never done that. I don’t even want to admit how much of a controller I can be. I’m a lazy controller. I want it exactly how I want it but I don’t necessarily always want to work to get it there. I just want people to do it how I hear it in my head without communicating that. That’s probably why I’ve never had success on my own [Laughs]. It was more about the friendship. I trusted him and for the most part went with his instinct.
Can you point to some specific examples of Clint’s production touches and what they added to the songs?
On ‘Wait for Me,’ I gave him an acoustic guitar and vocal, so the beautiful lushness and drum machine is all Clint. That took a bit of a turn. Same with all those beautiful, dissonant notes and synth pads on “Elongate.” One of the biggest right turns was ‘Fight for the Soul.’ When this was still a Dot Hacker project, I said to Eric Gardner, just record something and send it to me, and I’ll write to it. He sent me the drums for that song. They’re in seven, which was like, ok, cool. I’ll write a song in seven (laughs). Clint turned it into the synth anthem that it is. ‘Offend,’ I gave him just acoustic guitar and even simpler drums — kick and snare. In my mind, it was kind of sounding like Some Girls-era Rolling Stones, but when he sent it back, it was like Jeff Lynne-era Tom Petty. I think we’re all processing Tom Petty’s death, like Ed’s “Long Way.” I’ve been listening to him a ton and thinking a lot about production. Rick Rubin is someone I didn’t enjoy working with at all when I worked with him with the Chili Peppers, but he’s done two masterpieces in Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Wildflowers. I’m obsessed with Wildflowers. I also think Jeff Lynne’s production is fantastic. I love going from Full Moon Fever to Wildflowers.
What was on your mind when it came time to write lyrics?
It’s crazy how prophetic it feels. I was up in Seattle working with Pearl Jam and I listened to a podcast about a guy who wrote a book called The Bomb. It was all about nuclear weapons and how close we’ve come on many occasions to incinerating ourselves through error or war. His name is Fred Kaplan. I remember walking to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle and buying a copy. I was reading that through 2020 and thinking that the next Pluralone album would be around that, and how ridiculous the Cold War, the arms race, nuclear war and mutual destruction are. Shrinking that down to a microcosm and how a relationship between two people, or within a band, Democrats and Republicans … the absurdity of not being able to compromise and see eye to eye on something.
You have to be stoked to finally open for Pearl Jam as Pluralone starting in May. Will these sets be solo? What are you thinking about in terms of repertoire?
It will just be me. I’m traveling with those guys because I’m playing with them, so it would be logistically difficult to bring other people. I never wanted to be a solo performer, or, at least, to start as a solo performer. What I’ve got coming up is a big step forward for me, and fucking nuts to imagine doing, but I’ll do it. From things those guys have graciously said, I can imagine there being some special guests from the pool of musicians that will be in the building anyway [Laughs]. [Pearl Jam bassist] Jeff [Ament] already helped out at Ohana and [Pearl Jam guitarist] Stone [Gossard] has offered. I’m sure if I wanted it, I could get all five of them up there at one point or another, but I’m not going to ask [Laughs].
I learned a lot watching Glen Hansard every night open for the Earthlings tour. He’s so genuine and such a genius at going out and bringing the crowd where they want to go when they’re about to see the people they actually came to see. Glen was saying, in this kind of situation, it’s really best to find what works and stick with it. Not that I’m a big fan of playing the same things every night, but I’ll try and have a narrower pool of songs, get them really good and stick to those. They’ll be mostly mine. I honestly don’t know how I’m doing them yet, because they’re not solo songs. I really have to focus on that next month. I’ll probably do some covers. My biggest problem is my absolute inability to remember lyrics. I can remember whole movies but I cannot remember song lyrics to save my life.
For the Pearl Jam sets, it must be fun to think about other songs you can play on besides the ones you worked up for the handful of shows last fall.
Absolutely. I just got home from Montana. I was up hanging out with Jeff and we were working on something. I went up there basically directly from the Earthling tour, so I’ve been focusing on either Earthling music or this thing I was working on with Jeff for two months. Today’s the first day of my own life back. Come April, I’ll start listening to Pearl Jam again. In Pearl Jam, there’s a push and pull. Some people would have me up there the whole show. I’m in agreement that I don’t need to be up there for early songs and stuff they clearly don’t need any help with. The one great thing about them is that they’ve never said no. At rehearsal, they trust me, which is the best thing about it. They trust me to know what to play and when to play it. No one has ever told me not to do something. Stone might say, hey, can you do this? Because the fall shows were festival-length and there were only four of them, it wasn’t as vast of a song selection as normal.
Your old friend Jack Irons recently revealed to us that you are now in possession of the drum kit he used in Pearl Jam in the ‘90s. Are you enjoying it?
I was obsessed with that kit as a kid. I saw them back in ’95 when Jack first joined, and I didn’t really play guitar yet. I would just stare at him, and I was obsessed with the notion of different colored satin swirl, like, that’s the greatest idea [Laughs]. I just used it on this seven-inch single that we’ll sell on the tour that I recorded two years ago. I did a cover of [Pearl Jam’s] “I Got Shit” and “Long Road” and called it Plural Ball. I got the idea, booked some studio time before I had my own place and when that day rolled around, I woke up and was like, I’m not in the mood to bring drums to the studio. So I ran down to my space, which is right down the street from the studio I used to record at most of the time, and set my phone out in front of the drums, listened to the song and just played along. I recorded drum loops just based on my knowledge of the song and emailed these mono recordings from my phone to the engineer. I ran down the street and we built loops out of those drums. I played those on Jack’s kit. This was before I’d done a lot of playing with the Pearl Jam guys, because the tour got canceled.
It’s pretty amazing how Jack is at the center of both the Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam, and that you’ve now been a part of both bands.
On the Earthlings tour, Ed would say on stage how Chad was there bringing Pearl Jam along at the very beginning, like a big brother. Andrew always says to me, I fuckin’ can’t believe it! You’ve been in the Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam! I’m grateful everyday. I used to talk about it with Chris Warren, who is Chad’s drum tech in the Chili Peppers. He even tried out for the band before Chad joined, when he was a young, 18-year-old drummer. He and I would say, it’s such a crazy whirlwind, the Chili Peppers. We grabbed onto it and got pulled. I’m not in the band anymore, but I’m still friends with everybody. I can’t escape the fact that they’re putting out a record and they’re back in the consciousness. It’s forever a part of my life. With Pearl Jam, it’s the same thing. They had their own thing going in Seattle, but when they collided with Jack and then the Chili Peppers, it became one big family.