Josh Klinghoffer: Red Hot Chili Peppers Firing 'Felt Like a Death' - Rolling Stone
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Josh Klinghoffer Talks Red Hot Chili Peppers Firing: ‘It Truly Felt Like a Death’

“The whole thing has a sadness to it and that’s what makes it even weirder,” guitarist says of dismissal from band after 10 years

josh klinghoffer

Jamie Martinez*

Last December, former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer got a text from Flea, asking him to come over to his Los Angeles home to “discuss the state of things.” Right away, he had a feeling something was wrong. The band had been deep into writing the follow-up to 2016’s The Getaway, and Klinghoffer, who replaced the group’s longtime guitarist John Frusciante in 2009, thought the meeting would mainly revolve around issues of recording and tour scheduling. Still, “when I got the text, my heart sank a little bit,” he says from his L.A. home. “There was something in the air and the dreariness of that December day that told me… I remember thinking like this could all disappear.”

When he arrived, Flea, singer Anthony Kiedis, and drummer Chad Smith were waiting in Flea’s backyard, ready to deliver the news that Frusciante would rejoin the group and Klinghoffer’s services were no longer needed. “It was a total shock,” he says. “But I’m not surprised.”

Klinghoffer, by his own admission and nature, was always the quiet one in a group of outsized personalities, joining the band as a touring guitarist before graduating to full-time member on 2011’s I’m With You. With his decade-long Chili Peppers stint now in the rearview, he’ll focus on his solo project Pluralone — his debut album, To Be One With You, came out last November — and opening for Pearl Jam when their U.S. tour starts on March 18th.

“I’m excited about it and a little petrified just because I’ve never done it,” he says of his upcoming live solo venture. “Playing solo is not necessarily something that I would think to do. I don’t necessarily have the ‘Hey, look at me, I’m doing this all by myself,’ aspect of my personality. But it’s an amazing opportunity just to do music in a new context; it’s one of the craziest contexts that you can imagine.”

But before he looks into the future, the youngest Rock Hall of Fame member is still processing his split from Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the 10 years he spent with one of the biggest rock bands in decades.

Walk me through the day of your dismissal.
I had gotten the text from Flea the day before and we’d put the writing on pause for a while and I just thought we were getting back into the swing of things. We finally came to the communal decision that we would do a record and that was what I thought we were going to talk about mostly.

I turned up last and they were all sitting in the backyard and Flea seemed somber when I got to the door and he just got right to it and said, “We decided to ask John to rejoin,” and I just sat there quietly for a second and said, “I’m not surprised. I wish I could’ve done something that would’ve made this an impossibility. But I’m really happy for you guys.” I’m happy for John. I wanted to leave the feelings that I had in that moment untouched, which were just the love for those guys. [Pauses] I love those guys deeply. I never saw myself as deserving to be there over John.

I had this amazing journey with those guys that was bringing me to this moment where it was ending. I was able to just grab hold to the fact that I really, truly had a great deal of love and respect and gratitude for everything that they allowed me to experience with them the whole time. So the moment they told me, I was able to freeze that emotion and protect those feelings toward them and not be, a year later [if] my finances are getting tricky, be like, “Those guys!”

Are you able to share what Anthony said?
It was mostly Flea talking. Anthony didn’t say much. But I can see in his eyes that it was a very painful decision. And I think of Anthony as a very tender and supportive person. And he’s very paternal in that way and I could see that he was caught between his usual wanting to be supportive and carry somebody and having to cut it loose. I think it all comes from Flea’s connection with John.

“There’s never a moment that I could look back and think this has been bad.”

How long did the meeting last?
I was probably there for about 35 to 40 minutes. I said, “My nature is to get up and go, but there’s a weight that’s keeping me here because it’s the last time it’ll be just the four of us and I just want to sit here for a minute.” We all hugged and Chad texted me before I even got home. He was really heartbroken about the whole thing because Chad and I are very good friends. I spent the whole day texting because they released their statement on Instagram [publicizing Klinghoffer’s firing] an hour after [my dismissal].

Did you know about their statement?
Not at all.

You didn’t have any role in crafting that?
Noooo. No, no, no. It was less than an hour after it happened and at the time I thought, “Wow, that is crazy.” Flea put it up there; it was very clearly his composition. I was totally surprised. And it does look exactly like a death announcement. In a way, it saved me from having to tell people so I just went home with my coffee and sat outside in the backyard and texted with people for the next three hours nonstop. It truly felt like a death, but how many times do you get to walk away from a death and live the rest of your life? So I sat there in the backyard with a really heavy heart; it was a truly emotional afternoon and this is just something that, for me, is nice to feel because I don’t really get to slow down and smell the emotions very often.

Did you know John had been in contact with the band while it was happening, or did you only find out after your dismissal?
I didn’t know John had been talking to them about rejoining the band. John had reached out to Anthony [around 18 months ago] and they had dinner — that was a surprise — and then John had reached out to our tour manager. He was definitely showing his face in Chili Pepper world a little bit just with emails and apologizing about past behavior. So every time I would hear a story about that, I thought, “What is he doing? Does he want to come back?”

I just remember one time Flea and him went to some event together like a boxing match and there were pictures of them on the internet that I heard about and I was like, “Could that ever happen? Would that ever happen?” And it’s something that I totally would have thought, “I know what he’s doing: He’s trying to come back.” And I probably would have prepared for more and maybe even brought it up to those guys myself. But basically at the end of the day, it was a total blindside.

How come you never went to Flea and say, “Should I be concerned?”
[Pauses] Because we were so far into the writing of a new record and I felt like there was a calendar. There was an album that was more than half written, but I guess I let my guard down because I thought we had done so much work. If this had been at the end of a touring cycle and everyone hadn’t seen each other in a month and John was making himself available, I would have thought, “Uh-oh, what’s happening? Maybe this is an eventuality that I need to prepare myself for.” But we were so far into some work.

It sounds you were dating someone and found out they were having dinner with an ex.
Yeah, totally. I didn’t know that John and Flea were hanging out at the level that they must have been. Because when they told me that day [I was dismissed], I said, “Well, I’m not surprised.” And Flea said, “Well, I guess, you know, I’ve been hanging out with John … jamming.” I said, “I didn’t know you were jamming.” It’s that simple.

At the core of all of these events, John and Flea created a musical language and camaraderie with each other when John was a teenager. The band was not that successful yet. [Founding guitarist] Hillel [Slovak] had just died. They were in a very different place in their lives, and they were willing and able to create a language and a musical connection with each other that’s so deep and meaningful. Like with a relationship with that burning love that you’ll always have.

“If this had happened five years ago, it would have probably destroyed me.”

So it’s like letting an ex back into your life?
Exactly. And you’ll always sort of look to that ex and you’ll let them back in and I can’t, for a second, privilege anything to do with me over that musical relationship because I was a fan of it and I see it firsthand and I played those songs for years and was such a fan of John’s playing. I wish I could have created something with the band that made it an impossibility, but really what it is, is wishing that I could have created a musical language with Flea similar to what he had with John. If this had happened five years ago, it would have probably destroyed me.

Why do you say that?
Because it would have confirmed all my worst intuitions about how much I suck and how worthless I am as a person. I would have succumbed to the negative thoughts that our brains love to throw at us. But now after having done it for 10 years and basically writing three albums with them, I was given a certain amount of room to maneuver. Like, you can only do so much with the relationships where they are short of actually being John. I’m very proud of what I accomplished with them musically and personally with the hand I was given coming in when I came in and doing what we did. I’m really proud of it, rather than, if this was five years ago, I would have fucking jumped off a bridge.

And the nature of replacements is that you’ll always be compared to your predecessor.
When I joined the band, I was barely playing guitar. I don’t have social media, but I know that the internet loves to compare me to John and talk about how much I didn’t compare to him. I always would think, “You guys don’t understand.” I was barely playing guitar, and to able to jump in and do it at all is just the biggest accomplishment in my eyes because I was never a guitar player. The fact that I was having shade thrown at me and being compared all the time was really just funny.

Do you think it’s unfair for fans to compare you two?
I wouldn’t say unfair. It’s understandable, but if they understood what I brought to the band on different levels other than musicianship. The fact that I was able to come into the Chili Peppers and make everyone feel as though nothing had changed because I’d been there before. I was also able to have a musical language — not the same as John’s — but to start creating one and be everyone’s friend. They had been a band for a long time; there was personal strife, there was lots of emotions, and I was able to lighten that and allow the band to carry on.

When you look back now, were there any concrete signs they were going to dismiss you that you think you overlooked?
I wouldn’t say concrete signs. I know the core is the musical relationship between the guitar and the bass and John and Flea. I think I’m friends with all those guys in a great, deep way and the relationship we had as people for as much as you can with someone that’s 18 years your junior was a real special thing. And I think they know how much I love them. They care about me and we’ve created something really special. John and Flea, regardless of whether they’re getting along or not, have this thing they created at a different time in their lives and there’s no way that I would be able to create that. When I came around and started trying to do that, it’s 2009. They’re different people. They have children. They’re now very successful. The amount of time and willingness you have to sit and foster — basically start dating someone again — is different.

“I really, truly had a great deal of love and respect and gratitude for everything that they allowed me to experience with them.”

Do you take their decision personally?
No. Because I know they care about me and I know they liked me as a person. If they had said, “Thank you, Josh, we’ve enjoyed being in a band with you, but we’re now going to hire this person,” that would have been a whole different metric. It’s John. It’s the guy who I’ve fucking adored. We had a really special friendship for a while where we made records together and hung out and learned Beatles songs. There’s never a moment that I could look back and think this has been bad. The only thing is, it’s kind of crazy to, on a dime, remove someone from something. … It’s like, “Oh, you have this and now you don’t.”

You foresaw being in the band a lot longer.
At least for one more tour, right? Because we were through writing another album. I’ve never been good with money and I love spending it, but this time around, I thought, “Yeah, how much longer can this go on? These guys are getting older. It’s not like they like touring long… they don’t do it like they used to. This time around, I’m gonna be a little more responsible and put some [money] away” — doing all that stuff with your parents’ voices in your head. I don’t think along those lines — I’m such a child when it comes to that and I’ve always been that way and being in their band allowed me to be that way. And it was a beautiful thing. But I was getting older now. I’m 40, like, OK, maybe I should be a little more responsible. But at the end of the day, I was really looking forward to making one more record.

In hindsight, what are your thoughts on the two albums you recorded with them?
I’m not particularly fond of the two records. I liked the songs and I think we wrote some really cool songs together, but I’m such a pain in the ass. Rick Rubin was the producer [on I’m With You]. And the reason why I didn’t want to work with him the second time [the band was in talks for Rubin to produce the new album] was because I felt like those four had a relationship and I was the odd man out. And here I am trying to join and it’s hard to have a voice that’s supposedly equal when you have this 25-plus-year relationship and I’m this new little pissant in the corner saying, “No, I don’t think that should change there. We should go one more time.” Like no one else in the band is going to listen to me; they’re going to listen to their friend who they’ve known and worked with and collaborated with successfully for ages. And it’s not like that’s a bad thing. It makes perfect sense. But I’m trying to be an artist in this environment with the hand I was dealt; I have more songs written and a pile of ideas that no one will ever hear because there’s only so much time to get to.

So then the second time [on The Getaway], we worked with Danger Mouse [a.k.a. producer Brian Burton]. Brian’s a good friend of mine, but my main thing was just that I didn’t want to work with Rick again. Brian is fantastic, but at the end of the day, that record wound up working where he’s a producer, and then Flea is the guy that started the band in high school. Who am I in this triangulation? I never felt like it was easy to fight for what I wanted on that record, so that record wound up being a bunch of songs I enjoyed, but I wasn’t happy with the way it sounded. And so I was just really looking forward to trying one more time to make a record that I was super proud of.

How deep into the writing and recording process were you for the new album?
We weren’t into the recording process at all. We were just writing and we had started in [late] 2018 and we kept running into little hiccups. A month into writing, we almost lost the house that we were working in and all of our gear in that terrible fire, but luckily that was spared. We worked a fair amount all throughout 2019, but there was lots of start and stop.

Do you think they’ll just scrap whatever was written?
All of it.

How does that make you feel?
Sad. I’m Zen in the fact that at the end of the day, I respect any of their decisions and I’m happy for them and I’m glad that they’re playing together and doing what they’re doing. I’m sad for songs that I wrote with them that didn’t make it onto I’m With You. That was the thing with Brian: We had done 40 or 50 songs and his production style is he likes to build songs from scratch and I was like, “We have all these songs.” So he picked a few of ours that he liked. And then we came up with some from scratch with him in the studio, which was fun and cool. But the magic about the Chili Peppers is that —  and it’s rarer and rarer these days — is it’s four guys in a room playing and then they more or less record them live. And that’s basically what I wanted to do. I just didn’t want to do it with [Rick Rubin] who made me feel like the outsider and is the kind of person that doesn’t really have the ability or the care to nurture a new relationship.

“For them to dismiss someone that they love and care about and that they enjoyed being in a band with was very difficult.”

What did you hope the scrapped album would sound like?
[Pauses] I was always hoping for raw-sounding, energetic Chili Peppers music. There’s a part of me that wanted them to sound like they sounded in 1986 maybe with two or three beautiful ballads on a record, but basically I was always trying to get them to sound like [1987/88’s] The Uplift Mofo Party Plan tour. That’s my one regret is that I just feel like [pauses] in some way, it’s like the records that we made during my tenure in the band were my responsibility and it’s … I don’t necessarily know how much I had to do with it.

You hadn’t seen John in 10 years until Flea’s wedding last October. Did he reach out to you at all before the band dismissed you?
I reached out to him on my birthday when I was in Brazil, because I knew I was going to see him for the first time in a decade, and said, “Hey, I just want you to know that I love you deeply and I’ve always considered you a friend. And I know I’m going to see you soon so I hope you’re well.” He wrote right back; I couldn’t quite understand what he said. Sometimes people’s syntax don’t really make sense when they type. We saw each other 17 days later and it was brief, but cordial. But then the whole rest of the day was kind of weird. I’m sure in his mind, by that point, he knew what was on the horizon.

Have you had any contact with him since your dismissal?
No. There’s no reason for me to reach out. I mean, if he reached out, I’d be surprised.

You had lunch with Flea five days after the dismissal. What was that like?
Well, it was just very sweet. We just had a really nice time. It’s never happened this way where there’s been a member change under defined circumstances; it’s always been in the wake of a trauma or a tragedy. So, for them to dismiss someone that they love and care about and that they enjoyed being in a band with was very difficult. And it probably would have been easier for them if when they told me, I started screaming and throwing punches. There’s a sadness around the whole thing and the somber tone of the Instagram post was sort of twofold. It was like, yeah, we’re excited John’s coming back. But we did enjoy being close with this guy for 10 years. The whole thing has a sadness to it and that’s what makes it even weirder.

It sounds cliché, but it really does sound like a romantic breakup.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. The analogy is perfect and it’s almost trite how perfect it is. But it’s like, you’re dating someone; you love them and care about them. Or you tell yourself you love them. But you’re also maybe on the same car insurance plan and it just works. And then your sexy ex comes back around and they’re no longer in a dark place. And what you had with them and created with them speaks to another time; it speaks to more record sales. [Laughs] It just makes a little more sense. Like you’re a little closer in age; even that alone, it’s like you can communicate more. Even if in two years their relationships grow sour again, there’s something familiar. So yeah, I’m that person that you love and you care about, but I wasn’t there in 1988.

From the outside, you’ve always seemed to occupy a weird celebrity space being the quiet one in a band of very outsized personalities.
It’s weird as hell. And if I step back, it’s amazing and I can’t believe that’s the life I’m living. My friend put it one time: You can walk into an In-N-Out Burger and no one knows who you are. And that’s insane. That’s amazing. I think we did four photo shoots while I was in the band. We barely did any of that stuff. It was such a crazy thing I had for 10 years. There’s all the picture-taking; my mother doesn’t have that many pictures of me. So the fact that suddenly I’m being asked to take pictures with people is the craziest thing.

Do you see a time where you would play with them again either as a guest or permanent member?
Yes, of course. I love them as people and I always want to play with my friends and that’s all I’ve ever wanted. I just wanted to be in a band since I was 12. And I got it a little bit for 10 years.

Do you have any message for the fans?
That was the greatest thing about my being in a band like this; I could so often not look out at the crowd, which I don’t generally do anyway, and just focus on what was happening onstage and with the band. And the band already had fans, so I didn’t have to worry about connecting with them so much. I could just do it through playing. So the fact that I might have any fans or that people liked what I brought to the band is just a beautiful thing and I can’t express my gratitude and my love for them enough. For anyone that likes anything I did, or anyone who was concerned about me in this process or anyone who just learned who I was because of being in the band and wasn’t repulsed, I’m totally, totally grateful. And I’m very appreciative and I hope they’re still interested because I don’t see myself stopping playing music.

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