UTG INTERVIEW: Jonathan Hischke (Dot Hacker, The Sound of Animals Fighting)

Some bands are known for one musician, and some musicians end up known for only one band. Jonathan Hischke is not one of those musicians, and his current focus, Dot Hacker, is not one of those bands. The rock group, formed by studio musicians best known as members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gnarls Barkley’s band, recently recorded their latest work, How’s Your Process?, which has been split into two releases: one, (Work), released on July 1, and the other, (Play), is out October 7.

Fresh off a tour playing bass for The Sound Of Animals Fighting and a Coachella weekend (yes, this interview was conducted months ago), Hischke caught up with UTG to talk about what it’s like to play with every band from The Shins to Broken Bells to math rock legends Hella to his more current focuses, E V Kain and Dot Hacker.

Starting with my nerdiest question first: in “Act II” by The Sound of Animals Fighting, I know you didn’t record it but you played it live. The breakdown: I always counted 17 measures of 4, and then a measure of 2. How did you count it?

[Laughs] I might have to think that one out. I’m thinking we did 17 measures of 4 and then one of 2, or maybe I just followed Chris Tsagakis through it. Did you see one of the recent shows?

Yeah, and it’s pretty funny. I looked at you and was like “That guy looks so familiar. I know him from some other band.” And everyone rushed to Rich Balling for an autograph, and I just stared at you like, “I know him from something.” Taking the subway ride back was just like: ah, it’s Jonathan Hischke.

That’s hilarious. With The Sound of Animals Fighting, they called in a sort-of emergency. “Hey, can you do this thing? It starts in two and a half weeks. Rehearsals start on Monday.” And it was a Friday. The guys who are in RX Bandits, I knew them before but not that well. I had to learn all this really weird music in a weekend.

We had a great conversation, and I was going, “That’s interesting. I’m free. It sounds fun.” And then they went into where the shows were and how the tickets were selling and I was like “…Are you kidding?” And he goes “No, They’re our shows.” They haven’t played shows in years, and I knew it was a real privilege.

He sent me mp3s and I went, “oh, shit.” It wasn’t easy to learn it all in a weekend! As I picked the stuff apart, it was like, how am I going to figure this out on my own? “Do this riff 3 times, but the fourth time, we switch this note, but on the fifth and sixth time we add three notes, then we go to another riff for half the time, but it’s a different version,” and it was almost gratuitous. Gratuitous math rock. But it got tighter over time – it took a lot of homework. We had maybe five rehearsals.

Do you think it was harder to learn TSOAF stuff or the Hella stuff?

The Hella stuff was different because we had two months to practice. I went to California with them and practiced 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. It was all of us in a room working out together over a long time. Not all the songs had parts written for me already; I was coming up with stuff and we worked it out together. It was different.

What was funny with TSOAF, I entered a studious mode. I learned everything in chunks; “that song is part A, then part B, then part C,” rather than learning it as a whole song. It’s still in my head taken piece by piece. It was such an onslaught for just an hour and fifteen minutes of music. [Laughs]

I missed out on the popularity of that scene by just moments in my life. I got dropped into this thing that was legendary in so many people’s minds and work with these immensely talented people; I didn’t know of their super powers before this. I’d seen Circa Survive once by accident – my friends in Maps & Atlases were opening for them, and I went to the show and was blown away by Circa. The musicians are really flexing their muscles with The Sound of Animals Fighting, and these vocalists who are great singers blew me away with their performances too. It was just extra interesting because I didn’t know the band before I learned the music.

I was so honored people come out for rock music in this day and age. I was at Coachella and it was kind of a bummer. “There’s Lorde with, maybe a band? And there’s some electronic act, and here’s hip hop.” And I saw The Pixies and easily walked to the front of the stage. Then I’d walk to Queens of the Stone Age and be like, “OK, phew, this crowd is better.” But it seems like an uphill climb for rock music today. But there’s this whole section of people who are completely invested in rock music and I saw that with The Sound of Animals Fighting. It was such an inspiration.

I guess the message here is you won’t be doing any EDM side projects. When I talked to your friend Juan Alderete, he was talking about how he loved electronic music but hated dubstep.

I think electronic music is genius, but he, particularly, is a major hip-hop fan. He could tell you everything about every west coast rapper from all the way back. When he was in Racer X, he was really listening to Public Enemy [Laughs].

Juan is a pretty musically complex guy, and he’s been in a lot of musically interesting bands. But I think if it were up to him, he’d rather have been playing with Dr. Dre or something. He and I both seem to be more about making sounds rather than traditional bass playing, and hip hop seems like a great environment for that.

You and he both played bass together in Big Sir and El Guepo de Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Do you feel like you could play in a two-bass band with anyone or is it something with just Juan?

I’d like to try it, but I think it’s always come by accident. We’ve become good friends and enjoy pulling each other into projects like that. He and I met on a tour in 2005, when Hella toured with The Mars Volta. TMV and Hella opened for System of a Down. It was so bizarre but cool because who would ever pick Hella for an arena tour? But there was an absurdity to it. We were so stoked to get to know The Mars Volta after Frances the Mute had just come out.

Jon Theodore and everybody, they were on top of their game. It was really cool for System of a Down to take a chance on us like that.

My exposure to Hella and my first Hischke show was 2005 seeing you open for Les Claypool at Toad’s Place in Connecticut.

That was right after the System of a Down thing. Our first show with Claypool was on the East Coast two days after our last California show with System.

That was my first exposure to math rock, watching Hella, and watching the front of drummer Zach Hill’s bass drum explode from 5 feet away.

That’s an amazing first experience.

Let me ask you: do you have a favorite drummer to play with?

I’m afraid of leaving somebody out, but there are several. It would be hard to say a favorite since I’ve ended up playing in a ton of different projects. Playing with Zach Hill is an amazing thing, but playing with, say, Joey Waronker is also an amazing thing. He plays in Beck’s band and Thom Yorke’s band, Atoms for Peace. He’s a constant session musician. And Eric Gardner, the drummer for Dot Hacker, is one of those guys; he can kind of do anything and make it sound good, and that’s a great person to play with. I get to watch him stretch out in Dot Hacker, which is really cool.

But there’s very idiosyncratic things with Zach Hill and the drummer from The Ruins. Super-prog rock, so calculated and extreme. I don’t think Hella is the most extreme thing I’ve done – Hella’s pretty out there. But before Hella I was in the Flying Luttenbachers. It was a fellow named Weasel Walter who played drums and composed, and he had this band that went through about ten different iterations. I was in a lineup that had two bass players, and I played piccolo bass – a bass tuned up an octave like a guitar – and the other guy played fretless and Alex Perkolup played fretless. The drummer played this insane kit; his bass drum was a floor tom, and it was a weird little kit, he played double pedal metal drums. And Walter gave us sheet music, and we’d learn these insane parts. And that was how I knew the Hella guys; we were cats in the weird scene.

At that point, the “weird” scene was pretty strong, but everyone was just coming into it. We toured with The Locust, Lightning Bolt, Deerhoof – all these bands that grew into bigger things. I consider that my roots; just really weird but passionate stuff.

How do you feel about Death Grips?

I’m totally into it. It seems more like an art project than a band and I like that about it. It seems like a holistic thing; it’s not just a set of music.

Their antics are second to none. It’s stuff from the old days you’d hear about early punk bands or bands in the ’60s; Zappa going wild. I don’t know what you’d call it… they’re outlaws. It’s rebellion. I don’t know if there’s anyone doing it quite as big and well as they are. They had a chance to fuck with things and they really did it right.

Zach works so hard doing so much for so long. I don’t mean to be like “I wish he was still making records with other people.” I used to play with him all the time, and he’s been in the Death Grips world for several years now. I guess I’m being selfish [Laughs].

Between all of your projects, when did you guys find the time to record the second Dot Hacker album?

Dot Hacker is interesting because we do as much as we can. Between everyone’s schedule, it’s not as much as any of us would like. This chapter seems like a recording project that’s stretched out; we started recording in December 2012 and recorded throughout 2013 when we could. Two days here, a week there. Whenever we could book time in the studio, we’d go in and work on it. We went on tour for a few weeks for the first time on a West Coast tour with Zavalaz.

Do you think you’ll end up doing a national or East Coast tour?

Yeah. We keep trying. We make attempts to work something out, but a lot depends on Josh Klinghoffer’s schedule; he’s busy. I think Josh will have to command some time and the rest of us will just have to adhere to that. The rest of us are less busy, but doing a lot of stuff. We can push our stuff around a lot more, and I think we all would. There’s something to playing your own stuff, and we don’t do that as much as we’d like to. We’re all trying to make a living playing music, and that’s not always doing your own stuff.

Do you get a bigger amount of pleasure playing in Dot Hacker than other bands because it is your own stuff?

Yeah. There’s a couple of projects I’m in – E V Kain, that’s a trio – where I get to do the things my way and use my own approach. I think I’m better at that than being a chameleon or a for-hire musician. I can do that, I do it often, but my forte is being who I am.

A lot of bands push me to be creative. It’s not like “here’s the song, and play that.” It’s more like “this is the song, do your own thing to it.” Playing this instrument is a privilege, and a lot of bass players don’t get to put their spin on it. A lot of situations seem like a songwriter, and the bass player is supposed to the common, “tasteful” thing. That’s a skill and a craft into itself, and I like it when I hear it. It’s a different muscle. I find it challenging.

I got asked to be in The Shins for a couple of months a few years ago. It was a pleasure and a challenge to be part of these pop songs that I would never be a part of in any other time. It was a cool journey to go on, and get inside the history of that band. But then it’s done, and I’m back to what I was doing before. I don’t know if The Sound of Animals Fighting will do anything again. I hope so, and I hope I’m a part of it. But if there was a chance for me to do Dot hacker or E V Kain more, I would be on cloud nine.

When you write for Dot Hacker, do you come in with a bassline or a chord structure, or does someone else bring in a song?

It’s a pretty open structure. A lot of times, Josh brings in stuff he’s working on; very cool extended chords in interesting progressions. Unless you’re musically minded, a lot of people just hear it and go, “oh that’s pretty.” A lot of it is relatively intense in terms of chords. What’s cool about that is, since I’m not very traditional and we’re collaborative, we all get to take our time with it and come with our own feel. It leaves me a lot of room to do stuff. The drummer and I are not as textural as the other two; the recording process for Clint Walsh, the guitarist/keyboardist, and Josh is they’ll try anything. They’ll run through five guitar parts and three keyboard parts and keep working layers until they paint something bigger than the sum of its parts. It lets me do mostly whatever I want, and usually not what a typical bassline might end up being.

With the song “Discotheque,” did you write the bassline first or the chord progression?

That’s a great example. That song was created in the studio. Josh had a chunk of music; he played a demo of it he had for about a decade, and I was going, “that’s awesome! I love that.” He wrote the main bass part, and I responded to that. In the studio, he laid down a drum machine, and we tried to figure out a way to make the song work.

That was the only song that was created that way. The bass part is actually Josh’s–that awesome verse bass part–and the rest is me. The part where the bass gets fast, that was my contribution. And then anything that’s not that weird off-tilt bass part is me. I still have to think about it when we play it live; it’s danceable but off somehow. Once I get started with it, I’m okay, but starting it is difficult. It makes sense. But on paper, you’re thinking, “what the hell is that?”

How does the upcoming album compare to the first album?

If it sounds very different, it’s not because we set out to. I think the process of making the record might have made it a little different. It’s more aggressive and has a few more rock moments. It’s more in your face, while the first album was mellow and atmospheric. There’s a few twists and turns that are a little different. I don’t think anyone set out for it to be a major leap in any direction, though. This one was a little more collaborative because we recorded it together. This had a lot more group interplay.

Dan Bogosian
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