Ben Kenney of Incubus Talks If Not Now, When?, Pranks, and the Band's Proudest Accomplishment
Multi-instrumentalist and bassist Ben Kenney, former member of The
Roots, joined the band in 2003 and has been on board ever since, helping Incubus concoct a plethora of memorable hits.
Ben spoke with Up On The Sun about the band's new album If Not Now, When?, breaking ground with a new sound, and presenting a "different set of ideas" on the tour.
Incubus is scheduled to perform at Comerica Theatre with Young the Giant on Wednesday, October 5.
Up On The Sun: Last time you came to Phoenix, a fight broke out in the pit during the acoustic performance of "Drive." Your music isn't particularly violent at all. Does that happen at a lot of your shows?
Ben Kenney: It happens at the strangest times! I think it's like a remnant from the early '90s and everything being about, "Let's get a mosh pit going!" I don't know exactly what it is, but when I go to concerts I know I like to stand in the back and just listen. So I can't completely relate, but hey, they paid for tickets. They get to decide what they do.
We'll try and keep things more peaceful for you guys this time around. In an interview this summer with Billboard, Brandon said If Not Now, When? will allow you guys to present a "different set of ideas" on the summer tour. What can we expect to see at the show that's new and different?
One of the things we've been doing is trying to keep everybody involved as far as playing songs that are older and making a show that, anytime you came aboard if you're a fan of the music, there's going to be something in there for you. But with the new songs, it kind of just adds to the palette that we get to paint with, so to speak.
You've said in another interview that the last thing you do is usually the thing you're most proud of; otherwise you don't want anybody to hear about it. Incubus didn't release a greatest hits record, Monuments and Melodies, until 2009. I think it's very humble that you guys waited almost 20 years to do that. What do you consider to be the band's biggest accomplishment?
Definitely the last record. The reason why is [that] not many bands get five [or] six records deep into a career and still have people wanting to hear what's next. That's the most fortunate you could ever expect to be. As far as accomplishments go, staying relevant, staying alive and still being able to move forward and still having a job, you definitely have to be grateful for that and proud of that. It doesn't happen to a lot of people.
Which track on the new album is the most special to the band as a whole, and why?
That's a tough one because we all have different favorites. We all have different songs that, as individuals, we put more into than other songs because there are five of us in the band and we all get to work out different parts. For the overall thing, I'm going to totally go out on a limb and say the song "If Not Now, When?" because it really is the most out there. That broke a lot of ground, and that's a texture that we've never really been able to do, and I think we pulled it off.
The new album, If Not Now, When? is a little quieter and a little poppier than the others. You guys have clearly gone in a new direction. What brought about that change? Do you think that future music from Incubus will follow in those footsteps?
Every time we go and make a record, we want to make a record we've never made before. We don't really like to try to regurgitate things because we move on as people, and we're growing as people. As far as the future, I have no idea what we're going to do because that's how we operate and that's what we do: we just try to keep moving forward and keep growing and not get stuck with a sound or a set of ideas. It's really about growing until you're done growing, and I hope it never happens.
The lyrics from "Promises, Promises" have intrigued me since the first time I heard it. Brandon sings, "Baby, could I be the rabbit in your hat? I'll swing if you hand me the bat." What's the story behind that song?
It's just kind of a romantic song. I think it's pretty clear. There's no real hidden agenda or hidden message. From my perspective, a lot of the lyrics on this record...because Brandon creates all the lyrics himself...a lot of them are just about coming clean and being okay with who you are, and accepting yourself and asking for the world to accept you back.
Did Brandon's work on his solo album, The Wild Trapeze, delay the progress of If Not Now, When? at all?
No. We all had a bunch of projects that we had gotten deep into in our time off. I had done a few solo records. Mike had gone out to Harvard and took a whole bunch of classes out there. Jose, our drummer, became a father, so he was being a full-time parent and enjoying being there for the first few years of his kid [growing up]. Chris was working on playing more music and mastering a new instrument and getting behind the keys and stuff. We all took that time and made the most out of it. So it really was a matter of "everybody go out and get yours," and enjoy your time until we all feel like it's right to get back on board. Last summer was when it was like, "Okay, everybody's kind of itching to do this thing again."
You've been known to play a lot of instruments. How did you get into all of them?
I don't even know! Everybody in my family plays every instrument. It was how I was raised. I was raised in an environment with a lot of musicians, and we all would play all the time. There were no boundaries. There was no, "I'm going to be the guitarist and you're going to be the drummer." It was more like, "You play this now and I'll play this now, and we'll just have fun with it and enjoy it." It's always strange for me when I meet people and they don't play drums. I'm like, "Well why not?"
I always picture you as that one musical kid in high school whom everyone was jealous of because he could play any instrument he ever picks up even if he's never played it before.
Nobody was jealous of me in high school, that's for damn sure!
Would you ever consider opening for Incubus as a solo act?
I don't know. When I do concerts by myself it takes a lot out of me, and then playing shows with Incubus take a lot out of me. So I would have to man up a lot. I've got to get up my stamina to do that. If ever there was a demand for it, if ever people wanted to see it, I'm sure it would happen. But as of right now I'm kind of just free to focus on one or the other.
I heard a story when you were with The Roots that they brought a cake on stage for you, and you thought it was a prank so you ran away. But it turned out you were right: it was a prank, and they shoved the cake in your face. Is Incubus big on pulling pranks within the band?
They're a lot lighter on the pranks. I'd say with The Roots, those guys were very mischievous and I kind of had to look over my shoulder at any time. You never knew what was going to happen. The guys in Incubus are a lot less mischievous, and I kind of bring some of that with me from the Roots over here. But I don't worry about having my clothes ripped off me on stage or anything like that anymore.
You guys are really adamant with keeping your fans in the loop with morning updates and what not. You're really in touch with your fan base. They're very devoted to Incubus.
It's exciting because we're not that old as people, but as a band, we've been around for a long time. And for whatever reason with what we've been doing, people still come to the concerts. Every time we go out [on tour], it seems like it's bigger and more important than the last time. We don't take that for granted because we've seen a lot of really good bands kind of get stuck in the loop and burn out. And for whatever reason, it hasn't happened to us yet. We're aware of that being the nature of bands, and we're just trying to keep it going. We're psyched to do this. This is not a common job to have and this is not an easy job to get, and we don't want to lose it.