Ben Kenney: Incubus Bassist Shares the Secrets to Staying Creative

Ben Kenney Incubus.jpg

Ben Kenney, the bassist of American rock band Incubus, joined the group in 2003, but even after more than a decade, he still feels that there is much more for the band to explore in terms of sound and style and insists he’s in it for the long haul.

The multi-talented musician — he plays six different instruments — was the guitarist for hip-hop group The Roots before becoming a full-time member of the Incubus family and has also released several solo albums.

When Incubus performed in Singapore on Monday, the 37-year-old Kenney took some time before the show to speak to the Jakarta Globe about the band’s new album, the creative process that musicians go through over the years, as well as his favorite memories of Indonesia.

Q: Could you tell me more about Incubus’s upcoming EP, ‘Trust Fall,’ which will be released later this month?

A: We got together in September, and I had spent the last few years living New York, spending time with my parents out there, and everybody just got away from the band a little bit and got their heads cleared. Then we reconvened and started writing new music, and since then it’s just been off to the races, making music non-stop. So we spent September through January pretty much in the studio every day, and finished the four songs that are on the EP and continued working. While those tracks are being mixed, we are writing new songs, and we have a bunch of new music already that we’re going to finish when we go home.

You’ve been a member of Incubus for 12 years now, while the band has been around for 24, which is quite rare in this very short-lived music industry. How do you keep challenging yourselves to get out of your comfort zone and create something fresh and new together?

It does get harder, but for me personally, if you have an opportunity to do this, then you have to do it as best as you can. It’s not something that a lot of people get to do. There are tons of fans that have supported this band to the point that it has a continuing career after all this time, so if we get the window, we have to do it.

At the same time, we do take a lot of time off, we do take a lot of hiatuses where we can go and get to know ourselves outside of the band because if you just keep going non-stop, it gets weird. That’s when the behind-the-music drama stuff happens. But we are very low-drama, it’s more about making music and enjoying this ride.

As it should be ...

It should be, but it’s very difficult because there are natural things that happen. Over time you hit the same obstacles that all the other bands hit. Then you see bands like the Rolling Stones and U2, and you think, they’ve made it to the other side. They could easily walk away from what they do, but they’re still going to keep doing it, and we dream about being like that. We dream about being old men and laughing about how bad we play but still being able to do it. I don’t think anybody in this band wants a different career.

How is the creative process within the band, when you get together and work on a new album; how does it all come together in the end?

It’s five grumpy men in one room trying to impress each other, and we just keep trying. When something hits with everybody, then we run with it. Everybody brings a unique perspective to it, everybody adds to it, and we all have a relationship that’s been built by creating stuff together. So we fall into certain rhythms and we know to challenge ourselves with other things; we know when we’ve done something that feels familiar. If it sounds good but it feels like we’ve done it before, then it’s not something that we need to pursue as much because we don’t really go back and double track where we’ve been.

I think this is something very unique about Incubus. The band’s sound has evolved over the years, and I can imagine that it’s not easy to always be able to achieve that.

Yes, but at the same time, we can listen to older stuff and hear where we were in our growth at that point, and we’ve gone past that. I don’t want to play songs that sound like something we’ve written before. We are explorers.

You obviously play your own headline shows but at times are also part of big festival line-ups, which I imagine results in a very different dynamic for the performance. Is there either you prefer?

We do headline shows, we do festival shows, some of us play in other projects, and the whole thing to me is what I want to do. I love when we play a headline show and get to play for two hours, because it’s our party. But I also love when we play a festival, play before a band like Soundgarden, then you get to see what other people who are as fortunate as you are, are doing. It’s all good, it’s all special.

Is there any musician you would love to work with in the future?

Yes, absolutely. My friend Neal Evans is someone I’ve made music with before, and I want to continue making music with him because he’s brilliant. Every time I get to play music with Neal, it’s like church, it’s a different experience. Who else? Everybody, I’d really like to work with everybody because you never know what happens when you mix you with them.

How do you manage to keep your fans so happy for so long?

We actually haven’t. People sometimes get very angry. We have tons of wonderful fans, but we also have fans that don’t like it when we change. When I joined the band, it lost a lot of fans because they didn’t like the direction the band was taking. And with every subsequent album, we lost more fans, but at the same time, we always stayed true to ourselves and more people come in to that. I’m shocked when I meet people that tell me that they got into Incubus with the record we did in 2006, and I just think, really? That’s kind of late in the game — but welcome! There’s an exchange of flow, because sometimes certain music only hits for a certain time in your life, and if that artist moves on, and you don’t go along for the ride, there’s nothing for you there. And there’s nothing wrong with that because we are all on different journeys.

But you obviously must have done something right, otherwise you wouldn’t be around anymore.

Yes, there’s a lot being done right, that’s for sure. I don’t think we can take credit for it individually, it only happens when the five of us are together.

Do you think social media helps to bring the band closer to its fans?

It does. Most people live part of their lives online now, it’s just the way things are. Sometimes it’s fun, but sometimes it’s also a burden, but at all times it’s the way of things. We try to do it in a way that we’re OK with it. We try to have fun with it.

I don’t know, if you’d ask me if I would go back to the way things were before, I’d have to think about that. There was more privacy before, which was cool. I like my privacy a lot. But at the same time, I’ve met some great people through social media. I met people that have become friends I hope I have for the rest of my life that I wouldn’t have met any other way. I am just grateful for that.

This is not your first time in Southeast Asia; you’ve been in the region before. What makes you keep coming back?

This is only our second time in Singapore, but we’ve toured in the region four times already. When we go on tour, we try to go everywhere. This is really special, because this is not my culture, it’s not my world, but to come here and get to perform for people is like a rare gift.

Incubus also played in Indonesia before. Do you have any special memories about that time?

I remember our first time in Jakarta. I was in the hotel room right before it was time to leave and go soundcheck, and Brandon’s [Brandon Boyd, lead singer of Incubus] room was next to mine. I thought I heard him warming up singing, and I went into the hallway but didn’t hear any sound from his room, so I went back into my room and realized that it was coming from outside.

I opened up my window and 20 floors down there was a mosque, and it was time for prayer, and there was this beautiful singing, shaking the walls and rattling the building. That was when I thought, I am really in a special place, and I am going to experience something that I have to tell my friends back home about. It was amazing.

Do you have any message for your Indonesian fans that I can bring back home?

Sorry we didn’t make it this time. We are trying to get as much in as we can, we have a lot to do right now, but we will get back. If everything goes well, and everyone is healthy and everything stays good in the world, we will definitely be back. Indonesia is a place that’s taken care of us time and time again, and the fans are awesome out there.

This article was first published on March 13, 2015 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.