Following a five year gap since their last release ‘Light Grenades’, Red Hot Velvet’s Matt Goodwin caught up with Ben Kenney, Chris Kilmore and Jose Passilas from Incubus ahead of a live date in London and the release of their sixth studio album ‘If Not Now, When?’
RHV: So are you guys looking forward to playing the show in London tomorrow?
All: Yeah! (coupled with various excited variations of that response)
RHV: Have you had much preparation for the tour?
JP: Yeah, we’ve been putting some time in.
RHV: Are there any routines or regimes you go through to get ready for a tour? I’m thinking rock squats, cock push-ups, anything like that..?
CK: We do some push-ups, down some protein shakes (laughs), no we play a lot because we have a lot of songs, and you know, taking a year off followed by a little short tour and then another year off..
BK: (interjects) It’s like starting all over again..
CK: Yeah it is, but a lot of it’s muscle memory and it’ll come back, but for some of the songs it doesn’t instantly come back, and I’m like (imitates being puzzled at a keyboard) ‘how did I do that?’
JP: Yeah you gotta work a little harder.
RHV: Did you go through your entire repertoire when you first get back together?
BK: Yeah, we call it the Incubus challenge; we just throw the songs out there and figure them out.
RHV: How much time has it been long since you got back together?
JP: It’s been a couple of months since we’ve been practicing for the tour. Last August we got back together properly, was it August 1st?
CK: Back in August to write the record was when we came together, but for this tour just the last couple of months.
RHV: At what point whilst the band were on hiatus did you collectively think ‘It’s time to get back together’?
JP: When Mike got back from school, which was June 1st, that was sort of our target date to get back together.
RHV: On ‘If Not Now, When?’ it sounds as though you have, almost characteristically, evolved your sound yet again. Is that something that you are conscious of and try to achieve for every record?
BK: Sort of, I mean we have great examples of what we’ve done in the past to replicate. There are obviously similarities that bridge the gap, but we don’t try to conceptualize a record or anything, we know what we’ve done already and always try to do something new.
RHV: Have you ever had to pause when writing for a new album, and consider how much of a big step in a different direction you are taking musically, and how the fans were going to react?
BK: Oh yeah!
CK: This record (laughs)! The last one too yeah..
BK: It’s like we start having fun, and you stop and check and it’s like “wait a second, is this OK?” And then it’s like “Cummon we’re having fun, lets keep going.”
RHV: Do you ever take on board criticism from fans, or any of their remarks on new albums?
BK: Not really, I mean from my perspective, we only write music to satisfy ourselves. We love to play and we’ve been fortunate to have people follow us and have really great and successful records. But, for the most part it’s to entertain each other and write music that we like to play.
RHV: So what was the reason behind the band going on hiatus back in 2008?
BK: Needing to evolve. Being with music is a creative thing and requires a certain amount of creativity – to just keep going back to that well over and over again, it doesn’t have a chance to replenish. Having a little time off, getting into other things for a little bit and getting out of the cycle gives us time to come back to life, to become inspired again.
RHV: Mike and Brandon used the time to focus on education, with Mike in Harvard and Brandon spending time at Art College. How did you use the time?
CK: For me, I was evolving as a DJ, as a person, and took a lot of piano lessons and did a lot of learning keyboards. I made a lot of music, but it just sits at home, it’s not for everybody, it’s just for me as a learning process. A lot of practicing, I’d be playing music every single day, keys every single day. I was scratching a little bit, but mostly keys, because my role in this band has kind of evolved. So to pick up a new instrument and learn it in a few years was hard to do.
RHV: How’s it going playing keys in a live environment, with it being such a new instrument to you, do you ever get nervous?
CK: Yeah, I hit a few flumps now and again, but we all do (laughs). I try not to do anything in front of people that I know is gunna be bad. I’m really serious and focused about it, that’s what the rehearsals are for, hitting all those wrong notes. But I have questions, and there is a lot of people around me that I can ask, this guy right here (points to Ben) is an incredible musician, Mike is an incredible musician and composer, and if I need something explained or helped with, I don’t have to go far to get an answer.
RHV: Were any of your experiences through taking time away from the band reflected in the record?
JP: Probably in an indirect way, sure, but we’re all just growing as people, evolving as people, so when we come together after a certain amount of time of just learning and growing it’s going to come out indirectly and into the music. Hence this new record, it’s different, it’s new..
BK: There’s no way we could have written this record a few years ago.
All: (mutual head nodding)
RHV: If you went straight into writing a new album following Light Grenades, what do you think you would have come out with?
CK: Light Grenades II.
JP: Something different, something between that and what we put out this time, you don’t really know until you do it.
RHV: There is an introduction of orchestrations and string sections in the new album. Was Mike’s experience at Harvard a big influence?
BK: He definitely got busy with the strings stuff, but other than that I think it had more of a subconscious effect than a conscious effect.
JP: Yeah, whatever that did to him came out in his guitar playing and his writing.
RHV: A video emerged back in early 2010 after Mike and Brandon spoke at Oxford University, and they performed Tomorrow’s Food, the closing track on the new album. How long did you spend writing this album?
BK: Bits and pieces of it go back a while, some of it all the way back from just finishing the previous record. When we set out to do something, everything gets brought in and considered, everything gets a pass.
RHV: How do you go about writing a song, do you have a process?
BK: It usually starts with Mike on a guitar riff, and he will take that guitar riff and pass it by Brandon, and if Brandon is excited about it and starts writing melodies, then we all get together and start filling in the rest of the music. Then we start arranging, and it becomes a process of reduction, we throw everything at it, and then start stripping everything away. Then we go in the studio and our producer goes over it with a comb.
RHV: That would be Brendan O’Brien. What was it like having him back behind the desk?
CK: Outta control!
JP: He’s kind of like a sixth member. He’s a great musician and he’s just got this talent for producing. He can hear something and just get it, he just adds to what we’re trying to achieve and he’s really good at what he does.
CK: He’s good at keeping the ball rolling. When we’re in the studio he’s pretty focused, he doesn’t like to have a lot of downtime. He’s just like “OK, what’s next, OK, what’s next!”
RHV: Sounds pretty gruelling.
BK: Without him we would get nothing done! Without him we would still be in the studio right now.
RHV: Does he have a lot of input in the creative process?
CK: Absolutely, but you know, we let him because his input is important.
BK: And objective too.
CK: He’s much more objective than us. Sometimes if we don’t like something we’re like (puts on a hesitant voice) “aaahhhh, we can’t go on that” but he’s usually cool with it.
RHV: Do you think it’s important to have another voice from outside of the band?
CK: You need that, you need that.
BK: It’s like going to the principle and trying to get your opinion across. He’s like a mediator.
RHV: At what point when writing for the new album did you pinpoint the new sound you were going for?
BK: When we were trying to figure out an order for the songs. The sound, the overall feel, I don’t think anybody really had an idea that it was going to turn out the way it did. Everything was “Let’s see it through” and get to the end of it, then put it together and look at it, you know? It wasn’t as though we sat down in August and were like, “And then there is going to be this part here which is like this.” We just chased it and it arrived.
RHV: Now, I’ve got to get this off of my chest, I’ve pre-ordered the album, but I might have, possibly, already had a sneaky little listen. Just a tiny one..
BK: I wanna see the receipt!
RHV: What were your initial reactions when you found out that the album had leaked?
JP: Well, you know, it was inevitable; we all kinda knew it was going to happen at some point. At first, it was upsetting. You’ve put the hard work into something and to know that it has just been stolen from you hurt a little bit, but it’s inevitable and it’s an indication that people want your record. It’s happened every time and to most records that are wanted it’s going to happen.
RHV: What is your stance on music piracy, other than the recent release, has it noticeably affected you?
BK: It’s what happens these days. If you make a record, people want to hear it and people are going to get it. It’s just a different world and a different industry; some of the ways the record selling business works are from the 70s. It’s not the 70s anymore. You have to change your attitude; you have to change your perspective. This is what happens when you make a record, people want it; it’s as simple as that. We don’t have the luxury to like it or not like it, we can’t change it.
CK: They wanted to put the record out in September, and when I first heard that I was like “Are you kidding me?”
BK: People in Africa would have gotten the leak by then!
JP: I think that the record label thought that we wouldn’t be done with it as quickly as we were done with it. It was only two or three weeks after we had finished the record that the leak happened. It was a really short period of time, the first single only came out two or three weeks after we mastered the record.
BK: And that still wasn’t fast enough.
RHV: Have you got any other thoughts on the changes facing the music industry?
CK: I think it (the album leak) definitely affects my thoughts on it. I think if I were in a band that was just starting out, and I was relying on my record sales to make money, that would really affect me and I would be really pissed off. But we’re an established touring band, and we tour for fans and people come out and see us play music. Selling records is kind of a side bar, because selling CDs is becoming a thing of the past now. So when the record got leaked I was like, “Ah fuck it, arggghh,” and you just think, well these people want to hear it. And guys like you – and I’m guilty of it as well – when there’s something on the internet that I can download, I’ll download it. I’ll still go out and buy the record when it comes out, but if all of my buddies have this record already that isn’t even out yet, then what am I supposed to do?
RHV: (guiltily, but trying to convey a sense of honesty) That was my exact situation..
CK: I’m still going to buy it, so it’s OK if I get it now. And that’s kind of a self-regulating thing that I impose on myself. There are a lot of people who don’t go and buy the record later, but being an artist I know that buying the record is so important to the artist.
RHV: What would your advice be to new bands facing the challenge of getting noticed today?
JP: Good question, I can clearly think of what I would tell a band, I’d say if you are trying to make money, go to college, get a job. If you are trying to make music, prepare to be broke and frustrated. The few people that get noticed are trying to make money, and they’re going through a pinhole on the broadside of a bar to get in, and unless you have something that is exceptionally better than anything that has happened before, you’re going to struggle and suffer for your art. If you want to make money, go to college and get a job. If you want to be famous, pull some stunts. If you want to make music, be prepared to suffer and really have your love for your music tested.
RHV: That’s great advice, (looks at both the other two who remain silent), yeah, I wouldn’t be able to follow a speech like that either..
CK: (laughs) That’s a realistic point of view right there.
RHV: Lastly, are there any new bands that you could recommend to the Red Hot Velvet readers?
BK: The Jai-Alai Savant. They’re this rad band from Philly that play this strange punk/reggae stuff that is trashy and dirty, and it’s just fun. I listen to it and it makes me feel good, but on paper, the description of music sounds like something that I would be scared of, but I listen to this record and I feel happy.
CK: I’ve been rockin’ the new Stephen Marley record, it’s pretty good. The record is Revelation Part I, he’s got Baju Banton on it, Spragga Benz, Ziggy. If you’re into reggae, it’s a great record.
JP: I just bought Paul Simon’s new record. It’s pretty cool man, it’s kind of like his 80s style music, it’s really cool.
The new Incubus album ‘If Not Now, When?’ is released on 11th July 2011