Ben Kenney is always raising the bar. With each Incubus record and solo album, he enters uncharted territory by trying new techniques, exploring different genres, or expanding his tonal palette. It’s no surprise, then, that in sessions for his band’s latest EP, Trust Fall (Side A), the 38-year-old decided to go for unorthodox—some might even say gritty and jarring— sounds, pushing his dexterity and pick chops to the limit on the band’s first single, “Absolution Calling.” The rest of the album is no different: Whether he’s doubling guitarist Mike Einzinger on “Dance Like You’re Dumb” or locking in with drummer Jose Pasillas on the slow burner “Make Out Party,” Kenney once again uses his always-growing collection of Lakland basses to mesh melodicism with rhythmic creativity.
Kenney has been a member of the band for 12 years, as long as original bass player Dirk Lance had been before his departure in 2003. Back then, some diehard fans sulked over the lineup change—and the vast differences in two bassists’ playing styles—but Kenny, a self-proclaimed “jack of all trades, master of none,” woodshedded his slap chops to learn Lance’s difficult lines on old songs like “A Certain Shade of Green” and “Redefine,” absorbing his predecessor’s style on the way to forging his own identity.
But that’s not so unexpected from a multi-instrumentalist who commands guitars, bass, drums, and vocals on all his solo material, most recently on 2013’s Leave On Your Makeup. With his evolve-or-die mentality and a penchant for pushing himself to the extremes of his ability, Kenney has succeeded, once again, in taking his approach to another level.
Your tone on this album is dirtier than any sound you’ve gotten in the past.
Going into this record, my main mindset was that I wanted to have bass tones that are completely wrong—in the right way. I wanted to record things out of phase and make my bass really hollow and dirty so that it fit under the guitars, and I got sounds that people wouldn’t normally want on records.
What inspired this drastic change?
It’s a weird time for bass players. The whole vocabulary of music has changed for us—now, every song has huge keyboard bass, and studio mixes make the bass sound so perfect and synthetic. I hate to say it, but it’s almost a novelty now to have real bass on a track. With that in mind, I wanted there to be something defining about my sound, a purpose. So I came in and found some crazy tones that excite me.
How would you describe the new tone you’ve concocted?
Right now, my perfect tone is somewhere between Chris Squire from early-’70s Yes and Mike Dean from Corrosion Of Conformity, around 1994. Mike was filthy in a muddy way and Chris Squire was filthy and bright. In a perfect world, I’d want my tone to be bright and muddy at once. But I’m no longer worried about subsonic frequencies and trying to make that Roland 808-style register drop. That’s for young people [laughs]. I want it to sound like electricity and banging metal together and your worst nightmare.
What was the writing process like for Trust Fall?
Mikey Einzinger got us a room in Hans Zimmer’s giant recording complex in Santa Monica, because Mike has played with Hans before. We even had an engineer from the studio working with us every day. We were in there for a while, writing material and working things out. We’ve been doing a little of everything—jamming, messing with electronic stuff, and trying a lot of different new things. We really appreciated the situation as it was happening.
The bass line for “Absolution Calling” seems like a tricky one to play.
That may be the least fun bass line I’ve ever written. There’s a four-fret stretch at the beginning, and the best way for me to hit it is with a hammer-on that extends as far as my hand can reach. There are definitely other ways to play it, but to get everything to fall where I want, I have to play it with that stretch.
How much freedom does it give you that Incubus is a one-guitar band?
I love it. It’s not an insult when people say that I sometimes play bass like a guitar. Mike and I have developed a relationship where I get to carry a lot of the melodic and harmonic responsibility; I play more chords than most rock bass players. At this level, I get away with a lot of stuff, and I’m on a long leash. If there were another guitar player, I would be quarantined to everything below 400Hz. But I joined a band whose identity was based on bass, and through good fortune and good timing, I’ve been able to make my own identity within that.
A lot of your favorite music is much heavier than Incubus. Is that part of the attraction of playing in this band?
I know what I like and I know what I want to do, but I also know that when I get with these guys, the music that we make reaches way more people than the music I create by myself. Something about giving up and letting go that makes it a bigger thing. I listen to the stuff that we make together, and it sounds more three-dimensional than the music I’ve written by myself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to embrace the fact that the five of us don’t listen to the same music, and it makes us do things that none of us would do by ourselves. And that seems to matter more in the long run.
You’ve been in the band as long as Dirk Lance was. How does that feel?
It’s not without its burden, but the burden only gets lighter. A section of the band’s followers were there because of him. It’s never easy to replace somebody so iconic and so beloved by the bass community. That being said, if not for that, I probably wouldn’t try as hard as I do. But on top of that, I’m going to make damned sure that I’m doing it my way. Dirk was special because he did it his way; that’s what makes anyone special. There are people who can’t let go of that, there are people who celebrate it, but at the end of the day, I just have to be me and do my thing. If I can make myself happy and be proud of what I’m doing, then I’m doing the best I can do.
Did it affect you that so many people were upset when you replaced Dirk?
It was the first time I was forced to look at what a band’s identity means to an audience, and what happens when you change the ingredients. In order to not let it bother me, I had to try to understand where it came from. All of a sudden, people were saying that I was horrible and I should commit suicide, and I had to look at what compels someone to say that. It only reinforced my belief that under any circumstance, I have to do what I feel is right.
What do you think of Dirk’s playing?
There are aspects of his playing that are really cool; obviously, I would make different choices. But I have a huge respect for what he was able to do. There’s been no other bass player who has directly influenced me as much—I’ve built my place in this band off everything he’s done. My first tour with Incubus consisted of three songs with my bass lines and 30 with his. Had I not been in Incubus, I would have enjoyed his playing, but I don’t think I would have ever studied it.
Early on, you used picked lines in place of his slap riffs, but a few years later, you added that technique to your repertoire. Why?
We got amped up for that tour, and we wanted to crush everything. The next step for me, which should have been the first step, was learning how to do it the right way before I did it my way. Mikey is actually a ferocious slap bass player, so he coached me through a lot of that stuff and gave me a lot of direction. At the time, it was exciting, and it was a new way to play those bass lines for me on songs like “Redefine” and “A Certain Shade of Green.” I’m always going to keep exploring and finding new ways to play things. Who knows— one day you might see me up there with a Chapman Stick and some test tubes on my fingers like Tony Levin [laughs].
Do you approach writing bass lines differently for your solo music than you do for Incubus?
It’s the whole action vs. reaction thing. A lot of what I do in Incubus is react. Mikey will put down something, and I’ll play parts that respond to his guitar. Then I look at the holes and see if there are places inside the holes that I can fill. With my stuff, I’ll write a bass line, and then everything I’m doing is reacting to my own bass line. Incubus has gotten to be a balance of bass and guitar, and those two things doing a lot of work to make the parts move. When I put together my own parts, I’m never sure which part is going to take the lead.
What have you been working on lately in your personal practice?
For overall musical improvement, I want to understand what I can and cannot get better at. Then I need to figure out which of those things I want to pursue and explore. As strange as it sounds, there are different progressions I’m trying to understand melodically and harmonically, and I’m trying to look at what I default to; I want to make sure I’m not saying the same things over and over again with my instrument. I always want to learn how to say more and explore more. I always want to be expanding my vocabulary.
So how do you apply that?
Lately, I’ll just put on a piece of classical music and try to solo over it. There are lots of spots where I’m clearly not swimming in the same sea as those composers, but within that, I can find a melody, a rhythm, or a chord movement that might spark something in me or teach me something new.
What would the fearlessly hungry Ben who was cutting his teeth in Philly think of Ben as a musician now?
Oh, he’d hate him. The 22-year-old me would be quick to judge 38-year-old me. He’d hate him because the things that were most important for me to learn were also the things that were the hardest to learn. The things I’ve learned—the things that inspire change and influence who I am—they weren’t fun things to learn, because the fun ones always left me the same. Trying things made me who I am.
Incubus, Trust Fall (Side A) [2015, Island]
Bass Lakland Joe Osborn 55-94, Lakland Joe Osborn (in drop D tuning), Lakland Hollowbody 30
Rig Two Mesa-Boogie Big Block 750 heads, two Mesa-Boogie Powerhouse 8x10 cabs
Pedals Dunlop 105Q Cry Baby Bass Wah, Seymour Duncan Studio Bass Compressor, Mesa-Boogie Flux-Five Overdrive, Boss OC-2 Octave, Ibanez CS-9 Chorus
Strings Thomastik-Infeld flat-wounds and roundwounds