It’s the rare musician who can seamlessly parlay a membership in one of hip-hop’s most influential groupings to a permanent spot among some real-life rock heavyweights. Add to that an impressive solo discography, a handful of still-active side projects, and a fully functional record company, and one might begin to get a glimpse into a day in the life of Ben Kenney.
Amid his short stint with Philadelphia’s The Roots in 2002, Kenney began traveling in similar circles to the Calabasas-based alt-rockers of Incubus. “I met all the guys when I was playing with The Roots,” Kenney recalled. “We all got along really well and ended up staying in touch [after the Area 51 Tour]. When Mike [Einziger] would come back into town I remember telling him, ‘We gotta do something together, we gotta bug out :’” Jam sessions followed and, after touring ended for 2002’s Phrenology, Kenney and his newfound Left Coast buddies were reunited again. During a much-needed break following a two-year stint on the road, Incubus’s guitarist, Mike Einziger, and drummer, Jose Pasillas, snagged Kenney to play bass in their delightfully trippy side project Time Lapse Consortium. The band’s one-night-only gig at Hollywood’s Roxy Theater would go on to not only sell out, but move 10,000 limited-edition live recordings that were made available online. Since then, fans have not heard so much as a peep out of the group, but Kenney insists that the band has not died. “Mike, Jose, Neal Evans, and I have gotten back together a bunch of times,” he explained. “The good thing for us-and the bad thing for everyone else-is that there’s no time frame. It’s all in the name of having a good time : We have more stuff. The recordings exist. And I’m sure if we all died in a train crash they’d all come out.”
Since that fateful night at the Roxy, Kenney has inserted himself into Incubus proper, taking the place of then-bassist Alex Katunich and bringing what many critics say is a decidedly hip-hop edge to the band’s overall sound.
Currently on break from a whirlwind touring schedule (the band heads to Australia in February), Kenney has decided to devote most of this month to hitting the road (alongside fellow bandmember DJ Chris Kilmore) with his own songs, in support of the soon-to-be-released Distance and Comfort, which is scheduled to hit shelves in early February on Kenney’s own Ghettocrush label. “It’s the smallest operation in the universe,” he said of the label. “It’s me and my friends and we run things out of my garage. I mean, we don’t really do anything. That’s the beauty of it, because the whole thing is completely voluntary. I’m not looking for artists that will sell. We’ve got artists on there like my friend Colin, who plays music that’s just really good. It’s not necessarily something that’s going to bring in a lot of money, but we have it, and it’s there, and it’s available now for people to enjoy.”
As the writer, producer, vocalist, lone instrumentalist, and record exec for his own projects, Kenney thought that the difference between writing with the band and writing solo is a great one. “There’s times when it’s easier and there’s times when you wish there was someone else in the room to bounce ideas off of. My best contribution [to the band] is to be the foil to Mikey,” he enthused. “When you’re writing alone, there’s times where you get emotionally attached and you’re by yourself with no one around to tell you or give you feedback. If you believe in yourself, you get it done. But the greatest thing is to have both of them.”
Similarly, translating his solo work from the recording studio to a live venue requires a bit of masterminding-and a lot of trust on the part of Kenney. “On this tour, I play with a trio,” he explained. “In most of my bands I play with, it’s all music I’ve written. I’m just lucky in that the people I play with are great. They enhance and extend the potential of everything I do : It becomes a platform for me to lose my inhibitions and just freak out.”
Kenney’s enthusiasm about music-whether it be playing, writing, or simply chatting about the nature of the biz-is infectious, and something that should come as no real surprise, given his level of commitment. “All I do every day is just play music-everything else is just a hobby,” he laughed. “I really try to not let it stop. I think that’s my biggest concern-I worry that one day it’ll all just stop.”
Luckily, Kenney has no chance of stopping, or even slowing down, anytime soon. He heads out on a West Coast tour on Thursday, January 17, and stops by SOhO on Sunday, January 20, before returning home for a month, then rejoining the boys for an overseas jaunt with Orange County’s punk rock pioneers, The Offspring. It begs the question, How does a club tour compare to hitting the festival circuit? “I mean, I love touring on the big scale with the bus, and the comfort. But I like that it’s not out of the question to jump in the van, head out, play some shows, and shower when you’re lucky,” Kenney laughed. Needless to say, the man has a penchant for dividing his time and keeping a refreshingly level head about the whole rock star thing. “We’ve got five guys and we’re working really hard and everyone’s watching. But I want to be able to be doing something here, something there,” he explained. “I think the key to [Incubus’s] longevity is that everyone respects that the band is bigger than any of us as individuals. It’s way bigger than we can wrap our heads around. And as long as we know that, we’ll be okay.”
Incubus’s Ben Kenney and DJ Kilmore head to SOhO (1221 State St.) on Sunday, January 20, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling 962-7776.