BY SAM PRYOR
With its first new album in five years, Incubus looks to reclaim the flame with a raw, urgent record that puts the spotlight on Jose Pasillas’ groove machinery.
Oh, the life of the multiplatinum rock band in the year 2011. In an age when true rock bands are like true heroes — hard to find — California quintet Incubus continues to make its own mold and explode it at will. While the band’s last album, 2006’s Light Grenades, drew on the then-popular currency of RATMesque aggro rock (“Rogues,” “A Kiss To Send Us Off”).
Primus-inspired experimentalism (“Pendulous Threads”), and good old-fashioned hit-making machinery (“Dig”), the band’s new product, If Not Now, When?, sounds like a reflection of the modern era — a treatise on universal angst and peace-’n’-love solutions.
Soaring over guitarist Mike Einziger’s wide-open-spaces arena rock, singer Brandon Boyd channels his inner love child into self-concerned lyrics that cover everything from the end of the world (“Tomorrow’s Food”) to “the path of least resistance” (“Promises, Promises”). It’s a whole new Incubus, the band enjoying the grandeur of middle-of-the-road rock expressed in ginormous, feel-good grooves that eschew complexity and aggression for a cool blast of circular rhythm hypnosis.
For his part, drummer Jose Pasillas has never sounded so sure-footed, so deep in the pocket, so groovalicious and into pure rhythm. Where Light Grenades practically offered a different Pasillas on each track, If Not Now, When? is the sound of a drummer supremely comfortable in his own consistency, playing it simple, playing it powerful, and ultimately, playing for the music.
“The music itself lent to a deeper sort of groove,” Pasillas says from his home in Calabasas, California. “When we were recording, I was basically following the music. The music I heard this time was very cinematic, very lush, and it just called for those grooves. It was easy just to lay into a really deep groove and create a solid platform for the vocals and the melodies. That was my approach for the whole record.”
To Machine Or Not To Machine…
Pasillas creates a lush tapestry throughout the album, his pulse slightly laid-back, his sound as fat as Don Henley channeling Bernard Purdie, and his use of repetition as a rhythmic device, classic.
“It’s a different way of thinking,” Pasillas acknowledges. “I wasn’t dissecting it that much. I would find a groove that I thought was good. Then there were moments where I felt like I could do a fill or maybe loosen it up a little bit, but for the most part I was listening to the vocals and really laying a solid foundation from the rhythm section. We laid the most solid foundation for amazing melodies and amazing lyrics. This is really a vocal record, and we laid a beautiful path for Brandon to do whatever he does on top of it.”
But far from a simple less-is-more approach, Pasillas, assisted by producer Brendan O’Brien, often created the final drum part from multiple takes, or used an old ’80s drum machine as a rhythmic bed.
“In a couple songs I am playing beats that are layered on top of each other,” he explains. “But it’s not necessarily less–is-more all the time. The groove in ‘Friends And Lovers’ has this shuffle, it sounds really simple but it’s a forward-moving shuffle, which is really fun to play. It’s not just a very simple beat. And there are tom fills at the tail end on top of the groove there. Although it sounds like it’s very stripped down there are things going on, but the way it’s presented it sounds more downplayed.
“We were just messing around with different sounds,” he adds. “We weren’t really sure what would stick, so I just tried a few different things. Sometimes we heard them together, and they worked well like that. On ‘In The Company Of Wolves’ there’s a marching snare drum section — that was recorded in a very small room, while the main groove was recorded in a really big tracking room.”
And while Pasillas wasn’t a fan of the drum machine O’Brien brought into the sessions, a team player to the end, he complied.
“We played with a click track produced by that old drum machine,” Pasillas recalls. “We played with that a lot to fill in the grooves. This was Brendan’s idea. It often made it into the songs. It’s in most of the songs somewhere: in the beginning of ‘Thieves,’ and the affected drum machine sound in ‘The Original.’ It looked like a square 9×9 toy. It’s all little buttons — 100 of them — and each one had a different effect. You put it on any tempo and it will go across the buttons, and whichever one you push it will mimic that noise, in time. It’s like an old ’80s cheesy drum machine. But I didn’t care for it. To play with it is one thing; to keep it in the recording was another. I wasn’t a fan of it.”
Machine-assisted or not, little deters from the sheer luxuriousness of Pasillas’ pocket. From the pulsing shuffle of ‘Thieves,’ to the Stewart Copeland–styled groove of ‘The Original,’ the super funk of “Switch Blade,” and the album’s most aggro track, ‘Adolescents’ (propelled by sweltering open hi-hat work in 6/8), Pasillas’ power and groove are impossible to deny. And unlike his concert work, which is exclusively delivered on his DW kit, Pasillas followed O’Brien’s directive to use the producer’s classic 1960s kits, including some Black Beauty snare drums, and cymbals so ancient and weathered their brand names were worn off.
“We usually record the body of the kit — usually a 22″ or 24″ kick, a 10″ and 12″ rack tom, and a 14″ and 16″ floor tom,” Pasillas explains. “They stay the same for the majority of the record and then we’ll change out snares and cymbals. Snare drums get changed from song to song. I am not even sure what they were — a couple Black Beauties, some 3″ x 15″ snare, a no-name beat-up snare from the ’60s. There’s no names on a lot of his cymbals, too, but they just sound good.
“When it comes to live, I am in control of everything I am playing. That’s a different world. I recorded a couple records this past year with my DW kit for a friend’s project, but it’s a more contemporary sound. Using these old drums, you get this old warm wood sound. We like that plush sound for our records.”
And of course, back in Calabasas, Pasillas’ personal kit fills an entire rehearsal room, where he practices to music of every era.
“I have my DWs upstairs, where I play all the time,” he says. “I play with my iPod, a freeform jam. I shuffle with what comes up. Could be Gypsy Kings, Fugazi, Jackson Five, Jamiroquai, Jay Z, Jeff Buckley, Led Zeppelin, Louie Armstrong. I have a DW tour kit set up and a stripped-down 5-piece, the classic kit from DW that emulates an old Ludwig kit from the ’70s. I do focus on technique, and sort of break down parts I need to work on — a little bit of everything. Or I work on rudiments.”
In Pasillas’ 2006 DRUM! cover story, he revealed some studio tricks he used to achieve certain sounds. Layering drumheads figured prominently into his fat, cushy snare drum sound.
“That’s a staple,” he says. “I will get a bottom snare head and cut it in half. Or I will cut a ring. I put that on the top head and it changes the sound. The stick lands on the regular head, not the extra head. I don’t tape it down. I even do it live. I will take half a head and put in on my snare. It slaps around sometimes and if I’m not watching I might hit it and it will fly off. But just being conscious of it helps avoid that. I’m focusing on hitting the drum in the right spot. It dampens the head a little bit, makes a thick sound. A lot of funk drummers from the ’70s would put a towel on the snare; it has the same effect. Putting a towel on it dampens it like crazy. But it’s a different sound. Those snare sounds from the ’70s are big and thick and that’s a lot of it. But we did that on a quarter of the songs. It’s those little tricks to find a different sound for a part, but not completely different and drastic. We’ll add a dampener, maybe put a tambourine on a snare drum. I play rimshots most of the time.”
Unlike some mid-height drummers who might prefer to look over the kits, and perhaps raise their visual stature, 5’ 5” Pasillas goes as low as possible, even castrating the legs of drum thrones to place his center of gravity practically on the floor.
“When they send my seats we have to cut them down,” he says. “When I record, usually we will have drums carted, and I always leave the set however they’ve left it. It’s never going to be my own kit. And I can pretty much play any kit comfortably. I just play it the way it is. I am always going to be uncomfortable on another kit. I can’t set them up the way I have my DW kit. My kit is so low; I have a custom seat, so nothing’s ever going to match my DW live setup. Playing live I wouldn’t be comfortable playing a set that’s not mine. But I can record a record with the way they set up the kit.”
But when recording, doesn’t he want to dial it in and make it as perfect as possible? Not adjusting a kit to suit your physical requirements seems like creating unnecessary obstacles.
“I’m comfortable,” Pasillas replies. “I can play a set like that and be totally cool. It’s this personal challenge to conquer [the drums] anywhere I’m sitting. I look at it like that in the studio, too. If there is a cymbal I can’t reach I will move it. If there’s a tom that’s too flat I will move it. But I don’t spend a lot of time moving the drums around.”
Pasillas tilts his snare drum to get a rimshot, and though he sits low, he generally uses a heel-up approach on the bass drum pedal.
“If I am playing soft, it’s heel down,” he says. “But our music is pretty hard-hitting usually. To get the drums to sound right you need a certain amount of force. I am not playing heavy handed but I am putting some force into it. ‘Anna Molly’ was smashing. ‘Adolescents’ is the most aggressive song on the record. There I am using some force cause I am really into the song. But it’s not killing it. None of these songs called for smashing down.”
Recording Now, That’s When
Unlike past Incubus records where the band spent weeks in preproduction planning parts and arrangements, If Not Now, When? was all about capturing a moment in time, as quickly as possible. Songs were written in the studio, tracked, and put to bed in usually a couple of days, max.
“We literally went in, Mike would show us a guitar part, we’d work it out for an hour or so, then we’d put down bass and drums and guitar and move on,” Pasillas recalls. “We did that for the whole record. We usually leave a couple songs for that ‘in-the-studio’ vibe, but this time we cut the entire record like that. It was fun, a change of pace, and we welcomed it. I usually like to sit with my parts for a while, but I welcomed this challenge. It was about getting that first gut feeling of what the part should be and going for it.”
Typically, Mike Einziger recorded a scratch guitar part, then Pasillas and bassist Ben Kenney locked in their parts to the scratch (Incubus includes Chris Kilmore on turntables/keyboards). Vocals and percussion were added over that. Edited drum parts occurred between takes. Admitting that “getting a 100 percent comfortable take wasn’t going to be there,” Pasillas enjoyed drumming in the great unknown. With 16 years as a band and seven albums under its belt, Incubus felt a new approach was in order.
“We wanted to push the envelope and get out of our comfort zone,” Pasillas says. “We did that by going in almost feeling unprepared and just going with it. We got a really cool result.”
Sounding more relaxed and confident than ever, Pasillas tracked Incubus’ latest not like his life depended on it, but like it was just another element in the art that is his life. (Pasillas is also a successful designer and painter). Second track “Promises, Promises” sounds like a genre-splitting hit track from the 1970s, but it was anything but easy to record.
“That was sort of a pain,” he laughs. “I heard the 1 in a totally different place than where it was meant. When I started playing it, I was playing to the guitar and bass, but I couldn’t find the 1. It was so strange. I was just trying to get a really simple beat. What you hear is the beat that stuck. It had a really good groove. It only changed in the prechorus where I go to the floor tom. It was a simple, fat beat. I don’t move my body too much in these slower songs, but it’s coming from my gut. I feel it go literally through my body, through my legs and arms. It is from the body, even though it doesn’t look like it.”
“Friends And Lovers” slips and slides, Pasillas’ glistening open hi-hat and skipping snare part propelling the song like a gazelle. Kettle drums add an extra kick.
“When I first heard that guitar part I’d already been playing that particular beat for a long time,” he says. “I remember I just sat down and started playing that beat. Brandon said, ‘Remember that beat for ‘Friends And Lovers.’ It’s a really cool groove with a lot of notes and it worked perfectly. We did that in Nashville, and Brendan O’Brien wanted me to play the kettle drums there as well.”
Unlike the album’s other tracks, “Switch Blade” sounds old-school, like Incubus jammed it out in a hot sweaty room and hit record. But, again, not all is as it appears.
“Mike recorded the essence of that beat at home, just a drum loop,” Pasillas explains. “I recorded the drums and looped that idea. It’s a computer-driven song. There are three loops in the same beat layered in that song: one from Mike’s house, and we threw it on top of the one I did at the studio. That was very much cut and paste and everyone played on top of it. But it’s all me playing.”
Facing The Future
When not drumming, Pasillas, like singer Brandon Boyd, can be found painting on large, mixed-medium canvases. He’s created album covers, extended Photoshop works, T-shirt designs for Incubus, and more. But nothing’s for sale. Not yet. Incubus’ Hollywood merchandise store, which also doubles as a venue for private performances, will possibly sell his works, which are inspired by (but which in no way resemble) the rarefied art of Maxfield Parrish and Alphonse Mucha.
After 13 million albums sold, and a musical change of direction that could either strike a universal chord or simply lay an egg — given the band’s lengthy hiatus — Pasillas muses philosophical about the future.
“We toured behind Light Grenades, and we spent so much time on the road. Only since we got off the road from Light Grenades have we planted roots at home. We’ve had some successful records. We needed to go away for a while. Mike went to school. We did our greatest hits record. I had a daughter, so I was home. We wanted to enjoy our lives. We all have grown musically and personally in the last few years — me starting a family and painting. We’re all different people. We’re not the same band from Light Grenades. Now we’re going to push this record. We’re all different now.”
Drums DW (Gold Sparkle)
1 20″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2 14″ x 7.5″ Rocket Shell Snare Drum (or DW Edge Snare)
3 12″ x 4″ Metal Snare
4 8″ x 5″ Tom
5 10″ x 5″ Tom
6 12″ x 6″ Tom
7 16″ x 13″ Floor Tom
8 18″ x 14″ Floor Tom
A 13″ Evolution Hi-Hat
B 10″ HH China Kang
C 8″ AAX Splash
D 10″ AAX Splash
E 12″ Evolution Splash
F 21″ HH Vintage Ride
G 22″ Crash Prototype
H 21″ HH Raw Bell Dry Ride
I 18″ HHX Chinese
J 21″ AAX Studio Ride
Jose Pasillas also uses DW 9000 series hardware and pedals, Pro-Mark sticks, and Remo heads (Emperor Clear on all tom batters, Emperor Coated on snare batter, Powerstroke 3 on kick batter, and Ambassador Clear on all resonant-side heads).
Next page: A Jose Pasillas drum lesson
Inside The Pasillas Pocket
Incubus’ latest release, If Not Now, When?, features more of drummer Jose Pasillas’ solid pocket drumming and a bit less of the unconventional groove approaches we’ve come to love on the band’s earlier discs. Fortunately, there’s still a taste of that here for us die-hard fans of his drumming.
This track almost sounds like it’s in an odd-time due to the way the bass and guitar interact with Pasillas’ straight-ahead part. There are eighth-note accents within his sixteenth-note hi-hat part that help the verse groove hard. In the next section, he rides his floor tom and throws in a tasty groove fill in the last bar.
This transcription starts at the end of the intro leading into the funky verse. For this section Pasillas plays a driving funk groove but adds his unique touch to it by substituting the anticipated backbeat on count 4 of the last measure with an extra pair of bass drum notes.
This funky groove reminds me of old-school Incubus. The mixer compressed the room mikes heavily to make the groove pump.
This slow and funky 12/8 groove starts with a nice fill to lead into the verse. Pasillas plays a syncopated bass drum pattern and is also accenting the hi-hat so heavily on the eighth-notes that the notes in between them are nearly inaudible. This technique makes his groove feel much deeper.