Chris Kilmore, the longtime DJ and turntablist for the band Incubus, is something of a delightful enigma with charming incongruity.
You can catch Incubus performing on Sept. 6 at the Foellinger Theatre.
From Chickens to Scratching
Kilmore grew up in rural Pennsylvania, closer to cows and chickens than clubs and skyscrapers.
There wasn’t an electronic music scene where Kilmore lived, but as soon as he encountered “scratching” (the sound of a DJ manipulating a vinyl record) in some of the hit songs of the day, he grew determined to find out all he could about that world.
“I think it was my rebellious side,” Kilmore said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “I had a strong curiosity to figure out what was going on and figure out how to DJ.”
Despite his rural surroundings, there was a youth center in Kilmore’s town with a dance floor and a DJ booth.
“I was always hanging out up there,” he said. “There was this DJ named Brandon. His DJ name was B. Coy. He took me under his wing.”
Kilmore began practicing the art of being a DJ, and his first solo gig was an eighth-grade dance.
“I convinced someone to let me do it and I had no clue what I was doing,” he said. “I was just playing records at that one. But they were the right records. That started the snowball rolling.”
After Kilmore moved to the nation’s capital to attend George Washington University, he soon found himself immersed in an immense electronic music scene.
“The place where I grew up wasn’t very diverse,” he said. “So going to DC and to George Washington University was an eye-opening experience, and I embraced all of it.”
Brought into the Band
Kilmore was living paycheck to paycheck on the West Coast when he was serendipitously brought into Incubus’ sphere.
“I drove two hours every day to work in a warehouse,” he said. “I was helping sell Beastie Boys T-shirts, but they weren’t aware of it.”
Kilmore was working with several bands at the time, one of which scored a demo deal with Columbia Records. But after an A&R man came in and fired the band’s longtime manager, Kilmore got cold feet.
This snake in a suit later said that Kilmore wasn’t considered a full member of the band but was seen as only a freelancer. From that point, Kilmore decided that the deal and the band weren’t for him.
The fired manager, with whom Kilmore had maintained a friendship, called him three months later and told him about a band that needed a DJ.
It was Incubus.
Kilmore’s skills as a DJ impressed the band, but what got him hired, he thinks, was his demeanor. Then, just as now, Kilmore was a thoughtful, unflappable, and humble guy who could converse on a variety of topics. The band probably saw him as someone they would be happy to spend a lot of time with.
Kilmore’s first recording project with Incubus was 1999’s Make Yourself, the album that made the band an international phenomenon. It represented a calculated escape from the nu metal world that Incubus had been occupying to a place where they were free to make more interesting and multifarious sounds.
“One of the biggest factors [for what happened with the album] is that we kind of knew what we didn’t want to do,” Kilmore said. “People were telling us, ‘You have to do this.’ Well, we didn’t want to do ‘this’ anymore. We didn’t want to be limited to one tool in the toolkit. We love that tool — we loved playing Ozzfest, but we didn’t want to be limited to Ozzfest.”
Kilmore said no one in the band was prepared for how successful that album would be.
“We were just trying to make the best music that we could,” he recalled.
The band has always worked so hard that it hasn’t always been able to luxuriate in success — or even take much notice of it. Although, Kilmore said he did notice that the band’s audiences at live shows changed after Make Yourself proved successful.
“It used to be all these dudes in the front row wearing black,” he said. “Suddenly, they were in the second row and the front row was all girls.”
Make Yourself had turned lead singer Brandon Boyd into a heartthrob.
Better to Be a Sidekick
One of the things that makes Kilmore unusual among famous rockers is that he has never wanted to be a heartthrob — quite the opposite. Kilmore can’t avoid the spotlight on stage, but he eschews the limelight off it.
“I have no problem not being the lead singer,” he said, laughing.
Kilmore pointed out that many people assume “[...] it would be awesome” to be a Michael Jackson or Britney Spears.
“But if you think about it for ten minutes, you realize, ‘No, it wouldn’t,’” he said. “Trust me, it’s a lot more fun to be Britney Spears’ sidekick.”
Kilmore’s role in the band allows him to enjoy the best of both worlds.
“I play shows, but I can go to a grocery store afterward, or hang out at a mall, or go to a movie,” he said. “I can have a normal life. I see that with Brandon a lot walking through an airport. People come up to him, which is great for me, because I can keep cruising.”
Aside from Kilmore’s comfort in those situations, he feels for Boyd during them.
“Some fans, when they see their idols, they have no chill,” he said. “I dig the role I am in. I like being part of the band. I like touring with friends.
“If I was the guy out front making all the decisions,” Kilmore said, laughing, “I can guarantee we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now.”