“It gets more challenging the further along we go” – Brandon Boyd
“Has it been six years since our last headlining tour?” asked a shocked Brandon Boyd, frontman for Calabasas’ Incubus. “That’s crazy. We’re really looking forward to coming back there for the obvious reasons. This band really loves Australia and I think we can all agree that we wish it wasn’t so far away or we would come here more often. Australia is very much… it’s like a sister culture to us in a lot of ways. Where we’re from in California feels like a lot of places that we’ve been to in Australia so when we go there it really doesn’t feel like we’re thousands of miles away. It feels like a second home so it’s always a pleasure to come and visit you guys.”
Incubus hit our shores for an East Coast tour starting in Melbourne on March 9, with Boyd admitting one of the more difficult things with their performances after more than a quarter of a century together is coming up with a setlist that pleases everyone.
“It gets more challenging the further along we go,” he laughed, “but it’s cool because we kind of balance the set in a way where we’re picking a bunch of songs we kind of know people wanna hear and we kinda tease parts of songs we know people wanna hear then we’ll kind of fuck them up a little bit and keep them interesting for ourselves (laughs). Then we also like to create events and weird little unexpected moments in the set, such as an unexpected version of somebody else’s song – which is really fun by the way, playing other people’s music – but it’s a healthy mix of our original material that got people interested in our band all the way up to our newest material and everything in between. We love the idea of taking the audience on a journey with us for two hours.”
From the outset Incubus have refused to conform to musical expectations, preferring to let nature take its’ course when creating music. It is a stance that has seen them break new musical ground and direction with every album and one which Boyd insists is borne out of a common love for music in its purest incarnation.
“I remember when we first started this band it was 1991 and I remember just loving the way that it felt to sing at the top of my lungs and play loud music with my buddies who I would go and surf and skate with,” he recalled. “It just felt like a logical progression in our friendship and I personally did not have expectations of it becoming a career. I think that Mike Einziger, our illustrious guitar player, if you asked him he would probably tell you that he had a plan for us – he’s much savvier in that department (laughs) – but I was just flying by the seat of my pants and it felt like I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just loved to write songs and Mike loved to play the guitar and Jose loved to play the drums so I just felt like we were… we had been surfing and we had been skating – which we still do now – and it was a case of let’s go make music, let’s play loud music and it just slowly but surely turned into something much, much bigger than I think I could have ever anticipated. Once again, if you ask Mikey he would tell you, oh yeah, I always knew we were gonna have a career (laughs). As a result of not having that expectation, I have been almost twenty-seven years with this band and I’m still in a happy state of shock. I’m happily surprised all the time. I can’t believe this is our job.”
When looking back at the formative years of Incubus Boyd reveals that their eclectic style was not something that was deliberately intended to shake up the foundations of the climate at the time, it was more a case of a group of fledgling musicians and friends doing what felt natural with no thought for acceptance.
“I feel like one of the driving forces of our band initially was the fact that we weren’t trying to be something musically, we just didn’t really fit in,” he mused. “The music that we wanted to make… our original music – as our older listeners can attest to – was kind of like a Frankenstein version of Primus meets Red Hot Chilli Peppers meets Mr. Bungle meets Rage Against the Machine meets Pearl Jam meets Alice in Chains. All these different influences come from all these different bands and we loved that music and that music was popular around the country but in Southern California, in the early 90’s it was all goth so every time we would get on a show where we were opening for bands people would stare at us (laughs). It ended up being strangely motivating, like, you WILL like us and we’re gonna keep doing the music we wanna do and you’re gonna like us god damn it! (laughs). We stuck to our guns and probably just out of tenacity and a shitload of practice we ended up getting good and eventually people started liking us.”
Incubus’ early albums, particularly S.C.I.E.N.C.E were full of anger, dripping with a malevolent intensity that has faded from their more recent offerings. While Boyd admits the band have mellowed over the course of their career he attributes this more to natural progression rather than a conscious decision to tone things down.
“There was a lot more hormones and things like that when we were young men,” he shrugged. “We were also discovering pot and caffeine and a mixture of the two – it’s still a fantastic mixture pot and caffeine, it’s the greatest drug ever made (laughs) – but it makes for great songwriting strangely enough. As we’ve grown up and we continue to evolve as a band I think that we’ve always had a presence in our group where we’re allowed to morph and change. We’ll never hold each other to an original version of ourselves. Human beings are dynamic animals and we want to grow and change and evolve so in this band creatively we’ve always encouraged each other to keep moving because I think that probably more than anything has been the driving force in the evolution of this band. We don’t wanna do the same thing over and over again. Our hardest, hardcore listeners appreciate that I think.”
Despite sewing the seeds for a cult-like fan base with S.C.I.E.N.C.E, it wasn’t until Make Yourself in 1999 that Incubus found the mainstream success that seemed beyond them. Songs like ‘Drive’ and ‘Pardon Me’ introduced the band to a different market, while the album contained enough of the harder-edged material to ensure that their older fans weren’t alienated.
“I really don’t know why that album found a more mainstream market,” Boyd laughed. “There was some experience within the band for the first time I guess. We had been touring a lot before that album – we had been on the road for a couple of years – and we really found that moment in our songwriting where we found the identity of the band and I think Make Yourself was the first time that identity was musically empowered. It was the first time that we shed… a lot of our influences were still there but we were honouring them more by not replicating them. We kind of became our own band which led to a stronger presence. If you mix that with a huge dollop of luck that played a huge part (laughs). In any entertainment be it film or music or art there’s practice, practice, practice until you can’t practice anymore and then you cross your fingers and just hope that someone notices.”
While the weight of public expectation was suddenly thrust upon the band as a result of mainstream acceptance, Boyd insists that the extra scrutiny had no influence over the bands lackadaisical and personal approach to their music.
“I think we probably sensed that expectation,” he nodded. “Some of the people in the band maybe felt that pressure more than others. Personally, I’ve never really allowed that external pressure to affect my process. I understand that that can be detrimental to an otherwise relatively pure creative process. I have an awareness now that a lot of people listen to the music that we make and have listened to music that we have made over the years and it kind of just makes me happy. Once again, it was never the expectation. Honestly, it’s a very strange and wonderful experience to express yourself purely and to the best of your ability and have people all over the world react to it. I can’t express to you enough how unique and special of an experience that is so what I take away from it is gratitude.”
With such an amalgamation of styles and influences, Incubus are a band that while refusing to be classified into a set genre, readily admit that they are still searching for their musical identity. It is a search that has endured through their eight albums to date and is one which Boyd admits is the binding force that keeps Incubus exciting.
“Yeah, I think so,” Boyd measured when asked if Incubus is still searching for their musical identity. “I think that we also… that’s probably one of the most enjoyable things about being in this band is that in the same way like I was saying before we don’t hold each other to one version of ourselves we understand the inherent dynamism of being a human being. All of us are fans of lots of different kinds of music and so music, if it were to be an animal, would also be highly dynamic and why would you ever want to pick one genre to get involved in? It’s almost like playing with a zombie: it’s dead, let’s reanimate it. It’s cool to allow for lots of different kinds of music and lots of different kinds of visuals and lots of different areas of inspiration. We don’t draw inspiration from just music. As a songwriter, I draw inspiration from films and literature and art and nature and friends and family. Honestly, anything and everything, so that keeps the process interesting as well. It keeps me interested as a performer and a person.”
From a songwriting perspective, Boyd admits the difference and difficulties faced in writing songs as intense as ‘A Certain Shade of Green’ and ‘Megalomaniac’ to the more hypnotic and comforting songs such as ‘Drive’ and ‘Pardon Me’ is a challenging proposition, but it is these challenges that keep his music fresh and self-gratifying.
“Songwriting is challenging inheritantly,” he agreed, “and it’s one of the reasons why I am interested in it. It is kind of like painting – I paint as well – and painting is highly, highly enjoyable as is songwriting but it is also deeply challenging because they are both activities where you could be a lifelong songwriter and you can be technically like an expert in your field and if you ever got yourself into a moment where you think yeah man, I’m the shit, it usually slips out from under you and takes you back to a beginner again. It keeps you humble. If you’re really paying attention it keeps you humble because the process wants to morph and change and move and if you watch it from a more stepped back perspective… if you watch popular music over the course of, say, ten years, it changes dramatically. Over the course of our career, it’s been incredible to watch what has become popular and what sells millions of records compared to even five or ten years ago. It is challenging to be a songwriter that likes to ricochet and bounce from one genre to the next but I also think that keeps it interesting and keeps us humble so that’s how I like to do things personally.”
With the release of last years album, 8, Boyd says that Incubus have for the first time revisited the musical path experienced on earlier albums. While not something the band strived for in the recording process, he feels the parallels between the two albums epitomizes the changes made between.
“I think what was interesting with 8 in a lot of ways was when we were finished recording it, it had a lot of feelings of kinship with S.C.I.E.N.C.E. There were things about it that were reminding all of us in the band of our experience with writing S.C.I.E.N.C.E, which was… it felt like there were no rules anymore. When we wrote S.C.I.E.N.C.E we didn’t know about any songwriting rules. It was like a chopped salad, schizophrenic album put together and we did it because we just didn’t know any better. We were just having a good time. 8 came along and we had been through everything that a band could possibly go through and then some and we started writing and it was just like let’s do it like this for no fucken reason. Why? I dunno, just try it, and stuff just started sounding awesome that way.”