Ever since 10th grade, Michael Einziger has played in a band with his friends, Brandon Boyd and Jose Pasillas. For most of the past two decades, under the name Incubus (and along with later key in additions Ben Kenney and Chris Kilmore), the childhood friends traveled the globe, sold millions of records, and, in 2006, achieved their first Billboard #1 album debut. And then, when on top of the world…they took a break. Solo albums, side projects, babies and collegiate studies followed, but here in 2011, Incubus is back together and welcoming the world to its HQ Live facility. Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby headed down to Hollywood, California for a chat with Mike about both the study of evolution and the evolution of a band…
Stefan Goldby: It’s been five years since the last record, and you guys all went off in your different ways in the meantime…what made this the right time to bring Incubus back together and start a new project?
Mike Einziger: We got to a point where we had toured behind our last record, and if we were to have gone back into the studio at that time, it might have felt like we were just going to make our seventh album. We had sort of accomplished all of our goals as a young band. We had all these ideas when we were forming the band when we were 15 that we would sell out all these huge venues and travel around the world and get nominated for Grammys, and all these things that, I think, when you’re a young musician, you have these dreams. They’re dreams. They seem just like fantasies. And somehow, someway, we were able to live those dreams out.
We got to this place where we were like, “Okay, what do we do now? We did everything that we wanted to do. What do we do – just do it over again?” And at some point, there becomes diminishing returns, and then you’re just fighting to keep your head above water. We got to a place where we felt like we needed to step away from it in order to see what life was really like outside of the band, and also to get a good perspective on what we had accomplished – as individuals and as a collective. So we did that. We took time away.
I went to university and studied for a few years, and Brandon [Boyd] made music on his own and spent a lot of time painting, and a couple of the other guys worked on their own music, and one of the guys made a baby. It was a very great time, actually, for all of us, and then it just seemed like it was time to make another album. It was like, wow, we got to this point where we became aware of the magnitude of what we had done, and it felt good. It didn’t feel the same way at the end of a touring cycle. It didn’t feel the same way when we’d been on the road for two and a half years and everybody is tired. It’s hard to really have a perspective at that point. So gravity kind of brought us all back together.
We’re all friends with each other; we’ve been doing this for 20 years, we love making music together, and it just felt good. The ideas started coming, and the songs started coming together, and that was what made it happen. Music just started happening, and it hadn’t really been happening until that point, for a number of reasons. [Laughs] But music started happening, and that was an obvious signal: okay, let’s go do this now.
SG: When you guys came back together, were you actively looking to redefine what the sound of the band was? Or was that just a product of what had happened while you had been away from each other?
ME: I think that our ever-evolving sound has been a product of both our desire to keep pushing ourselves into new musical territory, and also living life and experiencing different things and being surrounded by different things to be inspired by. We’re like sponges – we just go to whatever it is that we’re doing; we absorb what’s around us, and it somehow makes its way into the music. Sometimes it’s unquantifiable. Sometimes you can’t really put your finger on what it is, and there are other times that it’s almost deliberate and literal, where you have this set of experiences or a particular experience, and somehow that manifests in a song. But it’s all very detail-ridden, and I don’t know if people are even interested in hearing about that, but for better or for worse, we do take pride in not repeating ourselves – trying to do things differently than we’ve done them in the past. I think that’s what keeps it interesting for us.
SG: For you personally, by the time you came back to the band, you had spent some time doing some pretty serious musical composition – not three-minute pop songs, but something very different from that. How did you find it, coming back into collaborating with the other guys and really trying to pull things back into that more tightly structured artistic world?
ME: Writing more serious music or classical music or contemporary music, or any of the number of different labels that you could file music under, my experience with that was that each different kind of piece of music that you could write – they’re all really the same. The constraints change, and the ideas and the structures are different, but there is this real, raw, underlying passion for making music that’s always there, no matter what.
One thing that I learned through studying, is that I actually enjoy constraints – the idea of working with a set of ideas and trying to squeeze a lot out of barely anything at all. That’s why this album is really simple – the music is very simple, but it’s really well thought-out. That was my take-away from studying and from writing other kinds of musical pieces with different musical ensembles and different instrumentations. The need for simplicity rings out across all lines, and that’s something we brought into this new album from that, and it worked out really well.
SG: Turning to the recording of this new album, is there a moment that stands out most in your mind from the studio sessions for If Not Now, When?
ME: There are quite a lot of moments, actually, while we were recording and writing this album, that just felt like this is a new era for us, definitely. We have a song called “In the Company of Wolves,” which seems to, so far, be defining what this album is. It seemed that way when we were making the album, writing it – that was one of the first songs that we wrote for this album, “In the Company of Wolves,” and it definitely set the tone for what the rest of the album was going to be.
It’s one of the most simple pieces of music we’ve ever written, and it also feels exciting and different for us, in some way. And when we play the song live in front of our fans, so far – because we’ve played it a handful of times – it’s almost as though we’ve been playing it for 20 years. People know all the words and really seem to be expecting that song.
I don’t know why we do things where we play music and it translates to people – I don’t know what that happens; I don’t know why they relate to it or why they take away something from it, or if it touches them in some way…it’s all mysterious to us. We make the music, we write it, and we’re really thankful that somebody connects with it, but it’s still a mystery to us how or why that actually happens. But that, just by itself, is inspiration enough for everything. It’s really exciting to make music and share it with people, and feel like they’ve connected with it somehow.
SG: What are you happiest with about this new record?
ME: The thing that I’m happiest with about this album is that it’s the first time we’ve made an album that all sounds like it was written and recorded by one band. [Laughs] There is a lot of variation between songs, from song to song on the album, but it really does sound like it’s cohesive and it was well-crafted, so I’m proud of that, and I think everybody in the band is proud of that.
SG: Do you think that cohesion comes in part from the fact that everybody had gone away and already done something artistically that was just for themselves?
ME: Yes, I do think that the cohesion on this album is partly because of, I guess, the freedom that everybody’s had, and exploring life outside of the band. But also it’s this idea that there are constraints that we’re operating under, that those constraints are constraints, but at the same time, they’re also very liberating. I had never really gotten so much into that idea, but then in reading about different areas of music composition, it seemed to me like, wow, I can really get into that. When there are a few different rules – a basic set of guidelines, so many interesting things can happen under strict constraints… Without the constraints, that sounds like total freedom to do whatever you want. But with no constraints, you get oatmeal. [Laughs] And we’ve written every kind of song that we felt like we could write in the past by doing that – by just throwing everything together, so now it was really time to try on a different outfit.
SG: Part of what’s made you guys such a fun band to see live is in that variety – an Incubus set can have so many different kind of musical ingredients. How do you then go about incorporating such a uniform body of new work into that same live set?
ME: Playing this newer material in amongst our older songs does a lot to even heighten the idea that we cover a lot of different musical territory in a short time span. We know and are very well aware that we’ve built our career over 20 years on never really doing the same thing – not doing the same thing over and over and over again – so our fans know that, when they come to a show, they’re going to get different eras of our career. And the new music seems to blend right in really well. We’ve played a few shows now, and it almost works a little too well. [Laughs] It’s a little creepy, actually. I don’t know why it works or doesn’t work, but it feels good to us.
SG: If continuity, a through-line and cohesion is a good thing for you as a band, then the Incubus HQ Live seems like something very new and very different. Can you talk about how the concept came along and what the idea behind it is?
ME: The idea behind this place that we’re in right now is actually a very simple one. Every time we have ever released a new album and prepared to go on a tour, there’s a period of time where things are really hectic and chaotic, and we’re trying to do a million things at one time: we’re trying to rehearse and we’re trying to prepare and practice for a tour, but we’re also trying to let people in the world know that we have music coming out.
People who care about the things that we do – we want to let them know that we have new music coming out; we’d like for you to hear it, so usually we would travel around the world and do these different press trips, where we’re doing interviews and talking about music, which I don’t think any of our strong suit is discussing the music. It always sounds awkward and…it’s like walking with a limp. We do better when we’re just playing, so that’s the most direct way of talking about our music – to just play it.
So we created a space for ourselves where we could do all of that in one place in an environment where we feel like we control. We can make it look the way we want, we can let people in as much or as little as we want to, and it can befun. We can have fun, enjoy it; we also have all this really great new technology that enables us to connect with the people who want to know what we’re doing and what we’re about… We’ve got all this really great stuff at our disposal, so we figure we’d put it all in once place and see what happens. So we’re really flying by the seat of our pants.
We didn’t plan any of this really. Every day we say, “Okay, what are we going to do today?” And we have a loose guideline of we’re going to do a show every day, of some kind. I think tonight we’re talking about playing our albumMorning View from front to back, which is something we’ve never done before. So I think that’s what we’re gonna do, and anybody who wants to watch it can log on or maybe even show up here – I don’t even know how people are getting in. [Laughs] I think they’re doing some kind of drawing for tickets where people enter to get a ticket.
It’s all very chaotic, but it’s cool because it’s tailored custom to the situation – the specific place in time. It’s a unique experience, and I’m not aware of anybody having done this before, so we’re trying it out and seeing what happens.
SG: Change is a good thing, right? So what do you think are the key differences between Incubus as a band here in today as opposed to the one that was starting up in 1991?
ME: Having been together for 20 years, it’s funny -- we’ve seen the musical landscape change so many times over the years. What was popular when we first started is definitely not what’s most popular now and wasn’t popular five years ago or ten years ago. But for us, we feel like we’ve always operated on the outer edge of whatever that is – whatever is currently happening in music. We’ve always felt like we were separate, for whatever reason. We never really fit in with whatever scene or sound or group of people… I guess maybe that stems from the fact that I grew up as a musician; my mom was a music teacher; I always had music around me in my house, and music was always part of my existence.
I got to a certain age – maybe about 14, 15 years old – where people started identifying themselves socially by what music they listened to. Like, “I listen to this kind of band; I hang out with these people. And that band that you’ve got on your shirt – they suck. I like this other band.” It was always really strange to me that people were splitting off into groups and forming their identities based on the different music that they liked. The reason why it was odd to me was because I always saw music as it’s all music. Why is it necessary to wear the shirt and become synonymous with a certain group of people? It all blended together to me.
So in a certain way, I feel like our band is a little bit like that – we don’t really identify with any group of people. We’re really a just a conglomerate of all that stuff, off to the side. And I think that’s what’s enabled us to still be here 20 years later. I really do. It’s like we don’t really fit anywhere. Some people might say that’s not a good thing, but here we are. We’re still here.
SG: You grew up in music, and then you threw yourself into music as deeply as you could for the next 15 years… so where did studying at Harvard come from? I guess you can see music in everything as you can see physics in everything. But what do you think your studies have done for your appreciation in now coming back to music?
ME: We’d been a band for 17 years or something…three years ago – and I had been hatching this plan with a friend of mine (who was studying neuroscience at Harvard) to visit the school, and also we wrote an article together about evolution, which is just something that I’ve always been fascinated by – how polarizing of a discussion that is with people. Even in this great day and age, when we have such great technology to be able to look at it – there’s just so much science and so much experimentation that it’s just not an issue about whether or not evolution has happened or is happening. But still yet, a lot of the world does not accept it [laughs], so I was really interested by that idea.
A friend of mine was studying there at Harvard, and we wrote an article together, and as part of the article, I went there and hung out for a week, met a lot of really great people. And my friend who was studying there – a good friend of mine named Daniella (Joffe) – suggested that I meet with a music professor. So I ended up meeting a really wonderful man named Thomas Kelly, who is a professor… His specialty is on early music chants, something that is completely removed from what my experience of music has been.
So I met with this really great guy, and we had such an amazing discussion about different types of music. I couldn’t believe that a scholar like that would have any interest in talking to somebody like me. But we made our introductions, and I just took it from there, and I realized that I really wanted to study. It became clear to me that I really wanted to go to school. So over the next period of a couple years, I went through this whole process of applying, and all the things you have to do, and it all just worked out and I got to this place where I had the option to go there or to not go there, and I just thought I’d be a total idiot if I didn’t go to school there. So that was the beginning of that.
I really wanted to study science. Music was my introduction to the school, but I really wanted to study science as well, so I wanted to learn about physics and cosmology – cosmological subjects, such as evolution. I spent two years studying various different areas under that larger umbrella, and music as well. I think what it did for me is it just made the world bigger. The world is huge, and you could spend the whole rest of your life being a student, learning, and not even setting foot in a classroom – just being a student of the world.
It deepened my appreciation for everything that I have in life – the band…everything. So going back to it was like, “Wow, I can’t believe we did this for 20 years”. It was almost like a shock, to be able to step away and look back on 20 years of touring and making albums. It’s like, “Wow, who does that?” But we did it.
SG: Now you have stepped back in to the band, if you guys have already done everything that the teenage you could conjure up as a goal, what does that leave for you to hope will happen now?
ME: What we’re hoping for in the future is that we can continue to grow along with the people who are interested in our music. We’ve gotten older since we put outS.C.I.E.N.C.E. in 1997 and Make Yourself in 1999. We’ve grown along with the people that are listening to our music. We know that they’ve grown up too and their lives have changed as well. So I think all we can really hope for is to continue to connect with the people who are interested in what we’re doing. I think anything more than that is…I don’t know what that is. But we enjoy making music and traveling, and sharing the music that we write with people.
It’s really about building things. I just love building stuff – whatever it is, whether it’s a chair [laughs] or a building of some kind. I love building things. It’s fun. It’s fun to build songs, it’s fun to build music, it’s fun to build musical structures, and I think whatever enables us to continue to be able to do that, that’s great.
The seventh Incubus studio album, ‘If Not Now, When?’ is released Tuesday July 12, 2011 on Epic Records.