Incubus: the Beatweek interview – inside their most intricate album to date
July 19, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
“The people who were going to be listening to it,” says Mike Einziger matter of factly of the surprising new album from his band Incubus, “we knew that their first reaction to it was going to be like, what the fuck is this?” But then again, this has always been a band known for its high risk, high reward left turns.
During the five years in which Incubus were on hiatus prior to the arrival of If Not Now, When?, Einziger went and did the last thing you’d expect a rock star to do if given time off: he enrolled at Harvard. Armed with a new musical perspective, he’s since reunited with his bandmates to craft their most mellow and intricately layered album to date, in yet another gambit for a band which has spent twenty years challenging its existing fanbase while scoring a string of hits along the way. Having just returned home after traveling for album promotional purposes, Einziger offered up a cerebral look at the approach to the new record, how the time off changed the band, and how even when he attempted to crank up the knobs late in the album process, mellow still ruled the day. Oh, and he’s got an answer for whether Incubus fans will have to wait another five years for the next record after this one. Are you getting used to living on the road again?
It’s actually kind of nice to get back to what used to feel normal so many years ago.
How did what you studied at Harvard end up impacting your approach to this new album?
The easiest way to quantify how the experience of being a student in general has affected the way that I think about music is really mostly along the lines of studying music history. I’d say that as far as music goes, studying music history was what hit me the hardest I guess as far as how I look at music. Studying music on kind of a grand timescale, hundreds of years, how music has changed over large periods of time as opposed to how rock music has changed in the last ten years. My scope of music has broadened considerably by spending time learning about what music was like during the 1600′s and what it was like during the 1700′s and so on and so forth.
It contextualized my overall picture of the music landscape. It made it so much bigger than it ever had been. For me it felt like it had a massive humbling effect, is the best way I could put it. I guess no matter how great of a musician you think you are or ever could be, somebody can dedicate an entire lifetime to it and still not come anywhere near reaching a level of mastery. The world of music is such a huge place, and it got much bigger to me when I got the time to really explore that world a little bit.
You and your bandmates are old friends. You were still in contact with each other during the hiatus, right?
Yeah of course. Obviously going to school in Cambridge, I was physically away from them for a couple years. But we talked pretty regularly, and I’d be in and out of town between LA and Boston so I’d get to see them from time to time. It was a big change though, for me to be living a long way from them. That was definitely something that was very different because I’d been living with those guys since I was fifteen.
When you came back together to start working on the new album, did you have to shake the rust off or did the ideas start flowing right away?
It’s not that we had to get the rust off or anything like that. It was just different though. It was obvious that every single person in the band had changed a lot. The last time that we had actually tried to write music together, really, it had been three or four years since we had really tried to make an album and since we had had any substantial time together trying to write music or even really talking about music. So it was a change. It was definitely a change because all of us I think changed a lot during that time period.
This record ended up leaning more toward the mellow side of your sound. Did you guys have the sense early on that you were going to head in that direction?
Not at all, it just kind of happened. We’ve never sat down and tried to come up with an idea for what kind of album we want to make or how we want an album to sound, or even individual songs. They just kind of happen. I suppose that we could sit down and okay, we want to write more aggressive music or louder music or harder music or whatever, but that’s just never been the way that we’ve operated. So we were going to start by doing that with this album.
Does it ever weigh on your mind that you’ve got twenty years of fans out there that are all going to have an opinion on this one?
Of course that thought enters our minds. But at the same time, allowing that to influence our creative process would sort of defeat the purpose of why we’re making that music. I understand that there’s expectations and that fans want certain things, but as a part of the band I don’t even feel like I’m really a good gauge for what that would be. I didn’t plan what that other music was going to sound like either. It all just happened. We’re happy that it happened, and we’re happy that people reacted the way that they did to it, but it wasn’t planned, you know? So if we started trying to plan it out that way, that would be the biggest change that we could ever make to our music. I don’t think any of us, ethically, that feels like it would pollute our process somehow. I guess we could try something like that sometime, but it just doesn’t feel right to any of us to make music like that. I guess it would just feel like pandering.
We’ve had plenty of mellow songs. I think that there’s just a noticeable absence of loud aggressive rock music on this one. But there have been other bands and other artists that have made records that I guess maybe fall outside of their normal sort of sound, and sometimes people respond well to it and sometimes they don’t. Trust me, we were well aware of that risk when we were making this album. But part of that risk is what’s exciting to us, I guess. We’ve gone through similar transitions earlier in our existence as a band. When we made the album Make Yourself back in 1999, we had just come off the back of touring behind an album called S.C.I.E.N.C.E., and S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was considerably more aggressive than Make Yourself was. And when Make Yourself came out, a lot of our fans seemed to be very disappointed at first. But we just followed our musical compass. Wherever it seemed to lead us, we followed it. So we’ve continued that philosophy to this day. So yeah the album sounds different, has a different sound. We’re kind of I think asking our fans maybe to listen differently to our music than perhaps they have ever before.
Of all the songs that are on this record, which one was the first that emerged?
The first song written was a song called Tomorrow’s Food. It’s the very last song on the album. It’s the last song that we recorded, but it was the first song that we wrote. I wouldn’t say it set the tone for the album because we actually didn’t know whether it was going to be part of the album or not. It was just the first song that we had written. I’d say the song that set the tone for how the album was going to sound was a song called In The Company Of Wolves. That song was really the first song that we wrote together as a whole band for this album, and I do feel like it did set the tone for what the rest of the album was sort of going to be, I guess philosophically speaking and just also as far as its dynamic. It’s a song that’s very simple, you know? It’s got a lot of subtlety built into it and a lot of space built into it, and I think that song definitely was a pace setter.
Can you talk about how you built up the title track in terms of the instrumentation and the sonic angles?
That song was written pretty late. It was actually written while we were recording. It was written at a point during the making of the album when actually a couple of the other guys in the band had voiced some concerns about not having any rock songs, any hard rock songs or aggressive rock songs. I actually sat down with the intention of maybe creating something that rocked a bit, you know? And that song, If Not Now, When?, was what ended up coming out (laughs), just to give you an idea of where my head was at. I just sat down and wrote the music for that song in my studio at home, and it started off with a bassline actually. The guitar line is sort of arpeggiated and really simple. To me it just sounded intriguing and moody and interesting, and I thought it was something that Brandon would respond well to.
I guess there are some elements in it that I thought were sort of contradictory to each other. There were these huge big distorted bass chords that I had put in for the chorus sections, and they ended up really low in the mix so they’re not as prominent as they were when I had first written the musical parts. I think those at first were part of what made the song sound so interesting to me. But once the vocals came in and Brandon started singing over top of it, his vocals were so powerful it almost felt like the song didn’t need that anymore. It was really built in stages, that song. I got all excited about all these little musical nuances, and then once Brandon came in and started singing, a lot of them disappeared but in a good way because the lyrics and the melodies, to me, they sounded really important. What he was saying sounded really important, and the power of his voice really came out. Maybe even some of those musical nuances might have gotten in the way of that a little bit.
That song was a surprise. I was surprised that Brandon reacted to the way that he did when I showed it to him. He got really excited about it. The bridge section of that song, I always thought was tonally kind of interesting, and I’m definitely proud of the string arrangements that I wrote for that song as well. I didn’t have any knowledge of how to do that before I went and started studying, so that was definitely a bonus to be able to write a string arrangement like that.
You know that as soon as the tour winds down and this album cycle winds down, the first thing you’re going to get from fans is “Do we have to wait another five years for the next one?”
(Laughs) I don’t think we’ll take that long of a break between albums this time, because we had never really taken a break. We worked really hard and just so many years of touring, so many years of making records, that none of us has really been able to start a family or anything like that. It’s really difficult if we’re going to have children and things like that. I’m thirty-five years old now. Brandon’s thirty-five years old now. We’re getting to an age where the clock is sort of ticking and we want to be able to kind of live our lives. The schedule that we had before really didn’t allow much for that sort of thing. So being off this time, during these last few years, I think kind of gave everybody the first opportunity in their lives to think about those things. Those ideas were never options for us. So we’re just trying to figure it all out now and balance what makes us happy as human beings with scheduling issues and doing things like putting out albums and going on tours. We’re at a lucky place in our lives now where we actually have a little bit of control over those things. We don’t want to make people wait for a really long time, but we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them. We’ll do whatever feels right to us.