By Mark Guarino
One of the few positive byproducts of the late ‘90s rap metal explosion was the door it opened for Incubus to stride through. Although the band had a DJ and played heavy riffs, it was a square peg compared to the litany of modern rock brawlers it cut its teeth with. For starters, Incubus did not co-opt the street thug poses of hip-hop and fire off songs explicitly ranting about childhood trauma.
Instead, Incubus had a soulful, spiritual side that promoted individuality and good vibrations. The band met as high school students in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley in the early ‘90s. Building a word of mouth fanbase, they signed to Epic in 1997 and after a string of multi-platinum sales, just this year made its real artistic breakthrough.
“A Crow Left of Murder” (Epic), their fifth album, is what “Vitology”(Epic) did for Pearl Jam ten years ago, in breaking the constraints created by grunge. Producer Brendan O’Brien (Audioslave, Pearl Jam), trims their funk and hip-hop inclinations and puts them on a more straightforward rock path. With the addition of Roots bassist Ben Kenney, the album is more accessible, tuneful and politically charged. It belongs to guitarist Mike Einziger who builds the songs around a spectrum of riffs and lead singer Brandon Boyd, who emerges as a better singer with substantial might.
The band is out on its first headlining tour of arenas, stopping at the Allstate Arena Wednesday. Boyd, 28, recently talked about the band’s new direction and the controversy sparked by its political content. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: You’re headlining arenas for the first time whereas in the late ‘90s, you showed up playing them only through festivals. You played them all — Ozzfest, Sno-Core, Family Values, Area:One, Lollapalooza.
A: We dubbed ourselves the festival whores. We participated in almost every participatable— is that a word? — festival that there is. They’re really cool, mostly in the sense that there is a lot less pressure on each individual band. It really gives you a chance to get to know other artists. When you’re on your own tour, it’s a lot more isolating. One thing that we prefer about doing our own shows is that once we get to point where we get used to doing two hours a night, there really is nothing comparable to that. When you can play two hours of your own music as opposed to having to squeeze in five albums worth of work into 45 minutes. You’re trying to give people who haven’t seen you before a good idea what you’re like in 45 minutes. And the longer we’re a band, the harder that is to do.
Q: What was it like having to play for audiences waiting for rap rock heavyweights like Limp Bizkit?
A: It was character building. That’s what I’ll stick with right now. It put fuzz on our chest. We never really got booed, we never got anything thrown at us. But what’s almost worse than that is partiality. There were a lot of times we played concerts where people weren’t bothered either way. I’d rather they just hate you because at least you’re invoking a reaction, which is one point of art to begin with, to invoke a sensation or an emotion. So a lot of the time they were emotionless. Not all of them, just the really, really heavy ones. When we did Area:One, that was first festival where it was as diverse a lineup, only the crowd was into it. And then there was also Lollapalooza last summer where it was the most diverse crowd and they were really into it. Those were most rewarding.
Q: Was the new album a conscious effort to separate yourself from alternative metal?
A: Nothing you hear on any of our records, even the ones that quote-unquote fit into that alternative metal category, were consciously done so. We never set out to sound like this or sound like that. We definitely had influences early on as we still do. I think on our earlier records, we were more products of our influences. On the past few records we really have come into our own. We didn’t want to sound like any particular kind of music, we wanted to be outcasts, we wanted to be like, “we don’t know what band is this.” If there was any conscious effort on our part, it was to not be categorized. The fact that you say that this is a move away from that alternative metal thing that we were lumped in with, then I just say thank you.
Q: What put you in that category in the first place?
A: There’s probably a number of reasons. One of which is definitely guilt by association. We did open up for a lot of those bands that defined that whole genre. Although we weren’t influenced by those bands, it’s the same thing when at school, if you’re sitting at the lunch table with the kids getting in trouble, you’re going to go to the principal’s office too. At the same time, there was an aesthetic there that people attached with us. The fact there were heavy guitars. And early on, before I learned how to sing, there was barking. Just bark, bark, bark. And there was a DJ and some funky bass going on and some grooves. I say this all the time, it sounds like the worst band in the world. Like if you would look at the surface of our band, I would hate my band! (laughs) But the fact that I know what we’re doing, I know there’s more to it than the surface of things.
Q: I know people who like your band but are also buying Modest Mouse and PJ Harvey records.
A: It’s funny because PJ Harvey is one of my all-time favorites, ever. I’m the first one in the store to get her records. It’s like, we’re becoming that band to some people that they don’t want to like us. Like, “(expletive), I want to hate this song but I just like it!” I understand it because I am that guy too. I want to hate some bands so much, but god they’re good!
Q: I think it connects with the fact that there are very few arena rock bands left that are considered cool, if not truly great.
A: It’s true. Part of it is cool in the sense that good music has moved back into the underground. Which is where it seems to find itself most of the time and it ends up inspiring bands that become big and pop up above ground. There seems to be a big push back into the underground and it’s an okay place to be. Especially with the internet. It’s okay to not sell a million records anymore and be a really important, influential band. When people learn to appreciate that again, maybe record companies and the music industry will stop trying so hard to exploit the living (expletive) out of something good and end up ruining it.
Q: But you’re on Epic, a subsidiary of Sony. Do you feel you’re being exploited?
A: Kind of. That pressure exists. It’s kind of this haze. It’s just there. At the same time, we have people we’re working with at Sony and our own management who are of the same mind as us in a lot of ways. That they know if you whore out in every direction, you are going to trivialize your band and anything you say that had any shred of importance will become unimportant. So there are people we work with who are like, “(expletive) MTV, (expletive) the big magazines, you guys have to do what you feel good about because that seems to have worked well so far.” I think for the most part, the people we’re working with share an understanding of us and make decisions based on the integrity of our band and the things we have been doing for 13 years now. And that if now we were say, “ah, screw it, let’s do everything, let’s do every commercial promotion,” that it would kill it. It would kill everything we had done to this point.
Q: This year, MTV refused to play the anti-war video for your song “Megalomaniac” during daylight hours, even though it had no sexual content. Only stinging images like falling bombs and dictators. Did you see that coming?
A: Far be it from me or any of us to try and wonder what they’re going to do with any of our things. I think we’re surprised they still play us on TV or radio.
A: I don’t know. I think it’s touching on what we were just talking about. We’re not the most cooperative band in the world as far as being promoted. We’re willing to work, we’re willing to play concerts, we’re willing to actively promote our records but we want to do it on our own terms. We have almost this stubborn brat approach to selling records. We had a laugh at first. “Oh, we’re controversial for the first time in our career!” And then at the same time a lot of us knew tongue firmly placed in cheek that that would make our band cooler. “Uh-oh they’re not allowed to play it late at night! (laughs)
Q: The political messages in this album are not overt, but they are there. Was that a way to temper the polarization in the national mood since last year?
A: I had first and foremost certain things I had to get off my chest which is a part of any songwriting process. You’re sort of exercising demons as it were. And for instance, “Megalomaniac,” that song was the first one we wrote. I wasn’t thinking about what probably most people were thinking about when I wrote the lyrics to that song. But it sort of became what everyone thought it was about and that’s okay. I do feel at the same time there’s something to be said about distance. It needs to be vague lyrically so people can attach their own meaning to it. I actually take pride they’re nebulous. People can call them what they will.
Q: A year ago some artists were timid about speaking their mind through their music, but these days there’s been a shift. What camp do you fit in?
A: I’m of the mind now where, if I don’t state my opinion, it’s going to be stated for me. Maybe at the age I’m at — I’m officially in my late twenties — and when we’re young, when we have the right to vote and we’re 18, it’s last thing on your mind. Which is true in a lot of ways but also kind of sad in a lot of ways. I can say that because I was that guy who said, “I don’t really care, I have my life and as long as they don’t take away my personal freedoms, I don’t really care.” But I’ve come to a place in my late twenties where I’m at my most observant and can see the irrefutable damage being done by someone who, in my opinion, doesn’t speak for me … I have to believe there is somebody out there who is going to do a much better job with minimal effort than George W. Bush. In my opinion, if he’s elected another four years, he’s going to plunge us back into the dark ages.
Q: Do you see your generation of artists mobilizing like your parent’s generation from the sixties?
A: The purpose of art is to invoke reaction and the best art invokes change. And if enough artists and people just started speaking their mind, change will happen. There’s a shift that has occurred. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the number one film in America and it’s only playing in independent theaters. If Bush is placed in office again like was in the first place, I can’t see the country being very cooperative about that.