Incubus Guitarist Mike Einziger — The Interview

Incubus Guitarist Mike Einziger — The Interview

Left to right: DJ Kilmore, Brandon Boyd, Ben Kenney, Mike Einziger, and Jose Pasillas. Photo: Brantley Gutierrez

Since forming in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas as high school students in 1991, the members of Incubus reached prolific heights as a band. They’ve toured the world in support of their seven full-length studio albums, seen lofty chart results with singles such as 2000’s “Drive,” and have consistently challenged themselves creatively.

On April 21, Incubus releases their eighth album, appropriately titled 8, their first full-length LP since 2011’s If Not Now, When?. Co-produced and mixed by Sonny Moore, a.k.a. Skrillex, the album is a refreshing mix of styles, sounds, and themes, with singer Brandon Boyd’s signature vocal style leading the way once again.

Also leading the way is the guitar work of Mike Einziger, who spoke with Rock Cellar about the new record, the band’s career, the concept of “speaking out” and much, much more.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I’ve been listening to the new album on repeat since the label sent me a stream, and I have to say…you guys have had a lot of different sounds and styles over the years, but starting the record with the song “No Fun,” particularly Brandon lyric of, “You’re no fun/You’re a song I never want to hear again,” makes for quite an opener.

Why that song, and what does it mean as an introduction to the album?

Mike Einziger: It’s really funny, because that song, specifically, there was a chance that it might not even have ended up on the album. We were close to being finished with the album, and then when we started working with Skrillex – which I’m sure you’ve heard all about thanks to the Internet – and that was very unexpected. That happened in a very organic way, and Sonny suggested making a couple of changes to that song that transformed it from being a song that might not have made it onto the record to becoming the first song on the album.

It’s such an interesting process, and it’s so powerful when you can make even tiny changes to a song and they can transform the identity of the song dramatically. So I’m really happy that it became the opening song. And that lyric was actually kind of pulled together from two different pieces of the song that weren’t connected. It’s really interesting, the pathway that song took from when we first wrote/recorded it to what it ended up being.

But that all came out of the creative process, and we stuck with it…had we stopped earlier, that song wouldn’t even have made it on the record. But I’m really thankful for the process we went through, particularly at the end of the record-making process, which really unified the band in a really awesome way.

The whole identity of the album really coalesced at the end, so I’m excited for people to hear it. I’m excited to share it with people and I think our audience will really connect with it.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Speaking from the perspective of someone who’s paid attention to your music since right around when Make Yourself came out in 1999, the way the fans react to each album is always rather…polarized. Some love it, some go out of their way to say why they don’t love it, and so on. Incubus has always challenged those types of expectations, so how did all of that – since there’s no way you guys don’t at least notice that kind of stuff – come into play with this new record, especially since your last full-length in 2011 was a decidedly more mellow collection of songs?

Mike Einziger: You know, with anybody’s music, it’s easy to look at the songs and think that it was all planned to be that way. Almost like we sat down and wrote down those songs in that order, recording them exactly as they are on the final album. The funny thing is that that could not be further from the truth.

In fact, our inability to plan what we’re doing is so great that it’s actually why we haven’t put music out that frequently in recent years. The point at which it becomes an album, a group of songs that are ready to go and make us say, “OK, this is an Incubus album” or, “this is something we’re happy to release”…it’s such an unplanned, spontaneous thing that we can’t even plan when it happens.

We just follow the process and when the process feels complete, we let people hear the music. 26 years into our career, we definitely don’t want to just repeat things that we’ve done in the past. We try and definitely do things that feel unique to us and special in some way, and that’s why it’s just continually challenging to write and record songs. That being said, when we do it it’s fun and we enjoy it and at the end of the process this time, we felt really energized and fulfilled after this group of songs.

As far as us being cognizant of what our audience wants, knowing that we’re going to polarize people and people are going to be critical either way, that just comes with the territory. I think we’re used to that, we know that. I remember when we put out Make Yourself, people hated that album when it came out. People were like, “Oh, this band is done, their career is over” and little did they know that was really the beginning of our career.

And it’s something I see all the time, people write messages or comments to me, things like, “You need to go back to playing all of the super experimental music that you used to play, all the music you make now is so boring and simple,” and all that, and it makes me laugh because when I look back on Make Yourself and (2001’s) Morning View, the music on those albums is not complicated. It’s not like King Crimson, it’s not Mahavishnu Orchestra, you know?

We’re a rock band. We’ve always been a rock band. People will say things like, “I can’t believe how poppy this sounds,” or “I can’t believe how commercial it sounds,” but it’s like… “Drive” was on the straight-up Pop charts in the year 2000, so the idea of us being a commercial band or writing music that is somehow simple, is not new for us in any way, shape or form.

But there are still, in 2017, people who hold onto this idea that we’re going to write this, like, prog-rock magnum opus, and I guess we’ve touched on certain elements of that at different points in our career, but we’re a rock band that connected with millions of people all over the world by writing songs that people related to somehow.

At least that’s my perception of it, unless there’s some other way of looking at it. To me, music is about connecting and all I can ever hope for is that we write music that feel honest and sincere, and that our audience connects with. And I can honestly say that in 2017 I feel like we just completed a group of songs that feels more connective, honest and sincere than anything we’ve done in recent past. It’s exciting to me, and I’m excited to have our audience hear this music.

Rock Cellar Magazine: 8 does definitely have a strong sense of cohesion in theme and overall sound. It does reflect that you guys seem to have had a lot of fun (and productivity) within the creative process, but in a way that some who maybe saw those ‘Incubus is working with Skrillex’ social media posts and assumed this would be a dubstep record, or something crazy like that.

Mike Einziger: Sonny’s a really tasteful producer. He’s a musical savant, someone who I can honestly say is one of the most talented and innovative music producers I’ve ever seen and worked with. And I’m totally not afraid to say that his work with Justin Bieber? I think it’s brilliant, in all honesty. The song “Where Are You Now?” totally blew me away the first time I heard it. Sonny asked me to rearrange the song for a live band performance at the Grammys in 2016, and I loved that experience. It was really fun, I got to dig into a song that I felt as far as popular music was concerned, was musically more innovative than anything I’d heard in years.

So it was fascinating for me to pull that song apart, figure out how it works and put it back together again and have it played by live musicians.

So bringing him into the Incubus album, that was just as fun to me. It was sort of a new look at something that has been around a long time, and Sonny’s intentions were never to create any kind of dubstep project or something like that. Sonny’s breadth of musical knowledge goes so far beyond dubstep – with no disrespect to dubstep, I love what Sonny’s done with Scary Monsters, I love what he’s done with Damian Marley, A$AP Rocky – but the thing is the way that I look at it, Sonny’s a huge Incubus fan too, he grew up listening to Incubus and grew up playing in rock bands.

We have a lot in common, so I’ve had a close relationship with him over the years, but none of the other guys in the band really knew him. So he came into the studio with me one day, just out of nowhere, we had just been hanging out. And he asked if he could come and hang out and listen to some of our new music, in the same way that we’d just hang out normally. But usually I’d be hanging out with him, and I’d be listening to what he was working on, rather than him visiting an Incubus session.

But he was curious, and I was curious, too, so he came into the session and listened to one of our songs and asked if he could “mess around with it,” and the end result was that he actually rearranged the song. He took a section out of a song, it was “Familiar Faces,” and when he played it for everybody it was really funny because it was like…I was expecting it to be really cool, and figured something great would happen, but I don’t think any of the other guys had any idea what was going to happen. And I had no idea how they’d feel about it.

Photo: Brantley Gutierrez

But what ended up happening was that song basically raised the bar for what all the other songs were going to sound like, and he came in and had rearranged the song, so all of a sudden Brandon’s going, “Hey, can we work on another song with Sonny?”

Everybody in the band was like, “Wow, this sounds really good!” and then all of a sudden we’re talking with Sonny and he’s like, “Yeah, I’d just love to be involved in any way, if you’ll let me.” So we spent a day or so just trying things, seeing what happens, and then we just didn’t stop for two weeks. We canceled everything else we were doing, he canceled all his other stuff, and we just spent two weeks in the studio literally finishing this album and working on every song.

He transformed the identity of the album, and it was a really fun, unifying experience because the whole band was in on it, everybody was involved. And the way Sonny was interacting with the other guys, made everybody feel like they were a really big part of the process. And I’ll be honest, it can be kind of rare to have those moments where all of us are unified like that. It was really special and interesting, and I’m really thankful for it. It energized everyone in the band.

And I think that sense of enthusiasm, that sense of excitement, I think our audience will be able to feel it.

Rock Cellar Magazine: There were some social media posts of Brandon, Sonny and Chino Moreno of Deftones at work in the studio, but that didn’t end up on the album, right?

Mike Einziger: Just talking about the magic of how spontaneous all of this was, we were in the studio and Sonny goes, “Hey man, have you talked to Chino lately?” and I hadn’t, so we sent him a video message and it turned out he was down the street in the studio himself, so he came in. There was a track that me, Brandon and Sonny had worked in a month before that, an instrumental track. We pulled it up and we actually turned it all into a song – a really great one – we just didn’t have time to finish it because we were finishing the Incubus record. I just wanted to try laying something down, and Sonny was all about it, he helped make it happen big time.

So we have a song, it’s just not finished, but we will and will release it at some point. I’ll admit, I was hoping we were going to finish it for the album, but we just didn’t have enough time.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, that’s a good song to just have in the vault for sometime in the future.

Mike Einziger: Yeah, definitely.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Which of the new songs would you say would fall into your top one or two, and which are you looking forward to playing on the road the most?

Mike Einziger: Oh, man. I think “State of the Art” is one of my favorites. We have a song called “Loneliest,” that might be my favorite on the album. I love all these songs so it’s hard to pick between your children, basically, but those are the first two that came to mind.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Those two are definitely the ones that stood out the most to me, too.

Mike Einziger: Yeah. I can’t say for sure, but I think most people will probably feel the same way. I don’t know why I know that, but I just think that those are the two songs that will stick out the most.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Another interesting track is “Make No Noise in the Digital Forest,” the instrumental song.

Mike Einziger: That song was actually just an improvisation. Brandon’s playing bass on that one, and Ben’s playing drums, I was on guitar and it was just like…everybody switched up instruments and we got a really cool improvisation out of it. So we included it on the album to change things up a little bit.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Incubus hasn’t done a big, full tour in a few years, so what should fans expect this summer in terms of which songs you’ll be playing when you’re on the road with Jimmy Eat World?

Mike Einziger: I think we’ve always done a good job playing music on our tours that people want to hear. We play older songs, we do newer songs, we really try and mix it up from all of our records. Some classic songs, the singles that people really want to hear. We’re really cognizant of the fact that people are coming out to see us play, and we want to make the show great for them.

So obviously we can’t play everything from every album and people wouldn’t want to just see the new album, either. I think it’ll become obvious which songs people really want to hear the longer people are living with the new songs, so we’ll see how it goes.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Venue-wise, this seems to be a bigger tour – you’re playing the Hollywood Bowl, for example. So you’re clearly able to take a few years off, do your own things and then reconvene and head out to really big venues. What’s that say about your career as a whole?

Mike Einziger: We’re just continually appreciative of the fact that we’re still able to make music and tour and have a large enough audience that we can go play these huge places. It’s crazy. I would never have expected it, and I’m humbled by the fact that when we show up somewhere, ten, twenty thousand people show up to see it. I’m very thankful for that.

Rock Cellar Magazine: We recently spoke with Zach Lind of Jimmy Eat World, who you’re touring with this summer, and one of the things he talked about applies to you guys, too. Incubus doesn’t shy away from speaking out or taking a stand. You’re taking part in Zedd’s ACLU benefit at Staples Center in April, on social media you guys have the Make Yourself Foundation and a new sweepstakes that will let a winner have a private listening party of the new record with the band, and it’s all geared around making donations to the ACLU.

How important would you say it is for bands/artists of your level to speak out about the things that matter to them these days?

Mike Einziger: I think politics is even more subjective than music at certain times. People have many conflicting points of view about politics, and Incubus I wouldn’t say has ever been a “political band,” but we’ve also…I think anyone paying attention to what we’ve been doing over the years, it’s easy to see what our politics might entail. I’m a person who, I have friends from all political views and ideologies, I hang out with all kinds of people, even people whose views are really different than mine. And I can hang with them.

I’m OK with being around and intersecting with people who are radically different from myself, but there are certain things that I have no patience for.

I, and the band, have no patience for racism, misogyny, things like that. There’s no place for that anywhere. There’s no place for hatred, no place for discrimination, and we’re living in a really interesting time right now. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone with what’s happening, but I have to think that ultimately love and compassion will win. But love and compassion have to speak louder than everything else in order for that to happen.

So we’re happy to take part, happy to stand up for things that we think are important, and to anybody that would say, “shut up and play music and don’t talk about politics,” I’d say, “Hey, I play taxes just like you, and I’m a citizen, I was born here and I can say whatever I want, so there.”

Rock Cellar Magazine: Flash back to high school, Incubus is just starting out. Eight albums and 26 years later, would you ever have been able to predict where your path would take you?

Mike Einziger: No, it’s been a truly mind-blowing trip. I would never have able to predict what we’ve been able to do and accomplish, and I’m continually humbled by the opportunity. The ability to do something that I love doing and not have to have a real job.

That’s the greatest gift in life I could ever imagine.

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