Incubus singer Brandon Boyd discusses his new musical project Sons of the Sea, working with producer Brendan O’Brien, curating his stream of consciousness writing style, and looks back on his career so far.
The sound and style of this record isn’t typical for what Brendan O’Brien is known for, which are these big rock records, and a little different than what Incubus has done. When you were first discussing this project how did you decide what direction you wanted to take it in?
When we were first talking about writing songs together, there was really no creative direction other than, “Hey man, do you have some free time?” “Yeah, I do. How about you?” “I do as a matter of fact. Want to try and write some songs together?” “Sure, let’s do that.” That’s what it sounded like. That was our creative direction.
I basically sent Brendan all these lyric and melodic ideas that I had, and we just kind of started going. After doing that for a little bit and recording a couple songs, he started sending me raw musical ideas that I started writing lyrics to.
Brendan has produced all your stuff since A Crow Left of Murder. What was it like working with him as a collaborator and band member this time rather than just as a producer?
It wasn’t terribly dissimilar being in the studio with him, for the most part. I think that the biggest difference was there was no band present. This entire record happened between Brendan and I. We were the band, at least up until the eleventh hour.
We had the whole record done and everything. We had actually started to mix songs, and then we brought in Josh Freese very late in the game to play on one or two tracks to see how they would sound. They ended up sounding really, really great, so we asked him to play on the rest of the record.
He definitely had his producer hat on, but I had never had the opportunity to work with him as a musician, so it was pretty great, to tell you the truth. He’s a wild guitar player, and bass player and keyboard player. It felt limitless. It felt like there was no real restrictions or constrictions in the process of collaborating. If I had some crazy melodic idea or effect idea, we could translate it so beautifully and purposely with Brendan. It was a lot of fun.
This is the second non-Incubus record that you’ve done, with The Wild Trapeze being the first. What did you learn from doing that one that you applied here?
With The Wild Trapeze and Incubus, that was sort of the first extended break we had taken. That flow of music and lyrics and imagery, and all these things that occupy my heart and my mind throughout most days, that didn’t really stop because we decided to take a break as a band. At first, I was cataloguing ideas and demoing them. Then I get almost like an anxious feeling if I don’t keep that house clean and flesh out the ideas fully.
So, I started to imagine doing a solo record but have other musicians play on it, and really just started to expand and spread my wings a little bit. It ended up turning into The Wild Trapeze, I’m talking about. It ended up turning into me playing everything short of a couple bits here and there that Dave Fridmann, who produced that record, played on. There were certain musical parts beyond my skill level, and he picked up the slack there. He’s a much better musician than I am.
I think one of the things it taught me was that I have a lot of sound and things floating around in my spirit. When I give them voice freely, when I don’t try and put any weights or bounds on them, sometimes that comes out in an Incubus record and sometimes it comes out on a solo record where I’m an acoustic musician who’s kind of a crappy musician, but you can hear the songs through the crappy musicianship.
With this, with the Sons of the Sea thing, Incubus decided to take another break. These songs kept coming through and I got to work with an amazing producer, who also happens to be an amazing musician. It felt like a really fortuitous project, and the timing was really great.
As Incubus you’ve never done a ton of covers. The only one that really sticks out in my mind is the Prince one, “Let’s Go Crazy,” and yet you chose to end this record with a Leonard Cohen cover. What about that song made you want to cover it?
Mostly, I love that song. It has an effortlessly beautiful lyric to it. I think that’s one of the things I gravitate towards the most with the artists I stick with, so to speak. I definitely look for musicianship, and I look for creativity and cleverness in execution and all these things, but when someone becomes a masterful lyricist and is able to tell a story effortlessly, and beautifully and sincerely, I’m hooked.
Leonard Cohen is a perfect example of that. He’s definitely more of a lyricist than he is a singer or a musician, but the lyrics are so beautiful and so strong it carries the whole boat along with it. Honestly, I’ve always wanted to cover one, and I hadn’t for any number of reasons. I was musing about the idea and Brendan just happened to be really into it, so it happened [laughs]. That’s kind of how it goes.
Talking about lyrics, I’ve always been fascinated with your lyrics and writing process, which I understand is more spur of the moment and not premeditated that much. Can you talk about how that functions?
Yeah, it’s one of those things where I know talented lyricists who have an idea about a song they want to write. They’re like, “I want to write a song about breaking up, or I want to write a song about going on a road trip.” That’s a ridiculous example, I don’t know, but they can do it and they can do it successfully.
I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve tried and it ends up being just shitty [laughs]. It ends up being like these shells of a song. To me, what happens when I try that is it lacks the sincerity. I really feel like people can pick up on that and they can see through that, so I applaud people who know how to do that well.
I’m basically more like a full-contact sport. I won’t write for a period of time, and then things just start to flood out. It’s a little bit more of, I guess you would call that a stream of consciousness style of writing. That’s the way I’ve always drawn as well, drawn pictures and painted pictures. If that “feeling,” quote-unquote, isn’t present, than I just don’t draw or I don’t write, and then when that feeling is there it’s so overwhelming that I can’t not do that. I have to do that. That’s sort of what my process looks like at one stage.
At another stage, I think I definitely become a lot more of a curator or a scientist about it. I’ll take these jumbled ideas that are drifting around in multiple journals and notebooks, and then I’ll piece them together like a piece of a puzzle. It ends up being this kind of mind tickling, problem solving situation, where I have a bunch of disparate ideas that I pull together and turn into a legible lyric of sorts.
Sometimes they come flooding out all in one go and the song is done in an hour, and then sometimes it takes me a couple of weeks to string something together out of many, many different ideas. I don’t really like to put too many constraints on that process. I want the end result to be integrity and have a sincerity that people can pick up on.
Can you remember what song has taken you the longest to get through that process and complete?
There have been a handful of Incubus songs that have gone that way, one of which is a song called “Dig” from our record Light Grenades. “Dig” ended up being a single at one point. I think it’s a beautiful song. It says many things, and a lot of things it does I wasn’t even really aware of after the song was even finished. It kind of came to the fore after the song was released and I heard it on the radio one time. I was like, Oh, that’s what that song is about.
I remember laboring over the lyrics quite a bit, and I remember as a band we were laboring over the arrangements. Then, playing it live was difficult. We tried to make a music video for the song and it was an incredibly laborious process. They were trying to have it be a fan-made video. All these submissions came in and there was this kerfuffle where the winner had to be from the United States per our record label’s instruction, which we didn’t know about. All this crap.
The whole thing was almost like this burden, but then the end result is it’s a beautiful song. It’s a song with integrity and with sincerity, so it doesn’t really matter how long or how much work it took to get there.
There’s a track on The Wild Trapeze that had a lyric I labored over as well. It’s called “A Night Without Cars.” I really liked the way it turned out and I forget how hard it was to write. There’s a track on this Sons of the Sea record called “Great Escape,” which I remember the initial idea came really quickly. Then in that curating, scientific part, I just picked it to death [laughs], and then it became a difficult lyric to write.
Anyway, I’m actually really down for the challenge. It’s probably one of the reasons I still do it and still love to do it, is that I actually like the challenge of writing lyrics.
You mentioned stream of consciousness. Do you find that the stuff you write about is fairly autobiographical, or is it so fractured it becomes hard to pinpoint?
You know, it’s a little bit of both, to tell you the truth. There’s definitely some intentionally autobiographical material in almost everything I’ve ever written. I guess you could say my life or my experience thus far is the most cooperative muse.
I make very consistent mistakes in my life. I learn hard lessons, and I learn about those things through an abstractive externalization of them. I think that’s what a lot of artists do. You’ll draw out the things you’re feeling when you’re writing them down and form them into clever little sentences, and somehow it makes more sense to you. It’s a quasi-cathartic process.
Then, there’s stuff that’s just sort of absurd, which I think is just as essential. Stuff spews out and it doesn’t make any sense at all, at least in the short term. Then, like I said before, a year later you’ll hear that track in a store somewhere, or if you’re really lucky you’ll hear it on the radio, and a completely different perspective or context emerges. You’re like, “Oh, that’s what that song is about. Oh wow, I thought I was just writing nonsense. I was into something right there I wasn’t even aware of [laughs].” It’s definitely a rewarding process.
I wanted to briefly mention the last Incubus record, If Not Now, When? That was definitely the mellowest record you’ve done, and it seemed to be a bit more under the radar than your big rock stuff has been. Looking back on that record now, what do you think about it?
Each of them are different experiences, making records. Especially the longer we’re a band, each experience becomes less and less alike than the one that precedes it. That record was probably one of the more unique experiences, in that we were dealing with any number of extenuating circumstances that lead to the end result. For the most part, it was pretty rewarding to do them. I think there’s some lovely moments on the album, but it wasn’t without its challenges, that’s for sure.
We were at the end of our record contract with the record label we’ve been with for 17 years. We started to feel the, I guess you could say the contractual obligation they felt towards us. It started to wither away.
We felt it even leading up to the release when the album actually got leaked off of a Sony server, which was kind of devastating to us and to the first couple weeks of release. It had barely been done being mixed and it just kind of leaked out. So it was like, Well, OK, I guess it’s finished. It was the only one of ours that had ever leaked. There were a lot of things around that process that felt a little bit off, but you live and you learn.
Like I said, there are some lovely moments on the record, things that I think are classic Incubus moments, and then there are chances that we took that didn’t pan out as well as we would have hoped. That’s all part of the process. We can’t do it the same way twice. We can’t find a formula and continue to hack away at it, because once again that would be operating without integrity and I think people would see through that.
The 12th anniversary of Morning View was a week ago. That record is I believe your most successful to date, and I know is a lot of people’s favorite of yours. Reflecting back on that record and time period, what sticks out about that one to you?
It honestly feels like another lifetime ago in certain ways, and then in other ways it feels like it was just yesterday. I know that’s sort of the cliché answer. That was a moment where we just hit a stride. Any band is lucky to have a moment in their career where they hit a stride and things just start to flow. It’s the thing that any musician or artist of any kind is hoping they’ll tap into once or twice, or if they’re lucky more than that.
I think we had gotten to that point where we had been a band exactly about 10 years when we did Morning View. We started the band in 1991 and we started to record Morning View at the end of 2000, so we had been a band for about nine years. If we’re looking at it from the Malcolm Gladwell point of view, we were almost at that expert level. We had that 10,000 hours under our belt, maybe more because of all the shows we had played [laughs].
Also, we were at a moment in our lives in our 20s where we didn’t have any responsibilities still. We had barely gotten our own apartments and shit like that, so we moved into this big beautiful house and our only goal in life was to make a great record. None of us had a mortgage yet or any real responsibilities to speak of.
It’s one of those things where it was just a moment in time. It was a lot of fun, too. Honestly, part of it was because there was so little responsibility [laughs], but partly because we were in this moment where we were living in a dream scenario. It was our job to write good music and live in this house for five months in Malibu. It seems almost comically surreal now. I look back very on it fondly, and I’m so glad people enjoy that record still.