Incubus

Interview: Mike Einziger on 26 Years of Incubus and How ‘8’ Reenergized the Band

Incubus guitarist, Mike Einziger, details the inside challenges making the band’s new album 8, why working with Skrillex proved instrumental in sparking the band, his career-long curiosity with creativity, and how advances in technology have impacted modern music.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hearing you guys talk about this album, you get the sense you still genuinely enjoy making new music and recording albums, which is cool to see for a band that started all the way back in 1991. What do you think has allowed you to keep that up and was there a time where maybe that wasn’t as true?

All of us can’t believe that we’re still able to be making music or have a career that has lasted this long. None of us expected it in the first place. We were just a bunch of kids making music in a garage, like every other band that starts. Having a long career is something none of us could have planned, but all of us feel extremely fortunate. Our whole career has been a surprise.

As far as it being fun or inspiring, that’s why things have slowed down, at least in recent years. As we’ve gotten older, it’s gotten more challenging to find inspiration and to find the true motivation to be able to write music together as a band and do it from a place of honesty and sincerity. That’s why it takes us longer to make records.

When you’re making your eighth album, or your seventh album or your sixth album, we don’t want to repeat what we’ve already done. We don’t want to do the same thing we’ve done a million times. It’s got to feel exciting in some way. We wait for that to happen, so that’s why it takes a bit longer maybe than it has in the past. We genuinely don’t plan these things at all.

We can’t really control the process like that. At times I wish I could, but it has to feel genuine for all of us or it’s not going to work. It’s not going to happen. We know that might be frustrating for our fans at times, but in order for us to make music that feels honest and sincere, we have to wait until that happens. But luckily it happened again for us, and we have an album full of music that we’re excited to share for people.

In one of the interviews Brandon was saying how this might have been his hardest record to write, which is kind of what you’re alluding to there. What was so tricky about this particular record and how were you able to creatively break through it?

What was challenging with Brandon is we’ve written a lot of music together and over time have developed habits with the way that we write. It’s a good thing, but it’s also a good thing to evolve and to continue to find new ways to do things. I think that’s necessary because we all keep growing and changing, and music keeps growing and changing. An important part of being a musician is evolving.

With Brandon particularly, he was pushed in different directions this time. Maybe there were times in the past where the first thing he came up with, or maybe the first idea he brought in, ended up being either the best one or the idea that ended up on the album. If he brought something in, at certain times everybody would have just been like, “Oh cool. Sounds good.” This time around, it was like, “Hey, let’s try this differently in this part. Let’s keep going and not leave it at that.”

That’s difficult for anybody, but everybody in the band has to go through that process. It’s not like Brandon is alone in that. It’s something we focused on a little bit more than we have in the past. I think that’s what he’s referring to, having to spend more time and energy after you think something is finished because somebody else says, “I don’t think that’s finished. Let’s keep working.”

It’s continually challenging, but we’re a band. If you’re making a solo record or whatever, you don’t have to listen to what anybody else says. But in a band, it’s more democratic. The process becomes a little more difficult and a little more time consuming.

Originally I think the idea was to do Trust Fall (Side B), which then ended up evolving into 8. What was it like figuring out what you wanted to do on this album, shelving that second EP approach and expanding it out into a full-length?

It wasn’t so much shelving the EP approach. We started writing and realized we had more than an EP’s worth of material that we wanted to pursue and release. Also, having put out the EP, we really realized our audience doesn’t want an EP. They want an album [laughs].

When we released the EP, we were in experimental mode. Things are a little different now. People are consuming music differently than the last time we put out an album. Let’s see what happens when we put a few songs together and see how people react to it.

It was a very mixed bag. Even aside to whatever people thought of the music, the fact that we put out an EP and then went on the road and played shows, it was really obvious that our audience wants albums. That’s cool. That’s totally fine. We were just testing the waters with that, so it all worked out well.

We’re in such a singles-driven music culture now, that’s cool to hear that Incubus fans still want full-length albums and longer projects.

Yeah. Like you said before, we’ve been around for a really long time and we have a unique connection with our audience. It just is what it is. That’s one thing that I love about this band. I feel like we’ve carved our own path. Of course, we’re subject to all the same ups and downs as the rest of the music world, but at the same time it feels like we’re kind of separate from everything else.

We’ve never felt like we fit in anywhere. I think we’re the only band, as far as tours go, that’s done Ozzfest, Lollapalooza and Warped Tour. We never fit on any of them. We would tour with these really heavy bands earlier in our career, and it was always funny because we never thought we fit in with the heavier bands. But then if we would tour with a more mellow or a more pop group of artists, we were always the really heavy one, and that felt super weird for us.

We were always friends with lots of other bands, but we never felt like we fit in with any kind of music scene or anything like that. It feels good to at least feel like we have our own ecosystem that revolves around our music and what our audience likes and dislikes. That’s pretty cool.

You worked with some new people on this record. Dave Sardy throughout most of it and then Skrillex came in for two weeks towards the end. What was it like to hear their ideas and approaches to things?

Like I mentioned before, it’s necessary to keep evolving as we get older and progress in our lives and careers. Introducing new ideas into anything is necessary, especially anything you do long-term like that. Our work with Dave was really vital to the songwriting process, getting ideas out into the open, trying to see them objectively and then trying them in a bunch of ways. Dave’s most important role was overseeing that process.

The album was close to being done, but didn’t feel quite finished yet. It ended up going through an additional transformation before it was finally done with Sonny, with Skrillex. That was also really unplanned. It happened in a really organic, fun way that really energized everybody. It was really important for that to happen.

The further you get into your career, the harder it is to find those moments of energetic, unexpected spontaneity. It gets harder to find those. When Sonny jumped in, it was really fun and it was really exciting. It brought the whole band together in a way that I’m thankful for.

One of my favorite songs on the record is the opener “No Fun,” which has one of those classic propulsive Incubus guitar riffs. What was it like writing that song?

That song is a really interesting example. At least before Sonny came into the mix, that song I can’t even say would have made it onto the album. We started changing around little pieces here and there. It had more to do with rearranging the song and changing the order of some of the parts, and even cutting certain pieces out. It ended up feeling like a totally different song and became the first song on the album. And that all happened right at the end during the time we were working with Sonny.

That’s a good example of how transformational that period of time was for the identity of what this album is. To me, I love that song, too. I think our audience is really going to enjoy it. Most of the album is upbeat and high energy, a bit more aggressive than the music we’ve written recently. I know that our audience wants that.

Are there other songs you enjoyed working on and were exciting to finish?

Yeah, definitely. The song “Familiar Faces” was the same way, and so was another song called “Love in a Time of Surveillance.” All of those songs turned out really great. They just kind of transformed there at the end. They became some of my favorite songs on the album, and there might have been a chance those songs wouldn’t have been on the album at all.

It’s funny how you can change certain things, even if they’re small things, and they can make a really big difference in the way a piece of music feels, or the way it’s delivered or the message it somehow conveys. Just by changing a couple of small things can have a really big impact on the way a song feels. It was really fun, but that’s what you get when you work with a great producer.

It becomes difficult as an artist with your own music, if you’re the producer, to be able to see the things that maybe are lacking or that need to be changed in a song to make them feel as great as they can be. But again, that’s totally subjective. Music is completely subjective. One person can listen to it and think that it’s awesome, and the next person will say it sucks. You just never really know.

One of the reasons why we’ve been around for so long is we’ve followed our instincts. We like to think we’re right about it more times than not.

What’s the story behind “When I Became a Man?”

Let’s just call it an improvisation [laughs]. We spent one afternoon in the studio. We said, OK, there’s going to be one day where we get together and we’re all going to play different instruments. We’re going to mess around and see what happens. It can be funny. It can be anything that we want.

So we have a couple hours worth of music where we were messing around and having fun. “When I Became a Man” is a very specific one-minute long section of that. Then there’s another song called “Make No Sound in the Digital Forest.” That’s about four minutes of that same day’s events of making music. Those are two pieces of improvisation we put on the album just to change it up because those moments felt spontaneous and interesting to us.

“I’m always hoping to stay curious about creativity in general, about the music making process, about the songwriting process, so I’m always trying to feed my mind things that it wants.”


You personally have had this fascinating career arc where you went to Harvard and studied music theory and physics, you’ve composed all this orchestra stuff, you’ve worked on film scores with Hans Zimmer, you’ve done a bunch of work in the electronic music field. What’s it been like to work on all those different avenues? Has it changed your perspective when it comes time to make more rock music?

That’s cool that you’ve kept track of all that stuff. For me, I’m always trying to do things that are interesting. I’m always hoping to stay curious about creativity in general, about the music making process, about the songwriting process, so I’m always trying to feed my mind things that it wants. Especially in more recent years, branching out and working with a lot of different artists, that was really fun for me. I felt like I was learning about how other people make music. That’s really what it is.

Being in a band for 26 years and making music with the same people in largely the same process, I thought it would be really interesting to work with some different people and find out how they work, and how they make music and are interacting with their audiences. Especially working with Tyler, The Creator or this group called the Internet, being around younger artists expanded my experiential role in making music. Skrillex has pulled me into a few of his projects in the past, and we’ve been friends for a few years.

It was really interesting because all this music making outside of the band, working with Avicii or whatever, those experiences really felt separate to me and part of a different music identity. I wasn’t really sure how that would fit into the band. Finishing up this album with Sonny was an interesting way for me to meld my two different musical identities, one in the band and one out of the band. It was more indicative of the way I’ve gotten to make music with other artists and less so the way Incubus tends to make music.

So it was interesting to see the other guys in the band adapting to that process. It was interesting to see Brandon working with Sonny. It was interesting to see how José and Kilmore were interacting with him. The way they would talk about their ideas with him was much more inline with the way I would be working with some of the other artists that I’ve gotten to work with in recent years.

It felt good. It felt really good. It was exciting, actually. It’s something that will set Incubus up for the future in a really interesting, good way. The next time we make an album, the next time we write songs, I can’t predict how it will be, but I know that we want to do it again because it was so interesting this time. We all ended the recording process on such a high note and it was really good for us.

Having done all these different musical projects, are there things still out there that you are interested in trying out? What excites you most about the future and to keep scratching the creative itch that you have?

It’s tough to say. Thankfully, I’m still interested in making music. I’m still interested in learning more about the process. I’m glad my creativity hasn’t gone away in any way, shape or form. Right now, the only thing I’m focused on is going out on the road and playing all this new music for people that are excited to hear it. The record making process felt really good and ended really well, but it was also a challenging process and really tiring at certain times.

I feel like I’m in a good place now where we’ve wrapped this chapter up, are about to start a new one, and I’m waiting for everything to get crazy. Our tour is coming up in a couple months and we’re getting ready for all of it. I know that a lot of interesting things are going to happen over the next year. I’m not quite sure yet what they’re going to be, but I’m excited for whatever they are.

So being around as long as you have, you said you’ve never felt like you’ve fit in, but you’ve also seen so many different bands and trends and musical styles come and go over the years. What do you make of the state of rock music in 2017? How do you think Incubus fits into this modern landscape?

How music has changed and where we fit in is an interesting thing. In recent years, music went very electronic, and I know I’m speaking really generally. Hip-hop and pop music are unbelievably popular with young kids. Rock music doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a central platform. There used to be MTV 15 or 20 years ago, which was such a central place where people discovered music. Now people are discovering music in many places.

It’s not that there aren’t places for people to discover rock music, it’s that there are too many. There’s so many places where people are getting music and listening to music. There’s so many people making it that there’s a massive ocean of different stuff out there. You have to figure out where you want to start and where you want to look. There’s so much, it’s unbelievable.

The music that became commercially popular started not having guitars in it. It’s all programmed and it’s all electronic. But there’s something about where we are right now that feels like people are starting to want live music played by musicians a little more. I don’t know if that’s true, but I feel that way. I feel like people are starting to want some of those natural, organic elements in music that maybe have been missing over the last few years.

And there’s a lot of great stuff out there. A lot of really interesting music is being made, and there’s tons of really run-of-the-mill, bad pop music. But it’s always been that way. You’re always going to find that.

Technology has been really powerful for music. It’s allowed people to make incredible sounding recordings without having much in the way of resources. Technology has democratized the way that people make music. It’s made it so that any kid with a laptop can literally become a world famous artist overnight. That is really attractive to a lot of people, so there are a lot of people trying to do it.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I actually think it’s really awesome that a kid can be sitting in his room and then the next day can have written a song and posted it on a media outlet, like YouTube or SoundCloud or Beatport, and have literally millions of people listening to it for the first time. That option didn’t exist when Incubus was first making music. That was not even a possibility. So it’s really interesting to see how technology has changed the world of music making. Wherever it’s going to go is exciting and I want to be part of it in some way.

I want to interact with my fellow musicians. To me that’s the greatest part, is the collaborative nature of making music. If I just wanted to make music by myself, I would, but ultimately I like making music with other people. I like collaborating with other people, because to me that’s what’s fun about the process.

Do you ever wonder how different Incubus would have turned out if all this technology was available when you were first starting?

It would have been a totally different world. If all this technology was available, if Incubus started in 2017, we would sound totally, completely, 100 percent different than we did in the 1990s. We put out our first full-length album in 1995, which was Fungus Amongus, and Fungus Amongus was not even an album. It was a compilation of all the demos we made while we were in high school.

Making recordings back then was really challenging, especially for a bunch of high school kids. We didn’t have access to anything. We didn’t have money to make recordings. We didn’t have a studio. We didn’t have any equipment. We didn’t know how to use the equipment. But we slowly began to meet certain people. We ended up working with a producer who owned a recording studio, all of that kind of stuff, because you couldn’t make records if you were a teenager and didn’t have a relationship with someone who owned a studio.

Nobody in my family is in the entertainment industry whatsoever. I live in L.A. I grew up in L.A. A lot of other people have those recourses, but we didn’t. We had to find them somehow. The struggle of having to figure out how to find people to show you how to make music, or getting someone interested enough in what you’re doing to take you under their wing, those are things that are challenging for emerging artists to find.

Technology in today’s world has opened that world up to virtually anybody. Anyone can manage to get access to a laptop, and maybe a microphone or something you can plug an instrument into, like a keyboard and a USB cable. You can look at it and be like, that sucks. It should be hard. It should be difficult. But I look at it from the other perspective. I think it’s a beautiful thing that anyone can make music, and we get to listen to some really interesting stuff as a result.

8 is out April 21 on Island Records. Find Mike Einziger on Twitter and Incubus on Facebook, Twitter and Spotify.

Jonathan Bautts
Jonathan Bautts Jonathan Bautts is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @bautts on Twitter and on Facebook.
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