Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger will be the first person to tell you that his band have always pushed the limits and changed their identityand that always hasn't been such a good thing. On S.C.I.E.N.C.E. the band came roaring out of the gate as a heavy, pseudo-nu-metal band but in an abrupt turnaround, they toned down the guitars and the angst on Make Yourself, the follow-up record. They broke through with "Drive," a track driven by dark sounding acoustic guitars, and now five albums later [including the Monuments And Melodies greatest hits release] they've returned to a more organic, less high-powered sound. If Not Now, When? blends acoustic guitars with strings, Mellotrons, Einziger's eclectic sense of orchestration, and some lofty and heart-drench vocals from singer Brandon Boyd.
Five years have passed since the release of Light Grenades but the guitarist has still been busy. He went back to school, scored an Ozzy Osbourne documentary, and along with co-member Boyd, delivered a speech at Oxford University. Here, he talks about If Not Now, When? and how Incubus just doesn't seem to fit in anywhere.
UG: It's been over five years since Light Grenades was released. What brought you back into the studio to record If Not Now, When? It is an amazing record.
Mike Einziger: You're actually the first person that I've done an interview with who's heard the record. It's really interesting to hear how people react to it cause it's so strange for us. We work on these songs and write these songs and send them out into the world with sort of really no idea how people are gonna respond to them. So it's nice to hear that you enjoyed the songs.
Are you saying that writers who do interviews with you haven't listened to the music?
I've spoken to people who have asked me questions about the record but no journalist who has had an advance copy yet. We haven't really started with everything yet; we're kind of starting now. So this is itit's starting right now!
You bring up an interesting point about not knowing how people will respond to the music even though you've poured your heart and soul into the music.
I'm not objective the way a fan of the music would be or somebody who's not a fan and just listening to it or just doing their job and reviewing it or whatever. I just have such a different perspective on it because I live inside of that and I can't see it from the outside.
Which means you can never hear the music the way a fan might.
I wouldn't want to be able to experience it that wayI think it would be too terrifying.
That would be very strange. It has been five years since the Light Grenades album came out, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Were you afraid of losing any of that momentum during this period? What drove Incubus back into the studio at this point to record If Not Now, When?
Honestly? I think just the gravity of my friendships with the guys in the band is really what caused that to happenour friendships with each other. My musical relationship with Brandon has been going on for such a long timewe've been in a band for almost 20 years. It just got to this point where we had been going strong for such a long period of time that we really accomplished all of our goals. When we were young, when we were kids, we set out to make albums and tour the world and we sold out all the big venues and we got nominated for Grammys and we did all of those things that you can check off your list. You sell out Madison Square Garden and you sell out a soccer stadium in South Americaall of these things that you can check off the like sort of the kid's wish/dream list of every kid who wants to play in a rock band.
There was nothing left to prove?
We kind of did that so it just got to this point where it was like, OK, well what do we do now? Obviously there are lots of things to do but I think we wanted to take some time each of us personally to explore a little bit and find out what the rest of the world was like. Cause living in the world that we live in is kind of a bubbleit's its own strange bubble and it's wonderful and amazing. We could not be more fortunate but something else was calling for a little while so we took a little bit of time off. Well I wouldn't call it time off but everybody went and did some different things.
You went back to school?
I went to schoolI never had that experience of going to college and it was something that I kind of really always wanted to do.
Were you studying music?
I studied music and a lot of scienceI was really interested in studying science. I spent the last couple of years studying various physical sciences ranging from physics and quantum mechanics to human evolutionary biology and that kind of stuff. And I also did study some [music] theory and composition and stuff like that. It was also amazing that music is my whole life and I've centered my entire existence around making music and creating music and it actually astonished me how little I know about it. So that was another reason why I wanted to study was just to sort of feel how big of a place music actually is. And I got thatI studied music history. Music is so amazingyou can dedicate your entire lifetime to studying it and not even get close to mastering it or knowing everything there is to know about it. It's impossible but it's also the most rewarding and incredible thing I think that exists in the world.
Since we're talking about music, how did you get involved with the new Ozzy documentary, God Bless Ozzy Osbourne?
They just asked methey were putting this documentary together and a couple friends of mine were involved in the film but also I've known the Osbourne family for many years. They actually really helped us cultivate our career very early on. I think Jack Osbourne was an Incubus fan when he was really young and helped us get on those Ozzfest tours that we did back in '98 and 2000. Then we also toured with Black Sabbath with Sharon's support and the support of the family. So when it came time for this documentary to be mad, they needed a composer to write a score to kind of counter all the heavy rock music that was being played by Black Sabbath and Ozzy. And I think they had known I had written a bunch of music for the orchestra and I've been studying and they all knew I was off at Harvard doing this and that. They contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in getting involved and so I did and it was really fun. None of it is orchestral or anything like thatit's actually a very small score with mostly sort of atmospheric [music] with a lot of guitar and some violin. But basically it's just very ambient and very simple.
Did you have a chance to spend any time with Ozzy?
I spent time with Ozzy growing up sort of around that familynot like a lot of time but I spent a lot of time with the family. I spent a lot of time with Jack and Kelly and Sharon and I was just very familiar with their worldthey have their own little bubble, you know? What a great family for supporting my band and me as an artistthey're fantastic people.
In 2009, Incubus released the Monuments and Melodies album, which was a greatest hits for the band. If I was an Incubus fan and bought that record, would it tell me who the band were musically?
I mean, I think you'd have a good idea. We've always been a very multi-dimensional band almost to a fault so I think it's been difficult for people to describe what we are and what we sound like. I always thought the idea of the greatest hits album was a really cheesy idea. But then when the idea of releasing this albumsort of a best of collection of our songsI realized that a lot of music I was introduced to growing up was through greatest hits collections. I was introduced to Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix through their best of collections. They actually become important to the legacy of any band, I believe. I think it's a good way for fans who are interested in getting to know the music of the bandthey just want to have a good solid sampling of the work of the band from the band's repertoire of material. I think that's a great to get acquainted with the music and then if you want to you can dig deeper and go and listen to the individual albums but I actually think the greatest hits or the best of collection is a really valuable thing to the legacy of any band. And for us to even get to the point where we have one, I think, I just a testament to the sustainability of our music. It's lasted long enough for us to even get to this point to begin with.
There were no songs from the S.C.I.E.N.C.E. album on Monuments and Melodies.
The S.C.I.E.N.C.E. album was really us in our very adolescent phase and it's not that we don't like S.C.I.E.N.C.E. It's just that S.C.I.E.N.C.E. came out in 1997 and Make Yourself was released in 1999 and really didn't become commercially successful until well into 2000 and for the vast majority of people, that was their introduction to our bandit was from Make Yourself onward. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. has since gone on to actually sell close to a million copies in the US. and more than a million copies worldwide. But that didn't happen until the other records since Make Yourself and happened gradually over a period of years where we kept having more and more success with whatever current album we were touring behind at the time. So people were interested enough in the band to want to go back and hear our older material. But I think from Make Yourself onward, the majority of our fans were introduced to the band.
How do the songs on S.C.I.E.N.C.E. sound to you now?
The music from S.C.I.E.N.C.E. feels like it was so long ago; it feels actually like from another lifetime really. It really does. Those were songs we wrote when we were teenagers; I'm 35 now.
When you hear New Skin and A Certain Shade of Green how do you feel?
I look back on it fondly because it was a really exciting time to be writing that music, you know? But it's a bit like trying on clothes that you wore when you were a child and you're an adult now and they don't fit [laughs]. That's sort of what it feels like.
Do you think the change in style from S.C.I.E.N.C.E. to Make Yourself is similar to the change from Light Grenades to If Not Now, When?
I think that's a very accurate observation from the inside, you know? I had a lot of similar feelings writing this album that I did when we started writing Make Yourself. It felt like it was time for kind of a massive overhaulit just felt like, OK, we've gotten to the end of an era of the music that we were writing and it's time to do something very different that was going to polarize the people who had been previously listening to us.
This goes back to what you just said about being a multi-dimensional band and how that has maybe alienated your audience at times.
We knew that we started writing Make Yourself that we were possibly alienated people who had come to love this really sort of frenetic, heavy band. But I change a mile per minute and even moreso back then. I think the music I was listening to and the stuff that I was influenced by was just changing so rapidly and I was really just finding my feet as a musician writing the earlier material. But just the fact that we could be here like 11 years later after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. came out. It's been 11 year, right? Am I counting correctly? S.C.I.E.N.C.E. came out in '97.
It's been longer than thatit's been 14 years.
Geez. But here we are talking about those albums and I think it's great that they've lasted this long.
Which is vindication for the creative choices you made.
Yeah. It's like when Make Yourself was being written, there were parts of it that felt scary because it was just knowing that we are changing what we're doing very drastically. But there was also a really strong confidence that I remember I had personally going into that. I was very unapologetic about it and it was just what I wanted to do and everybody else in the band all had the same vision for it.
You had those same emotions in writing If Not Now, When?
This time around I felt many similar feelings that we were changing things around in the band. It's the same thingyou go through these feelings of, Wow, does this suck? Is this good? Is this awful? But we've always followed our own compass and it's led us to the right places.
Do songs like Drive from Make Yourself and Talk Shows On Mute from A Crow Left Of the Murder have a direct connection to the material on If Not Now, When? Those earlier songs were more organic and less complex.
As far as things being less complex, it's so funny. We have a lot of interactions with our fans; we're very involved with things and we do a lot where we communicate directly with our fans through the Internet and our website and through our manager. We care very deeply about our fans and so I get a lot of comments or a lot of questions from sometimes angry fans saying, Why don't you write more complex music like you did on A Crow Left Of the Murder and like you did off S.C.I.E.N.C.E.? Where's the intricate time changes and where are the crazy guitar solos? To that I respond when you actually take the time to go and look at music in a broad sense, when you go and study the work of Debussy, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Chopin and Bartok and all these incredible composers, the music that I wrote and the guitar riffs that people think are complex? They're not complex; there's nothing complex about them. They're actually really, really simple. I'm aware of the fact that maybe some people think that those things are complicated. There are some contemporary examples of bands that play music that I think the majority of people who listen to those bands think that music is complex.
Are you talking about prog?
There was kind of like this prog rock resurgence that happened a few years ago and people were very sort of in awe of all of this complicated music and syncopated beats and clever time changes and stuff like that. But when you compare it to the repertoire of classical music, there's really just nothing complicated about any of thatnot even close.
You obviously came away with a different perspective after your studies.
I was really humbled when I started learning about all those things. Maybe my desire to return to simplicity or even to just go to simplicitybecause I've never really written music that simple beforeis sort of a response to maybe having a better or larger perspective of the overall musical landscape that I've never had before.
"I wouldn't want to hear our music the way a fan might I think it would be too terrifying."
Tomorrow's Food was written back in 2009 and was the first song written for If Not Now, When? After you'd written that song, could you sense the change in direction the band was going in?
I don't really know because at the time that we wrote that song, it was written at a funny time. It was written at a time when I didn't know whether or not we were going to go back and start working on new music for a new album. I'd been off at Harvard for a while and Brandon was really focusing on painting and for a little while there we didn't have all that much communication. I mean we still spoke like every couple weeks or something but for us we're used to living with each other. So we were kind of separated for the first time and also I was living on the east coast and so I was not in proximity. I just sort of wrote that guitar part, the chord progression and the changes and stuff and Brandon just sort of responded to it. I wasn't really expecting him; I think I might have just sent it to him because that's what I doI send him random musical ideas and I just thought that was a cool piece of music.
So Brandon turned that riff into Tomorrow's Food.
I wasn't expecting him to really do anything with it but then all of a sudden he wrote lyrics and recorded his vocal melodies over it and I was just kind of shocked. It was like, Wow, this is really cool. Shortly thereafter, Brandon and I spoke at Oxford University, which was a really incredible experience and they wanted us to play some music while we were there so that was actually what we chose to play.
Did you continue in that direction?
We kind of just put it aside and then when we started working on new music for this album, I think we always knew that we wanted to record it in the studio and make it really great. But that actually was one of the last things that we did for this albumit was done kind of at the end. Yeah, it was almost like we knew that moment was gonna be really fun and I was really looking forward to writing string arrangements for it and kind of just making it really cool. It was greatit was like dessert.
Brandon had described Adolescents, the first single as being the most recognizable song on the album. What are those elements that make an Incubus song recognizable?
I think it's the most easily digestible song for our fans. I was surprised when we turned all this music in, Adolescents was actually the last song we wrote for this album. We actually had a few other songs that we left off of the album and we didn't even know if we were going to put Adolescents on the album. It was kinda like one of the floater songs [laughs]. I mean we loved all the songs but we wanted to make an 11-song record; we didn't want to have a 13-song record. We wanted it to be less is more. Everybody that we played the music for seemed to just automatically think that song would be a good segue into this album for our fans.
Is it the song you would have picked as the first single?
It wouldn't necessarily have been what I would have chosen to have released as a first single. I mean I don't really know if we're really calling it the first singleit's more like a teaser. Like the first single really is gonna be a song called Promises, Promises, which is really the first single and that's coming out in a few weeks. But the elements of that I think are through lines to older material, I think are just the fact that it's a louder, harder rock song. I guess it's more uptempo and kind of a rockin' guitar solo in that song. Again, it's a little hard for me to see it objectively because I've lived inside of it.
On the video for Adolescents you're playing a PRS. Have you put the Jazzmaster aside? You don't like to talk about gear but could you offer a few words on this?
No, I'll talk about guitars. That particular guitar is actually a very special guitar for me and the choice to play it in the video was kind of random because I don't play PRS guitars anymore and I haven't for a very long time. That particular guitar was a custom guitar that they made for me back during the Make Yourself days and it was this really nice guitar where I had picked out the wood for it.
Why didn't you play it?
There were some issues with a particular employee of Paul Reed Smith who actually ended up later going to jail for his conduct. So he had some problems and I had kind of a falling out with them and this specific person there. After that fallout happened I just said I didn't want any of his guitars anymorejust fuck em and get rid of em. So I auctioned that guitar off to charity and I think it sold for $15,000 or something and this girl's parents bought it for her and she ended up becoming a friend of the band. She's actually a very talented photographer and she would come to a lot of shows and take a lot of pictures and then she would give us the pictures that she had taken; she had a lot of great shots. We used them for different things and she always said to me, If you ever want to play that guitar again, you're more than welcome to use so I just decided to use it. It was kinda nice to spend a little bit of time with that instrument again cause I haven't seen it in a long time.
What were the main guitars and amps you used on If Not Now, When?
I recorded pretty much all of my guitars at my houseTomorrow's Food is the bathroom reverb at my house! I was in Guitar Center in Hollywood and I found this Squire Telecaster and I loved it and bought it. I hadn't really had that affinity for any guitar in kind of a while so I got this stock Squire. I used that for many, many of the songs including Tomorrow's Food. I did use my white Jazzmaster that I used on a lot of A Crow Left Of the Murder and Light Grenades. I have a lot of Gibson SGs that I've been using in more recent years and those are all over the place, too. I also have an early 80s black American Strat that's really solid. As far as amps are concerned, I have a couple Mesa/Boogie Trem-O-Verb 2/12 Combos and so I used those quite a bit. I used a Fender Twin Reverb, which I really love and also a new amp that Ben, our bass player, gave me. It's like a little 10 Fender tube amp, a new one, and those things are awesome. I have a pretty big pedalboard and I didn't really add anything to that except for a [Electro-Harmonix] Micro POG [Polyphonic Octave Generator]. I used that for the solo section on Promises, Promises.
You held a contest for your fans to do their own versions of Promises, Promises. How did that turn out?
I have heard some of the entrees and they're astonishingly good actuallyI'm actually a little humbled by it. It's actually really inspiring because our album got leaked. People are always asking me, What do you think about that? and what I think about it is irrelevant because I'm not the one in control of that. I feel bad about it because it kind of ruins the buildup of releasing an album but at the same time it's just the world we live in. What we really wanted to do was I wanted to write out the score of the songat least the piano and the vocal partsand then just release that and have kids hash it out for themselves. Rather than hearing the song first, Here is the score and do it based on the score and see what happens. So that was the plan but the album leaked and then we decided, OK, even though they've heard this song already, we're just gonna continue as planned. So, yeah, we did and it's been really inspiring to see the responses we've gotten.
"Music is so amazingyou can dedicate your entire lifetime to studying it and not even get close to mastering it or knowing everything there is to know about it."
The title track, If Not Now, When? has that great pulsing bass line that sort of propels the whole song.
It's a synth called a Tenori [Yamaha].
Are you playing mandolin on that song?
That's a Mellotron mandolin. [Chris] Kilmore has become like such a gearhead and he just got this incredible new Mellotron that they released. It offers all these different sounds that I'd actually never heard before and one of them is a mandolin. That was really fun making that songwe did a lot of that at my house and so Brandon and Kil' would come over and we'd just be sitting there with that Mellotron. We made jokes about that Mellotron a lot actuallywe called it the Popeye keyboard because we're all really big fans of Harry Nilsson and his score of the Popeye film in the early 80s . All you have to do is grab that Mellotron and anything you start playing sounds like it came from that film so we called it the Popeye keyboard.
Your playing on Friends and Lovers had almost country and jazz stuff mixed in there.
I don't even know what it isI really just don't know. I just play it.
There are also a fair amount of acoustics on the record.
Yeah. Whatever it was that felt right, I just did and we just did as a group. I wish I had a more dramatic explanation for it than that but I don't.
Defiance is the stripped down acoustic guitar and vocal track?
That's livethat's just Brandon and I sitting next to each other and a couple of microphones and that's all that is.
What type of acoustic guitar did you use on the album?
I have a 1930s Gibson with a smaller body that I used on a lot of stuff and then Brendon O'Brien, our producer, has a really incredible collection of guitars and he's got a bunch of old Martins and stuff and I think I used one of the Martins for Defiance.
You worked with Brendan O'Brien on Light Grenades and A Crow Left Of the Murder. You knew you wanted to work with Brendan again on this new album?
I love Brendan and I consider him like a family member. Over the years he's been like a musical confidante and he's been very loyal and very helpful. He's gotten involved in other stuff that he didn't have to get involved with outside of the band. I made a record with Jason Schwartzman a few years back [Nighttiming] for [his] Coconut Records [project] and Brendan came in and helped us mix it and it was really awesome of him to do that. He's just a great guy, a really standup guy and knows how to get incredible sounds and is a really, really amazing musician in his own right; he can play circles around anybody in the band except for Ben [Kenney, bass player]; Ben is such a badass player. But Brendan is a legend.
We spoke together during the Light Grenades album and you described guitar solos as being events that happen. Do you still see them in that same random fashion?
Yeah, I think so. I've always approached guitar solos the same wayI don't feel I approach them any differently now than I did before. It's just I've always had this sort of mantra of If I can make everybody start laughing in the studio, then I've done my job for the guitar solo. Like if people start laughing when they hear it for some reason? I guess I'm just trying to create some kind of weird sculpture and it's a really fun way of approaching it, I think.
Do you feel any kinship to bands like 30 Seconds to Mars [was involved in string parts for the band's This Is War album in 2009] or Interpol?
I have friends in bands and stuff like that but as far as our band goes, I've always felt very separate from everybody elseI really have. I think we have as a band. We've never been part of a scene. People used to lump us in with all the nu-metal bands back in the late 90s but we never felt like we were part of that. We played with those bands because we were trying to have a career and play in front of audiences and those were some of the opportunities that presented themselves to us. But a lot of that music was so angry and sort of misogynistic and we didn't identify with any of that. Maybe Make Yourself might have been really kind of a response to that. In fact I probably said it in past interviews; writing a song like Drive might have been a response to being on tour with all these really heavy bands that we didn't feel like we fit in with.
Incubus will be touring in Kuala Lampur, Jakarta, Manila, South Korea and Japanare you looking forward to that?
We've been to a lot of those places before. We made a commitment very early on in our career that we really wanted to travel the world and bring our music to places that really wouldn't otherwise hear it unless we made it happen ourselves. We did that and it's just been amazing for usnow we get to go back to those places and we're gonna find some news ones, too. We've never been to India and there are a lot of places we've never been to but we're gonna get there and try and hit em all this time.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I spent a lot of time with Jack and Kelly and Sharon Osbourne and I was just very familiar with their world."