BRANDON BOYD is squeezing his threadbare shoes, showing off the “little mouths” that have formed in the cracked soles. “I wear clothing until it falls off of me,” he says, proudly pointing to a Frankenstein T-shirt that is on the verge of boasting more holes than material. My throwaway comment on the U.A.E.’s fondness for things that are the tallest, fastest, biggest or first in the world has led the Incubus singer to hunt for his own contribution to the country’s growing list of Guinness-bothering accomplishments. “I definitely have the holey-est shirt,” he concludes half-heartedly, like he knows he could do better.
Boyd sits in his dressing room behind the stage of Abu Dhabi’s Yas Arena. It’s Incubus’s second visit to the U.A.E., but their first time in the capital. In 2007, the Californian band played Dubai’s Desert Rock festival, second on the bill to Robert Plant – on meeting the Led Zeppelin vocalist, Boyd only remembers smiling, shaking his hand and trying not to say anything stupid – but tonight they’re headlining the second night of Abu Dhabi’s Formula 1 celebrations. In the background, support act The Cult’s soundcheck causes the stage, and Boyd’s dressing room, to thrum.
Back in 2007, Incubus had recently released Light Grenades. A little less than five years later, and the band are touring off the back of seventh LP If Not Now, When? – their first studio album (not counting 2009’s hits compilation, Monuments and Melodies) since that Dubai show. It’s the longest gap between records that the band has ever taken and has resulted in perhaps their most cohesively mellow effort to date.
The break – the band have taken to regally referring to it as ‘The Hiatus’ – allowed Incubus to pause and take a breath, something that they’ve never been able to do before. Boyd, guitarist Mike Einziger, drummer Jose Pasillas and bassist Alex Katunich formed the group in 1991 when they were just 15 years old. Four years later they released the self-produced Fungus Amongus and, in 1997, after adding turntablist Gavin Koppell, the band’s major label debut, six-track EP Enjoy Incubus was released on Epic. Just eight months later, their cult classic album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. came out.
Last November marked the band’s 20th birthday which, with Boyd yet to turn 36, means he’s been in Incubus for longer than he hasn’t. The break from recording, which the band announced back in 2008, gave them a much-needed chance to see what ‘normal’ life was like. “I spent so much time – my entire twenties and the first part of my thirties – on tour and on the road,” Boyd says. “And it was a beautiful experience, but I’ve never really had a chance to plant any roots. So [the break allowed me] to go home, relax and unpack. Get to know my family, establish some kind of relationship with another human being.”
But while Boyd and the rest of the band made the most of the opportunity to pursue other things – Einziger studied music composition at Harvard, Pasillas started a family, while turntablist and keyboardist Chris Kilmore and bassist Ben Kenney (who replaced Koppell and Katunich respectively) also explored other avenues – their creative sides still needed nurturing. “We all kind of have that creative bug. You’ve got to feel like you’re getting into something at all times, even when you’re relaxing,” Boyd explains. “So, in the event that the guys weren’t necessarily ready to make an Incubus record, I had so much music and sound welling up in me that I needed to do something with it.”
The result was Boyd’s first solo album, The Wild Trapeze, a project that, he insists, was never originally intended for release. “I was just sort of writing these ideas down and doing bad recordings of them, and I just decided that they weren’t really Incubus songs. So I made the decision, the scary decision, to try it on my own, and just see what would happen […] And then when I finished it, I decided that it was as important a part of the process as anything to let go of it. And be judged.” Trapeze, which was recorded in a converted Amish barn in upstate New York, was a hugely cathartic exercise for Boyd. “The only limitation in that process was my lack of musicianship,” he says. “Which is a big limitation. But it was a part of that catharsis to understand my limitations as a physical musician, because that’s never been my role in this band. I’ve always been the lyricist and the singer, and the melodicist – if that’s even a word. I have no idea what the record means in the grand scheme of the Incubus legacy, or if it was a betrayal to our fans, if I alienated people, I’ve no idea – it’s too soon to tell. No one has ever come up to me and said ‘I hated that record, why did you do that?’”
He pauses a moment, considering what he’s just said. “I don’t think they would though. [Laughs] And I appreciate that sensitivity. But there have been a bunch of kids who’ve approached me and genuinely enjoyed it, and enjoyed the contrast it created to what we [as Incubus] do.
DESPITE ENJOYING THE TIME OFF, the band members did feel the call to record again. If Not Now, When? was released in July and marked yet another shift in the band’s ever-changing musical style. The album is the most structured Incubus have ever put out. Before the release of 2006’s Light Grenades, Einziger told MTV that the record sounded like “13 different bands playing 13 different songs... Every time we’re about to start making a new album, I tell myself, ‘OK, this one’s going to be cohesive,’ and it never happens.” Boyd laughs when that particular observation is brought up. “Every record we’ve ever written up until this one was done on the heels of very extensive world touring. And when you’re touring, you’re getting snapshots of a different city every single day. So it’s not surprising to me that most of our records came across that way. But on this one we were home. I was more focused than I’ve ever been, and I know Michael was more focused on learning about music than he’d ever been. In a lot of ways it was more deliberate, almost as if we’d said: ‘It is now time for us to go and make a record.’ It was like an adult decision. And it’s funny, because the record kinda sounds like that.”
Perhaps as a result of the five-year break, the contrast of If Not Now, When? with previous Incubus material was widely held up as the defining aspect of the record. But for Boyd, it’s a move that they’ve been threatening to make for a while. “We’ve been trending in certain directions for quite a long time. You can even look at a song that is now… wow… we wrote “Drive” in 1998. It came out as a single in early 2001. To me, “Drive” would be more appropriate for this new record. It could fit in there. But on every record we’ve done, even on the more obscure records like A Crow Left of the Murder, there were tendencies towards more melodically driven, I guess you could call it mellow psychedelia – that’s how I think about the music that we write.” Boyd also admits that there are certain expectations that greet each and every new Incubus record. “We can write some pretty cantankerous, bombastic psychedelic rock, which is a lot of fun to do. But we realized that we’ve become known for that, in a lot of ways, by a lot of our hardcore fans. So that knowing has informed the kind of record that we made. We’re continually trying to venture into novel territory as a band, and it gets more and more challenging to do the longer that we are a band.”
Boyd and co. have been pigeonholed into so many different genres, you’d think it would be pretty much impossible for them to actually do anything that would be considered new. There aren’t many acts that have been given more labels than Incubus. As my list of examples reaches 10 (including alt-punk, nu-alt-punk, nu-rock and pop-metal), Boyd sighs. “It’s been rare that I’ve indulged the act of reading into what music reviewers and critics are writing. In all honesty, there’s not a lot that the music press has written about us at all. I won’t really even try to guess as to why. I’ve definitely gotten a tougher skin as I’ve gotten older, but for the most part I’m still pretty sensitive. So the times when I have broken down and checked it out, it’s been like, ‘Oh my god. Is that how you view us? Is that how you view me?’” One particular genre tag that causes Boyd’s mellow persona to change, if only for a minute, has dogged them since the band’s early days. “The one that always comes back to haunt us is the nu-metal one. I’ve always found it to be shameful. I find that whole period of music, in the grand scheme of the evolution of rock & roll, to be a dark period. It actually hurts that we get associated with that. And even if we did unintentionally have something to do with it at its inception, I kind of despise it. I never really listen to that kind of music. I don’t listen to that kind of music.” In fairness, I add, that label only really gets used in relation to S.C.I.E.N.C.E., which would have been many people’s first introduction to the band. “[That album] is what we get brought back to all the time, and it’s by far our most left-field album. It just happened to be our first record too. That’s the thing you can never take back, that first impression. But, all that being said, I can’t begrudge it that much because it won us a lot of listeners over the years, and a lot of those have come along with us on the ride. And so we fast-forward to now, we put out a record that could not be any more different than S.C.I.E.N.C.E., and there are people who loved that record who now hate us. But I’ve talked to a bunch of people who’ve been very honest with me, and have said ‘I’ve grown up with you guys, and this is where I’m at too. So thank you.’ I do my best to focus on those.”
THE BAND HAVE GROWN UP. They’re a long way from the teenagers that carved out a reputation on Sunset Strip, decked out in skater shoes, baggy T-shirts and dreads. And with that maturation has come a more philosophical outlook on life, which naturally manifests in the music. “We’ve been in this band for over half our lives,” Boyd says. “It quite literally is an alternate reality that we’ve created for ourselves. And so it is, at times, triumphant and blissful in that alternate reality we’ve created. But at other times it can be quite confusing too, because you find yourself in the inevitable moment of questioning; What do we mean? What did we mean? What are we now? I think these are appropriate questions for anyone at this age. As a lyricist it’s my job to self-reflect, and I’m at that age when you really start to wonder, ‘What am I doing? What do I want to do? And why?’ [Laughs] And it’s my job to write all of those things down, and form them into coherent enough thoughts to share with people.”
The mature, reflective place that Boyd finds himself in excites him. Where If Not Now, When? sits in the Incubus pantheon is still, by fans at least, to be decided. But an important part of the band’s extended family seems to have already made up its mind. The new album is Incubus’s seventh and, along with Monuments and Melodies, their last contractual obligation with Epic. But despite their pedigree – the band can boast a multi-platinum-selling back catalogue – the label doesn’t appear keen to push the new record in any way, shape or form. “I’m still pretty excited about [the record],” Boyd says. “If only our record label wanted to do anything with it. It’s funny, they did nothing to promote the album. Like, nothing. They have a radio department which is still pretty effective, so we’ve done really well on alternative radio, but that was it. They did nothing else.” Bewildered by Epic’s lack of support for the album, the band decided to take matters into their own hands. “We staged this big, independent campaign in L.A. called Incubus HQ, and we did live web broadcasts every night for a week. And it was fun, and it was stressful and exciting. We invited people from all over the world to come in, and everybody could watch from all over the world. And we earned ourselves a debut at Number Two on Billboard. And the label still did nothing. It was shocking.”
The reasons for Epic’s indifference are unclear, though Boyd has his own theories. “There was nobody there to do anything. They were between chairmen. It’s now L.A. Reid, who’s on X-Factor, so now there’s that: He’s not at the label, he’s on TV, being a celebrity judge. So he’s distracted. But more power to him, he’s got his thing too. But I think there’s also this idea that we’re not a new band by a long shot. And the industry has changed so much since we first arrived and were exciting to our record label.” Surprisingly for the frontman of a band left somewhat out in the cold, Boyd doesn’t seem that bitter about it. He’s been in the business long enough to know that it is a business. If anything, he seems a little hurt on behalf of the entire band, who have proven that they deserve a little attention. “We thought, ‘We’ve earned ourselves a Number Two spot, there’s still life in there. [Claps] The ball’s in your hands now.’ And they were like, ‘Oh cooool. Oh, look at that.’ And they still did nothing. It’s really just like beating a dead horse. So a lot of these questions are forced into our internal monologues. Do we mean nothing to the label? You’d think that we would. You would think that, with so much inherent potential, they would want to capitalize on it, but they didn’t. And then there’s also the idea that maybe they just want us to finish the contract and wash their hands of it. I have no idea.” Whatever the reason, Boyd would rather know where both he and the band stand, one way or the other. The present situation is, he jokes, kind of like the girl that won’t return your phonecalls. “I just wish she’d be honest with me. Just dump me, let me be a free agent. I’ll go and find another girl. Or girls.”
Come March of 2012, everything is up in the air. Incubus will be out of contract for the first time and, given their recent experiences, Boyd and his bandmates have been forced to think about what the future may hold. Considering their track record, and rabidly loyal fanbase, it’s hard to imagine another label not wanting to sign them up. “If a record company approaches us with a good-sounding deal...” Boyd sounds doubtful even as he says it. “I can’t really see that happening though, because record deals are so different now. People who get record deals, they get these 360 deals. That sounds like an awesome deal, right? [Laughs] It basically means that they get a piece of everything.” By virtue of signing in the Nineties, Incubus have an almost ‘old-fashioned’ deal, wherein they retain a lot more creative control than their modern contemporaries. And that’s not something they’re willing to give up. So what will happen if an attractive offer isn’t forthcoming? “We’d do it ourselves,” Boyd says immediately. “We got a taste of how much work it would be if we did it on our own, but I think one of the other things that has kept our band alive and moving is a good general work ethic that we have. And we’re kind of down to go and get our hands dirty. That’s kind of the fun.”
What’s clear is that Incubus won’t end because a label says so. During The Hiatus, there were moments when Boyd admits to being tempted by the promise of normality – “The idea of putting it to bed definitely occurred to me, especially in those deep moments of comfort, walking the dog and thinking ‘Wow, this is kinda cool.’ But that gets old too. I think that most of us in the group, if not all of us, are of that mindset that we would rather bow out gracefully; see it to the porch and respectfully wish it goodnight. I know that’s not necessarily the most rock & roll way to go about it. I know that you’re supposed to kill yourself or bend your car around a telephone pole. And that’s a wonderful story, but it’s been done ad nauseum. I would feel much more proud if we were able to carve our own path, not some sort of predetermined, predestined end to it all. And I’ve seen enough bands that I grew up loving slowly fade into obscurity and non-relevance. And there’s honor in that, in sticking to your guns, but there’s also something neat and punk about just walking away at a high point.” He pauses. “I think we’re past that point. [Laughs] I think we’ve had our day in the light. But I believe in this band, and I think that there are a lot of ears that we haven’t reached yet. So that’s the thing that’s exciting. And there’s the fact that we still, every once in a while, seem to stumble onto beautiful musical landscapes. Michael and I will not hang out for a year, and then get back together and start writing stuff, and it’ll be like, ‘Whoa.’ And it can still create that feeling in me where it’s like an emotion welling up. That’s how I’ve always known that it was something good, when it had that effect on me.”
It’s reassuring to hear, especially given some of the things that Boyd hints could be coming up for the band. We talk briefly about the now-legendary story of how the band recorded 2001’s Morning View – they holed up in a Malibu beach house to do nothing more than surf and play music – and Boyd hints that such an intense experience is something they’d definitely consider doing again. “We’ve mused about doing something like that again, but maybe in a different country. Rent some crazy, abandoned chateau somewhere and hole up there for a couple of months, smoke opium and write some crazy opus, you know?” But wasn’t that a different Incubus? They’re all a little older now. “We’re not trying to repeat [the Morning View recordings] but to pay homage by doing a version of it again, and just see what happens. You know, it could end in disaster. It gets more difficult to do at this stage, because all of us have homes now. Our drummer has a daughter, we all have respective others in our lives. It would be a different experience if girlfriends and wives came to live with us in the abandoned chateau. They’re not going to want to smoke opium with us. [Laughs] And it’s not good to have kids around that, right? No.”