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TCB Rock 

Thank the makers of Incubus

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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The era of MBAs and boardrooms in the music industry‘s upper ranks is giving way to a new paradigm: the musician as executive, the MC as finance director, the DJ as CEO. Want proof? Look at how Interscope Records made Limp Bizkit singer and publicity whore Fred Durst a veep of A&R, or newly minted arena-fillers Korn signing soon-to-be-huge heartthrobs Orgy to their own label. ”I just don’t think a lot of kids in bands can relate to suits,“ says Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger. ”They want someone they feel comfortable talking to. But I‘ve been working in the music industry for years. When I was a kid, instead of screwing around with my friends, I interned at record labels.“

As an A&R scout for Interscope, Einziger gets the demo tapes of young hopefuls into the hands of Jimmy Iovine, Tom Whalley and other decision makers. ”My role is kind of informal,“ he says. ”It’s not something I can devote a whole lot of time to, but who better to scout out bands than someone who‘s on tour and seeing and meeting all these unsigned acts?“

Still, it’s a little disturbing how business-minded Einziger is: savvily working the press, name-dropping like a Billboard columnist and able to recite the resume of Incubus‘ video director like a human-resources coordinator. Can this band’s dreadlocked ax god be the perky, buzzword-slinging, cell-phone-wielding future mogul talking to me now, reeling off SoundScan numbers like a label prez eyeing the bottom line? Indeed, the first topic of our conversation is how the new Incubus album, Make Yourself, did just shy of 20,000 copies in its first week of release. Einziger has to get off the phone in a few to ready himself for a celebratory dinner Epic honcho Kaz Utsunomiya is throwing on the band‘s behalf, a back-patting attaboy for a solid first week’s performance.

”As little as a few months ago, I never dreamed we‘d ship that many copies,“ he enthuses. ”S.C.I.E.N.C.E. did less than 1,400 its first week, so to do 20 times that feels great.“ Other good omens include getting the single ”Pardon Me“ added to KROQ’s heavy-rotation playlist, consistent props on that station‘s Furious Five at Nine show, and the Midas touch of producer Scott Litt (R.E.M., Nirvana Unplugged) on Make Yourself.

You could easily have lived your whole life in Los Angeles and never known about Incubus, but you’re damned straight they earned every scrap of the moderate success they‘re enjoying now. Born and bred in Calabasas, these 20-something Valley boys -- also including bass player Dirk Lance, drummer Jose Pasillas and DJ Kilmore -- have been playing in clubs on the Strip since they were 16. ”We all went to Calabasas High and would play there,“ says Brandon Boyd, the band’s soft-spoken vocalist, ”but we were pretty much just a Primus rip-off band then.“ Boyd speaks in the tranquil tones of a yoga instructor, radiating positive karma and inner peace. Despite his hippie-ish demeanor, he and the rest of the band aren‘t afraid of hard work. Incubus ground away at it for years before they made even a dent. In the overfed, blase entertainment nexus of Los Angeles, where if it isn’t manufactured here it always passes through, brand positioning was a challenge.

”Our biggest audience is New York, definitely,“ says Einziger. ”Radio stations out there, even commercial ones, are not as hesitant to play hard rock. But I‘m absolutely satisfied with our rate of growth. If it’s slow but steady, well then, that‘s how it is. I think bands that have overnight success blow it sooner or later. We have so much more perspective.“

As a singer, Boyd’s crisp baritone vibrato couldn‘t be more antithetical to aggro’s raw testosto-bark. A consistent feature of Incubus is lyric content that veers toward Anthony Robbins--type empowerment-speak and What Color Is Your Parachute? self-helpisms (”I‘m emphatic about not being static“ is one of the better ones), but . . . their heart’s in the right place. If you chart the band‘s stylistic progress, however, the movement is away from the thrown-together funk-metal formula of 1994’s Fungus Among Us toward the stripped-down riffs-out-the-ass of Make Yourself. ”I don‘t know how deliberate it was,“ says Boyd. ”It’s not like we‘d be playing along and say, ’Oh, stop -- that sounds too much like so-and-so.‘ But I think that’s probably what everyone had going on in their subconscious.“

At the same time, there‘s gobs more texture on this record as a result of the band’s not trying so hard to fuse genres. A good example of that newfound looseness is the aptly titled ”The Warmth,“ a quasi-ambient number that thoroughly seduces with a snaky guitar arpeggio -- it‘s an intoxicating motif that’s impossible to keep from looping through your head.

”Yeah, I love that song, too,“ Einziger says. ”It starts off all soft, and the guys were, ‘Okay, let’s have this massive guitar break here,‘ and I’m like, ‘No, we always do that.’ I wanted to let everything on this album breathe more.“

Live and in the studio, Boyd still thwacks his animal-skin hand drum, its muted patter embroidering nearly every track of Make Yourself. On the whole, though, Incubus jettisoned the didgeridoo, djembe and other rehearsal-space-style experimentation in favor of no-fuss rock & roll. ”We have all these outtakes and piss-takes of freeform drum ‘n’ bass and wild stuff,“ Boyd gushes. ”Even if they don‘t make it on the album, we still have to indulge that part of ourselves.“

Given Incubus’ current no-frills direction, it‘s curious that the band’s latest addition is turntablist DJ Kilmore, a serious vinyl shredder from battle crew Jedi Knights. ”We didn‘t want to go with that tired scratching-on-top-of-rock thing anymore,“ Boyd says. ”DJs are integral to our sound, but Kilmore blends organically with us -- he’s a genuine fifth member. We‘ve always written around the DJ parts, creating space for breakbeats, and it just didn’t feel right to go on as a four-piece after we let DJ Life go.“

It‘s not Incubus’ style to dwell on unpleasantness, but Life‘s ouster was a long time coming, cemented after he sabotaged a show in Germany -- this after Incubus had opened to 5,000 screaming Parisians the night before and felt, after years of struggle, like they were finally on to something. ”In the middle of a song, he turns up his crossfader so there was pure distortion,“ Boyd recalls in disbelief. ”We all looked back at him, and he was just standing there with his arms folded, like ’Fuck you.‘ He was obviously unhappy with us, but there was still turmoil after we asked him to leave. You know, any time you fire someone it’s their ego at stake. I wish him well, though, because I think he‘s a talented kid.“

Kilmore is no limelight hog. Whether he lays Boyd’s voice down on wax and samples it later, kicks out some funky breaks, or just bobs in and out of the fray with his bag of FX, this wheels-o‘-steel helmer slays ’em with subtlety. ”He‘s so creative and loving,“ Boyd says with affection. ”Plus, we were blown away when he played for us. It was the middle of the S.C.I.E.N.C.E. tour, and we were all, ’Can you learn 16 songs in two days?‘ and he was like, ’Sure.‘“

Fresh as they are, Incubus aren’t doing brain surgery. Such instantly gratifying, people-pleasin‘ rawk has to get old quick -- not for us so much as them. How do they manage to unleash the same batch of hackle-raising anthems night after night without losing their power?

”I’d have to say the best way is by getting enough sleep,“ Boyd says, laughing. ”We like going to bed early or staying in to draw and read. When we‘re healthy, it’s never boring.“

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