Incubus’s Brandon Boyd: “I Personally Did Not Have Huge Aspirations For Rock Stardom”
Brandon Boyd is taking in the California morning, enjoying a rare stretch at home between legs of an intensive worldwide tour with Incubus. “I’ve been hanging out with my super-old dog who doesn’t walk anymore,” he replies when Kerrang! enquires how he’s been enjoying the breather. “I now have to push him around in a stroller, which is kind of embarrassing, but kind of hilarious at the same time.”
The 42-year-old bachelor lives among the trees of the Santa Monica Mountains when he’s not on tour, and spends his days hiking, walking on the beach and painting. When he leaves again for tour in a couple of days, he will pack a few paintbrushes and a skateboard so he can while away the dead hours between travel and performing.
In some respects the things that get Brandon out of bed in the morning haven’t changed much since he and skate buddies Mike Einziger (guitar) and José Pasillas (drums) began playing music together in 1991, while the three were attending Calabasas High School. Their first recording came in the form of a literature class assignment to compose an original poem or song. Uncomfortable with the idea of playing in front of the class, they recorded the performance (“I just kind of acted like an idiot and it was fun”) on to a videotape, which they simply labelled ‘Incubus’.
Incubus rose to prominence at the turn of the century, when everyone from Limp Bizkit to Eminem were utilising shock, experiences of domestic trauma and anger at authority to mainstream commercial success. Compared to their peers, Incubus were a cosmic anomaly.
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Both 1999’s Make Yourself and 2001’s Morning View drew from a wider sonic palette, coalescing electronics, prog, jazz and even didgeridoos into their funk-rock blueprint, while Brandon’s lyrics aspired to higher consciousness and equilibrium with the universe. Both albums sold millions, propelling Incubus and Brandon’s good looks on to magazine covers and screens everywhere for a new generation of MTV-watchers. After almost a decade near the top of the rock tree, Incubus announced a hiatus in 2008 when they were arguably at the height of their powers.
Along the way, Brandon has found time to issue a solo record, publish three books of artwork and lyrics (he is currently working on a fourth) and establish a parallel career as a visual artist, exhibiting around the world and raising awareness for environmental causes. It’s a lot to have accomplished by the age of 43, and now Incubus are experiencing a second wind in their career since reconvening in 2010. But Brandon is full of positive energy as he discusses where he finds himself in life now, demanding tour schedules and all. “Maybe one of the perks of going into your 40s is you appreciate things a little differently,” he ponders in his wise, hippyish manner…
What was it like growing up on the edge of Los Angeles, in Calabasas?
“The older I get the more I realise how beautiful and rare our circumstances were. Where I grew up was in a pretty rural area for Los Angeles and we didn’t have cable TV, so I didn’t necessarily grow up on a normal media diet. I grew up outside, surfing, and if I wasn’t surfing I would skate. There was just enough boredom to want to learn how to play an instrument, learn how to sing and learn how to paint – stuff like that.”
Which came first: painting or music?
“Visual art was way out in front. I’ve been drawing and painting since… My earliest memories are me expressing myself in that way. My mom was an avid painter when I was growing up, but she also played the piano and sang. My dad was pursuing a career in acting from before I was born; it was why he moved to Los Angeles. There was just an environment that was conducive to expressing oneself. I remember if I wasn’t playing the drums or smashing a guitar then one of my brothers was. It never stopped. It was probably driving our parents slowly nuts, but for whatever reason they tolerated the noise.”
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Do you think they knew that you were never going to be the quiet person in the corner?
“Ironically, that’s exactly who I was growing up. Maybe one of the reasons they tolerated it was because I was always really, really shy and would only fully express myself when I was able to paint the emotions, because they felt so complex I didn’t really have the vocabulary to express them properly. So my mom always encouraged me to draw what I was feeling. And with music, maybe they thought, ‘Wow, he’s actually making noise now! We should just let him do it.’”
You formed Incubus in 1991 with Mike Einziger and José Pasillas at Calabasas High School. How did being a frontman square with the shy kid that you were?
“Hmm… I have always had an understanding that if something was terrifying to me then I should probably go towards it. I actually learned it in a very vivid sequence of dreams I had when I was really young. I used to have recurring dreams that were really terrifying, and at a certain point I got so tired of being afraid to fall asleep I decided to try walking towards the thing that was terrifying me. I’ve applied the same philosophy in my life. I have found, interestingly, that if I give myself the opportunity to turn around and face the things that terrify me – as opposed to running from them – it doesn’t mean I’m less terrified of them while it’s happening, but I’ll see the thing that I was afraid of dissolve before my eyes. So with singing, even though I still get nervous sometimes before we walk out onstage, I’ve just gotten better at making my legs move towards the frightening event. Over the course of time you find facing the things that terrify you eventually becomes a career, god forbid!”
In 1996 you were signed by Sony to their Immortal imprint for a seven-record deal. How did such an offer affect your 20-year-old self?
“I honestly don’t think that I completely understood the scale of that. I would argue that most young artists don’t understand it when they sign a huge record deal like that, because it’s so abstracted. I just knew I was happy to have the opportunity to travel and to make art in a way that – up until a few years before that – I wasn’t really anticipating. I personally did not have huge aspirations for rock stardom.”
Incubus got parcelled in with the nu-metal boom of the late ‘90s. How did you view your position in that?
“It felt a little strange to be associated with some of the bands around that time who were very deeply misogynistic in their content and vibrationally kind of violent. It never felt like we were of the same ilk. So for years it hurt our feelings that we were associated with so many of these bands who we felt we had no relationship with or similarity to. That being said, there were a handful of those bands, like Korn, that embraced us and took us on tour. A lot of the time we were limping to each show, hungry and tired. I remember, very specifically, Fieldy [Reginald Arvizu, bass] from Korn seeing us while we were looking at catering, salivating and knowing that we weren’t allowed to eat the food there. And he goes, ‘Are you guys hungry?’ and we all just kind of looked at him like stray dogs and nodded and he said, ‘Go eat!’ And that was a huge moment. We really wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for the kindness of bands like Korn.”
Both 1999’s Make Yourself and 2001’s Morning View sold millions and catapulted Incubus to fame. How comfortable were you with being thrust into stardom like that?
“It was definitely a bit of an adjustment period, to be honest with you. It was really exciting after working so hard for such a long time to see it start to work, though, and get to ride on that for what ended up being a really long time was incredible. It was amazing! I have to say, though, it was terrifying in certain instances. The times when it was scary for me personally was when I was completely exhausted and underfed, but it would still be like, ‘And now you’re on live TV. Go!’”
Was there ever a moment where you thought it was all getting out of control?
“There have been some moments where people want a piece of you so badly that they will come up to you and steal the hat off of your head or literally rip the shirt off of your back, which sounds kind of intense and violent, but it’s actually more funny than anything. Y’know, ‘I want a piece of this person so much I will tear his shirt off of his back.’ Now that I’m saying it out loud, it doesn’t sound cool at all!”
So your approach to fame was to view it as a humorous thing?
“Yeah. There are lots of ways to digest the experience, and I’ve chosen to the best of my ability to have a sense of humour about it all. The truth is that we’re all on borrowed time. If we don’t have a sense of humour about our experiences while we’re here, I think we’re fucking up.”
When Incubus announced a hiatus in 2008, you enrolled in an arts degree in Los Angeles and started exhibiting. Was that a way of picking up your old life studying fine art before Incubus got signed?
“That was kind of the idea, but I only did a semester. It was really fun, really educational, but I figured out – at the time I was in my mid-30s – that I was just over doing homework. My appreciation for being my own boss skyrocketed that day.”
What do you think is the relationship between your visual art and your music?
“Hmmm… I suppose because they come from the same source, they have these vibrational through-lines. Personally, when I look at one of my paintings I can see the way that I sing and the way that I write in them. And then when I hear what I’m doing in a song I view it as the lines that I would paint. It’s kind of hard to describe, actually. I really feel a kind of gratitude that I’m able to express myself in this multi-pronged way, because I would feel an emptiness if I wasn’t able to express both of those things.”
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After Incubus reformed in 2010 there was still a long pause between 2011’s If Not Now, When? album and 2017’s 8. How come?
“Even with that [initial] break, which I think was a little less than two years, it ended up not even being enough time. Because when we came back to making a new record and going back on tour, that was when everyone really cracked up. It was like we’d had a tiny taste of relatively normal life and then everyone cracked. That’s when we had to take a break for our own survival, both individually and collectively.”
What was different when it came to making 8?
“There’s probably a number of equations at work, but for the first time not being on any real timeframe for when the record was due meant we had the time and the space to let some of those tensions air. We talk about things, too. We’re a relatively communicative bunch, and I think that we’ve learned over the years, at the very least, that if you don’t communicate, that’s when things start to get sour. And then we also have this wonderful opportunity to go onstage on a nightly basis and scream into the pillow, as it were. When you’re done with that, you feel great. It’s the best natural high in the world.”
In an interview in 2009 you said, “I really think I haven’t stumbled across my best work yet.” Have you since?
“I hope not! I’ve never been the guy that habitually writes a song every day or paints a picture every day. I do it often and I have a relatively prolific relationship with my creative process, but I’ve never been one that wants to force the issue. I like when inspiration kind of shows up. One of the ways that I have slowly been the architect of my life is to surround myself with things that bring me to that place. But here’s the thing: if I call you one day and say, ‘I did it man! This is my best song,’ I have the sneaking suspicion that somebody would hear it and say, ‘No, it’s not.’”
Well, who would be the judge of that? You or someone else?
“It definitely wouldn’t be me. It’s an interesting part of the artistic process that you can’t be objective with your own work. It would have to be somebody I don’t know who would be listening to it with the most objectivity possible.”
Looking back over your life and art, is it fair to say that the ocean has been a constant presence?
“Without a doubt. The ocean has been probably my most consistent muse throughout my life. From the time I was about 10 or 11, I was surfing and going in the water almost every day. I would go in the water before school and then sometimes after school as well, and there’s something about it that has always called out to me. When you’re in the water – and most surfers can attest to this – it’s mostly waiting. You’re waiting for waves to come to you and so there’s a lot of time to reflect on the countless metaphors the ocean offers. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but I don’t care.”
Has that relationship changed over the years?
“In certain ways, yes, but in other ways not at all. The ocean is everything. It’s highly dynamic and volatile and dangerous, but it can also be placid and calm and enveloping. So I would go as far to say that it will always be a source of inspiration in my life. I don’t surf as often as I would like, but that’s mostly because of our travel schedule. So when there’s time in my life when I’m home for a longer period of time, I’m sure that surfing will become a daily exercise again. It’s where I go to play, it’s where I go to commune with nature, it’s where I go to hang out with my family – it’s a little bit of everything.”
Do you think there will come a day when you just retire to the beach?
“I suppose it’s an inevitability. But we played with Aerosmith in South America late last year and I could not believe [Aerosmith frontman] Steven Tyler. He sings so well and he was so wiry and great! It really gave me a hope that there’s a way to do this gracefully well into one’s old age. We’re in this interesting sweet spot in our early 40s where we have decades of experience behind us and, even though we’re not young men anymore, we’re not old men. We’re right in the middle. So we’re hoping to milk it for as much as it’s worth, as long as we can. Maybe some time in the middle area of my life I’ll finally get to be in a zombie movie of some kind. I have that in my hopes as well.”
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