Brandon Boyd, a giant rock star for nearly the last decade and a half as singer and lyricist for Incubus, arrives in the Tribune Tower lobby by himself.
No publicist. No manager. No entourage. Just a guy in a porkpie hat, comfortable doing an interview in jeans with a few holes and a T-shirt with more of ‘em, without a team of handlers making any decisions.
Any fan of the band, who released its most stripped-down album “If Not Now, When?” last year and appears today at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, knows that Boyd has long been a person who embraces living in the moment and having perspective about what matters. (“I think that’s why I intentionally but also perhaps unconsciously have pursued art and the creative process is because it uses everything that’s here, all the noise, but to pull you back into radical nowness,” he says.) Every Incubus record features a line or song or entire through-line about rising above that noise—a particular favorite, from “Nice to Know You”: “To obtain a bird’s eye is to turn a blizzard to a breeze.”
Recently Boyd, who’s currently working on his third book of art/photos/poems, has taken to drawing without pencil lines, so “there’s mistakes in there but they become part of the picture,” he says, also noting how a smashed squirt of ink can allow him to find various images within. “You can find stories in chaos. It’s just a matter of how willing you are to participate in that process … It’s fun because you don’t really know what you’re doing until you do it.”
Outside on our 22nd floor patio, Boyd, 36, talked about his worn-down clothing, the band’s early days of playing Bar Mitzvahs and his thoughts on Incubus appearing at a future installment of Lolla.
Note: We have video footage of this interview, including Boyd showing us one of his current sketchbooks. That will be posted as soon as it's ready.
When I have a hole in my socks, my wife is just like, “Toss it.” You’ve talked about wearing things until they disintegrate. Does your girlfriend ever want you to toss some of that stuff?
[Laughs] No, my girl is, she’s kind of obsessed with vintage. She even owned a vintage clothing store for a couple of years. So for her the more holes in a garment the better. In fact I’ll wear a shirt until it’s been washed and worn on stage too many times and it gets giant holes, and I go to throw it away and she’s like, “What are you doing?” And she puts it on and it’s like chic on her, and her shoulder’s exposed and I’m like, “Well, there you go.” I’m totally not kidding by the way. She has a number of my old T-shirts and old jeans. These are almost getting, you can tell, to the point where they’re going to be retired and she’ll take them and make them beautiful.
You recently wrote on Twitter, “My voice is acting like bigfoot’s dick tonight.” I’m not sure I’m familiar with that expression.
[Laughs] I think I stole that from a Will Ferrell—it was “Anchorman.”
That’s in “Anchorman”?
Yes, I forget the character’s name. It’s Paul Rudd’s character in “Anchorman.” With the mustache. When he puts on the panther scent.
Sex Panther. When he goes outside and someone’s like, “It smells like gasoline,” and then someone’s like, “It smells like Indian food in a diaper,” and then this chick runs by and says, “It smells like bigfoot’s dick!” So I just co-opted it briefly. I started the tour coming off of a little bit of a cold, so I had all my energy but my voice has been cooperating a little bit more with each show.
What’s something the band has decided doesn’t make sense to perform live?
A lot of our pre-1997, ’98 work. A lot of that stuff--I was talking to a friend about it earlier this morning. We put out an independent record called “Fungus Amongus” in 1995 I believe, and we put out “Enjoy Incubus,” which was like remixed versions of those demos--that record was really demos--and then we made “S.C.I.E.N.C.E.,” which came out in 1997. And a lot of that stuff was us learning how to write music together and be a band, but as well filter the music that we were obsessed with at the time … so that was everything from Led Zeppelin and the Doors to Primus and Mr. Bungle and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains. It was a pungent, I’ll say, time in music. And we were 14, 15 years old when a lot of that stuff was happening. So we were like, “Let’s make our band!” “What are we going to sound like?” “I have no [bleeping] idea; let’s just write music.” [Laughs] So a lot of that stuff came out sounding the way that it did. I never thought that it would catch any
traction or see the light of day. What’s funny is people are still asking for a lot of those songs. We’re very happy that they exist, but we just as soon let them exist in recordings. I don’t even know if we’d know how to play them.
You say that America puts happiness far down on the list of priorities and that we’re distracted by busy-ness. Is that what you think we put at number one, staying busy?
I think so, just in my observations. Especially with people my age. I’m 36, so I guess we can say I’m pushing 40 at this point. [Laughs] Trending in that direction. And a lot of my friends and acquaintances that I speak with online or I see every once in a while, it’s like, “How you doin’?” “Good. I’m super busy.” “What are you doing?” “Well … just being busy.” [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s essentially a good thing. I think it’s good to be busy and have goals and to be working toward things, but are you happy? That’s what I’m trying to concentrate on.
It seems like you do a good job of being grounded and staying in control. What’s something that gets you worked up?
Wow. I’m a pretty mellow guy, as you can probably tell. I think I’m probably a really normal dude in the sense that if I’m fed and slept I won’t act like a baby. [Laughs] I’ve observed that most men really only start getting bitchy if they’re under-fed or under-slept, and that leads to a sense of happiness. So I try and get enough sleep and eat right. That usually steers me in the right direction.
In your bio on your website, which is written tongue-in-cheek, you talk about being suspicious of religion and advertising and know-it-alls. With all humor there’s a little bit of truth. Do any of those things get you worked up? I’ve certainly been guilty, my wife can attest, to me shouting at commercials.
Absolutely. There are times when I’m in awe of modern advertising, and I’m fascinated by it. I kind of know exactly what they’re doing, where they’re shooting for, whether it’s my head or my heart or my groin. In certain ways it’s a triumph of human intellectuality; it’s like we’re so good at advertising to each other that most of us don’t know when we’re being advertised to. That’s kind of amazing. That’s also a little bit evil too, hence my suspicion of it. Sometimes I’m sitting on a lake or on a beach and I’m appreciating space, infinite nothingness, appreciating the water—
Not being pitched.
Not being pitched something. And then an airplane will go by with an advert like, “Buy Viagra at 99 cents a pop!” and I’m like, (claps) “Shit. Dammit, I was so close. Now I’m thinking about my dick.” [Laughs] So those things, if I’m in the wrong mood I’ll yell at the TV at things like that. Or if I’m in the right space, I’ll learn how to mute the TV.
Simple as that.
It can be as simple as that. You’ll mute it, and sometimes it’s amazing fun, if you’re in the right group of friends, to mute the commercials and put in your own voice.
Can you give an example of a time you did that?
It’s awesome with the drug commercials. They’re a perfect example. Those are some of the funniest kinds of advertising because it’s like, “Do your legs twitch at night? Take this pill. You might die, have uncontrollable diarrhea, heart palpitations, trouble breathing, uncontrollable flatulence, all these things, but your legs will stop itching.” To me that’s amazing.
80 percent of the ad is the asterisks.
I love it. I kind of love those pieces. But if you push mute and fill in your own thing, that’s a quality good time.
You previously likened the creative process to a road trip. Tell me about a time when you swerved wildly off the road and had no idea where you were.
[Laughs] It’s happened. Often. Those are like the most fun times on a road trip if you blow out a tire and end up going off the beaten path.
That’s what’s going through your head as the tire blows out and you’re spiraling? “This is fun”?
Well, no. You’re like, “Whoa, shit!” You’re just trying to not die. Which is what it feels like sometimes when you veer off the creative path. “I hope I don’t die.” A great example with Incubus is our album “A Crow Left of the Murder.” We were coming off a hugely successful tour and album, two albums, “Morning View” and “Make Yourself,” and we had a personnel change which was really scary. Ben Kenney came into our band; it was super scary but it was also really inspiring because he’s a totally different kind of musician than Dirk Lance was as a bass player. Ben is as much a drummer and guitar player as he is a bass player, so his understanding of music was super inspiring for us. So I think we definitely got caught in a little bit of a self-indulgent realm, which could be likened to steering the car off of the road but knowing that. We kind of understood there’s a lot of noodling things that are going to happen when getting to know each other creatively, and that record didn’t do as well, but in retrospect those are some of the most-requested live songs from a lot of our hardcore fans.
Stuff like “Sick Sad Little World”?
Yeah, that people like live. It’s really fun with Twitter and Facebook and stuff [we] can get real-time requests. And not just have them be yelled out at us on stage. That’s super real-time. We can get them an hour before the set. You hear enough people that want to hear “Sick Sad Little World” it’s like, we’ll probably play that song. It’s great because it’s nice to have a reward for getting a flat tire and pulling the car off the road and finding this beautiful pasture of psychedelic roses growing.
I read that when you were starting out you’d play any bar or Bar Mitzvah. First of all, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were available for Bar Mitzvahs in the mid-‘90s. I totally would have booked you.
[Laughs] We did it for real. We played a handful of ‘em.
Tell me about one.
They were honestly awesome because those were some of our first paid gigs. The first time we ever got paid as a gig, there were two Bar Mitzvahs that we did.
Were you playing your songs or something like “Celebration”?
No, they were our songs. It was kind of known going into it that we didn’t really do covers when we first started. We only had a handful of songs that we could play, but I remember we played an insurance seminar and the guy that booked us for the insurance seminar, he booked us for his kid’s Bar Mitzvah, and he paid us like a grand. And we were 16, 17 years old, like, “$1,000! What kind of car am I going to buy? Each of us!” It was great; we actually ended up using that money and buying better gear.
Did you also play MC, like, “Please welcome Uncle Dave for the blessing over the challah?”
I kind of wish we would have, but [we didn’t]. I went to my fair share of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs growing up. I went to Mike Einziger’s. We grew up together, so a lot of good times there. It would have been sweet to play his Bar Mitzvah.
Lollapalooza’s been a big deal here for the last several years. Is that something you could see yourselves doing at some point? Has Perry or anyone else ever reached out to you since it’s been rejuvenated?
We did the rejuvenated tour of Lollapalooza in 2003. We did the first tour that Ben Kenney did with us back in the day. It was a lot of fun. And Perry is a friend of mine, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we would probably give our collective left nut to do Lollapalooza at this point. It would not hurt in any way; it would just be a good time. Some of the first massive festival concerts I ever went to were the Lollapalooza shows. I went to ’93 and ’94, or was it ’92 and ’93. I don’t remember. The first time I saw Rage Against the Machine, the first time I saw Tool, Primus, Ministry, Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam … It was pretty awesome.
You have so many passionate fans. What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had with one of them?
Wow, we’ve been really blessed with enthusiastic listeners but also like you said very loyal listeners. And that’s the kind of thing that just continually reinforces one of the core reasons why we come back out on tour because touring is actually the most difficult part of doing this. It definitely ages one prematurely, and in a strange way it also has a sense to hold you hostage in a state of suspended adolescence because you’re being catered to like a child a lot. Which is actually kind of infuriating if you think about it long enough because as an adult you want to know that if you’re hungry you can go get yourself food. You want to know that if you have an inkling toward something you can walk down the street or get in your car or bicycle and go and get something you want. And when you’re on tour all the time, a lot of those things have to be provided for you, so it can be a little bit infuriating. But then once we’re on stage and performing music we will revisit these ideas and these sentiments that we wrote down and recorded, sometimes 10 or 15 years ago, and see someone 20 feet away from you who’s experiencing it live for the very first time and that takes away all of that other noise. All of that bullshit why you were frustrated that day or tired. “I miss my dog.” “I want to go surfing.” “I’m hungry.” All that stuff, it’s like everything disappears. You lock eyes with somebody you can tell is seeing you for the very first time, and that to me is the coolest compliment in the world. And that person isn’t saying anything to you, they’re just communicating—
Even if they’re not singing along, you can tell?
Yeah, I can. I think I can. Maybe I’m just imagining it. But then there’s also the people who have seen you 15 or 20—I’ve met people who have seen us 80 times. Have come to see our shows 80 times. I don’t even think I’ve been to 80 of our shows! [Laughs] And they still sing along just as passionately and just as invested in it as they ever were. And that as well is an incredible compliment ... We have lots of reasons to be thankful.
On Chicago: “We actually have spent some considerable time here. And one of our longtime beloved crew members, he’s our lighting director, he’s from Chicago. He’s home today, which I’m sure is really cool for him. But I love coming here this time of year. There’s an amazing bike path, which I’m sure you’re all aware of. It’s a great city, especially when it’s not 12-below … I always have my bicycle with me on tour … [I’ll] probably [go for a ride] later this afternoon.”
On the tour with Linkin Park: “I really had no idea what to expect. Linkin Park is kind of like a juggernaut of modern rock ‘n roll. They’ve sold like 50 million records, so I had no idea really if it was going to be more their crowd or our crowd. I think it’s been more their crowd so far. You can just tell almost from a demographic scan--that sounds kind of weird. You can scan through the audience when you’re standing on stage and notice when people know your music or have seen you play before. So there’s a decided difference between our core fans and their core fans, but what’s been really cool for us is I’m seeing people in the audience, a lot of them who have actually never seen us play before. And this is probably our 30th time playing these places, so it’s kind of neat to play to new people. We’re actually pretty grateful for it.”
On touring with bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, which some people might have seen as an unfavorable grouping for them: “When we were on tour with those bands, especially Korn--they brought us out on a number of tours. They were our first tour in Europe that we ever did. And I remember feeling very embraced by them. Also their audience. Their audience was really good to us. And so when it came down to that and playing with them, I always felt like the audience … could get what it was we were attempting to do. The Limp Bizkit audience was larger. When we were out with Limp Bizkit that was on the Ozzfest … We were at a point in our career where we were happy to have a chance to play in front of anyone. That was all that mattered to us. So I think that if even a handful of people at each of those shows went away going, ‘I like that band; I’m going to check them out again,’ that’s really the most important thing. I’ve been less and less concerned with labelings and stuff like that [over time] just because all that really matters is how you feel about what you’re doing. “
On “Drive” being different from everything else on “Make Yourself”: “I don’t begrudge that song whatsoever because even though it is different than everything else on ‘Make Yourself,’ in terms of the history of our band it’s still a pretty good representation of us as songwriters. You can strip away all of the heavy guitars and the harmonies and the loud drums and things like that and we can play like 98 percent of our songs with an acoustic guitar and they’re not too dissimilar from ‘Drive.’ ‘Drive’ was just a little bit more stripped back for us. … What’s interesting is that there have been songs on almost every record that are as downtempo as that; with our newest record, ‘If Not Now, When?,’ it’s mostly downtempo songs, so in a lot of ways we’ve been hinting at those tendencies for a long time. It doesn’t mean that a future Incubus record will be continuing in that direction. It just means that that’s the place we were at at those moments up until we made ‘If Not Now, When.’ It was just a big moment that there was a lot of stuff that needed to come forth.”
On the many readers who want to marry him, and being seen as a sex symbol: “If they only knew how I felt about marriage. [Laughs] They gotta know that I’m still learning how to speak English and that my potty-training things are still iffy, but for the most party I’m a pretty easygoing guy … It’s flattery. You take it for what it is. There are moments--there have been, there still are, moments where someone flatters me and it’s like you blush a little bit if only on the inside. Sometimes on the outside depending on what they say. I’ve heard some pretty crazy stuff here and there. Things you just never thought you’d hear another person say to you out loud. It’s like, ‘I’ve thought those things, but I’d have never said that out loud.’ … Since I was a young man [I’ve been] grounded in the sense that those things are sort of fleeting, and they are appreciated but I think I understood from a young age that if I was the object of someone’s affection because of what they saw or heard on the radio in three minutes I likely would not be the object of their affection 15 minutes later. So I choose to look at it like, ‘Thank you. That’s so cool that for this 14 minutes and 32 seconds left, I’m the object of your affection.’ Usually when the person making the art dies young, then it really sticks. Or somebody dies horribly. I plan on sticking around, so my goal is to have everyone be good and bored with me by the time I’m ready to cash out.”
Something he wouldn’t be motivated to do: “[Laughs] I’ve been so lucky so far that I have help with my taxes. I would definitely end up being an unwitting tax evader if I didn’t have help doing it. [Laughs] I would just avoid it. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
If he ever feels like he blacks out when drawing: “Yeah, that’s the whole point. To me that is radical nowness; you are so enveloped in that process you are free of thought and producing the most pure works that one can. All the practice has taken place beforehand.”
On his solo album, “The Wild Trapeze”: “I don’t think it’s terrible; I think it sucks for all the right reasons. I think it’s bad in the best possible way, or I think it’s good in the worst, pure possible way.”
The first big concert he ever attended: Bon Jovi and Skid Row in San Diego. Boyd was 13.
What he’s listening to right now: School of Seven Bells’ “Ghostory.” “I’ve been really enjoying this Tibetan bowls record; it’s some guy swirling on these Tibetan singing bowls. It’s beautiful to draw to; I think it’s called Sumatra or something like that. I’ve been watching Mute Math actually every night of this tour that we’re on now. Their drummer is amazing.” [Also: He agrees with me when I praise Japandroids and particularly notes “The House That Heaven Built.”]
A movie people would assume he’d rank as a guilty pleasure: “My girlfriend is not a fan of the horror genre or zombie genre. I’m not really the biggest fan of modern horror films; they’re a little too gratuitous gore thing for me, but I love the “Evil Dead” trilogy. It turned me on to Sam Raimi’s films. I’ve been a fan of all his works ever since. I like his style or his take on the horror genre. It started out very tongue-in-cheek and he’s gotten progressively darker since his first films I was exposed to. You can call those guilty pleasures; those are B-films, but they’re like amazing B-films.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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