Incubus Talk 20 Years of S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and Collaborating With Skrillex on New Album 8
Incubus’s new album 8 was nearly finished when Skrillex paid the band a visit at Paramount Recording Studio in Los Angeles. The dubstep producer and pop auteur is a close friend of Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger, and the band had expressed interest in having him contribute a remix to the record. “We were in this trillion dollar studio in Hollywood, and there’s a multi-multi-million-dollar Neve console, with all the fancy buttons, and people who know what those buttons do,” singer Brandon Boyd told SPIN recently, about a month after the record was finished. “And that multi-million dollar console was just Sonny’s desk for his laptop.”
Rather than make use of the expensive equipment, Skrillex quickly began plugging away at his personal computer, hacking apart and reassembling an album track called “Familiar Faces.” When he finished, verses and choruses were rearranged, and one section the band believed to be crucial to the song was gone entirely. But Skrillex’s take on “Familiar Faces” didn’t sound like a remix in the commonly understood sense. There were no dancey drum machines or dubstep breakdowns. It still sounded like the five members of Incubus playing together in a room, but the song they’d written had been broken down and drastically restructured according to Skrillex’s intuition.
Rather than getting protective over their material and throwing Skrillex out of the studio like DJ Jazzy Jeff in a Fresh Prince episode, they asked him to provide similar post-production on the entire album. “Everybody was shocked at how greatly improved the song felt,” Einziger said. “That’s what great producers do. They help you see where songs can be better, in situations where those of us working on the songs can’t see. You’re too close to it sometimes. Some of the changes he made, looking back at it now, should have seemed really obvious to me, but they didn’t at the time.”
8 contains only a few moments that are easily recognizable as products of Skrillex’s influence. There’s “Loneliest,” a spacious R&B-inflected ballad on which Boyd is accompanied by a syrupy pitched-down version of his own voice, and “No Fun,” which has a few trance-y filter sweeps and verse filled with synth arpeggios. Mostly, though, 8 sounds like a latter-day Incubus album–some solid songs, a little heavier than their exceedingly polite 2011 effort If Not Now, When?, a lot more refined than the swampy genre-hopping weirdness offered on their early releases. One exception is “When I Became a Man,” a brief late-album cut that almost could have been ripped from Incubus’s fully zonked-out funk-metal debut Fungus Amongus, from 1995.
Speaking of which, S.C.I.E.N.C.E., Incubus’s cultishly beloved second album, turns two decades old this year. Mixing cartoonish slap bass with bongwater-soaked guitar distortion, dubby drum-n-bass with samples from children’s audiobooks, it’s the sort of record that could have only been made in the late ‘90s. You’d almost expect it to have died in a psychedelics-related car accident before it reached the distinguished age of 20. SPIN caught up with Einziger and Boyd via phone to discuss the new record, Skrillex’s contributions as co-producer, and S.C.I.E.N.C.E.’s strange legacy.
This interview has been condensed and edited from separate phone conversations with Boyd and Eizinger.
SPIN: How did Skrillex come on board to co-produce 8?
Mike Einziger: Sonny (Moore, aka Skrillex) is a good friend of mine, and we were just hanging out. He was interested in what we were doing, and he wanted to hear the music, so I brought him into the studio. We first met at a festival that we played together in 2011 or so. He’s one of the sweetest guys, very humble, and we share a lot of common musical interests. He invited me to help musically direct the Bonnaroo Superjam that he took part in, and then he asked me to co-produce a live version of the song “Where Are Ü Now” to be performed live at the Grammys. That was really fun. Quite out of my wheelhouse.
Brandon Boyd: He took the stems to “Familiar Faces” into another room with his laptop, and an hour and change later, emerged with this song. It was the same song, but drastically different in its sonic sensibility. We’d spent months crafting all the parts to this song. We really love pre-choruses: we’ve written lots of them, and they’re such a cool way to change gears before you leap into a big chorus. He came in and was like, “I just cut that out. Is that OK?”
He did that to two or three songs. Another was the first track on the record, “No Fun.” We had this amazing pre-chorus, and he’s like, “Let’s just chop it out, and see what happens.” And I was like, “Damnit, you’re right. It’s better. Fuck!” We were jokingly talking about doing an album that’s just the hacked-out pre-choruses, because there’s a lot of them. They’re good parts, with good lyrics and everything, but they were bogging down the songs, and we didn’t even realize it. It took Sonny’s fresh, lovingly irreverent perspective to go, “Check this out. Fuck that pre-chorus.”
What’s your perspective on S.C.I.E.N.C.E., 20 years after having released it?
Boyd: We played S.C.I.E.N.C.E. so much for the first 15 or 16 years of being on tour. Back when it was the album we were touring behind, we were still touring in a van and a trailer, and we played those songs like a thousand times. There was a period of years when we were knowingly rebelling against it, we were desperately trying to shake off the identity it had created around us. Our original fans would get mad, “Why don’t you play more stuff from S.C.I.E.N.C.E.?” I think it only happened two or three years ago, when we were touring again, and started to revisit the songs casually in rehearsal studios and sound checks. We started to fall in love with them again. I think we just needed a friend break. We came back to them, and now it’s kind of amazing to play most of those songs.
There’s still a couple that we won’t touch, because they’re just terrible. The songs we really do like playing are songs like “Vitamin,” “New Skin,” and “Summer Romance.” We’ve done revisited versions of “Redefine” and “Nebula.” Songs that are sort of more definitively S.C.I.E.N.C.E. And there’s a couple of the more quote-unquote album tracks that are just kind of ridiculous, that we don’t really fuck with. One day we might.
Mike, did your previous work with Skrillex, and your other recent experiences in the pop and hip-hop worlds–writing “Wake Me Up” with Avicii, for instance–figure into the new record at all?
Einziger: I developed a musical identity outside of the band over the last few years, and until recently, the two have always seemed separated from each other. I got to work with the band The Internet, on their album Feel Good. They’re awesome. I love those guys. I got to do some work with Tyler, The Creator, coproduction on “Deathcamp” and “Two Seater” from his last album, Cherry Bomb. I felt like my musical world grew a lot after having worked with some of those artists.
Bringing Sonny into this process was wonderful, and it felt like a really natural synthesis of all these other musical experiences that I’ve had over the years, coming into my experience with Incubus. It was time for that to happen. And the most important thing for me was it really felt like it brought the whole band together in a way I haven’t felt for a long time. It was a great energy in the studio, it really unified everyone.
I would imagine artists like Tyler and The Internet were probably Incubus fans growing up. It must have been cool for them to work with you, too.
Einziger: I’m always shocked when somebody who comes from a unique musical world comes to me and says “Hey man, I’m a big fan of your music,” or “I grew up listening to Make Yourself and S.C.I.E.N.C.E.” That happens all the time, from people I would never expect, and it’s gratifying. Tyler’s got amazing musical taste, and he’s a really deep guy. He’s savant-like, in many ways.
One such person is Thundercat. Thundercat is a genius in my eyes. He’s one of the greatest instrumentalists I’ve ever seen. He’s an amazing writer, and a really cool guy. The first time I met him, I was working with Sonny on the Superjam, and I came into the room and Thundercat was playing “Nowhere Fast” on his six-string bass, singing every word, playing every note—way more skillfully that any of us in the band could. Well, maybe with the exception of our bassist Ben Kenney. Ben Kenney’s a monster. But it’s just surreal to be complimented by people like that. I’m humbled by hearing other people’s perspectives on the music that Incubus has made.
Incubus’ “New Skin” made our list of the Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997. Find it here.