“Life, the Universe and Everything”: An Interview with Incubus’ Brandon Boyd

Incubus' Brandon Boyd finds inspiration in numerous arenas, from Phish to UFOs and more. PopMatters attended the San Diego show of Boyd's Sons of the Sea project and spoke to the man himself to get his intriguing views on a variety of topics.
Sons of the Sea

As the lead singer of Incubus, Brandon Boyd has racked up multi-platinum album sales and toured the world over many times. The Southern California native could easily sit back during band breaks and just enjoy the leisurely rock star high life. But Boyd likes to stay busy and has long been an artist with a deeper spiritual side than many of his peers. These facets of his personality drive him to explore his creative boundaries and wander past them to see what else he can find.

Boyd released his first solo album Wild Trapeze in 2010. It was a change of pace from the guitar-driven alt-rock sound Incubus is known for, but it still had those trademark passionate vocals. Incubus’ latest album If Not Now, When? followed in the summer of 2011 with a world tour that didn’t wrap until September 2012. The band was ready for a break, but Boyd’s muses were still calling.

He decided to work with producer Brendan O’Brien (who had helmed the last three Incubus albums) as a full creative partner on a new project that could be “more versatile” than Incubus. If Not Now, When? was arguably the band’s most versatile album yet though, revealing an artistic arc at work that makes the Sons of the Sea project feel like a natural progression.

The album was released last fall and Boyd and company recently hit the road for a short tour. It ended with a California run that hit San Diego, Pomona and Los Angeles before concluding with a show at San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore on Boyd’s 38th birthday. PopMatters had a chance to take in the San Diego show and to submit some questions for Boyd during the West Coast run to get his intriguing views on a variety of topics.

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Playing the Fillmore in San Francisco on your birthday to close the West Coast run is probably not a coincidence? The Fillmore has been called “the greatest venue in the known universe” by some. Where do you rank it and what are some of your other favorite venues?

Yes, it was indeed my birthday on the 15th. I don’t remember having ever been on stage on my actual birthday before, but I am sure it’s had to have happened. It was actually a coincidence that our last show of the tour was there at the historic Fillmore in San Francisco. But what a happy coincidence it was! The venue, I will agree, is one of the finest in the human realm. Rivaled only by the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theater in LA, and perhaps Red Rocks in Colorado and/or the Greek in Berkeley. What a lucky bastard I am to have had the opportunity to be on these stages! I don’t take it for granted.

You’ve likened the Sons of the Sea project to venturing off into the woods to see what you can find and then you’ll bring it back to Incubus. That’s a great metaphor for a solo project. Is there anything from the last Incubus album and tour that carried over to Sons of the Sea in that regard?

I guess you could say that some “tendencies” in me as a songwriter held on after the last Incubus album. But for the most part, I entered into the fold with Brendan O’Brien with bright eyes and a hankering to explore. Having worked with him on three Incubus albums as a producer, I became dangerously curious as to what kind of a songwriting partner he would be. I was thrilled to discover that he and I worked together so well creatively.

My deepest intention in any creative pursuit is to be as present as I know how to be and to sit lovingly in my highest integrity while doing so. I think we got to a place with Incubus wherein each of us needed to allow ourselves to really stretch out creatively, but do so while remaining in that place of integrity. I really feel like as long as you keep that close to your heart, anything and everything you do will only inform the larger process. And in this case, I hope that my adventures away from the safety of our home base will prove to enrich my spirit and my aptitudes.

You said in another interview that the seed for Sons of the Sea’s “Avalanche” came from a dream and that you recorded melody and lyrics into your phone as soon as you woke up. This is similar to what Keith Richards has described about the riff for “Satisfaction”. Has this ever happened to you before and do you do any sort of lucid dreaming exercises or other creative/meditative efforts to try to encourage the muses in such a way?

Yes that is true! I have been dreaming of music for most of my life, but only in the past few years have I begun to be able to wake myself up in time and hold shreds of the music before it slips away like a bar of soap in my hand. Sorry for making you think of showering. Maybe I’m not sorry. Anyway, because I don’t read or write music down, maybe I have become more adept in memorizing certain elements and remembering dreamed music is a nice byproduct of a lifetime of practice.

Another example of a song written this way is the first track on the Sons of the Sea album entitled, “Jet Black Crow”. They aren’t fully formed, but the meat of the idea is there, legible enough to work with. It’s fun and it has a hint of magic in its feeling when it occurs. I don’t fully understand the dreaming process and so when a song comes hurling forth out of one, it almost feels like a weird gift from the ether.

The album’s “Where All the Songs Come From” has a bit of a Beatle-esque melodic quality and the theme recalls a quote from the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson about their classic “Wiser Time” where he said they had reached out and grabbed a piece of “The Song”, alluding to a sort of macrocosmic pool of melody. Do you look at songwriting in a similar way?

The Beatles have been an endless source of inspiration and confusion to me. Confused, because I get lost trying to ponder how in the hell they wrote so many amazing songs. They get enough smoke blown up their butts to get colon cancer, so I won’t carry on about it too long. But I will say that what they tapped into is perhaps more of an understanding than a “creative place”. An understanding that where songs, art, literature, recipes, strokes of genius, and essentially anything and everything come from is accessible to any one of us; all one need to do is come into the (once again) “understanding” that there is no limit to creativity.

Recognize the abundance inherent in the Universe and the Universe seems to miraculously open up to you. It’s funny how it seems to works that way. I was perhaps alluding to that in “‘Where All The Songs Come From”. But who am I to tell you what a song means; if one of you out there thought it was a track about buying music at Walmart, than go for it.

What Beatles song would you have wanted to play on the recent Grammys tribute special if the organizers had been hip enough to invite you?

If they’d have had me I would have been thrilled to perform the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. That, or the track “A Day in the Life”.

There’s a lot of compelling sonic dynamics on the new album and you’ve said it’s decidedly accessible. Yet so is a song like the infectious “Promises, Promises” from the last Incubus album, so Incubus has demonstrated a certain versatility too. Did that song lead you to want to go further in that direction on this project, or was it more subconscious?

I think you’ll find that each and every Incubus album from the very first to the most recent, has in it some outright accessibility. I have never been completely afraid of writing a chorus that was catchy. But I have become less afraid, and dare I say “intrigued” more recently by songs that can be both sincere and memorable. We’ve all been victims to the catchy chorus that we can’t get out of our heads and we literally wish the song and the person who cursed it upon the world would die by firing squad. Just because something is catchy, does not make it sincere and/or good. So it’s a weighty and worthy challenge to write from your heart and have it be something that someone else would cry quietly to.

You and Mikey [Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger] have talked about your days as big Phish fans when you were younger and you have a few songs that can open up for jamming, but overall not so much. Do you feel that such improvisation needs to be limited to an audience that is geared up for it, or do you ever think about wanting to jam out some more?

By “geared up” do you mean high on weed? I have seen some jams, both at Phish shows and at Dead shows, where the musicianship and the ability to drift effortlessly into the nether regions of awesomeness coalesce so beautifully that I thought I was higher than I was in actuality. I could only ever afford the shitty brown weed but when the pros were channeling successfully, I felt like I was on acid. Having had experiences like that gave to me a deep respect for musicians’ ability to jam, wander, and be able to come back from chaos.

Incubus writes albums in ways not too dissimilar. But when we get in front of audiences, I think the jamming is better left to the Phishes of the world. Some of my bandmates would probably disagree. I like when we leave a certain amount of room for improvisation; it keeps you very present and sometimes we strike gold, but most of the time I think we are better suited leaving the heavy lifting to the pros.

You’ve talked in the past about an interest in the Mayan calendar and other metaphysical topics. What is your take on the 2012-era now that we are on the flip side of the long-awaited 2012 winter solstice?

I think the reference I made to 2012 AD in the song “A Certain Shade of Green” [from Incubus’ 1997 S.C.I.E.N.C.E. LP] was perhaps taken out of context. In defense of those who assumed such things, I did leave that lyric pretty vague and open to interpretation. But in reality I never thought the world was going to end on that date, if that’s what you’re getting at. My mother spent a good portion of my early life researching and studying Maya culture for a book she was writing entitled, “Maya Memory: The Glory That Was Palenque”. It came out just a few years ago actually. And so I was exposed to some of the mythology surrounding that fated culture. None of which ever alludes to the end of the world, I’ll remind you. Humans just seem to have a strange predisposition that makes us fascinated with our own demise. Perhaps because we are the only animal on earth who has knowledge of its own mortality.

“Wish You Were Here” [from Incubus’ 2001 Morning View LP] remains the only hit song of the 21st century that mentions UFOs. Have you had any UFO sightings you’d care to talk about?

I have had many of what you could call “UFO” experiences. Since I was a young lad, as a matter of fact. There are too many to mention here to be honest, but you and I should sit down and exchange some stories some time. Maybe in front of a gentle bonfire with creepy Theremin music playing in the background.

Have you ever pondered the notion of an infinite Universe? And that perhaps our ideas of what we call “life” and “sentience” have all been based on our own, egoic, human experience? When we allow for even the slightest adjustment of our lens and let go (temporarily) of the vast anthropomorphization that we employ when thinking about life outside of Earth, you’re left with nothing but possibilities as to the abundance of consciousness. I am of the mind that Earth has been visited by non-earthlings for longer than we’ve been here, and likely will do so long after we leave.

When you start to see everything that exists, existed and will exist as merely varying manifestations of Consciousness, it opens up a literal Universe of possibilities. But if you’ll allow me one moment of species conceit, I am of the mind that human beings are particularly special, and that other races find us fascinating. Look sharp!

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Boyd’s view that extraterrestrials would find humanity fascinating stands in stark contrast to the many skeptics who can’t fathom why our war-torn world of ever-deepening inequality would pose any interest to the galactic community. Earth’s political and economic systems may well be viewed with deep puzzlement. But what if Earth’s art and music do indeed stand out as rare and special in the grand cosmic scheme of things? Rock ‘n’ roll has played a vital role in the evolution of global culture over the past half century. Music is the true universal language and rock has long had quasi-religious overtones for those who can’t imagine a world without the cathartic and healing power of music.

These cravings for spiritual sustenance through music seemed to permeate the air at the packed House of Blues in San Diego’s hopping Gaslamp district for the Sons of the Sea show on February 11. It was an all-ages show which meant that the back bar area was particularly jammed since drinks weren’t allowed on the main floor. But the sound sucks in the bar area since it’s underneath a low ceiling, an ongoing problem with the flawed venue’s layout and acoustics. Drinks therefore had to be quickly dispensed with when the show began by anyone who cared about hearing the music.

“Jet Black Crow” was an early highlight, as Boyd and his band reeled the crowd in with a tune that feels like it could be an Incubus song if more guitar distortion were added. “We could take our chances”, sang Boyd in what seemed like a thematic comment on the Sons of the Sea project. “Come Together” on the other hand had more of a pop sound, although the song’s adventurous dynamics stood out more in the live setting.

The set also mixed in a few songs from Wild Trapeze. “Runaway Train” struck a chord with its crisp acoustic guitars and congas for a bit of a tribal feel. Boyd delivered some of his deepest vocals of the night on a solo acoustic intro to “Courage and Control”, before the rest of the band came back in as Boyd sang of giving oneself permission to let go. It was clear now that the audience was fully engaged and ready for whatever Boyd wanted to offer. “Untethered” continued in a similar theme with bright swirling keyboards on a mid-tempo tune with rich melodies.

The band injected a cinematic interlude into the show with “Avalanche”, featuring an ambient piano intro and sublime tones that did indeed suggest a dreamy landscape. The song built into a progression that seemed ripe for a psychedelic jam, but alas was brought to a conclusion instead. “Here Comes Everyone” from Wild Trapeze turned into one of the evening’s peak moments as the band rocked the song in a vibrant manner that far surpassed the studio rendition on a tune about “looking at the stars”.

Boyd would apologize at the end for bringing the show to a relatively quick conclusion, citing the limited repertoire. It was understandable under the circumstances, although if he really wanted to play a longer show he could take a page from the Phish playbook and add some favorite classic rock covers to the set.

But the band wrapped the show in style with a superb encore that featured a shimmering version of “Where All the Songs Come From”, where Sons of the Sea’s potential was shining at its brightest. The song’s alluring groove stands out more in the live setting, recalling the power of The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Midnight in Harlem” (which features a similar verse progression.) Sons of the Sea layered the tune in masterful fashion with all of the instruments gelling to conjure a majestic sonic landscape for Boyd to preside over.

Sons of the Sea doesn’t quite deliver the power and scope of an Incubus show, but that was a given to anyone who had listened to the album. It was interesting however to watch Boyd taking risks by spreading his wings to see where a flight out of the nest might lead. Boyd continues to present an artistic sincerity that seems to have his fans ready and willing to follow him along wherever his flight course may lead.