Incubus Talks Deftones, Teenage Success, and the Influence of Hans Zimmer

, 01/01/0001

Music Photos Deftones

Incubus is one of the “Untouchables” — a band that has been in the industry for over 20 years and continues to remain equally nostalgic and relevant. Although the band hit a rough patch with their last album, If Not Now, When?, which was met with mixed critical and fan reactions, they powered through and continued to do what they do best — make memorable, timeless music. Most recently, Incubus released two EPs. The first of two EPs, Trust Fall (Side A), was released May 12, 2015. The band plans to release Trust Fall (Side B) later in the year. I caught up with Mike Einziger, the band’s Grammy-nominated co-writer and guitarist, before their concert at St. Louis’ Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre.

In the background, we could hear the Deftones’ upbeat music from the stage along with the lively energy bursting from the crowd. The noise threatened to drown out our voices, but we found slight reprieve in a nearby room with a comfy couch and the daily newspaper sitting atop a vintage coffee table. The paper’s headline, titled, “Brawl Against Cowboys Puzzles the Rams,” provides Einziger with much amusement. After greeting him, he references the headline, saying, “I’m curious as to what the answer to this is… like, why are they puzzled?! Isn’t that the weirdest headline? Like they’re all sitting around thinking, “What happened?! We all got into this fight. Like, what happened guys?!”

Two seconds into the interview and he already has me laughing. It’s very surreal to be interviewing, let alone standing next to, such an amazing musician whose band I’d idolized for years; driving around aimlessly as a teenager, blasting the music, and singing along to “Wish You Were Here.” (You know you did it too, millennials.)

Read on as Einziger answers my questions, taking us both back in time.

You’re touring with the Deftones (and had previously toured with them in 2000). What was it like touring with the band again, 15 years later?

We did do a tour with them in 2000. That was a proper tour between us and them. But then we’ve also done a million shows together in different scenarios, like festivals. And we’re all friends, we’ve known each other since the late 90s.

Did you know each other before Incubus came together?

No, the Deftones chronologically started becoming successful — started to become a well-known band — before we even got a record deal. Before we started touring and everything like that. I knew who the Deftones were before Incubus even got signed. We didn’t have any recordings to sell or anything like that. We were still undeveloped as a band at the time. But we definitely looked up to them — they were a very powerful live band and really fun to watch. We’re all fans, so when they asked us to tour with them in 2000, that was really exciting and fun for us because we always loved their music.

It’s actually really special and fun for us, to be together with all of us doing this now. To still be playing in 2015, when we’ve all been doing it for so long. I mean, we all talk about how appreciative all of us are, just in general, to be able to continue making music. We’re all grateful for it, and grateful people still love the music and want to come to concerts. Because we’ve been doing this for so long, there’s a lot of camaraderie between all of us. We’ve seen a lot of bands come and go, you know? They gain popularity and then they’re gone. So all of us kind of look at each other, like “Wow, I’m still around! That’s pretty cool.” We’re all friends and we have a great time — we come out and watch each other play, we’re all really supportive of each other.

It’s really funny, because I read reviews of some of our shows and the journalists kind of make it sound like it’s a competition of some kind. It’s really sad that they look at it that way, because we’re really like a big family. We all love being out here together. And the audience…they seem to genuinely enjoy the whole experience.I know that Incubus fans have a lot of crossover fans with Deftones fans. Not only is there history, but we just know that a lot of our fans tend to be Deftones fans as well. There’s a lot of nostalgia there. for sure. The vibe has been awesome. 

When you talk about the competitiveness angle some journalists have taken, are you referring to any specific article or publication?

Lots of them. [Laughs.]

I did read something recently in The Houston Press. It said, “Unless you’re Metallica-level, having a band like Deftones come on right before you raises the bar for your performance. You have to be damn secure in your abilities if you’re going to headline.”

I think you’ll always get stuff like that, and I see that as positive. I’m referring more to the idea that some people think the fact that we’re playing after the Deftones is bad or offensive. Because we had been opening for The Deftones when we last toured together. The thing is, we’ve been playing these venues by ourselves for the past 10-15 years on our own. By ourselves.

This year, when we decided to have The Deftones out here with us, we did that out of friendship. We did it because we all love each other and because we’re friends. So to see people trying to create some kind of controversy over who’s playing when totally defeats the purpose of why we’re all out here playing together. It totally flies in the face of what we all feel when we’re touring together.

Yeah, you probably wouldn’t be touring with them if either of you had some sense of superiority over the other. I can imagine that wouldn’t be a pleasant tour.
I can’t control what people say or think, but I do feel like that’s kind of a sad way of looking at something that feels good from this side. I don’t know, maybe if it’s different out there, but back here, where we are…

No, I think it’s very cool that fifteen years later, you’re still friends, still touring together, and still so supportive of each other. 

I’ve read that you’re friends with the members of Hoobastank. That takes me back…

Yeah, they were from the same town as us. 

Are you still in touch? Do they still play?

You know, I haven’t really kept up with them, I don’t have any idea what they’re up to. They were all really nice guys. I went to middle school and high school with a couple members of that band. And the same with the guys from Linkin Park. My brother went to school with one of the members, and we all knew each other. They were in different bands at the time but, you know, we’re all part of a local scene of bands that were playing. It’s really funny that anyone was successful at all. The fact that we got out of our town at all! You know, traveled around the world making music… that’s pretty crazy!

Being in California, in a very tight-knit community, I can imagine it’s really hard to break into the “scene,” as there’s so much competition.

That’s true, there are a lot of bands. And you’re also in the center of the entertainment industry. It’s sometimes even more difficult to get noticed if you’re a band. But at the same time, if you’re doing something that’s good, your chances of getting noticed are obviously better. Because people will talk about it. Word doesn’t have to travel that far. 

Speaking of “getting noticed,” how did that happen for Incubus?

We grew up in a town where there was nothing to do. It was really kind of a quiet place, and on weekends when we were in high school, people would drive around to people’s houses and drink. Parties would just get broken up by the police everywhere, so it was like, “Okay, we’ll just drive to another place.” And everyone would just drive. It was a sequence of driving to different places and getting kicked out, ha-ha.

Ha, the good old party train.

And that’s what it was! [Laughs.] We got to a level where we were able to play shows in Hollywood. We started playing, first at clubs in the Valley, one being a little place called Mancini’s. And we would just sell those clubs out. There would be hundreds of kids that wanted to come. We had this sort of network of different venues where we would pass out flyers and sell tickets. We would sell the tickets ourselves. Just a pay-to-play thing where we’d go to the concert promoters and buy 300 tickets at $1/piece and then we’d sell the tickets for five bucks, or sometimes two bucks, or whatever. Sometimes we’d just give them away for free.

How old were you at that time? Sounds very ambitious.

Sixteen, we were in 10th or 11th grade. By the time we were seniors in high school, we were selling out shows on the Sunset Strip — The Whiskey and The Roxy and The Troubadour. We were playing all those clubs really frequently. We would pack them; we’d do 600 to 700 people at a 500 seat venue at The Whiskey or The Roxy on a Friday or Saturday night. 

What started happening was all these people from record labels started showing up to the shows. But then they would ask to meet us and talk to us, and they’d say, “Oh, this is really cool what you have have going on. Let us know when you write a real song.”

Damn. That’s a strike to the ego.

What they would say is, “Yeah, you guys definitely have a vibe happening and it seems like all these guys are coming down because it’s a fun experience and you’re giving people something to do. But we can’t tell if they’re connecting with the music or if it’s just a big party that they all wanna go to.”

Interesting, because you weren’t doing covers. You were playing your music.

Yeah, it was all of our songs. It was all our own music. And I can say with total certainty, there was a very specific period of time when it changed from just our friends showing up to people we didn’t know showing up and knowing all the words to our songs. We had actually started to make demo tapes we would give out to people or sell for $1. Tapes!

Oh, the nostalgia!

Ha-ha, yep. Cassettes. Cassettes. A friend of mine I went to school with, her father owned a cassette dubbing business that dubbed cassettes of children’s stories. But they were mono. I didn’t even know what that meant — I didn’t even care! We would just dub all of our demo tapes in these mono cassettes and sell them for $1. And we made 500 of them for, like, $50 on these white, shitty cassettes. 

I remember getting those demos from random bands and totally getting hooked on their songs. And never hearing from them again. You guys must have really been hustling.

Yeah, we really built up a following that way. There were all these different high schools in different parts of L.A. that we would target. We had friends in different places. It was cool — we really did offer something to do if people were bored. They’d be like, “Oh, let’s go see this band play,” and it was fun. 

It’s hard to believe that kids were so bored in Calabasas, but I’m assuming 1991 Calabasas is different than 2015 “Kardashian Calabasas.”

Yes, very different than Calabasas in 1991. Calabasas now is definitely, like, Kardashians and Justin Bieber. It wasn’t like that when we were kids. I mean, it was a nice place to live. I’m not saying it wasn’t nice, but it was a bedroom community, really. It was a suburban bedroom community, and it was really quiet. Nothing to do there; nothing for teenagers to do, especially. So the idea of a night out in Hollywood to see a show, that was exciting.

Where did you practice? Garage?

Yep. We would get chased out of our living room, then the neighbors would start complaining, and the cops would show up and we’d have to stop. Then we rehearsed at Brandon’s house for a while — he lived in a more isolated area without neighbors. But then his other family members were like, “Ahh, we’re kind of tired of this.”

But like I said, it wasn’t just our friends showing up anymore. It was people we didn’t know. People were actually connecting to what we were doing. We actually started making some money. Eventually we were able to afford our own rehearsal studio. It got to a point where we generated enough interest from all the record companies in L.A. that we found ourselves in the position where basically every single one of them wanted to sign us. We ended up signing with Immortal Epic. 

We were with Epic for 17 years and we had an insane amount of success with them. It was a lot of fun. As soon as we signed the record deal, we went out on tour. We were touring all over the world. We were in Europe, Japan, Australia…

How long has it been since you’ve last toured in the U.S.?

Last time we did a proper tour in the U.S. was in 2012. We did a headline tour with Linkin Park. We had already done a full headline tour in the U.S., and then all of the sudden Linkin Park was like, “Hey, you wanna come on tour with us?” We had already toured all the same places not too long before that, but their timing was just perfect. It was the end of the summer and we were like, “Let’s do it!” 

They had been asking us to tour with them for years and the timing was never right. So that worked out well. It was sort of a similar thing when we toured with the Deftones. Everything just lined up perfectly. It’s hard to make all the parts fit together. 

With your busy schedules, I’m sure it is! Regarding your recent release, Trust Fall (Side A) — Why did the band decide to do 2 EPs instead of one full-length album?

We actually had no plans of doing anything at all.

So you were planning to go on hiatus at the time?

We were just doing other stuff, writing songs with other artists.

What prompted the band to pick it back up again?

I wish I could say it was the fans, but it wasn’t! [Laughs.] To be perfectly honest, I had been working on some film projects with Hans Zimmer and he has this awesome studio complex in Santa Monica. He gave me a studio there to practice. There’s an awesome network of musicians there doing great things. 

I joked that the band should just set up in his empty studio. Hans was like, “You should!” And he was serious. That’s kind of how we got back together. 

Hans Zimmer! That’s pretty legendary. There are a few things I didn’t know about you before I did a bit of research — I didn’t know you had worked with Hans Zimmer, done orchestral music, or that you had written for Avicii!

Yeah, I wrote “Wake Me Up.” I worked on a lot of different projects. I worked with Tyler, The Creator. He’s amazing. I co-produced a couple of songs on his new album that just came out — songs called “2Seater” and “Deathcamp.” The album is called Cherry Bomb.

Personally, right now, I’d rather put out another album rather than an EP. I’ve learned that the fans want an album. They liked the EP, they like the music that’s on the EP, but they just want more of it. Our fans are accustomed to albums. Especially with rock music, that’s the format, you know?

True. But I also think there’s something to be said about the anticipation of waiting for the “Part 2” EP, which is what you are currently doing.

Yeah, it’s almost like the Side A; Side B — the second act. You get to have a “new beginning” and a “new ending.” But our audience is very opinionated about what we do. They always are though. They’ve always been. Inevitably, some people love what we’re doing and some people hate what we’re doing. That’s just the reality of it. You have big shoes and sometimes you step on things. Inevitably, we are going to step on things.

Looking back to your roots, in what ways have you personally seen the band’s music progress?

It’s changed as we’ve changed as people. I’m sorry for such a vague answer. I’m not an objective observer of that. You’d be a better judge of that. And I don’t listen to our music! It doesn’t occupy the same space in my world as it does for somebody who actually listens to it. For me, it’s totally different.

Is it weird for you to listen to your own songs? It’s weird for me to hear my voice in recorded interviews, or read past articles. Sometimes it gets to the point where my friends will say, “Stop reading it after it’s published!” Because I overanalyze everything and I will obsess. I imagine it might be the same way with your music.

It is. You sometimes think, “Ah man, I wish I would have done this or that.” The cool thing about playing these songs is, if there’s something I want to do differently, I can do it differently. That’s pretty cool. That’d be like if you’re going out and reciting your articles. [Laughs.] You’re reading them passionately to an audience, and if you don’t like the way you wrote it, you can change it to whatever!

Ha-ha, true! Although that sounds equally painful for both me and the audience. But I understand what you mean about being an objective observer. 

I’m too inside of the process to even attempt to look at it objectively. It’s flattering to me, though, that people seem to have been affected by our music in some way. Kids come up to me — we meet our fans a lot — and they’ll say, “This music changed my life” or “This music helped me through a hard time.”To me, that’s like the biggest…that makes me feel really good. Because I know what other people’s music has done for me, so any notion that somehow our band has, in any way, provided that feeling for some group of people or for some individual…that, to me, is awesome. That’s great. I could just stop.

That must be an amazing feeling.

You know what I find interesting? I’ve read that “Pardon Me” wasn’t particularly popular until you did the acoustic version.

Yeah, it wasn’t. Six months, it came out and died. I can tell you exactly what happened if you want to know.

I do!

So “Pardon Me” came out, and it was like, “whatever.” People didn’t really care that much about it. It got played on a few radio stations, but that was it. At the time, music, or alternative rock music, was in a really heavy place with Korn and Limp Bizkit and all these really heavy bands. And we offered to do an acoustic performance for a radio station. I can’t remember what station, but it was a tiny radio station in Newark…Connecticut…New England-ish. Maybe Boston…

Let’s go with East Coast!

Ha-ha, yes. East Coast. Maybe New Jersey. I remember, they were like, “You can play acoustic?!” Like they couldn’t believe we could do that. And we said, “Yeah! We can do acoustic.” So we performed acoustically and the station started playing it. Then another radio station asked, “Hey, can you come do that for us?” And we were like, “Sure!”

All of a sudden, this massive wave of radio stations were like, “Hey, will you come in and play that song at our station?” It got to a point where we couldn’t even keep up with it. So we went into the studio and recorded an acoustic version and delivered that to everybody. Radio stations started playing that version, and then all of the sudden they wanted the real one, the original rock version of the song. And that’s how it happened! 

I think my impression, or why I think that happened, is that the stuff they were playing on the radio at the time was so not acoustic. None of the bands that were playing would come in and play something acoustic. That provided an opportunity for us to come in and give them something. And they got behind it because they were like, “This is our recording, our version of the song.” Stations loved it so they played the hell out of it.

And then it just blew up from there. KROQ from L.A., they really got behind it. Once that happened, it really blew up. All that work that we had done…At that point, we weren’t some unknown band — we were selling out clubs. We were selling out 500-1000 seat clubs all over the country. So once that happened, it just kind of connected all the dots. 

Makes sense. When people know you sound good acoustically, they’re going to spend money on concerts because that’s what it’s all about. Playing great music, and being able to replicate that music live, you know?

Yeah, and MTV at that time was like a crazy force. They played music! And I remember, we were selling like 5,000-6,000 records/week (which was a lot for us at that time) and then the video for “Pardon Me” played on MTV and all of the sudden we sold 60,000 records that week. 

That’s pretty incredible. 

It went from 5,000 to 60,000 records! Bam! That week. It was just insane, just totally nuts.

From there on out, we sold millions of records. And it just happened over and over and over again. Until around 2009, when people really stopped buying albums. But we sold around 20 million albums. Which is totally insane. I still don’t believe. I think my mom must have 20 million records sitting in her garage somewhere. 

[We both laugh, as I imagine my own mother with a basement full of my work…]

Ok, last question! So you’ve been to St. Louis before…

My mom’s from St Louis, actually.


Yeah, she grew up here and went to college here as well.

Really?! Which one?[I say hyper enthusiastically, as if someone had just told me I won a million dollars and a basket of free puppies.]


I went there! Crazy. [OKAY, I guess it’s not that crazy. But a little. I mean, that practically makes us BFF, right?] 

Well that’s awesome. You have a little bit of a connection to St Louis. And you must know, St. Louis fans are the best kind of fans. Do you have a favorite place to go in St. Louis?

The Hill. Toasted ravioli! I’ve never had that anywhere else in the world. I like St Louis. I spent a lot of time here as a kid too. My mom would bring us here, I have cousins that are here.

Einziger’s manager pops in, letting us know that it’s almost the band’s cue to play.

Mike, I’d like to thank you for the interview and for being so candid. I’ll be out there in the audience, singing along with the rest of your superfans.

My pleasure. And really, “Brawl Against Cowboys Puzzles the Rams?” I want to know the answer to this!

[We laugh as we’re ushered out of the room. We say our goodbyes and Einziger heads off to The Land of Incubus — an exclusive club that no fan shall ever fully access, but one that invites you with open arms nonetheless.

And off I went, into the massive crowd of fans, to enjoy yet another timeless performance from a band that’s managed to transcend time altogether.]

Many thanks to Incubus, Island Records, and Universal Music Group! Stream Incubus’ EP on Spotify and Soundcloud. Trust Fall (Side A) is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon. Check out their latest singles, “Trust Fall” and “Absolution Calling.” 
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