Shape Shifters

Incubus celebrates an 18-year evolution.

Let's go back, for a minute, to the year 1991. America seems like a much different place — except it really isn't. The nation finds itself entrenched in war in the Middle East, with oil prices spiking and consumers scrambling. Everyone teeters on the brink of a vast and ominous precipice called "recession." In short, things don't look good. But, as has been the case historically, the arts tend to flourish in the face of adversity. Turmoil and uncertainty in society spawn creativity in blooming subcultures.

The decadent excess and pomp of '80s-era glam is suddenly pushed from the limelight by its brooding, unloved, and angst-ridden kid stepbrother, grunge. Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe give up their chokehold on MTV's playlists to a horde sweeping in from the darker reaches of the West Coast. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots pour from radio speakers across the country. And these dark sounds aren't the only ones to emerge. Before this very backdrop, in some garage in Los Angeles County, four high school students — vocalist Brandon Boyd, guitarist Mike Einziger, bassist Alex Katunich, and drummer Jose Pasillas — form a band called Incubus.

Fast-forward to today. America is again facing war and recession — and Incubus remains. Some 18 years after its formation, the group boasts an almost unimaginable longevity for a rock band. There are the two gold albums, the three platinum albums (two of those, in fact, platinum twice over). And there's even a new compilation double-disc, Monuments and Melodies, released this past June, which is making its way up the American rock charts. And, trust them, they didn't expect it either. "We're just as surprised as anyone else is to have had that kind of success," Einziger says. "It's been an amazing journey."

Incubus: The surprised faces of success.
Incubus: The surprised faces of success.

Especially since the band has always done its own thing, regardless of which rock subgenres have reigned the mainstream. When Incubus started, grunge was the big thing — but instead of emulating that, the band members trusted themselves. The resulting blend of punk-funk with metal and even hip-hop, reminiscent of '80s Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Primus, was the predominant sound on the band's raw 1995 debut album, Fungus Amongus.

Incubus' successful major-label debut and infinitely more polished follow-up, 1997's S.C.I.E.N.C.E., still featured some of those early influences. But the album's more refined elements began to truly set the group apart. For one thing, there was the addition of DJ Lyfe (whose shoes would be filled by DJ Kilmore in 1998, with replacement bassist Ben Kenney arriving the same year to form the current lineup). But despite the personnel changes, songs such as "Redefine," "Favorite Things," and "Deep Inside" stayed truer to the band's beginnings. Others, such as "Glass," "A Certain Shade of Green," and "Idiot Box," foreshadowed the inevitable progress of Incubus' later work, with its diverse stylistic underpinnings.

"We started when we were 15 years old, so we basically learned how to write music and play in a band all together at the same time," Einziger says. "All of our records have been photographs of us at different times during our upbringing."

The snapshot that was the third album, 1999's Make Yourself, showed a markedly more delicate touch. The singles "Pardon Me," "Stellar," and "Drive" would propel the group to new commercial heights. But those songs also ushered in the sound widely recognized today as Incubus' trademark — a unique melodic sensibility paired with off-kilter rhythms and the ability to explode from a whisper to a growl in seemingly a flip of a switch. This natural development into a more mature sound brings Incubus to where it is today: almost two decades removed from its humble beginnings as a high school band and with countless fans worldwide.

And now there's Monuments and Melodies, a thick album of the band's career snapshots. The first disc features all of the group's hit singles, including the aforementioned tracks from Make Yourself, as well as some from subsequent releases Morning View, A Crow Left of the Murder, and Light Grenades. There are also two new songs: "Black Heart Inertia" and "Midnight Swim." Meanwhile, the second disc contains rarities and B sides, such as an acoustic version of "Certain Shade of Green," from S.C.I.E.N.C.E., and a cover of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy."

It was a somewhat unusual decision to release a retrospective while the band still actively plays and records, but the timing felt right to Einziger and his bandmates. "It seemed kind of appropriate because we have been around a long time," he says. "When someone releases a hits record, a lot of times you only know a few songs and the rest is stuff you don't know. But we actually have a whole record of songs that were played on the radio."

Probably most important, the release places the guys on the road once more, which is precisely where the fans like them. "We're really excited to be playing shows again," Einziger says. "It's been nearly three years, so we're really looking forward to it." But whether on the road or in the studio, one thing about Incubus is apparent: In 2009, they are dedicated to doing exactly what they've always done — changing with the times with unflinching honesty.

 
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