Interview: Incubus Guitarist Mike Einziger Talks 'If Not Now, When?"

Five long years after their last album, Light Grenades, alt-rock veterans Incubus are back with their latest album, If Not Now, When?, easily the most mature and most consistent album of the band's almost-20-year career.

Guitar World recently got the chance to catch up with Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger about the new album and the band's evolution from their funk metal beginnings to the textural moods that now dominate their music.

GUITAR WORLD: Listening to this album as compared to the band's previous albums, there seems to be sort of a linear evolution between the band's early days and its current, mature sound.

MIKE EINZIGER: The songs on Fungus Amongus were our first attempts at writing songs without really having done any touring, and even on S.C.I.E.N.C.E. we had only done a tiny bit of touring. I don't know, looking back, having been a band now for 20 years and having toured consistently for 15 or 16 years of that, I don't think we really cut our teeth as a band until we had been on the road for a while. That's sort of how we figured out who we were as musicians, when we weren't just trying to summon our influences.

When you're a touring band and you're out there in the world playing in front of people who don't know you, and you're being compared to other bands, it's definitely different than when you're in kind of a closed environment and writing music for your friends, which is what I think we were doing in our pre-S.C.I.E.N.C.E. days and even up to some of the stuff on S.C.I.E.N.C.E.. So after we toured behind S.C.I.E.N.C.E. for two years, we wrote Make Yourself, which, in a way, I kind of feel is our first real album as a band. We had toured, we had seen the world, and I feel like the was the first album where we really had our own sound instead of just sounding like what we had been listening to.

And that's not to diminish the music we had written previous to that. I know there are a lot of people who love that music -- I love it too, simply because it's part of our band and those are like photographs of us -- but a lot of time has passed since Make Yourself and this new record. You're right that it's been a pretty linear evolution, but I think we've always had a pretty well-defined musical compass we've always followed as a band. I definitely feel like I've followed it as a guitar player and as someone who writes songs; that musical instinct has always been strong.

How would you compare the process of writing Make Yourself to writing the new album?

Every time we make a new record, it's a new chapter. Writing this album in many ways felt like writing Make Yourself. It definitely felt like the end of something and the beginning of something.

Make Yourself seemed not to lean on some of the strengths of our previous music. When we made Make Yourself, I remember specific things, like changing dynamics. When we did the song "The Warmth," there was some debate amongst us in the band about when we went into the chorus of that song, whether or not it would be a heavy section in the song. My overwhelming feeling was that I didn't want to make it into a heavy rock song, I wanted it to sort of maintain a more textural dynamic as opposed to something with big, distorted guitars. It seemed to work well in a different dynamic.

At the time, that was sort of a big decision, to not make that into a heavier song, which would have seemed like a very logical place for that song to go. The decision to do that, though, it felt a certain way, you know? And when we were writing a lot of the music for this new album, there were a lot of decisions like that. There were a lot of directions we could have gone in that we would have headed in in previous times, but there were definitely certain musical decisions, at least on my part, to go away from directions we had gone in previously. I think that kind of philosophy is really what keeps it exciting and interesting.

It would definitely have been much easier for a band that's been around as long as you guys to just pull out the same bag of tricks and make another album.

We're trying to do things that are new for us, that are exciting for us, and that involves going down some paths that are not well trodden. I know this album is different; it's rhythmically different and it's dynamically different. The responses we've gotten so far ... we've played a few shows now where we've played new material and done some interviews, and people's responses to it have been really positive.

But I know there are people who have been listening to the band for a long time who might not want to come along on this ride with us.

It's been five years since your last album, Light Grenades. In that time, you guys released a greatest hits album and toured behind that. It seems like you would have had a lot of time to think about what comes next for the band. In that way, would you liken the mindset of Make Yourself with that of the new album?

Yeah. I wouldn't say they were the same thing but that they kind of occupy similar spaces in determining where we were going to go from there. Being a new band and not having toured and seen the world ... writing the album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and then going through that experience and being like, "OK, now we're wordly, we've gone all over the world and we've played these songs into the ground. Now we're armed with a lot more knowledge and we don't want to sound like Mr. Bungle and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus anymore, we want to do our own thing." It just became obvious to us that we wanted something more.

For me, going and spending time outside of the band was important after we had been a band for almost 17 years up until the point where I wanted to go to school. It just seemed like a necessary thing to experience a different life for a little while in order to move forward. If we would have completed the Light Grenades tour and then gone back into the studio, I think we would have been in danger of feeling like we were just making another record. I think we were all thankful for having a little bit of time in between records to see where we all were in our lives.

I'm 35 now, and when we started writing music for S.C.I.E.N.C.E. I was 19 or 20 years old, and there's just a lot of time that's passed there.

The process for writing songs for If Not Now, When? was different than it ever had been, and that's what we were looking for.

Did the songwriting process for the new album change dramatically for this album or was it more a matter of mood?

I wouldn't say it's changed that much. It's always been sort of a stream-of-consciousness thing; the music is always just falling out of us, shomehow. Whenever we go to write music, we never really plan how it's going to come out. We don't sit down and conceptualize what kind of album we want to make or what kind of songs we'd like to write. I don't sit down and say, "OK, I want to write a ballad-type song." They just sort of happen. I just start playing and some little thing will have to grab my attention. If it excites me, then chances are it's going to excite Brandon.

When Brandon writes lyrics and melodies, it's really a reactionary process to something I've given him. I'll send him musical ideas I'm working on, and the ones he finds exciting he'll write a response to; it's almost like a conversation that goes on between us. It usually goes through a round or two between us before it even gets to any of the other guys. Once that dialog, that little conversation, between he and I gets started, we know there's some sort of a pathway to a full song; there's some process that we know will be explored before we decide if a song will be a full band arrangement or something more stripped down. We experiment with a lot of different things before we get to the point where we decide what the song will be.

That's really a fun part of it, just figuring out what the song is going to be. There have been many times where I've felt like we've had a song idea, where we've had a chord progression and a melody and it seems really compelling, and the songs have ended up completely different. And that, to me, is probably the most exciting part. It feels like whenever we finish a song that we went someplace.

What's cool about this record is that you can kind of hear those moments on some songs, where the listener is kind of held in suspense as to where the song is going to go. "Switchblade" is a really good example of that, where you don't know if the song is going to end up being heavy or more mellow when you first get into it.

That was a really interesting song for us because we built it from the ground up in a manner that was very atypical of how we do things. "Switchblade" started with that drum beat that I had written and then looped. I had written the drum part, the bass line and the guitar melody, and that was it for that song. I gave it to Brandon and he didn't really know what to do with it, but he liked it.

So when we went into the studio and that was all we had -- a drum beat, a bass line and this little guitar melody -- and we just built it from the ground up. The song wasn't performed live in the studio. We each record our parts separately and built it almost the way you would build a hip-hop track, just building layers and textures. It was a different song for us and also kind of a challenge to put that song on this album because it doesn't really fit into the other songs all that well, but we all liked it so we tried to find some place where it would fit in on the album. That's just part of the challenge of being a band that writes songs that vary greatly from song to song. I would say this is the most focused album we've ever made, though. Maybe with the exception of the song "Switchblade." [laughs]

One of the most distinctive things about the sound of Incubus are the guitar tones that you get. Talk a little about the gear you used on this record. Are you still playing [Fender] Jazzmasters primarily?

I used a pretty small number of guitars on this record. Mainly, for the latter part of it, anyway, I used a Telecaster. And it was just a cheap Squier Telecaster.

We were working on something and had some down time, and we were right next to a Guitar Center. I can probably count the number of times I've been into a Guitar Center on one hand in the last 10 years, and I just decided to walk in because I hadn't been in one in some time. I saw this Telecaster sitting there and it just felt awesome, so I bought it then and there and ended up using it for most of the record. I even went back and re-recorded guitar tracks with it.

I did use my Jazzmaster. I have a white '55 Jazzmaster, which is the same guitar I used on A Crow Left of the Murder and Light Grenades as well. That and the Telecaster were the main guitars on the record.

I used some other guitars as well: a short-scale, hollow-body Gibson that I want to say is from the '50s. I should probably know a lot more about it. [laughs] It's a small jazz guitar and I used it for a lot of the textural stuff because it's got a really cool, dark tone.

For acoustics, I used a Martin and a 1930s Gibson acoustic that I used on "Company of Wolves."

As far as amps and stuff, I used this amp called a Top Hat a lot, it was one of [producer] Brendan O'Brien's amps. I used a lot of smaller guitar amps on this album. I've got a Fender Twin Reverb that I used a lot. I record most of the guitars, actually almost all of the guitars, at my house. I have a little recording studio at home that I love to use. I've got a bathroom that's got a really cool echo if I open the doors the right way and put the mics in the right place. It's very noticeable in the song "Tomorrow's Food." That's where you can really hear the bathroom guitar reverb. [laughs] I did this stereo-micing thing where I put one microphone very close and another really far away, maybe 30 feet down the hall with all these doors open, and that's what that was.

Did you use a lot of other effects on the album?

Yeah, my pedal board has definitely not diminished in the years. It's only grown, actually. [laughs]

During this record I started using the Holy Grail reverb pedal, which is like a spring reverb. I have this pedal called a Reel Echo that I've used a lot in the past. It's great for adding these cool textures. I use it a lot in conjunction with a Cry Baby wah. You can set the echo pedal to infinite and you can use it almost like a tone generator. When you run that through the wah, it's amazing what sounds you can come up with, so I use it a lot to create these "beds" of sound. There's a lot of that on "Tomorrow's Food" and on the bridge section to "Adolescents" as well. You can hear an Electro-Harmonix 16-second delay on the second half of "Tomorrow's Food" as well. I also started using this pedal called the Micro POG which you can hear in the bridge of the song "Promises."

The new album from Incubus, If Not Now, When?, is out now on Epic Records.

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.