An oral history of Incubus’ Make Yourself: “Instead of falling into some subgenre of rock, we created our own”

Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and Mike Einziger reflect on how their landmark album Make Yourself changed their lives forever…

An oral history of Incubus’ Make Yourself: “Instead of falling into some subgenre of rock, we created our own”
Simon Bland
Originally published:
October 26, 2020

Formed in California in 1991, Incubus stormed the local nu-metal scene with their energetic 1995 debut Fungus Amongus and 1997’s funk-metal follow-up, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. In the years following, the band – fronted by soulful singer Brandon Boyd and guided by nimble-fingered guitarist Mike Einziger – zipped across the world with a selection of metal’s finest. Stints at Ozzfest and support slots with System Of A Down and Korn helped introduce their frantic mash-up of alt.rock, jazz and DJ scratching to a growing number of fans, but with the 2000s looming, the band felt a sudden sense of claustrophobia.

Returning to their LA home with new recruit DJ Chris Kilmore in tow, Incubus started work on their third record – the genre-shifting, hit-generator Make Yourself. A melting pot of anger, tenderness and blind optimism, it was a record that struck a generation during a fertile moment of teenage self-realisation, seeping into their psyche and staying there for years to come. For the band, it was an album that would change everything, yanking them from the realm of cult fandom and plonking them onto MTV and the world stage.

Here, Brandon and Mike reflect on the personal writing process, unexpected endurance and game-changing nature of this double-platinum classic…

After multiple world tours in support of S.C.I.E.N.C.E, Incubus finally land back in LA to begin work on a new album with a new sound…

Brandon Boyd: "Before writing Make Yourself, we’d just come off what felt like a mild eternity touring S.C.I.E.N.C.E. When we got home, we started coming up with ideas and gave ourselves eight weeks to write the record and in those eight weeks, all the songs that appear on the album came out. We didn’t actually say out loud to each other that we needed to write a more commercial record; we just wrote in the same way we knew how to write and Make Yourself is what came out. It’s sort of the antithesis to S.C.I.E.N.C.E."

Mike Einziger: "The biggest influence on our writing had to do with us becoming world travellers. There were lots of artists that I was introduced to during travels in Europe and the UK. Touring S.C.I.E.N.C.E was a coming-of-age experience, going from being a local band in Los Angeles, to going out and playing in front of audiences. We were soaking up what was around us and that mixed with a genuine creative desire to step up our artistry. We really wanted to become great songwriters and make music that’d leave a mark. We definitely wanted to graduate from the zany music we spent our high school years writing and become more serious."

Brandon: "Once things picked up with S.C.I.E.N.C.E we started getting much bigger touring opportunities. We started to do festivals and play with much bigger bands. It was interesting to witness what was working for them and what wasn’t. It was also a period of time in music that was dominated by a kind of mindlessness. This is just my opinion, but there was largely a lack of substance going into popular heavy music. It was more heavy for heavy’s sake. I thought that was a missed opportunity. To me, there was an opportunity to use the power of a loud guitar and dynamic drumming to convey some larger messages."

Inspired by their travels, Brandon and MIke begin pushing themselves to write songs with more emotional depth – a task that came with new levels of personal risk…

Mike: "I really wanted Brandon to be more vulnerable. We had conversations about that; some of them were uncomfortable. I felt like a lot of the music we’d written up until that point was personal but some of it was almost cartoonish, which is awesome and something that came very naturally to us, but I felt like we could really connect with people and write music that could make more of an emotional connection. That’s challenging and a bigger risk. One thing I noticed in Brandon’s writing around that time was that he started talking about himself more. It was exciting to hear because I knew people would connect with it."

Brandon: "It was around that time where I discovered artists like PJ Harvey and started getting really enamoured by lyricists. I really got into the idea of listeners interpreting music as opposed to telling them something verbatim. I thought that maybe there was an opportunity to leave some things unsaid so it allows the listener to interject themselves into the experience."

Mike: "It was a very masculine time in music and we were associated with that. We would be playing Ozzfest tours with all these different bands who were our good friends and there was pressure to be like that. I think the tenderness and emotional side of the music was a reaction to all that aggressive music that was happening at that time. Our reaction was to go in the other direction."

Brandon: "The thing that became really challenging was, 'How much do I share and where do I draw the line?' Our early 20s are fun but they’re also really turbulent because we’re emotionally immature – especially men. When we were touring S.C.I.E.N.C.E, I’d been with my girlfriend for quite a long time, and then it came to light that she’d been having an affair while I was gone, so I was dealing with a pretty high degree of heartbreak when I went into Make Yourself. The writing process ended up becoming like an open poetic therapy session for me. There was a little bit of anger, definitely heartbreak but also a sense of hope around finding a new love. From my point of view, the songs very clearly describe the arc of that experience."

Combining alternative rock with elevated lyrics, Make Yourself delved deep into the band’s psyche, splicing anger, tenderness and hope in powerhouse tracks like Pardon Me, Stellar and the anthemic Drive…

Mike: "Pardon Me was hugely transformative for our career. It opened up all kinds of doors for us, but the single came out and fell by the wayside. There were some radio stations on the East Coast that asked if we could come in and play Pardon Me acoustic and it spread like wildfire. That was what really propelled the song. Radio stations started playing the acoustic versions we recorded and the demand became so great that we ended up recording an EP of acoustic versions because we couldn’t keep up with all the stations that wanted us to come and play. That led to the album version being played and it grew in a very organic way."

Brandon: "Stellar was my experience of falling in love again and it was a very different kind of love than the love I experienced as a teenager. It felt much more expansive, hence the ‘meet me in outer space’ imagery. I was also just feeling blown away – as I continually am – by Mikey as a guitar player. He’s been fascinating me since we were little kids. We confound each other, which makes for good creative partners. We throw each other’s intuitions into the woods, then chase them down and find really cool gems as a result. He showed me that guitar riff [for Stellar] and it was so strange and like something I’d never heard before that it was quite easy to write melodies to it. It sparked any number of ideas."

Mike: "I remember recording the musical pieces of Drive at home and then sitting in a car with Brandon. He’d been spending time with it and I remember him singing the lyrics to me in the car as they appear on the album. The version we made before we recorded it properly was really the same. I could never have predicted that it was going to be a smash-hit song, but I knew that it felt special to us. It felt like an honest encapsulation of being vulnerable and I felt like people would connect with it. I connected with it."

Brandon: "A lot of those topics [in Drive] are still things I wrestle with. The song is about reckoning with fear and uncertainty and I’m still in a kind-of active dance with that, as I probably will be my entire life. Just because you write something down, put a melody to it and a bunch of people like it doesn’t mean it was a thought that was complete – it’s not as if I became enlightened around the idea of not letting fear dictate the course of my life. It was basically just a proclamation of, 'I’m doing this dance just like any of us are – here’s a pretty melody to accompany it!'"

Mike: "It was gratifying when [Drive] did connect with audiences. Pardon Me was a big deal for us, Stellar was the second song that came out and a big deal on MTV, and then when Drive came out it really pushed everything over the top. We’d already sold a million albums before Drive even came out, so when it did, it was just crazy. Drive blew it all up completely."

Released in October 1999, Make Yourself’s hit-heavy tracklist received considerable airplay on a then-all-important MTV, pushing the band into exciting new realms of success…

Brandon: "The most stark change was that all of a sudden women were coming to our concerts so when people would cheer after a song, the pitch went up considerably (laughs). It was a welcome change and delightful to have an audience of both men and women, because when we were touring S.C.I.E.N.C.E it was honestly 95 per cent guys our age who looked like us. It was super-fun but a little bit of a boys' club for a long time. When Make Yourself really started to kick in, it was a blast to walk onstage and see everybody there."

Mike: "We never really vocalised that we were trying to come up with a new sound; all that happened after the fact. We just wrote the music that we wrote and felt excited about it, but when Make Yourself first came out, there was definitely a pretty strong backlash from fans that wanted a heavier album. They wanted us to be more of a metal band and complained we had lost our heavier edge, but it wasn’t a conscious thing. We felt a lot of pressure to out-do ourselves."

Brandon: "There was a blissful ignorance going into the whole process and I’m so thankful we had that because it allowed us to defy all of the pressures of being a particular kind of band at that particular time. All of the flags were blowing in a direction that was telling us we should’ve made another record like S.C.I.E.N.C.E and that would’ve solidified our place in a small subgenre of rock and metal. Our intuitions were pulling us in a completely different direction and we trusted it. We ended up carving our own place in the world and instead of falling into some subgenre of rock and metal, we created our own."

Embedding itself into the nostalgia of a generation, Make Yourself remains as a key moment for both ’00s rock fans and the band themselves.

Mike: "It kind of freaks me out how some of the songs we wrote are just as relevant, if not more relevant, now than they were when they were first released. It’s amazing. I can feel it when I’m onstage playing this music that we wrote all those years ago. I can see how much it means to the people that are listening to it and singing along."

Brandon: "When we were out on tour celebrating 20 years of Make Yourself it brought with it a new perspective that was really wonderful. To see rooms filled with people showing us how much they related to those songs – and in a lot of ways still relate to those songs – was truly a remarkable experience. It ended up being more powerful than when we were originally touring the album because I think I didn’t really understand what I was saying then. It comes close to almost a transcendent experience because you start to see how similar we all are. It ends up being this beautiful communal experience, which is quite humbling."

Mike: "I think it was the introduction of our music to many, many millions of people and I’m super-grateful for that. It was also the first time we had a video on MTV and that was a transformative thing, too. At that time, if you had a video that even appeared once on MTV it could mean you sell millions of albums. All of a sudden we went from selling tiny amounts of records to millions of records. It was a crazy time."

Brandon: "Make Yourself undoubtedly and unequivocally changed our lives for the rest of our lives and for that, I’m truly thankful and grateful because I honestly never knew, expected or dreamed that we would be able to make music as a way of life. Make Yourself was our entry point into that."

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