Incubus (left to right)—Jose Pasillas, Chris Kilmore, Michael Einziger, Brandon Boyd, and Ben Kenney
If Not Now, When?, the aptly titled sixth studio album from Incubus, shows what can happen when an inspired, cerebral band intersects with an energized producer. The new record is the fourth on which the SoCal band has worked with Atlanta-based veteran Brendan O''Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Stone Temple Pilots), and it''s by far their most surprising collaboration—not at all what you might expect from a band that was tagged as nu-metal when it started out back in the 1990s.
In a note to Incubus fans, frontman Brandon Boyd colorfully but accurately described If Not Now, When? as “our unabashed, romantic, lush, sonic love letter to the world. It''s darker, slower, more rich, more refined, and more involved than anything Incubus has birthed to date.”
“That''s how Brandon talks,” says O''Brien with a laugh. “But what he has done on this record is, he has stepped up and written lyrics and melodies that invite people in. In the past, he''s written songs that were introverted; he wanted you to think a lot and try to figure it out. This time, I said to him, ‘Listen, you''re one of the best in the business and you have an opportunity to prove that. Right now''s the time, and if you guys are all up for this, I''m into it.'' I told them I thought we should go about this by doing whatever it takes to put the lyric and melody and the groove above all else, and I think we''ve done that. Everybody stepped up, and I think these are the best songs Brandon has written in his career. Hopefully, the public will agree.”
The album opens with three tracks that emphatically set an understated yet assertive tone in the elegant title song, the classic-rock referencing “Promises, Promises” and the beautifully nuanced “Friends and Lovers,” which cruises along on a deceptively powerful groove from drummer Jose Padilla II, who founded Incubus with Boyd and guitarist Michael Einziger in 1991, when they were all students at Calabasas High School. “Jose really embraced the whole idea of making everything he played mean something,” says O''Brien. “The groove is super-important because it has to work with the vocals and the melody, and he made a conscious effort to really support the song. I think it shows.”
The genesis of the new album “was just very different,” says Einziger, who teams with Boyd in writing most of the band''s material. “Usually, at the beginning of the process, we would write a bunch of loud rock songs. But this time there emerged a desire to make more subtle music that made more use of space rather than filling in all the space with as many notes as possible. The feelings that were coming out of the music weren''t like anything we''d experienced in the past. For me it was an indescribable feeling, because we were charging into unexplored territory for us as a band. It''s exciting and scary, too, because we''ve amassed this dedicated fan base over the years, and we have no idea how they''ll react to this record.”
Last summer, O''Brien spent a week in San Francisco with Boyd and Einziger for one of several writing sessions, which revealed to him the direction the band was heading in. When the co-writers had each set of songs roughed out, they brought them to the rest of the band, who worked out the arrangements. The producer then brought the band and his regular engineer Tom Syrowski to Nashville''s Blackbird Studio, whose Studio A has become one of his go-to tracking rooms during the last couple of years. Among its features is a perfectly restored 72-input Neve 8078 board and a Hidley-designed chamber with a movable ceiling, which O''Brien uses for natural reverb on the drums. “You put a couple of mics in there and it just sounds crazy-good,” he marvels.
They were on a roll from the first session, quickly shaping one track after another despite the complexity of the arrangements, completing seven in all. “For the most part these songs were made as records, as opposed to trying to capture a live performance,” O''Brien explains. “Our approach was old-school—let''s put these pieces together and make sure that every note counts. We''d worked out the basic arrangements of everything before we went in, but we didn''t do any sonic preparation beforehand. The idea was, we were gonna build these tracks, and a couple of them were built from the groove up. I have this little Yamaha sequencer called a Tenori-On, and on a bunch of the songs I put together little loops with the Tenori-On to build the song from, and Jose would play with that instead of a click track. And in some cases the loop became part of the finished track.”
During the subsequent break, Boyd and Einziger wrote another set of songs, including “If Not Now, When?” “That was the first thing Brandon and Mikey played for me,” O''Brien recalls, “and I was like, ‘Holy shit, that is stunning. That is a song, my friend.'' We took our time on that one, too.”
O''Brien is known for the nonstop momentum he generates and maintains in the studio. “One of the reasons we''ve worked with Brendan over and over is that he likes to work quickly, and so do we,” says Einziger. “Even with building all the songs from the ground up, it was still the quickest record we''ve ever made.”
They finished the record in a couple of weeks last fall at Henson Studios in Hollywood. When Boyd was having a problem nailing the lead vocal on the title track, O''Brien suggested that he switch to an SM57 and hold it in his hand while he sang. It worked. “Boom—he just sang like a bird,” says O''Brien. “It was a transformation.” That''s a perfect illustration of O''Brien''s resourcefulness.
It''s been five years since Incubus'' last LP, 2006''s Light Grenades, and Einziger believes the band couldn''t have made a record this sophisticated until now. “A lot of the sound of this album just has to do with the passage of time,” he says. “We''ve grown up. Each time we go through the process of making an album, we have to dig deeper, and it keeps changing over time. That doesn''t mean we''re always gonna sound like this; it''s just where we''re at right now. We can never really plan out what kind of album we''d like to make; even if we did, it wouldn''t come out sounding the way we''d envisioned it. There''s an air of mystery about the whole thing—we never know what the totality of the vibe is gonna be. But this time we found what we were looking for.”
MICHAEL EINZIGER ON THE BAND/PRODUCER DYNAMIC
Over four albums, the five musicians and their producer have formed a tight bond—so tight the band members didn''t even need to discuss the specifics of what they were going for with O''Brien. “We just all get in a room together, and the music leads us all,” Einziger explains. “We each have our own filter that all the music gets passed through. We like the way Brendan filters through things, and I like the way the other guys in the band filter through things, too. We''re all like a series of barriers that the musical ideas pass through. It''s unquantifiable, really.”
BRENDAN O'BRIEN ON SONG SEQUENCING
“This is the band''s sequence,” says O''Brien, but it''s very close to what I would''ve come up with. Since CDs took over, when the A- and B-side didn''t mean anything anymore, I''m of a mind that you put your best songs first, and you hope that the second half of the record will live up to the first half. You can''t make people wait for the great songs—you''ve got to throw ''em right in there.”
Brendan O''Brien on Maintaining a Rhythm in the Studio
“Technology is something I still consider is between myself and the speakers,” says O''Brien of his approach to recording. “I have a team of guys that work with me, and I try to keep the editing and the technology out of the control room and out of the way of what we''re doing. I like to keep things moving; I don''t want people waiting around while we''re fiddling with edits and pieces and takes. I think momentum is one of the most important things. Once you feel like you have some confidence going and some energy going, you simply cannot grind it to a halt—you''ve gotta keep it moving. At some point, it will exhaust itself, and then you take a break and come back the next day.”