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Brandon Boyd Talks Creativity In Art And Songwriting

Incubus frontman dives into his obsessively curious creative process
  • Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

It’s a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles when Brandon Boyd joins us for lunch at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. Boyd is here to talk about his burgeoning art career, but inevitably, as he is in the midst of writing a new Incubus album, the focus turns to songwriting.

During the conversation, the frontman of GRAMMY-nominated rock band Incubus delves into his creative process, from how he deals with writer’s block, to collaborating with the band’s guitarist Mike Einzinger, to the common artistic elements that speak to him at an intersection of music and painting.

You and Mike have spoken about spending a lot of time together recently while writing. Has it been almost a spiritual experience reconnecting in this way?

We’ve written quite a few albums together. I’ve written a couple of albums on my own and they’re always different. When you make a record, it’s definitely like there’s a level of obsession that goes into it. You have to become quite literally obsessed, almost to an unhealthy degree, where you become almost single-minded about these ideas. And I’m super obsessed; like I stay up in the middle of the night and my eyes are closed, but I’m pulling words and phrases out of the ether, cutting and pasting and moving them back and forth. It’s always a spiritual process in a way, not in a religious sense, but it’s like you’re mining your emotional experience and your hopes, dreams, fears and lessons. Everything is fair game, everything. That’s why it’s fun to write with one of my best friends, because we have so much history together.

You guys took a five-year hiatus, and there is something to be said for taking a break. I imagine it’s nice to take these breaks periodically and discover that even as you both change, the core of the friendship is still there.

It very rarely felt, if ever, forced. We have taken, especially over the last ten years, gaps in time in between albums and touring cycles. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do something like that. During those time periods we’re not really taking time off, we’re just not being in the band Incubus. So everyone has a chance to stretch creatively, unpack, start a family, do whatever they’re going to do. For Mike and me, we’ve had diverging creative paths, but we’ve both stayed just as busy pursuing our own individual things. But it’s been really cool, I think for both of us, to see where those roads end up going. And they always end up informing the mothership, as I call it, which is our band. 

Have your creative experiences apart, like Mike doing his own thing with Hans Zimmer, contributed to that?

Honestly, all of it has an indelible effect. Every little thing that happens, from our drummer Jose [Pasillas] raising a family, Ben Kenney doing his own side work, even the motorcycle rides the guys go on, everything affects everything, from the most subtle to the most profound. You have to remain a sponge to try and absorb as much as you can. It’s when you stop being obsessively curious that I think the art starts to suffer because the curiosity and inspiration are very comfy bed fellows, they fit very, very well together. So the more obsessively curious we are, the more creative we are. So, for me, that’s meant stirring up my life every few years. Sometimes I’ll feel a sense of stagnation and I’ll throw a bunch of shit away or give a bunch of shit away and drive north for a couple of days for no other reason other than to just let some new stimuli in. And then sometimes it just naturally regulates itself, like you’ll see a film you weren’t expecting to see and it completely melts your world view and sends you off on a different path. 

It’s interesting you use the word obsessed about writing when you’ve been concentrating so much on the art as well.

The only way that I know how to write a song or paint a picture is to be single-minded about the process, which sounds very Zen. And there is a sort of Zen element to being single-minded and doing one thing exclusively for a period of time, but it’s an area where it’s almost like a safe container for obsession. I let myself get completely obsessed with the song that we’re writing. I’m probably kind of annoying with it. “This part here has to do this, the voice is gonna go here, then there’s this thing over here.” The whole thing is mapped in my mind, so I probably seem like a crazy person. I’m sure the other guys in the band have their own styles of obsession. But we get to be a jolly bunch of obsessive freaks together, and that’s one of the reasons it’s still fun, ‘cause we don’t really dictate to each other how you’re supposed to do you. It’s fun to bring these core ideas Mike and I come up with to such talented musicians and then have them listen to them, critique them, point out what they like, what they don’t like and then put all our heads together at that point and take it through a blender. It turns out usually completely differently than you imagine.

How are your approaches to painting and writing different?

They’re a little different in the sense that I was working on a painting last night and I feel like I can obsess longer over a painting. But lyric writing and making melodies and harmonies and things like that, there’s something that’s a little bit more intense about it emotionally. So it comes in waves, it’s one of those things you can’t force. Art is sort of similar, but you can just sit there and spin lines on paper and push paint around on canvas aimlessly and it’s kind of fun. But if you’re a in a vile mood and no words are coming to you and you feel like shit, it’s like, “Fuck this, I’m going for a walk.” In that sense you obsess a little differently. Fortunately, for me, I don’t have vile moods very often. 

Do you ever have to deal with writer’s block?

With writer’s block, I’ve learned it’s inevitable. Go for a walk, go for a surf, ride your bike, go to the farmer’s market, go talk to people, read a book, anything rather than to actually obsess, once again, over the idea that you can’t come up with a good idea. You can force it and it’s probably gonna be terrible. I’d have to go back and listen, but I can point out to you areas, a bridge melody or a bridge lyric, where I was dry and we didn’t have much studio time. The day was almost done so I just put something right there.

Do you listen to music when you paint?

Most of the time, no. Most of the time it’s nothing; silence, door opened, you can hear just the mélange of wherever I am happening. If there’s sound, it’s usually Alan Watts talking to me. But then I was working on a painting last night, and the day before listening to John McLaughlin’s Shakti project. He’s like the craziest guitar player I think I’ve ever heard. It just depends. The sound of nothing while you paint gets really trippy and you really can get lost.

Do you think that’s a sign of really loving what you’re doing?

Yes, and if there is a point, which I don’t think there is, it’s to get lost in that sort of loving exchange. You’re kind of indulging the nothing. You’re saying, “Okay, take me, let’s go on an adventure to who fucking knows where.”

It’s almost brave to let yourself go there and then share it with people.

It’s scary. Usually stagnation comes on the heels of being comfortable and you can get too comfortable, you can get complacent. And you can get fearful that if you uproot anything you’re gonna dig into that comfort. It’s good to be a little bit scared about the outcome. 

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