Artist Evolutions: Incubus self-actualize, embarrass other bands.

Artist Evolutions: Incubus self-actualize, embarrass other bands.

While you’ve been sleeping on rock music for the last decade, Incubus has been loudly turning the thing inside out…

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'

Published: July 1st, 2020 at 7:24 am EDT
Last Updated: March 28th, 2021 at 7:37 pm EDT

Triple-click here or highlight for Trigger Warning: Discussion of demonic sex and assault.

While only die-hards were tuning in, the band Incubus has been mastering genres as though each were a level in a video game, the bandmate “co-players” slaughtering bosses together, and then roaming among the open worlds of each titanic genre-world like kings.

Lately, they’ve gone into “level-editor mode.” 

Composed of vocalist Brandon Boyd, guitarist Mike Einziger, drummer José Pasillas, bassist Ben Kenney since ’03 and turntablist and keyboardist DJ Chris Kilmore since ’98, the band first formed in 1991, when its founding members synced up in high school.

The influences of Primus and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are all over Incubus’ debut album Fungus Amongus, as perhaps are the effects of the titular psilocybin. Establishing camp in funk territory that Parliament first occupied, and on which the Peppers later threw a massive and raucous kegger, Incubus started as borderline plagiarists and then rapidly became masters of movement and contrast.

The album’s jazz-metal single “You Will Be a Hot Dancer” sprinted into a more unique territory, though. Original member bassist Dirk Lance clearly had heard Flea’s work on early Peppers’ albums Freaky Styley and Mother’s Milk, anachronisms in rock in both 1985 and 1989 respectively. Flea’s playing had gone airborne, and bassists like Lance inhaled and held. 

The Peppers were white musicians reappropriating what Black Americans had already perfected in funk, but framing it with metal and punk, a haphazard yet surgical grafting of genres that stemmed from Sabbath and The Stooges.

Perhaps only in metal and punk were early black musicians of the genres, like those of the band Death — famously resurrected for a 2009 documentary — so unrecognized that seeming musician descendants didn’t even know to cite them as influences, because they too had never heard of bands like Death until ‘09. 

Funk was another story entirely, as we know from everything a Billboard-topping white musician touched in the 70’s save for say Bruce Springsteen. In no coincidence, the Stevie Wonder, already bass-heavy composition “Higher Ground” made its way into greater airplay when the white Peppers snagged it, then new guitarist John Frusciante cranking up his distortion knobs to differentiate his guitar into a shiny attack. 

The Peppers’ “Stone Cold Bush” from the same album, in every instrument track and vocal, sits as almost a perfect historical template for nearly all of the tracks on Incubus’ second, and more angular album, 1997’s S.C.I.E.N.C.E.

Out of that same Peppers’ album came another template, a one-off, when a few heavenly measures of the song “Pretty Little Ditty” were eventually sampled into a loop for the 2000 smash hit “Butterfly,” by Crazy Town. The Chili’s, and in turn their own influences, cast an inescapable shadow on alt-rock for literally decades.

It’s no knock then to cite another band’s filter through which Incubus channeled variation after variation into interesting and nuanced soundscapes. It took Incubus only until that sophomore album to master funk metal completely, more consistently than the Peppers ever bothered to. While the Peppers veered away from the known-entities of metal and punk, and more towards their own unique string spins, Incubus’ S.C.I.E.N.C.E., an acronym for “Sailing Catamarans Is Every Nautical Captain’s Ecstasy,” steered into the skid. 

Founding member DJ Lyfe (Gavin Koppel) cranks fitting samples into his turntables on “Redefine” and “Glass,” elevating the verses and chorus of each, while “Vitamin” and “New Skin” too thud their way into view, unapologetic and boisterous. In the former, Lance does what Flea could not, psychedelia over sex and speed. And in “Skin,” Lyfe takes Eizinger’s and Lance’s strings and textures them to formulate a pre-chorus that outright bounces.

The album’s most popular single, “A Certain Shade of Green,” brings forth heavy metal with a signature style the Peppers only came close to articulating on One Hot Minute, their lone album with Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro (See: “Warped“)

About this era, Boyd told the Chicago Tribune in 2012 that “a lot of that stuff was us learning how to write music together and be a band, but as well filter the music that we were obsessed with at the time.” He went on to cite the Peppers.

If a song as potent and generating as “New Skin” was merely the band “learning how to write,” few in ’98 should have dared to stand in Incubus’ way.

And so, it took Incubus only one more album to dominate alt-rock next, with 1999’s Make Yourself, a record that manifested Total Request Live hits like “Drive” and “Stellar,” to say nothing of the post-grunge “Pardon Me” which circulated among both backyard BBQ’s and angsty bedrooms, matching “Incubus” posters from Spencer’s catching the sound waves. 

Einziger remarked in a 2000 interview with Spin that, while in New York, he “walked by MTV, and there were all these girls with Backstreet Boys signs. One girl was holding an Incubus poster.” He’s being modest: Incubus were huge, and their frontman became a heartthrob.

Make Yourself has songwriting smarts that were far beyond those of Incubus’ contemporaries on alternative radio. The transitions between verses and chorus read as though the band were playing with sound itself, inventively, keeping their tracks interesting for at least themselves in every measure. Variety: about this and this only, Incubus never seems to change, a paradox realized.

It took, once again, only until their next album for Incubus to master another genre, that of contemporary hard rock with 2001’s Morning View. The album, constructed during an all-expenses-paid retreat to a shore-house in Malibu, feels like the work of beings about to be, or already self-actualized. Incubus had achieved a permanent success in likely lifelong radioplay, such that within a couple years, the band would even begin philanthropic efforts, taming their worse instincts to spend as so many other success stories, sleepwalking, often had. In 2003, the band founded their own charity, the Make Yourself Foundation, which is still active today and recently tackling the climate change beat.

Out of Morning View came the single “Wish You Were Here,” launching Incubus to double-platinum status. MTV’s Cribs then even featured the boys cavorting about their temporary home by the ocean, insight into first-world creative paradise.

What fans saw from Incubus’ first two decade’s worth of albums, the ‘90s and the ‘00s, were glimpses of doors to further levels, Mario’s pipes.

Original bassist Dirk Lance, for reasons that Incubus has mostly kept close to the chest, left the band after Morning View, and the purer funk left with him.

Forging ahead, it took Incubus, again, just one more album to explore and perfect another genre, that of early-millennium prog rock on 2004’s A Crow Left of the Murder, six-minute songs now on the table and increasingly slower tempos, too, buffers to the metal. The ablum’s title references a crow having individualized from its “murder,” a term for a group of crows just as “school” is to fish. Aptly, so the band had proceeded.

The opening single “Megalomaniac” earned moderate traction, a screeching ditty that could have been a B-side to any Morning View single, Einziger’s wrapping distortion heavily in focus. “Sick Sad Little World” features a pummeling bassline from Kenney, lineage in King Crimson and the Ramones alike.

And then there was Pop.

On 2006’s Light Grenades, Incubus struck gold again with the cross-platform radio hit “Dig,” their first such foray since “Drive.” Headfirst they dove into major chords and melody also on Grenades’ “Oil and Water” and “Diamonds and Coal.” They could play as Britney one day, and Metallica the next. Boyd’s wail at the end of Light Grenades’ first single “Anna Molly” you’d swear came from the fifth dimension. It feels inhuman and raw. Right before, inhabiting the choruses wholly, Pasillas rolls his high hats out with each measure like a pastry chef would thin dough, resetting velocities and vectors. His is the same subtlety traditionally recognized in concert pianists, but here heavier, shimmering.

Something brewed in the depths.

Here, what genre-defining allows is a highlighting of what Incubus had achieved in the way of “group self-actualization”…

What fans saw from Incubus’ first two decade’s worth of albums, the ‘90s and the ‘00s, were glimpses of doors to further levels, Mario’s pipes. Title track “A Crow Left of the Murder” fathered the follow-up title track “Light Grenades” in speed, intensity, and even poetic theme, calling attention to human evolution and utopian apocalypse, Kubrick’s and Clarke’s monolith. From “Grenades,” Boyd writers: “Survived the plague. Floated the flood. Just peeked our heads above the mud,” and from “Crow,” “every piece contains a map of it all,” a fractal noticed in a transcendental object, beckoning.

The hopeful bop of Crow’s Pistola” breakdown parents all the same in Grenades’ Pendulous Threads,” while Crow’s Talk Shows on Mute,” one unfamiliar with the band might categorize as a single off their soon-to-come adult contemporary album If Not Now, When?

Enter level-editor stage.

For Incubus, the second decade of the new millennium kicked off slightly early in 2009, with a celebration: they released Monuments and Melodies, a greatest hits album that, like the Peppers’ and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’, itself added new songs that became hits and fan favorites unto themselves. The Peppers’ was “Fortune Faded,” the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” an outright premonition when branding the album on which it first appeared Greatest Hits in the plural and absolute, no exceptions.

Incubus snuck in its own two: “Black Heart Inertia,” and a once Japan-only outtake from Light Grenades titled “Look Alive.” The latter deserves a hundred listens for Kenney’s and Einziger’s work alone, to say nothing of Boyd’s gentle pierce and Pasillas’ creative cymbal work, atmospheres handled by Kilmore. In the concert-documentary of the same name, Look Alive, Kenney leans against a bench casually, ankles crossed in a studio as he works through the song’s speedy scales, shaking his hand once finished. Einziger has his own moments of speed, mirroring his bassist’s, but written in were several upstroke chord breaks, at once befitting the song and his hands’ health.

If Not Now, When? next served as a natural and necessary step of faith for the group — like Indiana’s in The Last Crusade, when Indy steps into the abyss of the cliff, Speilberg’s camera moving to reveal the illusion of a bridge fully. Critics at the time missed this about-faced trust fall from Incubus.

The gorgeous, earnest qualities of If Not Now, When? have well withstood the test of time. Incubus penned and released it during peak hipster-dom, our Indie-rock obsessions with irony pervasive and all sincerity mocked in nihilism by bands that proudly stood for nothing.

The ambitious “In the Company of Wolves” again calls to mind Crimson. Boyd plays storyteller, enumerating characters and rhapsodizing fairy tales.

The clean album still upheld the band’s origins with a few uptempo numbers like “Thieves” and “Switchblade,” providing glitz even when the singles “Promises, Promises” and “Adolescents” aimed mostly for calm introspection. The thing is a complete work on its own, but in retrospect, it was the final evolutionary shedding of skin as Incubus embarked into the new decade in earnest, Indy’s step about to land.

So in 2015, Incubus began a new branch of rock music when they released the EP Trust Fall (Side A).

The first three of the EP’s four songs are monumental successes creatively, while the fourth, “Dance Like You’re Dumb,” attempts a Pharrel-inspired dance number for the whole family — not bad by any stretch of the imagination, clever lyrics speaking of a “pink Boba Fett,” but not altogether new territory.

Trust Fall” itself, however, is cascading, and “Absolution Calling” rolls as a soul unseated and ascending, beginning with synths, adding, in order, bass and guitar moods, Boyd’s clear voice, and lastly Pasillas’ inescapable rhythm, all alive and interplayed. Lyrically, soul-energizing seems to be Boyd’s goal, alluding in “Calling” to Yeatsian “gyres.”

And by the end of the EP was a new sight to behold at once, if you could, an optimistic “huh” kind of moment. 

The genre categorization I attempt here and indeed that which critics attempt everywhere is potentially arbitrary, I concede. Taxonomists, however, do argue almost gravely for the value in their precise categorizations, theirs a more forgiving enterprise in the sciences than the humanities. Through those scientific categorizations, so many mysteries revealed themselves to be products of gradation, informing our understanding of all that appears around us.

In a New York Times piece from 2009, taxonomist Carol Kaesuk Yoon noted, “We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life. We are willfully… losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world. No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there.” 

In music and in the tracking of artists’ careers, what genre-defining allows is a highlighting of the Monuments artists genuinely achieve — almost as if karmically — drafting their lifes and career journeys. Increasingly specific descriptions, literal wealths of adjectives and even hyper-hyphenated modifiers if no singularly appropriate adjective yet exists, trace artistic progress. We should do artists the service of Yoon’s “seeing what’s out there” — a service we may too owe every human, knowing what we as individuals know about the difficulty and struggle in the walls of our bodies, these strange vessels cavorting about time. 

To create a new genre in any artform, one must be of sound mind, equanimity settled, creativity arrived and continual. “Self-actualization,” the integration of personality and aim, arrives with privilege, as psychologist Abraham Maslow famously outlines in his “Hierarchy of Needs.” From the survivalist instincts of our old outdoor lives, to the modern desire to be around optimism and success, all must be accounted for prior to a mind’s reaching its hyper-aware, hyper-productive state. 

Financially and filially secure, Incubus had achieved “group self-actualization” by 2015 when they released Trust Fall (Side A). They expressed the same with Skrillex’s help in 2017’s 8 and once more on their own with 2020 with Trust Fall (Side B), a now-infinite well of flex. Accordingly, on both Trust Fall records, Incubus produced the songs themselves, leaving their recent and fantastic producer Brendan O’Brien behind at least temporarily.

As taxonomists of music, we may call Incubus’ new genre “Heavy Shimmer,” an apt term both aurally and thematically, aligning with Boyd’s Zen lyrics as much as Pasillas’ splash cymbals and tambourine-bordered snare.

This novel mutation has persisted for them for five years and running, and it shows not a single sign of fatigue. Light Grenades’ flooding “Rogues,” I believe, was the new template, shaking the Peppers’ off officially. Like not a single organism, but a species do the humans of Incubus adapt in generations of their art.

From “Rogues”: “Bowing down to disillusion, hats off and applause to rogues and evolution.”

Psychonaut, author and speaker Terrance McKenna grew fond of describing over and over again to crowds of psilocybin-heads (not unlike Incubus’ founding members) a psychedelic trip of his when taking the chemical compound “Dimethyltryptamine,” more commonly known as “DMT.” McKenna waxed philosophic on what the trip had taught him about the nature of language. His trip, he saw as a kind of line-erasing premonition, one that led him to believe CGI held within it the future of human language, or at least the model for that future, a z-axis to our flat pages. McKenna, and a great deal of other DMT adherents — the drug is legal in some forms in the United States, as it has roots in shamanism and religion, so it is widely present on our continent — have encountered in their trips what, strangely, McKenna described as playfully taunting “self-transforming machine elves” and other entities who taught him how to turn himself into a three-dimensional visual pun, a “dribbling basketball” of wordplay, each and all. 

For a 2000 interview with Wired, published posthumously and conducted mere months before his death from a brain tumor, McKenna soothsayed: “There is something about the formal dynamics of information that we do not understand. Something about how we process language holds us back. That’s why I encourage everybody to think about computer animation, and about it in practical terms. Because of that will come a visual language rich enough to support a new form of human communication.”

McKenna’s foretelling of “human language evolved” mirrors that of the Ted Chiang novella Story of Your Life and too its big-screen adaptation, the Denis Villeneuve vehicle Arrival starring Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who must learn how to hold, yes, a new axis of language in her brain in order to communicate with two aliens who land and beckon human study.

In these ways do Incubus tracks like “Absolution Calling,” “Trust Fall” and “Make Out Party” exist for the total sphere of music. They are gorgeous, transdimensional and novel. The songs operate on levels that attack your traditional dimensions in a light mockery, a “Calling” for you to become more than you currently are and existing as a playful taunt for other musicians.

In “Calling,” Boyd sings in the chorus, “I remember feeling the opposite of falling.” A Taoist would recognize the memory immediately, precursor to their “falling” into each moment more and more completely. Here, the “Trust Fall” is at once the paradoxical goal that is also not one. (Were it to become a goal, the consciousness would no longer be falling freely, goal-less.)

The metaphor calls to fans’ minds, no doubt, the river-float of Morning View’s “Aqueous Transmissions” — and so Boyd layers his Zen koans, album-to-album journeys as much as song-to-song ones, always it seems into personal interdimensionality and added presence, self-transforming-machine music notes. From “Trust Fall”: “It’s only a trust fall into the arms of all… Gotta let it steal my face. Now I embrace, so what’s in front of me. Right in front of me.” 

A likely misunderstood lyric from “Calling” that, “nothing can be broken when everything is one,” would perhaps offend the underprivileged among us who do not see the text for the near-Buddhist one that it is. Better termed, we might call it a “lyric of physics,” visualizing the truth of us all venturing through air made of atoms, while we too are made of those atoms, intersections, crossings, one matrix of atomic, three-dimensional tapestry-ripplings.

The Imagist poet H.D. once wrote in her poem “The Pool,” “Are you alive? / I touch you. / You quiver like a sea-fish. / I cover you with my net. / What are you — banded one?” Hers is Boyd’s inquiring New-agism, though a Bueller anti-ism if there ever were one — a religion of no religion, a religion of whatever our moment is, odd and present.

Figuratively at least led by frontman Boyd, the band has gone full-blown Buddha this past decade, particularly in the latter half, issuing forth sermons new, having meditated first under their bodhi trees for years.

‘If Not Now, When?’ served as a natural and necessary step of faith for the group next — like Indiana’s in ‘The Last Crusade,’ when Indy steps into the abyss of the cliff, Speilberg’s camera moving to reveal the illusion of a bridge fully.

“Love” remains a motif for Incubus in this new space. Through understanding and excavating an other do we develop compassion, else we see nothing but the quivering pool of nihilism.

The best track then on the Trust Fall (Side A) is “Make Out Party,” a contender for the “intermixing of atoms” track of the decade and one of the sexiest rock records recorded since Prince’s “Kiss.” As the Peppers once were, “Make Out Party” is an anachronism that appears to have arrived on Earth in this century from a future, even richer time of music. Einziger bleeds his guitar like a willing heart, and Pasillas and Kenney provide the stuttered beat. Soloing into the crescendo is Kilmore, Boyd crooning until the end. Not coincidentally, both Prince’s and Incubus’ sexy-time tracks here feature falsetto performances from their leading men.

The fandom is real for the boys: within Monuments and Melodies and in a Jimmy Fallon Show performance featuring the Roots, sit iterations of Incubus’ party-ful cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” complete with Prince’s original sermon in the intro (“Dearly beloved…”), and Einziger shredding right into and subsequently right out of Prince’s killer final solo, twisting a guitar until as Prince’s once did, he forms a blues pitch at which the rest of his band swings and hits in the final measures. That Einziger could reproduce one of the greatest solo lickings of all time, from one of the greatest and most unique guitarists of all time, is no accident. Einziger is a musician’s musician, going big when needed, as on Incubus’ own “Priceless” from Crow, or remaining wholly content to play the backdrop or loop softly, Frusciante’s maturity reflected. 

In 2017 when Incubus’ next and, as of 2020, still their most recent full album 8 arrived, Skrillex’s name appeared in the credits. Mike Einziger remarked to Spin, “Sonny [Moore, aka ‘Skrillex’] is a good friend of mine, and we were just hanging out. He was interested in what we were doing, and he wanted to hear the music, so I brought him into the studio.”

According to Boyd, Skrillex’s eye was Incubus’ third, cerebral and omniscient. He was objective in his choices for the good of each song: “We really love pre-choruses, we’ve written lots of them,” Boyd confessed, “and they’re such a cool way to change gears before you leap into a big chorus. He [Skrillex] came in and was like, ‘I just cut that out. Is that OK?’ He did that to two or three songs. Another was the first track on the record, ‘No Fun.’ We had this amazing pre-chorus, and he’s like, ‘Let’s just chop it out, and see what happens.’”

Their opening space is literal and figurative, Parliament’s and later the Peppers’ distant in the rear-view.

The album 8 is resultingly stellar. “Love In A Time of Surveillance” begins with a dial-up modem sample and roils with snare and tom patterns from Pasillas before a metal breakdown leads listeners into what appears to be a S.C.I.E.N.C.E. style romp. But wait, there’s more: the band opens up sonic space like Dr. Who might time, stereo separation and reverb, as Boyd sings, “Way out in space is an island…” By the chorus, Orwellian nods to big data swing with a shimmy. The song disorients you as an impatient yogi might, articulating your body, and by extension your mind for you. 

Another track from 8, “Glitterbomb,” was allowed to keep its pre-choruses, heading into stomping anthemic crescendos that elongate harmonies and do in fact glitter. “State of the Art” is the underworld discovered in another Mario pipe, from Grenades‘ “Oil and Water.” And “No Fun,” the Skrillex mix, is the most fun you’ll ever have targeting the downers, pumped chords from Einziger that arrive like James Brown orchestra hits — “Hit me!”

Having created a complete album and audience experience, Incubus saved that level and began fresh again.

Einziger recalled to Spin this May that Side A “happened sort of naturally, and as a studio space that otherwise wouldn’t have been available became available to us, that was sort of a unique opportunity for us. So, we all just kind of jumped on it.” 

In 2020, Side B of Trust Fall waltzed onto the stage naturally, too. Boyd told Spin that the new EP “emerged out of a space that became available to us and that we made very much our own, as opposed to borrowing space for so long. In the history of this band, we’ve always relied on the availability of space — whether in a rehearsal studio or a living room in a house that we rented or something like that. But we actually ended up making a space in the deep San Fernando Valley and as a place that we would just come to. We created like a work schedule, you know, five days a week and we’d go in there and just write.”

Their opening space is literal and figurative, Parliament’s and later the Peppers’ distant in the rear-view.

Side B’s tracks “Karma, Come Back” and “Into the Summer” sound like the band becoming fond once again of funk, but revisiting it as a veteran astronaut might the moon. Over the hip, Boyd beautifies, particularly in “Karma,” where his voice perfects amplitude and pitch as it hits each chorus. The song bridges and ends in a storm of electricity reminiscent of Grenade’sEarth to Bella, Pt. 1.”

The Side B single “Our Love,” Incubus rearranged for a delicate quarantine video in April. The song is pop precision, with clever tom work from Pasillas, and always, a heavy shimmer. In the quarantine take, Einziger wears a face mask gleefully as he weaves about in socks and slippers with his acoustic guitar. Boyd drops an octave only to climb right back as the song proceeds. For the breakdown, the video cuts to Kenney playing with the higher strings and notes of his bass, bringing into existence an outrageously clever bridge that has no business working as well as it does in a pop-rock composition given the measures’ seemingly dramatic path off-trail.

On Without Me” finds the band charming waterfall breakdowns, and Boyd singing like a Taoist once again, an unintended double entendre perhaps with the song’s more explicit break-up confession: “I used to be a giver, but now I only wanna give up.”

Boyd’s lyrics in the chorus about a relationship, “this is where our story ends,” are only temporarily analogous to where Incubus find themselves in their shared career.

I told you: Incubus has been killing it. They showed they could top the pop charts, clawing into the social ether; “Dig,” “Drive,” “Stellar” are perfect pop songs that will earn continual airplay for decades. They’re carefully crafted, every band member keeping egos in check. Einziger soloed over the chorus in “Drive” with just two notes, Killmore scratching in a deceptively simple beat with Pasillas.

The band’s more recent work, Billboard-ready as it was, earned little recognition, with rock’s record companies not fronting the payola they once did for Top 40 radio. All for the better, though, as genres like Trap and R&B/Pop took the torch bringing with them sounds advanced, emotive and exciting.

“Heavy Shimmer” has begun as background music for many of you, but it is here. The genre may be renamed something less descriptive, an analogue to the basic name “rock,” maybe — but I suspect music taxonomy to extend in the opposite directions of ambiguity, instead heavy with modifiers, heavy with description. Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species — no, we are not mere “humans,” to taxonomists. We are Eukarya, Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Primates, Hominidae, Homo sapiens, “only human,” for short.

The site Musicmap attempts to do en masse what I’ve ambitiously attempted here with Incubus. According to Musicmap, “Two or more genres [of music] can be located so close to each other that they morph into a continuous zone (very similar genres or ‘sibling genres’). Sibling genres often share great areas of overlapping, making it hard to separate them.”

In 2015, scientists discovered the same about our own DNA. Turns out, we sapiens are not as pure as even taxonomists had thought: about the relevant findings, Science Magazine wrote that homo sapiens “may harbor as many as 145 genes that have jumped from bacteria, other single-celled organisms, and viruses and made themselves at home in the human genome.”

There is no way to describe in strictly a linear fashion our own evolution, we are now finding, let alone a song’s or band’s. So, riding the crest, we do what we can to describe accurately and in syllabic components that like magnets sync with one another; and in that merging, is insight, aid and honor, traits befitting the beauty of the greater organism that is Music.

Their effect and catalog are testimony to a karmic journey now finished for each member, especially for poet and futurist Boyd — the most transparent-skinned by nature of his instruments: his vocal chords, and his own synapses firing their lyrics.

The actual names of the bands in this organism then are more like the phosphor of a television than the light rays themselves: our recognizing and agreeing on each amounts only to a capitalist surge of “plays” on streaming services, remote to the TV. The light is mere medium.

The names themselves are impermanent; sonic DNA lies within, not atop.

On names, Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, interviewing Boyd on his podcast Sixx Sense Boyd in 2017, confessed his admiration for the band name “Incubus.”

“I disagree with you,” Boyd replied. “Some people, including myself, think that it doesn’t really fit the kind of music we make.”

The elephant in the room, an Incubus, is actually a sex demon who assaults women in the dark, the antagonist of stories told for over 4,000 years. Incubi are counterparts to succubi, female abusers who too arrive in the night and assault their own victims. 

The female succubus is more commonly known now — it’s no surprise in developed-world literature and pop culture which, only in the last century began to embrace women fully as artists, that the female demon would be the more widely known of the pair, and the male barely known at all. A 1999 South Park episode even featured a succubus, gripping hold of Isaac Hayes’ Chef before the kids intervened. 

Even the Latin roots of each word are telling: succubus literally meant “prostitute” — so a demon female who was powerful enough to assault men in their sleep was herself demeaned with a term intimating “lack of power” and unsavory “sex-cravings.” Inspected into its roots even further, from sub  ‘under’ and cubare “to lie,” the demon was fabled to place herself in a sexual position of receiving, even as she assaults. 

The male mental gymnastics nauseate. How little we’ve changed. 

The male incubus here was of course fabled far more powerful. the Latin word for “nightmare” is incubo, a main root overlapped with the Latin incubare, “to lie on,” as opposed to the sucubi’s “under.” 

You read that right, folks: “nightmare” and “missionary, male-dominated sex” in Latin, share the same root.

By the late twentieth century, incubi remained so undiscussed and lost to old culture, that the word itself began to have its own, new meaning. It began to refer almost uniquely to a band, which at the time consisted of musicians Brandon Boyd, Mike Einziger, José Pasillas, Dirk Lance and Chris Kilmore.

In India, and in Buddhism in particular, we witness very different beings or lore, very different superpowers. A bodhisattva, translated from Sanskrit as “one who has and is perfect knowledge,” is one who could venture into the infinite bliss of nirvana, but chooses to stay on Earth with the rest of humanity, jogging alongside their teammates when sprint in their step is rendered nascent. It is compassion that motivates bodhisattvas, their work, empathy tidal waves in bloom. 

Bodhisattvas of music, Incubus seem to be. Their effect and catalog are testimony to a karmic journey now finished for each member, especially for poet and futurist Boyd — the most transparent-skinned by nature of his instruments: his vocal chords, and his own synapses firing their lyrics. If and when these band members find themselves reincarnated, we might imagine it won’t be on planet Earth. For now, we watch and listen to their channeling of the other side. As of 2015, like Godheads do they play with sound.

It’s not exactly ironic that Boyd, the card-carrying bodhisattva of rock himself, was so embedded into his corporeal body and needs as a much younger man, a teenager no less, that he allowed his music then to brandish the name “Incubus.” We men are dogs, especially when young (here, not an excuse; a diagnosis, a classification).

More damning for Boyd was a moment of sleepiness when, speaking to Sixx, he pulled back from his otherwise instinctual distaste of the term, to sum, “It’s just a name.”

Boyd knows better, and he’s done better (look at the Make Yourself Foundation). He knows the precision of words, and he’s articulated that precision for the health of his fans and humanity, to the best his eyes can read, for thirty years as of 2021.

What Incubus have done partially unwittingly is recontextualize the term incubus almost but not entirely. When the term drops into a conversation, most think, “Oh yeah, that’s a band, right?” as opposed to, “Oh, the sex demon?”

I’m not sure if Incubus should change their name. This isn’t a petition. I am however very sure that I should not be the one to decide. I am male and have never been sexually assaulted, so I am also very sure that I am not the one to be directly hurt by the name’s likely, once “edgy” original use, a genesis from the minds, of course, of teenagers.

Perhaps Incubus should wear their found rebranding of this old horror story a victory, like if some something currently abbreviated “S.S.” might one day become so popular that the acronym signifies for almost all who encounter it what’s new, rather than what was once so, so deadly.

Accordingly, a change, altogether common in 2020 from artists at least, could also mean alienating more conservative fans who despise what they deem liberal cavings.

If I understand anything about Boyd and the boys, it’s that they won’t care to lose such fans. 

People at levels like Boyd’s and Isbell’s don’t seem to be limited by the burdens of ‘applying to everyone.’

The country group Lady Antebellum just upgraded their name to Lady A, apologizing for the original name’s explicit mention and therefore at least partial glorification of a time of slavery in the South — this, while simultaneously, mindlessly reappropriating their assumed-new name “Lady A” from an already-established, Black American musician, a woman who had been performing under the name for two decades. Ladies A did speak and had found common ground, that is, until recent litigation erupted.

The rock band the Drive-by Truckers are considering a name upgrade as well, according to a recent NPR op-ed from founding member Patterson Hood.

The modern, progressive thing to do, it seems, is to care about how others feel around you.

Americana songwriter Jason Isbell, himself a former member of the Truckers, and an outspoken progressive, recently spoke about conservative line-drawers he has encountered via his social media accounts in the wake and ongoing tide of Black Lives Matter and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among thousands of others:

“Very often they’ll regurgitate the ‘shut up and sing’ concept because that’s easy for them. If they did things the hard way, they would have learned something by now. We know that people on that side of the argument are trying to find the easiest way to hurt people’s feelings. It doesn’t bother me, though. I don’t mind.”

People at levels like Boyd’s and Isbell’s don’t seem to be limited by the burdens of “applying to everyone.” The “opinions are all valid” illogic is an excuse that egos put in place to blind themselves from empathy and responsibility, from expanding what and whom they consider their “family” to an arc drawn around all of humanity, or at least, an arc around those willing to do the same.

In logic, the misfiring is called “the middle ground fallacy.” and it is quite successful in saving old thoughts before they die out.

I won’t be so foolish to pick sides, nor to aim for the middle. I can only tell you this with honesty: the DNA of the band at first in the spotlight and now in question is wholly and totally unique at present, and it already inspired a generation of teenage boys to be better, to see women as “Stellar,” composed of stardust, not delicate, not nags, but each a “pink Boba Fett,” strong and individual and galactic.

In their careers, these band members have made something new. Call it and they what you will. What it is, whom they represent, is Music in motion, unimpeded. In random samplings amidst the notes they emit, their at-least temporarily spotless minds are found “pure” and “good,” a default direction of the universe exposed by these privileged and willing few who had cleared their own cognitive attics and, for as deeply and as often as they could, became Music incarnate, vectored towards stars.

Incubus was just another alt-rock band from the early 2000’s still trying to make “Fetch” happen if they’re making anything at all.

(On names, I am not the right one to decide anything, so I will only speak of their music and what it teaches.) Incubus is one of the most dynamic bands four-wheeling across the current soundscape of 2020. Over time, they’ve designed a highly-engaging, melodic and new style, the gorgeous and brutally effective “Heavy Shimmer,” with lyrical and sonic themes clear, precise and decidedly the result of self-actualization and charity. In their music therefore are increasingly more and more pendants of presence, ripe for listeners’ own catharses. The band serves as an example of artists who reflect and grow, with audience prioritized, but ever-so-slightly second to self-development — artists increasingly purified, artistry gamified and exercised. Their songs are a living template new artists may inhabit, and from that shared position, blast off into their own potentials of creation, stretching Music like taffy.

IDEAS SIFTED: on Incubus, video games, Parliament, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, William Butler Yeats, taxonomy, Abraham Maslow, DMT, Ted Chiang, Arrival, Zen koans, the poet H.D., Ferris Bueller, Prince, Skrillex, Dr. Who, yoga, incubi and succubi, South Park, Buddhist Bodhisattvas, Ladies A, The Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Black Lives Matter, social media.


Warning: drug references.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'