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Hold The Wheel And Drive: Incubus Look Back On Their Alt-Metal Classic 'Make Yourself' 20 Years Later
When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, rock music was in its prime. The Red Hot Chili Peppers dominated the Billboard Charts with songs from their seventh studio album, Californication, which was also nominated for Best Rock Album at that year's GRAMMY Awards. Nu-metal kings Korn, Limp Bizkit and Sevendust had planted themselves alongside rock and roll heavyweights like Megadeth, Melvins and Motörhead on the summer festival circuit. And mixed in amongst all the noise was a Calabasas, Calif. rock band named Incubus.
As the decade came to a close, however, Incubus found themselves in a bit of a bind. Though they'd made their major-label debut with second album S.C.I.E.N.C.E in 1997 and toured through 1998 on the Ozzfest lineup, not to mention with rock gods like Black Sabbath, Pantera and Rammstein, the era's aggressive, testosterone-driven sound never suited the band all that well.
While S.C.I.E.N.C.E was certainly a solid record, it mostly mimicked what was going on elsewhere in rock music at the time. Its strengths were in the lighter, melodic moments, where lead singer Brandon Boyd sang without the immediacy of heavy metal over a steady swell of guitar and turntable scratches. Incubus would soon move further in that direction.
When they walked into North Hollywood's NRG studios at the beginning of 1999 to record their next record, they went in with a plan to differentiate themselves from the pack. Armed with a series of demos they’d recorded themselves in a rehearsal studio, they began working on what became their most ambitious work to date. Released on October 26, 1999, Make Yourself pushed Incubus into the mainstream. It got them airtime on radio and on MTV and gained them an audience that was no longer mostly dudes dressed in black metal tees, baggy pants and wallet chains. The album’s three singles, "Pardon Me," "Stellar" and "Drive" all charted on Billboard's Alternative Rock charts. The music video for "Drive" was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award alongside Y2K pop titans *NSYNC and Destiny’s Child. Eventually, Make Yourself went double platinum.
This is the story of how it all came together, from Ozzfest to the studio, to back out on the road again where Incubus discovered a new audience to connect with their softer sonic palette.
Summer camp for rock and rollers
Chris Kilmore (Turntables): [Ozzfest] was like summer camp for rock and rollers. A lot of things happened on that tour that you definitely could not get away with today. All of us are pretty respectful guys with parents that taught us morals, but we were like, wow, this could get crazy if we let it get out of control.
Jose Pasillas (Drums): We saw crazy sh*t go down that I think would make anybody feel uncomfortable, we were [like] freshman in school watching the seniors go crazy. But it didn’t really shake us on our beliefs and how we viewed the world, we knew what we wanted to be and what we didn’t want to be.
Brandon Boyd (Vocals): It was wild. The internet existed but not in the way it does now. A lot of stuff was taken on 35mm disposable cameras, so there’s ridiculous pictures of those, "I dare you to..." moments. I never partied very much so there was probably a lot of stuff that happened that was unbeknownst to me, but I don’t regret not participating in that way. I’ve always been more of a quiet observer.
Mike Einziger (Guitar): That tour was us, System Of A Down, Tool, Megadeth and many others. It was heavy. We all liked heavy music, we all grew up listening and playing heavy music, but we wanted to be different to the male, aggressive, testosterone-fueled music that was happening at that time. So Make Yourself was our attempt at going a different path.
Making Make Yourself
Brandon: We started the album working with a guy who we worked with on S.C.I.E.N.C.E, a really wonderful guy [producer] named Jim Wirt. We started it with him and it wasn’t going very well, so we broke away from him and recorded most of it ourselves.
Chris: I think Jim at that time was in a difficult part of his life, and I don’t think he could dedicate the time that was needed and focus his energy on what we were putting out.
Jose: We spent a couple of weeks recording things and I think we just had two different visions. I feel like we stopped and thought, we can do this on our own and we can make it exactly how we want it. So we kept the same engineer and thought, let’s do an experiment and not have a producer.
Mike: It was a bit of a scary position to be in as 19, 20 year-old kids, in a recording studio that costs thousands of dollars a day. But our A&R person at Epic Records trusted our vision. We had these demos of the songs that we’d made ourselves and they were really good—demo versions of most of the songs on Make Yourself. We’d recorded them in a rehearsal studio and then mixed them in a real studio with a mix engineer. I think based on that the label knew that we were totally capable of delivering a product that was going to sound great.
Brandon: It was kind of fun to have Scott Litt come in because we all held him in such high regard due to his work with R.E.M and Nirvana. When he came in it was always like, “Scott’s here, I hope we’re doing a good job.”
Jose: Mike had been talking to Scott previously, just as a possible option, but I think at the time he had other obligations. It took a few weeks before he came in and started listening to what we’d been playing.
Mike: We met Scott back in late 1995 or early 1996. He had started a record label with a couple of other influential people in the music business, a label called Outpost Records that was putting out records through Geffen [Records], and they were interested in signing us. So that was how we met, and through that process I got to know Scott really well. I had been working on Scott the whole time. I had been calling him and inviting him down to the studio and I think he was going through some personal stuff at the time that was discouraging him from getting involved with what we were doing. But then there was one opportunity where I got him to come down [to the studio], and I think after he heard the songs and the state that they were in he realized that we had some great music. Slowly he started showing up to the studio more and then he started helping us mix.
Brandon: Scott really honed in on what the singles were going to be and he dedicated a lot of sonic energy to “Drive” and “Stellar.” We definitely got a real sonic boost when he came on board.
Chris: I'm pretty sure Brandon had a dentist appointment or something that meant he couldn’t be in the studio, and studios are expensive so we didn’t want to waste the day.
Brandon: I remember coming back into the studio and they had this weird funk scratch situation happening. I was super stoked that it sounded so cool, but I was also butthurt because I didn't have anything to do with it.
Chris: Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark were in the studio next door, so I just went over there and asked them. I said, “Hey, I think we’re gonna scratch all over this track we just wrote, would you guys be interested in each doing a verse?” They were like, “Yeah, whatever you need,” and by the end of the day we had “Battlestar Scralatchtica.”
Brandon: I said, you guys have got to let me name it, at least, so I came up with “Battlestar Scralatchtica.” It was my only contribution to the song.
Hitting The Radio Waves
Jose: The first time they played "Pardon Me" [on the radio] we were at this little Par 3 golf course in the valley. We knew Stryker was going to play it at 4:20, he’s got this thing where he’ll play a local band or something of his liking at 4:20, and he played “Pardon Me.”
Chris: We were in the parking lot with our car doors open hanging out with each other and they played it.
Jose: We were so jazzed. It was such an incredible feeling to even get the chance to be heard on the radio. It was super special and it was the beginning of a new era for us.
Brandon: It was an exciting moment. It’s hard to describe. I don’t think it was like anything any of us had ever experienced, to hear something that you have put so much time and energy and love and effort into get played to a lot of people, like arguably tens of thousands of people all at that one moment.
"Pardon Me" (Acoustic)
Brandon: "Pardon Me" was the first song that got played on commercial radio, but it wasn't necessarily doing very well.
Mike: Brandon and I went and played [an acoustic version of] "Pardon Me" at several different radio stations, and as soon as we did that, those radio stations started playing the acoustic version that they had recorded of us playing in their studio.
Brandon: Mikey and I would go and perform that song, and a number of others, almost every morning. It was really hard actually as the singer, as I’m sure other singers around the world can attest to, to go and sing first thing in the morning. It was cruel and unusual punishment, but it ended up being really cool, because to my knowledge there weren't many bands actually willing to show up with an acoustic guitar at a radio station and do a live performance.
Jose: No rock bands were doing that. No rock bands would ever come in and play a song acoustically.
Mike: Then there was a reaction to it and we started getting requests from pretty much every radio station to come and play acoustic at their station. But it just wasn't feasible for us to do that.
Brandon: I think we were on tour with Primus towards the end of 1999, and on either a day off or on the morning of a show Mikey and I went and recorded an acoustic version.
Mike: We just couldn’t keep up with the demand of people who wanted us to come and play at their station, so we started sending everybody this acoustic version [that we’d recorded ourselves], and it started getting played a lot.
Chris: I think that's what allowed radio stations to feel good about playing it, because we were doing something special for them, and I think the fact that we did that pushed that single as far as it did.
Mike: From there, it naturally went towards the album version of the song and our popularity started rising very quickly. KROQ championed the single and MTV started playing the video and the album version of the song blew up.
Brandon: The album cycle was done. We'd finished touring Make Yourself and we were very actively working on what would become Morning View. Our heads were in a different place, so when that song started getting played on television it was an unexpected surprise.
Mike: We toured behind Make Yourself and we sold about a million albums. I remember when the album went platinum. "Drive" came out after that and on the back of that we sold another million albums. It was a really exciting time for us, the success just kept piling up and it all made perfect sense to me at the time, but looking back on it now I kind of can't believe it.
Chris: I couldn’t believe that "Drive" went to No. 1, but I couldn't believe that "Stellar" went to No. 2 before that, and I couldn't believe that "Pardon Me" went to No. 3.
Brandon: It was exciting, especially the way it gave us that burst of momentum going into the next album. It’s something you can never really plan for.
"Take your f**king shirt off"
Nick Hexum (vocalist of 311): After Make Yourself came out I remember [saying] to Mark McGrath [of Sugar Ray], "What happened to Incubus? They're all the sudden this totally important American band. We liked them before, but kinda got lost and confused by their complexity. Now they’re the sh*t!"
Brandon: All the way through S.C.I.E.N.C.E, and then quite a way through touring Make Yourself, we would show up places and more people would come each time, but they all looked like us, they were young guys. People were thrashing and throwing stuff, it was like a boys' club.
Chris: During S.C.I.E.N.C.E our crowd was all teenage kids wearing black and they were all men. Once "Pardon Me" started getting some traction the crowd turned into half-girl crowds. Then when "Stellar" and "Drive" came out, those half-girl crowds became all screaming teenage girls in the front row.
Brandon: It was very interesting. I never knew what it felt like to be objectified, and so after I had my shirt off on television, if I didn't do it at shows you'd hear women yelling, "Take your f**king shirt off."
It was an interesting experience, but I just kind of rolled with it. A lot of undergarments were coming on stage around that time. What the message is, where young women, or women of all ages don’t feel like they need to be wearing their undergarments, the logic behind it, it was a very unusual thing. The other fascinating thing is, like, did they bring an extra pair with them? It's underwear, how did they get those off in the audience? Some magical Zoolander trick? I remember in the original Zoolander movie: in the walkoff scene where Hansel puts his hands down his pants on the runway and gets out of his underwear, I’ve always assumed that’s how women were getting out of their undergarments and throwing them up on stage.
Nick: We toured with [Incubus] in Europe and I remember Brandon saying that his favorite part was in our song "You Wouldn't Believe," where I replace the last chorus with a big 'Whoa-oh' crowd sing-along moment. I said, "Well it makes sense that you like that part because I’m doing my best Incubus impression." It’s nice to let the crowd join in on something really simple, to feel the collective energy. Incubus are the kings of that.
Grappling With Fame
Chris: Things were growing and yes, the record label would pick us up in limos and we got to fly on a private jet every now and then, but for the most part it was business as usual.
Brandon: I think what I noticed the most was how people reacted to me in normal, everyday situations. In the late '90s and early 2000s, magazine culture was a lot more powerful than it is today. I remember being in an airport kiosk getting a pack of gum and I was on the cover of a magazine called Seventeen. I was standing there and I saw it, and this one middle-aged guy looked at it and then looked at me and he goes, "Hey, is that you?" And I said, "Yeah, I think so," and he goes, "Hey everybody, look, it's the guy on the cover of this magazine." He totally called me out in public. Then people started to surround me and began buying it and they had me sign it. A lot of them didn’t even know who I was or what I did, it was just that in America we have a weird celebrity worship culture. There's a darkness to it that’s a little weird.