Brandon Boyd is the ultimate breakup coach. I don’t care who the industry leaders are — Brad Browning? Eddie Corbano? Corey Wayne? (Okay, so I’ve spent a bit of time seeking heartbreak advice on YouTube) — the Incubus singer tops all of them. Dude should be holding one-on-one Skype sessions.
But maybe I’m a little biased. Over the course of my ill-starred love life, Brandon’s consistently been there for me, like the Trent Walker to my Mike Peters. Each and every time I’ve had a relationship fail, an Incubus album — replete with a couple songs for the jilted — has dropped, as if on cue. When my high school sweetheart left me for a Chad Kroeger lookalike, A Crow Left of the Murder… gave me the fortitude to tell her to go fuck herself. When things went south with my college girlfriend, Light Grenades reminded me that love hurts. When a Manic Pixie Dream Girl I was dating predictably left me high and dry, If Not Now, When? versed me in the out of sight, out of mind technique. Apparently, whenever I hurt, Brandon hurts too. It’s like we’re sensates with shitty luck.
And so, here we are again. As I presently weather the fallout of another breakup, another Incubus album is here for me to mope along to. The feels are particularly strong with this one; 8, the California rockers’ eighth studio album (see what they did there?), is a hooky, visceral, anguish-heavy gem partially inspired by the dissolution of Boyd’s own decade-long relationship. Of course, there’s more to it than that — the LP boasts some effervescent co-production by Skrillex, as well as bangers about invasive data mining (“Love in a Time of Surveillance”), aging (“State of the Art”), and losing faith in heroes (“Familiar Faces”). But when I spoke with Boyd, I mostly just wanted to ask him about prickly matters of the heart. And, like a good breakup guru, he was happy to go there.
So, 8 sounds a lot more energetic than your last effort, but I’m also hearing a lot of pain here.
Yeah. For me, songwriting is the most effective therapy I have ever encountered, more so than any New Age technique or actual therapy or medicating. Writing a song and seeing your way through a lyric and letting it channel through a more non-linear process allows you to emote in that kind of more primal way. So for me, I’ll go into the studio and not necessarily be sad about anything in particular, but a lot of unconscious material wells up, and that’s why it’s also an interesting opportunity as a songwriter. I listen to a lot of music and it’s interesting to hear where other people’s unconscious material is coming from and what they’re really trying to say. So 8, for us, is a reflection on a number of things.
I was exiting a 10-year relationship, and it was a beautiful process to unfold from that — it was slow, but it was also incredibly difficult, too. Then, beyond that, witnessing the stage that we seem to be at in our culture, not just as Americans, but in our more collective world culture, it’s in a funny place right now. One could observe that we’re currently in a little bit of a back step, a little bit of a stumble, so there are reflections on that as well. And then a lot of the stuff is still unconscious to me — a lot of songs don’t really make sense to me until long after the fact sometimes, and sometimes they’re reflected back to me from someone who is truly objective and doesn’t know me or my circumstance at all. I’ll get into a random conversation at a supermarket and someone will say, “Oh, that one song about this this and that really spoke to me.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, you’re right, that’s what it’s about! I didn’t know that until just now!”
Well, what really resonated with me were the heartbreak songs. I also went through a breakup not too long ago. So these tunes hit me right in the feels.
Right on. I’m sorry to hear you went through a breakup. But there’s a lot of light that breaks through those moments where we crack up a little bit. And that, to me, can be inspiring. It can also be devastating and paralyzing. But they can also be moments where we get these amazing opportunities to self-reflect. And so I feel really blessed to have the chance to emote in song. We’re also very lucky that we have an audience that will listen to it, and maybe, to most of them, it doesn’t just sound like I’m complaining. [Laughs.]
When you go through a breakup, is your first instinct to hit the studio? Like,“Quick! We must capitalize on this!”
Right? [Laughs.] You would think so at this point, but no, no. Usually, I kind of hibernate. You know when guys get sick and they go caveman? They go into a cave and are like, “Everyone get away from me! Argh!” They’re terrible patients. It’s kind of the same for me when I have been blessed with the glorious misfortune of going through a breakup, which has been a couple of times in my life. I hibernate, I read, I write, and I just stay alone for a while. So, it can be super depressing, but I also don’t try and cheer myself up right away. I like to just kind of sit in it — sit in the misery, sit in the loneliness, sit in the worst of it. It’s almost like you are allowing yourself to grieve, and I feel like I’m able to process the experiences a lot more successfully that way. And then, as a result, sometimes there are songs that come about.
I see. So you prefer to steep yourself in the sadness.
Yeah, just sit in it. Have another helping. And then, eventually, you get sick of the sound of your misery, and you’re like, “…aaand I’m sick of this emotion now. Let’s go outside! Hey, you guys, I wrote a song! Check it out!”
From the way you are describing it, your situation seemed more of like an amicable, sort of conscious uncoupling.
Very much so. And as overused and 2012 as that term is, I can’t think of a better way to describe what my experience was; it was very much a conscious uncoupling. It was beautiful, and it was graceful, but it was also extremely challenging to go through that. So it took a long time. It was a longer unfolding period — I like the term unfolding; it was like we folded in together and we were this lovely piece of origami for 10 years and then we unfolded. And now we’re still very much best friends. She’ll have some great insight as to the psychologies of some of these songs. [Laughs.]
Has she had a chance to hear them?
Some of them, yeah! She hasn’t sat with it yet, but she’s probably our band’s biggest supporter, so she’ll give me her unfiltered opinion, I’m sure.
Does that ever get awkward? I mean, when you are writing a song that might be about someone, is it weird for you knowing that person will hear it later?
There have been moments in the past where certain things can be a little awkward, but my most beloved friends and family know me well enough to know I’m not a vindictive person, and I’m not a vengeful person. So I would never write something about someone as a revenge piece. [Editor’s note: as referenced earlier, the song “Leech” does include the lyrics, “Fuck yourself and fuck this bleeding heart of mine.”] If they heard something and maybe it occurred to them that it was loosely about the circumstances I shared with them, I feel like they’d probably know me well enough to know that it’s part of my process and is very well intentioned. Most people won’t know it’s about them. And some of the songs on 8 that sound like they’re blatant breakup songs, actually aren’t.
I think “Glitterbomb,” for instance, is an amalgamation of four different people who I had a similar experience with. So it doesn’t necessarily need to be about one person. There’ve even been moments when I’ve been the one who was trying to help and ended up just shitting glitter all over someone’s life. So the tables have been turned a few times, too. That’s the wonderful thing about songs: they don’t have to be linear, they don’t have to make perfect sense. They can, but I freed myself up from that many years ago — from trying to create linear structures. I like to think of them as Inception-style cityscapes. You know, with Leonardo DiCaprio running deeper and deeper into them, and I’m just in the corner.
That’s cool! I didn’t know Leo has an uncredited guest spot on 8.
He does! He’s all over this record, man!
“Loneliest” is a really beautiful, really sad song. But I need to know something: at the end there, when you sing, “So I guess I’m going digital tonight,” is that a reference to…pornography?
Um…yes. [Laughs.] We are in this funny moment in our internet culture. It’s done amazing things in bringing so many of us together, from different parts of the world and different cultures, but then it’s had this miraculous effect on us, too, where we feel more alienated and isolated than we ever have before. That’s weird because it was supposed to do the opposite. So, the song is alluding to that notion that someone is reaching out through the computer in a terribly lonely moment and I’m kind of enticed by it, but then I also am wary of it because, technically speaking, this isn’t a real person yet. It’s just the idea of a person that is reaching out. We can get lost in the idea that we project onto somebody who we meet online who may be offering us the prospect of a connection. So I’m saying, “Now, that sounds great, but I don’t know if you’re real, so I’m just going to have a wank and go to bed.” [Laughs.]
That’s true, even with things like dating apps — they’re a way to connect with many people at once, but at the same time they almost cheapen human connection and gamify it, making us feel more remote from one other.
Creating more loneliness. It’s a topic I’m extremely interested in and intellectually tantalized by. There are so many wonderful books being written about it. Really, what it comes down to is the topic of neuroplasticity; how the most intense of intellectual tools, the internet, is rewiring our brains and how quickly it is happening. It’s rewiring our neural networks so quickly that we can’t keep up with it, so we actually don’t really know how it’s affecting us 100 per cent. We know that it’s affecting us, we know it’s happening really fast, but it’s happening so fast that we can’t keep up with the research. It’s fascinating to me. And it gives me pause; when I’m scrolling through Instagram and looking at people’s feeds, I catch myself sometimes and I’m like, You just scrolled by and liked that stunningly beautiful image, and you did it in a millisecond! Hold on a second, take a beat, look at that incredible picture, then stop there and put your phone down to think about it. That’s getting harder and harder to do.
If you’re interested, there’s an amazing book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr; it came out about four years ago and talks about that. There’s another book called Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle, which is really good. It’s all been really inspiring for writing songs. There’s another song on the album called “Love in a Time of Surveillance” that is alluding to, once again, this digital world we are increasingly relying on and living within and how there are gatekeepers waiting in the wings and exploiting these things around us. The lyric in the chorus is, “Big Data’s got your number.”
Another big theme on this record seems to be obsolescence. Is getting older something that’s been on your mind a lot lately?
I’ve been thinking about the idea of obsolescence in human design and all organic design. In “State of The Art” I guess I’m speaking to a younger version of myself. I remember feeling, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, like I knew everything. I remember feeling invincible, and I remember being totally ignorant to the idea of mortality. And it was blissful; it was a lovely experience. Then, as we get older and our mortality becomes more of a reality in our everyday lives, there’s something sad about it, but at the same time, I would not go back to my twenties for anything. I’d much rather have an open-eyed awareness about the realities of life, which includes obsolescence and aging and those things, but also so many other things. There’s this amazing pantheon of experiences I’ve had since then that I would not give up, even if it meant I could be 22 again.
Man, mortality is something that’s been on my mind too. It’s a scary thought.
But it can be something we can sing about! Singing helps those types of things. It helps me, I know.