How Brandon Boyd's 'Creatively Abundant Year' Birthed a Book and Solo Album (Q&A)

Brandon Boyd - P 2013
Brian Bowensmith

Brandon Boyd - P 2013

The lead singer of Incubus talks to THR about the physical and creative torment that yielded a second “Sons of the Sea” release (out Sept. 24) and his third book, “So the Echo."

At first listen, Brandon Boyd sounds starkly different as solo musician Sons of the Sea than as lead singer of alternative rock band Incubus. On Sons of the Sea’s self-titled debut album, out Sep. 24, Boyd is accompanied by pianos, strings and synths instead of a wall of electric guitars. His tracks feature bright, Beach Boys-esque harmonies and danceable pop beats. And his voice: he hits much higher notes than he did on the band’s chart-topping hits -- among them 1999's "Pardon Me" and 2000's "Drive."

Some would blame Brendan O’Brien, Incubus' longtime producer, who partnered with Boyd to explore, write and play on the new material. But the singer himself says the audible changes are just long-neglected musical avenues -- a journey chronicled in his new book of artwork, So the Echo, released Sept. 5.

The musician's third print effort offers a peek into Boyd’s creative process as told through ethereal watercolor paintings and never-before-seen line drawings (a technique he showcased on collaborations with Hurley, TOMS Shoes and Codhill Press) along with eloquent journal entries about New York City and photographs taken over the past five years. Boyd -- who counts Aubrey Beardsley and Egan Schiele as visual influences and Henry David Thoreau and Henry Miller as philosophical inspirations -- considers both completed projects to result from a very “creatively abundant year,” but one that came at a hefty price that grew from writer’s block to a sequence of physical maladies.

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The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Boyd about why the process was so painful this time around, what changes he made to evoke his new solo sound, and why a certain type of Incubus fan will inevitably be disappointed.

So the Echo has been four years in the making, did it come immediately after Incubus announced the band’s hiatus in 2007?

The last book, From the Murks of the Sultry Abyss, came out in 2007 so I guess I’ve been working on it a little bit longer than that. I’m always drawing and writing -- not where I sit down every single day and draw a picture or write something, but I go through certain waves of inspiration. There’s times when it seems more forced and then there’s times when you can’t not write. I think I actively decided it’s time to start compiling material about a year ago, and I started curating lots and lots and lots of sketchbooks, paintings, projects and things I had been doing.

You bring up Incubus and the hiatus -- at first glance, I don’t think there is necessarily a correlation between my decision to do the book and the reevaluation of our career, but there’s an interesting timing there. Part of it is that when we decided to take a hiatus from the road, there were a number of things at play that had brought us to that decision, one of which would be that we were just tired. We had been, at that point, a band for 20 years. We really felt if we didn’t come home and park this giant boat for a little while, it would start to leak at the edges. Weird things start to happen to a boat when you don’t take care of it. So we did that just to take care of that mothership, pardon the expression.

But that doesn't mean a halting in the creative process. That’s probably the same for any of the guys in the band -- in my case, it opened a window of opportunity to really concentrate on the book, then these songs started flooding in. It was a creatively abundant year at home -- productive and fun. Now, I’m at that stage where I’m about to go back out and test out a new boat. [Laughs]

Your new book and album both come out within weeks of each other. Did one creatively feed the other?

It’s an organic process. I don’t really schedule my days -- today I’m going to draw a picture, and tomorrow I’ll write a song. Sometimes I wish it would be that way, but my muse is a little more finicky than that. I found myself in the very lucky, very blessed position to have the time and the space to do these things. Both of them are my loves and my life -- to make music and to make imagery.

STORY: Incubus' Brandon Boyd Finishes Solo Album

The book’s foreword mentions Carl Jung’s period of creative illness during Red Book. Throughout your creative processes for both of these projects, did you have any kind of creative illness?

What a wonderful question. Honestly, I actually hadn’t thought of that. The answer to your question is, yes, I had a physical malady take place, a sequence of them. It was during a period before I decided to jump into the book and to really jump into the record, and I was experiencing a great deal of fear around actualizing these -- I didn’t know what they were. In fact, I think I, my ego, was getting in the way of a new process that needed to take place. I found the older I get, perhaps one of the reasons we human beings get ‘sick’ is we experience dis-ease, as I like to call it, because we get in the way of something that’s trying to happen. It’s a lot better if you just get out of the way.

In my case, the muse was showing up and I was trying to hold onto my way of expressing, that I had grown accustomed to. ... I quite literally made myself very, very, sick, to the point where I was scared for a minute. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on in my body?’ When all was said and done, today I’m healthy as a horse, and I have a much better understanding and adeeper respect for that creative process.

What have you been able to explore through visual art that you’re not able to in music?

Music has been such a big exploration, one that was so unexpected. As a young man, even before I was in the band, I didn’t know exactly what I was gonna do when I ‘grew up’ but I knew that art was going to be a big part of my life. I figured I would be an illustrator or a fine artist or something, and I actually applied to art school after high school. My family had experienced a drawn-out period of hard times,you could say, where we didn’t have any money, so college got thrown out of the window. Around that time, we started a band, and after a couple of years, things started going well. So I just naturally said, ‘I’m gonna do this and see what happens.’ You see what happens long enough, and some really wonderful things can happen, as with Incubus.

The visual part of my creative self is just as important, and it needs a voice as much as the musician in me does. What I’ve realized, very wholeheartedly after birthing the book and this album, is that I’ve got to do it all. If I’m allowing my full self to come through, I need to! [Laughs] I don’t know if will do ‘well’ in a commercial sense, but I don’t know if that necessarily matters. It would be wonderful if it does, but I know at this point in my life, at 37, I need to take part ... and give this weird process room.

How is different writing music for yourself versus with Incubus?

With Incubus, the core ideas usually start between Michael Einziger and myself. After a basic musical progression, I’ll write lyrics and melodies to that. Then we start jamming with the rest of the guys, and it becomes this committee of how best to build this house together, while helping each other’s parts sound better. We hold each other up until there’s a cool song as a result.

One of the main differences here is my writing partner changed: Brendan O’Brien, who has produced the past three Incubus records, brought out something different in me. It brought out new registers in my voice, different ideas, different emotional sentiments that weren’t there before. I guess it’s a little bit like dating somebody else. We have the through lines in the way we interact with our friends and lovers, but the core of what we bring will change, sometimes drastically, depending on who we’re dating, because everybody brings out something in everybody else.

Who played what?

I played all the drums and some of the keyboard parts, and Brendan did all the keyboard parts, guitar and bass. I started to get anxious if my drumming was good enough. The songs sounded cool but I thought, ‘God, what would happen if we had a professional drummer playing these parts?’ And that’s when we let in Josh Freese. He did everything in four days and all of a sudden, the songs went from an 8 to an 11. It was fun, we had a really wonderful time. 

Are you nervous to share the music of Sons of the Sea with the world?

The short answer is yes. There’s always going to be nerves and vulnerability attached, especially when you’re stepping out of your comfort zone. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

I know there’s going to be a contingent of the Incubus fan base that will be disappointed in this album, because it’s not what they were expecting or what they thought that they wanted. The EP has been out for a couple of months now, and the hardest of hardcore listeners seem to enjoy it because it is different but also has through-lines -- it’s the same guy singing, writing the lyrics and doing the things that I’ve been doing. I think it’s different enough that it gives them something new, and hopefully it will also remind them of how unique Incubus is. I truly hope for that.

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