Incubus Guitarist Mike Einziger: Musical Mentor To The R&B Set

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Incubus and Frank Ocean, they may not seem like artists that would ever be uttered in the same breath, but at 2012′s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival they became utterly entwined. There, guitarist Mike Einziger teamed up with the Channel Orange singer, opening the door for even more seemingly incongruous collaborations as the months and years wore on.

Although Incubus is on a hiatus of sorts, the denizens of the alt-rock band are far from idle — while Brandon Boyd has been going strong with his new Sons Of The Sea project, Einziger has been going his own way.

Flashback to that fateful day at Coachella: It was the fest’s second weekend in 2012, and Frank Ocean had just sung a crucial line: “Met her at Coachella.” As if on cue, the crowd roared. Throughout, Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger stood nearby.

Just a couple of days prior, he had arrived at the Indio, California, festival grounds to help Ocean start his festival set from scratch, with a new band and setlist and without the feedback and squealing sounds that plagued his first performance. Given how Incubus rose to mainstream fame with 2001′s Make Yourself (Rolling Stone: “that rare breed: a nü-metal band with both a DJ and a hefty female fan base”), Einziger’s presence was unexpected. But as Ocean’s second Coachella set wore on, it proved to be necessary.

It also led to some of Einziger’s most intriguing producing gigs as of late: Yuna‘s new lead single “I Wanna Go,” The Internet’s woozy psychedelic soul effort Feel Good, and the upcoming  solo debut by The Cool Kids‘ Chuck Inglish, which has been described as a “rap Prince album.” And as the featured guitarist, he provided the acoustic twist in Avicii‘s country-meets-EDM, millions-selling “Wake Me Up.”

Einziger took a break from a studio session last week to discuss his recent production credits, collaborations with Chad Hugo, and how Kanye West opened his mind to rap-oriented possibilities.

You had produced [Jason Schwartzman's, under Coconut Records] Nighttiming about six years prior to Feel Good. How did producing Nighttiming compare to executive producing Feel Good?

They were just different processes. The Internet, they’re a larger group of people that write collaboratively with each other. Obviously Syd [tha Kyd] and Matt [Martians] are the two main writers, and then the other members of the band are often very active…. There were some songs that I was very much involved in, and then there were some songs that I would barely offer input at all. “Executive producer,” I guess the definition of that would be more so of a general overseer; I was more of a musical mentor.

I did get very involved in producing specific songs, like the single “Dontcha.” I co-wrote and brought in Chad Hugo for that. I had double-booked on accident. He was coming to stay with me for this one specific weekend. The Internet, at the time they could only work weekends as well. So I just said, “Hey, would you mind if we brought Chad into this session?” They were freaking out. They’re huge N.E.R.D. fans, huge Neptunes fans — as am I, so it was really fun for me too. Chad and I had written some instrumental music together, but that was the first time we had collaborated together in that sort of process and gotten together with all of those guys.

Nighttiming wasn’t even intended to be an album. Jason and I were sort of hanging out together, and he’d been going through personal stuff. We were out one night at this party, and he was like, “Can we leave and make some music?” So we did. We just didn’t stop for 10 days. We just went back to my house, plugged in some things and started playing. What we were doing sounded really good, and I think Jason was really surprised. All of a sudden we had one song, and we had two songs, and we had three songs.

Jason played me 100 song ideas that he had; they were all 15 seconds long. We picked 20 of them, and I didn’t even make it through all of the ideas. We started putting together songs, and the entire time he kept saying, “We’re not recording an album, right?” I think he was just scared that it wouldn’t be taken seriously because of his background in acting. People are so harsh and so critical of what everybody does, so I can’t blame him for that. The difference with Jason is that Jason is crazy talented — one of the most prolific writers I’ve ever seen.

That process, like I said, it was really different. Nighttiming was a big surprise for me and my guys. Actually, I wasn’t planning on producing an album at that time either. I hadn’t really produced any record, other than the work I had done with my band.

It does sound that way. Now I feel kind of silly comparing the two. It often seems that a producer tackles a set list of tasks, whereas in reality, you never know what that entails.

The thing is, with producers in general, the way we interact with different artists is sort of infinitely variated. There are some producers who don’t do anything; they’re just in the room, and they make the artist feel good. I’ve always been very hands-on, just because it’s my nature. The thing is, when people seek me out, that’s what they’re looking for, you know?

Before I ask you more about that, you said that you and Chad Hugo were working on instrumentals. For what, exactly?

We’ve written probably five or six instrumental tracks at this point that we’re just saving for a rainy day. I don’t know what we’re gonna do with them yet. We’ll see. Really cool stuff. When you work with him, you can hear so much of what was so great in all of those Neptunes tracks.

How did you guys meet?

We had met maybe 10 years ago at a restaurant in Hollywood. Chad and Pharrell were just there, and we bumped into each other at the entrance and just got to talking. They were both very cool and very sort of expressive of wanting to get together and make music. We both exchanged numbers, but I don’t know, we were all just busy doing different stuff.

Once I got off the road last year and knew I was going to be spending a lot of time doing production and working on different albums and writing songs with different artists, I thought back to that interaction. So I got back in touch with him through a really good friend of mine that I’ve known for many years and was involved with his management. Before I knew it, Chad was staying at my house and we were making music.

You mentioned that you basically mentored the Internet. What was a lesson that you stressed to the Internet, and what did you learn from being executive producer?

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Odd Future has become one of the most influential hip-hop collectives of the last 10 years. They’re so diverse in what they do, and just being around them and that useful creative energy, it’s wonderful for somebody like me. I’m 37 years old, and I’ve been making music for a really long time. It’s just an amazing reminder that the inspiration can come from finding ways to make it new again.

For them, I think being able to have somebody who’s been through it a few times, that process of writing music and the indecision, is good. People have a hard time finishing something; I think that’s the most difficult phase. One of the things that I hopefully was able to impart was the importance of getting to a place where it’s done and then releasing it, letting it go. I think they really did that.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When you were lining up production work, were you looking specifically to work with younger artists?

It’s interesting — I didn’t really know exactly what I was looking for. I knew that I wanted to have some new musical experiences, and it was interesting what came my way. The way I hooked up with Odd Future was through Frank Ocean. He was performing at Coachella in 2012. The first weekend, apparently the show didn’t go very well and he had some issues with musicians. I don’t really know those details, but [his camp] called me up to come in and help get everything really tight. We brought in new musicians and, within two to three days, got it together for the second weekend. It was challenging, but awesome because Frank, I was a big fan of his voice and his songwriting. The show went well.

That’s when I met Syd, that’s when I met Matt. I also did some work with Hodgy Beats and Left Brain for Mellowhype, that album Numbers ["P2"]. I recorded some things with Tyler [, the Creator] as well. I just found myself in the middle of what they were doing, and I found it musically exciting. It was just drastically different from what I had been doing and was accustomed to being around, and I took that as a good sign. All of a sudden, here I am in these new surroundings, with good people. And, I never realized how much fun I would have making hip-hop music, with these really great young artists.

Chuck Inglish’s new album [Convertibles, out February 11], it’s almost done. I’m really excited for people to hear it. Have you heard “Came Thru/Easily” yet? It’s new Chuck Inglish featuring Mac Miller and Ab-Soul that I mixed and produced. It came out just a few days ago.

Actually, I checked it out earlier today.

I didn’t know what type of artists I would be working with. What I did know was that I wanted to spend some time away from working with rock bands, unless it was a band that really blew my mind. I wanted to just get my head into a different place.

How familiar were you with hip-hop, going into Chuck’s album?

I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop music, but I would never call myself a knowledgeable person in the area of hip-hop. But I also think that might be a reason why it works well for me, because I might not be so inclined to do things that are really common in that musical sphere. I think maybe that’s why a lot of people that are working with me seek me out, because maybe I’ll make different decisions.

When Jon Brion did that collaboration with Kanye West [Ed: He co-produced Late Registration], I thought that was most brilliant thing in the world. Jon Brion is one of my favorite artists and composers, and obviously Kanye is very brilliant. It opened up a lot of possibilities in my mind for what can happen with that type of collaboration. To make hip-hop really musical, that idea’s really exciting to me.

Chuck has said that his album is gonna be his “Prince rap album.” How are you working to make that happen?

That’s sort of a specific era of production — the early ’80s with Michael Jackson‘s and Prince‘s records. Not that those two sound alike, but there are some parallels. That was such an exciting time; I was really brought up on all of that music. So we drew from that palette of sounds and some of the feelings that were advanced with those recordings.

There’s a song on there called “Legs” — that’s Chuck Inglish featuring Chromeo. That’s one of my favorite songs on the album, and it really just embodies that sort of Quincy Jones era of production, really exciting stuff and great string arrangements. I really tried to help Chuck find that, and I think that we nailed it in those tracks.

Of all the collaborations you’ve had as of late, which has been the most surprising?

The Avicii collaboration was definitely surprising for a lot of reasons. I had no idea that he and I would have the sort of musical collaboration that we had, and the way we wrote “Wake Me Up” was so organic and so unforced. It was, for a lack of better term, magic. I can’t even say it it enough — it was definitely surprising to me.

He’s a great musician, and he’s at a really good place. He knows what he likes. Remember what I was talking about with finishing something, making decisions and committing? That’s an area where Avicii, or where Tim [Bergling], excels. He’s not afraid to commit to something, so that’s one of the joys of working with him. Writing music can be scary, and being brave is kind of the most important thing.

Also, working with Aloe Blacc was really great. We called him up and said, “Can you come over and sing and write the lyrics? We want to finish this tonight!” He got into his car and drove right over and wrote the song in a matter of hours. I think about that a lot. A lot of people would just be like, “Aw, I’m too busy. I can’t do it right now,” whatever. If he had said no, then that song might never have happened that way. I think we’re all grateful for that.

When the song made its live debut, people were —

Confused?

Because of this idea of bringing two extremes together, as Nile Rodgers has said. Did that ever seem — not strange… I don’t like the word “strange.”

No, but it was a risk. I don’t think there was any question that it was a risk. The thing is, that performance at Ultra was something that we planned very specifically. Tim came up to me and said, “Is there any way we can do this?” I said, “Of course we can do it. I think we should do it.”

He was like, “Everybody’s doing the same thing. I want to show everybody what my musical ideas are for this album [True, out now], what I’m envisioning and what I want to share with people.” We had a conversation where I said to him, “There are gonna be repercussions for this. People are gonna think it sucks. People aren’t gonna be accepting of it, because it’s so different from what they’re looking for from you specifically.” I tried to mentally prepare him for it, but I don’t think he was all the way prepared for it. But he was right. He was ultimately, totally right.

He was standing behind his vision, and for the first few days people were really confused over his decision to bring out a live band. But his peers really stuck up for him, and the tide turned kind of quickly. Actually, a week later I went to his house. We were back in L.A. after going out for a bit, and we both grabbed each other and were like, “It worked!” Some people were saying that he had committed career suicide, all this crazy stuff. What can you do? You can play the same stuff that everyone uses every time, but there’s just nothing exciting about that. There’s nothing exciting about a perfect performance. People would rather see something unique and different. I’m just glad that Tim had the confidence to be brave and stuck up for his vision, and I’m glad I was able to help him do it.

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