Q & A With Mike Einziger of Incubus

Here’s what I used to know about Mike Einziger: that when he was 9, he played on the same soccer team as my good friend Mike; that he was the only kid in my second-grade class who could breakdance; that his mom makes great pizza bagels; and that he went to Calabasas High School. Well, that and the fact that he’s now the Jewfro-sporting guitarist for the multiplatinum-selling rock band Incubus.

I learned more about him during a one-week window between the end of Incubus’ lengthy European tour and the start of their U.S. tour in Atlantic City. A few days before his 28th birthday, the musician, who some have declared a “guitar god,” talked with me about breakdancing, Judaism, music and politics like he was still just the guy next door.

The Jewish Journal: I have to say, I still remember you as the only kid in Kadima Hebrew Academy’s second-grade class who could breakdance.

Mike Einziger: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JJ: You only went to Kadima for a couple of years. Was it just for first and second grade?

ME: Yeah, till second grade.

JJ: Did you have any other Jewish education?

ME: Yeah, I had a bar mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom, and I went to Hebrew school three days a week after elementary school.

JJ: Do you feel connected to Judaism these days?

ME: I do in certain respects. I think I’ve become more in touch with it the older that I’ve gotten. But still, to this day, I consider myself to be generally more of a spiritual person than a religious person.

JJ: What do you mean by that, exactly?

ME: I don’t follow the traditional ways of Judaism the way that I’ve seen other people follow them. But I do agree on many of the basic principles. I believe that you shouldn’t kill people and you shouldn’t steal and those kinds of basic moral values.

JJ: But you don’t practice?

ME: No, I wouldn’t say that I’m a practicing Jew.

JJ: No High Holiday services on the road or anything like that?

ME: I have before, actually. I’ve gone to services a couple of times while I’ve been on tour, but I’ve always felt like the most constructive type of prayer for me has been when it’s by myself. I’ve never really felt like I’ve taken very much away from being with other people. To me, being spiritual and praying is a very personal thing for me and I prefer to do it alone.

JJ: What prompted you to go to services on those occasions when you did?

ME: My mom. She’d [say], “I think you should go to services.” Not that I was opposed to it and somebody had to drag me. It’s something I feel I’ve done at times out of respect for my parents because sometimes it’s important to them.

JJ: So you’re the good Jewish son slash rock star.

ME: Yeah, I guess, to the best of my abilities.

JJ: In retrospect, the whole breakdancing thing would indicate that you were moved by music at an early age. What’s your earliest memory of music and its effect on you?

ME: Back in the breakdancing days I was really into playing piano and playing keyboards. I got into that when I was probably about 6 years old. But my mom is a piano player and has always been really, really into music. So I think from the time that I was born, I literally was born sitting on the piano bench next to my mom watching her play and sing songs. I was doing that for as long as I can remember.

JJ: When did you start playing the guitar?

ME: I picked up the guitar when I was about 8 years old, actually, in third grade. I was taking lessons for about a month, maybe two months, and I was really bored with it because I wanted to learn how to play rock songs. The teacher that I had just wanted to teach me children’s songs and how to read notes on the guitar…I was completely uninterested in it and I put it down after that, and then I picked it up again when I was about 12. I’d already spent enough time fiddling with the guitar on my own to be able to figure out songs myself. Once I’d learned a few songs that I’d wanted to learn I was completely hooked on it, and from there on out I just spent every second I had sitting in my room trying to figure out songs.

JJ: Do you remember what the first song was that you tried to figure out?

ME: Before I ever had any lessons, I just figured out how to play the theme song to “James Bond.” I’m not sure what the name of the song is, but yeah, I think that that was pretty cool.

JJ: Your music has been described as alt metal or funk metal. Do you think that’s accurate?

ME: No, I think those are very dated, very lazy terms…. On our last three records there hasn’t really been any metal and there hasn’t really been very much funk either. I think that those musical elements are definitely mixed in with our music at certain points, but I definitely would not describe our band as a funk metal band.

JJ: How would you describe it?

ME: It’s actually impossible for me to describe it because I’m playing it, but I definitely can tell you what I think it’s not. When people usually ask me, I usually just describe it as rock music, but to many varying degrees…. None of us has very much patience, so I think if we were to do one thing over and over again it would get boring very, very quickly.

JJ: People have said your new album “A Crow Left of the Murder” is more politically charged. Brandon Boyd, your lead singer, writes the lyrics to all of Incubus’ songs. Do you ever have a problem with what he writes?

ME: No, not at all, actually, and it’s funny the perception of Brandon’s lyrics being politically charged. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. We made a video that had a lot of politically charged imagery in the video, but the lyrics to the song were actually in no way connected to any kind of political view whatsoever. I think the song “Megalomaniac” is much more about social observations than political observations, but we hooked up with this … very talented director and she came with … this really political idea for a video and we thought it was cool. So we kind of let her run with that. It’s got a lot of striking imagery, a lot of anti-fascist, anti-war imagery … but then, all of a sudden, the song lyrics became this political statement to a lot of people. But we never set out with any kind of political agenda — except maybe to get Bush out of the presidency.

JJ: But barring that —

ME: As an afterthought, I think that guy sucks.

JJ: You and Brandon have been described as sort of the anti-rock stars. Is the lifestyle exciting for you or is it about the music?

ME: Honestly, it’s just about making music. I don’t have any interest in any of the sort of celebrity aspects of being in a band…. When I got to [premieres] or big parties and stuff like that, there’s always a red carpet where people are having their pictures taken…. Some people come off as, you know they’re just there having fun … and then there are a lot of people that come across, at least to me, as very egocentric and self-absorbed. I just prefer to stay as far away from that type of energy as humanly possible. Actually we have a song about that. It’s called “Megalomaniac.” People think it’s about George Bush, but it’s actually about the stars walking down the red carpet. No, I’m just kidding.

JJ: When you first went from being a band to being a well-known band, was that a difficult transition?

ME: It happened really slowly. It was kind of like watching your own hair grow. You don’t really notice that it’s happening, but at certain times you can look at a before picture and an after picture and take a step back and say ‘Wow, look how far we’ve come.’ It all happened so slowly that there was never that shock that I think maybe happens for most other bands that become successful.

JJ: Speaking of watching your hair grow, are you still sporting the Jewfro?

ME: Yeah, it’s going strong.

JJ: Can you explain the hairstyle choice?

ME: It’s not really a choice I have, actually. It’s kind of like — it’s nature. It’s what God gave me. It’s why I’ve been put on this earth.

Incubus performs at the Pond in Anaheim on Aug. 17, and at
the Forum in Los Angeles on Aug. 18.