The biting "Megalomaniac" was the first single from the Southern California band's fifth album, A Crow Left of the Murder, and when it dropped early this spring, it seemed a clear-cut kiss-off to the petulant gorillas who hijacked the once-promising genre. "Hey, megalomaniac," sings an angry, nasal Brandon Boyd in its chorus. "You're no Jesus/You're no Elvis . . . Step down." But then its video arrived. Director Floria Sigismondi returned the term "megalomaniac" to its political context, juxtaposing animated pictures of Mussolini and an angel-winged Hitler with assorted antiwar messages.
"With the video, people were convinced that we were this new political rock band," says guitarist Mike Einziger on the eve of the band's latest U.S. tour. "Our intentions were never to have any type of role in politics or preach to anybody. Given the state of the world when the album was released, people interpreted it as anti-Bush. And the video lends itself to that too. And we didn't feel a need to stop that either. I would just come right out and say, 'Bush sucks.' But that wasn't our original intent. It's our answer to the alpha-male, dominant, testosterone-fueled ego that's ever-present in everything from your next-door neighbor's job to being in a rock band."
Crow is a bold departure from Incubus's string of formulaic, inoffensively rocking, consistently platinum albums. This time around, they made some tough decisions -- and some were made for them. They chose not to market the disc around Boyd's stylishly scruffy good looks -- even though his world-famous six-pack was once so important that the band used a belly double for the "Wish You Were Here" video when he took ill, and Boyd's subtly ritualistic removal of his shirt has long been an important part of the band's live shows. Musically, the group was forced to deal with the loss of an integral element when it split with bassist Dirk Lance, whose deep hum was long the signature element of the Incubus sound.
Einziger recruited former bandmate Ben Kenney, then playing with the Roots, to replace him. Years with the soul-steeped rap band had given Kenney a severe rock jones. The new Incubus lineup became acclimated on 2003's Lollapalooza, consistently drawing warm responses in an overall tepid year. Kenney's unleashed rock imperative set the tone for the band's latest; tension-and-release songs like the breakthrough hit "Pardon Me" had long suggested a subtle influence of underground rock, and that fetish is now in full view. The mellow side is still present, with brief interludes of psychedelia and dub. Instead of the mild-mannered radio smashes like the acoustic "Drive" and the warm-water rush of "Wish You Were Here," the band's overall sound is now a loud rattle more in tune with tourmates Sparta. Einziger says that if the album's new direction seems like a departure, it's just because they haven't checked in lately.
"It doesn't have as much to do with influences. It's more the fact that we haven't written a record in three years. Ben's an inspiring player. He plays every instrument better than everybody in the band does."
It looks as if Incubus will survive the risky moves. The new disc sold faster out of the gate than any of the band's previous albums. Released in February, Crow reached No. 2 on Billboard's album chart, just as its double-platinum predecessor, 2001's Morning View, had done. Despite being relegated to late-night rotation for its controversial content, "Megalomaniac" topped MTV2's rock countdown, and the weirder, gentler "Talk Show on Mute" followed suit, cat people and all. (In a rough concert season, the Crow tour has seen some downgrades though -- Cleveland's show was bumped from the 20,000-seat Gund Arena to the 6,000-capacity Tower City Amphitheater.)
Incubus has done the rock-star thing on a modest scale, moving in a fairly straight line. Generally recognized as part of the rap-rock movement, the band actually far predates it, having formed back in 1991, when Boyd, Einziger, and Lance went to high school together.
Boyd has followed a classic rock-star trajectory, marrying supermodel Carolyn Murphy and issuing White Fluffy Clouds, a book of artwork, poetry, and insights -- the kind of slender, fanatics-only tome usually reserved for dead geniuses like Kurt Cobain (and Jewel). Incubus's ancillary business moves haven't been entirely self-indulgent or greedy: It formed the Make Yourself Foundation and donates profits from memorabilia auctions and official bootlegs to raise funds for environmental, educational, and therapeutic causes that include Future Forests, Sweet Relief, Surfrider Foundation, Silverlake Music Conservatory, and Break the Cycle. And while it was surrounded by angry dudes in backward ballcaps, Incubus brought modern rock some thought, soul, and vocabulary. A Crow Left of the Murder refers not to homicide, but to a mass of the black birds, identifying the band as both outsiders and survivors.
"When we started, we were inspired by bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden and Primus," says Einziger. "It was a really inspiring time in music. And here we are, 15 years later, and I don't see very much of the rock music that came out during the late '90s rap metal/nü-metal period, whatever you call it, being important 10 years from now. The time that we were inspired to start our band seemed like it was an important time in music. The only thing that we can do is make music that feels honest to us. And if we are one of those bands, it would be great."