There is no telling what the dozen pretty young girls invited backstage after Incubus' Houston concert expected to find when they made it past security. It is a fair guess that they did not dress in low-slung denim and tummy-baring
T shirts to take part in a unicorn-drawing contest. Too bad for them. At the behest of guitarist Mike Einziger's unicorn-obsessed girlfriend, that's exactly what is under way. On a wooden food-service table, lead singer Brandon Boyd has laid down a winged unicorn in thick black marker. Einziger draws something destined for a rainbow-colored sticker. The would-be groupies wait for their turns with the pen and ask for hugs and autographs when they work up the nerve, but mostly they are silent, staggered by the discovery that the rock gods of Incubus seem more like fourth-grade girls. Nursing a beer as he watches unicorns spread over the table, Einziger smiles and says, "We are a wimpy, wussy band."
They may have named themselves after an evil spirit that has sex with women while they sleep, but Incubus are decidedly not part of the fraternity of rap-metal hybrid acts hell-bent on proclaiming their own alienation. They are sweet lads from Calabasas, California, who, after 10 years of grinding it out in run-down vans and cheap hotels, floated unexpectedly to the top of the U.S. charts in recent months with Stellar and Drive, songs powered by pop melody, well-timed bursts of distortion guitar and uncommon lyrical sincerity.
That many in the rock press and on commercial radio have failed to distinguish between Incubus and the hybridists irritates Einziger ("There is no rap in our metal," he says, bewildered. "There's barely any metal in our metal.") But at this particular moment in pop music, the confusion is opportune. The record industry, like every other business, is struggling to move product in a post-disaster world. Incubus, which has released its fifth album, Morning View (Epic), boasts a patina of metal hardness that attracts teenage boys; Boyd, recently named one of "The Hottest Guys in Music" by Teen People, attracts young girls; his lyrics, unapologetically hopeful and New Agey, are a potential salve for twenty-somethings confronting their first global crisis. Morning View is expected to fly out of record bins.
When Incubus began as a high school experiment in 1991, it was a funk outfit, openly ripping off the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus. On 1999's Make Yourself, produced by r.e.m. veteran Scott Litt, the band dispensed with its early jamming tendencies and focused on melody, allowing Boyd's voice and lyric book to step to the front. The single Drive, the group's biggest hit to date, contains the lovely line, "Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there/ With open arms and open eyes." It's not surprising that Incubus was the only major act scheduled to perform in New York City the week of Sept. 11 that actually did so. "I almost felt like it was our responsibility to step out of the fear we were experiencing," says Boyd, "and-this sounds stupid-try to lift people up a little."
Morning View is just as optimistic as Make Yourself. Standout tracks Wish You Were Here and Are You In? throw their lyrical arms around the world ("It's so much better when everyone is in/ Are you in?"). Guitarist Einziger shows off a surprising range of skills that take him from alt-rock fuzz to Chinese sublime, courtesy of a pipa, a four-stringed instrument he was taught to play by legendary guitar master Steve Vai. DJ Chris Kilmore, the group's oldest member at 28, lays down lush string beds that prove DJs in rock bands needn't be just aural filigree. Morning View is a solid album, a next step, although not the flagpole on the moon Incubus' supporters were hoping for. It doesn't lack focus or ambition; it just doesn't run five or six hit singles deep.
For a group that has been together 10 years, Incubus is remarkably young. "We're still developing as a band and as songwriters," says Boyd, 25. "We learned to play our instruments together. We know where we started, and we know we still have lots of room to get better." It's a good sign that the band members seem completely unconcerned with industry expectations and mock one another ruthlessly the moment anyone behaves like a rock star. Boyd is often targeted for being a "sex symbol" (although his shirt doesn't usually come off until five songs into Incubus' live set). Nothing, not even the band's name, is off limits. "We thought it was trippy and weird and dark," says Boyd. "And right around the time we turned 16 we started regretting it." It's too late to turn back now. Incubus may not be a band on the verge, but it is clearly a band on the verge of being on the verge.