Pinpointing exactly when nu metal went from being a couple of unique bands in the metal scene to a fully fledged musical movement is tough. Looking back, 1997 seems to have a pretty good claim for being considered year zero for nu metal as a legitimate scene: it was the year we got debut albums from Coal Chamber, Sevendust, (Hed)pe, Limp Bizkit, Snot and more. It saw the release of Deftones’ classic Around The Fur, and Taproot, American Head Charge and Soil all formed.
It was certainly a boom period for metal, with almost every emerging artist leaning into this new sound. But one band that year who ended up being lumped in with this new movement seemed to bring much more to the party than their peers – so much so, that their place in nu metal always felt a little forced. In 1997, alt funk metallers Incubus began setting themselves apart from the pack with the release of their breakthrough album S.C.I.E.N.C.E., and with it a song that would be their first to connect on a greater level: A Certain Shade Of Green.
Formed in 1991, the Calabasas, California quartet had self-released their debut album, Fungus Amongus, in 1995 and decided to take their unique fusion of funk, metal and hip hop to as many people as they could.
“We’d play anywhere, wherever would have us,” frontman Brandon Boyd tells us today, when we ask for recollections of his band’s early years. “We played bars, backyards, living rooms, opened up for other bands… We opened for a lot of other bands!”
This enthusiasm to play wherever they could, and the ever-increasing interest in metal’s new sonic palette, brought Incubus to the attention of Paul Pontius, who had signed Korn to Sony subsidiary Immortal/Epic Records. He added the band to the label’s roster. Epic’s first decision was not to get the band into the studio, but to keep them on the road to hone their craft even further.
“We’d only done some intermittent touring,” says Brandon. “It was the first time we had a budget and we had a little bit of cash, so we could update our gear, rent a van – it was a 15-person van with a trailer. We basically got in that van and stayed in it for about two years.”
One of the first tours that Incubus did prior to the release of S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was supporting Korn in Europe in early 1997. With the headliners riding high on the success of their second album, Life Is Peachy, it was a huge opportunity for Incubus to make an impression.
“We did a two-month run with them,” Brandon remembers. “It never felt like anyone was trying to hold us back – it felt like we had support. They would see us going to our van, sometimes limping to the show as the van coughed its way to the parking lot. We weren’t necessarily supposed to partake in the catering, but they would see us show up malnourished and under-slept and be like, ‘Have you eaten?’ We’d say, ‘Nuh-huh.’ And they’d order: ‘Go get some food!’
“We weren’t supposed to even get a dressing room… They’d give us a dressing room. Stuff like that sticks with me a lot. So much of the music from that era was so heavy and macho and sometimes even negative, and you get it in your head that these guys would be mean and unsupportive. But it was exactly the opposite.”
While on the tour, Incubus began to try out the new material from their forthcoming major label debut, and it was here that they began to notice one song stand out.
“All we had were the songs from S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and we had a 30-minute set, so we were only playing those songs,” smiles Brandon. “But the first time a large audience were dancing in unison to a song they didn’t know, it was A Certain Shade Of Green in Paris. It was the same reaction every night.”
Buoyed by the reaction from Korn fans, Incubus headed into the studio to capture these new songs. Nu metal was now the hottest style in alternative music, and even though he concedes there are similarities between his band and the movement, Brandon is quick to distance himself from the genre.
“We weren’t trying to fit into a particular niche at a particular time,” he sighs. “We were just kids being influenced by a small handful of bands that we grew up with. Just to name a few we were collectively obsessed with: Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mr. Bungle, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Firehose… some other obscure bands we were discovering because of going to shows.”
Despite this, Incubus weren’t making any deliberate attempt to consciously move away from nu metal. “It’s much more sincere in the way we write an album,” says Brandon. “I always want to speak as authentically as possible as a writer and a singer.”
Instead, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was a reflection of the genuine excitement the band felt about getting creative in a proper studio for the first time in their career.
“It was really exciting for us to be making a real album for the first time, with a budget,” Brandon says excitedly. “We had more toys than ever before. Kid in a candy store? It was like our dad owned the candy store and we were just gorging ourselves on sugar for a couple of months! I remember being really excited to turn up and see what new sounds we could make. We were young, late teenagers: I was 19 when that record came out. We had a lot of piss and vinegar and venom, as you do when you’re 19 or 20 years old – almost limitless energy.”
“Limitless energy” isn’t a bad way to describe the song that introduced Incubus to an entire generation of metal fans. A Certain Shade… rides along on a savage riff from guitarist Mike Einziger; some popping, propulsive hip hop grooves; all manner of manic scratches from the newly installed DJ Lyfe; and a brilliantly rapped, sung and screamed performance from Brandon. Twenty-five years down the line, it still sounds like the standout moment from an album that has aged far better than many of those from their nu metal peers.
“I haven’t been as involved with the choosing of the singles,” says Brandon. “They’re all my children, so picking one over the other would be me being a shitty parent. I like to offload those choices to people who have expertise in this area. I’m sure the label heard that track on an album that’s mostly barking, with crazy weird rhythms and riffs, and it was the closest thing to a single they could find. It’s not a single-heavy album.”
The song didn’t chart, but Incubus relentlessly toured over the next couple of years, with the likes of 311, Limp Bizkit, Far and more, getting progressively better as a live band. A Certain Shade Of Green was the standout track of their live show, the band often dropping it in early during support slots to really grab the attention and get, as Brandon describes it, “a big visceral reaction”. The tactic worked, and the song and the album grew organically, eventually being certified Gold on both sides of the Atlantic. Brandon is rightly proud of the hard work his band put in during that era.
“Although there wasn’t an obvious single on S.C.I.E.N.C.E. there was an energy that was captured, and it was best encapsulated by seeing us live,” Brandon explains. “What we were able to take away from that was that we got those 10,000 hours in, so when we came to write [1999’s follow-up and mainstream-smash album] Make Yourself, we were wise beyond our years.”
Both nu metal and Incubus would get considerably larger in the years that followed, though the two would travel in different directions. But a quarter of a century later, their odd, brief union is still a period beloved by many fans.
“Twenty-five years is more than enough time for something to define itself,” Brandon says, puffing out his cheeks when we ask him about the legacy of A Certain Shade Of Green. “But being one of the guys who crafted the thing, I feel like I’m a little too close to it to understand the legacy in a historical sense.”
As for the legacy of nu metal? Brandon is a little clearer on that.
“I thought it was terrible. I didn’t like it. Honestly, I thought it was stupid,” he smiles. “I know a lot of people love it, but being called ‘nu metal’ kinda hurt my feelings. If we made one record that fits into that genre, then so be it, but I never heard it in our music myself.”
They may have been there for the birth, but A Certain Shade Of Green showed us all that Incubus were their own band, destined to walk their own, unique path.