How Incubus’ Make Yourself redefined heavy music for a new generation

Incubus in 2000
(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)
Incubus - Make Yourself

Incubus Make Yourself

(Image credit: Epic/Immortal)

Released: October 26, 1999
Recorded: May-June 1999, NRG Studios, California
Label: Epic/Immortal
Producer: Incubus/Scott Litt

Track listing:
1. Privilege
2. Nowhere Fast
3. Consequence
4. The Warmth
5. When It Comes
6. Stellar
7. Make Yourself
8. Drive
9. Clean
10. Battlestar Scralatchtica
11. I Miss You
12. Pardon Me
13. Out From Under

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It’s late autumn 1999 in 7th grade art class, and I’m seated next to my best friend, Ashley. She’s cooler than me by a lot, and I take detailed mental notes of everything she says. Rumblings are stirring about a hot new band she loves called Incubus. They're a band sure to please both of us as we perch on the precipice of the sexual awakening that comes with puberty, but with enough edge to appeal to our friend group’s youthful alternative sensibility. 

She was the little sister of a brother who loved rock; a hard-won rebel who let us hit his cigarettes at the bowling alley after we were done flirting with the older boys in the pool room. We didn’t quite grasp all the music they loved, with its aggression and growls, but this? This was something we could deeply identify with. It had a harder sound, but welcomed our ears in a way the dying wails of second-wave nu metal could not. Boy bands were near jumping the shark, and we’d outgrown those a year or two before anyway. 

Only one band held the magical formula through which we availed our desperate new teenage longing, and it was Incubus. 

An injustice awarded to harder-edged rock groups who came to shine in the late nineties and early oughts was their immediate placement among the deluge of nu metal bands who sprang up a few years prior. Incubus were among them. A Southern California act formed in 1991 by a gang of teenage friends, they melded their collective influences into a loosely-culled pastiche of funk metal, heavy riffs, psychedelic imagery and abstract poetry, constructed in the young brain of singer Brandon Boyd. 

Their first two official releases, Fungus Amongus and S.C.I.E.N.C.E., drew heavily from the Mr. Bungles and Red Hot Chili Peppers of the world. But Incubus were quickly moving into adulthood, and realised their own identity with the career-defining release of the appropriately titled Make Yourself in 1999. 

On their previous efforts, the band had showed great promise to become a significant force in the hard rock and metal scenes. But amid Redefine and Calgone – S.C.I.E.N.C.E.'s heavy-hitting bookends – there were calmer songs that exposed the band's romantic side. In particular, Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song) hinted at a wider appeal they’d yet to fully realise; one that would appeal to a burgeoning crowd of rock fans but also pull in a new breed of listeners, whose attraction to heavy music may have been stunted by the hulking machismo and outright sexism of the era’s reigning rock and metal subgenres. 

That breed included myself. I purchased the first of my many copies of S.C.I.E.N.C.E. at a local Kmart the same day I talked to Ashley about the band, looking for the newly-released Make Yourself but coming up short. You work with what you have; I had middle America’s limited stock of material from which to choose. 

The album was a doorway into realms unknown. I’d enjoyed the proto-metal sounds of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath swiped from my parents’ collection already, but falling in love with Incubus felt like the first time I’d fully identified with a generationally relevant band. I felt represented by the weird, heavy atmosphere on the record, but the burgeoning romantic in me was still present in the modern love songs tucked neatly between space-age riffs. 

Those snippets of musical sensitivity that spoke to my lovelorn adolescence were fully realised when Incubus released Make Yourself in October 1999. Three wildly successful singles were released from the record over the next year, culminating in the mainstream explosion of Drive. Widely considered their most iconic track, the lyrics reportedly pertain to being driven by fear. But the simple choral refrain of 'Whatever tomorrow brings / I’ll be there / With open arms and open eyes' struck a starry-eyed nerve with the public and drove the song from sleeper hit to chart-topping classic. 

For those of us with no experience in the arena of love but dying to find out what it was all about? Fucking catnip. 

Once this, and the album’s other hits Stellar and Pardon Me had hold of popular demand – which was no easy task according to Boyd – the album became an instant classic. The videos for each didn’t hurt, either. As Boyd's poster boy charm caught the eye of many a millennial teenage girl – and their moms alike – his mussed surfer charm and often shirtless flaunting of a chiseled body drew in a legion of worshippers (and a fair share of haters). We were used to the Ken-doll plasticity of Backstreet Boy good looks; a little danger in our new sexual icon was beyond welcome.

This is not to draw away from his preternatural talent: Boyd’s pipes and impeccable vocal control are feverishly passionate; operatic with no hint of schmaltz and capable of turning on a dime from angelic to defiant without stumbling. A true artist with dedication to his various crafts, Boyd was destined for stardom and Incubus was the ideal vehicle for placing him inside the world’s psyche. 

The broad appeal of its singles aside, tracks within Make Yourself show the growth of a band on the precipice of stardom and acclaim, fully realising their own desires to create something original, rather than replicate the sounds of their heroes again. A prime example comes right out of the gate with the album’s opener, Nowhere Fast. Its transcendental weightlessness feels like a thick wave of romantic, youthful cogitation lifting skyward before the wavering conclusion of the verse grounds the song’s upward movement. 'If the wind blew me in the right direction / Would I even care?' Boyd asks in lackadaisical sing-song, pausing briefly to reflect before answering solemnly: 'I would.' When I now, at 32 – and with a decade of experience over this observation – hear that same question, I remain stalwart in my agreement that I would, too. 

This sort of questioning comes with the transitional nature of a person perched between the edges of adolescence and adult freedom, precisely the spot where the members of Incubus stood as humans and musicians in 1999. 

Another shift exemplified here is the sonic one. It was a change-up met with mixed feelings from long-standing fans, but ultimately the one the band needed to make in order to establish a unique presence and identity among the throngs of late nineties rock radio titans. With the loosening and lightening of the music came droves of new listeners who couldn’t get enough of Boyd’s crooning, model good looks, and the skilful hooks drummed up by José Pasillas, Mike Einziger, and the rest of the Incubus crew. 

For once, a new heavy rock band weren’t bending to the preference of an 18-40 year old male target audience. Everyone was welcome to enjoy Incubus, but excessive chauvinism had no place existing in this fandom (they would later deepen this acceptance on Morning View with the welcoming track Are You In?). 

Of course, the pushback from those who’d previously viewed the band as a heavier prospect was present, and fans who thought they were getting the next metal sensation were taken aback. This is where it paid to be a newcomer to heavy music for those like myself: for many of us, the bands that came just before had been intimidating, too aggressive. Make Yourself was full of riffs on which to cut our baby teeth, but not too sweet that we’d toss it out once we were ready for something a little harder. 

The criticism had no bearing on the album’s success, though, and it eventually went on to sell multiple millions of copies. It cemented the band’s longstanding legacy – one you can see on their current 20th anniversary of Make Yourself tour, in which they continue to play large-capacity, prestigious venues such as New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, a venue where I cried many times over the course of their two sets from the fourth row. 

I went alone and sat next to another fan my age who’d done the same, and we bonded over the authenticity the band had maintained despite the shifting tides of trends that would have ended weaker, more susceptible targets. Every song was spot-on, every movement free-flowing and full of fire. I once heard someone call Incubus “hippies with bongos playing metal” and while it’s fitting to an extent, it’s just fucking fine by me. 

The band themselves may not have had the foresight or self-awareness to know how far they would go with Make Yourself, or how fans who wanted S.C.I.E.N.C.E. part II would react, but there’s a sting of rebellion inside the album closer Out From Under that foreshadows the group’s move deeper into themselves – one that took a core group of devotees with them but also opened rock-virgin ears up to the possibility of more abrasive sounds. The track’s thick, staccato riffs and lyrics, 'Get out from under them / Resist and multiply / Get out from under precipice / And see the sky' are a direct call to action; Incubus weren’t conforming to the expected idea of what they were capable of, nor were they just another pop hit factory, and they urged their fans to think outside traditional lines of expectation, too. A lot of us listened. 

Two decades on from the world’s introduction to the new and truer-to-self version of Incubus, a whole new generation has been born amid an ever-shifting cultural landscape and rock’s diminished role in the mainstream. Incubus and their fans have felt those shifts, too, but they’ve continued rolling out a solid stream of hits that ensured them a sustained spotlight. What we’re left with is an album which has maintained its greatness and only has a few ultra era-specific telltales (Battlestar Scratchlactica being the very ’99 jam). 

Make Yourself remains a welcoming haven in rock'n'roll history, where masculinity is not toxic, emotions don’t have to be denied nor weak, and anyone idling on the bridge to heavy music can speed through and enjoy the drive.