Interview: Incubus’ Mike Einziger On His ‘Unexpected’ Avicii Collaboration

"We were definitely popping wheelies the whole time, you know?"
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Mike Einziger (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Mike Einziger (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

EDM superstar Avicii recently shocked the crowd at this year’s massive Ultra music festival in Miami by debuting new material that draws from soul, country and rock, with live instrumentation orchestrated by Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger.

“I was vaguely aware of his name. I totally knew his song ‘Levels’ really well, I think it’s awesome,” Einziger said during an exclusive interview with Radio.com about connecting with the DJ/producer, who’d expressed an interest in working with him through industry contacts. “So I was kind of curious to see what it would be like for us to get together and make music. I had no idea what would come out of it. We just got together to talk, and we ended up having a lot more in common that I would have imagined. Where he was coming from musically was really interesting to me.

“He wanted to make a record that was true to what he’d done in the past, but he also had this intense desire to do something drastically different and pave some new ground in that electronic world,” the guitarist added. “Being completely honest, I’m not all that familiar with the landscape of EDM music. The idea of a repetitive house beat…I just didn’t get it.”

The two artists quickly developed an easy rapport in the studio, resulting in a series of songwriting and recording sessions for the upcoming full-length debut from Avicii.

“Avicii started playing me ideas that he had, and it just gelled into us writing a few songs very quickly. One of those songs is called “Wake Me Up,” which as far as I know will be the first single from his new record. It features (Stone Throw Records artist) Aloe Blacc on vocals,” Einziger explained. “The three of us actually wrote that song together.

“He wanted to make this record that really had a lot of soul, but infused elements of folk music, country – all kinds of different sounds you wouldn’t normally find in his EDM universe,” Einziger elaborated about recording with the “Levels” producer. “He was really adamant about it, which is why it was such a good idea for us to work together. He’s so committed to the idea of not doing what everybody else is doing. That was exciting to me.”

Einziger admitted that watching the digitally-based Avicii work was an eye-opening experience, and far removed from the way he’s used to making music with Incubus.

“He’s really a great editor. He takes pieces of things and puts them together in ways I wouldn’t have expected. It’s crazy working with him,” Einziger laughed. “When he does his thing, it’s all on his computer. It looks like he’s playing a video game.”

When Avicii approached Einziger about putting a band together to perform the new material during his set at this year’s Ultra Festival, the guitarist was more than happy to help it come to life.

“It was really alien to him, the idea of incorporating live instrumentation with what he usually does during a DJ set. He asked me if we could do it, and I said of course,” Einziger related. “He asked me if I thought it would work, and I thought that it would. I did admit that it might come off as shocking to his audience, but yeah, we could definitely do it. He was totally fearless about it, which I admire.”

True to Einziger’s word, the radically different new sound during the latter part of Avicii’s Ultra set started a firestorm of controversy among fans and fellow EDM artists alike, with responses ranging the gamut from overwhelmingly positive to decidedly negative.

“We all knew going into it that it would be kind of a tough pill for that particular audience to swallow, and it kind of was in certain ways,” Einziger said about the Ultra performance, which also featured Incubus members Jose Pasillas on drums and bassist Ben Kenney, as well as Einziger’s multi-instrumentalist fiancée, Ann Marie Simpson, on violin and banjo.

“In rehearsal, it was all up in the air,” the guitarist said. “We never really played the full show until we did it live at Ultra. We were definitely popping wheelies the whole time, you know?”

“We could tell that the crowd wasn’t freaking out during that part of the show the way they had been earlier in his performance,” Einziger admitted. “But people were really watching. Being in a band myself and knowing what it’s like playing new material for your audience, you can really sort of tell when a crowd is paying attention. It definitely seemed kind of odd, but we had so much confidence in the music and knowing the songs were so great that even if people didn’t get it right in that moment, we knew it would make sense eventually.”

Einziger and Avicii are still actively writing and recording new music, even though at this point the Incubus guitarist isn’t exactly sure what the producer has planned for all of the songs.

Mentioning other collaborators on the project including stalwart country music singer-songwriter Mac Davis, Einziger compares Avicii’s bold new sound to his own experiences as part of Incubus.

“Every time we put out new music as Incubus, it’s received very critically, no matter what it is,” Einziger surmised. “Some people don’t like it if it’s different, other people don’t like it if it’s the same as what you’ve done before. You’re kind of f***** no matter what you do, so you really have to put all that aside and have confidence in your vision.”

“That’s why I like working with Avicii,” Einziger concluded. “He definitely has a vision for what he wants to do. It’s been a very unexpected but really fruitful collaboration.”

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