July 28, 2001
The late 90s and 2000s were a weird time for alternative radio. The artists that got airplay were mostly male and almost exclusively white, which likely accounts for why many songs that became hits on that format didn't quite make the leap to pop radio during this time. Even at the time when I was becoming obsessed with alternative stations like K-Rock 92.3 in New York, it still seemed strange to me that female artists were so few and far between, to say nothing of the notion of a Black artist finding any semblance of success. Even nu metal, the subgenre that owes a huge debt to rap music (and that the artist in this column is loosely associated with), never seemed like it was intentionally put in front of Black audiences. I've always felt this homogeny has been a detriment to the format. It's why K-Rock and its various successors have never been able to put a foothold on New York City radio, a fact that continues to sadden me even as I've mostly left behind terrestrial radio for satellite and streaming services.
When a band did cross over to pop radio in the early 2000s, it usually meant they got pushed off alternative radio entirely. A band like Lifehouse, who I previously covered with "Hanging by a Moment", is a perfect example, basically vanishing from alternative radio once that song reached #2 on the Hot 100. Sometimes, however, when a song crossed over to the top 40, it was a one-and-done scenario. For whatever reason, pop radio and the public at large would get their fill of an artist and send them back to the margins. For the band Incubus, they dipped their toes in the pop waters just long enough for them to get my attention, and their one crossover hit would be enough to pave the way for them become one of my favorite artists of the 2000s.
Brandon Boyd was just 15 when he joined Mike Einziger, Alex Katunich, and Jose Pasillas in forming the band that would become Incubus in 1991 in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas. The band cut their teeth playing clubs in L.A. and eventually recorded their debut album Fungus Amongus in 1995. The best analogue for the band at this time might have been funk rock stalwarts Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that will eventually appear in this column. Incubus caught the attention of major label Epic Records, signing a deal with them in 1997.
With their second album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. in 1997, the band found themselves moving with the zeitgeist of alternative rock toward nu metal. You can hear Incubus reaching for that sound on the album, with prominent record-scratching, and Boyd rap-singing some of the songs. But then you have a song like "Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song)" with its saxophone solo, which definitely falls outside the nu metal comfort zone. I've never really thought Incubus should be lumped into the nu metal category, but then it's hard to not call them that either, as they obviously drew on the same influences as other bands that are more definitively within that category.
The band toured extensively behind S.C.I.E.N.C.E., appearing on big deal hard rock tours such as Ozzfest and The Family Values Tour. They also brought on Chris Kilmore, who's known as DJ Lyfe, as turntablist (a word I didn't realize existed until I writing it just now) prior to recording their 1999 album Make Yourself. Two weeks into recording, the band fired their producer and decided to produce the album themselves. Near the end of the recordings, the band brought on producer Scott Litt, previously known for working on a bunch of wildly successful R.E.M. albums in the 80s and 90s, to help finish the record. Make Yourself features a lot of the same nu metal influences found on their prior album, but with a much more melodic edge to them, perhaps dues to Litt's involvement.
The lead single "Pardon Me" would go on to be a huge smash for the band, peaking at #3 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart. They followed that up with "Stellar", which got to #2 on the Modern Rock chart. I vaguely remember seeing the video for "Stellar" on TRL in the summer of 2000, which must have been jarring for fans of Britney Spears and *NSYNC, two acts among others that absolutely dominated that show. Sure, bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn were MTV darlings at the time, but like I said, Incubus never quite fit that mold for me.
Regardless, the music videos during this album cycle played a huge role in capturing my attention. MTV2 played them like crazy right around the time I started frequenting that channel. The video for "Stellar" is really quite cool, with Boyd's girlfriend at the time playing the woman trapped in the shattered glass plate. Even though my tastes were still fairly pop-centric in 2000, the stuff going on on alternative radio was beginning to catch my attention, and slick videos like the one for "Stellar" could only help that momentum.
Make Yourself had already reached platinum status by the time "Drive" was released as a single. I remember not liking "Drive" when I first heard it. I don't know if it was the fact that it wasn't as heavy as their other singles, but it was a real slow burn for me. It topped the Modern Rock chart on March 3, 2001, but didn't debut on my top 40 until May 12, right around the time the song was making waves on pop radio.
But when I did fall for it, I fell hard. The acoustic guitar hook is mesmerizing and allows Boyd's vocals to take center stage. He sings with a nervous quality that's in line with the lyrics of the song. Boyd's narrator wonders how much he's letting fear dictate the choices he makes with his life. He wonders what would happen if he led a more intentional life. "It's driven me before / and it seems to have a vague, haunting mass appeal / but lately I'm / beginning to find that I should be the one behind the wheel".
As time has passed I relate to the lyrics of "Drive" more and more. I imagine most people find themselves thinking this way at some point in their lives. Whether it's a fear of failure, rejection, loneliness, whatever, we often make choices based on what seems the safest, whether we realize it or not. The point is to keep going and learn from those mistakes. Boyd sings in the chorus, "Whatever tomorrow brings I'll be there / with open arms and open eyes, yeah". It's a pretty contemplative subject for a song that went on to be a sizable pop hit. It peaked at #9 on the Hot 100 the same week it reached #1 on my top 40. Maybe it wasn't out of place on pop radio at the time, but the fact that it's somewhat of an outlier sonically on the album may explain why the band never returned to the upper reaches of the Hot 100 after "Drive". If the pop charts are about anything, it's that going to the middle is the surest way to sustained success. That's something Incubus has never really done, and they're all the better for it.
By the time "Drive" was peaking on the pop charts, the band was already recording their fourth album Morning View, which they released in the fall of 2001. The lead single from that album, "Wish You Were Here", seemed to me like a natural fit to follow up "Drive" on pop radio, but I'm not sure it ever got a release to the format. Maybe that made the difference in it only peaking at #2 on my top 40. None of the other songs on Morning View would reach the top 10 on my chart. Still, it's a fantastic album, one I played quite a lot on my CD player in the months after its release. It feels more relaxed than their preceding albums, but without sacrificing any heaviness. Any group that make excellent songs like "Circles" and "Are You In?" live harmoniously on the same album deserved my $12 for the CD back then.
The constant radio and video play their hits were getting only made me want to hear more from the band. Their next album would take a decidedly left turn from the chill vibes of Morning View, being informed largely by current events at the time. But we'll get into that soon enough. Incubus will be back in this column.
Here's the hard rock band Of Mice & Men covering "Drive" for a 2015 SiriusXM acoustic session:
Here's Steven Yeun's cover of "Drive" appearing in an episode of the 2023 Netflix series Beef:
Missy Elliott's frenetic, bugged-out classic "Get Ur Freak On", peaked at #9 behind "Drive". Listen to me now, I'm lastin' twenty rounds.