Mike Einziger: The Incubus Guitarist & Harvard Student

By Alisha Ramos

Mike Einziger leisurely strolls into our meeting ten minutes late. Before his arrival, I constantly glance at my phone to check the time. I nervously go over my e-mails to make sure I’m not in the wrong place. And I’m not – Mike Einziger, the Incubus guitarist and a Harvard student, is just late. As I walk up to greet him, I’m a bit taken aback – his smaller stature is not what I had anticipated. I have naively expected something else – he is, after all, an international rock star. Perhaps a mohawk? Or the Jewfro he sports on the photo of his Wikipedia page? Or a tattoo on his arm? Something even remotely badass? No. My search for some symbol of status seems to be in vain as I quickly scan him over once more.

We are seated in a quiet corner of Bombay Club, by windows overlooking the bustling evening streets below. The restaurant is nearly empty, and I can’t help but notice the intimacy of the atmosphere. The restaurant was his pick – I suggested Café Pamplona in our earlier exchange via email, until he convinced me that Pamplona would be “really loud” for an interview and suggested Bombay. “My treat if you’d wanna eat,” the email read.

Einziger seemed to be a pretty cool guy even before I met him. He might even pass as a little nerdy. See him on the street, and you’d never be able to tell he’s playing in an idolized band that has seen multi-platinum sales and does gigs in front of thousands of fans. He seems like just another student rushing off to finish a problem-set. Einziger is a LA dude in every sense of the phrase. His clothes seem a smidge out of place amidst the dreary-hued, heavy winter coats and scarves of the local Cantabrigians and diners around us; he wears a royal blue zip-up hoodie with a simple plaid collared shirt underneath. Some tufts of his mouse-brown hair are askew. He seems completely and utterly at ease.

Our two hour chat over chicken tikka curry, samosas, and naan – all of which shared between us – leaves me with the feeling that we could easily become buddies. He is currently a “special grad student” at Harvard University, and is enrolled entirely in undergraduate courses. “There’s so much here,” he says. “The most difficult part is figuring out where you’re going to focus your attention.” During his time at Harvard, Einziger tells me he’s focused mainly on composition and music theory. “But,” he adds, “I’m also very passionate about the sciences. It’s been a huge passion of mine.”

Einziger explains that he wants to learn more about physics and biology. “I’ve always been fascinated from a cosmological perspective. What the hell are we doing here?” This is the part where Einziger becomes intensely passionate. His eyes seem to glimmer. You can see the triggers going off in his mind, one inquisitive thought clicking after another as he attempts to explain what he means by these words. “We take a lot of things for granted. I mean, we’re floating on a rock in a massive aquarium. We have no idea about a lot of things, but we’re learning a significant amount of information at a crazy rate,” he says. He says that studying the sciences has changed his “perception of the normal world.”

“How’s your food?” he asks, perhaps concerned about the frantic manner in which I take down notes, neglecting the delicious chicken tikka on the table. One can’t help but feel the contagious fervor with which Einziger speaks when he discusses evolution or physics. We launch into a long philosophical discussion on the origins mankind, during most of which I prefer to listen to his views and ask him for elaborations.

I interrupt to ask what he wants to do with all this knowledge. Einziger pauses to think. I offer if it’s purely for his own benefit. Einziger dons a wry smile and answers, “Everything we do is for our own benefit. But that’s a whole other philosophical discussion I won’t get into right now!” The question seems to stump him, as he finally replies with, “I don’t know.” One thing is becomes evident to me – Einziger loves learning for learning, attempting to piece together as what he sees as this great and marvelous puzzle of life and the universe.

The experience of being a student once more stands out as a stark contrast to Einziger’s rock star days. Although he undoubtedly had enjoyed and continues to enjoy being in the band, he confesses, “there are still sacrifices.” The often tumultuous culture of being a part of such a wildly popular band with a huge fan base seems to have taken a toll on Einziger’s social experience. “I mean…we pay people to keep people away from us,” he says.

He goes onto explain the surreal feeling of being “caged in” and blocked off from the rowdy crowd at concerts. “It’s kind of an isolating experience,” he reflects, a hint of regret in his voice. He expresses though, that his time at Harvard has allowed him to become “reimmersed into the regular world.” Here, Einziger feels that he is “just another student.” He admits that although he is a bit of an antisocial, he has “taken a great effort to get to know people” and has already made some “really great friends here.”

Einziger’s schedule for the spring semester aptly coincides with his two biggest obsessions – music and science. He is currently enrolled in Science A-41 (The Einstein Revolution), Music 51 (Music Theory), and Music 5 (Intermediate Composition). He is also pursuing an independent study with a visiting composer. “Every week I listen to a piece of music that’s assigned. The pieces are vastly different. We analyze them, pick them apart, and write response pieces to them.” Einziger tells me one of his favorite movies growing up was Fantasia; he listens to pieces from the movie like “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky and says he gets to “pick it apart and analyze that, and it’s amazing.”

He enthusiastically describes the professor, Richard Baldwin, as an “amazing guy.” The course is a great experience in composing music for Einziger. “I’ve never really read or notated music before.” He also adds that he purposefully tries to away from computers which often do the work for you. He firmly believes that composing music sans computer “really makes visualizing the music a necessity.”

Einziger has also had a hand at composing an entire orchestral performance. After undergoing an operation in March of 2007 for Carpal tunnel syndrome, he used the time off from his guitar to complete a side project, ‘end.>vacuum’. ‘End.>vacuum’ is described on its website as “a realization in nine movements; a jagged uneven collection of mind shattering musical theories.” The video on the website reflects Einziger’s science-and-music-oriented psyche: there are images of the cosmos, swirling galaxies, the large hadron collider, and the launch of a rocket ship. There’s a clip of him in which he poses some seemingly profound questions: “Is a note still a note if no one’s there to hear it?”

After meeting with Einziger, I can’t help but think that the video (and perhaps the performance itself) seems to be an accurate, eerie glimpse or snapshot of Einziger’s own mind. He singlehandedly composed the entire orchestral work; it also included a visual component that corresponded to the music. The project was a one-time-only show, performed in August in Los Angeles.

Besides being a full time Harvard student, it is clear that Einziger is still, in his core and essence, a part of the band and seldom forgets it. He reveals that Incubus is putting out a “greatest hits” record in May. At first, he waves this little bit of information away. “It’s a contractual thing. Just an obligation we have to fulfill.” He pauses a moment, and reconsiders. “But when I look back on it now, a lot of the music I discovered when I was younger was found through ‘greatest hits’ albums!” He reflects on the meaning of the band having a “greatest hits” album at all, and appreciates the legacy the band is leaving behind and creating still. “It was really fun putting [the album] together.”

We share a laugh as he says that most “greatest hits” albums only contain one or two songs which people can recognize. “We actually have a legit ‘greatest hits’ album.” Einziger refers to the fact that Incubus has produced a slew of number one hit singles, including “Drive”, “Megalomaniac”, “Anna Molly”, and “Love Hurts,” just to name a few.

Surely, being a musical genius and international rock star would make him a “shoe-in” at the admissions office. But he assures me that this was not the case. “[The admissions office] was very cool to me, but they were clear that being in a rock band doesn’t get you in.” Einziger initially became interested in Harvard through a current undergrad, who is a “very good friend” of his. Last year, the two planned to co-write an article about evolution, and wanted to interview a professor at Brown, an expert on the matter. Einziger planned to spend a day at Harvard and then visit Brown to conduct the interview, but plans fell through.

Through happenstance, Einziger found himself meeting instead with Thomas Kelly, a music professor at Harvard. The two instantly connected, much to Einziger’s surprise. “He’s a classical music scholar…I’m in a rock band. I didn’t know he would have any interest in talking to me.” The two shared “a really great discussion about music” and soon Einziger was being encouraged to apply to Harvard.

Upon receiving the acceptance letter, “I did a happy dance,” he recalls with a grin. He also remembers with amusement the delight his parents expressed when they received the news. “Selling eleven million records doesn’t impress my parents that much, but going to Harvard does!” When asked why he chose Harvard instead of a conservatory, Einziger replies matter-of-factly. “The music department is amazing here. The professors are incredible. Students are amazing. I have the luxury of meeting all these people…it’s overwhelming to be a musician and come here.” I share with him my own story of acceptance to Harvard, and the constant realization of how lucky I am to be here.

“Me too!” Einziger replies with zeal. “I feel like it’s really a privilege.” Einziger dropped out of high school as a teen to play with his own band; attending Harvard seems to be a sort of reawakening for him. “I value education in a different way than when I was younger. I never enjoyed school when I was younger,” he confesses. He continues to describe his rebellious high school years. “I was very nonconformist. But at a certain point, being a nonconformist makes you conformist,” he laughs. He shares with me his wonder at the amazing amount of resources Harvard offers its students, and the tremendous amount of support he has received so far. “It took me a while to figure out that there are people out there who want to help you do whatever you want to do in life.”

Incubus plans to go on tour all summer. He mentions they will play at the Boston Comcast Center in July, and is “trying to figure out a way so that Harvard students can get in for free.” He even reveals to me that Brandon Boyd, the vocalist of Incubus, is visiting him soon, and that the duo wants to “play somewhere really random” at Harvard, for the students. When asked where, Einziger gives a vague answer as they haven’t yet finalized plans. “Like in the stacks at the library or something. Just something really random.”

On top of this “top secret” mission for an impromptu concert, Einziger has found yet another way to contribute to the Harvard community in the future. He is composing music for a play called “Quartet” by Heiner Muller. The play will be will be performed by Harvard students.

The engaging experience at Harvard has inspired him to agree to teach a class during J-term next winter, titled “Modern Song-writing.” The class has yet to be planned, but he is excited about the opportunity. “I didn’t come here planning to teach, but I was asked to. I can’t think of anything cooler to do, to be able to teach at Harvard! The students are so inspiring. People are so smart here.” These are words may come off as cliché, but hearing them from Einziger makes you believe he sincerely means it.

He frequently reiterates how incredible the students are, along with the remarkable things they have accomplished. After all, he takes classes with us every day, struggles through problem sets, and chats with people every chance he gets. When asked about the experience of taking undergraduate courses, he admits, “There’s a bit of an age gap between me and the undergrads.” He reflects on the transition from being in the band to being a student again. “I’ve been doing what I’ve done for a living for such a long time. It feels good to be working my brain in a different way.”

His elaborate plans for the future are not just musical. Just as end.>vacuum was a testament to Einziger’s fascination with music, science, and the bonds which they share, his next project seems to be of the same nature. “I’ll be working on a documentary project for BBC over the next six months. It’ll be like Planet Earth, but about the solar system.” Einziger will compose music for the documentary which will correspond with its visuals. “It fits right in with my love for science and music!” he declares with a smile. The project is still in its “developmental stages” but looks very promising, considering the fact that BBC’s Planet Earth was such a phenomenal success.

My dinner with Einziger has drawn to a close, and I appreciate his candidness and open mind. He seemed like a friend, someone I could talk to about normal things like the crappy weather. When asked what he dislikes the most about Harvard, he answers with, “It’s fucking freezing here.” Yet the most enjoyable part in speaking with Einziger is having a stimulating discussion and genuine exchange of ideas. We cover everything from evolution to morality to Plato to homosexuality to the afterlife and more.

We agree on some things and disagree on others. Our conversation soon tapers off into banter about intellectual design and creationism. He promises me to email me a documentary about intellectual design (he did), and asks to chat with me again.

I see him now as more than just a face in a band. Perhaps the only big difference between Einziger and the typical Harvard student is his sincere and un-jaded appreciation for the university and its people. “It’s a shame not everyone in the world gets to experience it,” he says. Mike Einziger may be a rock star, but he also sees himself as just another student. He wants to be your friend.

He wants to share his story, his thoughts, his mind – but most of all, he wants to hear your story too, and learn from it. “Looking forward to another chat with you,” reads an email he sends me later that week. I have yet to respond (damn you, midterms and papers), but I can already sense our next meeting will be just as enjoyable.

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