They're agents of change

Special to The Times

Incubus was going through its song "Here in My Room" during sound check before its concert at the Arrowhead Pond on Tuesday, when Mike Einziger suddenly stopped playing his Fender Rhodes electric piano, turned to singer Brandon Boyd and suggested a new twist for the melody of one line.

To a casual observer, this might appear to be a band working out the kinks on some brand-new material. But this is a group that's been on the road since March and has played that song, from the "A Crow Left of the Murder" album that was released in February, throughout the more than 80 shows of the tour so far.

"We keep ourselves amused by changing our songs, for better or worse," the frizzy-haired Einziger, the band's lead guitarist and primary musical architect, explained a few minutes later, sitting in the band's dressing room. "It's entertaining, if not always to the excitement of our fans."

"Or the band," interjects Boyd, rolling his eyes a bit.

"I think people like to see you make mistakes," Einziger insists. "For me, personally, music's cooler when it sounds like humans are playing."

The attitude paid off. The concert that night was an inspiring and vibrantly human display of a band clearly connecting with its audience.

Changing a small part of a song, though, is minor compared with changes that happened with the band, which was formed in 1991 out of friendships of Calabasas teens, three of whom still form the group's core.

After having its biggest-selling album with 2001's "Morning View" -- a success fueled by the mainstream pop penetration of the calmly reassuring ballad "Drive" -- Incubus experienced turmoil before making the current album. The group parted ways with founding bass player Dirk Lance and hired Ben Kenney, then sued Epic Records in an attempt to be released from its contract (the suit was settled and Incubus remains with the label).

But the biggest change might be the one it didn't make. "Drive" gave the band a kind of recognition that it had sought from the first time Boyd, Einziger, Lance and drummer Jose Pasillas played together as teens, and put it in a position to make a move at being one of the foremost presences in the rock side of pop culture. With both "Morning View" and its predecessor, 1999's "Make Yourself," having sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S., the band was poised to rise to the kind of household-name status reserved for just a handful of rock bands.

"We'd love to be selling more records," Boyd says.

But that, the musicians came to believe, might mean compromising the creative drive that has always been at its core.

"I don't know if I'd ever want our band to be a brand name, Pop-Tarts on every kid's breakfast table," says Einziger. "I never want it not to be special. It's exceeded our expectations tenfold already, but it loses its spark at a point, and I don't want to be at that place."

There were plenty of sparks in the concert Tuesday night. Incubus always stood out from the rest of the mid-'90s alt-metal crowd, its positive lyrical approach and musical versatility far richer than the overworked wallowing in misery of such acts as Korn and later arrival Staind.

But rather than narrow the focus to pop considerations in the wake of "Drive," the band has widened its scope. The addition of Kenney (who had been a regular with hip-hop innovators the Roots for many years) in particular has spurred new sonic explorations. Einziger has continued a journey away from hard-rock conventions and has become a master of guitar atmospheres and effects in a manner at times suggesting a more nuanced version of Audioslave's Tom Morello.

The opening "Megalomaniac" (an indictment of public figures who believe their own hype) and many other songs Tuesday carried plenty of rock power, but more and more Incubus seems comfortable showing its artistic range, placing itself more in league with R.E.M. or Pearl Jam than with Korn or Linkin Park.

And nothing has been transformed more than "Drive" itself, which live has been reworked from its acoustic- guitar-based singalong origins to an electro-jazz tapestry built on Einziger's Rhodes chording and DJ Kilmore's creative turntable sonics. Elsewhere in the set there were forays into dub-style jamming, explosive metal, prog-style time signature shifts and a drum circle of Pasillas, Kenney and Boyd.

Boyd remains a confident, understated frontman, never indulging in histrionics or excessive showiness, unless the inevitable doffing of his shirt to reveal his lean, sculpted torso counts. And his lyrics, with a thematic thread about taking control of your life, have continued to evolve.

It was an onstage reflection of a band that is secure and content offstage. As much as they might like more fame, the price is higher than they want to pay. Einziger, in the dressing room, noted that the band members still share a bus on tour and have "movie nights" together every day while on the road.

And the founders still live near each other not far from where they grew up, and socialize even when not actively recording or touring. Those are the kinds of things they're not willing to give up in pursuit of more fame.

"The most popular things in the world have their own reality shows," Boyd said before the show, alluding to the pop-culture rise of figures from Paris Hilton to singer Ashlee Simpson. "Gone are the days when you wrote a song and sang it and got famous just for that. We feel blessed and lucky considering we've never taken those routes."

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