Can Cred and Success Co-exist? An Interview with Jimmy Eat World
Jimmy Eat World guitarist Tom Linton talks about new sounds, new successes, new bands, and old fans.
About halfway through my phone interview with Tom Linton, guitarist and occasional singer for indie-cum-mainstream rock band Jimmy Eat World, I thought we'd been cut off. I'd just asked him if he thought Jimmy Eat World was an influential band. What followed was at least 10 seconds of silence while I waited with the crickets. When he finally answered, he seemed poised on eggshells.
"Umm, I guess so. Um, we've been playing for a while. We've got a lot of fans." Then a couple of more seconds of silence. Then a diplomatic, "I don't know." Then nervous laughter. The somewhat aloof response was a typical reaction to the questions I had for him regarding his band's success since 2001. Was it an attempt to remain humble? Or was it a fear of jinxing the forward momentum that they had worked so hard to achieve?
I argued that his band was indeed influential, pointing out that after every record they've released since 1996's Static Prevails, scores of young start-up bands have popped out of the woodwork copping the same sound. Linton didn't agree.
"I've heard bands that I guess sound a little similar. I don't know if I've ever heard a record and said, 'That sounds just like us.'" Whether or not this is true, Jimmy Eat World seems destined to stay ahead of any copycats by pushing their sound forward from record to record. Compare 1999's diverse and often melancholy Clarity to 2001's louder and poppier Bleed American (later self-titled post-9/11), and you'll hear two different bands. Not surprisingly, the more radio-friendly Bleed record yielded two big anthem hits in "The Middle" and "Sweetness" while Clarity got them dropped from Capitol. Yet amongst the old school, Clarity is still the bar that fans hold Jimmy Eat World to. Going into the studio, the band found itself in an interesting predicament -- how to appease the old fans while not scaring off the newbies that joined the party following Bleed American.
What resulted was Futures, which may be the band's fifth full-length, but it's their sophomore effort under the gaze of mainstream acceptance. While Bleed American was a stripped down rock affair compared to Clarity, the band has gone back to a thicker production, with more complex parts and instrumentation. While in their press pack, vocalist Jim Adkins is quoted as saying this record is a sort of "sequel" to Clarity, Futures actually comes off more as a difference splitter between the two previous releases. Linton claims that when the band sat down to write the record last August, they had no idea where it was going to go.
"It was kind of more of a blind thing. We didn't sit down as a band and say, 'OK, we want this new record to sound like Korn,' or something like that. We just sat down and wrote songs like we've always done it.
"It's a collaboration. The songs that Jim sings, he writes the lyrics for. The songs that I sing, I write the lyrics for. Mainly, Jim comes up with the basic heart of the song and brings it to the band, and then we all go over it as a band, work on the arrangement, and add in our own guitar riffs or piano or whatever."
In the spirit of keeping each subsequent record sounding fresh, the band opted to use producer Gil Norton, who has worked with the Foo Fighters and the Pixies, instead of longtime friend and producer Mark Trombino.
"For the last ten years, we've been working with Mark," says Linton. "He's done all of our records previous to Futures. And we just wanted to try something different as far as bringing in someone different, ideas for song arrangements, different guitar sounds, and stuff like that. That was pretty much it. We don't have anything against Mark. He's one of the best out there. We just wanted to try something new." Still, the return to a more diverse sound serves as a reminder to the old school Jimmy fans that the band hasn't forgotten where it came from.
"We definitely want to maintain a connection [with the old fans]. Those were the fans that were there from the beginning, and they helped us make Bleed American. To me, those are the most important fans. The only thing we can do as a band is try to make the best records that we can and hope that they're happy with the records that come out."
He's not kidding when he claims the pre-Bleed fans helped the band get Bleed American made. The record was recorded on their own dime, which they saved from relentless touring. Had the kids not packed the clubs then, the kids wouldn't be packing the bigger venues now. I asked Linton if it was a scarier situation three years ago, when they had no label, as opposed to now, when they're riding the success of their last record.
"[When making Bleed American], we weren't scared at all. We were actually pretty excited to go into the studio. We worked really hard touring and had saved up a lot of money. We had a bunch of songs that we were ready to go in and start recording." Linton says that the pressure is actually greater this time around.
"We want to make each record better than the last record. We want to make our fans happy, and I think you tend to sometimes -- in trying to do that -- build pressure on yourself." The pressure is undoubtedly great. Indie fans can be notoriously protective of their bands and are known to stop showing up to gigs when they have to share floor space with adoring teenage radio listeners. One way they're hoping to remedy this problem is by making sure their back catalogue is represented in their live show.
"We're playing a couple songs from Static Prevails," says Linton. "Maybe four songs from Clarity, four songs from Bleed, and four songs from the new record -- so you've got a mix from all the records."
When asked if he still enjoys delving into the older material, Linton says, "A lot of people ask me if I ever get sick of playing 'Lucky Denver Mint' or 'Blister' [both from Clarity]. I don't know -- it's just fun playing and seeing the reaction of the fans dancing and singing along. It doesn't make me get sick of playing those songs."
Right now, Jimmy Eat World is in the middle of a North American tour of mid-sized venues, many of which are selling out. Opening for the band currently are Elefant and Reubens Accomplice, two acts who are out of the mainstream spotlight. At a time when the band could probably double-bill with a more popular band and play larger venues, Jimmy continues to introduce audiences to up-and-coming artists, which is nothing new. In 1999, Jimmy Eat World toured with At the Drive-In before that band became short-lived critical darlings.
"That's the cool thing," says Linton. "We pick who we tour with. We always try to find bands that we like and who we think we'll get along with, and who the fans who like us will enjoy -- bands who will make touring fun for us."
Of the new songs you're likely to hear on this tour, one of the more rocking tunes is the lead-off title track to Futures, a song that more than hints at the band's political leanings. Consider the opening lines: "I always believed in futures / I hope for better in November." With a contribution to the Future Soundtrack for America, a record sponsored by MoveOn.org and Music for America, Jimmy Eat World joined a movement of musicians and other artists who spoke out in record numbers this year for a change in the current political American climate. I wondered if the relevance of a song like "Futures" has changed now that the election presumably didn't go the way they had hoped.
"No, it's still the same. Jim could probably tell you a different meaning than what I'm going to tell you, but I guess for me, the song is pretty much about kids being able to go out and make their own decisions on who they think was going to be the best leader or person to represent them, and in the song, it doesn't really say, 'Vote for one person.' Everybody's got a choice, and they have to make their decision on who they think is going to be the best.
"I've talked to some kids, and a lot of them wish it had gone the other way -- they were ready for a change that didn't happen. You just kind of have to live with it for now." Still, Linton doesn't feel like artists should roll over for the next few years.
"I think it's good to stay on top of it. Four years comes up pretty fast, so I think people should always be thinking about getting ready for it and keep on fighting."
At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of success, still trying to gauge whether they were happy with their newfound popularity. If the bottom dropped out, and the fickle masses chose to leave Jimmy Eat World behind to fend for themselves again in the underground indie scene, would they carry on? Linton seems unafraid, as his band has had their backs against the wall before.
"I would definitely keep going as long as we're still having fun and we're happy with the songs we're writing. It wouldn't matter if we took a step back. That's what usually happens. We're ready for that anyway. It was pretty funny. When Static Prevails came out, ska was really big, and we never fit in. On tour, every show would be like four ska bands and us. And then we went through, like, nu-metal and all that stuff. It's funny. We'll see what happens."
With this cliffhanger, we parted ways, and I was left with the impression of a band trying to show that success and credibility weren't necessarily mutually exclusive. But if they had to choose one or the other, they'd go for the latter, meaning that we can expect more quality product from Jimmy Eat World in the future, no matter how many people choose to listen.