Everything Is Easy: The Touring Lives of Third Eye Blind
"I really, really look at the audience. I'm not one of those people who glosses over; I very directly, soberly engage. I'm going to look you in the eye. And you can just see this summer of America getting better."
People tend to make a lot of assumptions about Stephan Jenkins. There have been countless tales of egotism, entire think pieces dedicated to how much of a dick he can be (mostly validated through secondhand information, mind you). Stories have swirled for decades now about how he's run the Third Eye Blind brand with an iron fist for more than 20 years (google XEB and you'll find all you really need to know about that). And if you talk to other mainstream staples from the time his band broke through in the mid to late 90s, the reactions you'll receive will range from "I get it and he cracks me up," to "That guy is the worst guy I've ever had to deal with."
One thing the singer has rarely been labeled, however? Absent-minded.
Yet that's what he is on this day, a Tuesday when he's scheduled to call me in the early afternoon. Problem is, he can't. Turns out, as he would later explain, he "just managed to walk away from my phone somehow" the previous night, and during our allotted time, he was in the process of plugging back into the modern world. Though as if that's not unforeseen enough, get this: his most recent memory of his phone came from last night, at the Brand New/Manchester Orchestra concert he attended. That's right. The same guy who once asked "How's It Gonna Be?" is the same guy who might just know all the words to the "Is that what you call a getaway" refrain that would be the first inductee into the bridge wing of the Emo Hall Of Fame, should one ever exist.
But that's precisely what speaking with Jenkins embodies. Unpredictability. We ultimately end the conversation on a weird, sour note, but that comes after nearly a half hour of him weaving and bobbing through an exchange with the charm of a prize fighter. The guy can be infectiously affable, a playful entity that proves how easy it is to have an entire room at his fingertips in one fell swoop with this type of mindless, off-handed dialogue at the beginning:
Me: "I really love the new album." Jenkins: "It loves you back! It loves you back!"
He says it like a kid and before long, you can't help but believe every letter of every word he utters. There's an innocence to him that would make you want to buy an anchor he's selling even if your ship is half under water. It proves why, in hindsight, AARP would put Counting Crows leader Adam Duritz on its cover the month he turns 50, but nary an issue has been drawn with the face of Third Eye Blind clutching a microphone, singing to an invisible crowd, even though he'll be 51 in September.
There's a reason for that: through all the years, 3EB has somehow managed to embody a moment in time all the while maintaining the perception that they continue to move forward. It's a trick that deserves more credit than it receives. Jenkins and his band somehow have all the credibility in the world, complete with cult-following audience, and yet for whatever reason, they are still associated with radio-friendly hits that haven't regularly been on the radio in almost 20 years. Of all the acts to break through during the golden area of radio pop-rock, nobody could have predicted this for the guys who introduced themselves to the world by singing "Do do do." When I bring this up, the singer takes the charm knob to 11.
"Well, first of all, thank you," he begins. "That made me feel really good. That actually, like, made me feel warm inside and I'm not kidding. I was listening to that and thought, 'Wow, that really does sound like an accomplishment,' and I never think of it that way. I think we think of ourselves as new and aspiring. We're always aspirational, we're always trying to get to some place. We're not nostalgic at all - we just don't have that in our nature. We're really about the connection that we're going to make now."
When I bring up his former contemporaries who have been criticized for capitalizing on an obsession with the past in recent years, what with summer package tours and casino-circuit gigs, I ask if that decision to avoid "nostalgia" was a conscious choice through the years.
"It's not that it's conscious, it just doesn't appeal to me," Jenkins responds, parsing his words carefully. "We were playing one of the very first shows of this tour. It was in Cleveland and we drove by the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and I thought, 'Huh. This is an art form that's about the present tense and rebellion from the older system and it's about forging a new identity, and we put it in a museum.' It just feels ... perhaps oxymoronic."
The tour Jenkins is referring to is the tour his band embarked on earlier this summer with Dashboard Confessional. On one hand, it made all the sense in the world: Third Eye Blind has been uniquely embraced by the same crowds you would find singing along to Chris Carrabba's most successful outlet (or, for that matter, the same crowds who know that aforementioned Brand New bridge); but on another hand, it's weird to think of 3EB sharing a bill with another nationally known name. Whenever the band has toured in recent years, it's rarely been with other artists who at one point shared the same Top 40 success Jenkins has experienced through his career.
But as the singer tells it, the trek with Dashboard has been a blessing. He's always had a great deal of respect for Carrabba, he insists, and the bands have grown into a kind of kinship while working together on the road. As an example, he relays stories about the age-old practice of clipping an opening band's sound to make the headliner appear better, louder, more full. None of that occurred this summer, Jenkins promises, and by all accounts, the marriage has been a match made in heaven. Actually, the experience has been so inspiring, it allows the singer to find a new appreciation for his music's ability to connect.
"This is just an amazing time to be in America," he begins. "The Confederate flag is coming down and that is a really important aspect for a unified country. I have this cousin, we knew he was gay when he was four: he was just gay, gay, gay. His family really loved him, so he had familial support, but with the culture as a whole, he felt less-than, he had to deal with issues of shame, and it's just a joy that he feels with this court decision. It's just great. And I look out at the audience. I really, really look at the audience. I'm not one of those people who glosses over; I very directly, soberly engage. I'm going to look you in the eye. And you can just see this summer of America getting better.
"I notice at our shows, there's more people of color," he continues. "There's kids of different ethnicities. There was this young, maybe 20-year-old lesbian couple, and they were right up front. They were so deep in the moment. I was like, 'That's our creed, right there. That's it. That's inclusive, and that thing, that thing I would understand.' So, everyone feels more themselves with these absurd lines and judgments erased. There's a song, 'Jumper', that's on my first record, and it turned out as kind of noir. I'm talking to a guy who jumped off a bridge and killed himself because he was gay, and the song is, this is what I would have said. It started as kind of a plea, but now, it's about a kind of arrival and I love that. Then, there's a song on the new album called 'Rites Of Passage', There's a line on it, 'This pain's the same for everyone. It's something you can't come back from.' So, I love being on tour with this new album. I find new ways in which songs resonate at this time."
And speaking of that new album: it's pretty good. If there's one thing Third Eye Blind stays true to, it's the consistent ability to evolve. 1997's debut was overflowing with pop-rock. Even the few songs that weren't monstrous singles like "I Want You", "London", and "Motorcycle Drive By" (to name a few) had such a sugary feel to them that whenever the group decides to play them in concert today, fans go crazy. To follow that up with 1999's Blue, an equally accessible record that saw the band move in more interesting directions ("Farther" might just be the best Stephan Jenkins song ever written), was a testament to the group's ambition. 2003's Out Of The Vein brought an even more pop-art-rock feel with tracks like "Faster" and "Danger", and then 2009's Ursa Major felt like the logical next step with tunes like "Sharp Knife" and even, in a weird way, single "Don't Believe A Word".
Dopamine continues that trend, all the while making a play for a more indie version of the band. "Everything Is Easy" is so straight forward and musically dour that it kind of makes you consider what The National would sound like if they were a Nine Days tribute act. "All The Souls" swings and shuffles in all the ways you might have thought Third Eye Blind never could. "Something In You" builds with a piano so well that it recalls the Fray's softer side, if only the Fray's softer side ever got cool. And then there's the Bowie references. The aforementioned "Rites Of Passage" (which is unfairly being criticized in some circles for its playfulness; one reviewer called it "the band’s most intolerable song since 'Non-Dairy Creamer', which isn't true at all) and second-to-last track "Exiles", which brings Ziggy Stardust into the mix, each explicitly reference the Brixton icon.
"I do love him so, I tell you," Jenkins admits when asked about the homage to the Thin White Duke. "I think he's the greatest rock star ever, so when I'm saying in this song, 'Get Me Out Of Here', 'Could be the greatest rock star ever,' I'm actually thinking of Bowie."
But did Bowie have a bigger influence on Dopamine than he did on any of the band's other albums?
"No, I think he's always been kind of an inspiration," the singer concludes. "On the first record, I think I thought a lot about Ziggy Stardust. I love British riff-rock and we actually wrote a lot of big riffs. But underneath that, I have this kind of singer-songwriter sensibility. Bowie was getting at some kind of artifice and isolation and identity. He was pure artifice, that was kind of his thing and that always fascinated me because that artifice would promote these really delicious emotions. These really palpable emotional responses. How he could do that was just beyond me. Still is."
Another thing that could perhaps be beyond Stephan Jenkins is another Third Eye Blind record (maybe more telling than anything he says comes when I ask him if he could change one thing on Dopamine, what would it be; he responds, in short manner, with this: "The whole album"). He's been saying for years now that his next set would be his last official full-length collection, and when I bring it up a few minutes into our conversation, he reacts as though it's old news.
"Yeah, in terms of an LP, yeah," Jenkins asserts. "I want to not make LPs. I want to just put music out. I want to put out more music more often. The thing is, I keep saying this, but then it's like, we'll see what happens. Maybe I'll just start doing EPs or I'll put out LPs post-facto. But what I don't want to do is save up. I wrote, probably, 45 songs for this album. What I want to do in the future is write a song, record it, don't over-think it, record it, give it to the universe and off you go."
Which, of course, contradicts everything then singer has been doing for his entire career. The only two Third Eye Blind records with less than four years between them are their first two, Third Eye Blind and Blue. Which, of course, underlines how precisely unpredictable Stephan Jenkins can be, at once telling me how much the record loves me back, before, 20 minutes later, telling me he'd change everything about it if he could. Such is kind of like losing your phone at a concert some people might be surprised to hear you attended. Or rambling on about how awful streaming services are before lauding Taylor Swift for standing up to them.
Or, for that matter, saying this after he's asked how the Brand New concert was the night before: "I really enjoyed it. I think the way the post-rock stuff goes over is better in small venues: they were in an arena. But other than that, it was great."
"Now," he goes on with an invisible wink, "I just left my hotel and I'm on my way to our arena."
The wind blows through his phone and into my ear. Off Stephen Jenkins goes. A semi-charmed life, indeed.