Jimmy Eat World (for Now)
One of rock’s longest running modern staples considers the future.
I've only got an hour booked with the members of Jimmy Eat World and our time has already been cut short by 15 minutes. Two of them—frontman Jim Adkins and guitarist Tom Linton—are holding court with a couple of label suits in the hallway of RCA Records' Madison Avenue office, bassist Rick Burch is still on his way over from his hotel, and so impressed with the size of the speakers in RCA's lounge is drummer Zach Lind that he has decided to see how Toto's "Africa" sounds on them at full volume, which I do not mind at all.
Over the soothing though shockingly loud sounds of African rains being blessed, I overhear the band chatting with the label folk about the big week they've got ahead of them promoting their forthcoming ninth album, Integrity Blues. In addition to the interview with that guy waiting a few feet away in the lounge (that's me!), they're making their first appearance on The Late Show since Stephen Colbert took over hosting duties, they're also guesting on a few notable podcasts, and have the usual onslaught of web, print, and radio phoners. So once I'm finally able to wrangle them into their seats in the space decorated to look like some sort of 1960s pop art rec room, I ask the only question that comes to me at the moment: Do you even like doing interviews?
A reasonable question, I think. After 23 years together, over which they've had to make the media rounds to promote nine albums, I can't imagine they still enjoy them, and I'm not naive enough to think I can hit them with something they've never been asked. So, be honest, I tell them: Do you even want to be doing this right now?
What I'm praying for is a hard "no"—that they hate these fucking things, and then we can kill the next 45 minutes talking about our favorite Toto songs. But what I expect is a bit of polished PR fibbery—that it's all part of promoting an album, one that they're very proud of and that they think is their best work yet! What I get, though, is something else entirely.
Adkins takes a deep breath as he runs the question through his mind. I'm sure there are plenty of memories stored up there of kids with recorders asking goofy questions about the acronym of his band's name and other nonsense. He leans forward in his bright purple retro chair, stroking at his freshly shaven chin for a few seconds. He's got the clean-cut good looks of a Hollywood actor who is destined to forever be cast as the nice guy in romantic comedies who gets left at the altar for the leading man. Looking me right in the eye, he says something surprisingly vulnerable.
"I don't know, man. You have to enjoy it, because it ends. There's gonna be a day when no one cares, and they'll be over it."
It's hard to even envision the end of the mighty Jimmy Eat World, one of rock music's longest running modern staples. They are rare survivors of late 2000s' major label apocalypse that purged the industry of everything but legacy artists and teen pop acts du jour. They are music industry veterans, having run through almost all of the big companies. Prior to RCA, they were at Interscope for three albums. Before that, they were on the now defunct DreamWorks. Before that, they had a couple of early records on Capitol. And prior to Capitol, they were just some punk teenagers from Mesa, Arizona.
They'll be the first to admit that it's a miracle they ever got signed in the first place. "When we started, we were kids, and really had no business being on a major label," says Adkins. In their senior year of high school in 1994, a bit of serendipity connected them to a scout from Capitol Records, who had gone to a show in LA to check out the band Sense Field, but fell in love with the opener, Christie Front Drive. The scout asked Christie Front Drive if they had any material he could check out, and they mentioned they were about to put out a split seven-inch with a little band from the Southwest called Jimmy Eat World. Not long after, two scouts showed up at a local show Jimmy Eat World was playing. "We figured at the worst, we'd have funny stories about going to LA," Adkins remembers of the courting process, but soon enough, the band was making deals in the big leagues.
The Jimmy Eat World the scouts were impressed with, though, was a band making a sound they were familiar with. At the time, the four-piece was influenced by acts like Face to Face, Propagandhi, and NOFX—the sort of fast-paced pop punk that was extremely profitable at the time following megasellers like Green Day's Dookie and the Offspring's Smash. But what they turned in for their major label debut, 1996's Static Prevails, sounded nothing like that. The guys had picked up a penchant for slower, more melodic bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Tortoise, and Seam, and their newfound influences showed on the album.
"I remember hearing that people at Capitol were bummed when we handed Static in," Linton remembers with a wince. "Just guys being like, 'Uh… this is a lot different than what we expected.'"
But while the album might not have been the breakout success the label had hoped for, Jimmy Eat World found an audience, one that grew larger with their sophomore Capitol release, Clarity, in which the band deepened their sound even further, adding fuller, orchestral elements, and setting the gold standard for sensitive emo albums that were to follow. But the label didn't have much use for bands making expansive masterpieces culminating with epic, 16-minute closers based on John Irving novels. (I had to ask, and the answer is no, Irving has never contacted them about the song.) The band and Capitol parted ways after its release.
"On the ground, it was a different story than what it looks like on paper," defends Adkins. "A lot of people think: 'So the story is, you put out a couple records for Capitol, you didn't go anywhere, and you got dropped. Were you so bummed?' That's not what was happening. We would get offers to open up for bigger and bigger bands, we'd headline and come back to cities and there would be more people. From our perspective, the whole thing has been this upward trajectory."
Without the backing of a label, they recorded their most straightforward rock album, 2001's Bleed American, on their own, and eventually teamed up with DreamWorks for its release. It became a phenomenon, selling over a million and a half copies, due largely to its single "The Middle." Right now, somewhere in the world, a radio station is playing "The Middle." It's been used in video games, Jack Black movies, and Kidz Bop covers. The song recently bumped back onto the Billboard charts after Taylor Swift sang along to it in an Apple Music commercial, in which she joked that she "used to listen to this song in middle school." (When asked about this use of the song, Lind says: "However our music connects with people, we're happy it connects. We don't care how, or with who, or in what context.")
Given its exhaustive commercial uses over the years, it's impossible to even judge "The Middle" objectively anymore, though seeing as how it appears on an otherwise flawless album, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. But quality aside, the song's success essentially ensured that Jimmy Eat World would have a career for as long as they want to play music together, even as the industry around them crumbles.
Caught in the death spiral of physical sales, Jimmy Eat World has seen diminishing returns since Bleed American. Their solid follow-up, Futures, sold half the copies Bleed American did, and the following release, Chase This Light, sold half of that. But as Adkins said, the story on the ground is different than the one on paper. The band can still play to a sold-out crowd in any city they want. They've still got a devoted fanbase, and while their fans can play favorites with their records, the band makes the albums they want to make, evolving their sound slightly with each release, even now.
"We know full well that Integrity Blues is an album that not everyone is gonna like, not even our most hardcore fans. It's ridiculous to expect them to like everything you do," says Adkins. "If you're making your creative choices based on some imaginary listener's opinion, then you're compromising what you're trying to do, and I guarantee it's not going to be satisfying in the end."
Jimmy Eat world is a band that has won the game by staying the course. They don't compromise on their art, they don't much care how fans or critics will judge their output, and they release a new album every three years like clockwork. Like the Super Bowl or diabetes, Jimmy Eat World is a reliable American institution.
I ask Adkins how much longer they think they can keep it up.
"I don't think we spend a lot of time thinking about: What are we going to be doing? How long is it going to last?" he says. "I think we just take the next step."
It's nearing the end of our hour together so my photographer asks them to pose for a few quick photos. Adkins stands up and puts on his vintage navy blue jacket, carefully straightening the collar and folding out the creases on the front. The guys take directions like old hands, standing exactly where he wants them and smiling when they're supposed to. In total, they bang the shots out in less than five minutes.
As soon as the last flash of the camera hits them, their tour manager rushes them off because it's well past noon and they've got more appointments lined up and plenty of people waiting to talk to them. Maybe one day they won't, but not today.
Dan Ozzi is but one small instrument. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi
All photos by Mitchell Wojcik.