Rank Your Records: Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins Rates the Band's Four Albums
How's it gonna be, Stephan?
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Third Eye Blind was a band that was supposed to die off quickly in the 1990s. Five singles off their first self-titled release, was in some ways a kiss a death. No way they could continue that pace or live up to expectations after hits “Semi-Charmed Life” and “Jumper,” the latter of which the record label suits wanted off the album, by the way. Most thought the band was destined for cruise ships and state fairs. Not in the least for the band.
Arguably the stalwarts of the alternative radio heyday, Third Eye Blind has built a solid fanbase that follows them to this day from the hits on the first album, Blue, to their latest release Dopamine, their first album in six years.
To celebrate the release of Dopamine, we had frontman Stephan Jenkins look back at the band’s last four records that have been released over the last 18 years.
Noisey: Ready to rank your records?
Stephan Jenkins: I ranked them, but I have one thing to take issue with, which is that we couldn't include EPs. The Red Star EP, I really liked. I love the song “Red Star.” It's a very political song. It's imagining living in the right-wing Cheney regime, reimagining living in East Berlin under Stalin. So that was kind of the story under it, and about keeping a hold of your voice in the face of opposition. I kind of felt like we pulled that off on that one. Even the reverb on it sounds like sounds reverberating off the concrete in Berlin. But we've never been able to pull it off live. We're hoping to make a live EP on this tour. And one of the things I want to do with the EP is songs that really never went very far out there in the soundscape. So we started to play “Red Star.” And it's only on this tour we've been able to make it happen live, I think.
4. Out of the Vein (2003)
You said to me earlier, “This is a painful album about being underprepared and losing my way, which is probably why other people like it.” Pain is a great source for musical output.
Yeah. I had come up in the music scene for a really long time and really struggled for a long, long time before my first album came out. And I didn’t have any expectations on it. I was living, I had five roommates, one bathroom, like most people living in San Francisco. And everything just kind of blew up, and I went on this change in tempo of my life. In every aspect of my life, the tempo just went chaotic, into hyper-drive. And I couldn’t keep up with that tempo. A friend said, musicians, they either die or stall out at 27, which I think is kind of great. And it lasted through the second record, through Blue. And at the end of the song “Forget Myself,” I say, “This is not my life, or maybe it is, I keep on forgetting myself.” At the time, when I wrote that, I didn't really think anything of it. But I think that's actually a pretty accurate assessment of where I was at. Just totally disconnected. That album was very much a post-relationship album. But it's also, I think, a real reassessment of my life and what I was about.
Being a part of the label merger, what things were missed on this album?
The week of the release coincided with the implosion of Elektra Records. The other thing was we were going to stay committed to this kind of indie songwriting, trying to get at some core authenticity. That was the genesis of the band. And I think there was always a battle with that, with the record label. I think there was always a fundamental wrestling match going on about what the identity of the band was.
You played all these shows forever, you're out there, have all these singles, and then you're doing what you're always doing, but then you have this added pressure.
Right. I don’t do very well with that kind of pressure, actually. Some people do much better. I'm vulnerable to it. And it's not a conducive environment for creativity, I don’t think. I think Picasso said the greatest enemy to creativity is good taste. So imposing taste on yourself is not helpful. I think the right attitude and making music, especially rock music, is you just kind of hock it out there and it needs to be a fearless kind of un-self-conscious offering. I've had struggles with that.
That album, when we play live, has so many songs that our audience really cares about and really needs to hear. We have become a playlist. Most of our audience wasn't even around for our MTV stuff. So they don’t have a date stamp on any of this, and they don’t have any kind of ranking that has been brought to them by a marketing department. It's just a playlist that they trade with each other. That's how they look at it. That's how they view it on their screen. So when we play live it's really based on how this group of millennials, even the Gen-Zs trade them with each other.
They've listened to it without any context.
Right, and there's something enormously positive about that for us. I've never felt more comprehended in my whole life. People get Out of the Vein and they find things that matter to them. They found their way to that, without being told or escorted or anything else. My connection to the audience is actually much closer now. Exactly. They're not being told, there's no self-proclaimed arbiter telling them what to think, the formation of their response is coming from their actual encounter with a song.
3. Ursa Major (2009)
Next up, Ursa Major, you said. “The reason it isn't higher on my list is because I got talked into having the Third Eye Blind larger and in oxblood on the front cover. I really wish Third Eye Blind was the same size.” That intuition thing. Talk about that for a little bit.
I felt like I took “Blinded” too far in the production, and over-thought it and over-did it. Now we play it live sometimes and I like it much better live. So that was an example of me not trusting that initial impulse or intuition. I'm thinking about Ursa Major, it's such a minor thing, but the thing is, I'm presented with people to sign our records, so they'll pull out Ursa Major and it'll bring me back, and I'll see “Third Eye Blind” on there, and think, “Why didn't you just leave it small?” It's funny because it's kind of petty, but that's what I think of, man.
You told me you were most proud of “Why Can't You Be?” and “Dao of St. Paul.” Why did those songs stick out to you from that record?
I think that there are some moments in both of those songs where, when I listen back to it, I go, “Wow, I think maybe you gave away more of yourself than you possibly realize.” I like the fearlessness of it. I think there's something erotic in the fearlessness of rock and roll, when it's not being exhibitionist, but there can be some humble moments of being revealing. And you're eligible to honestly connect with other people. And I said, I confess happiness eludes me in my life.
What are some songs you dig off Ursa Major?
I think Ursa Major was probably my most outwardly political record. Usually it's more internal politics, it's more emotional politics, it's more internal landscapes. “Ever Get the Feeling That You've Been Cheated,” that was written when Obama was running for President, and I was actually campaigning for Obama at the time, I was campaigning for Obama in Pennsylvania. And then I did a fundraiser for him at the Iowa caucus, and got to meet him for 15 minutes.
What did you talk about?
I said, “You're going to win. You're going to be the next President of the United States. And you need to believe it, and say it.” And then I pointed it to the audience, I said, “then they'll believe it and they'll say it.”
2. Third Eye Blind (1997)
The self-titled. You said to me that “the album was all about trusting my intuition in the face of a whole lot of folks saying don’t trust your intuition.”
Yes, there's trust in intuition on that record. I recorded “Semi Charmed Life” five times, because it never sounded right to me. And, you know, when I made the demos for the record, the demos were mostly the album. I shopped the record first to a record company, and the president of the record company said that song is too meandering. The song “Semi Charmed Life” is meandering; it goes all over the place. And they wanted us to change it and I was like, no, I don’t want to change it. And then when we put the record out he said there was too many songs on the record. There were 13 songs. They said, “You really should cut that song ‘Jumper.’”
I hope that person's fired. What's crazy is to have five singles, all these things happening with these songs. What song, other than the five singles, if you had to pick, what was your favorite?
I think it was “God of Wine,” really. I think “God of Wine” was my favorite on that record. For a whole bunch of reasons. It's the one we finish shows with, always. I love Jane's Addiction’s first record, they make these big, big landscapes with really simple kinds of stuff. And that was kind of an influence then. And “God of Wine” was a song that came together very quickly, I sat down with a legal pad on the floor, on this dirty carpet floor of our rented rehearsal studio, you know? Really raw conditions. And I wrote it out. For some reason there's this kind of attractiveness in people who have this deep internal sense of the ever-disintegrating nature, it's kind of an existentialist song. It's as close as I ever got to processing existentialism, because it's all talking about yourself, drinking yourself into oblivion, how the alcohol explodes your brain cells. But then also on a planetary level, our universe is disintegrating.
Was there one moment about this success that stuck out? Was it opening for U2, was it MTV?
I was living in a space that was draped off in the house with all my roommates and we were playing stadiums with U2 and I was walking down the back of a stadium, and I was just not prepared for any of this. And there's the Edge, and was I was a little kid he was a giant figure, and he knew my name. I just looked at him and I was like, how the fuck do you know my name?
But I think before that, I was driving a friend's car, because I didn’t have a car, and I was on the Bay Bridge, going from Oakland to San Francisco, where I live, and I heard our song on the radio for the first time. I didn't even know how I felt about it, I was just like, wow. It just didn't even really compute. And then almost two years later, we had just finished tour, it was the last show in Santa Barbara, the County Bowl or something like that, that amphitheater. And I was driving, I had rented a car and I was going to drive back after the tour to LA. And I was driving, the tour was over, and I was by myself, and there's this fold when you come into Ventura County. The ocean opens up on your right, like this massive god right there. When you see that immensity, I had this moment of... I had been trying, I had been striving for something, like that's all I had been doing for two years, and the two years before that, and the two years before that. And it was over. And it felt like a marker of time and I think a lot of times in our life we don’t have those markers of time, to say: This is it.
1. Blue (1999)
That leads into the number one choice for you, Blue. Why is this your number one record?
It's funny because Dopamine and the self-titled were very carefully recorded records on analog and using all my skills recording that I've developed. I've been in the recording studio since I was 15. And in Blue we use Pro Tools and I think the sound suffered between records. But we didn’t really worry so much about the sound. We felt like we could do whatever we wanted. We recorded it at the plant where Fleetwood Mac recorded their album, they recorded Rumors there. And there were multiple studios in the place. And at one point we had all of them going. We had each studio. And I was living in a houseboat, because I wanted to be separated out. A song like “Red Summer Sun” was a ridiculous jam that didn't have that critic in my head. I just kind of did it.
A sense of freedom.
For some reason, I don’t know why, maybe because I was in that same mindset where I wasn't thinking of what was expected of me, you know? So that was really fun to make.
Being that Blue was number one for you, but also the follow-up to a really successful record, and you said that you had this sense of freedom, were there still pressures that you faced from either the label or management or everybody? Or were you completely free because of all the success of the previous record?
I think we were under a lot of pressure and we weren't aware of it. I think they were pressuring the bejeezus out of us, and we were really good at not listening. Completely, you're talking at me and it's basically like, the teacher in Peanuts, womp womp womp womp womp. So they didn’t get in with a bunch of songwriters and producers and anything like that. It was a lot of me dicking around in the studio, is really what it was.
Tom Mullen is on semi-charmed Twitter.