Clarity prevails

Jimmy Eat World proves you can make a good record for a major label after all

For a long time, Jimmy Eat World singer-guitarist Jim Adkins didn't believe Capitol Records was really going to release his band's new album, Clarity. Even after the album was added to the label's official release schedule and the masters had been sent to the pressing plant, Adkins wasn't convinced. Why would they bother? he wondered, skeptical of the intentions of the same label that had given up on the band's previous disc, 1996's Static Prevails, before it even hit stores. It just didn't make sense to him that Capitol was willing to try again, especially after the label gave away more copies of Static Prevails than it had actually sold.

For three years, Adkins expected a phone call that never came, one informing him that the band's services were no longer required, that it had all been some horrible mistake in the first place. After all, when your band is less of a priority at a record label than the company softball team, all you can do is prepare for the inevitable. And even when Jimmy Eat World got the green light to record Clarity, he figured it had a better chance of being shelved in the office of some executive at Capitol than it did in a record store.

Yet there they were, in the stockroom of a Tower Records store in Los Angeles, a stack of thin cardboard boxes packed with shrink-wrapped copies of Clarity, less than a week before the scheduled February 23 release date. After three years of waiting on nothing and getting just that, Adkins was at long last able to let his guard down, the excitement of finally holding a copy of Clarity in his own hands--with Capitol's familiar logo on the back--overshadowing whatever remaining doubts he had.

"I've been sort of not getting my hopes up, because, I don't know, I've heard so many horror stories about bands recording their record and then the label sitting on it for so long, like a year, and it just getting shelved," Adkins says. "So I've been biding my time and not really getting too stoked about it. You know, we sold a good amount of records for us, but for major-label standards, [Static Prevails] didn't sell anything. I was kind of skeptical they'd want to keep us around. But yesterday, we came to the Tower here, and there were the physical copies of it, so I was like, 'Yes, it will happen.'"

A few minutes before this interview, Adkins was in the office of Capitol publicist Donna Salazar doing jumping jacks, trying to expend some of the nervous energy he'd been stockpiling in the weeks leading up to Clarity's release. When he speaks now, he's giddy, punctuating practically ever sentence with "I'm so happy to finally have a new record," almost sounding as though he's still trying to convince himself.

It's hard not to share his enthusiasm, because Clarity is an astonishing record--pop but not in a radio-friendly way, rock that's turned down but not off. The album is a million miles away from the band's first self-titled record in 1994 (released on some friends' label, Wooden Blue Records), a disc that may as well have been recorded by Green Day. Clarity is not only proof of how far Jimmy Eat World has come, but also proof of how far it can go, full of quiet-loud gems that owe more to Bedhead than the Descendents or anyone else, a reference that would have been meaningless four years ago. And judging by some of the songs that didn't make it onto the album--songs the band unveiled at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton last November--Clarity is only the beginning.

Until a few weeks ago, though, it seemed like the end. Adkins and and his bandmates--guitarist Tom Linton, drummer Zach Lind, and bassist Rick Burch--had always felt like uninvited guests at Capitol, especially after president Gary Gersh left the company. Since the beginning, it never seemed like they were really even on the label. Capitol publicists hesitated when asked about the band, as though the name didn't ring any bells, until they were gently reminded that the label had released a record by the group in 1996. And finding the band's page on Capitol's Web site practically required filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act: The band wasn't even listed on the roster of bands posted on the site.

Not only that, but Jimmy Eat World and Capitol had so many clashes during the recording of Static Prevails, it was a wonder either side would want to work together again. Before the band set foot into a studio, the label forced it into a rehearsal space in Los Angeles with orders to write a few new songs and rewrite some others under the guidance of a producer the label hired. Then Capitol nixed the band's original choice to produce the album, Drive Like Jehu drummer Mark Trombino, in favor of the hotshot production team of Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who had worked with the Toadies, Foo Fighters, and Beck, among others. The band eventually won, sort of, finishing the album with Trombino and then-labelmate Wes Kidd of Triplefastaction. But Capitol insisted on bringing in Rothrock and Schnapf to mix the two songs the label planned on releasing to alternarock radio, "Rockstar" and "Seventeen," pushing the vocals so high up in the mix that they almost came out of the top. Not that it mattered much.

Capitol didn't try very hard to find the band a home on the radio, apart from including a couple of songs on the samplers the label sent to programming directors. It was all part of the slow development process they had in mind for Jimmy Eat World, a grassroots marketing scheme that would win the band a following through constant touring. Well, at least that's what they said. Paired with a complete lack of promotion, the plan looked more like Capitol cutting its losses than anything else, ignoring the band until it finally went away. Other than sending out advance copies of Static Prevails to press and radio and shooting a video for "Rockstar," Capitol treated Jimmy Eat World like the band was on a rival label.

At first, Adkins had enjoyed Jimmy Eat World's low-priority status at Capitol; there was less pressure to perform when the label didn't expect you to. Besides, they hadn't agreed to a deal with Capitol so they could become stars. All they wanted was to get out of Arizona, and the contract they signed in 1995 gave them enough money and a van to do just that, as well as the opportunity to record in a real studio for the first time. Adkins and the band were just kids then, none of them out of his teens. They were happy enough seeing new cities, playing to new crowds. But after a while, the new cities became old, and so did the record they were touring to support.

"You can only go to those places so many times," Adkins admits. "You can only tour so much on one record, you know? Even if you're opening for somebody and no one's there to see you anyway. You know, we'd pretty much sold the record to everyone who was going to buy a copy."

After several treks across the country in Capitol's new van, the band decided to return to the studio to begin work on a follow-up to Static Prevails, again tapping Trombino to produce. This time, Capitol let the band do what it wanted with Trombino in his studio, leaving the band alone until it finished the album. Thrilled with its new freedom--and possibly not realizing that Capitol didn't interfere because it didn't care--Jimmy Eat World made a studio album, not just a document of its live sound. With Trombino's help, the band let its imagination run wild, resulting in songs like Clarity's epic album closer "Goodbye Sky Harbor," a 16-minute spiderweb of intertwining guitars and vocals with a finale that sounds as if it were remixed by Aphex Twin, all furious drum loops and electronic bells and whistles.

"We just really dig playing that riff," Adkins says. "And it seemed like it just let itself go on for a while. When we were in the studio with Mark Trombino talking about what we could do with it, we pretty much decided to use a whole reel of tape just for that, and you know, we'll figure something out." Adkins laughs. "Over the time span we were recording, we just kept adding stuff and adding stuff, and it just got really ridiculous. It was basically because we could, you know?"

As much of a step as it is for the band, "Goodbye Sky Harbor," along with a handful of other songs on Clarity, wasn't originally intended to be performed by Jimmy Eat World. Adkins wrote the songs with a new band in mind, a six-member group that never got off the ground. But even though the band failed before it ever had a chance, it had the biggest hand in shaping Clarity's sound. In fact, Clarity might not exist if Adkins' other band did.

"We never had one practice," Adkins says. "Trying to coordinate a band practice with six people is just ridiculous. It was supposed to be a six-person band with really quiet, really stripped-down stuff. Everyone's playing really simple parts, but it's layered, the kind of stuff like Bedhead does, you know, with their three guitars. So I had six or seven songs that had vocals; they were finished, and I had no home for them."

Those songs found a home, and so has Jimmy Eat World, finally starting to get comfortable in its digs at Capitol. The label has already shown more support for Clarity than it ever did with Static Prevails, managing to land the album's first single, "Lucky Denver Mint," on radio stations across the country, including Los Angeles' influential KROQ-FM, which holds more sway over programming directors than does any chart Billboard has ever compiled. Looking back, Adkins holds no grudges with Capitol's initial treatment of his band. It was the only way out of Mesa, Arizona, for him and his high school buddies, and he'd do it all over again.

"At the time we were posed with the option to do it, none of us had money to tour," Adkins remembers. "We didn't have a van. We weren't successful enough nationally where it would make sense for us to buy a van. No one knew who we were. We did it so we could tour and record for real. I don't know by whose doing it was, but we sort of crept in here, kind of had a low profile for a while. Which was nice. We were given the chance to be a developing band on a major label, which seems like a rarity now. I totally don't want to be one of these bands that comes out of nowhere and then you don't hear from them again ever."

Jimmy Eat World performs on March 6 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios. At the Drive-In and Post From Vermont open.

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