American Beauty

Jimmy Eat World should have broken up two years ago. But they're just getting started.

You've heard the story so often, it may as well have happened to you. And maybe it did. Young band, barely out of high school, gets signed to a major-label recording contract. Releases a pair of solid albums--adventurous by major-label standards, good-to-great by anyone's--yet is ignored almost from the moment it set the pen down. Is given its walking papers after spending a few years as little more than a tax write-off with a pulse. Blah blah blah. The end.

Here's a story you may not have heard as much. Young band is actually happy to be released from its contract. Thrilled, even. Decides to fund a new album out of its own pocket, working construction jobs and the like in the meantime. New album is so good, the same people who ignored the band the first time around beg for another chance. One of the main villains from its former label ends up managing it. One-time villain gets the band a bigger, better contract with another major label. We're talking several albums, several million. New album sells more copies than the other two combined. Blah blah blah. The end? No. The beginning.

But, see, even though that's an interesting story, the kind of against-all-odds tale of perseverance that would make for a good band biopic (the pitch: It's like Rocky III meets Almost Famous, crossed with Airheads, with a Gen-Y slant, youknowwhatImean?), there's more to Jimmy Eat World than that. Of course there is. It doesn't really matter that the quartet--singer-guitarist Jim Adkins, bassist Rick Burch, drummer Zach Lind and guitarist Tom Linton--were signed then singed by Capitol Records, or how they fought their way back. It doesn't matter how they got to their new self-titled album for DreamWorks. All that matters is they got there.

The kids are all right: Jimmy Eat World found new life  where most bands usually find the end of their careers.
The kids are all right: Jimmy Eat World found new life where most bands usually find the end of their careers.

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Because who cares about contracts and sales figures and all of that anyway? It's the kind of boardroom intrigue that makes for a good book (A&R by Bill Flanagan, available at a bookstore near you), but it doesn't make the songs on Jimmy Eat World any better or worse, unless, of course, they were actually about that sort of thing. (Thankfully, they're not.) Lyrically and musically, it's an album about focusing on what's important and forgetting what's not. As in: Relationships with people are more important than relationships with labels, and guitars, bass and drums have more to do with rock music than samplers and drum machines. Best example: "A Praise Chorus," where Adkins sings, "I'm on my feet/I'm on the floor/I'm good to go/All I need just to hear a song I know," and then the band provides him with just that. It's a song that makes you fall in love with rock and roll all over again.

There are plenty of other songs on Jimmy Eat World that do the same thing: "The Authority Song," cribbing its title and melody from John Mellencamp; "The Middle," a girl-it's-gonna-be-OK fight song that's strong enough for a man but made for a woman; "Sweetness," which finds a way to say what it wants to with music "when words lose their meaning"; "If You Don't, Don't," the kind of love-lost song that will end up on post-breakup mix tapes for the rest of the decade. There are plenty of glances to the past, but they're only there to make sure everyone is keeping up, that no one is hanging too far back. It's modern rock, but not the bastardization of the term that radio station programmers have been trotting out for the past decade. Meaning, this is what rock and roll should sound like in 2001, a logical progression, the next phrase that goes after the comma that was the millennium.

Since its release in July, some have said that Jimmy Eat World is a departure for the band, but that's only true if you haven't listened to their two previous discs for Capitol, 1996's Static Prevails and 1999's Clarity. Listened to in order, Static Prevails and Clarity act as signposts for what you hear on Jimmy Eat World.

"I think Clarity sounds just as different from Static Prevails as Bleed American does to Clarity," Lind says, on the phone from a Seattle hotel room. "I think it's just a matter of trying to keep ourselves entertained, and trying to avoid getting bored with what we do. I think that's the main reason why it changes up a little bit. It's not really forced. We don't really censor ourselves a whole lot. I mean, you have to at some point, but there's not very often where we think, 'We can't do that, because that doesn't sound like us.' We just go ahead and do it anyway, because we think, you know, it's a decent song."

The band may not censor itself often, but sometimes, the choice is taken out of their hands. Originally released as Bleed American, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, all future pressings of Jimmy Eat World's latest album will now only bear the band's name.

"For us, it wasn't really that big of a deal," Adkins says, a couple of weeks earlier, during the band's recent European tour. "I didn't think we were compromising anything artistically by just calling our record Jimmy Eat World." He lets out a small laugh. "It's kind of an unfortunate by-product of everything that now things that maybe seem critical are kind of being looked at differently, when I think the most American thing you can do is stand up and disagree and be OK to do that. The music's the same--that's the big deal. We're not going in and removing lyrics or anything, taking out guitar parts."

In the aftermath of September 11, radio station program directors did remove the band's lyrics and took out its guitar parts: "Bleed American," the disc's first single and erstwhile title track, was almost universally dropped from playlists, and even the few holdouts stopped saying the title on-air. Though the lyrics look questioningly at American life, the only real reason the song was pulled out of rotation was because no one wanted to hear someone say "bleed" or "American" in the same sentence--and it's never uttered once in the actual song--unless they were watching CNN. It looked as though the band, finally enjoying a hit song, would once again have its career stalled by unfortunate timing, factors beyond its control.

It had happened before, though not under such extreme circumstances. "Lucky Denver Mint," a song from Clarity, became a minor hit when Los Angeles' powerhouse radio station KROQ-FM (whose playlist is something of a crib sheet for stations across the country) decided to put the tune into heavy rotation. Only problem was, Capitol Records, the band's then-label, had not yet decided to release the album. Once Capitol finally got around to doing it a few months later, it was too late to capitalize on the success of the song, and even its appearance on the soundtrack to the Drew Barrymore vehicle Never Been Kissed couldn't save Clarity or the band.

It was just the latest in a long line of disappointments the band had endured during its stint on Capitol. "It's sad to say, but when 'Lucky Denver Mint' got played on KROQ, it was probably the first time a lot of people at Capitol had heard us," Lind told Phoenix New Times earlier this year. "The only time anyone from the label ever came down while we were making the album was the day there was a photo shoot for Billboard...We had to get off Capitol. We just had to."

Although most bands would take the news that they were being released from their recording contract as a sign that their career was spinning out of control, for Jimmy Eat World, it was the first sign that their career was finally back in control. More important, it was back in their control. They spent half a decade watching how the business worked--and all too often, didn't work--and now they were in a position to make it work for them. Lind became the group's de facto manager, and they began working on a new record with longtime producer Mark Trombino, paying for it themselves. It was a long learning process, but those lessons had suddenly made Jimmy Eat World the smartest kids in class.

"Before that, we didn't really know a whole lot about how things went," Lind says, referring to the band's first couple of years with Capitol. "Once we got off Capitol, it was the first time we were able to deal with it on our own terms and make decisions where we didn't really have to consider anyone else, and just consider our own well-being."

Soon enough, the group had some industry heavy-hitters considering their well-being as well. Specifically, G.A.S. Entertainment, the management team responsible for guiding the careers of everyone from the Beastie Boys to Sonic Youth to Beck. G.A.S. is headed by John Silva and Gary Gersh, who was president of Capitol Records when the group signed with the label. (As for why they decided to partner up with a man they once partly held responsible for their disastrous relationship with Capitol, Lind has said, "They make sure that their bands can have careers beyond one song or one album.") And Gersh wasn't the only one who eventually rethought his original position on the band: During the bidding war that erupted around the band when G.A.S. began making the rounds with copies of the new album, Capitol pleaded to meet with the group. Not surprisingly, that meeting never happened.

The band eventually signed with DreamWorks, and now, with almost 200,000 copies sold of Jimmy Eat World and several more high-profile tours on the way, Jimmy Eat World is finally right where it should have been all along. But Lind and the band don't think much about that sort of thing. What happened in the past is in the past, and the future is too far away to think about. All that counts is the present. And they're happy with that.

"Definitely, it's gone really well so far," Lind says. "We definitely don't have any complaints. You try not to really worry about that. On one hand, you sort of have to worry about it, because it's kind of like, you know, it's definitely better for our career the better it sells. At the same time, you don't really have very much control over it. You just keep on working hard, and whatever happens, happens."

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