Learning As They Go
From the outside, Jimmy Eat World's studio in Tempe, Arizona, looks like another sterile office space in a quiet business complex. But walk through the entrance, and it becomes a surprisingly cozy rock-and-roll den. There's enough cushy seating for a decent-sized party, and instruments are strewn everywhere--a drum kit in the corner, a piano across the room, guitars propped up in nooks. Egg-crate foam and silver foil insulation blanket the high ceilings, and heavy, wine-colored velvet curtains drape the walls. These guys could make a hell of a racket, and no one would ever know.
It's early October, and Jimmy Eat World is about to release its fifth album, Futures. And even though they've been playing together for a decade now, they're still learning as they go. Drummer Zach Lind sits down at a computer in the middle of the studio and plays U2's recently released "Vertigo" through powerful speakers. Front man Jim Adkins sinks into a couch, and his face narrows into focus. Neither one speaks until the song is finished, and even then, they still seem to be processing it.
Maybe this is because, while U2 is a supergroup to the rest of us, the band is a peer to Jimmy Eat World as well as a label mate. And these guys are serious about absorbing the lessons of other successful bands. U2's "Vertigo" may have skyrocketed on the Billboard modern rock singles chart, but so has Jimmy Eat World's first single, "Pain," which at this moment is perched at an impressive No. 7 slot after only six weeks on the chart. Following up a platinum-selling album with a new full-length and a new single is daunting, but so far, so good.
"That's the best reaction we've gotten from a single, ever--at least initially," Lind says. "'The Middle' took longer." Back in 2002, that infectiously cheerful single from Jimmy Eat World (originally released as Bleed American before September 11, 2001, but later renamed) took twice as long to break the top 10 and boosted the band from solid success to real stardom. Another hit followed, "Sweetness," which kept the ball rolling. In all, Jimmy Eat World sold more than 1.3 million copies and fueled the band through two years of steady touring.
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"Our schedule became exponentially busier as time went on with the last record," Adkins says. "So when it was getting closer to the time when we needed to be thinking about making a new record, there was no time to be thinking about making a new record."
By the time Jimmy Eat World came back to Arizona after so much time on the road, there were three years' worth of song ideas to be fleshed out. Universal Music Group absorbed the band's record label, DreamWorks, in January 2004, but it apparently didn't become a stumbling block. By February, the guys were ready to start making Futures for Interscope. They began recording in L.A., did the bulk of their work in Tucson and returned to L.A. to finish the project in June. The result--immediately apparent on the opening title track--is a bigger, more textured rock sound that retains Jimmy Eat World's irresistible, anthemic harmonies but favors sophistication over simplicity.
"Our last album was definitely more concise--probably our most upbeat album, musically. And I think if you compare it to this album, this album has a little bit more depth, and it's maybe on the whole just a darker album. Especially the second half of the album is more atmospheric, and it doesn't really match up with a song like 'The Middle,'" Lind says. "But if you listen to the middle section of Clarity (the band's third album), it's very much related to that. And on a whole, I think it's very representative of what we've done in the past but with a little bit more seriousness."
Adkins says the band does take itself more seriously now and holds itself to much higher standards. Bassist Rick Burch pipes up to add that they no longer have day jobs and can focus on music every day. And Lind explains that on Futures, they put more energy into experimenting with new ideas and trying out different ways to make each song the best it could be. "We hit all the dead ends that we could possibly hit with all the songs," he says.
The recording and mixing process offered even more ways to play with the sound.
"Like that song on the new album, 'Drugs or Me,'" says Lind of track seven--a stunner that builds from white noise and keys into a symphonic plea of harmonies and strings ("You promise, you promise you're done/But I can't tell you from the drugs"). "To me, that song didn't even really take life until it was mixed. We had all these elements like recorded strings, but it never really sounded like the song until it was mixed, and that was the final stage of the record when it actually made sense. That sort of song is a testament to that kind of approach, where you don't totally have to have it figured out. Just a simple feedback track gives it a creepy kind of tension."
It has, for the most part, paid off. By year's end, Futures had received positive reviews in Rolling Stone and The New York Times and charted in Spin and Blender's best albums of 2004. Maybe the eternal lost boys have finally grown up.
Elefant, Reubens Accomplice Elefant is a stylish group of New York guitar rockers whose front man, Diego Garcia, a well-dressed slice of retro beefcake, may just be able to compete with The Strokes' Julian Casablancas for twentysomething attention. Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid, the band's just-reissued debut, is pretty light on the tunes (especially for a band opening for Jimmy Eat World) but features plenty of spindly guitar sounds, tasty new-wave bass lines and Garcia's disheveled croon. Reubens Accomplice, from the same Arizona scene as Jimmy Eat World, plays likably cluttered guitar pop that Pete Yorn fans could impress their pals with. --Mikael Wood
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