Third Eye Blind Lives the Semi-Charmed Life of the Rock 'N' Roll Holdout
Stephan Jenkins and Third Eye Blind have never strayed too far from the formula that made them famous in the 1990s.
For a band whose earliest incarnation dates back to 1993, Third Eye Blind have experienced a ridiculous amount of change in their 18-year history. The band has undergone personnel shake-ups that could have tanked a lesser act’s success. But Third Eye Blind have been fiercely devoted to making the music they wanted to make ever since the release of their self-titled debut in 1997.
The strife has taken its toll, the band says. The 2015 release of Dopamine, the band’s first album since 2009’s Ursa Major, didn’t come quickly or easily.
"We had personnel changes in the band, and it takes a while to sync and get empathy going with musicians,” says Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins, in anticipation of the band's appearance at the Dallas Observer St. Patrick's Day Concert on March 19. “I wanted to write all new music. One thing after another piled up on us.”
Jenkins’ energetic and pensive songwriting has been Third Eye Blind’s one constant throughout the years. Nearly every song on each of Third Eye Blind’s releases has been penned by Jenkins. But the lyrics on Dopamine took a while to hone. “The initial impulse of the songs came super naturally and quickly. They were super fun to write,” he says. “But you’ve got this initial impulse, and then you feel like you’ve been dribbling the ball for a long time. When do I finally score the damn basket? That can be a problem.”
As such, some of the songs took him more than a year to complete. “I wrote 'Shipboard Cook' really quickly and it had this nice flow, but the chorus stumped me for a long time,” says Jenkins. “It’s all about the words to me, so it’s very easy for me to get stuck for a long time.”
To speak with Jenkins is to thoroughly understand his obsession with words. He speaks excitedly, but with measure, searching quietly to find just the right phrasing. In the end, though, the songs were finished. “You keep coming back to it, and you stay open and vulnerable to it, and then there’s this moment where some amount of trust in yourself and a lack of self-judgment kicks in,” Jenkins says. “You just go, ‘Fuck it, that’s what I’m saying.’ That’s where writers need to live. It’s the rock 'n' roll mentality. You have to just be able to huck it out there without self-judgment or fear of judgment from others.”
That fearlessness, in some part, comes from the massive success that Third Eye Blind saw in the 1990s with singles like “Jumper” and “Semi-Charmed Life.” That success came with expectations, but it gave Jenkins an entirely different perspective. “It has been intimidating, but success has opened these paths and given me a new confidence in myself,” he says. “I’m much happier as a person and in a much more wholesome state, so I feel a lot more confident. More so than ever in my whole life, I giveth not one fuck.”
That giveth-no-fucks persona translates into Jenkins’ stage show. “When we play, there’s this danger that we could fuck the whole thing up, or we could fly,” he says. “We have to live our lives in alignment with that moment. I think the reason we have the longevity that we’ve had and the audience we’ve kept is because people know we have this spontaneity and risk that creates a sense of aliveness.” Or, more accurately, the feeling of, “Oh fuck, what’s going to happen next?”
That exact question is one that could be asked of rock music’s future. Guitar-driven rock has all but disappeared from the mainstream pop conversation, and mainstream rock successes like Third Eye Blind have been incredibly rare after the early 2000s. “We are a guitar rock band. When we play, we don’t have any sequencers or a backing track,” he says. “Pretty much every band you’ll see at every festival this summer is playing along with an Apple computer."
Despite that, Jenkins doesn’t see rock going away any time soon. "The thing about rock music, when it’s good, is that it’s got this urgency to it. It needs to be played. There’s an immediacy, there’s an eroticism, it’s like sex. You cannot get it out of blues,” says Jenkins. “I think that’s part of the reason why our audience is so young, is because that corresponds to the time when you become fierce about expanding and defining the parameters and components of your identity. The immediacy and the visceral nature of rock music is a vital conduit. It’s an identity generation device.”
For Jenkins, the eroticism of rock music has always translated into Third Eye Blind’s lyrics. A close listen to “Deep Inside of You” or “Semi-Charmed Life” reveals that the subject matter is one that the band has never shied away from. Jenkins is particularly interested in relationships or, as he describes it, “the friction between people as they bond their values with other people’s values and make room for their desires and fears and live in a way that is honest and alive."
Throughout the years, though, his perspective on sex and music has changed. In the past, the references were blunt, or at least Jenkins thought they were. “On 'How’s It Going to Be,' I sing, 'I want to get myself back in again, the soft dive of oblivion,'” says Jenkins. “A radio DJ asked me what I was talking about, and I said, ‘Uh, a pussy.’ I thought it was pretty clear. But maybe that was my own experience.”
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Fast forward to 2015, and the characterization has changed. “On 'Exiled,' I say, 'You’re going to miss us when we grow up/I’ll miss your pussy and your teeth/It may be a mystery, but you were beyond belief,'" he says. "This is kind of more, instead of my experience, it’s rendering this character who is earthy and real. Those are the really real things that you miss in somebody. Those would be the images in the ghosts. It went from describing my experience to giving an accounting of the other, painting a more outward picture.”
His views on women have also become a more prominent fixture of his songwriting, specifically in the way that patriarchal constraints limit female sexuality. “I see a big change going on in the way that women see themselves and it’s changing how men see them,” says Jenkins. “I love that Amber Rose has a T-shirt where she describes herself as a slut and that she embraces enjoying the exact same things that men do.”
It’s something that he feels quite strongly about, in fact.
“We have all these kinds of patriarchal concepts that have quite successfully chained and subverted feminine energy and power for thousands of years,” Jenkins continues. “We’re coming from a stunningly oppressive puritanical society that says that women are really trading sex for intimacy and that’s their reality, and that’s just not the case at all. I think that girls are beginning to really evolve out of that concept into some kind of a new thing.”
That line of thinking has impacted his songwriting in direct ways. On Dopamine’s title track, Jenkins writes, “I aspire to your rockabilly heart, all animal and engine,” and in that lyric, he tries to encapsulate a growing movement of women who are owning their sexuality. “Women are being sexually assaulted and slut-shamed and not getting health care and all of the bullshit still continues,” he says. “But there’s another strain alive in there and it’s really vital and exciting and that’s part of what Dopamine is about.”
Jenkins, too, considers himself quite alive, and rejects the notion that he’s calmed down over the years. “'Get Me Out of Here,' on the new record, doesn’t seem very calm to me. There’s murder, fellation, splattering cocaine all over a party, there’s people getting stabbed in the heart. It’s my own little horror movie,” he says. “But I’m more whole. I’m more whole. In some ways, that makes me more dangerous. More willing to wager and huck it out there. At the center, I’m more calm. It’s a little bit less about my self-doubt, and more about self-assertion in some way.”
And with that, Jenkins sees a pretty bright future for himself and the band. For Third Eye Blind, they don’t consider the good old days to be 1996; they’re happening right now. The band has continued to attract a younger crowd — Jenkins would estimate their average ages fall between 15 and 30 — likely due in large part to that “rock 'n' roll as identity generation device” thing. More important, though, they’re able to do things in their own way.
That may also have something to do with the fact that, for the band’s past few albums, they’ve been working without the support of a major record label. Originally signed to Elektra Records, they were dropped from the label when it was absorbed into Atlantic, and that might have been a blessing in disguise. Ever since, the band have released their albums on their own label, and that’s afforded Jenkins a great deal more creative freedom.
“It’s just way, way better,” says Jenkins. “It’s so much more fun to go on tour now, and so much more fun to make records. Our band just feels like we are just going to get out there and do crimes every time we go out there."
THIRD EYE BLIND perform at the Dallas Observer St. Patrick's Day Concert on Saturday, March 19, at Energy Square, dallasstpats.com.
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