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(Nathan Arizona)
(Nathan Arizona)

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“This Is As Much Our Story As Anybody Else’s”

Twenty years after their iconic, inescapable debut album, Third Eye Blind — minus two vital early members — is still active. So is a spinoff band formed by the guys who got left behind. Who is the true heir to the spirit of ‘Semi-Charmed Life’? XEB would like to state their case.

If you ask Arion Salazar, who spent more than a decade playing bass in Third Eye Blind, to name his favorite song on his old band’s self-titled and ungodly massive debut album, his answer will be immediate, and enthusiastic, and pure, to use a word former members of Third Eye Blind wistfully use a lot. It’s a corny question, but bassists, God bless ’em, take corniness very seriously.

"I was just thinking about this," Salazar says. "That song that opens the record, it’s called ‘Losing a Whole Year.’ That’s the one that I felt like, really, that’s Third Eye Blind to me."

The instant quiet-to-loud supernova; the cheesy falsetto; the feral and sugary pop-rock roar; the sturdy bass line; the dude-bro wistfulness of frontman Stephan Jenkins as he wails, "I remember you and me used to spend / The whole goddamn day / In bed." Total banger. "I’m so proud of that, and it still gets me hyped up every time I hear it," Salazar says. "Everything. Stephan’s vocals, and the guitars, and it’s got, like, triple-tracked bass on there? I mean, it’s nuts. We went off. That’s the song that gets me excited every time I hear it, still. Eighty million-gazillion years later."

Just 20 years, actually. Third Eye Blind came out on April 8, 1997, and turned a quartet of wide-eyed Bay Area strivers into post-grunge superstars who’d soon find themselves opening shows for both U2 and the Rolling Stones, selling millions of records, and splintering permanently. But first, count the bangers: "Semi-Charmed Life," a peppy and sordid tale of softcore drug abuse, was their first hit, and remains their biggest hit by orders of magnitude. But it’s joined here by the tender anti-suicide PSA "Jumper," and the monster power ballad "How It’s Going to Be," and (personal favorite) the guitar-driven and bumptious and valedictory "Graduate." Add "Losing a Whole Year," and that’s five of the first six tracks: Few late-’90s records in any genre open stronger, or at least huger.

Two decades! You’re (probably) old! But Third Eye Blind holds up. The full anniversary treatment is in order, complete with a victory-lap tour. But the punch line is that the album got so huge, and the band’s eventual split was so irreparable, that there are two bands now, and two tours.

Salazar and founding guitarist-songwriter Kevin Cadogan — who left the band in roughly 2006 and 2000, respectively, after vicious and prolonged battles with Jenkins over the holy rock-band triumvirate of money, power, and credit — are on the other one. The one not officially traveling under the Third Eye Blind banner. Even mentioning that band at all in promo material triggered lots of ornate legal wrangling, to the point where one of the pair’s first reunion shows last year was billed as "Original Members Of Influential ’90s Band Play Their 1997 Debut Album!" In fact, this new project’s lead singer, Tony Fredianelli, is another estranged former Third Eye Blind guitar player — the guy who replaced Cadogan, in fact.

This summer, the official band — which now consists of Jenkins, debut-era drummer Brad Hargreaves, and three other undoubtedly lovely guys who nonetheless weren’t around in ’97 — will do a gala tour of pavilions and arts centers and Greek Theatres and whatnot. Whereas XEB, as the Cadogan-Salazar-led quartet have christened themselves, have a more modest itinerary of cafés and bars planned. But they’re psyched. They’ve long resigned themselves to the fact that many current diehard Third Eye Blind ticket-holders remain largely unaware of how huge a role the pair played in the construction of the band’s biggest and best album. What matters, 20 years later, is that Cadogan and Salazar are still aware of it, and they’re rightly proud of it, and they’re hoping, in some small way, to use these shows to win some of that power and acclaim and credit back. As anniversary-tour motives go, it’s a little — what’s the word — purer, maybe.

"I suppose it’s a bit of a bittersweet thing," Cadogan tells me. "It’s different, because we’re not necessarily doing a victory lap. I am with the people that I made the record with. Arion. Jenkins gets to do the victory lap, but he doesn’t have that. I think having the relationships is probably more important than the trademark, in the end of your life. A little piece of paper is not going to do you much good when you’re 70."

XEB are attempting the mother of all rock-band "when they go low, we go high" maneuvers here, looking back with as little anger as possible. "I suppose it’s similar to the Guns N’ Roses thing, right?" Cadogan says. "I think that was kind of the template for this. I think at the time, Stephan was talking about the others, and making certain remarks, and as I look back, I think, ‘Oh, OK, this is foreshadowing here.’ Specifically, him saying, ‘You’re gonna be Izzy Stradlin,’ I think should’ve been a clue."

I laugh a little too loudly at that, but Cadogan is gracious there, too. "I probably should’ve looked that up back then," he allows. "I thought, ‘I’m gonna be Slash! What’re you talking about?’"

Resistance is useless.

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard "Semi-Charmed Life": standing in a college-radio studio, dumbfounded. A fellow DJ put it on, and then she started dancing. Which was atypical college-radio behavior. Third Eye Blind’s success was enormous and instant and undeniable, even if you pretended to loathe them from the very first chorus of doot-doot-doot, doot-doot-doot doo. Even if you weren’t pretending.

Context matters. Two of the other biggest albums of 1997, Radiohead’s OK Computer and U2’s Pop, heralded the death knell of the era when the world’s biggest guitar-rock bands were willing to acknowledge that they played guitars at all. The Foo Fighters served up their second (and best) album, The Colour and the Shape, and the U.K.’s biggest bands — Oasis, Blur, and brief contenders the Verve — all weighed in with records that were grandiose or painstakingly scruffy or somehow both. But "electronica" giants like the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, and Daft Punk were ascendent, too, and sensitive dude-bros singing sweetly and/or sarcastically about their feelings seemed very much not in style. It was uncool to be as uncool as Third Eye Blind were willing to look.

Stephan Jenkins, however, made for a great cocky rock-star frontman, a fine late-Clinton-administration antihero, feuding with everyone, everywhere, all the time. Another thing I remember with uncommon vividness is this 1999 Rolling Stone article wherein he holds forth on his longstanding cold war with Rob Thomas, frontman for Matchbox 20, whose 1996 debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, was a ubiquitous and uncool pop-rock supernova of its own. This exchange, for whatever reason, has stuck with me:

"I don’t have any idea what he weighs." Amazing. Squint (or cringe) a little and you can convince yourself this was the American equivalent of Blur vs. Oasis. But either way, imagine being in a band with this person: the delirious mix of invincibility and total vulnerability you’d likely feel. Third Eye Blind photos from this era are rich in context, awash in highly questionable fashion choices and telling body language.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Left to right, that’s Salazar, Cadogan, Jenkins, and Hargreaves. The end result is not so hard to forecast. Cadogan says it took around four years of local buildup to get to Third Eye Blind’s release, with him and Jenkins especially putting in the work to get noticed and get the songs written and get signed to Elektra Records: "We did our fair share of acoustic shows, just the two of us at little bars around the area, brewery pubs, things like that."

And Salazar, for his part, remembers a solid two or three years of touring in the record’s humongous wake, a delirious mixture of hard-earned satisfaction and ecstatic disbelief as every new single blew up.

"I felt like we worked for it," he says now, "but I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t totally rad and shocking and chaotic and exciting — to have that kind of thing, to have it blow up like that, was nuts."

These were, if only by default, the Golden Years. "There was a genuine — well, I’m not sure I should go with friendship, but there was a camaraderie that was real, so real," Cadogan says. "There was a shared joy that felt real. A shared sense of awe, overcoming these ridiculous odds that were against us when we were all struggling, trying to make it work."

The core lineup returned for 1999’s Blue, a more modest affair, but far from a catastrophe commercially or otherwise: "Never Let You Go" in particular is catchy in a distinct and insidiously monumental way.

But by the time that record came out, the civil war had already begun, and for Cadogan it was already lost. He was out of the band before the bulk of the touring behind Blue began. The reasons, from his perspective, boil down to credit and control. In court and in the press, Cadogan has long alleged that Jenkins secretly wrangled to take sole ownership of the Third Eye Blind trademark, and attempted to assume sole copyright to the first two albums’ songs, the bulk of which Cadogan cowrote. He and Jenkins settled out of court; Cadogan’s replacement, guitarist Tony Fredianelli, stuck with the band for a decade but wound up in his own battles over ownership and money, resulting in his own ouster, and later, his own settlement.

(Through Third Eye Blind’s current publicist, Jenkins and Hargreaves declined to comment for this story.)

Salazar stuck with Third Eye Blind for one more album — 2003’s much-delayed and laborious Out of the Vein, which yielded no major hits — and then found himself purged as well. "I met the guy when he was young," the bassist says of Jenkins now. "He had nothing. Yeah, he was a little cocky — he seemed like he was a shit-talking kind of guy. But in a funny way, I didn’t feel the wrath until years later. It’s a cliché, and I guess I don’t need to tell you, but when millions of dollars start to slowly enter into the picture, and corporations get involved, things change, people change, man. It’s the oldest story in the book."

The current version of Third Eye Blind, built around the Jenkins-Hargreaves core, has put out two albums since then, 2009’s Ursa Major and 2015’s Dopamine. Neither is godawful ("Back to Zero" is a banger), and the music industry’s early-21st-century collapse certainly didn’t help matters saleswise, and the band still tours regularly and robustly. When I caught a Third Eye Blind gig in Columbus, Ohio, shortly after Dopamine’s release, the sold-out crowd had a surprisingly rapturous feel to it, wistful but still very much alive and in some cases even still young. (Full disclosure: I was there to see the opener, Dashboard Confessional, but Jenkins and Co. were way, way better.)

Less surprising, though, were the songs that the crowd especially wanted to hear. The self-titled debut’s hits — and even deep cuts like the acoustic-driven "Motorcycle Drive By" — tower over everything else. Happily, Jenkins can still rile people up in other ways. Last year, during a Cleveland gig at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — held the same week the city was hosting the Republican National Convention — he trolled the hell out of the presumably Republican-heavy crowd with stage banter like, "Raise your hand if you believe in science!" But what really pissed people off is that he didn’t play all the hits. The meanest thing he can do now is steer clear of his most beloved album.

There’s no shame in nostalgia being the driving factor behind Third Eye Blind’s success and continued existence — few bands last this long without a defined Golden Era to trade upon and constantly relive. But there’s no denying it in this case, either. The past is what matters to these guys. All of them. A monumental record’s 20th anniversary is the perfect time to luxuriate in history, or, in the case of the bandmates Jenkins left behind, to revise history, and hopefully tell the story right this time.

"Jenkins doesn’t give a shit," Cadogan says. "I mean, he’s happier than a clam right now. He’s got everything he wants. He’s got the trademark, he’s making his stuff, and I don’t think he’s getting too many complaints about it. Stephan hates us. In his mind, we don’t exist. So he’s very content with where he’s at, or if he’s not, we don’t know it. … I think he’s able to do a pretty substantial tour without us now." The question, on a smaller but arguably purer scale, is whether his former bandmates can do likewise.

The future members of XEB laid low after they became former members of 3EB, even if they didn’t necessarily feel low. Cadogan busied himself with songwriting, production, and a solo album or two: "That was the happiest I had ever been, just in my house making a record, my own stuff, without a bunch of weird energy and weird stuff going on," he says. "Certainly not a complete, massive success or anything, but not everything has to lead to mass success to be fulfilling."

Salazar, meanwhile, had foregone music entirely, much to his dismay as a former rock-star lifer; he credits Cadogan for pulling him back in and brushing off the ugliness of Third Eye Blind’s dark ages. "When I ran into him," Salazar says, "I don’t think I had taken my guitar off the wall for, like, three years. I really applaud Kevin and thank him for encouraging me: ‘C’mon, man. Let’s do something. This guy wants to put together a show, why don’t you play it with me?’ So, he got me playing again. I’m super grateful for that. Especially after what we went through, it was pretty cool of him."

The two first reunited, by chance, at a Bay Area DMV. By then, Third Eye Blind’s 20th anniversary loomed, and Cadogan had fielded a few media requests from the likes of Guitar Player magazine: It was reassuring to know some people still knew how important he and Salazar had been. His sales pitch for XEB is simple, modest, imminently reasonable: "What we have to offer is the other half of the sound. That’s what it is. I wrote 10 of the songs on the debut record. If I was gonna go see one of the bands I really loved from my youth, I’d want the key members to be there. The writers. It just feels different, right? It’s definitely not a cover-band situation. We’re not a tribute band. We’re just playing the music that we recorded, and in most cases wrote. Whatever that is, that’s what we’re doing. It’s not called Third Eye Blind, it’s called XEB."

Even getting to that point, unfortunately, required more legal wrangling: Cadogan alleges that Jenkins sent cease-and-desist letters to keep this new enterprise from mentioning Third Eye Blind in promo materials for its early Bay Area shows, and lobbied the ticketing service Eventbrite to scrub the old band’s name from any listings.

A fresh indignity to shrug off and add to all the other indignities: For Cadogan and Salazar, it struck them as a petty attempt to erase them from the band’s history. "Life’s too short to hold grudges," Salazar says evenly. "However, stuff like that is a bummer. This is our music. This is as much our music as it is anybody else’s." He makes clear that he holds no ill will toward the newer members of Third Eye Blind, at least: "These guys are part of something that we helped build, and I wish them well," he says. "I just don’t have time to get negatronic about it. But when a guy tries to stop you from saying, ‘Oh yeah, I was in this band, and here are members of this band,’ when I spent, what, 13 years of my life playing in Third Eye Blind? Yeah, that’s a bummer. But you just gotta kinda roll with the punches to get to what’s real."

A bitter argument over who gets to perform under a band name (and who doesn’t) is a crucial part of the Squabbling Rock Band experience, as everyone from the Beach Boys to Pink Floyd to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Talking Heads can attest. The XEB situation is more akin to the constant drama swirling around classic-rock gods Boston, who let a federal jury hash out the issue of whether former guitarist Barry Goudreau can bill himself as a "former original member" of the band in his new endeavors.

But this battle’s closest modern analogue might be Smashing Pumpkins, ’90s giants who for years now have been defined professionally as "frontman Billy Corgan and whoever Billy Corgan is willing to hang out with at the time." Jenkins, in a similarly imperial and charismatic way, has made himself synonymous with the name Third Eye Blind, to the point where many fans likely credit him with everything, and would buy a ticket to a show under that name, regardless of who was backing him. The question here is what his former bandmates might have to offer that he doesn’t.

The XEB value proposition, for old fans and curious newcomers alike, likely boils down to the guitars: Cadogan is a force throughout Third Eye Blind, on relatively harder-driving songs like "Graduate" especially. As an audience test case, consider Barry Hull, a 52-year-old Third Eye Blind fan, now living in Asbury Park, New Jersey, who two decades ago caught the band live before their debut record came out, kicked around various message boards and fan sites for years, and now serves in an unpaid capacity as an East Coast rep for XEB, running one of the band’s Facebook fan pages and drumming up local promotion for when the tour gets out his way next month.

Hull’s day job: Home Depot. "I’ve been there for quite some time," he tells me over the phone. "And that’s kinda like the thing. For the blue-collar-type person, I think XEB is more of a fun band, because they have that raw energy that we liked back when we were younger." He plans to catch a local date on this year’s official Third Eye Blind tour, too, but he knows something’s missing. "A lot of the backbeats and the rhythms aren’t there anymore," he says. "I think other things that Kevin and Arion did, the new band just doesn’t have the chemistry to do. When those two play together, it’s actually dynamite, because they have a funkier backbeat, and they really mix well. They have a street mix that you don’t see in common bands."

Hull pines for "that original Third Eye Blind Oakland sound," which he further articulates as "pretty songs with a dark side." Ask him to pick his own standout track, and he brings up the Blue deep cut "Darkness," a power ballad with unhinged, screamy overtones. It’s not trying to be a banger, necessarily, but that works in its favor; it wouldn’t have set the world aflame on its own, but it helped keep that flame lit.

So it goes with XEB: If this modest tour leads to bigger and better things, so be it, but that’s not the point. "I’m excited to go out and play every note very seriously, because there’s nothing else," Salazar says. "There’s no distraction." No enmity, no drawn-out recording sessions for a new album too long in coming. The first, perfect old album will suffice. It should’ve been enough for everyone.

"This record is the one," Salazar says. "I’m so proud of it. Like, as objective as I can possibly get, I think it’s a pretty badass record. If I wasn’t in the band, I think I’d still like it? I know it’s impossible to say, but I have enough young friends, muso kids — like, really good musician kids — who worship this record, like who fuckin’ worship it, and I trust their judgment." This experience, this bizarre hybrid reunion-revision tour, has already given him a greater appreciation for Cadogan, for what they made together, for what they survived together. The hope now is that longtime Third Eye Blind fans can learn to be a little more appreciative, too.

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