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How Jimmy Eat World Survived Emo Rock and Stopped Writing Themselves Off

The Arizona band reflects on their career and the making of their 10th studio album, ‘Surviving’

Scott Laven/Getty Images

Nearly every Jimmy Eat World video finds them on the receiving end of a rather dubious video treatment. There’s the one where they get their ass kicked at ultimate frisbee, the one where they’re window dressing for the half-naked bodies of teens, and another where they’re window dressing for those teens’ hopes and dreams for the future. There’s the one that sorta resembles Night at the Museum except as a meet-cute between Myspace kids, the one for “Pain” where a guy’s one-sided relationship is analogized to wearing a meatsuit and getting mauled by an attack dog. These probably seemed like good ideas when they were presented to the band, and drummer Zach Lind admits they’ve had clips for “Sure and Certain” and “Love Never” that got canned because they couldn’t nail the concept. After paying for two videos that ended up in the scrap heap, Lind figures, “Fuck it, it can’t get any worse.” So it’s understandable they blindly let frontman Jim Adkins run with his idea for their latest single, “555”: “a science-fiction postapocalyptic nightmare filled with clones and an evil galactic master,” played by Adkins, looking like he fell face first into a bag of bleached flour.

“It’s the one instance where reading the [YouTube] comments is actually fun,” Adkins jokes, and here’s a sample: “Mom pick me up I’m scared.” “Not going to lie, you look like some kind of Bill and Ted villain.” “American Horror Story: The Middle.” None mention its resemblance to Rick Springfield’s MST3K-ready “Bop ’Til You Drop,” an inspiration that Adkins also kept secret from the band. It’s unquestionably ridiculous—and for the first time in Jimmy Eat World’s videography, also intentionally so. “The whole weekend it took us to shoot it was an exercise in suppressing laughter,” Adkins notes. “The thing is though, that’s a great signal you’re on the right track.”

There are many moments on Jimmy Eat World’s vibrant 10th album, Surviving, when Adkins likely had to stifle a few chuckles: taking an operatic, Patrick Stump–esque climb up the scale during the chorus of “555,” the “HUH!” he lets out midway through the chunky “Criminal Energy” before a gratuitously harmonized guitar lead, beginning “One Mil” with an iPhone recording of him singing “Camera girl, you still there?,” a cavernous, MTV2-esque goth chorus on closer “Congratulations” that sounded so much like prime AFI that he actually got Davey Havok to sing on it. The outro saxophone solo on “All the Way (Stay)” is about eight years removed from having any kind of anti-cool indie credibility (at least in a rock song), but it’s a first for Jimmy Eat World, and it comes courtesy of the same dude who played the outro sax solo on M83’s “Midnight City” (producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen is the connection between the two).

Jimmy Eat World’s music has a similar effect on the listener, as their best work pushes the listener toward vulnerability or cloying sentimentality that would be perfectly acceptable in a pop song but can border on laughable to cynics who expect something more austere from a band who plays in drop-D. “Can you still feel the butterflies” is a lyric plastered on the CD version of their 1999 masterpiece, Clarity. “Are you gonna waste your time thinking how you’ve grown up or how you missed out?,” Adkins asked two years later. A month before the lopsided 2004 presidential election, when most young idealists felt like their voice didn’t mean shit, Adkins implored us to “believe your voice can mean something!” Their biggest hit had Adkins imagining what Bruce Springsteen might say to a 14-year-old girl and it was, “Everything is going to be all right.” “I loved this song, I used to listen to it in middle school,” Taylor Swift gushed on an Apple Music commercial; “The Middle” made Taylor Swift believe in her abilities to smite the haters and opened the door for emo bands like Panic! At the Disco, so it’s no stretch to say it’s directly responsible for “ME!”

During the most commercially successful phase of Jimmy Eat World’s life span, they were humbly motivational—the rational friend in any movie who says exactly what the train wreck of a lead needs to hear at the very moment they’re prepared to hear it before they go chase their dreams or the one that almost got away. But the thing about the cinematic, rational best friend is that you never have to learn much about their interior lives. Adkins always knew the right thing to say to you, but not to himself.

“Do you feel bad like I feel bad?” he asked on 2004’s “Night Drive,” and to be honest, even I didn’t know exactly how he felt bad. He alludes to pill abuse on “Bleed American” and “Pain” and escapist drinking on “Ten,” “If You Don’t, Don’t,” and the stunningly antisocial “Disintegration” (“Do what you want, but I’m drinking”). But those were easy to gloss over when everything that made Jimmy Eat World famous was imploring you to fall in love tonight.

Despite Jimmy Eat World’s status as one of the most popular emo bands of all time, Adkins has never been particularly forthcoming about himself. By the time Jimmy Eat World was a fixture on alt-rock radio, “emo” meant quasi-rock stars like Chris Carrabba and Rivers Cuomo whose personas dictated the entirety of their band’s reception, or Conor Oberst, Jesse Lacey, or Adam Lazzara, pinups who likewise played the leading role in their musical melodramas. Comparatively, Jimmy Eat World had an anti-image that hadn’t changed much since they got started in Lind’s parents’ basement in the suburbs of Mesa, Arizona. The distribution of labor has significantly shifted since Adkins and Tom Linton traded lead vocals on 1996’s Static Prevails, with “Action Needs an Audience” serving as the one Linton feature in the past 20 years, but Lind sees Jimmy Eat World as an egalitarian unit similar to U2, with all members having a 25 percent share.

And besides, by extricating Jim Adkins from Jimmy Eat World, the band created a void where the press and fans could develop a better narrative. It goes something like this: Surviving is technically the band’s 10th album if you include 1994’s Jimmy Eat World (not to be confused with the hasty, post-9/11 retitling of Bleed American), currently out of print and essentially written out of the band’s history. Adkins describes it as “one step removed from a karaoke experience,” an amalgamation of what was happening on punk labels like Epitaph, Headhunter, Touch and Go with “a little jigger of Dischord”; up until Clarity, Adkins could honestly say his guitar playing ripped off the Jesus Lizard. When Lind relistens to Jimmy Eat World and their proper major label debut, Static Prevails, he compares it to looking at a past version of himself “wearing a Jimmy’z hat.”

“The worst thing that could’ve happened is if we had a very successful album with Static Prevails,” Adkins explains. “We would not be doing this today if it had blown up, for sure.” Static Prevails was very unsuccessful even for a flier on a commercially unproven genre, but 1999’s Clarity was subject to higher expectations. Lead single “Lucky Denver Mint” was floated on a teaser EP released by Fueled by Ramen, a fledgling Florida indie label helmed by a dude in Less Than Jake—it was the label’s biggest non-ska success to that point and helped the imprint move into a bigger Tallahassee office space. Capitol failed to reap similar benefits—“Lucky Denver Mint” would later be included on the Never Been Kissed soundtrack, but it stalled shortly thereafter, and the president and A&R who signed them to Capitol were also out of the picture. The band leaned on Jorge Hinojosa, Ice-T’s longtime manager and also their own (“he genuinely liked our music!”), to do “everything to sabotage that relationship [with Capitol] in a professional way.” They were soon dropped, and all of this was necessary prelude to their blockbuster Bleed American.

The preferred framing is that Jimmy Eat World completed a Hail Mary, going completely DIY and scraping together enough money to record Bleed American on their own dime and prove Capitol’s shortsightedness. As Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proved a year later, fans love when major labels look shortsighted. The reality is less mythic but deeper and more interesting on a human level. Jimmy Eat World never were able to quit their day jobs despite recording on a major label’s dime—Adkins worked at an art supplies store leading up to Clarity—and the band never once discussed the feasibility of continuing as a band. “We were taking control of our own affairs,” Adkins bluntly replies, and while that would’ve sounded like spin-doctoring had he told you that in 1999, it now comes at the expense of Bleed American’s mythos.

“We had a completely clean slate,” Lind states, though Adkins adds, “Maybe we were just young and too dumb to realize we were just hanging on by a thread.” Still, Adkins rejects the idea that Jimmy Eat World had been left for dead after their experience on Capitol. “We were getting offers to open up for bigger and bigger bands, our headlining shows were getting bigger, every time we came back to town, there’d be more people, we got to go to Europe for the first time—this is happening in the background when we got dropped.” Producer Mark Trombino essentially offered to work for free until the band could repay him, and they got one of the greatest PR boosts possible for a punk band at the turn of the 21st century: They got asked to play the 2001 wedding of Tom DeLonge, who returned the favor by basically ripping off Clarity wholesale on Blink-182’s “mature” self-titled 2003 album. Once completed, Bleed American received bids from nearly every major label with the exception of Interscope, where the band would eventually land for 2004’s Futures after DreamWorks was bought out by Universal.

But the downside of the Bleed American–centric narrative is that everything that came after has frequently been judged on whether or not it produced its own answer to “The Middle” and little else. “I’ve pretty much written off that we’d have a song as commercially successful as ‘The Middle’ as soon as it was a hit,” Adkins admits. “I mean really, how many of those does anybody get? You’re already Powerball winners if you get one.” The rest of the band was similarly sanguine about their prospects. Shortly before the release of Futures, Lind remembers the band getting pizza with producer Gil Norton and several members of their management and label. According to Lind, guitarist/vocalist Tom Linton is good for “the conservative but typically correct assessment” of the band’s prospects and predicted that Futures “might go gold.” “Everyone laughed,” according to Lind, “like it was an insult.”

Futures indeed sits at about 600,000 copies sold and from that point, Jimmy Eat World returned every three years with an album that continued to do solid but steadily decreasing numbers. Despite Adkins’s levelheaded relationship with “The Middle,” Lind cops to the Butch Vig–produced, blatantly streamlined Chase This Light as their intention “to have an impact” on the same level. They reunited with Trombino on 2010’s Invented, which begins with the telling line “I can’t compete with the clear eyes of strangers / I’m more and more replaced by my friends each night.” Whereas Adkins’s separation from his lyrics worked to Jimmy Eat World’s advantage in the past, it rendered “adult breakup” album Damage as oddly inert—certainly no more comforting than another spin of “For Me This Is Heaven,” regardless of age.

They might’ve replicated that cycle had they not decided on taking their first actual break from each other in 2015. Adkins debuted new material on a solo tour that includes stops in places like “Codfish Hollow Barnstormers” in Maquoketa, Iowa, and two separate gigs in Montana. One of his new songs pivoted on the following lyric: “No one’s making you / Spend lonely nights / Poisoned through and through / It’s all what you do when no one is there / It’s all what you do when no one cares,” and for the first time in years, Adkins sounded like he was truly addressing himself. It became the title track for 2016’s sterling comeback Integrity Blues.

Integrity Blues peaked at no. 17 on Billboard, the band’s lowest since, oddly enough, Bleed American (which went platinum despite topping out at no. 31). Surviving entered the charts last at no. 90 and probably won’t spawn anything close to “The Middle” either; “Love Never” currently sits at no. 39 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs list. But these albums are also the perfect reentry points for anyone who also considers Jimmy Eat World to be “that band they liked in high school.” As they typically do after their “kitchen sink” albums (Clarity, Futures, Integrity Blues), Jimmy Eat World conscientiously go radio-rock on Surviving—it’s their shortest and punchiest release, an echo from a bygone era of palm-muted guitars, solos and keening harmonies that now scan as “classic rock” compared to the mono-genre pop of KROQ. It’s also a very adult album made by a previously emo band (Surviving would not remotely be considered as such had it been made by any other act) but skirts the “adult emo” subgenre populated by recent works from Pedro the Lion, the Get Up Kids, and American Football that transpose the anxieties and self-loathing of their early 20s onto fatherhood. In contrast, Surviving provides unfashionable and wholly nourishing advice: trust the process, embrace the work, trust the results, and don’t be reliant on outside validation. “I wanna fall in love tonight”? By all means, but as “All the Way (Stay)” suggests, do so responsibly. “Who really says they hope they’ll meet the one / For the first time at a bar drinking early?,” Adkins mocks, directly negating his older self for doing so on “Invented” and “Kill.”

“The experience of everything we’ve done to that point prepared us for letting go of the factors we can’t control,” Adkins says. Album centerpiece “Diamond” is unashamedly sincere in this message—Diamonds take time! Don’t rush it!—and in a recent ID10T podcast with Chris Hardwick, Adkins laid out its inspiration: “As we get older, we’re less willing to learn stuff,” recalling a conversation with his wife about how she wanted to learn cello but felt that it was too late to start. He responded by bringing up her 95-year-old grandfather: “Imagine if he said that when he was in his young 40s and started playing 20 minutes a day … he’d be shredding.” Lind also recalls a recent instance of a young family friend who wanted to sing in his band but was afraid he wouldn’t be good enough. He offered to play him an ancient recording of a teenage Adkins singing “in more a punk style.” “People are afraid of sucking,” Adkins laughs. “It’s OK to suck, let us show you our first demo tapes.” It doesn’t work as a hook quite as well as “everything will be all right,” but it’s still the sort of thing you need to hear when you’re ready to write yourself off again.

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.


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