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Stephan Jenkins Is Not Here to Talk About the Past

We caught up with the Third Eye Blind frontman on the 25th anniversary of his band’s six-times platinum debut. And yeah, he knows what you’ve said about him, but he’s more interested in the here and now.

Harrison Freeman

I met Stephan Jenkins at a chocolateria. Not the Willy Wonka kind, or even the kind that smells like candy at all. It was like a gift shop attached to a conference room, or the informational parts of Hersheypark. “This can’t be it,” I thought, peering in the window of the Williamsburg storefront. There was a small crew filming an unrelated news segment inside, which may have added to its bizarre aura. I entered from the January cold and everyone stopped to look at me. “Can I help you?” the manager asked in a way that was less “Would you like to order something?” and more “What are you doing here?” I was taken off guard. “I’m … here to see Stephan?” She stared blankly and said I could wait in the back. A few minutes later, she approached me. “Oh, I didn’t realize, you mean the Stephan.” The Stephan arrived after another 15.

Jenkins likes chocolate, but he won’t admit it. I asked why he chose this as our meeting place and whether he’s a “big chocolate guy.” The singer paused for a moment. “I don’t like being told what to like,” he said. “Radiohead: hate them. OK Computer: never listened to it. But one time, I was on a run and a great song came on. Guess what it was. OK Computer!”

I don’t really know what I expected. A café without a giant LED screen showing the cocoa-harvesting process, sure. But from the frontman of Third Eye Blind, I half-assumed I’d be met with a level of orneriness. This was, after all, the man who made enemies of everyone from Rob Thomas to Smash Mouth to some of his own bandmates. The man who started (or at the very least didn’t challenge) an unverified rumor that he graduated as valedictorian at UC Berkeley. The man who rode away on his motorcycle after debating whether John Vanderslice’s studio rate was too high. To my surprise, the 57-year-old Jenkins was coated in Californian Zen, with the wrinkle-free skin and stylish tweed that a ’90s chart-topping single can afford. He spoke at a drawn-out pace that made metaphors lose their points. And despite the purpose of our meeting, he refused to dwell on the past. Third Eye Blind released their excellent self-titled debut 25 years ago this week. It remains a standout rock record, the fruit of glorious teamwork, talent, and grit. But Jenkins won’t give in to nostalgia, especially if it outshines the present.

Allow me to fill in some blanks: You can trace Jenkins’s early music career back to the early ’90s, as half of the duo Puck and Natty. Their music could be described as “rap” in the most basic sense of the word, with the same type of sunny, boardwalk-lounging, white-boy talk-singing that made LFO’s “Summer Girls” go platinum in ’99, a style that Jenkins himself revisited on Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” Puck and Natty landed a song on Beverly Hills, 90210 for a cool $7,800. Apparently, Jenkins was promised $8,000, but the show shaved off $200 because he used the word “horny.” Jenkins ditched the project and set out to start a rock band.

The singer-songwriter played around the Bay Area scene with a rotating cast of bandmates, all of whom apparently either bowed out due to substance use issues or joined other groups. Third Eye Blind started fitting together when Jenkins met guitarist Kevin Cadogan, bassist Arion Salazar, and drummer/percussionist Brad Hargreaves. The four worked on demos in local studios and garages, each member bringing something crucial to the music. Third Eye Blind had the big chords, intuitive storytelling, and hypnotic noodling that could command a room. The songs were blissed out and cynical at once. Jenkins boasted his wit, drive, and a selectively useful sense of grandeur. Salazar brought a powerful groove and Hargreaves offered rich jazz stylings. Cadogan’s deft, complex guitarwork is the spine and soul of the band’s debut.

Third Eye Blind is front to back with heavy hitters. Album opener “Losing a Whole Year” crashes in like a desperate mission statement. Cadogan’s reverb swirls around Jenkins’s coarse shout, “I remember you and me used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed.” Contagious riffs equalize Jenkins’s charming melodrama throughout. The band operates in measured extremes, alternating between scenes of suicidal ideation and snorting coke under golden skies. It was a perfect transition piece, between the garage grunge that came before it and the radio pop rock that would come after. Not only did the album showcase each members’ distinct strengths, the sound happened to be exactly what the industry was looking for at the time—vibrant, melodic pop rock à la Goo Goo Dolls and Counting Crows.

After signing to Elektra in ’96, Third Eye Blind released its self-titled debut in April 1997. Its singles—most prominently “Semi-Charmed Life”—quickly climbed to the top of the rock charts, while the album charted on the Billboard 200 for 106 weeks. “We want to be the biggest band in the world,” Jenkins told the Los Angeles Times that year. “But it has to be on my own terms.” Salazar left in 2009, while Cadogan didn’t make it past their second album. Meanwhile, Hargreaves, who joined in ’95, is still around. As the band changed and fractured—its former members outnumber its current ranks eight to five, with Jenkins as the only constant throughout the band’s history—so too did the music industry. Upon the release of TEB’s third album in 2003, Elektra was absorbed into Atlantic Records, leaving them without label support. And in 2004, Warner Music cut Third Eye Blind from its roster.

Today, despite the lineup behind him, Jenkins stands alone. From 2009’s Ursa Major forward, Jenkins has released all of Third Eye Blind’s albums and EPs on his own Mega Collider imprint. “I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission and I don’t have to have a conversation,” he reasoned to me over our steaming mochas. “I produce all the records … there’s no studio guys, there’s no other writers, there’s no machine.” But in our interview, Jenkins didn’t acknowledge the “conversations” and “guys” that were key to the band’s initial success. Reflecting on TEB’s early days, he said, “I really didn’t have a team. I had an idea in my head and I was chasing after it.”

Back then, Jenkins fit neatly into a ’90s rockstar archetype that included the likes of Damon Albarn and Liam and Noel Gallagher. They were brash bad boys with the kind of fuck-you-pay-me behavior that somehow led to record deals. It’s a model of stardom that doesn’t fully translate today, a charming arrogance that has fallen out of vogue in favor of an agreeable, risk-averse public persona. Perhaps that explains Jenkins’s put-on calm, and the way he asked for his mocha with oat milk: “pretty please.” By contrast, the Gallagher brothers are feuding on Twitter and Albarn recently found himself Twitter’s main character for discussing Taylor Swift’s songwriting.

Of course, in his prime, it would’ve been hard to envision Jenkins as the mild-mannered ’90s alt-rock survivor sitting across from me that day. In addition to feuds with Smash Mouth and Rob Thomas, he has varying degrees of beef with a laundry list of bands: Green Day. Jimmy Eat World. Max Collins from Eve 6 posted a viral Twitter thread in 2020 about Jenkins’s alleged dalliances with Collins’s then-girlfriend. The press has been eager to latch onto those beefs, painting a picture of Stephan Jenkins as a Rock Star Asshole.

But in our interview, Jenkins quickly casts off that representation of himself as “sleazy.” He’s here to focus on where his band is now, not what people said about them in the past: “Third Eye Blind is a bigger band now than it was 20 years ago … [we’re] an underground indie rock band. We’ve been mostly, until recent years, misunderstood and misidentified by the indie rock press. But we’ve always been a DIY indie rock band.”

What are the marks of a modern rock star? Jenkins said “it’s always changing, always challenging society,” but maintained they’re “dirty fucks.” Parts of TEB’s 2021 album Our Bande Apart reckon with the younger generation of artists. “There’s a kind of a radical honesty amongst Gen Z that’s really appealing, but it’s also kind of like exhibitionism,” he said. Jenkins referenced Big Thief frontperson Adrianne Lenker and the show Hacks as two recent sources of inspiration before eventually returning to the question. “Some dirty, nasty fuckers are coming,” he said. Jenkins seems to think “tits and ass” are going to be the next big thing in rock music: “There’s gonna be a band coming up, and it’s gonna be all about that. It’s gonna be huge. And hipsters are gonna love it.” The thought has even infiltrated his music: One of TEB’s newer songs includes the line, “We’ll never sing about tits and ass again.”

When I brought up the ’90s rock scene, Jenkins made it clear he doesn’t want to get lumped in with the decade. “We’re not even from the late ’90s. I just don’t identify with that. It might be put on me, but I don’t wear it. I’m interested in how [my music] enlivens how people feel now,” he argued, winding himself up. “I just don’t think that’s something that gets said about Radiohead. Somehow, they didn’t get saddled with ‘Creep.’ They’re a band from the ’90s. Are they a ’90s band?” He posed the same thought experiment for Foo Fighters. He’s not wrong, but the difference is those other bands have released a string of critically adored releases over the past quarter-century. Radiohead, to use Jenkins’s example, has been putting out well-respected albums for decades, while Foo Fighters won three Grammy Awards just this week. By comparison, Third Eye Blind’s biggest and best appears to be decades behind them. This isn’t to say TEB’s more recent works are completely void of value. They just don’t hold much space in public musical memory. “I’m happier now. I say these are the good old days,” Jenkins said, unprompted, after a lull. “I’m not much of a back-looker. I don’t listen to old music.”

The night before our chocolate shop meet-up, I watched Jenkins perform barefoot on a stage with the current iteration of Third Eye Blind at New York’s Irving Plaza. A good chunk of the crowd appeared to have traveled from midtown Manhattan and Jersey for the show. Mid-30s men in button-downs and sports memorabilia stood alongside beanie-clad women, commanding the energy of a frat party or a cover-band bar. Between songs, Jenkins explained he’d been having vocal issues. The band traded out hits like “Semi-Charmed Life” and “Jumper” for Califone and Joy Division covers. Jenkins didn’t belt the refrain for “Graduate,” encouraging an audience-led shout-along instead. “It’s because you’re old,” a heckler yelled.

I figured its billing as “25 Years in the Blind” meant the band would pay homage to hits from their 1997 debut, but the set list largely relied on new material. Some fans even knew the words. Jenkins managed to have his cake and eat it too, pushing the band’s history without indulging in the songs that made them big, like sipping on an oat milk mocha in a chocolateria while scoffing at a question about whether he likes chocolate. “We just played what we wanted to play and didn’t play what we didn’t,” Jenkins later told me. “We kept the tickets for the show small so that … it kept in only people who go deeper into the music.” He’s fueled by these fierce supporters and die-hards, to the point that their cheers have sometimes meant more than the voices of his bandmates, to hear former Third Eye Blind members tell it.

While working on 1999’s sophomore effort, Blue, Jenkins assumed sole ownership of the newly incorporated Third Eye Blind Inc. “That’s when it really started falling apart,” Cadogan told me over the phone. “I thought being in a band was going to be more important than the corporate structure. … Maybe I just didn’t have the leverage I thought I had.” Salazar was devastated when he split from the band. “I had put everything else in my life on hold. I put this thing at the top,” he said on a call. “After Kevin left, it became apparent that it wasn’t going to work, even though I believed in it.”

(In response to Salazar’s and Cadogan’s remarks, Jenkins’s publicist said, “Since its inception by Stephan, well before he met anyone who performed on any of the albums, there has always been one.”)

In some ways, Cadogan and Salazar got out at TEB’s apex. If the four original members got together and worked tirelessly to write and record Third Eye Blind in 2022, it might get a Pitchfork review, but they probably wouldn’t become a household name. The rules, incentives, and economics have all changed. Music scenes form online, and the radio airwaves and MTV shows that broke TEB don’t wield the same power, to the extent they exist at all today. A short-form video platform can turn you into a pop star or render your music algorithmically irrelevant. The masses pay tech companies $9.99 per month to stream singles and vibe-driven playlists. Buying CDs is considered a niche hobby (albeit one that may be on the rise again). The mainstream appetite for “rock music” seems to be satiated by guitar-adjacent pop acts like Machine Gun Kelly.

Cadogan and Salazar are more open to reflecting on the past. They still share a lot of pride in that first record, considering it both a timeless piece of art and a relic of the past. “We were a bunch of guys with youthful energy and determination. It was an easier path back then for artists in some ways,” Cadogan said. “People weren’t talking about startups and money, they were talking about bands and art. It was a lot easier to be broke and pursue your dreams in San Francisco at that time. It was a really transformative period.”

In 2017, the two joined other former Third Eye Blind members to perform the 1997 debut album under the moniker XEB. Cadogan says the last he heard from Jenkins was via cease-and-desist letters, which alleged misuse of Third Eye Blind’s corporate trademark. Before that, it had been over a decade. The case went into litigation, and they ultimately settled. “It was effective in getting us off Eventbrite, so we sold [on] Brown Paper Tickets. People came. It was shocking. They came to this decrepit auto body shop in San Leandro to hear us do this,” Cadogan laughed. XEB managed to get an agent involved and eventually embarked on one U.S. tour. They’re not closing the door on future shows, but it doesn’t seem likely. (In an email, Jenkins’s publicist said, “The band’s attorney sent a cease-and-desist to protect the band’s trademark, as it is his job.”)

“That first record speaks for itself. Whatever the dynamic was, we got the job done,” Cadogan said. During separate interviews, neither bore any strong personal animosity toward Jenkins, but Cadogan referenced one grievance that sticks with him. “If you look at the album, my face is cut in half in the picture. I remember being told that was something [Jenkins] directed the label to do.” He eventually got the label to put in a new photo of the band. In the updated pic, Cadogan is wearing a “little hat.” To him, the choice seemed to be another Jenkins power move.

Jenkins’s memory of that time period focused on his role in recording their debut and avoided mention of the original lineup. “I’m hard on myself, but I think in producing that album as a producer, I [was] really driving toward something,” he said. “The engineer was great, such a good partner for me because he could really give me what I wanted. … You have to be kind of crazy. That’s why musicians, we don’t look the same, don’t talk the same, don’t act the same, don’t dress the same, just different.” When asked if he ever speaks to his former bandmates, Jenkins replied with a simple “No.” Leo Kramer, he recalled after a beat, is one exception. He said he cried when the bassist left the band, but that they remained best friends.

Time and separation have made Third Eye Blind’s self-titled an artifact that exists outside of all three men. After 25 years, they can appreciate it as a piece of their past. “It’s amazing to play this music for new generations of people, to put the past away, reminisce and enjoy it,” Salazar said. On an alternate timeline, TEB could’ve recorded a whole catalog of that caliber. But as it stands, Third Eye Blind is Jenkins’s passion project. The goal is self-expression, and he has no interest in compromise. “I’ve gone through a lot to extract myself from toxic relationships and to have that real connection with the audience, to feel like we can do what we want,” Jenkins told me. “Twenty-five years in, I’m still excited [and the band is] all really still excited about what we’re doing next. It’s hard for me not to gauge things in something other than my own happiness quotient. I like my autonomy better than I used to.”

Rather than a rock star, Jenkins thinks of himself as a chef. I asked, “How so?” which was met with a moment of silence and then a five-minute monologue that did not involve food until the very end. “I’m taking these ingredients on stage and we’re having this exchange. What I want is to make this beautiful meal. And what I’m trying to do is make everybody feel lifted,” he said. “If I feel good about the offering that I’m making, then that’s pretty much all I need.”

Julia Gray is a Brooklyn-based music and culture writer. Her work has appeared in places like The Washington Post, Playboy, Pitchfork, and Stereogum. She makes chaotic tweets at @juliagrayok.

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