Midway through an intimate, acoustic performance last Thursday night in front of 400 or so rabid fans at New York City’s Crash Mansion, Third Eye Blind lead singer Stephan Jenkins took a few minutes out of his set to begin discussing what it was like to headline a festival in Jakarta just days before. As you are no doubt familiar, that town had recently been shaken by some horrific terrorist bombings that targeted Westerners, an event that led some close to the band to recommend that they should consider backing out of their commitment. However, midway through his soliloquy about the power of music and the positive effect it has on cultures worldwide, a female voice from stage left shouted out “FUCK ME!” at an extremely high decibel level. The crowd, which was mainly comprised of attractive young twentysomethings, hooted and hollered in apparent agreement.
Instead of getting crotchety with the young lass, all Jenkins could do was smile and laugh as he soaked up the approving roars of the crowd. After all, the band had all but dropped off the musical map in the six years since their last record had come out. But now, Third Eye Blind’s Ursa Major is poised to enter the Billboard charts in the top five this week, riding a resurgent wave of popularity that, quite frankly, no one not even the band themselves saw coming. Vulture sat down with Jenkins after the show to get his thoughts on how his band managed to stage this sort of improbable comeback, how the music business has changed since the band’s peak of popularity in the late nineties, and what sort of things are inspiring him these days.
Ursa Major is the first full-length record you’ve released since 2003. What kind of expectations did you have heading into this week?
I don’t think I had an expectation. I had no idea, I really had no idea that it would show up as No. 1 on iTunes and Amazon. Those are not necessarily barometer for our sense of success, but it was overwhelming. To read the reviews in the AP and the Los Angeles Times, to have those kinds of writers come out and call it a “gem,” was really incredible.
So, how aware are you of some of the recent online discussion about your band’s place in musical history? How do you explain that so many people in their early to mid-twenties, people who grew up with the record, have become such vocal fans of yours?
Are you sure that they grew up with it? Because the fans that I see clearly didn’t grow up with it. They were toddlers. I don’t know, and your guess is probably better than mine because I’m more inside the situation, but I think that our lyrics and the melodies kind of allow people to enter into something that they normally would not, that they would normally be repelled by.
What do you mean by that?
I think what our audience gets out of it is that there are things, things that are unspeakable that, through music, can be spoken about. Like “Jumper.” How could that be a No. 1 hit when it’s about a friend who’s gay jumping off a bridge and killing themselves? Also, I also think that we build big, British-rock riffs and filter them through our own consciousness. We’re taking inspiration from bands like the Who and the Clash and found where their sound resonates with us. So, I think, if you like big riffs, you might have some interest in us.
What do you see as Third Eye Blind’s place in musical history? Is that anything that even enters your realm of consciousness?
The trajectory of our band has been very different than we ever thought it would be. I always thought we’d be an underground band; I came from the very indie-rock, DIY school. But, you know, they ended up turning CBGBs into a John Varvatos! I always thought we could sell 300,000 copies of our record, which would’ve been huge. That would’ve put us in the mold of bands that I loved, like Camper Van Beethoven. And then we just got kind of hoodwinked by this hit, a song that I didn’t think would get played on the radio. For that time and to this day, [“Semi-Charmed Life”] is a filthy song.
Speaking of which, your first record came out in the post-Cobain era of music, back in the days when sunny pop songs started showing up on the radio again after a period of hibernation. Consequently, a lot of critics at that time dismissed you and your contemporaries as essentially disposable acts. What does critical acceptance mean to you, both then and now?
I don’t have a particularly thick skin; it might seem that way, but I don’t. So, to be completely honest with you, this feels really good. Our fans have definitely been a powerful and vocal culture. And to have new bands like the Arctic Monkeys cite us [as an influence], it’s good to feel like someone got it.
Speaking of new bands, what sorts of things are influencing you these days, musically, cinematically, or otherwise?
I’m reading Melville! I’m reading books that I neglected to read in college. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Moby-Dick, but he’s the craziest motherfucker ever. Melville is like this very, very lucid Kerouac. I love his incredibly huge sentences. Oh, and I was riding up the street earlier, up the Bowery to midtown on a bicycle, and I had the Passion Pit record on. It’s like this happy, great disco bomb.
So, one thing I noticed tonight is that a lot of people knew all the words to your new songs, despite the fact that the record just came out two days ago. Do you think that’s because the record leaked last week and, if so, what do you think of the whole culture of early leaks?
I think it’s really deeply nihilistic. I wanna give you an example. See that girl over there with the curly hair [points across the room to a girl wearing a black dress with red, curly hair]? That’s the person who loses their job. It’s not some fat cat anymore. I don’t even want to call it piracy, because being a pirate still sounds fun to me. They just come in to destroy it, and I don’t know why.
Who do you mean by “they”? Do you mean the people who actually leaked the record? Any idea who did that? These days, some bands leak their records intentionally as part of their marketing strategy.
We didn’t leak our record. And the Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t leak their record, either. And I heard that record and I was like, “Oh, so good.” I love their album. And they got that thing leaked WAY early and it really damaged them. The people who worked for them got hurt by that. For us, it’s only a couple of days; it was not a big deal. We don’t have anything to do with the people who destroyed the music business, we’re not related to them.
So, then, who or what do you think destroyed it?
I think that the desire for quarterly profits and answering to shareholders did it. That quarterly profit drive did it. And all the majors are all obviously still doing the same thing, which is why they continue to fail.