By Michael Tedder
Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World came up playing for “nobody in someone’s basement,” so he’s a bit puzzled when he sees a whole new wave of fans longing for those days of sweaty obscurity.
Sure, he’s grateful that the new generation of so-called “emo revival” bands name check his group as a formative influence — and that their music is in regular rotation at the “Emo Night” parties that tour the country to adoring crowds. But he still finds the whole group hug for their struggle years “kind of funny,” he admits.
“I don’t know what to think,” he says. “I’m flattered when anybody bothers to make a connection with something that I’ve made; it’s incredible that after all this time, there are people who are discovering it and finding something.”
It seems like a lot of people have been rediscovering Jimmy Eat World of late — and not just Taylor Swift, who sang along to their hit “The Middle” in an Apple ad a few years ago. Still, Jimmy Eat World never really fell off or went away; they’ve released a steady stream of albums over the years, most recently, Surviving, a new record whose title encapsulates the band’s plucky spirit.
The quartet effectively helped launch the emo genre long before nearly anyone had any idea what that term meant, and well before the genre would capture teenage America’s heart in the ’00s. Their experimental 1999 album Clarity is considered one of genre’s defining early touchstones. And, after the Mesa, Arizona, group was famously dropped by their label Capitol, it rebounded with Bleed American in 2001, which helped fully introduce their blend of punk energy, introspective lyrics and twinkling guitar interludes to the suburbs.
After their 2004 follow-up Futures, the band settled into the sort of reliable groove that made them easy to take for granted, even as they remained always good for a heartfelt vocal and pump-you-up riff. Still, 2016’s don’t-call-it-a-comeback effort Integrity Blues captured the attention of old fans and new converts and even won over a few skeptical critics, including the generally emo-averse folks at Pitchfork, a site that once said “it’s hard to think of an album more mundane than Futures.” They praised Integrity Blues as “indicative of Adkins’ subtle and progressive growth as a lyricist.” While Adkins insists his band didn’t make a calculated effort to win back lapsed fans, he, again, appreciates the enthusiasm.
“Your favorite band right now is probably not going to be your favorite band three years from now, I get that — people are going to kind of ebb and flow — but with Integrity Blues it felt like a lot of those people came back,” he says. “Maybe the people who got into us around the Bleed American, Futures era then went away to explore different tastes… it seemed like a lot of those people came back, and came back to the music of that period too.”
For their new album, Jimmy Eat World reteamed with Integrity Blues producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who has done everything from playing bass with Beck and Nine Inch Nails to producing M83’s breakout album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. These bands may all seem worlds away from Jimmy Eat World’s scene, but somehow the mixture of the two disparate parties clicked. Rather than the layered, sumptuous approach the band and producer took last time, their new album is their most direct and to-the-point in a while: 10 songs of immediate energy and hooks.
Surviving the rock game and continuing to make vital music isn’t easy for any band, but frontman Jim Adkins insists that he’s just happy that you’re still listening.
So when did you start working on Surviving and what was the plan going in?
Since Bleed American, we’ve been taking portions of our album budget and building up our recording studio and rehearsal space. And some time around Chase this Light, we decided to make records there. The writing and recording process is now kind of one thing; the traditional approach of writing music and then going to record is out of the window for us.
We’re always writing, and we’re always recording. There’s a lot on Surviving where you are hearing the origin of the song within the finished product of the record. I think it is by far our most straight-up guitar-rocking album.
This is your most stripped-back and immediate album in some time. What made you want to go in this direction?
I think a little bit of it might be that Integrity Blues was a more sprawling record. We were experimenting; every song had its own texture, it was very lush. Whatever you just did, there is a tendency to not want to repeat yourself. The guitar rock thing is a core part of what we do, and it felt like the right time for us to explore music that fit more in that vibe.
Now, this album sounds very different from your last one, but both were produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen. What is it that you think he brings out in your band?
Justin is all about us making our best record. He definitely has his own sensibilities, but he is not going to be heavy-handed about them. At the end of the day, it is our record and he is a professional that way.
Working on Integrity Blues with him, we pretty quickly realized he was not going to let us just speed by with something that might be a strength of ours if it is not the best solution. But that is why you have a producer or an outside perspective.
So he’s worked with you and bands like Paramore, but he got his start playing with Beck, which is obviously a very different sound and sensibility than yours. Why do you think he meshed so well with bands in, for lack of a better term, your scene?
If you’re hanging out with him, he might be talking about working on Sea Change, but then he also might also go on a diatribe about death metal, or an ‘80s synth thing. A person who has such an in-depth passion for all kinds of music is really valuable when you are trying to solve a problem in the studio.
Earlier this year there were a few glowing pieces about the importance of your album Clarity on the emo scene, and you see stuff like the Emo Nite parties. How do you balance being a band interested in the here and now and playing up a certain amount of nostalgia that you know people are interested in?
It’s an interesting issue to navigate. It’s a by-product of being around so long; you’re going to generate a lot of material. There is always that tendency to lump us in with a nostalgia aspect, but I think the only thing we do is make sure what we’re doing currently is our best work. However people want to describe us is out of our control, so we just focus on the task at hand, ‘OK, we’re playing a show tonight’ or ‘OK, we’re finishing up this record.’ We try to stay present, that’s how we combat nostalgia.
It plays into the idea of Surviving. What do you attribute your longevity to, and does your longevity ever surprise even you?
Yes, it is surprising. We had no expectations when we started the group. Maybe that is the key to longevity: try to stay focused on your immediate future. It should always be fun.
I think people burn out because they are trying to chase the expectation of some imaginary listener out there. Or they are compromising their vision because they want to appease whatever trend is happening at the moment. You have to do it because you want to do it, or it is not going to transfer.
We’re really proud of the work we do, and I know that not everybody is going to like it, but if we feel like we are doing our best work, and we feel like we are challenged personally while making it, then I think the right people will find it. If you can be satisfied with that, then you can always play music. You might not be in a position where you can make it a career or pay the bills, but you can always play music.