Interview: Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind
Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins, who gave voice to Generation X on songs like “How’s It Going to Be,” “Semi-Charmed Life” and “Graduate,” sees Millennials going through a much bigger shake-up. How big? How about a “2000-year temporal shift.”
“Jumper” means something very different now than when it was released in 1997. The song about a gay youth who jumps to his death is now a case study on changing attitudes, as the younger generation innately grasps the concept of inclusion. As Stephan explains, the song is a now a celebration of sorts.
With their fifth album, Dopamine, Third Eye Blind takes a look at this changing landscape with songs that venture into new musical territory for the band, incorporating EDM elements into those signature guitar riffs heard on their ’90s hits.
When we caught up with Stephan before a soundcheck at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, he gave us the dope on Dopamine (including the Bowie references), and explained how “Jumper” and other Third Eye Blind songs have changed meaning for him.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): You’ve said in numerous interviews that you don’t like using the word “process” in regards to writing a song. How do you explain the experience then?
Stephan Jenkins: I get on a guitar in a room hopefully in a semi-lonely state. When it goes well, I just hear things and then I sing them down. So it’s like I’m almost listening to it and transcribing it. That’s my best state of writing.
Being asked about it for this album, I’ve actually gotten the discipline to cultivate that answer. So now I’m actually going to try to get closer to that more often.
Songfacts: Let’s talk about that new album, Dopamine. The title comes from the fourth song, and you said that it’s referring to interactions with people that are being reduced to just chemical compounds. Can you expand on that idea and why you relate to it so much?
Stephan: I said that?
Songfacts: Yeah. In a recent interview.
Stephan: That sounds really smart and I have no idea what it means [laughs]. It’s one of those things that sounds smart.
Songfacts: I think you were saying that interactions with people seem to be lacking emotion these days and that they’re just chemical compounds now.
Stephan: People don’t want to suffer by emotions. It’s the really, really young group that has changed – young women and Millennials. There’s some kind of different consciousness brewing. It’s a post-patriarchal, post-feminist mindset that is taking root, so I think the exchange in heteronormative behavior is no longer about exchanging sex for intimacy, which was the standard way. I think women are more on their own terms. I don’t even want to sayequal because I think that there’s a whole new set of female that doesn’t even factor males into the equation of equality any more than males factor in anybody else. It’s a 2000-year temporal shift away from Judeo-Christian patriarchal thinking.
So a song like “Dopamine,” I say, “I aspire to your rockabilly heart, girl, animal and engine,” meaning that you’re not the vulnerable, delicate flower. It’s not how this exchange is actually happening, so it’s not that those relationships are being flipped, it’s that they’re being realigned.
“Dopamine” is almost like becoming addicted to the feeling and not necessarily attaching it to a single person, and not allowing your emotions to be hustled. Does that make any sense? I’m not very good at talking about my own stuff. I kind of do it after the fact.
Songfacts: That makes sense. You’ve always had the ability to write sad and dark lyrics that are combined with upbeat melodies like in “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Never Let You Go,” and “Blinded (When I See You).” The first single from Dopamine, “Everything is Easy,” seems to follow that suit. What inspired that song?
Stephan: I got a melody in my head. It just bounced into my head. I was like, “Hey, listen. Let me sing to you guys.” I just started singing. I was thinking about the concept that there’s a real trap in wanting things more before you have them than when you actually have them. So it’s that roller coaster of having and then longing. The longing is like a siren song.
Songfacts: You’ve said that the most exciting things happening in music right now are happening in pop music, and there definitely are pop elements on Dopamine.
Stephan: Yeah, I think so.
Songfacts: The end of “Rites of Passage” turns into a dance track.
Stephan: It just turns into a dance party. It’s just ridiculous. It’s like, “What?” I know.
We’re really a rock band. I think we’re very much misunderstood in the sense that we are an indie, guitar-based, rock band who writes dark lyrics that happen to come often in pretty little packages. We’ve oftentimes been assigned this pop label and I have chafed at that in the past. But then I’m like, “Wait a second…”
Tove Lo – there is so much interesting stuff going on in her production on those records. So what are we talking about? Who gives a fuck about any of these kinds of distinctions anymore? Why do I want to spend any time engaging in whatever some self-appointed arbiter of what box you’re in says? I don’t think anybody else cares.
Think about your playlists. I’ll bet you anything that your playlists are all over the place.
Songfacts: Yeah. And why does it have to be a guilty pleasure? Why can’t you just enjoy it?
Stephan: Right. How about it’s just a pleasure? So I really feel like everyone has liberated so much from those distinctions.
I also think that for our audience, our music is this identity generation device for them. Our credo is about expansiveness and inclusiveness, so I don’t like this drawing of tight borders anymore.
Stephan: [Long pause] Dude, that’s such a good question! Wow! Hey, that’s the best question I’ve been asked. I’ll tell you.
I’ve always had a reoccurring image in my head – and in dreams – of cutting through from tension or whatever my nightmare is about and just trying to get through that nightmare. I was always trying to cut through it. I never realized that I’ve written about that repeatedly because I don’t write from any kind of intellectual standpoint, obviously, since I have no intellectual ability to talk about it. It’s all just emotionally based.
The original title for “Blade” was “Dream Sequence.” I meant to make it that on the record and then I fucked it up. It’s supposed to be called “Dream Sequence,” but it was too late, it had already gone to the printer. So this is the kind of fabulous disorganization that is typical of Third Eye Blind. I mistitled that song so it’s called “Blade.”
But “Blade” is really about being in some kind of dreamy state. It’s a jealousy dream. So in the dream I stab a person but it doesn’t have any effect on them. They’re still there. The blade won’t cut, people slip away through trapped doors, they swing away from you, and everything is just like that kind of sensation.
Songfacts: What’s the story behind the last song on Dopamine, “Say It,” and who is the woman speaking in it?
Stephan: It’s a conversation written down. A friend said to me, “If I told you what you wanted, you’d tell me to shut up,” and I laughed. I played that back in chords and it actually made everything that was possible to say sayable. It was a conversation that just occurred.
Songfacts: Between you and the woman?
Stephan: [Hesitatingly] mhmm. Yes.
Songfacts: There are a couple of David Bowie references on Dopamine.
Stephan: A couple? There’s countless.
Songfacts: Okay, well, I found two.
Stephan: It was like [jokingly], “Ugh. Enough with the David Bowie! I know.”
Songfacts: So were you just listening to a lot of Bowie at the time?
Stephan: I don’t remember why. I do love David Bowie. I’m not nostalgic except when it comes to Bowie. I don’t listen to old music, but I don’t find his music old. It’s just forever exciting, modern, and it’s just fresh to me. I think he could put out a record right now. I’m definitely moved by his music and his wonderful sense of artifice. You never get to unravel it. I think something about that resonated with me on Dopamine on some level.
When I was singing the song “Rites of Passage,” as I was singing it, I was just making up a conversation. I said, “I wish I could help you through this phase,” and it reminded me of Bowie’s [singing], “Oh, you pretty things.” So I just put all those in and then also Bowie’s, “Changes” – “don’t tell them to grow up and out of it.” It fit into that kind of thing so I just brought him into the conversation.
Bowie’s the only time I’ve ever got completely starstruck. You get to meet everybody when you put out a record that becomes successful. Somehow you get to walk into the room and it’s like, “Oh, look! I’m sitting next to Madonna. There’s Kanye at a baseball game.”
It happens, and the one time where I was just like, “Oh, no!” I was onstage in LA at a radio show for KROQ. Bowie just walked into the side of the stage and was looking at me as I was singing. I was in full strut and was like [gasps], “Oh! What am I going to do?” [Laughs]
Songfacts: [Laughs] That’s amazing. The piano is prominent and shines a lot on the new album, particularly on songs like “Shipboard Cook,” “All the Souls,” “Something in You,” and “Say It.” Was this a conscious decision?
Stephan: No, that wasn’t a conscious decision. I wrote all those songs on guitar and it just felt like there was more room for my vocal when I put the piano in, so then I was like, “What do we need the guitar for? Turn it off.” So it just replaced it.
Songfacts: How do you feel about “Semi-Charmed Life” now that it’s been with you for so long?
Stephan: How do I feel about it?
Songfacts: Yeah, what are your feelings toward that song now years later?
Stephan: [Long pause] I don’t feel like it’s really mine. It’s participating in the experiences that other people are having with it.
A fan recently tweeted me – I have a lot of exchanges with fans on Twitter. It seems to be a manageable level of exchange. They said, “I listen to that song because for one moment it’s summer and everything is perfect.” I was like, Huh? The song was always about falling apart, so it makes sense that perfection is the moment right before gravity comes back in.
When we play it, I feel this kind of energy. I haven’t gotten tired of that energy. I like seeing it.
Songfacts: Why do you think “Jumper” still resonates with people to this day?
Stephan: I thought “Jumper” wasn’t really understood when it first came out. I mean, this is a noir about a guy who jumped off a bridge and killed himself because he was gay. It was really about bullying.
I think that when we first started singing it, it had this darkness to it. Now it has this real levity. It’s this huge moment of release for the audience.
I see this whole new generation who have embraced our music and they live in it in the present tense. It makes them so alive now and that release is because it’s like we’re living out our creed now. I think we are in a new age of understanding in a lot of ways. I mean, there are clearly a lot of backwards fuckers. The entire Republican Party is exempted from everything that I’m saying. But I look out at our audience and I see people of all kinds of different races out there now and LGBT couples. I saw these two lesbians with stretched-hooped earrings and they were just feeling that track. I just think that they felt a sense of welcome and understanding. That’s my guess. I don’t know. What do you think? [Mockingly], “It’s such a catchy tune!”
Songfacts: No. I mean, it is a catchy tune, but when you hear the lyrics of it, they are so dark. I think there’s always that moment in someone’s life where they can relate to that darkness and you just need that one person who’s going to pull you back.
Stephan: There you have it. That’s so much better. You do the interview. Just make it up! I like your quotes better than my quotes.
Songfacts: [Laughs] Thank you. What song do you think the meaning of it has been misinterpreted the most?
Stephan: Hmm. I don’t know. I feel really comprehended these days.
Songfacts: Out of your whole discography.
Stephan: [Long pause] I remember once a blogger, he said that our stuff was like cock rock. He said that they’re strutting around with their cock rock or something like that. It really pissed me off because that has nothing to do with what we’re actually about. If you see me onstage strutting around, I got that from Frances McDormand when she received her Academy Award for Fargo. She didn’t know what to do with the stuff so she started swinging her arms and walking around. So it’s more that concept. I just felt entirely misread.
Songfacts: Is there a song that you’re particularly proud of that often gets overlooked and maybe not as much attention is given to it?
Stephan: Well, not by my audience because they’re pretty astute and they keep track of things, so not really.
I really like to play the song “Another Life.” It’s a secret track on a record and we just never seem to get to it. I think if more people asked for that song, I’d play it more often, so that would be the closest one. I think we play it live much better than we recorded it, so I’d love to play that one.
Songfacts: Have the meanings of any of your songs changed for you over time?
Stephan: Yeah, I think “Jumper” for example. “Jumper” has become a really positive song. When I wrote it, I wrote it as a lament, and now I sing it as a sense of arrival and more exalted, so that one’s definitely changed.
Songfacts: Are there any other ones or just that one?
Stephan: [Long pause] Well, they change night-to-night. It’s a really interesting question because every night when I sing, I’m constantly applying myself to be in the present tense of what is animating this right now. So it’s not a recital, it’s actually happening now. Different things will come into my mind that will animate a song at different times.
“Blinded” is a post-relationship song. A relationship a long time ago, so it doesn’t hold a fresh sting of meaning that it did before. I think about that now. I think about walking in corridors of airports in Hong Kong [laughs]. It puts me into this totally real state of mind.
Songfacts: How do you feel about “Graduate” being such a popular song around this time of year? Are you sick of it?
Stephan: Well, I play it when I’m on tour. No, I’m not sick of it because the audience, they ignite off of it. I’m a vampire. They fill me up with fresh blood.