If there’s a band that can be blamed for the thousands upon thousands of half-arsed emo groups that constantly try to add you on MySpace (if anyone still uses that website), it’s probably Jimmy Eat World. Not that you can stay too mad at them, as they count as one of the most respectable and consistent American alternative rock bands of the last two decades. Their 1999 album Clarity counts as one of the two most influential pillars of emo, along with Weezer’s rediscovered classic Pinkerton. From their post-hardcore beginnings and the often experimental textures of Clarity, the band went on to unprecedented success at the dawn of the millennium, with Bleed American and Futures soundtracking endless college parties and teen movies.
But while their evergreen popularity and perpetually teenage fanbase might suggest a lack of depth to the band, they’ve always proven critics wrong. While their albums have invariably been buoyed by punchy singles like ‘The Middle’ or ‘Sweetness’, they balance out the pop-punk saccharine with plenty of brooding, orchestrated slow-burners, such as the swooning ‘Just Watch The Fireworks’. Currently touring on the back of seventh opus Invented, I caught up with the band at their Leeds Academy date, after a Spinal Tap-esque journey through the maze-like venue to their dressing room.
They first off explain their somewhat bizarre moniker with a story about a fight between guitarist Tom Linton’s siblings Jim and Ed resulting in a picture being drawn by Ed of Jim eating the world. Taking inspiration from pictures still seems to be a trait, as many of the songs written for the new record were instigated by singer Jim Adkins’ interest in the photographs of Cindy Sherman. ‘They’re nondescript photos’, he says, ‘they look kind of like they’re a still from a movie, so you don’t really know where the subject’s coming from or where they’re going, or why they have that expression on their face or what’s really happening, so it creates all these questions. Your mind naturally wants to answer those questions. So I’d use that as a jumping off point for sketching out my answers for what questions arose when I looked at them. So as time went on ideas from those writing exercises would creep into the lyrics’.
Another inspiration for the new album seems to be the recent 10th Anniversary Tour of their classic Clarity. Along with producer (and Drive Like Jehu drummer) Mark Trombino being back on board, this is the first record since Clarity on which Tom has sung lead on a song (‘Action Needs an Audience’), having originally provided vocals for their first two records, before nobly handing over to Jim. Drummer Zach Lind explains the initial shift in duties; ‘It’s strange because probably, from the outside, it would look like someone at some point made a conscious decision, like ‘Ok, Tom’s not gonna sing much anymore’, but it really wasn’t like that. I think at the time, from Static Prevails to Clarity, Jim just clearly had more to offer, in terms of what he wanted to do with the songs. It’s not so much a demotion of Tom, it’s just a question of Jim writing more. And I think Tom was comfortable with that.’
Bassist Rick Burch chimes in, ‘It was really cool to get Tom singing on the new record, because I think we’ve done some great songs in the past with his vocals, and he does have a lot to offer.’ But did airing the old songs on the Clarity Anniversary Tour draw these elements back into Invented? ‘I don’t think it was a conscious thing. It could have been a subconscious thing’ suggests Zach. Rick admits ‘To do that tour, we were playing songs off Clarity which we had never done live before. So we had to go back and listen to the record quite deeply and put together the songs in a live form, so just re-visiting it and having it fresh in our mind may well have subconsciously carried over into the new songs’.
Songs on Invented drift to the more progressive lengths of Clarity, with a few 6-7 minute pieces a welcome change from the sometimes a little too precise, punky bursts of the last two albums. It seems that on this new release, the band have found time to breathe, and are all the better for it. Zach agrees, ‘I think you’re right, on Chase This Light and Futures, all the song arrangements are pretty concise and to the point, but on this record we felt like…’ Rick interrupts, ‘…it was kind of like, what was right for those songs. We weren’t checking ourselves and saying, ok, we’ve gotta keep them all around 3-4 minutes. We let the songs dictate where they’d go’. Maybe this is a result of playing the 16 minute epic ‘Goodbye Sky Harbour’, based on John Irving novel ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany‘, live.
‘Originally when we wrote ‘…Sky Harbour’, there was a version of it that we did that we would play as a band all the time. And then when we went into the studio, we took the song and made a concept out of the song and changed it from how we originally played it. Then whenever we would play it live, we’d play it the way we originally wrote it. So we never really did the long version. And then, for the Clarity tour, we thought, let’s try to pull off a version of it that’s a full representation of what happens. Kind of an abridged long version’. Later that night, the band will play this sprawling, sweetly melodic epic to a rapturous audience in stunned silence. The return to the Clarity material also seems to have changed the band’s minds when selecting what went on Invented.
While for Chase This Light the band dropped songs they liked to make the album more unified, they felt at more liberty with Invented. ‘We’ve never really been big on making a record where all the songs need to fit together in a certain way. When we’re putting together a record, our criteria is, take what we think are the best songs and put them on the album. In the past, on Chase This Light, I think it’s maybe the one record where we’d go back and change it because I don’t think we put all the best songs on it for the sake of cohesion. It’s not that making an album with a theme or vibe is wrong, it’s just that in our experience you might undercut yourself and not put the best songs on the record, and end up regretting it’. This new-found relaxed attitude has resulted in a much more organic and heartfelt record, with its extra warmth perhaps a consequence of jamming together away from record companies and management in their own rehearsal space. ‘It’s a rehearsal space-studio we have, kind of in a warehouse by where we live. We recorded the last two records there. It really frees us up to work on our own. It’s like a glorified garage’.
It seems that in the eleven years since they broke with Clarity, Jimmy Eat World have managed to somehow stay the same regular dudes they always were. Still rocking like kids in their practice space despite being the headliners for festivals like Soundwave, the band, like their music, have always seemed grounded, and it’s probably for this reason that they still haven’t slipped up despite being seven albums down the line. Jim, who still seems like an awkward teenager at a school disco onstage, maintains, appropriately considering our location, that ‘all of my guitar lines are ripped off from David Gedge of The Wedding Present’, while the band’s music tastes seem to have differed very little. Zach protests, ‘They’ve changed a little bit…’ …but also stayed the same’, interjects Rick; ‘just last night we were listening to Drive Like Jehu. We still listen to the bands we listened to 15 years ago. But we’ve got new things on our radar. Yesterday Jim was looking up old videos of… who was that?’ ‘No idea, I put my headphones on at that point’ grumbles Zach. ‘Who did that song Come To Daddy?’ Aphex Twin? ‘Yeah’.
It’s a bit of a surprise that Jim likes psychedelic techno, and it would be difficult to find a song where that influence is apparent. But now, as older statesmen of emo, Jimmy Eat World seem happy and creative, and what’s more, have a 15 year catalogue to pick songs from when playing live. The Clarity tour seems to have reminded them of their past, more progressive elements, and the freedom of their position as scene godfathers has allowed them to create a mature, refreshed new record. ‘We definitely realise we’ve been doing this for while, and we’re still so glad that we’re able to do this after all these years,’ Zach smiles. Judging by an ecstatic sold-out crowd in the Academy, and their impressive set-list which marries a host of classics to new songs which fans can already recite, they’ll be pulling on our heart-strings for at least another 15 years with any luck.