By Jason SchreursOn Jimmy Eat World's seventh album, Damage, the Phoenix alt/emo rock band have returned to the straightforward days of 1999's Clarity, an album representing what's considered their "classic" era by long-time fans. The long-running four-piece hit big with the smash single "The Middle" in 2001 and have since faded back into relative obscurity, releasing epic pop-rock albums along the way just under the mainstream radar. Damage, released by Dine Alone Records in Canada and RCA in the U.S., is the next chapter in the band's epic quest to write the best ever "love-gone-wrong" song. We recently chatted with Jimmy Eat World vocalist/guitarist Jim Adkins about recording the band's new album with producer Alain Johannes (Mark Lanegan, Chris Cornell), lyrical assumptions about his personal life and him once sharing a stage with Taylor Swift.
Tell me about the making of the new album? Well, we got out of Arizona, for once. We've made our last three albums in Arizona and we wanted to get away from our own studio for a change. But we still didn't want to do the completely traditional way that people make records, so we went to Los Angeles to visit Alain Johannes. He's a super insane musician; one of those guys you hate because he can pick up any instrument and just shred on it. So we moved to his house for a month and set up drums in his living room and amps in his bedroom and cut a record at his place. It was really nice to let go of a little bit of control to another person. We've just been holed up in our Bat-cave for so long that we began to lose perspective, I think.
How does Damage compare to the rest of the Jimmy Eat World catalog? I don't know, man, it's tough. It really is. People might say it sounds different, but I don't think so. I'm the worst person to ask about comparing me to myself [laughs]. It's just us; we do our thing and we like what we like. And I don't think people who are familiar with us will find it dissimilar to what we've released in the past.
It definitely sounds like Jimmy Eat World. There's nothing radical about it, you know? Yeah, that's the thing. I really like the idea of giving yourself some restraint. Giving yourself a forum to explore in and try to make something that fits; making the most creative thing you can, given some self-defined boundaries. And that's just the approach we've had for a long time. You're always going to gravitate towards what you like to do, and certain devices you use to get that to happen, and we just have ours. The longer we continue to do that, the more ingrained and defined it becomes.
You used a different writing style on Invented, by using some photo books as inspiration to write songs. What was your writing process this time? Was there anything like that? Working on Invented I got into the idea of using concept or themes to root the writing around; just some sort of prompt, or initial thing to loosely base the songs around. With Invented it was really character-based; my musical attempt at writing short stories, in a way. Working on the material for Damage, right away I wanted to get away from completely fictional, completely character-based narratives. I wanted the initial prompt to be something that was more personal, instead of more voyeuristic, like Invented. Love songs make the rock'n.roll world go 'round, you know, but the "I'm so happy I'm in love" idea for a song is just so boring to me. I can't have any empathy for that type of a song, so naturally I gravitate more towards breakup songs and love songs with a lot of adversity to them. To be honest with that, I had to approach themes like heartbreak and emotional injury from the perspective of the world around me right now. It's a lot different from when I was 20 and writing "fuck you, I'm outta here" type of love songs. It's just different now. There are so many more complexities now. So the general theme of Damage is relationships; it's breakups, it's introspection, it's all of things that are involved in adult relationships.
Do people often make assumptions about your personal life based on your songs? They always have. I'm singing songs with the word "I" in them a lot, so they always have. It's ranged from, "So, are you on drugs?" No, no, I shouldn't write a song called "Drugs and Me" because people are going to start asking me about it [laughs]. But in a way I think that means I'm successful in my writing. If someone says, "Dude, are you okay?" then that song really worked. No, my life is not a direct line to happiness; I don't think anyone's is. But I'm doing better now than I ever have been.
People will always get their own interpretations from songs, so it must be harder when you're singing in first person. Some people definitely have an easier aptitude to take a song and fix their own associations with it. It doesn't matter where the song or the person came from, that song just means something to them. Then there are people who really get off on knowing every detail about the life and situation of the person creating the work. Some people get so deep into that they lose the point of it all, which is to find something that makes sense to you and try to apply that to your life, or get something from it for yourself.
Damage seems more streamlined and focused. There aren't really a lot of left-field songs or big anthem rockers on it. Was that a conscious thing this time out? It was a by-product of us wanting to make it simpler, I think. We were really focusing on performance and not insane studio creations. Something where you could feel like it was human beings and not computers.
Are you almost back to a Clarity-style, straightforward Jimmy Eat World record? Yeah, in the last couple of years we took a deep look at Clarity again, and we performed Clarity as an album a couple of times, and I did start thinking about that album. My approach about observations and experience… that approach is the same approach I put into Clarity. I was just trying to be honest with the experience that I have now. Clarity was kind of more like "everything is new," but it was similar in the way I approached the writing.
It takes a while to warm up to all of your records when you first hear them. This album seems like another grower… For me, that's how any album is, man. I don't really get into an album until eight or nine months after I have it. And then I'm like, "Yeah, dude, this is actually really fucking good!" But that's good, though. It's rare that I hear something and just freak out over it, and go get it, and then listen to it, and burn out on it. It's rare that those types of records have the crazy legs that the ones that creep up on you do.
What other projects do you guys have going on besides the band? Would you like to do some more producing some day? Yeah, that's something that I kick around, but for right now being in the band is the main thing that takes up most of my time. We have a really decent music scene here in Phoenix, and it keeps getting better, and there's a club here that does a different charity benefit night almost monthly, where local musicians get together and play cover songs by a specific band. I like sitting in on those. I was in a J Church cover band, and that was a great time, really fun. Hanging out with people, just playing around and having fun. My side-project is just having fun right now. As for the other guys, well, our bass player is in the process, and it's a very long process, of opening up a whiskey distillery.
What was it like being on stage with Taylor Swift? [Adkins joined Swift onstage at an October 2011 show in Phoenix.] You looked a little bit shell-shocked up there. Yeah, that was surreal. I was just trying not to fall down laughing because I actually rose from beneath the stage. I was like, "You know what, dude, I'm never going to do something this crazy ever again, so why not? Let's do the rise from the floor thing!" [laughs] I was just trying not to laugh because I felt so ridiculous. But it's as rock'n'roll as it gets, man.
What was T Swift like? She seems cool, seems nice. I met her at sound check and she just seemed like a kid, man. She's just a fucking kid who has her shit really together [laughs].
So, did Alain Johannes end up playing on the new record at all? Yeah, he ended up doing a couple of odds and ends things. He was awesome, man. He has such an insane level of musicianship and he always had a good thing to say to get the flow moving again. If it seemed like things were stuck, he always had something, even if it was something comical that wasn't even about the song; the vibe he gives off was awesome. It was great working with him.