San Diego

Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life

Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins talks about the group's monumental debut album

Confession: When I was the ripe young age of 16 years old, I made my very first foray into the arena of live music. I remember it like it was yesterday. The venue: Reno's Lawlor Events Center. The date: April 21, 1998. My mom dropped my friend Steve and I off, we got in line (which wrapped around the block), and quickly noticed, as teenage boys are wont to do, that we were surrounded by teenage girls. Tons of 'em. It was basically like a 20 to 1 ratio of females to males, and we loved it. Of course, they wanted absolutely nothing to do with two timid, pimple-faced dweebs like us. They were there for one thing and one thing only: Third Eye Blind.

"I...don't remember it," Stephan Jenkins, the band's frontman, admitted after I recounted the tale over an early morning phone call.

How could he? Reno's not exactly the most memorable town, and to be honest, the band was riding a wave of mass hysteria at the time thanks to their debut self-titled album that spawned the rock radio/TRL mainstays "Semi-Charmed Life," "Jumper" and "How's It Going to Be." Twenty years later, the record (which would go to sell more than 6 million copies worldwide), and those songs, have stood the test of time.

"Yea, they kinda did," Jenkins said. "The songs live on. That is true. It's unbelieveable but it's true. [laughs] And the thing is -- those 16 year olds are still at our shows. That's the strangest part. We're not nostalgic; we're not a memory. We are present. What I mean by that is that our music is kind of a playlist, it doesn't have a date stamp on it for kids who are 16 through 26 years old. They find our music through each other and it speaks to them now and enlivens their experience now -- so it's current for them. That is miraculous to me. I look at it with a sense of wonder. Because I had nothing to do with it. It's their activity that keeps it alive."

Well, that's not entirely true. One of the reasons that the band's first album connected to the world's youth like it did was Jenkins' ability to tap into the deep emotional turmoil that a lot of us experience while growing up. The songs on that record were cathartic anthems and explicitly tackled drug use, suicide, deteriorating relationships, sexuality -- hell, "Graduate" sounds like it's about going off to college (it's not). It basically arrived custom made for the angsty teenager. Of course, these days Jenkins is a far cry from the person he was when he originally wrote them. 

"I do have different connections to them [now]," he explained. "I think when I write songs, there's no forethought that goes into them -- you just kind of jump into a river and the river tells you where you're going, or gives you information about where you've been. You're kind of channeling it; kind of in a sense of being a mystic when it's really working. And what that does is that it kind of tells you where you are and who you are in that moment, in that time. So I don't really know who I am, I'm being illuminated in some way and there's some sense of autobiography or something like that going on a lot -- and I hear a lot of rage, this desire for redemption and for forgiveness, very punk but sort of a lusty punk kind of thing. I think I was very hard on myself, as most artists are. When I look at that record, I have empathy for the striving of that person."

Jenkins' personal struggles in the time leading up to the formation of Third Eye Blind found him alternately consumed by an overwhelming sense of isolation and tireless ambition.

"I come from a deep DIY scene but I didn't even have a scene -- a scene is like you have a support network and I didn't have that either," he said. "I came up playing drums in punk rock clubs and carrying Fender Twins up stairs for other guitar players and I had so many failures and things falling apart. But I had a ferocity, a driven-ness about me. I think most of artists do. We don't look the same, we don't talk the same, we don't dress the same, and you can see it. It makes you kind of a misfit or an outcast and that's hard on you. When I look back on it, I wanna tell myself, 'Just stay at it.'"

Nearly a quarter-century later, Jenkins seems to have mixed feelings reserved for the band's critical reception after those early, gigantic hits.

"There was a lot of 'lumping,'" the frontman told me. "I just always wanted to be an indie band. That's really what I thought I was. It was a little bit like Radiohead, where we got kind of saddled by hits and then labeled by those hits. What I was trying to do was some kind of dark amalgam of overly wordy, goth-y lyrics that are somehow tinged with hip-hop and british rock riffs and really heavy beats -- and I was just trying to put all these things together in some authentic way. It was always an earnest effort ... and I think there's a real joy in being comprehended, right now, overall."

Come July 21, San Diego State's Open Air Theatre will be rocking and swaying with songs that, to some, helped define the sound of their youth (like me) and, to others, the future. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band's debut album, the record will be played in its entirety -- a type of nostalgia that Jenkins, admittedly, doesn't get too wrapped up in: "It's definitely the last time we do that. We've never done it before and we're never going to do it again."

Two decades of Third Eye Blind. Who would've thunk it? Maybe Jenkins, but even he seems blown away by it all.

"It's an amazing thing that 20 years after you put out a record, 10,000 people wanna show up and see it," he said, adding: "If you're blasé about that, we should not hang out." [laughs]

Third Eye Blind bring their 'Summer Gods Tour' through Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre on July 21. Silversun Pickups open. Tickets are available here.

Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow, plays in Diamond Lakes, and runs the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

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