In the following phone interview frontman Jim Adkins discusses the band’s new album Damage, his approach to writing break-up songs and when it’s necessary to throw all cares out the window.
So have you been enjoying playing some new shows recently?
Yes, yes. We’re ready [laughs]. We’ve been dormant for a while and it feels really, really good to get out and play new songs.
How was that little mini-tour you did of Arizona?
It was awesome. It was really cool. It was pretty much exactly what I expected. Some of the variables that were variables turned out not to be such a big deal. Everyone wasn’t so uptight, and we had a really good time.
I read that you were wanting to play some deeper cuts this time out, and I saw that you’ve been playing “Chase This Light” for the first time. How is that going and what can we expect on this touring cycle?
We have so many songs now. Unless we want to do a complete lockdown where we play four hours, we have to make choices about what we don’t play. That means we have to be less precious about songs. We’re approaching our sets more of like it’s going to be a night-by-night thing.
In the past we’ve gotten into the habit, and I think a lot of people do this, of putting a show together and having maybe one or two really strong sets that you can do, not switching it up a whole lot so that it ends up being this streamlined, kickass kind of thing that works. I think on this one we’re definitely going to play songs like “Chase This Light,” that we’ve never even played out before until this tour, and older songs, stuff that people may not have seen us play or play often. We're trying to choose which older songs that we play and really mixing that up.
It seems every article about this new record mentions this “adult break-up” thing. I was wondering if you could unpack that a little bit and talk about why you chose to go in that direction for this one.
Yeah, sure. Working on Invented, it didn’t start out this way but I got really into the idea of the material being really rooted around a central theme, like an idea. It didn’t have to be a specific subject, it was just some basic starting point to develop the material around. It could be anything, really.
It seemed to work out really well for Invented, so when I started writing new songs and I was looking for a lyrical theme to work from I decided to go with love songs as this basic, basic starting point. Exploring that, I realized the types of love songs I like are essentially the ones that deal more with adversity and emotional injury and heartbreak, the complexities and the difficult parts of relationships, not the happy parts. That’s a more interesting story to me, and without a story I don’t have a song.
I decided to develop it like that. To honestly look at that and to think about it as a writing starting point, to perform that and sing it without feeling like a complete idiot, it has to be rooted around the world around me now. It is a little bit more grown up and there’s a lot of gray areas to it all. You can’t just say, “See ya, I’m out of here.” It’s not that simple. There’s a whole lot more going on. There’s a lot more complexities to relationships when you have experience, I suppose. There’s so much to write about in there.
What does your wife think about you always writing these break-up songs? Does she ever want to you write a nice little love ballad every once in a while?
[Laughs] She knows what she signed up for, man. Look, writing is writing. It’s not only how you feel but it’s asking yourself a question or two to get deeper into that, or a question or two about how you feel about something. Let’s say there’s an observation that you have a reaction to a girl you have feelings for. You know how you feel about her. That could be a first person thing. That could be a true experience of yours, or not. You can take that experience and ask yourself and develop that experience in a fictional kind of way. That might take you to place where you’re asking yourself how you would feel about something that didn’t happen, then that could generate ideas about what you could write about too.
I don’t think anything I’ve written is straight up autobiographical, “I” means me. It’s just what it is. There’s nothing I’ve ever written that’s been that straight up. I’m pretty grateful for a lot of what I have in my life. I’m actually OK again, you know [laughs], but if you just write about how happy you are, that’s just boring.
I read where you said some of the influences for the sound and the structure of this record you looked back to reexamine Clarity to get. Can you talk a little about that?
For me, it’s similar to that because that’s how I approached a lot of emotional things in those days. It’s the observation and experience of the world around you, and you develop the ideas from that. It’s similar to how I worked on the material for Damage because I’m asking myself the same kinds of questions about things, it’s just that I’m in a different place in life, a completely different environment. I would say it’s similar in that regard. I don’t want to make people think the album’s going to sound like Clarity, but it’s similar in that regard of how I approached looking at different things.
It also seems, at least circumstantially, that Damage also has a lot of similarities with Bleed American. You did both without a label on your own, and it seems to be more acoustic-based as a lot of Bleed American was. Did you have that kind of in the back of your mind as well as you were making this?
It felt sort of good, I guess, in that sense. I’ve never felt that we were necessarily relying on a label or someone else to help us make a record. We have this system where the people that we work on with the records have always been ours. With Damage, I think the first time our record label heard any of it was when we turned it in before going into mix [laughs]. It didn’t feel different from a creative standpoint. It didn’t feel like any more or less independently made than anything else we’ve done.
One of the songs I wanted to ask about real quick is the last song, “You Were Good.” Typically you’ve been known to end records with these big, epic songs, like “Goodbye Sky Harbor” or “23” or “Dizzy,” while this one is much more stripped down and intimate. What went into having that be the last track on the album?
That sort of goes with your other question about being more acoustic-based. A fair amount of the ides for Damage started out as acoustic songs, like really rough acoustic songs. “You Were Good” started out in a pretty acoustic-based world and when we tried to take it out of that world, we realized that without the acoustic guitar in there as a bed, it didn’t feel the same without it being there. With “You Were Good,” we experimented around a little bit with fleshing it out and building the dynamics of it in a full band sense, but at the end of the day we all looked at each other and agreed it sounded better with just me and a guitar and the weirdo, Indian drone thing on there [laughs]. I don’t know. It just felt like it should be the thing that closed the album. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a song like that on an album before. It’s nice.
Another song I wanted to ask about is “Book of Love.” That’s actually one of my favorite Peter Gabriel songs, even though it’s a cover of another band, and I was wondering does yours have anything to do with that song.
Early, early on, before I really had a clear picture of what the writing should be like, there was a phase there where I was writing songs based around other song titles about love, like “All My Love” and “Book of Love.” I had no idea where I was going with it, I would just kind of use that as a jumping off point. What about that title can I take from it? It has nothing to do with anybody’s original writer or people that played that before, it was more about appropriating the title and trying to make something new out of it.
One thing that initially struck me about this album is that to me it doesn’t necessarily have as super obvious a radio single as some of your other albums have had in the past. Was it difficult to come up with picking the single for this one?
You know I’ve always thought that every song off all our records could be a single, which is why I’m so glad I don’t have that job of deciding what gets played on the radio because I’d be wrong a lot. I don’t know, man. I think radio is a different thing. What gets serviced out to radio stations isn’t my job, and I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about it.
Many writing and recording musicians write based on trying to chase a particular listener, chase the approval of somebody besides yourself, whether that person is a radio programmer, a quote unquote “fan,” or the 18-25 demographic. When you start chasing the approval of some completely unknown, unquantifiable listener, then you’re going to end up with something that you’re not going to be proud of. It’s not going to be rewarding. It’s not going to feel good for you to put your name on.
Is there a single? Is there not a single? Who’s going to like this record? Are your fans going to like this record? Is anybody going to like this record? I think you have to be brutally honest with yourself and not care, throw all that out the window when you’re writing and when you’re recording.
You bring up an interesting point there. You’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, so you’ve developed your own signature sound and fans kind of know what to expect. How conscious are you of that versus how much do you want to try something new and do things in a slightly different way?
I don’t know. I’ve always been hesitant to experiment for the sake of experimentation. There has to be a good reason for it. As a band we have a pretty good idea of what our strengths are, and what we all agree that good is is similar. That’s probably a byproduct of being around for so long, and I understand it. It’s hard to have an outside perspective, and sometimes it’s hard to think about what you’re working on in the present moment outside the context of the entire time you’ve been working. I understand that, and we’re reminded of it on a daily basis almost, especially next year when we turn 20.
I don’t know. I look at it as something to celebrate. I look at it as something to be extremely grateful for. It is what makes us keep going. The fact that anybody would end up liking what we do and decide to take time out of their day to come see us play, that’s a huge compliment. The longer that we’re a band, that’s something we appreciate more.
So a few weeks ago me and a couple buddies each came up with our own top 10 Jimmy Eat World song lists, and it was pretty interesting to see how much they varied from person to person. I was curious does it also vary a lot within the band on what your favorite songs are. Do you even have a short list of the most special things you’ve done so far?
I think it does. It can vary on a night-by-night situation too. I tend to favor the songs where I had a clear idea of what I wanted to get and then got it, or sometimes you can be surprised by something. You might just have some general sort of thing you want to encapsulate you don’t quite know, but then you do it and you feel like you nail it, and then some songs are just fun to play [laughs].
We always get asked, “How do you guys feel about playing songs like ‘The Middle’ or ‘Sweetness’ at shows? They’ve been pretty successful songs, kind of crossed over to a mainstream sort of area. Aren’t you guys sick of playing those?” It’s like how can you really be sick of playing a song you wrote at a festival when 30,000 people stand up and all of a sudden pay attention to that? It’s like, really? I don’t know how anybody does not get off on that a little bit. [Laughs] I don’t know. They’re all my babies.
really cool interview
i like the no-apologies-for-sad-songs attitude and his admission that they don't really get sick of old songs...seems like both of those viewpoints have been fading a bit recently
Jim seems like a really chill guy that still really enjoys what he does. I love the insight that he gives when he talks about writing an album for yourself and not worrying about if anyone else will like it.