Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind

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Videos by American Songwriter

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Few writers are as honest, abrasive, and yet strikingly touching in their songwriting as Third Eye Blind‘s Stephan Jenkins. In one song – in one verse, really – he can go from delivering barbarous insults to singing his subject’s praises, never seeming anything short of sincere. Nearly 20 years after the release of their self-titled debut, the band is putting out their fifth and final album, Dopamine. We chat with the Californian writer about journaling, millennials and what comes next.

What is your songwriting process like? 

Well, my process is changing.  I’ve had a pretty self-suppressing process, but I’m going to change it into being much more open and much more like, “Ok, let’s go ahead and do it.  Let’s go ahead and do the song.”  In the past, I would write down a lot of ideas.  I journal lyrics a lot.

Do you journal lyrics in stanzas, like in song form, or do you do more of a stream-of-consciousness?

More stream-of-consciousness, but always kind of emotional.  What I’m looking to do is to get into that state where I’m just kind of writing down what’s happening, like I’m hearing my song on the radio in my head.

Do you write melodies or lyrics first?

The real short answer to that question is that I don’t really have a process.  I wish I did.  It kind of happens all over the place.  I could get struck with something from a melody or some rhythmic thing can happen.  I’m a drummer by trade, or by training.  I’m very rhythmically inclined.  There could be a lyric idea that gets me going and I’ll pick up a guitar – I usually write on the guitar.  Or I’ll have some melody and I’ll start kind of blathering.  You should never feel ashamed to blather when you know what the song is about, but you just don’t know what the words are to make that song happen yet. It will piece itself out.  There all kinds of different routes I go towards trying to make something cohesive, something to evoke some state.

Do you think, at this point in your career, you’re still writing for the same audience you were when you were writing your first couple of albums?

No.  I’m writing for a much younger audience.

You’re writing for a younger audience now?

Yes. Our audience is millennials.  They are really young.  They get something out of this that they seem to require.  It answers some need.  I’ve thought about that a lot.  It’s kind of amazing if you go see a show.  It is remarkable to see the audience because we are not engaged in nostalgia at all, and our audiences engages songs in the present tense, so we’re basically this big playlist.  We’re not marketing anything, we’re not on the radio, and our audience is too young to remember us dominating radio.  They don’t have anything to do with that.  It’s totally their own culture.

They just like it because of the quality of the music.

They just exchange it with each other and it does something for them now.

You mentioned that this is going to be your last album?

Yes.

Do you have any plans on doing anything solo after that?  Or is this kind of your end cap for music?

No.  What I meant is that I’m going to stop the process of writing a whole body of songs, but not putting them out after I write them and instead waiting for a marketing cycle.  After this record, as soon as I write a song, I’m going to post it, give to the universe.  If an EP comes up, great, but, I’m not going to sit there and work up 12 songs.  I wrote 45 songs for this record and ultimately I’m going to put them all out.  I don’t know how, but I’m not going to worry about how they monetize or anything else.  I’m going to try to do it based on tightening that bond and connectivity with an audience.  That’s the plan, man.

How do you balance playing new material when you have old material that is so beloved by your fans?  How do you feel about losing some of that to introduce your new work?  Where do you find your medium?

It’s kind of tough with this band to figure out a setlist because a lot of our fans are kind of experts. They want to hear some very obscure things. But we also have a larger following, which means we can play – not everywhere – but in a lot of places we can play arenas. Because of that, I think it just kind of behooves us to play some hits. But I have a new album, a double album that I want to play for people.  We have to put all three of those things together.

Do you ever get tired of playing some of those older songs?  

I get tired of playing “How’s it Gonna Be,” but I’ve been playing it acoustically.  People seem to really like it like that.

Who were your biggest influences when you were a young writer, and how have those changed between then and now?

When I was a little kid, I really liked pop music. I had an ear for it.  Even at 7 years old, I could tell what was authentic and cool and what was cynical and just trying to hustle a buck.  I could just tell.  I liked hip hop.  It opened up the lyrical space in a way that I really liked.  I liked Bob Dylan for that, too.  I love the whole gothy, new wave kind of thing, like Joy Division, New Order, Jesus and Mary Chain.  I loved Elizabeth Fraser and Cocteau Twins.  Now, I’m just always open to getting freaked.  I’m not nostalgic.  I’m always open for something new to happen, whether that’s a DJ or somebody doing something that can really reinvigorate.  I was driving over to the practice space yesterday, and it was raining, and somebody put in the new Alabama Shakes record.  Everybody in the van was like, “Wow. I’m in the rain.  I’m in Nashville in the spring.  I’m with my mates.”  I’m listening to music that feels magical.

Your first album has hit after hit after hit on it.  How much pressure did you feel after that came out to follow up with something equally as fulfilling, and what kind of impact do you think that had on your trajectory? When you start out at the top, where do you go?

I don’t think I felt much pressure on Blue.  I don’t know why.  I mean, we should’ve, but we didn’t.  Blue is really kind of freehand.  It’s got these long, weird songs on it.  I didn’t really feel any pressure.  I felt it on the third record.  I dont know why, but I did.  On the last album, I didn’t feel any pressure at all.  It was like we could do anything we want.  My pressure isn’t to try and make hits.  I don’t really work that way.  I’m concerned with trying to do something that’s authentic and relevant and has to be heard.  I don’t want to say or do something that doesn’t need to be done or said.  That’s how I feel.  It has to have urgency.  That’s more of my thing.

How long have you been writing songs?  When did you start?

I was really writing them in high school, but I didn’t know what I was doing.  I was just kind of making things up.  I was a biology major in college, but then I thought, “Nah,” because  I kept writing lyrics in classes.  I really just wanted to be a drummer, but Third Eye Blind didn’t have any writers and we couldn’t find a singer, so I’ve basically been filling in as a singer/songwriter until we find one and I can go back to being a drummer.  We’ll just have two drummers.

What do you think is the best song ever written?

“I Regret Nothing” by Edith Piaf.  She didn’t write it, but somebody wrote it.  I don’t know… “Umbrella” might be the most perfect song.

“Umbrella” by Rihanna?

Yeah.

What do you think is the most challenging thing you’ve found in your career as a songwriter?

Honestly, I’m susceptible to critics.  As a child, I really felt very much on the outside of things.  I created a world of music to create something of my own.  I think it was very stifling to me to have that be subjected to self-appointed arbiters of what’s kosher.  I couldn’t just get my “fuck you” wall up fast enough.  It affects me.  If I was advising songwriters, I would tell them to write the damn song and finish it out and go ahead.  If you want to write again later, write it again later, but don’t get hung up on things.  But it’s not advice that I particularly follow.

How do you generally handle criticism when you come across it?

I think I actually handle it fine now, but I think it’s more that I anticipate criticism.  When I do it, I really have to put myself out there.  You just kind a flay yourself out there, and I’m not an exhibitionist.  I’m not getting energy from that.

It seems like your songs are always very personal, and you include a lot of very specific imagery. Were you always comfortable with putting yourself out there like that or did it take you a while to adjust to it?

I don’t think my songs are weapons.  I think they are more bombs than swords.  They’re not weapons.  I was with Liz Phair, who is a really great songwriter, and she said, “Your songs have this thing.  Your message is like, ‘You’re flawed and you’re fucked up, but I still want you.’”  I thought that was interesting.

Do you think this album is more similar to your older material or your newer material?

I would say this one has more choruses on it than the last album.  The last album was kind of moments.  I think this one has a more direct, stripped-down… it has a pulse.  A lot of it is like 128 bpm.  It’s very driving.  I don’t know how much it’s like the first album. I think the first album was pretty angry.  It was a pretty angry album and pretty destructive.

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