Jim Adkins is a different guy from the one who wrote Bleed American three years ago, but he probably still has some of that flashbulb light pulsing through his veins. The residue of a career-turning dance with the mainstream can’t ever be washed fully away. It it remains and makes for fine arguments about the integrity of a band that’s tasted the sugar of great appeal and just what they’ll do for an encore now that they have an audience outside, waiting and thirsting for something similar to what they were given last time.
But in talking with Adkins, lead singer of Phoenix band Jimmy Eat World, you get the sense that those exterior expectations, blowing at them from wide-open outside vents, were nothing in comparison to the self-imposed demands the group put on themselves. He talks of the five and six demos they did for every song on their latest release, Futures. He talks about the songs that were labored over, recorded countless times, and then dropped from the album because they just didn’t fit. He talks about the late nights/early mornings in the studio when he would re-record vocal tracks and lead guitar tracks by himself to get them right. They didn’t need the record company hounding them, inserting their two cents here or there. They were already hounding themselves.
“It always feels a little bit different with each record. It’s never felt like a safe kind of environment. You’re always on the lookout for opportunities and pitfalls,” Adkins says. “I think we were under a lot of pressure because this was essentially our first record on the big label. We knew they’d be curious about what we were up to next. It took a while to get into that headspace.”
He measures his words as if he’s got a tiny little scale between his ears, weighing meanings and densities before he releases them. He’s calm, and you can tell that everything he says is the way it was supposed to be said. Extended pauses for mental timeouts, regroupings, come in the middle of answers only a short time after the initial pause to first mull a question properly. It’s as if he’s reliving the recording process again right on the spot, remembering all of the discussions that came down to whether or not they were happy with what they’d done. He explains that most of the comments and criticisms were coming not from the record company execs, but from those in the band’s inner circle, thinking the constructive criticism was welcome and therefore to the betterment of this all-important answer to the panty-partied phenomenon single “The Middle” and its charged-up sister “Sweetness.”
“We’d never had to deal with that before. Even when we were on Capitol, we only saw our A&R guy once, and that happened to be the day Billboard showed up to take a picture,” he says with a laugh. “We really focused hard on this one. I wouldn’t trade anything about making this record. The bar was set extremely high for what we thought we had to accomplish. To do right by [fans, record company, outsiders], we had to forget that they even existed. I think creating music is a really selfish endeavor. It has to come from an honest place. We were all really focused on the minutia of the record. Nuclear bombs could have been going off outside the studio and we would never have known.”
Futures is a broody collection of 11 songs that, in all respects, couples the fuzzy rock band of the late ’90s not yet meant for mass consumption with the songwriter Adkins became on Bleed American. There is a cloudcast that palls over each track, extracting all of the happy, upbeat marrow with which the band made its move three years ago, and syringing in an outlook of desperation and struggle. The happy times just aren’t there anymore. Any sort of affirmation that life is a bowl full of cherries is left missing as Adkins, bassist Rick Burch, guitarist Tom Linton, and drummer Zach Lind have their heavy hands covered in dejections. They tackle fear, pain, drugs, addictions, and various forms of hopelessness with a rumbling blackness that allows air to breathe in choruses every bit as memorable as those off of Bleed American—from which they’ll be cashing royalty checks well into their autumn years.
“I don’t think it’s all that out of line. If you take a look at “Lucky Denver Mint” or “Blister,” they’re [not] all that different from Bleed American,” Adkins says. “I think Clarity is more atmospheric. In part, it was our creative decision to do that. We didn’t have time to rent a timpani [as they had for Bleed American]. We just got out the wood blocks and went crazy. We got back to the space where we can get the mood of every song.
“Ultimately, I’m shooting for something on the first listen, a nostalgic feeling that puts you in a place right off the bat. You have those records that, six months down the line, you’re really getting into and you can’t believe how good they are. And those are the records you listen to years later. The Doves’ The Last Broadcast did that for me, and Arcade Fire’s Funeral. It usually takes me six to nine months to get into a record. If you can capture that feeling instantly, like you’ve been here before, it’s what I try to do. It’s not easy.”
And for Adkins, that’s where the pressure comes from, the wont to be memorable—possibly timeless—not from the well-manicured hands that fit into the big-labeled pockets or the Johnny and Jenny-come-lately groupies. It’s enough to make you choke.
Jimmy Eat World headlines the KPNT Ho Ho Show at the Pageant December 16.