Phoenix quartet Jimmy Eat World could have ended up a mere footnote in the annals of '90s rock. The oft-repeated story goes something like this: In 1994, band releases 2,000 copies of its debut album on tiny indie label, in this case Wooden Blue Records. Almost immediately--right out of high school--band is offered a contract with a major label, in this case Capitol, with the promise, "Hey, I can get you guys into real studios in L.A., and you can make real records and have a budget to work with and be able to tour." Band's reaction is, "Bring it on! That sounds rad."
But according to the band--singer/guitarist Jim Atkins, guitarist Tom Linton, bassist Rick Burch, drummer Zach Lind--neither they nor the label was quite prepared for such a move. By their own admission, Jimmy Eat World didn't have enough strong songs to comprise what they felt would make a good album, and the label didn't seem to have much faith, either: Static Prevails was released in 1996 to a deafening silence. But the follow-up, 1999's Static, was a far better effort, and its single, "Lucky Denver Mint," began gaining airplay at college and alternative radio. If ever there was a time for the label to begin caring, this was it.
It didn't. In 2002 Lind told the Weekly, "I think no one [at the label] cared, and I think that it was a case of us not being ready to be on a major label and them not being ready to promote us. Capitol was just sort of the wrong place at the wrong time, but in the end, really, without that experience we wouldn't be where we are today. All in all it was a good thing, it just was really frustrating. At the time it seemed like a waste of time and a big mistake." Jimmy Eat World was officially cut loose from Capitol.
Where a lot of bands might have put their collective tails between their legs, nursed their wounds, or whatever lame cliché applies here, the members of Jimmy Eat World were remarkably unfazed. They released singles on small indie labels again, issued a compilation album of previously released singles, and hit the road. And what they found was rather remarkable: in their time out of the spotlight, their fan base had actually grown through the kind of publicity that can't be bought--word of mouth.
Eventually they had tucked away enough money to record a new album on their own dime, beholden to no one. They holed up in an L.A. studio with producer Mark Trombino, who had enough faith in the band to work for free, in the hope that someone would release it and he'd be reimbursed. And while some labels' curiosity was piqued before the sessions, it was during the album's recording that the suits really began taking notice.
"I think there were people that were interested all along, because it was no secret that we were not happy with Capitol, how they were handling us, mainly as far as their lack of enthusiasm towards the band," said bassist Burch from his Phoenix home last week. "A lot of different people were saying, 'Hey, if you need a label we're here for you.' ... So they came down and listened (while the band was recording), and were like, 'Wow, this is sounding pretty good.' And I guess they told their friends and it just kind of worked through the grapevine. And the next thing we know, we had our choice of where we wanted to go.
"It was really cool. It was the exact opposite of signing to Capitol; when we did that we definitely had nothing to offer. We were a baby band that had really no experience making albums or anything. But then we had this record that people liked--finished!--so we just took it around to everyone." And this time everyone wanted it.
The band eventually decided to sign with Dreamworks, the musical division of the entertainment conglomerate started by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Released in July 2001, that self-titled album (originally titled Bleed American but changed following 9/11) featured the anthemic, feel-good second single "The Middle," as catchy a guitar-pop song as you'll ever hear, and one which eventually became ubiquitous on radio and TV. After years of toil, Jimmy Eat World was almost instantly catapaulted to platinum success.
The band toured relentlessly on the strength of the album, graduating from 200- to 400-seat punk rock clubs and warehouses to selling out large theaters. "Bleed American was going so well that we just kept on touring," said Burch. "It was just over two years that we toured on that thing. ... We finished touring, then took a few months to decompress and settle down, and then came back together and started writing, took a few months to get a lot of ideas down. I think we went in with like 30 ideas of songs, and then narrowed it down to 14 that we thought were really good, and went in with those."
They assembled a wish list of producers they wanted to work with, and eventually decided upon Gil Norton (Pixies, Echo and the Bunnymen, Foo Fighters), who flew to Phoenix from London to meet with them. "We had dinner, and talked about music and different things," recounts Burch, "and we ended up going back to our little studio and working on one of the songs, which was crazy and unexpected--neither of us had planned on doing it. But we were listening to the songs and he was like, 'Wait a second. This part right here, let's try this.' We ended up working on the song for like an hour, and it was totally fun and cool and he had great ideas. He started pushing the song in a good direction, so we were like, 'Oh man, this is the guy.'"
With Norton behind the board, the band recorded at a number of locations--Cello Studios in Los Angeles; right here in Tucson, at the home studio of Rainbow Guitars owner Harvey Moltz; and at their own newly built studio.
"In the time we had off after touring we built a little studio in Tempe, close to our houses," said Burch. "It's our first real practice place, which is crazy. I mean, we've been a band for 10 years, but it's only been like a year-and-a-half that we've had an official practice space, which is ours. We've always either shared with five other bands--so you have to break all your stuff down when you're finished and set it up every time you go in, and you're limited on what times you can go down there; you have to schedule it with everyone else--or it was like, our parents' living room or a garage. So it was really nice; it really helped us making this record to be able to go in--we have a little ProTools set-up--and just put down ideas."
In other words, this time around they had a lot more time and money to record the album they truly wanted to make. "I think you can hear it, too," said Burch. "On Bleed American, if we were having trouble with a transition between a verse and a chorus, we'd be like, 'We don't got much more time. All right, straight from the verse into the chorus.' [Laughs.] So it was really bare-bones that way. And taking time to build layers and stuff, we didn't have that luxury."
The result of "that luxury"--all those "layers and stuff"--is all over Futures, the album released last week on Interscope Records. Interscope Records, you ask? I thought they were happy on Dreamworks. Well, they were; but it wouldn't be a proper Jimmy Eat World album without a bit of label drama, now, would it? Let's let Burch explain.
"Interscope bought Dreamworks, and when they did that they bought out all the contracts that Dreamworks had. We didn't lose our contract or anything; it was the same deal that we had, but now we work with this label instead of Dreamworks. But we're really lucky in that a lot of our people at Dreamworks ended up at Interscope, too. So it's not a whole batch of strangers that we're working with; we had our A&R guy go with us over there.
"It was really scary. We were in the middle of making the record. We had nothing but love for Dreamworks. It took a long time for 'The Middle' to really hit, and I don't think any other label would have invested that much time and work to make that song go. So, it was a really good place, just their way of thinking; they definitely had a sight towards a career, more than just The Song, like every other label that picks out The Song and then 10 tracks of filler. They were into developing a career that would be around for 15 years, so we loved that about them. ... Then we find out we're going to Interscope, which is, you know, 50 Cent and U2 and No Doubt and all this stuff, and we're on the same label as them so as far as getting time in their busy schedule. They're working all these records, so are they gonna have time for us?"
While it's a bit early to foresee how the relationship with their new label will fare, all signs point to "just fine, thanks." Futures' debut single, the driving "Pain," was all over radio and MTV weeks before the album's release. Though it's just as slickly produced as the rest of the album, it's somewhat atypical of most of its other songs. Futures still boasts some rockers--the darkly soaring "Nothingwrong," the chugging "Just Tonight"--but there are also more ballads and mid-tempo songs than ever before--the piano-and-feedback weeper "Drugs or Me" is the former, while the gorgeous melody of "Work" falls into the latter. Elsewhere, as on "Polaris" and "23," the band's dreamy guitar sound surprisingly resembles no band so much as the Cure. And while there may be nothing as instantly stunning as "The Middle" on Futures, the melodies and textures that reveal themselves over repeated listens--immaculate harmonies, acoustic guitar and keyboards, female backing vocals--not only seem like a natural progression from Bleed American, but, taken as a whole, manage to trump it.
In the age of downloads, when most bands settle for that one killer single--The Song--and a bunch of filler, Jimmy Eat World has opted to release the exact opposite. "We wanted to have a group of songs that complemented each other," said Burch. "I guess that was the only main idea--an album, instead of just a bunch of different songs by the same band."