We Are Not Alone: A Conversation with Stephan Jenkins




I STARTED LISTENING to Third Eye Blind during the summer of 1997, between elementary school and junior high. I would have KROQ playing all day, ready to push record on my boombox whenever a song of theirs came on. My recording of “Semi-Charmed Life” didn’t start until the first chorus because I wasn’t sure if it was the “I want something else” song. The lyrics flew right over my head, but I liked the catchy melody and Stephan Jenkins’s heartfelt singing. It was the first time I liked music on my own without someone telling me it was good.

It was a time before streaming services or YouTube, a time when AOL made up most online interaction. I remember going into chatrooms and typing, “Does anyone in here like Third Eye Blind?” That Christmas, my uncle bought me the self-titled album on cassette tape. I listened so many times that the tape’s film flipped halfway through Side A and started playing Side B in reverse. That didn’t stop me from listening to it, though. Wouldn’t a true fan want to know the album literally forward and backward?

Fast forward 25 years. I’m at my home in Merced, where I’ve spent nearly every waking moment since the start of 2020, talking to the untouchable hero of my youth at the tail end (fingers crossed) of a global pandemic. In a way, our phone conversation perfectly illustrates what Jenkins describes as the “gift” of the past two and a half years: learning the importance of connecting with one another. Somehow the world felt much smaller as we spoke. Once I got over my jitters, I felt like I was talking to an old friend, someone I had known very well since the summer of 1997. When I playfully asked if he could include “Tattoo of the Sun” (my favorite Third Eye Blind song) on their Summer Gods tour setlist, Jenkins was kind enough to humor my obscure request despite the time constraints of outdoor venues and the audience expectation of playing hits. “Maybe I’ll put [‘Tattoo of the Sun’] on volume two of the unplugged record,” he thinks aloud, referring to a series of acoustic albums the band is recording. 

Jenkins spent our conversation recalling his pandemic experience in some detail — a canceled sold-out tour, the mental roller coaster of quarantine, and the music that helped him pull through. It was during this time that he managed to write and record Third Eye Blind’s seventh studio album, Our Bande Apart, which features the band’s ultimate pandemic song, “Dust Storm.” In it, Jenkins explores the irony of being physically close to yet emotionally distanced from one another during lockdown: “We live beneath, we live above and we live below / All of us next to each other, we’re so utterly alone / And we were in this all together, now we’re on our own.” Compared to the band’s more popular songs, “Dust Storm” exhibits a sort of melancholic restraint, an understated snapshot of the emotional havoc that was COVID.

With the lasting impact quarantine made on him, personally and musically, Jenkins looks forward to reversing the isolating effects of the pandemic with the communal power of live music. As he spoke about Third Eye Blind’s upcoming tour with Taking Back Sunday and Hockey Dad, it was difficult not to share in his optimism that we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. If the pandemic made us feel alone despite being “next to each other,” these shows might signal the beginning of a long healing process.

Author photo by Danny Nolan.

Photo by Danny Nolan

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JUSTIN GAUTREAU: I like to start these interviews by asking, How did you spend your quarantine?

STEPHAN JENKINS: Well, there were different phases of it. We had a fully sold-out tour booked, and I think opening night was in Seattle, March 11. And Seattle was — if you remember, this is almost three years ago — Ground Zero for COVID, so it was the first place to shut down. And our second night was in Portland. We were elated about going on this tour ’cause this is how we were going to go out and tour the Screamer album. But we were also going to workshop a new album that we had basically written. And when I say workshopping what I mean is at soundcheck we go out and we just kind of play around with the songs.

So we’re watching this, and if you remember, things suddenly got more and more real and everything sped up. They said they were gonna shut the airports, which was just inconceivable to us at the time. And I was going to fly out day-of-show; the rest of the band and the crew were already in Seattle when the show got canceled. So we were talking about what we should do: Should we try to do these shows? We don’t want to be a disease vector here, so we had this kind of immediate sense of, like, what is our moral, ethical, and social obligation here?

The next night in Portland, because we’d have the whole tour together, we thought we could go and just play the show to an empty theater and film it. And that would be our tour. But before we did that, Brad, our drummer, got on the plane, ’cause he was worried about the airports closing, and flew home. And at this point I still haven’t left San Francisco. And I was like, “That’s it. It’s over. We’re canceling the tour.”

Oh, wow!

So that was phase one, which was just kind of a sense of shell shock, like all of these plans just went agley. And you’re sitting in the aftermath of the entire code that you had projected yourself into, now suddenly disrupted. And then I went into this, like, kind of a civic duty phase where we were properly in lockdown and I would do radio-station takeovers for various alternative radio stations in the country where we were going to play. I would play guitar in my kitchen, the “Kitchen Concert Series”; I’d play in my backyard for like all of my neighbors; I would go on and make drinks on Instagram Live, things like that. Um, it was kind of like trying to do my part. And this is the moment where we would go out at 7:00 p.m. and cheer the workers. So that was the moment we were sort of all in it together. That was phase two.

Phase three was: I need to stop. And I can’t continue to do this because I’m sort of in denial of my actual mindset, my actual state of mind. What I need to do is just kind of go into some kind of cocoon lockdown to process with coping mechanisms. So you know … red wine and spaghetti. Trying to get a pod together, trying to come to terms with what that is. I did that out at the ocean up north and so I could be really kind of isolated out there with this small pod of people that I was with. And that lasted for a while. And that was really phase three. And that was this very, what I thought was kind of an unproductive phase, but then I realized in that part that I was writing on politics for SPIN magazine, which I do.

Then I started to listen to music. There was music at the time that really was like a friend. Did you have that sensation? Where music became more poignant? Do you know how music can be this, like a companion piece?

Well, I’m talking to the man who has been a musical companion of mine since I was 11 years old, so yes.

Well, I’m honored. And we have those as well. So yeah, I listened to Sylvan Esso, Bombay Bicycle Club’s “Eat, Sleep, Wake.” I just love that. And really early on I listened to the first single, before the album was released, of Phoebe Bridgers’s “Garden Song,” and I thought that was amazing.

Yes, so good!

Then I started listening to Adrianne Lenker [of Big Thief]. And I just kind of gawked, connected to that L.A. neo-folk scene, and it really lit me up into something new.

So there was that kind of music phase, and then I think I had had enough of coping. And I’ve seen other friends who have been changed really permanently and kind of stayed in that very unhealthy state. ’Cause we can only have coping mechanisms, we can only be in that processing cocoon place for so long. So some discipline forced me to go out to my little zendo with my acoustic guitar and a notepad, and with these tools in hand — those are my actual creative tools — begin to pay attention to and render what was happening within me and begin to, like, download how those things turn into music.

Right, so I wanted to talk a little more about that. Almost immediately after the lockdown started, there was an impulse for some songwriters to write specifically about the pandemic. You mentioned on the recent Third Eye Blind documentary that during quarantine you eventually forced yourself to sit down and write, which is what I think you were just talking about. It’s interesting that Our Bande Apart is Third Eye Blind’s pandemic album, but aside from your song “The Dying Blood,” the album avoids mentioning the pandemic specifically. So for instance, a song like “Dust Storm” feels very much like a song about the pandemic, but it doesn’t necessarily apply only to the pandemic. I’m wondering, was it a conscious decision to sidestep the pandemic lyrically instead of writing about it head on? 

No, it’s never a conscious decision. I don’t write from that perspective. That would be more like writing an essay. I’ve only become aware of anything about my writing process from talking to journalists like you. Because I never asked myself. It’s only when I’m asked do I go, “Well, what is my process?” So the answer is that I write from things that make an emotional dent on me. In whatever way that is — elated, rage, melancholy, longing, presence — whatever it is. Anything that makes a dent on me kind of goes through some matrix that eventually gets downloaded into and picked up by my antenna, I guess. I don’t know. It’s a little hard to talk about those things without sounding … I don’t want to sound pretentious or something.

[Laughs] 

But this radio station in my head begins to, um … I start to tune it in, and it’ll show up in melodies or rhythms. Or I’ll take a notebook and just write without asking myself why I’m writing what I’m writing down. That’s been a tool I’ve had for a very long time, so any word that I like, if I hear a word or a phrase, I just write it down without wondering. And then over time, it’s like the subconscious tells me what I’m thinking about.

So “Dust Storm,” which is kind of my favorite song on the album, to me it’s very much about … it’s entirely about the pandemic. I felt like being in lockdown in that stage of the pandemic was like being in a dust storm, where it’s dangerous and lethal, and you can’t see the way out, and confusing and all-encompassing. So what do when you’re caught in a dust storm? That’s kind of how I put it in the song.

Yeah, that’s great.

And so the thing that I really took, and I think I changed from in the pandemic — that I just kind of came out and discovered in the song “Dust Storm” — is how we hold each other, what matters, and what lasts, and what’s of the value is how we connect to each other and take care of each other. And the tenderness that we show each other is the gift of this crisis. So in a longwinded way to answer your question: to me the song is entirely about the experience of the pandemic.

You’re the third songwriter I’m interviewing about this stuff, and I’m noticing a trend that the pandemic gave some an opportunity to revisit and reimagine their past material. Would you say this was also true for you, especially with the new unplugged album I read about in the Stereogum interview? 

Not really, no. I think we did the unplugged piece for two reasons. One, there was the opportunity to do it, and we’ve been talking about doing it for a while. And we were playing a show in Texas and the studio was very accommodating, a good hour and a half outside of Austin. It was live-in, so we could live there and work, and in like five days we recorded 20 songs or something like that. The idea came from our manager. Like, how are we going to mark the 25th anniversary of the band? So, one, is that we did tour, and the other one was, why don’t you do acoustic recordings? So kind of reimagined songs with different instrumentation — with acoustic instrumentation — as it is now. And I really liked that idea more because it gave me another crack at the song than anything else. But I don’t remember feeling like I was called to do that because of the pandemic. I was more about doing new music at that time.

I want to ask about the Summer Gods tour. At your shows before COVID, you often stressed the need for people to get the hell off their phones during concerts and to be present with one another instead of experiencing the show through a screen. During lockdown, I kept thinking of that idea because experiencing live music could only happen through a screen. And so I’m wondering, in your view, is there such a thing as going back to before? Will live music ever be the same?

I think that’s a really good question, but you’ve asked a very involved question. I’ve invited people, hopefully gently … I’ve encouraged them to be present because there’s a magic that can happen in live music, but you have to let yourself go to it. Have you ever had the experience where you’re at a concert, and your shoulders relax and you suddenly feel connected and comfortable with the strangers around you, and you don’t feel strange to them anymore? And you are all the way up in the music, so far up in it that you begin to transcend up out of yourself? Have you had that experience?

Absolutely.

That cannot happen if you’re holding the phone. And what I’m trying to do as a musician is cultivate that condition. So when I’m on tour my whole day is in alignment with being ready for that kind of spontaneity and aliveness.

I benefit greatly from everybody filming the shows and it’s one of the reasons why we have a large audience, because of things being filmed and sampled and shared, be that through things like Spotify or YouTube stuff, but also just people sharing their concert pics with friends on Instagram. So on that side of it, it’s probably … You know, if somewhere between 7,000 and 11,000 people see us at one of our shows, there’s going to be 50,000 who see it in part online. So I recognize the benefit of that, but what I’m about is … I want that feeling that is primal.

I’ve said this before, but there’s a reason to it, and it’s the reason why the Greeks made amphitheaters with the seats all close to each other, around [the stage]. It’s not just because it’s better acoustics; they could have made it smaller. I believe it’s because music makes you feel things, and when you feel them in a concert, you feel them collectively. And there becomes a subconscious collective awareness — and I know that’s oxymoronic — of feeling. And that sense of collective healing lets us know, in a very joyous way, that we are not alone. And that’s different from listening to it by yourself. That in this great void of existence, we are not alone. And that’s an incredible feeling to have.

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Third Eye Blind’s Our Bande Apart is out now on Mega Collider Records, and the album’s making-of documentary, How We Hold Each Other Right Now: The Making of Our Bande Apart, is available to stream on YouTube and Vevo. The band’s Summer Gods tour will begin on June 22 in Troutdale, Oregon.

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Justin Gautreau is lecturer for the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced, where he also teaches classes in film. His book The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System was published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and his work has also appeared in Genre, Adaptation, and Pacific Coast Philology.

 

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