Our relationship with art changes over time. In our instantaneous iPhone age, we don’t live with albums or movies or TV shows or books like we used to. With Re-Reviews, we re-explore our relationship with a piece of pop culture — and how that relationship evolves over time. We dismiss some art unfairly — or prematurely. Perhaps certain songs or bits of dialogue didn’t resonate because of our mood or our position in life. On the other hand, perhaps our adoration of some childhood favorite is clouded by nostalgia. Does this even matter?
“This is art, Mr. White!”
These words, of course, dropped infamously from the mouth of Jesse Pinkman in the very first episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, upon seeing — for the first time — Walter White’s take on methamphetamine production. “Actually,” responded Walt, “It’s just basic chemistry.” Several episodes later, Walter would tweak their product to compensate for a series of obstacles, including — perhaps most notably — his desire to differentiate it from the competition, to signify its purity, to render it inimitable. Walter’s updated “artistic approach” resulted in this “new” crystal meth’s distinctive blue coloring.
On November 23, 1999, Third Eye Blind released their second album, entitled Blue. The album – featuring lead single “Never Let You Go” — followed one of the most successful “alternative rock” albums of all time, 1997’s Third Eye Blind. That album, featuring a slew of astronomically fantastic and gigantically successful singles, became the road map for rock radio of the late 90s, selling over six million copies in the United States alone. “Semi-Charmed Life” — a sort-of flagship song for that album, and for the band itself — propelled Third Eye Blind into mainstream vernacular with a velocity unmatched by their peers, who were often mired by the proverbial “gun to the head” crossover appeal. “Semi-Charmed Life” also, perhaps unintentionally, cast the great light of pop culture upon a heretofore un-glamorized (in this era, at least) facet of certain sectors of rock & roll: the almighty crystal meth.
I was a beautifully weird 10 years old when I first heard, and fell in love with, “Semi-Charmed Life.” My pre-school routine in the morning was: construct and enter my “blanket burrito,” ingest Toaster Strudels, and watch roughly an hour of VH1 before dousing my disproportionately large head with an unholy amount of hair gel and stripping myself entirely of confidence. My very identity, and — eventually — my restored confidence, was slowly bubbling beneath or somewhere near the 60 or so minutes of VH1 I subjected myself to during those 5th and 6th grade mornings. A key moment in my transitioning identity was “Semi-Charmed Life.” There was something effortlessly cool about the song, particularly the wordy strut of frontman Stephan Jenkins. However, as a 10 year old, my absorption of this “wordy strut” and its subsequently “effortless cool” was largely surface-level, almost entirely missing the subject matter of their 1997 album, despite my memorization of each word.
The album most in question here, the aforementioned Blue, proved less surface-level for me, as I was then on the verge of becoming a deeply and distractedly introspective teenager. Still, I wouldn’t truly begin to comfortably reside in the words of Third Eye Blind and, particularly, Blue until my freshman year of college. Neck-deep in the literary waters of an English degree (I would later drop out…twice), I started crafting makeshift dissertations on my favorite songwriters. Yes, for fun. Because that’s what word-nerds do. Third Eye Blind’s 2003 album, Out of the Vein, struck me particularly hard, though three years late, during my first drop-out-of-college/adult-world-hearbreak experience. Interestingly, 2009’s overtly political Ursa Major arrived in the middle of what I know realize was a remarkably anti-social period in my life. The album would eventually inspire me to get my metaphorical shit together, re-enrolling in school (It’s worth nothing that Jenkins reportedly graduated as valedictorian from Berkeley with a B.A. in English Literature), though eventually dropping out again, but savoring the intellectual camaraderie and inspiration, which eventually lead to my re-starting my own band.
As an “adult,” or – better yet and more specifically — a “twentysomething,” the lyrical content of Third Eye Blind’s discography — particularly the themes present on Blue – has grown to achieve new levels of personal significance and universal profundity. There is simply no doubting Jenkins’ place in rock music as one of its finest and most thoughtful lyricists. Blue, like Walter White’s reinvention of his own “perfect product” on Breaking Bad, showcased a group of artists seeking to acknowledge the importance of their previous effort whilst simultaneously rewriting the entire formula to render it, like Walter White’s “baby blue,” inimitable. Third Eye Blind, despite the odds against them in the musical landscape of the late ’90s, accomplished something which eluded most bands from that era: purity, in the form of an identity all their own. Not surprisingly, this identity has helped carry them through the decades without the horrific tarnish of nostalgia. They’ve retained their dedicated fan base, and have continued to redefine — without ever losing — their own unique relevance in pop culture.
My childhood pop culture nerd-dom carried over into adulthood with a vigor I should have expected, resulting in my endless research on — and resulting discussions of — the seemingly volatile inner-workings of Third Eye Blind, particularly Stephan Jenkins. Unarguably talented though he may be, any longtime follower of the band is astutely aware of the reportedly less-than-democratic policies implemented by Jenkins within the band, stemming (again, reportedly) from the band’s original recording contract with Elektra back in 1996. The publishing deal (between Jenkins and guitarist Kevin Cadogan) was, at that time, the largest publishing deal ever for an unsigned artist. Cadogan’s exit from the band in 2000, shortly after touring for Blue ended, took many fans by surprise. Naturally, a lawsuit was filed and, reportedly, later settled out of court. Tony Fredianelli was brought in to replace Cadogan, but was fired in 2010, resulting in another lawsuit against Jenkins.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.“
– Walter White
Perhaps Jenkins, like many prominent rock & roll frontmen and Walter Whites before him, is simply protecting his own “baby blue” albeit at the expense of anyone around him. Perhaps ego has influenced his seemingly cutthroat manner of control over Third Eye Blind, as both an artistic outlet and a business. Perhaps ego isn’t even a factor; perhaps the fear of losing this control simply fuels his decision-making.
Fans may never truly know, but for a little insight on the atmosphere of the Blue recording sessions, an atmosphere that I feel has — in many ways — informed this band for the past 13 years, I reached out to Kevin Cadogan via e-mail and was thrilled to learn that he was more than happy to discuss this iconic album in a refreshingly candid fashion.
Cowen: Blue, in my opinion, is very easily one of the most adventurous and daring rock albums of its time period. Instead of attempting to follow up the enormous success of your first album with a formulaic companion piece, which is often the path many bands choose (or are “forced” to choose) on their sophomore releases, you guys gave mainstream radio a swift kick in the teeth. The album touches on a multitude of genres, the least of which is “pop,” in the traditional sense. However, the album is still very much a pop album, and an accomplished one, at that. Now that some years have passed, and you’re obviously doing different things musically, how do you view the album, given the benefit of informed hindsight?
Cadogan: I am proud of my work on that record. I feel validated in respect to my efforts to get songs on the album that were either left off or were about to be discarded. For instance, the song “Wounded” did not have unanimous votes, and I had to do some convincing of [Jenkins]. The song “Gorgeous” was discarded from the album but later became a fan favorite. I’ve had many people write me and say they include the demo version in their playlists of Blue, and that feels good because it reaffirms to me that I had the right instincts about those songs. It was a good record I think could have been better. I knew it was going to be one of the last albums released in the 20th century (released November 1999), and I wanted it to reflect everything I had heard and experienced in music.
Are you able to “step out” of your involvement of the album and view it objectively for what it truly is, which is an important stepping stone for many younger bands who now cite Third Eye Blind (specifically the first two albums) as one of their greatest influences?
I don’t think an artist can truly “step out” of the work they create. Maybe some can, but I can’t. The album means different things to different people. Many people didn’t like “Never Let You Go” and its light pop sound turned them off the album. I can understand that, and I certainly wouldn’t hold it against anyone who felt that way. I think the first album was better conceived and more cohesive. It’s an honor that people are influenced by my work, whether it be the guitarist for Saturday Night Live or the kid down the street. It’s a nice feeling to be appreciated.
The guitar work on “Wounded,” particularly the intro and verses, is beautiful but unsettling. Complicated but wildly accessible. This unique style continues on the duration of the album. Did you find yourself intentionally refraining in certain areas? Did you want to be even more exploratory with what you were writing at the time?
I certainly did refrain in some areas and explore in others. Tracking the guitars for “Wounded” was an amazing experience because I was pretty much alone in beautiful Studio B at The Plant with a couple of great engineers, and I could do whatever I wanted. I had, of course, already demoed the song, but I hadn’t yet fleshed out all the guitar parts or textures. On [original bassist] Arion Salazar’s song “Ten Days Late,” I refrained because I felt too much guitar would clutter the song. Overall, I wanted the album to be very experimental.
Where were your heads at, both collectively and individually, when you guys really started to dive into new material after the whirlwind of tours surrounding the self-titled album? Did you have a united goal of outdoing yourselves, or did you simply aim to make something worthwhile?
Honestly, it was a very, very tough period. I had just learned that Stephan had all shares of our corporation issued to himself. I seemed to be alone in my disgust at the situation. Arion would say, years later, that he didn’t know what a partnership was or what was going on with the business. It was a lot like what Axl Rose did with Guns & Roses. Because of this, I thought about quitting every day and felt I would do so after the tour for [Blue]. These were difficult circumstances going into a record and trying to be creative.
The making of the album was, simply put, not a united effort — not even close. I was desperately trying to get some ownership and Stephan was desperately trying to get rid of the person standing in his way of complete ownership. In reality, before we even tracked a note for Blue, plans were being made to replace me. I would later learn through the manager that every effort was being made to get me off the record deal at that point. Blue was almost never made.
After the tour for the debut and during this contentious period, Stephan and I decided to set things aside and get to work at my house. I held out hope that the band wouldn’t be shut out of ownership of our trademark. We set up some equipment and had the engineer, Jason Carmer, come over and record our ideas. This two-week period was the first and only time we collaborated on anything since writing songs for the debut. I am proud to say that I did my best, given the situation, to give fans a great record. The business of the band was awful, but the music, at times, was great.
My friends and I often refer to this album as a “headphones album,” meaning many of the layers and intricacies are lost unless you truly immerse yourself in the album. Would you agree? What are some other albums that you consider to be “headphones albums”?
The Dark Side of the Moon is a “headphones album.” So are War and October by U2. I always try to create interesting atmospheres that work well with headphones. Ping-pong delays, dry and distorted panned guitars, reverse echoes; things like that make for good headphone listening.
In their review of Blue, Entertainment Weekly called your guitar work “lyrical,” which I feel is a very accurate description. Do you feel that’s the key to the overwhelming success of these two albums? The guitar almost serves as a second vocalist on both of these albums, which definitely set Third Eye Blind apart from your radio contemporaries of the time.
That’s very nice that EW would say that. I don’t think I ever read that. I have always felt that the guitar sound and the melodies were a huge part of the band’s success. Also, our live performance working as a band, not hired hands in the shadows. You can tell when you are watching a real band where the guys that are playing are the ones that actually put the sweat into creating the music. Third Eye Blind, for me, was never going to work as a “hired band” situation. I know the audiences that we were playing for felt that authenticity, and that was a big reason why we sold so many records during the debut tour.
What are your current and future plans for XEB (Cadogan and Arion Salazar’s post-3EB project, featuring reworked versions of songs from Third Eye Blind and Blue) and any solo work?
The guitar work that I am most proud of is on my first solo record. Back then, it was called Bully For You. It is now re-released as Wunderfoot. It was still very expensive to record back then, and now I am very excited about all the recording tools musicians and songwriters have at their disposal. Specifically, Logic Pro X and Waves plug-ins make it possible to make a great record without all the studio hoopla. [As for XEB], I’m not sure if Arion and I will record together again, but I am certainly working with these new tools now and am very excited about the sounds and songs I am currently producing.
Third Eye Blind – which now consists of original members Stephan Jenkins (lead vocals, guitar) and Brad Hargreaves (drums, backing vocals), as well as Kryz Reid (guitar, backing vocals), Alex Kopp (keyboards), and Alex LeCavalier (bass), are currently on a U.S. tour. Jenkins stated on Twitter in 2012 that the band’s upcoming fifth album – due next year – will be their final album, implying that the band will then focus on releasing occasional digital singles.