Jim Adkins has seen it all — MTV red carpets, worldwide rock tours and music video superstardom. Yet the Jimmy Eat World singer and guitarist, a veteran musician with the band for nearly 20 years, remains a resident of his native Arizona, where he and the rest of the band continue to write and rehearse. The band recently got back from recording their upcoming album with producer Alain Johannes in Los Angeles, which fans should expect to hear by next spring. Adkins, 36, discussed the group’s new music, as well as five reasons why he loves living in the Valley, below.
Why stay residing in Phoenix rather than moving to a bigger city such as New York City or Los Angeles?
People have asked me that a lot. They’re sort of surprised we stayed here, but for me, it doesn’t make any sense to move to a place to L.A. For what we do, we travel so much any way, it’s kind of like we don’t gain anything by moving to a place like that.
Why did you choose to record your new album in L.A. rather than here in the Valley?
We made our last two-and-a-half albums at our place in Tempe, and we just wanted something different. It was either make it completely on our own in Tempe and get hotels and pretend we’re going somewhere else just to be completely invested in it, or go some place else. The person we decided to work with, a guy named Al Johannes, he had a place that is a lot like our place, and we felt it was acceptable — similar enough but different enough to give us that sense of destination. Our studio is invaluable to writing, but we wanted to make this record in a way that we set it up and do it. In the past, recording and writing has been a blurry thing. With Invented, our last album, people would ask, ‘When are you going to record?’ and I’d answer, ‘We’re sort of recording right now. We’ve been writing and recording for the same time.’
How would you compare your upcoming album to Invented?
We’re not quite finished with it yet, and I think a lot of what makes your final product is the mixing. It can really determine the presentation of it, and we haven’t done that yet. What I’m hoping to get out of it, the way we’ve been recording it, it’s a lot less slick. It’s not to say we didn’t take our time and mix it and make sure performances were good and things were sounding good, I think we just had a better sense of what to let go and what to focus on. That comes from paying more attention to the vibe of things rather than the perfection of things. The short answer is that it’s definitely rougher-sounding, a little grittier. I don’t think it’s going to sound like anything we’ve done. It’ll be similar yet different.
Are you still signed to Interscope Records?
Right now we’re free agents, since last summer. I feel great about it. We signed to Dreamworks in 2001, and after our first record was done, Universal came in and bought Dreamworks, and the Dreamworks artists they wanted to keep around got folded into Interscope and Geffen. We went to the Interscope side, and Invented was the last record of our contract with them from that time back then. I never thought we would get to this point.
How do you feel about not being on a label any more?
It’s a great place to be. There were people who were really trying and cared about what we were doing at Interscope, for sure, but it’s such a crazy machine and such a big machine that it was a good time, but it was slightly difficult. Trying to do things is a little difficult. We’re pretty self-reliant as far as our own management company and our own professional team.
What’s going on with your independent label Western Tread Recordings?
Absolutely nothing. It started as an avenue to release vinyl for us because the Universal machine didn’t seem all that interested in doing that. We decided to do it ourselves instead of farming it out to someone else. Right now it’s a catalog kind of thing. It takes so much effort and time, and it’s a losing enterprise unless you’re going to be dedicated for it. I think (co-founder and Stateside Presents/Crescent Ballroom owner) Charlie (Levy) and I, neither of us have the time to put into it to give it a shot. It’s still there in spirit, but it’s not an active label.
Why did you choose Crescent Ballroom as this interview’s location?
This pretty much symbolizes the optimism I have for the Phoenix area in general. I’ve always been rooting for downtown. I’ve always been hoping downtown would actually happen. Even as a kid living in the East valley, I was rooting for this to be a destination, a central art destination for the Valley. It’s always been just not there yet, and I think right now it feels like, if you take a step back and ingest it, it is happening. Maybe not on the scale of one of those bigger cities that has a ‘more happening’ scene, but it gives me optimism for the arts community.
What do you think Phoenix needs to establish a great arts scene?
It needs more Crescent Ballroom’s or more disciplined, like-minded venues, performing spaces, galleries. We definitely have the population to sustain more, and I think people are excited about it.
Why do you think, even though we’re such a big city, we’ve maybe been slower to cultivating that community compared to other places?
I don’t know. That’s a hard question to answer. I think maybe the geography itself is part to blame because it’s so spread out. Kids in Avondale aren’t going to know what’s happening in east Mesa. It’s hard to bring those like-minded people together.
You went to Northern Arizona University. Did you graduate from there?
No. I was there for almost 2 years starting in the fall of ’95 studying journalism. We had the opportunity to go and make records and tour, so we decided to give that a shot. I wasn’t living there that long, but it’s kind of a nostalgic place for me.
How many Arizona references has the band included in your songs?
Six or seven over the years.
What do you think people’s biggest misconception about Arizona is?
That it’s one static geography and flat. It’s pretty varied, even the municipality of Phoenix.
What’s your favorite local venue to see music at?
I like Crescent Ballroom. The sound is really good here, and the people seem like they care about the people’s music experience.
Who are your favorite local bands right now?
I’m really excited for Landmine Marathon to get on the Orion fest, the Metallica-curated festival. Those are people who have been doing it for a long time for the love of it, and it’s good they’re getting some recognition.
How do you think Jimmy Eat World’s sound has evolved since you first started?
I think it’s evolved in just about every way it can evolve, considering we had absolutely no idea what we were doing when we started. I think the basic idea of having fun and trying to challenge yourself is still there. It’s how we get there that makes it different.
How is the process of ‘getting there’ different?
In the past, the label would fax us sheet music, and now we have to do it ourselves because we don’t have a label. No, really–in how we get there, there are no rules in how it ends up. We’ve just been a band for so long, it’s evident when we’re at a place it’s working and we feel good about it. I think one thing that might have changed is our understanding of the process of working together, the relationship aspect of it all. Even though you might get into a discussion of the direction of something, everyone is on the same page about it. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be in a band of people who don’t have a passionate opinion of the direction of how to get there. Every song has its own phase of when we think it’s the most effective version of that song. It might take a roundabout way of exploring all the ideas and paths to get to what works the best.
What’s your lyric-writing process like?
I’m always writing anything. Some of it’s journal writing. The basic way to break it down is there’s writing for going for something, and then writing for the sake of it — journalish type writing. That journalish writing happens all the time, but writing to go for ideas, you might find something that’s interesting to you, and then you might ask yourself a question about that, some element that’s interesting to you. That leads to an answer, and that leads to more questions, and after awhile, you end up with this big tree of paths of ideas. You can study that for what fits with the mood and theme you want. I try to think about what the most interesting way to present it all is.
Do you ever experience writer’s block, and how do you deal with it if you do?
All the time — vodka. You’re not going to write unless you’re writing. There’s definitely a point of negative returns, but I think if you’re working on something, you can get out there and change it up. The best way to get over writer’s block is to keep writing or write about something different — anything.
What’s your favorite song you’ve ever written?
Oo, that’s a tough one, because there’s different reasons I like different things, and you’re always most excited about the most recent thing you’ve done, too, so it’s kind of hard to be objective about it.
If you could play one Jimmy Eat World song to someone who’s never seen your band before, what would you play?
If I had to pick one single from our entire catalog to show someone, that’s hard to say, but maybe something like ‘Movielike’ from Invented, because that kind of showcases everything we do. We took a little bit of everything that’s interesting to us and put it in one small package.
Do you have a favorite lyric you’ve written?
Not really. If it gets to the point we’re going to put it on a record and release it, I’m proud of it. I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to sort into best or worst. Everything is effective for what it needs to be. Sometimes a song might need something a little more straightforward and simple, sometimes it might need something more wordy and descriptive. It just kind of depends, and I can’t say one lyric is better out of the context.
How would you say Alain has affected your new record?
He has pretty insane musicianship, and I think that would drive all his suggestions.
Is he playing on the album at all?
He does one weird guitar solo that’s crazy. He’s one of those people that his house is just an exotic musical instrument museum. It’s overwhelming at first, and he can basically pick up anything and shred on it. He’s one of those people you hate because he can just do anything.
How long were you there for?
What’s the next step with the album?
When you’re away recording, what do you miss most about Arizona?
My family, mostly. It’s kind of tough. My kids are getting older now. I have three boys — 9, 7 and 4. It’s a lot.
Do you want more kids?
Do any of them play guitar?
Not yet. They play piano, but I think we’re ready to start bringing guitar into the mix. We were waiting for them to get a little bit more into the ideas of music. I learned on the piano first, and that’s how I envisioned them learning it.
Why do you think learning on piano first was the right way to go?
I think it’s an easier instrument to have that ‘a-ha’ moment of, ‘I’m making music.’ It teaches you timing and basic theory and double-hand coordination and reading notes — it gets all that at once.
If they ever want to start a band, what advice would you give them?
Leather chaps — that’s all you need. I’d give them probably the same advice I’d give anybody — you have to set realistic goals for yourself and do it because you love it.
Your 9-year-old is just a few years from being where you were when you started your band.
That’s true — that’s scary to think.
Jimmy Eat World is such as long-standing band. What are the keys for you sticking together so long?
We’ve known each other for so long, and we were friends before the band even started. Our drummer’s mom was my preschool teacher — I’ve known (Zach Lind) a good 33 years, and I still hang out with him more than anyone else, which is kind of scary. We have respect for each other’s opinions. Respect is how you stay together.
What are your goals for the future?
As a band, we’ve never played in South America. I’d like to get down there and play.
Have you played most other continents?
I don’t think we can get to Antarctica. We’ve played everywhere but South America, but I think we will.
Do you see Jimmy Eat World lasting forever?
I don’t know if I’ll always be in a rock band, but I know I’ll always be involved in music forever.
What other ways do you see yourself being involved with it?
I think it’d be fun to engineer and produce albums for other bands. The last thing I did was the Reubens Accomplice record, The Bull, The Balloon, and The Family in ’05 — it was a long time ago.
How would you characterize yourself as a producer?
Demandful. I crack the whip. They get up at 6 a.m. for wind sprints before the session. I don’t know, it’s been a long time since I’ve done it, but it’s fun just digging around. I would characterize what I do as trying to put my head in the space of whoever I’m working with as if I was in there band but also be sensitive I’m not in their band. The artist would always win on creative decisions, for sure.
Has your band ever clashed with a producer at all?
Oh, yeah, but we’ve been fortunate enough to work with good people who get that it’s all about finding the way through to the best place and that you can’t take those kinds of confrontations too personally because everyone’s working toward the same goal.
Do you envision yourself living in Arizona the rest of your life?
Yes. My parents are here, my wife’s parents are here.
How would you characterize the music scene in general here?
It’s like a big college experience. It’s always sort of transitional. There’s always new freshmen. There’s always the old guy that’s been around forever. There’s always the old dude at the party — I guess now that’s me.
Would you say it’s unified or there’s a sound that defines it?
I think maybe it’s good and bad, but maybe that’s another reason it hasn’t taken off in a big way is because you can’t pinpoint a specific sound. I think if you could, it would die faster. I think right now, people are doing lots of different great things. From metal, to DJ, to folk, it’s all over the place, and I think that’s a real strength for us. It’s also a little bit of a hindrance because blogs can’t write anything hip about it. There’s no grunge scene to discover — it’s just all a lot of people doing different stuff.
You’ve shown your support publicly for certain politicians and causes throughout the years. Why is that important to you?
I think being a parent brings it out. When I was younger, I was angry, and it was a misdirected anger — it wasn’t a positive anger. It was a dissatisfaction that, whatever you’ve got, I’m mad. I think when you have kids, it’s a bigger picture discussion that comes into your consideration for the types of groups or public representatives you support. Personally, I lean more towards the progressive liberal part of the world.
What are your hopes for Arizona politics?
I’d like to see the crazy turned the fuck down — that’d be great. There’s this kind of alternate reality and the messages that fit biases and prejudices against an opposing viewpoint.
Have you ever considered becoming a politician yourself?
I don’t think I would ever get into politics, but we do what we have time for. You also have to be a little careful. I feel more comfortable just telling people my opinion rather than that they should do something. There’s a line where I think it goes from testimonial to crusading. I have to check myself with that, because I think you lose a little credibility when you come off as crusading rather than testifying.
Do you ever think it’s inappropriate for musicians or prominent people to get involved in politics?
No. You have the same rights as any other citizen. You can say whatever you want and do whatever you want. It’s on you if you sound like a dumbass for it.
You met Bill Clinton at the recent Richard Carmona fundraiser. What was that like?
It was surreal. I don’t remember the conversation, it was just really odd, smiling and laughing, and I can’t even remember what I told him. It was just a blur. We met him right after we played. It was bizarre. When he was in the room, after he left, there was a definite change in the energy of the room. There was a whole lot of crazy going on in that room.
Who else was in the room?
(Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry) Fitzgerald was there. It was crazy.
After Jimmy Eat World releases its next album, what are the band’s plans?
I think we’re going to be on and off the road through 2014 probably.
Do you have any Arizona shows planned?
We’re hoping we can put something together really special for Arizona.
What’s your favorite venue in town to play?
I love Crescent Ballroom. It’s a great rock music club, but we do a good job of finding an academic way to appreciate even the most horrible show.
If you’re not at a show, where do you hang out?
I’m usually at our studio in Tempe. Its working title is ‘Unit 2.’
What do you do for fun here?
Just hang out. I go see bands play a lot. Sporting events with kids takes up a lot of time, too.
What are your favorite teams to watch?
We like the D-Backs‘ team. Their field is awesome, and my kids’ sporting events take up a lot of time, too.
How do you take care of your voice?
Everything you’re supposed to do — not smoking, try to watch your drinking. I get reflux sometimes, especially when I’m on tour. You have to watch coffee and stuff late in the day when you’re performing at night because it’s really acidic, things like that. The effective thing is making sure you warm up. There are exercises I’ve learned that get the voice ready.
What is your opinion about Valley radio stations?
That’s an interesting question. I like supporting and working with any person or institution trying to facilitate growth in the local art scene. I support the ASU station as much as I can — KASC The Blaze, 1330-AM. The cyclical nature of a college radio station means there are always new people with good ideas trying to make a difference. The independent Edge station was like that, as well. I think for local radio to succeed, it has to be unique — curated so well you choose it over whatever else you could be doing. There is a whole lot of that these days. I am pulling for the new incarnation of KUKQ. They are people who get it and are trying to make something really happen.
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