Jimmy Eat World's Survival Guide: Frontman Jim Adkins On The Band's History You've Never Heard

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Adkins (center) and Jimmy Eat World onstage in February.

On Jimmy Eat World's 2002 breakthrough hit "The Middle," frontman Jim Adkins sings of a teenage punk struggling to shut out the naysayers and fit in. Now, 18 years later, he has realized how close to home its storyline hits.

Though the track helped the Arizona rockers emerge as stars of the early-2000s emo-punk boom -- they have since scored seven top 10 hits on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart -- Adkins, now 43, struggled with how to handle success. But on the band's 10th album, Surviving -- a collection of polished alt-rock pick-me-ups and feel-good collaborations, out Oct. 18 on RCA Records -- he emerged mentally stronger than ever. "In a weird way, 'The Middle' sums up my entire philosophy now," he says. "This idea -- I could never express it properly back then -- that placing your self-worth on external validation is just a losing game."

Billboard caught up with Adkins to discuss the process of self-acceptance that brought him to Surviving, as well as Jimmy Eat World's trip through the music industry that's seen them release 10 albums on four different major labels and wield some Napster-era guerilla marketing tactics en route to sustained success. 

From how you introduced this album, it sounds like you learned a lot about yourself from writing these songs. 

To this day, I'm fascinated by songwriting -- it's a chicken-and-egg process. There's an unconscious level and then there's a very, very conscious level. Your jumping-off point can be anything, and it's important to turn off your self-censorship when you're at that stage. You have to just go. You owe it to yourself to complete whatever crazy idea pops into your head. And then there's the conscious part, where after you've gone as far as you can and you step back, listen, and see what it's all about. 

You're always learning something because the process is your idea, then asking questions about your idea. The answers lead to more questions... and you have this giant tree of yourself. For me, songwriting is standing at the top of that, looking down, and picking your route to get to the ground. 

I'm guessing you weren't exactly working that way on your early albums. How has your songwriting process evolved? 

[Back then] the unconscious part was 100 percent. When you're younger, you just go. Over time, you start to want more out of the process. And I think it's important to know why. At this point in our career, why are we making something else? We have nine albums already. Do you need more? I love music. I'll always do something with music, but I feel if we're going to put something up against everything we've ever done, you have to have a reason for it. That's the main difference now.

Your new single "All The Way (Stay)" has a big sax solo -- how did that fit into the process? 

We always wanted to try this gag that happens a lot in '80s music: you get to the end of the song and then this ripping solo of something that hasn't yet appeared in the song just kicks in and then it fades out. [Saxophonist] James [King] from Fitz and the Tantrums came to the plate and we just left it all in.

AFI's Davey Havok performed backing vocals on Surviving closer "Congratulations." How did that come about?

It just sounded like something he would sing. His backing part sounds like AFI. We made friends with AFI on the Warped Tour in 2001 and we've always kept in touch. I called Davey and he was worried about getting to a studio. 

On the acoustic part of the intro to [Surviving] song "One Mil," I really wanted something spontaneous that wasn't your typical studio setup. I went into the garage of our studio, set my phone down, did the part, and when I dumped it into the session, it sounded really good. The microphone on your phone is probably $300 or more -- the research and cost is insane. I had to mess it up after I dumped it in, because it sounded too good. 

So when Davey was stressing about getting to a studio I was like, "No, no, no. Put headphones on, set your phone down, sing it, and just send that to me." That's what he did and that's what's on the record... I can totally see how there are Soundcloud rappers who have never seen an XLR cable, pumping out platinum hits now.

In your press release, you wrote you were "a passenger in [your] own body for 36 years and never realized it." You're 43 now; could you talk about what's changed over the past seven years?

Quitting drinking was the main thing. I have friends who don't finish a beer because it got warm -- that's not me. I'm all or nothing, so it's got to be nothing. 

If I had to characterize it, I'm a passenger. I was just kind of going along with things under my default operating system and sort of accepting things about myself that really weren't true. They were as true as the power I gave them and I didn't really understand or conceive that it was actually a choice for me.

Congrats on seven years of sobriety.

Six years and change. I don't want to put up any fronts. 

Compared to beforehand, how does it feel to write and perform music with a sober mind and body?

Everything is better -- 100 percent better -- no question about it. When you're able to really focus and be as present as you can, hold onto a sense of self-awareness when you're playing music... that's really where it's at, man. Especially for us. As we get older, it's easier and easier to find gratefulness in whatever good is coming out of it, and the fact that we still have the opportunity to do what we want and people seem to be into it is an immense compliment. It's satisfying in a way I wasn't tuned into before.  

When things were really picking up for us during the rise of Bleed American [in 2001], there's a lot of stuff that turns off, like a self-preservation thing. It feels safer to not let in the small victories. [You think] "This could go away at any moment." It was true then, and it's true now, but it's your choice to look at it in one of two ways: to not take any of it seriously or you could say, "This could go away at any moment, so I'm willing to just be present, let everything in, and be grateful." I was just going along, not letting things in, out of fear of rejection, a lack of self-worth -- whatever. Now I realize it's way better to just enjoy it. I can see the appeal of [being a monk], devoting your entire existence to negating your ego. If you can really let go of expectation, you can do this forever. 

You guys were this punk band, and after "The Middle" broke, you suddenly had so many eyes on you. 

When you don't feel anything, you can't get hurt. And the fact it might all go away at any moment is something you can deal with in healthy or unhealthy ways and I chose unhealthy ways. 

Some of your singles from that era, like "Bleed American" and "Pain," have lyrics about using pills to cope with life. This might be a sensitive topic, but what made you want to write about that? 

Panic attacks and anxiety disorders, I guess. Pills were never really part of my story as far as... Pills were never an -ism of mine... I guess periods of anti-depression type stuff. Those aren't really a body high sensation; they're an overall blanket-over-your-feelings sensation. If you need it, it's great, but you need to listen to your body for when you don't need it anymore. I'm fortunate that I took action and stopped taking it when I didn't need it anymore.

Jimmy Eat World has been such a constant since it formed: 10 albums never more than a few years apart, plenty of touring, the same lineup. What kind of structure has the band given your life over the years?

It's hard to compare it to anything because it's all I really know. I think we do a good job of protecting where the music comes from. It's important that we're working on the cure that we feel we're born from. To get that reward, you've got to to challenge yourself. I believe it's the only way you can sustain. 

There have been so many changes to the music industry since Jimmy Eat World signed with Capitol Records in 1995. What are some things that have changed for the better? 

There's never been a better time to be a music fan, that's for sure. You have beyond the Library of Congress in your pocket. And as a music maker, there's never been a better time to do something. If you have an idea, you can get really, really close to hearing that idea exist. You can almost do that with something in your pocket, but then, everyone has that access. So the trick is, how do you get your music in front of people? 

A dominant, trusted filter hasn't emerged yet, and I don't know if one will. The nature of the Internet is such... there's always going to be niche and hardcore niche and some of that might cross over. But it's still totally the wild west now. Everything is different. 

I've always been fascinated by the band's decision to record Bleed American on its own and shop it to labels without any management, after being dropped by Capitol in 2000. How did you guys make decisions back then?

It sounds like a nightmare scenario for a band, but it wasn't. We were self-sufficient. Everything we were doing had very little to do with the mechanism that Capitol had in place. Back in those days, major labels knew exactly what to do with a band that could move 30,000 records a week. They had that down. They had no idea what to do with a band that had maybe only sold 2,000 copies total with five combined releases, which was us. We were sleeping on floors. From our perspective, from [1996's] Static Prevails to Bleed American, we were just doing our thing and kind of following whatever people around us were doing. It seemed like when we would come back to a city, there'd be a little bit more people, or maybe next time we would get onto a better support slot with a bigger band. It felt like a slow progression and when Capitol let us out of our deal, it really didn't matter. We had no business being on Capitol then, anyway. 

We had these songs. We knew [producer] Mark Trombino. We were touring all the time. We were kind of making money, so we could pay for studio time. We decided we'd make this record and then we'd just see. We thought the songs were good enough to put out as Jimmy Eat World. We had no idea.

When you played shows in between labels, kids knew the words to unreleased songs because they had leaked. Was that by design? Was it you guys? 

Yeah. We did that because we were playing in Europe, in some places for the first time, and EMI had not released any of our records in Europe. We'd go to the college department at Capitol and tell [director of alternative promotion] Steve Nice that we were taking all these promo copies [Laughs]. We would take hundreds and ship them to Green Hell distro in Germany, and they would send them to indie stores. That's how we had 500 people at our first gig in Cologne. People were singing along to "Sweetness." It was nuts.

And leaking the unreleased Bleed American songs on Napster -- was that your idea? 

We thought of that on our own. I was never an avid Napster downloader, but I definitely knew people who were. I thought it was amazing, especially for the live bootleg stuff, like Tape Traders. It was just paradise for that.

The music critic Jessica Hopper was your publicist back then. How did that come about? 

Friends of friends kind of put us together. That's how anything happens. You met other bands because you were touring in their city and then you met their friends and you introduced them to your friends, and after a while we had this network of friends you could count on all over the country, with no Internet. It was crazy. It was great. Looking back, it was just so gnarly. People that are growing up now have no concept of that.

And Luke Wood, the A&R who signed you to DreamWorks for Bleed American, has such a decorated history in the music industry -- he represented Nirvana back in the day, and he's the president of Beats Electronics now. What was it like working with him? 

Luke was great. We've had several A&R people that are really great. Luke is a friend and he was a supporter of us, even in the Capitol days before we'd had a chance to work with him. Before we signed, we definitely ran stuff by him to get his take. He's always been a supportive and encouraging person, never shy of suggestions.

When DreamWorks was purchased by Universal in 2003, Jimmy Eat World wound up on Interscope. What was that like? 

It was a little weird and a little daunting. We had five contenders to go with when we were shopping Bleed American and Interscope wasn't one of them. And then all of a sudden we're on Interscope. They sort of had to take us because we'd sold a million records, but we just made the best of it. There's some really good people there. We made some good connections and I'm still friends with a lot of people that were around in those days.

Taylor Swift recently picked "For Me This Is Heaven" for a Spotify playlist of her favorite love songs. What did you think of that pick?

Great pick, Taylor, great pick [Laughs]. There's so much music out there, there's so much competition for your time, so when anybody bothers to live with something and develop their own connections to it, it's the biggest compliment for a musician.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, she said Fall Out Boy's lyrics were a massive influence on her and she's spoke glowingly of Dashboard Confessional in the past. It sounds like that era of rock music really shaped her.  

Your formative years are a really special part of your life that you don't get back. Most of the stuff I listen to on a daily basis is at least 15 years old. You're discovering all this music for the first time. And I guess we were that era for some people. I guess I can only quote what she's saying to my experience where there's this time in your life when you're discovering things that's really special, and nothing's really going to... There's just a point, there's that you might have more of a contemporary love for, but it was just a special place for when things were new and you were discovering them. And I guess we were in that era for some people.

Bleed American was literally the first album I ever bought. There you go.

No way! That's so rad!

You've gotten so much attention for "The Middle" over the years. What's something most people still don't know about that song? 

"The Middle" sums up my entire philosophy about things now. I could never express it properly back then, but it's this idea that placing your self-worth on external validation is just a losing game. I'm conscious of a lot of these fundamentals now, so the song totally means as much to me as it did back then. It was almost a joke song. When you're creating something, you place a little more worth on things you struggle to make, and "The Middle" just sort of happened. It was really an easy song... I don't think we worked on it for more than a day, so there was this creative fallacy that it wasn't worth as much as something else we labored over. 

What came first? Was it the hook?

I'm pretty sure it all happened at once. The drum beat probably came first. I remember working on that in some place I used to live, having a drum set in my room and just doing the da da da -- the [Tom Petty's] "You Wreck Me" beat. It's an awesome groove, it'll do anything. I started messing around with that. Then the guitar part came and then the vocals came. I had this autographed poster of Bruce Springsteen from the Tunnel of Love era, and I needed a chorus for that song. I was thinking, "Okay, what would the Boss do?" Then I came up with the chorus -- it was me thinking about what Bruce Springsteen would do with the chorus.

The "little girl" lyric! That's so Springsteen.

It was an actual girl, too. We had a Jimmy Eat World AOL account for a while, and she who wrote us saying she was 14 years old and was being shunned by the punks at her school because she wasn't punk enough. And I thought that was really funny, because punk rock is about acceptance. I was thinking, dude, don't fucking worry about it!

A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Billboard.

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