If timing is everything, then Stephan Jenkins was the atomic clock of the late 1990s. The Third Eye Blind founder/mastermind spent years honing his craft in the Bay Area during the early and mid 90s before finally unleashing his band’s hit-packed self-titled debut on April 8, 1997. The journey was long, but the fruits of 3EB’s labors were worth it, as the album spawned three instant classic top 10 singles with “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Graduate” and “How’s it Going to Be” and two other hits in “Jumper” and “Losing a Whole Year” on its way to 6x platinum certification.
The album’s long gestation and circuitous path to release was filled with as much drama as its dark lyrics about suicide, crystal meth addiction and sexual abuse, wrapped in instantly grabby arrangements that helped propel 3EB into seemingly overnight stardom after years of struggle. That combination of songwriting savvy and a Velvet Underground-like fascination with life’s dimmer side served as an unofficial bridge between the grim grunge years and the soon-to-explode pure pop explosion of acts such as Hanson, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and Britney Spears.
For the album’s 20 anniversary, Billboard spoke to Jenkins, 52, former bandmates guitarist Kevin Cadogan and bassist Arion Salazar, Elektra Records Chairman and CEO Sylvia Rhone, who signed the band, as well as “Semi-Charmed Life” video director Jamie Morgan and album co-producer/engineer Eric Valentine. Here, in their own words, is the story behind Third Eye Blind. (Editor’s note: The accounts of how some songs and portions of the album came together do not always totally agree.)
“I didn’t have a band, just these songs in my head...”
Stephan Jenkins: I wrote “Semi-Charmed” before I met Arion or any of the people in that make-up [of the band]. The drum loops on the final record are the ones that I originally recorded. I remember sitting in a room with this other songwriter who worked down the street — she was a waitress — and she came up and sat on the bed and we played each other some songs and I realized years later that the songs we played each other had sold 17 million records… it was [4 Non Blondes singer and mega-producer/songwriter] Linda Perry. She sang me a song called “What’s Going On” and I sang her this song called “Semi-Charmed Life.”
I didn’t have a band or any musicians, just these songs in my head. When I first recorded it and played it it was pretty much done. [Producer/future American Idol judge] Randy Jackson heard it and really liked it, and took it to [former Sony Music Chairman] Donnie Ienner, who was then President of CBS Records. He thought it was rambling, and it was — it was too different. Third Eye Blind started as a songwriting effort of mine and then [in collaboration with] some guys who were engineers and keyboard players in studios. Then I went on to try to get bands together. There was no overnight success.
Kevin Cadogan: I was playing with a mutual acquaintance in a band and Stephan had heard me and some of my songs and guitar playing. He approached me at a club and asked if I wanted to jam and get to work. We hit it off and I liked some of stuff he was doing. We started writing, and what would come over the next two years was the bulk of the debut album — a lot of which came together in a little shack in the back of my parents’ house in Oakland, where I was living after I graduated from college. Between Stephan’s place in the East Bay in Oakland and my place is where most of the songs were written.
Jenkins: From the very early ’90s I was working and writing and trying to get a band together, then someone would quit and join another band, or someone was a drug addict, and I’d put up fliers to find new members, and then the night of the show the drummer would quit and I’d be back to zero. Did things change when Kevin and Arion joined? No, not really.
Arion Salazar: Nothing in the band happened until Kevin joined. I was playing with Stephan in 1993 and we had a show opening for the Counting Crows in April of 1994, and Kevin showed up a couple months later. When I met Stephan he had a demo with two or three songs out of the six that would see the light of day on the album. One of those was “Semi-Charmed.” He had it with a stripped-down drum machine and electronic bass on the first non-band demo. It was kind of one-dimensional, acoustic guitar troubadour-y first position thing with basic guitar chords and some bohemian rapping.
They were cool lyrics and cool songs but sort of in one style. Kevin, in addition to providing lyrical content on “Narcolepsy” and “Losing a Whole Year,” he brought this shoegazer and big guitar-chord soundscape musicality to the band that balanced out “Semi-Charmed,” and he added it to other songs.
“Here I was, lap-dancing all these people…”
Cadogan: One of our first showcases was for Clive Davis at Arista in New York, and it didn’t go very well. We didn’t get signed. It was a lot of fun, but Clive didn’t think Stephan could sing, which he took as a bit of, “Well, I’ll show that guy.” It was in some room at some rehearsal space, and Jeff Buckley was there too and he came in and sat down to listen.
Salazar: We were in some little hallway and Jeff Buckley said, “You sound great!”
Sylvia Rhone: I remember every step. I remember getting the music from my VP of A&R [Josh Deutsch] and meeting with a lawyer in the business who I did a lot of deals with — a passionate music guy, Tim Mandelbaum — and they talked about the band for many days before I got the opportunity to meet them in L.A. I loved them instantly. It instantly connected with me… his voice, the lyrics, the melodious hooks. I felt like… “Hmm, isn’t this fresh? Isn’t it a new view of modern top 40 music?”
This was almost my first year of being appointed chairman of the label, this historic label with the Afghan Whigs and Björk, but I didn’t have anything that had the pop sensibility with the edge… those two different things. It was either a disposable trite pop band or a deep dark alternative band. We didn’t have anything on the label that brought all those worlds together. I thought, “Bingo!”
Jenkins: RCA gave me some money and I worked on the “How’s It Going to Be” demo that made it on the album, and the first iteration of “Semi-Charmed” that had the loops on it that I kept. But I kept recording it because the groove wasn’t right. I went back ultimately to the drum machine and put [drummer Brad Hargreaves’] drums over the loop, which made the song cook. It wouldn’t hold up as a loop unto itself. It needed both, which is very rare. I haven’t been able to pull it off since.
A bunch of people heard [the demo] and started showing some interest in us, and we started doing showcases. I remember I had done it so many times and had sat in so many offices. I went into [former Epic Records VP/GM] David Massey’s office — I liked him because he was so much less slick than other people in the business, so much more cogent and relatable to me — and we started to chit-chat and I couldn’t stand it. I’m not big on chit-chat and we were sitting in his office talking about snowboarding. This was the sixth time I rolled into the office and they were like “Hey, guys!”… He says, “What can I do for you?” I said, “Sign me with Epic Records.” I was kind of rude, but finally someone said it!
This was at the time when you needed to be signed, which really bothered me. I got into music not to be under someone’s power of control and here I was lap-dancing all these people. And he says, “When can I see you?” And I said, “You can have us open for Oasis next week in San Francisco.” He picked up the phone and that actually happened.
“You guys are shite, you’ll never make it”
Cadogan: That was a really cool move to get us that opening gig in San Francisco. It was pretty ballsy. It was just incredible. I got threatened by [Oasis singer] Liam [Gallagher] that night with physical violence. I was drinking a can of Coke and had finished it and crumpled it up and was going to throw it, basketball-style, 20 yards away. The can hit someone who was in the corner — I just saw this glowing ash and the can rolled over to it. After the show he said, “You could have gotten stabbed.” Literally said that. I said, “What are you talking about?” He was like, “You threw that can at me, man.” I did not throw a can at him.
Noel [Gallagher] was studying one of my guitars, geeking out on it, and I could tell he was the serious one. Liam afterwards said, “You guys are shite, you’ll never make it.” The crowd really got into it. We were told by their management not to get too upset when we get stuff thrown at us at our hometown show.
Jenkins: That iteration of Third Eye Blind had probably played five or six gigs, so we had not paid any dues in that sense. That band just kind of came together. I have no idea what we really sounded like on stage because I had never been on a big stage like that at all. I remember before we went out I said, “We are going to crush this band.” Oasis was at their peak then — “Champagne Supernova” was the fourth single [off 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? ] and it was banging on MTV. Everybody was kind of terrified, and I held this pep rally before and said, “We’re going to murder this band. As soon as we finish playing everyone is going to leave.”
We played and it went over really well. Nobody knew who we were. We went on stage and Sherry Wasserman [of promoter Another Planet] said, “Go back out” and we got to do an encore. And opening bands don’t get to do encores. It never happens. Afterwards she gave us a $500 bonus, which was so much money!
“I want you to stay just the way you are”
Rhone: The first time I saw them was at the Viper Room on Sunset Blvd. I could see that there were other labels in the room, but I didn’t pay attention to that. I sat in our booth right under the stage and they just rocked it. I was shocked at the performance ability they had, the confidence and musicianship. It sounded like a very experienced band. I didn’t have their history so I wasn’t tainted by anything. I heard the demos and loved them. After I saw them I was filled in on the background. I had such fresh ears on it and it connected wth me instantaneously. And [Jenkins] is a rock star.
Jenkins: There was Maverick, Elektra and Epic, so there was a bidding war, as they say. We had a choice. It had always been something that came together and morphed, there had probably been three Third Eye Blinds at that point. But with Sylvia, she was the most energized and articulate about, “this is what I’m going to do.” She had been to business school and she’s got this energy and clarity that was above the others. She let me produce the record.
The other guys wanted me to go and get with a producer. I had been working in studios since I was 15 developing my whole thing and I didn’t want to hand it over to someone. I did end up producing it on my own, but I really liked working with [co-producer Eric Valentine], who was very good at [finding the right] sounds.
Cadogan: The Viper Room showcase was a turning point. It was the creative control [that sealed the deal with Rhone.] I don’t think it was the show so much as the recordings we made with Eric Valentine.
Salazar: We played really well, but that first record is basically that demo. That record is mostly 80 percent the demo we were shopping. That’s why we hadn’t gotten signed at these showcases before… we weren’t ready. We didn’t have those 14 songs on one CD. Once we built up that volume of tunes it was undeniable. It was reflected in the stage show too. We felt really happy, not nervous or too excited that big-shot record guys were in the audience.
Rhone: The worst thing is to be in a beauty contest when you want to sign an artist. When I saw them play, I heard songs I knew were hits. They rocked the house, so all I could really give them in a competitive situation was, “I want you to stay just the way you are.” [I said] I wouldn’t change things, just give them a bigger platform.
Cadogan: My rig [for the sessions] was really stripped down. I had a Marshall Plexi [amp head] and I tried to get a good basic tone, not a lot of crazy effects, but what I was doing was trying to make my chords bigger. I was conscious of wanting to have real dynamics in the moods of the songs not just have it go out on one level of intensity. From being clean to a burst into a chaotic thing. “Narcolepsy” is a great example… that dreamy sound that then kicks into another gear.
Eric Valentine: They had recorded a bunch of stuff and had a lot of demos. Most of them weren’t really quite ready for that, so it was a process of picking through the stuff and seeing what was usable, what needed to be replaced and what we had to start from scratch on.
Salazar: Eric was this incredible producer who is all about sonics, and he has this amazing collection of vintage gear and effects pedals. I went crazy and we spent hours just trying to get cool sonic stuff, double-tracking bass sounds, laser-sound effects using feedback on “Graduate,” eight-string basses. A real tape flange where we would put a cassette tape in and run it at the same time as the two-track and weave it in and out to get a natural tape flange on the bass breakdown on “Thanks a Lot.” Hendrix used it all over his records.
Jenkins: We were definitely able to experiment [during the album sessions at Skywalker Sound in San Francisco]. We put microphones in tanks of water. Before I met any of those guys or Eric, [producer/engineer] David Gleeson took me up there when it was kind of new, and we would sneak up on the soundstage there on the pretense that we were doing something and start recording. People assumed we were supposed to be there because security was so tight nobody would ask us anything. We got away with it and recorded a bunch there and really liked it.
I was looking for a real thud in the drums… I wanted a thickness in midrange, so we put the drums in a smaller room and opened the doors so it had a sense of breathing. For “Jumper,” I gave Brad — who uses these big sticks — I gave him some small sticks, and put the riser in the middle of the room and did it with no reverb, like a Beatles thing. “Burning Man” was a song we recorded and mixed on the same day.
A song like [spare, dreamy ballad] “I Want You,” nobody showed up to the studio that day — the recording sessions took three months — so it was just me and Eric that day and he said, “What do you want to do today?” I built a a loop and we just kind of put it together, and it had this feeling of being a throwaway — it has the most free and easy sense to it. It’s just me picking around in the studio. I had a talk box where in between I would yell things. “That was a really good sound” — that stayed on record, me yelling into that box.
Valentine: Brad did a great job of playing live drums to that loop. We weren’t using computers, just straight on to tape machines, no changing or fixing anything. I would cut and edit tape. That collection of people are great musicians, it’s just undeniable. Brad is a great drummer, Arion is an amazing bass player, he really got into it. Kevin was such an extraordinarily gifted guitar player, with such a distinctive approach. He definitely did that shoegazer thing, with all these open tunings and pounding guitars on eighth notes… things that nobody else has really done. Stephan had a vision for that record for sure, and he’s an incredible lyricist. It was really his thing.
Rhone: Was the gist of the album already there when the group got signed? Yeah man! In some cases I had to send them back because the demos were better than the re-recorded versions. They say in the business, you get “demo-itis.” With some of the songs, I liked the demos better. “Semi-Charmed Life” was the smash. But we had five, six singles off that album. We broke a new group on their first album, selling multi-millions. That was a big feather in my cap, absolutely. For a signing like that with a new management team to blow it out as big as we did. That was a big moment.
“This was our ‘Walk on the Wild Side'”
Jenkins: The sound [of “Semi-Charmed”] was about decay. The sweetness of wanting something else that’s delivered to you in this package, where it has this seeming warmth that never yields. Wanting something else is all there is… the whole state of being is longing. If you’ve got something, if you achieved it, whatever that happiness was wouldn’t have happened because all you have is need. It’s a state of being of always wanting.
What I was saying at the time was I was noticing this world that seemed so passionate and enlivened, but all it was was longing and need. This was our “Walk on the Wild Side.” That “doot doot doot” was a kind of answer. My rebellion and sense of identity was about being alive. My ferocity was going to come from vitality and not from nullifying myself. That is basically what I’m about.
Rhone: It has all those memorable lyrics, but it had musical hooks all through it. It’s such a recognizable song. I knew we made it when I was in a supermarket in Martha’s Vineyard and it was playing. “We did it!” Stephan would hate that. From “How’s It Going to Be” to “Losing a Whole Year,” “Jumper” — who puts five singles out on a pop rock band? They’re classic songs.
Jamie Morgan [“Semi-Charmed” director]: I found the scooter kids [for the video] driving around San Fran, and the same with the studio shots. [The band] told me they had friends, but when I arrived from London they didn’t really have any, so I had to find them from the streets of San Francisco. They loved my first video [for Bush’s “Swallowed,”] so that was the starting point for the two-day shoot. They just wanted me to come and shoot the San Francisco vibe, so I just made it up as we went along, and responded to the cast I found on the streets.
Cadogan: People are surprised when they go back to “Semi-Charmed” that a lot of the lyrics are quite racy. That’s one of the things the drew me in. I really thought some of imagery was quite good.
Salazar: I remember hearing the single on the radio for first time. At that point I didn’t think it would be huge, but I thought, “This sounds great.”
Morgan: I knew it was a really strong pop song and I really liked the vibe. I thought it was a definite smash! [The moon shot at the end] was a play on the MTV moonman logo, and the MTV culture, and also the idea of discovery and man’s ability to wonder and explore.
“Losing a whole beer”
Cadogan: “Narcolepsy” was about nightmares I was having, and I wrote down some ideas, played some chords… I was talking about this sleep post-paralysis where you’re awake, but your brain isn’t quite awake yet. It’s that feeling like you’re dying or suffocating. Stephan grew up in Palo Alto… none of us were too deeply disturbed, so [the album] is not necessarily autobiographical.
Jenkins: Nobody’s ever written any other lyric on that record, it never happened. “Graduate” is about after we got signed, and it’s the process of getting signed. I’m still standing in front of some suit at a record company asking permission. I felt like some kind of lap-dancer, some student again, like I was still in high school. Can I get my grade on my paper? What it’s really saying is “I’m not really asking if i can graduate. I’m not asking for your permission. I’m beyond your permission. I’m beyond your control.”
Cadogan: That song [‘Graduate’] was not part of the demos we did with Eric Valentine. I wanted to create something that sounded unique to me. We had been told by a record executive to get ready to go gold. It has that rolling finger pattern, and it literally started with saying something stupid like “It’s ready to roll!!” and Stephan came up with “Can I graduate?” in the same style. The first time Josh Deutsch came out to Skywalker he said, “This will be your ‘Start Me Up.”’
Salazar: “Losing a Whole Year” might be one of of my favorite songs because it has these giant chords, and when I heard that big shoegazer riff from Kevin I was really happy to be in the band. The recording was really special because everyone went all out with the sonics. There are maybe four bass guitars at one point on the chorus. I played an eight-strong bass that’s doubled, a distorted four-string run through a rotary speaker.
Cadogan: I’m really proud of my contributions to the different voices on the guitar on that one. I just messed around and got these chords that would made this lush sound. I had this little Tascam four-track and we were at Stephan’s having some beers and working on it acoustically and this beer spilled on the recorder and we had a bit of “Losing” with this warped falsetto and someone said, “Losing a whole beer,” which became “Losing a Whole Year.”
Salazar: We were so into that song and as a band we were like, “This will be the first single.” And the label was like, “Maybe ‘Semi-Charmed’?” The whole time in the band there was never a time when the label pressured us to do anything, but they were right.
Jenkins: “Jumper” is about a guy who jumped off the Coronado Bridge and killed himself. It’s kind of a noir-inspired story, and the point was if we have more understanding for each other, then we might give each other credit. And if you don’t want to see me again, I’d understand. Sometimes when you really help people and you make yourself vulnerable and they can’t really see you [afterwards]. I had a friend who was raped and she needed money for medical care. and she was ashamed and couldn’t talk to her parents about it… basically, after I helped her she didn’t want to see me. She gave a bit too much of herself. I understood that.
“All that registered was the music”
Valentine: We agreed that we wanted to make a no-holds-barred, totally massive, epic rock record, so we spared no expense and came up with a vision to do something that would be as extraordinary as we could… I’m most proud of the fact that we made a record that really did represent the absolute best that we could do in every way — the best songs they could come up with, the best performance they could play, the best sound I could capture, the best mixes.
It was a time when that was possible to do, and it was worth doing for everyone involved, because people still bought records. You could invest six months in an album and there would be a really extraordinary payoff because people will buy it and appreciate the effort. I’m really happy to be able to be part of an experience like that, and have it be part of my creative legacy.
Rhone: I had no idea [it would blow up like it did.] All I knew is that they were great songs and they were a great band and Stephan was a sexy, charismatic rock star. At the time we put out the record, he was going out with [actress] Charlize Theron, whose career hadn’t taken off yet, and he was strutting around and it was a Hollywood story. Most people wouldn’t have signed someone who was thirty-two years old. All those things didn’t register. All that registered was the music. They were a seminal act in my career, and they were really very important to that period of Elektra.
Jenkins: I didn’t even feel like it would launch us into the stratosphere. I struggled for so long and lived with seven roommates for so long that I thought I’d always be that… It felt great. The first time I heard any song of mine on the radio, I was driving from Oakland to San Francisco and I heard “Semi-Charmed Life” on Live 105 and I saw the city there and I thought, “This is my city.” It’s what I wrote those records about and it gave me an incredibly lifted feeling.
When we finished that tour after a year and a half — after those years of sleeping on packing foam in cleaning closets and eating Top Ramen in my 20s, and then going through this whole tumult of making a record and then going on tour for a really long time, which was really hard, knowing the band wasn’t going to stay together — the tour was everything you’ve worked for since you got out of college and every day since and it’s over. That’s it, that’s all you can do.
I was driving from Santa Barbara to L.A. and tears streamed down my face. It wasn’ the feeling of “I’ve arrived.” It was a feeling of, “Have I done enough?” That was a more poignant feeling. I put it all out there as best I could, as true as I could. And is that enough?