Even after a quarter century and nearly 7 million equivalent album units earned from his band’s first five albums, according to Luminate, formerly MRC Data, Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins still feels like he’s on the outside looking in. “This folk music’s f–king me up/Makes me think I should quit/Maybe I’m just scared of it,” he sings on “Silverlake Neophyte” from the group’s 2021 album, Our Bande Apart, a collection Jenkins says is his favorite thing he has ever done.
Musicians are expected to plug the new one. But in Jenkins’ case, after years of battling former bandmates, managers — and, in some cases, himself during dry spells — he has emerged from the most fruitful period of his career with a new attitude and a fresh perspective on what and who his band is.
Fans of 3EB (as the act is commonly known) know that Jenkins, after years of working on his songwriting, burst onto the scene with the band’s 1997 self-titled debut, which has generated nearly a billion on-demand streams in the United States (according to Luminate), featuring big-swing alt-pop staples “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Graduate,” “How’s It Gonna Be” and “Jumper.” His signature mix of NC-17 subject matter and earworm choruses heralded a fresh songwriting voice that blended the underbelly frankness of Jane’s Addiction with the guitar-forward hooks of peak Smashing Pumpkins.
The band followed up with the more musically adventurous Blue in 1999 and Out of the Vein in 2003, though its next two releases each came after six-year breaks that led to Jenkins’ most prolific period. Since 2019, the new-look 3EB — whose only original members are Jenkins and drummer Brad Hargreaves — have been on a tear, releasing two albums, a live set and two EPs in less than four years. “To me, it’s very close to the first album in letting the songs be what they are without any of that nervousness of trying to make them into the thing they should be,” Jenkins says of Our Bande Apart.
With 3EB setting out in June on its 25th anniversary Summer Gods Tour, sharing the bill with Taking Back Sunday and Hockey Dad, Jenkins talked with Billboard about how modern folk music messes with his head and the time Kanye West paid him a compliment.
What was the founding concept of 3EB? What did you want the band to be?
I wanted to be freed up from genre. I liked British riff rock and singer-songwriter stuff… New Order, Joy Division, Cat Stevens, and I really liked hip-hop. I liked the space that hip-hop gave you for expanding the lyric and being really wordy. I didn’t like the ethos of grunge where it was nihilism, everybody not caring and turning inward. I had more of a rage to live, to reshape my world on my own terms. My mindset was more eros, erotic, the ferocity of demanding to live on your terms.
What happens when you go from being unknown to having that kind of chart success with your debut release?
I definitely felt validated in a way to know I was going to be able to make a second record, which was amazing to me. To be a musician is to take a vow of poverty, and I didn’t have a driver’s license or a bank account. I really bet everything on doing music, with no fallback, so to have a gig was amazing.
You have a moment when you get success where you can turn yourself into the person who is talking loudest in the room and what you have to say is so interesting and you’re making jokes and not asking questions. I think we’re all susceptible to that with success and early on I went through that. But I also decided I wanted to be living in a space where I had impact with people and engaged with them about the real, authentic friction of relationships.
This is what I think of. I have a picture — it’s my favorite photo ever — of an autistic boy whose parents brought him backstage and asked if he could meet me. His language was such that he doesn’t say something at the time where it’s appropriate to say it. But he loved Third Eye Blind and his parents hooked me up to talk to him about it. We took a picture and he looked at the camera… he also had a problem being touched. We smile for the camera and he made eye contact and for me — I hated having photos taken of myself — I looked at that photo and I said, “That’s my real face, this is me, this is the full expression of myself.” His parents were tripping me out because he looked at the camera, which was something he didn’t normally do. They were nervous because they were meeting this person who was on MTV and the boy said “bye” at the right time and at that point they completely stopped caring about me at all. That was really wonderful because they were so fixated on their boy making this little milestone moment. That was a sense of what I was doing, my rendering of reality is traveling to somebody else and I felt that.
You seemed to capture that same explosive first-album energy on Blue, especially on “Wounded.” That ecstatic “woo woo!” and the gigantic guitar windup feel triumphant. When you write a song like that, do you know in the moment you’ve written something special?
Oh, for sure, yes. It’s one of my favorite records, and during the making of Blue I felt free, truly free. Then what happens is it goes through mixing and mastering and gets shrunk down to this little f–king CD and it all shrinks. But there’s a moment where it’s ocean-sized in your head. That was a song about a friend who got raped and withdrew from our friend group and that made an emotional dent on me. That’s [the place where] I wrote from, and I was able to render something of her rage and triumph of ownership of self.
You’ve never made it easy on yourself with your choice of topics: abortion, suicide, a pharmacopeia of drugs, oral sex. Do you ever try to wind it back for the sake of mainstream acceptance or radio?
No. I’ve always felt that as an indie-rock artist, there have been very few times where I’ve been radio-focused. It’s about being in a kitchen under suspect light after midnight when the conversation gets real. For me, writing doesn’t come from one particular place, it’s just about trying to stay in a cultivating space where things can actually make a dent on you emotionally.
There was a six-year break before Ursa Major arrived in 2009. What happened?
I produced and co-wrote a couple other albums [Vanessa Carlton’s Harmonium], produced for a few [Spencer Barnett], so there was that. I can’t really account for myself. To make rock music, there’s that, “Here’s what I’m doing and I don’t give a f–k, f–k your opinion.” That’s the rock’n’roll mindset and I didn’t have it. I felt judged and misunderstood. I also had been going so hard for so long for years before I got a record deal that I think maybe I was a bit stunned by the idea of going out and being subjected to evaluation and criticism.
You talked about the influence of hip-hop, which pops up across so many of your songs, like “Semi-Charmed.” Do you feel like a rapper at heart?
I just love the daisy age of hip-hop — De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest — and I just felt like rap music was punk and there’s a music aspect to it that just immediately compelled me as someone who tends to be overly wordy.
After another long break, you came back with the EP We Are Drugs in 2016, which felt the least restrained you had ever been. You’re 57 — could you have written those same songs at 25?
I think the real question is could I have written it without Drake? Drake is an amazing lyricist. I just stayed in my late 20s, that’s what I did. (Laughs.) I don’t have any wisdom. I’m just interested in the music I hear now, and I pay attention to culture now. I don’t have any old stories. I’m always looking to go surfing with friends. That’s how I roll and that’s the energy that comes back to me.
Third Eye Blind still has a young audience. How do you explain that?
It’s a phenomenon, and one I feel like I have no control over. Certainly, I don’t have any way of fostering it. It’s a result of the socializing of music sharing, and what happens is our band turns into playlists and they don’t have date stamps on them. People find songs that illuminate where they’re at and then they share them.
Do you see signs of your influence on bands out there now?
Yes. There’s a frankness and rawness in rap lyrics that inspires and repels me because of a lot of the violence and misogyny that gets a pass. But there is a lot of incredible, exciting raw sh-t in there. I was at a baseball game and Kanye [West] was there and he was talking about how he saw that in my music and found it “inspiring.” He’s a rapper who can do some really raw, genuine stuff where he’s looking for that completely unhinged state of freedom, and to hear a nod [from him] like, “I understand what you’re on about and I dig it” was so cool.
“Silverlake Neophyte” from Our Bande Apart has you questioning your place in music. Are you still wondering if you should quit after hearing some of the new folk music that’s messing with your head?
I took this deep dive into the Los Angeles neo-folk scene [Phoebe Bridgers, Adrianne Lenker] and there’s this hyper-realness going on there. It made me go, “OK, are you being real?” I imagined that feeling of being at an open mic night in Silverlake with other songwriters and really laying it down. You don’t discover yourself; you make yourself up. We are inventions. [Our Bande Apart] is kind of my favorite album because, to me, it’s very close to the first album in just letting the songs be what they are without any of that nervousness of trying to make them into the thing they should be. It’s not overthought, not overwrought.
Can we do a lightning round? How does it feel to sing those early songs today? Can you still tap into those emotions?
I tap into the audience’s emotions and they keep it alive.
What is Third Eye Blind today? Is it you?
(Pauses.) Yes. I’m Third Eye Blind and I have relationships with people who are in this band and they bring something precious and vital to it. Both things are true.
Who are the songs for?
Wow… The songs are for themselves. They are for the universe. They are for the purpose of being brought into existence and they come with the hope of traveling to other people and bringing them into connection with each other.
What’s the song that came the quickest and the one that took forever?
[Blue album track] “Tattoo of the Sun” and “Deep Inside of You.”
What did you see when you look out now in the crowd?
People who feel the joy of knowing they are not alone.
Do you see signs of your influence on bands out there now?
Yes. There’ a frankness and rawness in rap lyrics that inspires and repels me because of a lot of the violence and misogyny that gets a pass. But there is a lot of incredible, exciting raw sh-t in there. I was at a baseball game and Kanye [West] was there and he was talking about how he saw that in my music and found it “inspiring.” The point was he’s a rapper who can do some really raw, genuine stuff where he’s looking for that completely unhinged state of freedom and to hear a nod [from Ye] like, “I understand what you’re on about and I dig it” was so cool.
Best advice you got from a rock hero?
Bono said, “Wait ’til the live album to buy a house.”
The drummer [in an unnamed band] said “enjoy it while it lasts.”
Best advice you’ve given?
I told a new artist, Adam Neff, that if you want to be a good musician, live like an athlete and keep writing songs.
Your favorite show?
There are so many, but there was a moment at Lollapalooza [in 2016] where we didn’t know what was gonna happen because people vote with their feet and you can be on stage and there can be no one at your show. We set an attendance record for that afternoon slot for the whole weekend. And then some guys took a guy in a wheelchair and crowd-surfed him to the stage and the security guys were going to put him in the pit and I said, “Let him up!” They put him on the stage and I looked out at the audience at the end of the show and I said, “Look how beautiful you are!” And I meant that about everyone there.
You have consistently written songs about getting high/drugs, so I have to ask, do you indulge?
Surprisingly not. I think it’s so overrated. I like like to get up early and get a cold plunge in and go surfing. I like the feeling of being way, way in my body, but nobody likes a goody two-shoes either, so I certainly don’t believe in the taboo. But the writing of the taboo can be a metaphor for other things.
Will you be singing these songs when you’re Paul McCartney’s age?
I don’t see why not.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 14, 2022, issue of Billboard.