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We're Not Talking Blind Luck

With catchy riffs pumping up lyrics that kids like a lot more than broadcast censors do, it's no wonder Third Eye Blind is getting so bleeping popular.

September 07, 1997|Sara Scribner | Sara Scribner writes about pop music for Calendar

On the surface, San Francisco's Third Eye Blind seems to be leading the kind of existence the band refers to in its song "Semi-Charmed Life." The quartet's debut album has been steadily chugging up Billboard's album chart for four months and "Semi-Charmed Life"--a crossover alternative and pop radio hit--reached No. 4 on the Hot 100 singles chart and received heavy rotation on MTV.

Third Eye Blind singer-songwriter Stephan Jenkins, however, will tell you that his days are not all wine and roses.

Deceptively upbeat, "Semi-Charmed Life" soars on a poppish "doot-doot-doot" intro, jagged, supercharged guitar and Jenkins' rapid-fire singsong rap. The bouncy style and quick pace make it easy to miss the dark undercurrent.

The song, Jenkins explains, captures something far more intense than first meets the ear. "It's heavy subject matter," says the singer, an articulate 28-year-old with a pencil-thin beard tracing his jawline. "In some ways it's a cautionary tale. It charts the decline of a relationship due to a speed addiction."

Though the lyric is nearly impossible to pick out on the record, the band made a "clean" version of the song that obscures a mention of "crystal myth"--a reference to the drug crystal methamphetamine. The popular video was based on the expurgated mix, with Jenkins raising his eyebrows in an ironic gesture and putting his hand over his mouth during the blurred phrase.

When the band made an appearance on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and the producers asked them to modify a sexual lyric, Jenkins, guitarist Kevin Cadogan, bassist Arion Salazar and drummer Brad Hargreaves did not comply. It was bleeped out for the taped airing.

Jenkins says the TV-unfriendly references are all about being honest, and that's what rock's all about anyway. "Sex is raunchy, it's earthy. I don't dress it up. I'm not an exhibitionist, but it's an emotional thing. You have to report on it without judging. Sometimes it doesn't make you look that good, but if you don't it's sort of fraudulent."

Jenkins and his band have been looking pretty good to radio and MTV, nonetheless. Lisa Worden, the music director for KROQ-FM (106.7), says that "Semi-Charmed Life" immediately struck her as a pop-rock hit.

"That was one of those moments where, from the first listen, we thought it was going to be huge," she says. "We put it right on the air and started jamming it immediately."

As that song's rotation on the station winds down and moves to mainstream pop radio, two other tracks--the rough-edged "Graduate" and the lovesick ballad "How's It Going to Be"--have been bumped up to heavy play.

And Worden thinks that the record's hit potential still hasn't been tapped out.

"This album's completely solid. I think that we can play six songs from it. [Jenkins'] lyrics just really connect with the kids who listen to this station--well, hopefully they don't totally relate to 'Semi-Charmed Life'--but in general the songs are easy to relate with, they've got catchy hooks, and the singer's hot."

Jenkins is not about to disagree.

"We want to be the biggest band in the world," he says boldly. "But it has to be on my own terms. We don't do it for fame, we'd do it for free, but having that audience connection is really fun. I don't really understand that Reel Big Fish song 'Sell Out.' So far, we haven't compromised."

Neither has the band's label, which emerged victorious in a bidding war for Third Eye Blind by agreeing to give the band total creative control. Elektra Chairwoman and CEO Sylvia Rhone was lured by the group's skillful coupling of dark, streetwise lyrics and melodic pop--and Jenkins' charisma.

Rather than being wary about the outfit's insistence on creative control, Rhone says that she was impressed.

"I love it when an artist has that kind of confidence in their creative instincts and abilities. They showed their writing and production talents, so we had no hesitation," she says.

The members of Third Eye Blind met through a club-roving musical network in San Francisco, where Jenkins had been performing spoken-word in an "acoustic hip-hop thing" called Puck and Zen. He split to form Third Eye Blind with the goal of creating a group that embraced a do-it-yourself ethic while breaking free of the constraints of indie rock.

"I didn't feel like I fit into that whole post-grunge noise-pop scene, that movement to democratize the form by playing badly. The emotional range was really limited. To me, rock music is all about putting yourself out there, and there was an emotional correctness, a safe-ness in the San Francisco scene. We got into it to not to fit in."

Weaned on the Beatles and, later, hip-hop pioneers the Sugarhill Gang and college rockers Camper Van Beethoven, Jenkins molded the band's sound into a stylistic melting pot. Its name is a pessimistic, tongue-in-cheek reference to the spiritual "third eye," a porthole to the world of magic and dreams. "It seems that we live in a blind time," Jenkins explains.

Perhaps, but the world hasn't turned a deaf ear on him. Now riding high on his good fortune, the singer says that some of the dark aspects of the record still haunt him--and motivate him.

"The themes are about things you've lost and things you could never have. I very rarely sit in my life and look around and just enjoy it. I'm always pushing forward."

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