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Seeing Eye to Third Eye

[whitespace] Third Eye Blind
In Their Sights: Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins (second from right) always has something on his mind and is more than ready to talk about it.

Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind has a bone to pick with everyone

By Gina Arnold

IT'S AN EL NIÑO-SOAKED night on Market Street in San Francisco, and Third Eye Blind has just taken the stage at the Warfield Theater. "Do you know how fucking excited we are to be here?" singer Stephan Jenkins asks a packed house. A deafening roar of teenaged screams is his only answer. "There's a lot of sucker MCs out there," he continues, "but they don't know what we know, and they don't do what we do!"

He then lights into another song from his band's smash debut album, Third Eye Blind, and the enraptured audience sings along to every word. The January date at the Warfield is Jenkins and company's first gig in their hometown in almost a year, and they are being treated like the all-conquering heroes that, let's face it, they are. Last summer, Third Eye Blind's single "Semi-charmed Life" was inescapable, but the band is still struggling to get some respect from its peers.

This is because Jenkins, a Palo Alto native (Gunn High, class of '83), is known for shooting off his mouth, and when I reach him by phone in some unnamed town in the Midwest a week later, he doesn't disappoint. I catch him on his first day off in a week, and he's using it to do this interview, mainly because he had read a review in Metro a year ago--written by yours truly--which he wishes to refute. "You said we'd be a one-hit wonder," he announces truculently, "and we've already had four."

Well, "four" is an exaggeration, but it is true that Third Eye Blind has long since gone platinum, and the tour is selling out around the country. Indeed, the band was recently the recipient of a Billboard Music Award for "Semi-charmed Life," which was indubitably one of the biggest singles of 1997.

Those paltry rewards are not enough for the insatiable Jenkins, however. He wants praise, and if it's not forthcoming, he's willing to demand it. "You reduced my lyrics to just being catchy," he says. "And you're so terribly wrong! We're a really good band. We have something to offer. And we've been so terribly miscast!"

Jenkins is right about one thing: his band has long had a problem with the press, which sees the success of Third Eye Blind as a measure of the sad state of alternative rock. This reaction is not so much because of Third Eye Blind's music, but because Jenkins--whose personality combines arrogance with charisma to an almost unnatural degree--has violated the indie rocker's self-imposed ban on exhibiting all-out ambition.

One accusation in particular rankles Jenkins, and that is the charge that the band--which in 1996 received one of the highest advances for a debut act from the Bay Area--came out of nowhere and is, in consequence, lacking in credibility.

"We're not," he sniffs, "a media-created band like Sleater-Kinney. We're really organic. We've been together five years. We have the most solid indie DIY pedigree on the block. Every member of our band played the Mabuhay at age 15. We've done Gilman. We've driven to New York in a van and played CBGBs. And every single thing we do is entirely controlled by us. We stuck together despite the intense pressure of 'going Hollywood,' and you have no idea how intense that pressure is."

THAT'S ALL very well, but it does seem like the man doth protest too much. Although Third Eye Blind's bassist, Arion Salazar, was in a well-known indie band called Fungo Mungo, which probably played those venues, drummer Brad Hargreaves was best known as a former member of the Counting Crows--not exactly one of Gilman Street's regular acts--while guitarist Kevin Cadogan is said to have played with Joe Satriani. And there's no evidence that Jenkins appeared at CBGBs with any band at all.

Nevertheless, there is something charming--well, semicharming--about Jenkins. He is the rarest of breeds, the smart, articulate rock star, a guy who can use the word anathema correctly and in context. (He should be able to--he has a B.A. in English from UC-Berkeley.)

Moreover, a few of the things he says in defense of himself are actually true--such as, for example, his contention that criticism of his band is really indicative of the sour state of the alternative press and of indie rock altogether.

Jenkins shrugs off locally generated criticism as going with the territory. "The problem with the local scene in San Francisco is it's like high school," he complains. "It's a microcosm of the larger indie scene, where everyone's going around checking their cred. And that's vile and conservative, an actively awful thing. It's anathema to us; it's against everything that's rebellious and good about rock. A lot of music today has this very limited acceptable content; it's all about monitored, self-induced angst. If we have a message, it's that people are flawed, but redeemable."

Another thing one can respect about Jenkins is his ability to wallow openly--rather than secretly, like everybody else--in the accouterments of being a star. His discourse is littered with sentences that begin "When we were on U2's private jet, Bono said to me ..." and "When we met the Spice Girls at the Billboard Music Awards...." He makes sure you know that when he ran into Marilyn Manson recently, Marilyn greeted him with the words "Can I get my punk ass off the street?" ("That's the first line of The Graduate," he adds, in case I didn't recognize it.)

That kind of mentality indicates either a gigantic ego or exactly the opposite; it certainly points to a total need for validation. Another red flag is Jenkins' interest in acting. "It's all part of what I do," he admits. "I mean [when I'm on stage], it's not an act, but there's a relationship there--you're bringing a song off, you know? You do whatever you have to do to give yourself some presence."

Of course, that attitude--and the onstage prancing antics it involves--is perfectly indicative of what local bands who knew-him-when can't stand about Third Eye Blind. At the Warfield, Jenkins indulges in many a pretentious antic, from lounging in a red leather chair to climbing a speaker top and assuming the patented rock-star Jesus Christ pose.

But what some call uncool, others might term refreshing. For instance, Jenkins still enjoys every aspect of stardom, from being recognized on the street to getting into the bus for the long haul to the next town after a gig.

"We have an amazing bus," he says enthusiastically. "It's like the cabin of a ship, and it's still got total new-car small. We have all the episodes of The X-Files, and we light candles and eat Oreos and discuss whether Scully or Mulder will have an open sore this week while the bus is rolling on into the night. It's really eerie and romantic."

It's a good thing Jenkins feels like that, because Third Eye Blind is going to be on the road for a long stretch--throughout 1998. Jenkins has, he says, written an entire second album, but he thinks that the last album still has a few more singles in it. "I want people to hear 'God of Wine' and 'Jumper' too," he adds.

Does he ever worry about second-album slump? Are you kidding me? "This last album was all about being poor and arguing with people and taking drugs," he says. "And my life's not like that anymore, but I still have hopes and fears, and I'm still vulnerable to what's happening around me. No, the only problem with the next album will be holding it down to 14 songs."

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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