Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World

by Carl Wiser

Let's start with "The Middle." Released in the summer of 2001 on the fourth Jimmy Eat World album, it took a full year to rise to #5 on the Hot 100, giving the band their breakthrough hit and a flurry of new fans. The song was inspired by an email (to jimmyeatworld@aol.com) from a girl who was rejected by the punk kids at her school. She was caught in the middle.

For thousands of kids like her, the song was therapy:

Just try your best
Try everything you can
And don't you worry what they tell themselves
When you're away

A decade later, Taylor Swift played the song with JEW frontman Jim Adkins at a show in his home state of Arizona. "This is someone who has written songs that have gotten me though some of the toughest moments in my life, and I'm sure yours," she said. In 2016, she danced to it an Apple ad.

Since that 2001 breakthrough, Jimmy Eat World has released another album every three years, pushing forward with punk rock power pop in the face of EDM and other countervailing trends. They've had the same lineup since 1995 (Tom Linton - guitar; Rick Burch - bass, Zach Lind, drums) and haven't generated any scandals, which limits their TMZ exposure but keeps them in top form (like many enduring bands, they all have a hand in the songwriting and split the credits). Their latest album is Integrity Blues, released in 2016. As Jim explains, it's political in the sense that our assumptions and biases are becoming more ingrained, which stifles understanding and personal growth.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Nine albums under your belt. That's a lot of songwriting. How are you able to do it on such a regular basis, especially when your life keeps changing like it has?

Jim Adkins: Music is something that you just don't clock out of. I might not be writing complete songs all the time, but I'm definitely working on ideas and scenes and fits and starts of things, which eventually become songs on albums. It's just what I do. I can't not do it.

Songfacts: These are not lightweight songs - they have some pretty deep meanings behind them. I'm wondering how you generate the conflict you need to write them?

Adkins: Well, I don't think it's hard to find conflict if you're looking for it. [Laughs] It's really not hard to find it.

I've always thought that if you're venturing into one mood only, or if you're presenting one side of a story, it's really less effective. A song that is declaring how happy someone is, it just bores me. Or someone just yelling about how angry they are, it's tough to connect why I should care with either of those types of songs. So I've always felt like it's important to be describing adversity, but also trying to get at what's the more complex issue behind that.

One thing that's provided material for the whole Integrity Blues album is the idea that what you think is the problem isn't necessarily what's wrong. That alone just opens up so many doors. Because it's just human nature across the board that our ego is going to fight for its life, and that means it's very difficult to confront yourself when reality is presenting a challenge to your view.

Songfacts: A song like "You With Me" on Integrity Blues, it sounds like it's about a relationship, and you have that great line, "Expecting different outcomes with the better question." But it might be about more. Can you talk about that song?

Adkins: Sure. Like I was saying, when you're facing adversity, especially in a relationship, I think how your role contributes to it is always the last place you're going to look to address a problem. You'll look in every direction, but ignore your role.

It's not sexy and it's not what people really want to hear, but that's what you can control. You can't make this other person happy - they're responsible for their own happiness and you're responsible for yours. Trying to pin your own sense of self worth and happiness on what someone else is going to bring you is always going to fail. That car's going to run out of gas really quick.

Songfacts: Have you ever written something, either a full lyric or a full song, and had no idea what it meant?

Adkins: Yeah, all the time. The way I look at songwriting, especially lyric writing, your initial prompt that catches your imagination for whatever reason, you start out by asking yourself questions about that, and that leads to an answer which you can ask yourself more questions about, and you just build this huge tree of information.

I think songwriting is basically trying to pick your line and fall down the tree. It's spontaneous, it's instant, it's something you're compelled to do and you just do it. You're just drawn to it and you don't question it and you just go. And later on, when you're in cold blood, you can kind of assess where your head was at.

Songfacts: What's one of those songs where you climbed this tree and you were able to assess where you were later, and you realized what you were saying?

Adkins: You know, I feel that way about a lot of our older material, now. And that might be because as a performer, when you're going back and looking at your older work, in a way you're right there with the audience, because you're looking for how to connect with it. And you might feel completely different. Your life might be in a completely different place from when that particular song was written, so you're looking to connect with it just like them.

When I look back on the material, I just can't help but look at it with the lens of who I am now. With any of our songs, I feel like that's just the most honest way to present it to people: just try to take the ride with people as we're playing it. So that's how I look back on our older material.

Songfacts: Let's take a song, one that I like, "Just Tonight," which I think you still play a fair amount. What was going on when you wrote that and what does it mean to you now?

Adkins: "Just Tonight," what it seems to me now is like a character song exploring something dangerous. Feeling compelled to a situation, possibly a relationship, that might feel dangerous in a way. Like, maybe it's one you approach with conflicted feeling.

Songfacts: The song "Praise Chorus," tell me about the "Crimson and Clover" break in there and how you came up with the title to that song?

Adkins: So, one of my friends was involved in her church's music, and we were getting into an argument about how lame contemporary Christian music can be sometimes. Actually, most of the time. "Praise Chorus" was the way she roped in the formulaic way that all contemporary Christian music is about. It's similar to a lot of other pop music in the way that it's just basically all about trying to get people to clap along and sing. And it's pretty rock and roll. I thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition to reference that in a song that's really just about rock and roll: the unquantifiable release you get when rock music is doing what it should. The "Crimson and Clover" is a throw-out to all those songs.

For me personally, when I think back to rock and roll being special, I go back to the early days of experiencing things for the first time on tour and getting the opportunity to open up for bands that were bigger than us. A time when you're young and everything is just discovery. That's special.

In the song, I say, "Come on, Davey, sing me something that I know." Davey von Bohlen from The Promise Ring and Maritime, we asked him to do a guest spot on that song, and he just went with that as his cue for what he should do, so he just threw in a bunch of lyrics from songs that he felt we might know.

In the song "Sweetness," Jim sings about a relationship that isn't on equal footing. The line, "String from your tether unwinds," I always heard as a reference to a game of tetherball where one player keeps the ball just out of reach of the other, such as in matters of love. Kind of like the last scene in Napoleon Dynamite.
Songfacts: Is that a tetherball metaphor I hear in "Sweetness"?

Adkins: Eh... no. It's like a tether, as in an emotional connection that you can't break free from.

Songfacts: What was going on that led you to write that?

Adkins: It's been a while since anyone asked me about this. It's just about feeling unfulfilled and where you're looking for relationship validation. It's a scene that I come back to a lot. You know, if that's where you're hoping and wishing to get your sense of happiness and self worth, you're going to be searching forever.

Songfacts: That ties into a lot of what you were writing with Integrity Blues. It all kind of connects.

Adkins: Yeah, you can know that and you can believe it and you can take it in, but sometimes you're lonely. And it's hard, and you forget the truth behind it. Everybody just kind of comes back to that sometimes. You've got to remind yourself.

Songfacts: How did it feel when Taylor Swift showed up in the commercial talking about your song?

Adkins: That's wild, man. Here's arguably one of the biggest stars in the world evangelizing for your band. Pretty gnarly. What do you do? What do you say? I don't know. It's crazy.

Songfacts: It's an example of what I imagine you must hear a lot: people who have connected with that song on one level or another and still are. Do you still get people that you find have made these kind of connections to your songs?

Adkins: Oh, yeah. All the time. I think the number one compliment for a musician is when anybody bothers to take the time to sit with your work and really make the emotional investment to make it theirs. And the fact that a song like "The Middle," something that's over 15 years old now, is still connecting with people and still finding an audience, it's a mind-blowing compliment.

In 2016, Jimmy Eat World contributed the song "My Enemy" to the 30 Days, 30 Songs project, which was later expanded to 1,000 Days, 1,000 Songs. The project was founded to counter Donald Trump's initiatives and "build a more inclusive, equal, and just America."

"My Enemy" isn't so much bashing Trump as examining the fears that got him elected. In the notes that accompany the song, the band asked, "Are you willing to accept that maybe, just possibly, what you feel as a threat, isn't?"
Songfacts: Is "My Enemy" your first political song?

Adkins: No. There are a lot of things that people would be surprised have more political origins. Since Futures [2004] we've been supporting organizations and people with a definite political agenda that we align ourselves with. Now it might seem like "My Enemy" is our first foray into anything political, just because that's kind of the sentiment. I mean, have you looked at your social media feeds lately? It's all anyone's talking about.

Songfacts: Are there other songs that you would point out that have certain political messages that might not be apparent at first?

Adkins: It's tough to say, because this idea of confronting your way of thinking, confronting your confirmation bias tendencies, that's a pretty political thing these days. I'm fascinated with what makes people identify as conservative, what makes people identify as liberal. How do you get to this point where your world view is such? And a lot of what Integrity Blues is about is confronting just that. But we all do it through some degree of searching out confirmation bias. You're really going to be impeded on growth if you aren't checking yourself on that constantly.

And for me, I think that's a very political thing to be considering these days. Man, that's going to start happening all the time now, I've just realized. It's true. That's the train wreck of the day: anything political. So that's going to be coming up all the time.

Songfacts: Yes. And it should give you plenty of material.

Adkins: Yeah. Totally.

March 7, 2017.
Jimmy Eat World hits the road with Incubus for tour that starts July 6. The band's website is jimmyeatworld.com.

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