This is the latest installment in our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. You can check out the whole series at charlestoncitypaper.com/unlikely.
1997. My friends and I were well on our way, already into our, “I don’t listen to the radio” phase. We took a naïve pride in scouring record bins for bands that no one else had heard of. As obnoxious as we probably were, it was a magical time. It gave us something to feel a part of. There was a club of people that listened to “better” music, and we had gained access.
However, there was always going to be something that made its way in. I was watching Letterman one night and a band called Third Eye Blind was on performing their song “Jumper” (I think it was “Jumper” — 20 years is a long time). I was immediately drawn into the song; the melody was perfect, the vocals were deeply personal and delivered as such. This didn’t sound like radio rock. I was intrigued enough to go out the next day and buy the CD. Every track on their newly released self-titled record hit me that same way. I couldn’t stop listening to it. And you know what? I quickly discovered that many of my friends had done the same thing — just no one was talking about it. The album ended up being a defining factor in the growth of many of us emotionally. So when their next record came out a few years later I of course picked it up, as I have with every record they’ve released since then.
It also made me realize something painfully obvious: good music is just good music. Their self-titled record pushed me along in realizing that we could all, to an extent, drop the act of being too good for some bands. Third Eye Blind’s self-titled record still gets a lot of play around my house and I suspect it always will. So when I was asked if I’d like to interview Stephan Jenkins ahead of their upcoming Charleston stop, I jumped at the chance. What followed was a chat with a really nice guy, who I realized wanted just what I wanted: to make good music.
Stephan Jenkins: Taylor!
Taylor Jenkins: Hey! How’s it going, buddy?
SJ: Good, man. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.
TJ: No, no. Not at all. How’s your day going?
SJ: Oh, it really just started. That’s the thing. When I’m on tour I sleep in as much as I can. You know, we play at night. The voice rests during the day.
TJ: Makes for some long nights I’m sure.
SJ: Yeah, with the bus rolling and everything, you don’t really get to sleep until about three. Even though I have a really comfy bus and all that stuff, it still feels like you’re traveling all the time.
TJ: Right on. So, I don’t know how much you were filled in on the interview, but it’s for a series with the Charleston City Paper called Unlikely Encounters. Local musicians interview established bands that are going to be coming through town. It’s a way to promote your show and also promote our local music scene.
SJ: Right. I love it.
TJ: I’m a musician, so interviewing isn’t exactly at the forefront of my skill set.
SJ: That’s OK. I never got any good at it either.
TJ: Cut me some slack if I ask you any dumb questions like, “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” Or anything like that.
TJ: Man, you ruined my setup. My first question was going to be about cats and dogs.
SJ: Hahaha, yeah, dogs. BUT, there’s a cat that goes around my street. It’s a city cat. It just loves murdering rats. I love this cat. I gotta say I love this cat.
TJ: I used to live in Washington, DC and we had quite a few of those, I guess you could call them, maintenance cats? They took care of all the rats in the alley behind my place.
TJ: All right, well let’s just jump into some questions if you’re ready.
SJ: That was a question.
TJ: Yep. Haha, I’m sure you’re tired of talking about this, but the self-titled record is 20 years old now. Congratulations.
SJ: Thank you.
TJ: I know it can sometimes be hard for artists to look at past work objectively. Looking back after 20 years how do you feel about it?
SJ: I feel better about it now than I did 20 years ago.
SJ: Yeah, I think that We Are Drugs is a better record, but there’s this odd person that’s being honest and filled with urgency on that record. I think that rage to live endures. It maintains a kind of vibrancy that I’m aware of, and proud of.
TJ: Your songwriting to me has always had a really strong sense of narrative that really holds up, and is so personal that people really respond emotionally to it. Which is why I guess we’re talking about a record that is 20 years old right now.
SJ: Thank you.
TJ: There always seems to be — I know you’re busy and you tour a lot — but there always seems to be a long break between records. Six years between Out of the Vein and Ursa Major, then another six before Dopamine. Is that indicative of your writing process? Or more your recording process? Or just life?
SJ: Was it really six years between Ursa Major and Dopamine?
SJ: Jeez. Yeah, I think that life just gets in the way, you get busy doing stuff. I spend so much time on tour. Then I have writer’s block, but, you know, I think that period of my life is over. I wanted to put out a record last summer, but touring got in the way. We’ll definitely have a record out for next summer.
TJ: Actually I was curious to ask you about that. We Are Drugs came out within, I think, a year of Dopamine. Does that herald a more prolific time for the band?
SJ: It does, it does. For sure. I should be putting out music more often.
TJ: Looking forward to it. As a musician I wanted to ask you: we, Charleston, S.C. that is, have a more supportive and unified music scene here than we maybe ever have had, at least that I can remember. I know your band came up in the Bay Area in the early to mid ’90s. There was a LOT going on there at the time. I know bands like Jawbreaker, Samiam, Mr. T Experience, and even Green Day were in, or coming into, that scene. What would you say the climate was like in San Francisco in, say, 1995? What was the scene like?
SJ: Well, by ’95 it was already in jeopardy because the dotcoms had destroyed the music scene in San Francisco. You have to have cheap rent. You’re a musician, you know this. If you’re spending all your time on rent you can’t make music. You also can’t afford spaces for creative endeavors like rehearsal spaces. Also there isn’t that youth energy that is a part of rock music. Cheap rent makes it all happen; it’s the fertile soil that feeds the ecosystem, and that was destroyed because dotcom came in with money. That first boom wiped out probably eight out of 10 of the clubs. There was only one rehearsal space left. I mean, it just destroyed it.
TJ: So everyone got pushed out I guess.
TJ: Prior to that was there a good scene. A good sense of camaraderie?
SJ: No. There were cliques — there were cliques for the bands. They were very concerned about adhesion to whatever that clique was. It was actually very — I would have described the scene as mostly very conservative, even though they were being punk in some ways. You know, punk can be a very conservative thing too. So, you really had to have — it was that kind of right post punk thing. You know, everyone was trying to democratize the guitar by playing badly, and democratize the vocal by not having too much melody in it. Things like that. I didn’t feel connected to that, although I did feel very much connected to San Francisco, and I am a product of the music scene. I didn’t have a squad of other bands where I could align myself. I wish I could have.
TJ: I feel very fortunate to have that here. There are a handful of bands that do all stick together and are always willing to help set up shows, or open for somebody.
SJ: I have it now. It’s funny; I have it now in San Francisco with friends’ bands. They’ll fly out and come open for us. At that time though I didn’t feel that way. What I was doing was really different from what other people were doing in the music scene there. I always felt like I didn’t fit in, like I was some kind of misfit. Then I realized I was the scene, and then I realized that there really wasn’t a scene. The reality is that you see a hole within yourself and sometimes you’ve got like-minded friends.
TJ: What are you listening to these days? Anything jump out at you recently?
SJ: You know, it’s a problem, I’ll just go on playlists and look for songs. It’s totally destroyed my ability to look for records. I do tend to listen to a lot of new music, so I’m always in the kind of forward push. I really want to make another rock record, which is funny because I don’t really listen to much rock at all. It just bores me. I think there’s this whole sense of contingency and possibility in guitars that can be really exciting. You can’t get that in computerized music, but I listen to a lot of computerized music right now.
SJ: There’s a guy dressed all in black with these Malcolm X glasses — he’s got the beard, right? Well, he’s running his finger across his throat which means I have to go. Haha.
TJ: Gotcha. Well, I won’t keep you.
SJ: Hey, I wish you luck with your band, and I’m glad you guys have a scene. One thing I notice about music is you have to — like, we were in Berlin. And I was like, “If I were in a young band coming up right now I’d want to live in Berlin.” It’s so hard to be in New York. It’s so hard to be in San Francisco or L.A. I would just say that the center of the universe is wherever you’re able to make it. If that’s in Charleston, S.C., then fuck yeah.