Third Eye Blind Frontman on the 'Desperation' Behind Hit Debut

Stephan Jenkins looks back on his years of obscurity and how he finally managed to "make a world according to his own desires"

Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins looks back on his pre-fame days of poverty, and how things finally clicked into place on the band's debut LP. Credit: John Shearer/Getty

On a warm spring day, Stephan Jenkins is sitting at a café he hasn't been to in more than two decades. Manhattan's French Roast is where the singer wrote "Motorcycle Drive By," the pensive, penultimate song of his band Third Eye Blind's smash self-titled debut, which turned 20 earlier this year. The group is celebrating the milestone with an expanded reissue and a tour where they'll play the full album in its entirety for what Jenkins says is the "first and last time."

While the European-inspired eatery has remained, he says the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood — which the California native used to explore when visiting an ex-girlfriend at NYU — is much ritzier than it was in his pre-fame days. The struggling and striving he witnessed in both NYC and the Bay Area would eventually help to inspire deceptively upbeat Third Eye Blind songs such as "Semi-Charmed Life" that reached millions of fans. 

"I had a pretty sheltered upbringing in Palo Alto," he recalls while sitting outside the bistro, dressed in all black, his eyes masked by opaque sunglasses. His first visit to New York was with his dad when he was 15. He remembers the summer smell, a pungent scent he couldn't get over, along with a friend requesting that the windows in his apartment remain closed so junkies wouldn't climb up the fire escape and gain access.

Years later, when he met his college-age girlfriend, who lived in a dorm on the edge of Washington Square Park, they would frequent places like King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in Alphabet City and "dicey" Thompson Square Park. Though crime was prevalent, it was a city full of creatives, with a "daisy-age hip-hop scene" that struck a chord with him. "I liked the edge on it, even though I know that the edge comes from want and [wealth] disparity," he expounds. "It also means that there's cheap rent still, and it's through that that people can actually establish things."

His girlfriend turned out to not actually be his girlfriend — an experience chronicled in "Motorcycle Drive By" — and has since become a high-powered magazine editor. Her hunger to break into writing mirrored his own hunger to make it as a musician in San Francisco, a city where in the Nineties, Jenkins says, the beatnik ethos was still very much alive.

"We were really the last of the continuum," he says, tracing his roots back to that city's jazz scene in the early Fifties and to poets like Allen Ginsberg. Much like in Manhattan during that era, creativity in San Francisco was born out of desperation. For a twentysomething who grew up in the elite Stanford area, Jenkins described the city as his "Oz."

"It looked like Oz, just driving over the Bay Bridge," he adds. He lived on very little then while jumping around to different bands and gigs, trying to find something that clicked. The entire time, he lived with five people in an apartment above a bowling alley that had one bathroom. "Everybody shagged everybody. Everybody was upset about it. We would save up enough for spaghetti and wine. That's what we were living for."

It was an adjustment period. As cliques formed in the buzzing scene, Jenkins never felt like he truly fit in. While San Francisco was filled with bands playing largely punk and post-punk, with some grunge offshoots, he wanted to create something to counter it.

"It was years later that I went, 'I am the scene. I am that culture.'"

Third Eye Blind finally formed in 1993 when Jenkins met guitarist Kevin Cadogan — who was later ousted from the band in 2000. They pulled together other locals to create the group, which included drummer Brad Hargreaves, the only other remaining member of the lineup that recorded the self-titled debut. At the time, Jenkins was listening to a mish-mash of artists, ranging from Parliament-Funkadelic to Joy Division. He cites Cat Stevens as being as large an influence as Arrested Development, noting that the song "I Want You" wouldn't have been written without the latter band's example.

"That A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul thing was in my house and those rhythms were moving around," he explains. "With those rhythms as the latticework, then I could find this space for the lyrical narrative, but the emotional nature was much more goth-y."

With his inspirations coalescing and a stable lineup formed, he still had another hurdle to jump. At age 27, he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating disorder that was suddenly triggered in his body.

"I had this enormous vitality and energy that was just ripped away," he recalls. "I would go to sleep and have these drenching night sweats and wouldn't be able to sleep. I would wake up hopeful. But then any activity would shut me down."

A lack of health insurance didn't help matters. But at the time, Jenkins was taking a self-described "vow of poverty," having dedicated his life to music after forgoing opportunities to attend grad school. He wanted to "make a world according to his own desires," against his parents' wishes.

"It was just straight desperation: I have a song in me and abandoned any fallbacks."

"My mother thought I was on drugs," the singer notes. "I wasn't on drugs at all. There was a lot of anxiety, I think. I would get enough money for coffee and fill it with half-and-half and sugar to get the calories and see it as a meal. Just showing up at friends' houses for dinner. Being that guy."

His struggle, as he sees it, made him "fierce." He lacked a self-conscious attitude and ego about his music. "It was just straight desperation: I have a song in me and abandoned any fallbacks. This is it. This is what I'm doing."

His fierceness paid off: With no label connections and just demos of songs that didn't fit in with their scene let alone the post-grunge sound that dominated rock radio at the time, things finally fell into place for the band. A friend became their manager, and they met engineers David Gleason and Eric Dodd who worked with them on the songs Jenkins had been writing. At one point, Gleason helped them sneak into George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch where he worked to record some songs, including the track "Slow Motion" which would appear on the band's sophomore album Blue.

Third Eye Blind's demos of "How's It Going to Be" and "Slow Motion" began circulating, leading to a meeting with Dave Massey of Epic. By the end of the meeting, Jenkins had finagled his way into an opening spot for Oasis' concert in San Francisco that same week.

"I think he liked my directness," Jenkins reflects. "He wasn't threatened by it the way that some people were."

The Oasis gig was a turning point for a band used to playing for 60 people and suddenly opening for the music world's biggest group. A bidding war ensued and the deal Third Eye Blind struck with Elektra was one of the biggest deals for an unsigned act at that time.

What happened next seemed unfathomable: Third Eye Blind became huge. A jumpy tune about crystal-meth addiction called "Semi-Charmed Life" became their first single — a decision Jenkins was initially against because it wasn't demonstrative of the album's sound and also not exactly radio-friendly. It peaked at Number Four and became one of the most iconic songs of Nineties. Four more singles followed, with "How's It Going to Be" and "Jumper" both cracking the Top 10. Third Eye Blind has gone six times platinum and remained on the charts for more than 100 weeks. To this day, songs from their album are still in heavy radio rotation and used in films and on television. 

"I think you could put it out now and it would sell," Jenkins says. "You could put it on XMU or Alt Nation and it would sound as dark and as vital. I think that pain of not fitting into the world I was in and not feeling comfortable meant that in the long run, the song songs aren't dated by trends and genres that were happening around me."