When Jimmy Eat World released their highly influential album Clarity in 1999, the prolific Arizona quartet couldn’t have guessed that their patented blend of “guitar-based melodic rock” would have struck such a mighty chord with listeners enough to usher in, or inspire, the emo trend that rocked the nation in the early 2000s along with Sunny Day Real Estate, Dashboard Confessional, The Get Up Kids and Bright Eyes. During a break from recording their sixth full-length studio album Invented in their rehearsal space in Tempe with frequent collaborator Mark Trombino (who also helmed 2001’s breakthrough Bleed American), Jimmy Eat World embarked on a 10th anniversary tour in 2009 for Clarity. What fans might not known at the time was that singer Jim Adkins was cooking up something special with Invented, thanks to his love of the famed photo collections of iconic photographers Cindy Sherman and Hannah Starkey. Though Invented’s 12 songs were not wholly based on any particular photographs, the shots did serve as catalysts for character development in the lyrics for the songs, freeing up Adkins to explore every narrative angle and dark corner possible by asking himself who the woman was in each photograph and what her circumstances, motivations and emotional state might have been to land her stretched out awkwardly on a hotel bed alone (see Sherman’s “#11”) or front-and-center in ambiguous slices of life as is the case with Starkey’s more contemplative prints.
Shot by award-winning photographer Ken Schles, Invented’s cover is similarly as evocative as the Sherman and Starkey series, featuring (arguably) a woman in an old-fashioned dress or waitress uniform walking out of a set of doors; be it to grab something from a restaurant’s kitchen or to quit her job. The point is that the cover is asking questions and not giving up any answers, much like the basis for Invented’s rousing journey into the confusing, spiritually empty, twisted and often thankless path to maturity and adulthood. The characters that populate the album (along with aspects of Adkins’ own life and experiences) are all at a crossroads and questioning their realities: How did I get here? Why isn’t spirituality bringing me peace? Why isn’t this relationship working out? Where do I go from here? If I knew where to go, how would I get there? Powerful questions from a seminal band who, much like their devoted fan base, are also emerging adults without all the answers they need.
I was fascinated to read that the Cindy Sherman and Hannah Starkey photo collections partly inspired songs from the new album. The cover of Invented feels very much like a Starkey photograph. Is it?
It actually isn’t. It’s all original stuff shot by a guy called Ken Schles and loosely based on themes from the songs.
When you look at the cover, what does it make you feel? What about it symbolizes the spirit of the album to you?
I don’t know, for me it could go several different ways. A more ambiguous kind of cover I think is perfect for this because it’s really more about what you make out of it.
Exactly, and that calls to mind the fact that when you were heading into the album sessions, the Sherman and Starkey collections served as a catalyst for songwriting – just diving into photographs and taking it from there in terms of character development. What about these images spoke to you?
Well, [that] they focus on a central character was helpful. I mean, I could say that I’m a fan of most of her work and some of it I definitely gravitate more towards, but the point of it really wasn’t to enjoy art, it was to get the brain working! [Laughs] It didn’t matter if it was an engaging or ambient kind of feel, it was just all about, ‘Who is this person?’
The title track, “Cut” and “Mixtape” that appear late in the album feel like they could have been inspired by either of the photo series, were they, or did they come directly from you?
I think they both could have… I would say that the photo series, both of them, are just jumping off points, you know. There’s no rules about it. It’s not like the songs are odes to the scenes. There’s definitely autobiographical stuff that sneaks in there and pure fiction that sneaks in there, too. It jumps around all over the place.
How was it working with Mark Trombino again after the break?
It was really good. We all have a history with Mark, but it had been awhile since we’d done anything with him so it was a little bit like something new. But a comfortable something new.
What do you feel he brings out of you as a band as opposed to other producers you’ve worked with in the past?
He’s definitely going to bring up ideas that we hadn’t thought of, and that’s what you want. I mean, the worst kind of producer is someone that just says, ‘Yeah! That sounds great!’
He challenges you.
Exactly. Just saying ‘Yes!’ doesn’t help you make the record you want.
Chase This Light was seen as a positive record. Where does Invented lie on a spectrum to you?
I’d say not the most depressing but definitely not the most happy. It’s all over the place. The speaker in each song is taking real stock of their situations. They could be in a good place, they could be in an adverse place; it’s a song by song kind of thing.
[Lots of background noise] Sorry, I’m in the happiest place on earth – the motor vehicle division. Really, it’s just about taking a real stock of where you are. You’ve got to be honest about where you are. Those songs are about different things, but I guess things that interest me are kind of… the record as a whole is kind of less about discovery. A lot of what I’ve been fascinated with up until here has been about discovery, and when things are kind of new it’s a bigger deal. But I think the tunes on Invented are more about what happens after that. The thrill of discovery has worn off and you’re in the grind [of] what comes next.
That sounds a lot like entering adulthood. Like growing up.
[Laughs] Yeah! I guess so! Not every song is from a solid, settled down and steady adult perspective.
“Heart is Hard to Find” feels that way. Searching.
Yeah, but searching for a real long time, with little reward for it.
“My Best Theory” is the first single, and it’s getting a lot of positive feedback, especially from your fans.
It’s a little bit of everything we do. It’s dynamic. To people that have never heard us before, I always describe it as guitar-based melodic rock band and with this song, we’re waving all those flags pretty high at once.
Turning all your strengths up to 11, so to speak.
Yeah, the singles always tend to lean on the up-tempo side anyways.
I understand that the sessions for Invented began before the 10th anniversary tour for Clarity. Did performing those songs every night creatively energize you?
I don’t know, but I’m sure it did. I couldn’t point at anything and say doing [that] made us think of approaching the new songs a new way. During the Clarity tour, it was unlike past tours we’ve done where there’s an album and you’re supporting that album, and going places and talking about that album. You’re sort of ambassadors, bringing your album around the world to show people. With this, all that had been done for a really long time, so we were just on tour. We went into making Invented in maybe a similar kind of on-our-own feel. Maybe exploring that time making Clarity and the older records in general, you know, was pretty much just us in the studio. Mark was there, but we’re just in our own little bubble, so we sent out to make it in kind of the same way: just setting up shop in our rehearsal space in Tempe and a sworn duty of making a record. [Laughs] A lot of people do that, but I guess for us, in the past we’ve used commercial studios to work in before and this one we just did in our rehearsal space.
I imagine that was a very comforting and fortifying experience to be on your home turf.
We did it in a similar way for most of the last record. We’d hired an engineer to come out, but this one was just us. It feels good. I’m sort of convinced that freaking out about things… there’s a point of freaking out about things and tweaking on forever the way things sound, but it just doesn’t matter. I think I used one amp this whole record and maybe one guitar. What we used was basically what was around.
You didn’t complicate it that much. Do you find that you found out more about yourselves as a band by not relying so much on technology and having a million instruments around?
Yeah, there’s a level that helps, but you have to be really careful. You can get lost in going crazy, and then you’re just making stuff that sounds cool but it doesn’t really help a song at all. There’s a really fine balance of restraint and abandon that you have to find.
Your songwriting and knack for big choruses and big emotion have gotten a lot of attention over the years. In your mind, how do you know you’ve gotten to a point in the writing process where you can look at a song’s lyric and say, “OK, good, done. Mission accomplished.”
I think it’s just something you know. It’s something you have to take in consideration with the song itself. We’re not just writing prose and things here. It’s gotta work with the tune. If it feels like it’s working with it and helping it get to… that’s a really tough question, actually! There’s your expectations for a song, and the kind of song you think it is, and where it should end up. And I think once it just hits that, you know you’re done. If there’s some aspect of it that’s not taking it there and making it as effective for what you think it should be, then you’re not done. –Carrie Alison, Photos by Ken Schles