A week out from the release of Jimmy Eat World’s 10th full-length studio album Surviving, I spoke with drummer Zach Lind about how the band makes albums now versus 10 or 20 years ago, working with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, crafting a setlist with 25 years of music to choose from, and ranking the band’s beloved discography.
You’re reaching the milestone of your 10th record as a band. Clarity is 20 years old this year. Jimmy Eat World, on Chorus.fm, is viewed as maybe THE stalwart band. You guys have been around for a long time and you’ve avoided a lot of the common pitfalls of being in a band for a long time, like numerous member changes or long hiatuses or breakups. For you guys, how has the creative process changed over the years? What’s the difference between making a Jimmy Eat World album in 2019 versus 1999 or 2001 or 2004?
One big difference is I think we became a little bit more self-reliant in making albums and writing songs, in terms of making it all work. In the earlier days, we relied a bit more on people outside of the band. Like, working with [Clarity and Bleed American producer] Mark Trombino, we relied a lot on what he brought to those albums. I think just getting more experience, and Jim growing as an engineer and mixer and producer in his own right, those things help us to be more reliant.
For awhile, that led to a more isolated approach. When you become self-reliant, there’s an excitement about that. You want to rely on yourself more, for more things. But I think as we got older, we realized: “Okay, that’s cool that we can do that, but is it the best way to do it?” So we went through that period of self-reliance, and then we basically took a year off in 2015, and when we came back from that, I think we decided we wanted to have someone or something holding us to account. We felt more pressure to make albums that we felt were at a certain level and that warranted being added to our catalog. Starting with Integrity Blues, and then continuing into Surviving, I think we’ve held ourselves to a higher standard. And in doing so, we have really benefited from relying on someone like Justin Meldal-Johnsen to be the outside accountability source who can tell us “Okay, this is not interesting; but this is cool, let’s try more of that.”
So I think getting out of that self-reliance was actually good. We’re still pretty self-reliant as a band, but I think we’ve realized that it’s actually better when you find someone who can work alongside you and hold you to a high standard, and to give you the confidence to think “Okay, if I’m making this guy happy, then we’re on the right track.”
You mentioned making albums that feel worthy of being added to the catalog. Now that you’re 10 albums in and you have a lot of very beloved albums in your catalog, does it become a thing where you’re competing against your own past work? How much of a challenge is that to make albums that stay true to the Jimmy Eat World sound while also pushing you guys forward?
As we make more music, that definitely makes it harder. We’re not only competing to get people’s attention or just to get people to listen to our music in the first place, but we’re also competing with our own catalog in a way. And we really do try to do that. We know we shouldn’t be releasing a song unless we think it’s great. We shouldn’t be putting anything out unless it’s something that we feel stacks up with everything else we’ve done. We don’t want to make a record just to make a record; we want to make a record that is on the level of our best. That’s something that we’ve definitely been more conscious of on the last few records that we’ve made.
I think this is the first time since Clarity and Bleed American that you’ve had the same producer two albums in a row. I wondered what it was about Justin that made you want to invite him back, especially since Surviving is not Integrity Blues Part 2 by any means. They’re very different albums. Did you think about bringing someone new in, or was it always “Oh, let’s work with him again”?
I don’t think we ever considered anyone else. The cool thing with Justin is that, if you look at his history, he’s played bass in Nine Inch Nails and he played bass in The Bird and the Bee and everything in between. So he has this ability to understand what we’re trying to do, whether it’s a straight-up rock vibe or something that’s more layered. Integrity Blues was something that leaned a little more on keyboards and layers and that had a more dramatic kind of feeling. Whereas, I think Surviving is kind of a reaction to that. We didn’t want to do anything like that again; we just wanted to make a balls-to-the-wall rock record.
So that was our headspace, and Justin is the kind of guy who is so talented and is such a good communicator that he is, in my opinion, the person we’ve worked with who seems to draw out the most from us. We have that trust. We have that friendship with him. And he’s just as good at getting that rock element and at understanding what we were looking for, than anyone else would have been. So it was kind of a no-brainer for us, to bring him back.
One of the things that always strikes me about you guys is that, at this point, you have so many songs and obviously a lot of them are fan favorites. What is the process of building a setlist for a show? How much leeway do you feel like you have to put deeper cuts or newer songs in there, versus songs that you almost have to play every night?
We’re still wrestling with that a little bit, and every time you add an album’s worth of material to the pot, it gets a little trickier. One of our solutions to that is just to play slightly longer sets every tour. But we’re just getting to building the setlist for this tour right now. I think we have nine of the songs from the album that we can actually play live now, so we’ll obviously be fiddling with how many of them go in there. It’s about finding the right balance. People are paying money to come see us and we don’t want to bombard them with all new songs. And sometimes, it just ends up being a feeling-out process, and seeing what songs people are stoked on hearing. So that’s early days for us for as far as Surviving fits in.
Anything on the new album you’re really looking forward to playing?
“Criminal Energy” is fun. It’s going to be interesting to see what people think of “555,” because it’s pretty different. Especially for me, because I’m not playing any real drums on it at all. “Congratulations” is the song that we haven’t totally fleshed out yet, but I think once we do, that one will be really cool as well.
”Congratulations” is a completely different kind of closer for you guys. How did that song come together?
It was sort of an older idea that’s been floating around. We always liked it. The beginning of the song was this snippet that we always thought would be cool to turn into something. So, then we fleshed out the rest of the song, and it came to be sort of three different movements. It’s something that, as soon as we figured it out and put it down as a demo, we were really excited about it. We knew that it would be something that people would hear and think “Woah, this is kind of strange.” It’s one of those tracks that is a little different than anything else we’ve done, and it felt a little odd at first. But I think we’ve learned that, when we’re feeling that feeling, we know we’re on the right track to some degree. Some of the songs we do should be a little bit weird. And then you have some songs [on this album] that are “Oh yeah, that sounds like Jimmy Eat World.” But I think it’s important, at least for our own sanity, to say “Okay, well let’s do something that’s super out there and odd.”
That was also the only song on the record that Justin added a lot of keyboard layers to, and he just crushed it. When he added those in, it was magical. He’s a master at that stuff, so it’s so cool to see him work and do that stuff.
The last question I like to ask in interviews is the “Rank Your Records” question. If you had a gun to your head and you had to rank your own albums, could you do it?
I think I could, but I’d probably have a different criteria than a fan would. Because we go through the experience of making these records, a lot of that experience is part of it. Like, with Futures, the experience of making that record was pretty excruciating. But because of that, I’m really proud of that album. It was probably the most difficult album to make, and I think it turned out to be one of our strongest.
I would put Integrity Blues in the top three, for sure. I think what we executed in those songs was special, and the experience of making that album was also really enjoyable. Especially since we had just taken a year off and come back from doing nothing, to come back and make that record was really fun. Making Bleed American was one of the most fun experiences too. We felt like we were getting away with something, somehow.
But I guess it’s impossible for me to really rank them, because our criteria is so different. Like, we had so much fun making Damage, and I think that album is way better than it gets credit for. When people talk about Jimmy Eat World albums, it tends to get forgotten. But I think it’s really good.
So, I don’t think I have an absolute favorite. I think, for all of us, there are certain songs that we really love that we don’t think got their due, or that people sort of just forget. Like, “Carry You,” for me, is one of those songs. “Pol Roger” is one of those songs. These are some of, I think, the best songs we’ve done. But fans have their favorites too, and the fan experience is so different from ours. Our experience is totally tainted by the making of the music, or whatever sort of connections we make to the process of it.
But for us, we just feel super lucky that we still even get to make records, and that we still get along. It felt like a nice way to celebrate our 25th year: releasing the 10th album and having it be an album that we feel really great about. We’ll see if other people like it, but I guess in the end, for us, it doesn’t really matter. Because we’ll just keep making albums.