It’s been a strange couple of years for Jimmy Eat World. Having been on tour solidly for almost two decades, the band decided to take a break, sparking rumours that they might be calling it a day. They weren’t: instead they returned with Integrity Blues – perhaps their most impressive effort since 2004’s Futures – and a newfound energy. It’s also given a chance to reflect on a career that already surpasses many of their long-extinct contemporaries.
Bassist Rick Burch reflects on the period as being as about both recuperating and re-evaluating. “I can’t remember who first suggested we take a break,” he told us. “It came up after we finished touring our last album Damage, and usually recording a new record would be the next step in the cycle. We’d been in that tour, album, tour, album cycle for a long time, and someone just asked why we were doing it again? We agreed we shouldn’t.”
“It’s day after day of waking up, thinking about the show that day, taking things one day at a time. We needed to turn that switch off, to find a fresh perspective. That allowed us to be creative again.”
The reinforced creativity shining on the latest record has been helped in large parts by new producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, whose diverse creative output has seen him heavily involved with the likes of Beck, Nine Inch Nails and, in a surprising mixing of genres, French electronic act M83.
Burch talks of how Meldal-Johnsen benefitted the comeback album, in particular by having “no signature stance.” Instead, Burch recalls the producer “helping us to take things in a new direction. Instead of telling us what to do, we talked about what we were trying to create and he helped us think of how we could do it a different way to what we might have done in the past.”
“I think you can hear it in the instrumentation, which is a bit different on this album,” Burch says [Integrity Blues features an ensemble, for example, and more electronic elements than previous releases]. “He tried to challenge our boundaries. When you’ve been in a band for twenty years, you have your way of doing things, rightly or wrongly. It really helped us to be forced to consider other ways of doing things too, before we committed. It was a very different recording process to what we’re used to, and it really worked for us.”
With rock and emo very much out of fashion in 2016, though, the Arizonans are unlikely to sell copies of the latest album on the scale of million-sellers Bleed American and Futures, and are grateful for a committed fanbase around them. “What happens in popular culture, ‘what’s hot’, is not really something we have any control over so we don’t worry about it. It certainly doesn’t impact our music,” Burch explains. “It’s a different world we live in now to when we started out.”
“The process of gaining access to music has changed dramatically,” Burch reflects, as we talk of the free ‘leader’ tracks the band released for Integrity Blues. “It’s very easy to listen to anything you want to. It’s great in a way, in that it’s easier to research, and music goes big because people like it and share it. It’s not a great environment to make money in as a band. I’d imagine at this stage far more people have heard Integrity Blues than had listened the same length of time after the release of Clarity. But we’d definitely have sold more copies of Clarity.
Looking back, though, Jimmy Eat World have slightly mixed feelings about the wave they rode to success, labelled an ‘emo band’ and peaking around the time of their introverted commentary on American social politics, the self-titled album originally named Bleed American.
“It was strange when the whole emo thing came around,” Burch recalls. “We didn’t mind it as it helps people identify our music, but it also seemed a bit senseless – our music is emotional, but to label only one type of music as emotional is a hyper-simplification. All music is emotional. Then again, it was very cool to be part of something, and we felt part of that.”
While Jimmy Eat World have had a substantial fan base for many years, there is a sense that the music industry isn’t in line with their sound at the moment. Though Burch won’t openly admit it, there’s a sense that Taylor Swift’s rendition of ‘The Middle’ – a huge piece of free publicity for the band – was somewhat tarnished by the admission that the hit single was one she listened to a lot when she was 14.
Burch described the flash of attention received off the back of Swift’s cover and quotes as “a bit surreal, really unique and interesting. These things can happen really quickly. It’s always good news when people like something you’ve created. We’re always happy to hear that people are listening to us, regardless of their age, and we’ve been around a while, that’s just how old Taylor was back then. We didn’t take it to mean she thinks it’s a song for 14 year olds.”
“We actually have very mixed age group audiences at our shows now – we’ve always had a wide age group audience, but it’s getting wider. 15 years ago we’d play a gig in Phoenix with a friend there. This year he’d still be there, but bringing along a 15-year-old daughter or son, for example.”
If Dublin dates are anything to go by, the venue sizes are back on the up for the band, and the mixed audience makes song selection tricky. “These days, it’s really tough to bring things down to just 20 or 22 songs,” Burch says of the current tour. “There are far too many songs to fit into a 90-minute set and no matter what we play, we’ll be leaving someone disappointed. Obviously we want to play the new stuff, as that’s what we’re into now. But we’re really proud of all the music we’ve made, and we want to keep the people who’ve supported us happy.”
Even with the comeback, though, there’s not a lot of certainty around Jimmy Eat World right now. This isn’t a farewell tour, but nor is it conclusively anything else. After the break, no one seems quite clear where the future lies. The answer, from Burch’s perspective, is essentially it’s too early to say. “We’ve got a year of shows ahead of us,” he explains. “We’re having a good time on those, and that’s the main thing right now. The short term goal is to enjoy ourselves and get back in front of people. We’ll take it from there.”