Third Eye Blind’s Second Act

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Aidin Vaziri | Stephan Jenkins spent years railing against everything that came his way: the music industry, the media, other bands, his own band, you name it. But as Third Eye Blind prepares to wind down a huge summer tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of its breakthrough self-titled debut album, the San Francisco outfit’s 52-year-old frontman seems to be approaching something resembling contentment.

“I don’t give a damn anymore,” he says, tearing into a breakfast sandwich at a bustling Sunset District coffee shop after a foggy morning surf session at Ocean Beach.

He’s wearing a loose black hoodie and pants that sag off his tall, sturdy frame, with a tight knit cap stretched over his sand-flecked hair. He talks just a little bit louder than everyone else in the room.

“I’m not done,” he continues, between mouthfuls of food. “I feel like I’m just beginning. But I have zero f— to give. It’s a very liberating feeling.”

And it was a long time coming.

Third Eye Blind is in the midst of the great rarity in the world of rock ’n’ roll — a verified comeback after a prolonged, perilous period when it felt like the group — one of the last major pop acts to break out of San Francisco — could easily go the way of Chumbawamba.

When “Third Eye Blind” came out in 1997, it turned the cagey Bay Area group into MTV superstars.

The album sold more than 6 million copies and spent 106 weeks on the Billboard chart. It spawned five hit singles with “Semi-Charmed Life” (possibly the catchiest song about casual sex and meth addiction ever), “Graduate,” “How’s It Going to Be,” “Jumper” (a song about suicide) and “Losing a Whole Year.”

Third Eye Blind opened shows for U2 and the Rolling Stones. Jenkins dated the actress Charlize Theron, befriended Winona Ryder; feuded with members of Green Day, Pearl Jam and Matchbox 20; and rode around town with his dog on a Triumph motorcycle. He was livin’ the life.

He was unapologetically cocky, with people in San Francisco’s cloistered ’90s music scene in particular bristling at his take-no-prisoners level of ambition — a byproduct, he says, of growing up in a broken home, being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome just before the band took off and watching other local bands lap Third Eye Blind early on.

“I had been working my whole life to get out of institutions and not ask people for permission,” he says. “I’ve always been a punk, and I felt like I was being put in somebody else’s fractal and that pissed me … off. I think I was just overwhelmed by that. It was hard for me to have good manners.”

The quick fame, combined with Jenkins’ alpha male posturing, splintered the band, and by the time it put out its second album, 1999’s “Blue,” the insults and lawsuits were flying. On its current tour, only drummer Brad Hargreaves remains from the original lineup.

The intervening years have been marked by a series of hiatuses and intermittent releases — 2003’s “Out of the Vein,” 2009’s “Ursa Major” and 2015’s “Dopamine.” The latter two were released on the group’s own Mega Collider label.

When one iteration of Third Eye Blind performed a free show in the middle of San Francisco’s Union Square in 2010, there were more pigeons than people watching the band at the lunchtime concert.

But at some point a new legion of fans discovered the band. They didn’t know much about the backstory and heard the music on its own merits, embracing the big hooks, frantic riffs and Jenkins’ delightfully detailed wordplay.

“If you come to our show, you’re going to see kids who were not born when the first record came out,” says Jenkins.

“There’s this whole generation of kids who weren’t there for any of the processing, marketing — the videos I would look at and say, ‘Pull the plug, I never need to see it again,’” he says. “They weren’t there for any of it. They just heard a catchy tune and it resonates with them. They feel it.”

Last year, the group played on the main stage of Bonnaroo in Tennessee and the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in Golden Gate Park. Now it’s headlining amphitheaters across the country.

“I knew from the first time I saw Third Eye Blind play at the now-defunct Paradise Lounge in SoMa back in like 1996 that Stephan Jenkins possessed all the inherent and vitally intrinsic characteristics of a budding rock star,” says Aaron Axelsen, music director of San Francisco’s alternative rock radio station Live 105 (KITS). “And it’s this swagger and charisma, coupled with a vast library of timeless alt-pop tunes, that’s helped him and his band remain relevant to an active fan base for 20-plus years now.”

On Sunday, July 23, it will play a homecoming concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley — performing the 1997 album in its entirety for what Jenkins says will be the last time.

“One thing I like about Third Eye Blind is that when we go out onstage, we are a brand-new band gunning for the gig,” he says. “We intend to go out there and do it full body.”

Jenkins credits the group’s resurgence on the fall of the old gatekeepers — major labels and monolithic publications — and the rise of social media and streaming services. But a bigger part of it, he adds, has to do with changing his own attitude.

“There’s probably some level of wholeness that I have achieved within myself — in poise and groundedness and self-love,” he says.

Jenkins, who grew up in Palo Alto and graduated at the top of his class at UC Berkeley before forming the band in 1994, says surfing played a big part in getting him to this state.

“So much about surfing, besides being one of the most physically involved and difficult sports ever created, is chucking yourself head first off a building into a rolling avalanche that can drown you,” Jenkins says. “And to do that is not courage, which is what I always thought it was. It’s calm.

“When you have courage, it means you’re doing something in spite of fear. When you’re dealing with fear, your body is stiff. The movement and action of surfing is a fluid, kinesthetic movement that has to be instantly in your mind, your body. It’s all happening at once, which is the definition of nirvana. That’s why I love it so much.”

Jenkins, who has always worked with causes close to his heart, is currently involved with the Jimmy Miller Foundation, an organization that teaches surfing to active-service Marines and vets who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m not a therapist,” he says. “I don’t have any training in that whatsoever. But I have an intuitive understanding of what it is to not be here, as in, ‘I’m not with you right now — I’m with my troubles someplace else.’ A lot of these guys are just not home. But when a wave comes at you — you’re not thinking about anything else. You accept that moment and get into a flow state with it. You are present.”

When Third Eye Blind finishes its tour, the band will return to the studio to continue working on what will become its next release, the “Summer Gods” EP (the band is done with full-length albums for the time being).

“There’s an authenticity to him that’s rare,” says Max Glynn, a longtime friend. “He’s fiercely loyal. I met him right before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he became so protective of me. He was like my brother. He just wanted to help me, and I had nothing to give him in return.”

Jenkins already feels compelled to put his time in other areas and in the last few months has pulled the band into a more overtly political direction, as evidenced by his personal Twitter feed.

Last July, when Third Eye Blind performed at a party for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the singer used the opportunity to lecture the crowd on gay rights and taunted the Trump supporters by urging, “Raise your hand if you believe in science!”

A week later, the band released “Cop vs. Phone Girl,” a song about police brutality, which he wrote to show his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“A lot of radio stations wouldn’t play it,” Jenkins says. “They would say, ‘We like the song, we just can’t play it on the radio.’”

Last month, a rumor started circulating that the singer had been handpicked by two Silicon Valley billionaires, Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, to run against longtime California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, on the ticket of the new Win the Future (WTF, for short) Democratic Party platform.

But he’s not ready to discuss his ambitions outside of music just yet.

“I’m not a politician,” Jenkins says. “I love Dianne. I think she’s a treasure. But I also believe our democracy is unraveling and we have to shore it up. I think by challenging her, we can push some of the issues that I think are vital — life or death — into the conversation.”

In the meantime, he’s relishing the band’s second shot in the limelight.

“Third Eye Blind has withstood the test of time by making fun music that people still love,” says Alicia Tyler, music director at KFOG, San Francisco’s adult alternative station. “Their lyrics may have seemed too real back then, but that’s why the kids loved it and continue to.”

“We’re actually larger than we were the first time around,” Jenkins says. “It’s an incredible feeling to be in a good rock band. The gift that’s been given to me is that people view my music as enlivening them.

“For years, I fell into a very un-rock state of mind where I was second-guessing myself. It’s like, come from a fierce and wholesome place, and huck it out there. That’s why Jackson Pollock can splatter paint. It’s coming from that place. Anything else is a mess. I think I fell into that mode and now I’m not, so I view it as a gift. I feel real gratitude for that.”

 

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