How Jimmy Eat World Fought Their Way Out of ‘The Middle’

Jimmy Eat World were only two albums into their deal with Capitol Records when they were dropped by the label. After receiving little support for their third album, the now seminal Clarity, the band was hardly surprised when they were notified in August 1999. Most artists in their position would have viewed the rejection as a potential career-ender, but the Mesa, Arizona-based band took it well. In fact, they agreed with Capitol’s decision.

“All big labels are extremely adept at pushing bands that are moving 20,000 or more records a week,” frontman Jim Adkins explains. “Capitol knew exactly what to do with that. But they had no idea what to do with bands like us that sold 10,000 copies between all releases. [Clarity] grew over time into what it is now, but that wasn’t the case back then. It made complete business sense to not spend any more money on us.”

 

How Jimmy Eat World Fought Their Way Out of ‘The Middle’

 

The band had good reason to remain positive though. After endlessly touring and fostering relationships with bands in their community, they found themselves in an enviable position. Sure they were an unsigned band, but their trajectory was continuing to trend upwards.

“After Capitol it didn’t feel like there was this hole in our operational structure,” Adkins says. “From our perspective things were getting better. Every time we’d play a city there would be more people than last time. We felt reinforced by the friends in other bands that we had at the time, and the way we were all working to play music. We relied on connecting with people. As long as we could tour and play in front of people we would be fine.”

 

 

Despite getting dropped, Jimmy Eat World kept busy around the world. They released a compilation titled Singles on indie label Big Wheel Recreation and toured Europe, where they were able to sell boxes of CDs they’d grabbed from Capitol, albums that hadn’t been released overseas yet. They also began uploading demos from the forthcoming album to Napster (yeah, remember Napster?) as a way of previewing what was to come.

“We thought [putting songs on Napster] would be a cool way to get our music out there in different parts of the world where our records were harder to find. And it worked!” Adkins exclaims. “We’d go over to Europe and play on these wacky nine-band bills and the fans would know words to these songs we were recording.”

With money raised from the compilation sales and the tours, the band went to LA to work with Mark Trombino, the former Drive Like Jehu drummer-turned-producer who had helmed both Clarity and 1996’s Static Prevails. The money they raised didn’t last long.

“We took all of our touring proceeds and put it towards making the record,” Adkins says. “Mark decided that he would pretty much work for free until we realized what the back end would look like. He knew we were good for it. When we knew we could pay him we paid him.”

There still was no label to release the new album. So the band began inviting interested parties to the studio to hear what they’d been working on. Word started to get around about the album’s potential, so the band hired a manager and began talking to different labels.

 

 

In the end, Jimmy Eat World signed with DreamWorks, a still fledgling label with a diverse roster that included the likes of Elliott Smith, Dr. Octagon, Toby Keith, Alien Ant Farm and George Michael. While it would be the only release of theirs for the label (Universal purchased DreamWorks in 2003, and the band was reassigned to Interscope for 2004’s Futures), the fit was a perfect one for them at the time.

“[Vice president of A&R] Luke Wood was a big reason why we went with DreamWorks,” Adkins admits. “They were a big label and wanted their quarterly gains like all big companies, but it felt like the best place for development. Just the history of the people who were there and where they came from, like Mo Austin, Lenny Waronker, Michael Austin – these were legends in the industry. Whatever we thought was going to happen with the record, DreamWorks felt like a place that could help us.”

Jimmy Eat World’s fourth album, Bleed American, saw its release on July 24, 2001 (DreamWorks made the album available to stream online for free five days earlier – a novel concept at the time). With a new label ready to back them, the band was ready to capitalize on this second chance. However, once the album was out there, it didn’t take long for plans to get derailed. 

Following the tragic events of September 11th, a number of artists found their music to be removed from radio rotation (Clear Channel, for example, compiled a list of hundreds of songs it deemed “lyrically questionable”) and in some cases, outright banned or even censored. Seeing that the title Bleed American could offend listeners, Jimmy Eat World decided to change both the album’s title – to the eponymous Jimmy Eat World – and the title track – to its chorus-referencing “Salt Sweat Sugar.” 

 

 

“It was almost immediately that we changed it. Just that threat of someone being offended,” Adkins admits. “I’ve never known anyone who actually thought the song or album title was offensive. We worked so hard on this thing, but we decided, in the wake of the craziness and tragedy, we didn’t want to have something block people from objectively connecting with it.”

Adkins adds, “I always thought it was cool that Social Distortion had three self-titled releases. So we decided that calling it Jimmy Eat World was not really a compromise. It’s our record with our name on it. Most people were finding out about us for the first time, so it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. We just wanted people to give it a shot.” 

(In 2008, Jimmy Eat World reverted back to the album’s original title for a deluxe edition. “People calmed down and got back to a lower volume of fear,” Adkins says. “It didn’t seem like it was as big of a deal anymore.”)

Bleed American introduced Jimmy Eat World to a whole new audience, thanks to their second single, “The Middle,” becoming a global hit. Reaching the top five on Billboard’s Hot 100 and earning a spot in MTV’s rotation, the song became a ubiquitous modern rock anthem. 

“At the time we wrote it I didn’t think ‘The Middle’ was all that valuable because it was so simple and came together really quickly,” Adkins reveals. “We put it on the record but we never expected for it to have the connection with people that it has. I think there is definitely a fallacy as an artist where something you struggle with is of more value than one that is easy and just falls in your lap. ‘The Middle’ fell into our laps.”

 

 

Years after it blew up, “The Middle” continues to resonate with listeners. Taylor Swift is admittedly a fan; she not only invited Adkins to perform the song live during her 2011 tour, she also lip-synched to it in an Apple Music ad.

“It’s not a novelty song,” Adkins says. “A lot of what ‘The Middle’ is getting at is still interesting to me today. Like how do you build your sense of self-worth? I think about that a little differently now, because there are more nuances to it than what the song is directly saying. But I’m still fascinated by that idea.”

Despite playing “The Middle” thousands of times, Adkins still holds the song close, and shows gratitude for how it has helped Jimmy Eat World reach heights they never expected. Most recently they performed the song during the halftime show of a Phoenix Suns playoff game against the Denver Nuggets.

“Dude, if I ever get huffy, puffy, resentful or pissed off that something we did gets people off their feet and freak out, just slap me and tell me to stop,” he exclaims. That doesn’t happen for everyone! Enjoy it!”

 

How Jimmy Eat World Fought Their Way Out of ‘The Middle’

 

As the mainstream was calling, Jimmy Eat World was simultaneously thrust into another spotlight. Already embraced by fans that identified their music as “emo,” an appearance on the cover of NME in 2002 touted the band as flag-bearers for the next “new rock revolution.” All of a sudden emo was reaching its commercial peak in its third wave, thanks in part to Jimmy Eat World’s success. 

“We just thought it was funny,” admits Adkins. “I’ve had a lot of conversations about this, and I think the best way to sum it up is we were just part of a scene with like-minded people at a particular moment that people found out about at the same time. It was more about the time that we were a younger band. Like anything else it doesn’t help you determine what the music will sound like.” 

Twenty years have gone by and Bleed American remains to be a shining example that not all Y2K rock music had to fall victim to that era’s trends. Jimmy Eat World and Mark Trombino came together and fashioned a sound that struck a chord in 2001, but has also stood the test of time over the past two decades.

“I feel like it holds up,” says Adkins. “This record wasn’t chasing the cool production methods that were part of the more mainstream radio world. A lot of those records were after what was on the radio at the time, like the dramatic, backwards cymbal close up to a three and four into the last chorus or scratching – whatever gags producers were doing to get dynamic punches in. We didn’t know anything about that stuff. Neither did Mark.”

As for any live plans to celebrate the anniversary, Adkins says that has yet to be determined. However, the album will be repressed on vinyl and a complete edition of Bleed American with all of the B-sides and outtakes will be added to streaming services. 

“I don’t think [all of that material] is all available at the moment,” he says. “So we’re wrangling up all of the strays to have them all available again in one place.”

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