Interview: Revisiting Third Eye Blind’s self-titled masterpiece 20 years later

Saturday marks 20 years since Third Eye Blind shook up the pop landscape with their bubblegum riffs countered by the heavy lyrical content on their smash debut self-titled record.

Released April 8, 1997, Third Eye Blind spawned five singles — three being top 10 hits: “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Jumper,” and “How’s It Going to Be.” Third Eye Blind has found a resurgence in recent years as festival favorites, though nowadays it’s just lead singer Stephan Jenkins using the name without any of the other founding members.

Other founding members Kevin Cadogan and Arion Salazar joined forces in the last few years or so — first as Cadogan Salazar and now under the name XEB. There was a legendary well-documented falling out between Jenkins and the other members over the years.

Cadogan and Salazar — along with another former 3EB member Anthony Fredianelli — are playing as XEB, including an April 22 show at the Troubadour where they’ll play Third Eye Blind’s debut album front to back. Fredianelli joined up with the other two in the last six months or so, after sending Cadogan an audio clip of himself singing “Losing a Whole Year,” with Cadogan thinking — hey this could really work.

I spoke with all three ahead of the show about the self-titled record, as well as the excitement about playing these classic tunes again.

One thing that makes the self-titled record so special is that many of the deep cuts have resonated just as long as the singles. There’s not a single weak track among the album’s 14 songs. Cadogan and Salazar each shared their favorites from the record, and neither were big chart-topping singles.

“My favorite song has pretty much always been ‘Losing a Whole Year’,” Salazar told me. “It was one of the last written before recording. The day we spent tracking it is a great memory. We went crazy experimenting with soundscapes and triple-tracked the bass using lots of vintage gear Eric Valentine had on hand.”

“Playing that one is great live as well. For me that tune sort of summed up what set the band apart from your average ’90s pop band. And, as an opener on the record, it really gets things off to a powerful start.”

Cadogan’s favorite song from the record is also mine, the rarely performed live “The Background,” a song Cadogan had to fight for to be included. The song is one of the more overtly downtempo songs on the record, but it hits so hard, particularly in the final chorus when Jenkins screams, “‘Cause I felt you long after we were through.” I get goosebumps every time that part comes on, sometimes even rewinding it to before the breakdown that precedes it.

“I’m specifically proud of that one because it almost got left off the album and most likely would have never been released if I hadn’t fought for it to be included,” Cadogan said. “The manager was trying to convince me that saving ‘Background’ for the second album would make more sense for us. He actually had a good point that after a certain number of songs we would be giving them away to the label, but relationships in Third Eye Blind — between myself and Jenkins specifically — were not in good shape and honestly I could not count on a second album being released. So I argued that we should put as many songs as possible on the debut because there might not be another chance. Fourteen songs was a lot to have on a debut and I’m glad it worked out that way.”

One thing that makes Third Eye Blind special is that 20 years on, it doesn’t sound dated in the slightest. While a lot of popular music from that time sounds out of touch in 2017, the entirety of this debut record manages to stay with the times.

“I’m really grateful to have been a part of a record and band that spawned music that still gets played on the radio,” Salazar said. “I do remember making that first record really meant everything to me. We were lucky to have the talent, ears, and fearlessness of producer Eric Valentine to help us make something lasting. I put all I could into making every song outstanding and I know the others did the same. You can sort of hear everyone playing for their lives, I think.”

With the Troubadour show coming up, I asked Cadogan and Salazar to recall a moment specific to Los Angeles during their time in Third Eye Blind that stands out.

“The memory that sticks out in my mind is when Third Eye Blind first played LA — this was before the showcases at Viper Room that are more widely known about,” Cadogan recalled. “We made our first trip down there in 1995. We piled into the manager’s giant convertible and slept on the floor in my uncle’s living room in West Covina. The carpet was green like a lawn and super plush. It was hilarious and something my aunt and uncle joked about with their neighbors after we made it big, that Third Eye Blind slept on their living room carpet. I don’t remember the name of the club. It wasn’t one of the main ones.”

“There are many, many memories from playing LA, but one of the greatest is playing a radio show sometime in the early 2000s,” Salazar said. “We’re in the middle of playing the bass and drum breakdown of the song ‘Jumper.’ I turn around and see Stevie Wonder being walked on stage! Then someone hands him a harmonica! Suddenly he’s jamming with us for a couple minutes, stops, gets an ovation and is led offstage. As he’s leaving I run up to thank him and he gives me a hug. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but it was surreal, amazing, and thankfully someone got photos for me!”

Twenty years later, Cadogan and Salazar aren’t playing the same-sized venues that Jenkins is now playing in as Third Eye Blind. That band will play their own tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the self-titled record, including a July stop in LA at the Greek Theatre. But to Cadogan and Salazar, the size of the venues don’t seem to be the important part — it’s being able to get back to the fun of playing the songs live, to a crowd of people that connect to the record all these years later.

“Playing these songs now is totally different,” Salazar said. “During my 10-plus years in the band there were eventual pressures, distractions, etcetera, that I let pull me away from the live show after awhile. The first few years were pretty pure. Because I’m older and hopefully wiser, I can see what the songs meant to people — and even to me — a bit clearer. I can concentrate on every note, every feel and being totally in the moment. And appreciate my good fortune, blessings, and the folks in front of me while in that moment.”

“I’m proud of the music I helped create and even though the band name was taken from me, I’m proud to have owned and published music that has touched so many people,” Cadogan explains.

Even in their early days, there’s no record of Third Eye Blind ever playing the Troubadour. April 22 will be the first, perhaps only time, that the debut record gets played front to back in the confines of one of Hollywood’s most iconic venues. It’s not a fact that’s lost on either member with Cadogan saying XEB is excited to be playing the debut record there.

“I’m over the moon about it,” Salazar said. “To play a place with such a rich history…The Byrds, Dylan, Led Zep….The Smothers Brothers show where John Lennon and Harry Nilsson had a bit of a scuffle. Even Bukowski spoke there! This kind of thing is huge for me and when I’ve been lucky enough to play venues where my heroes have been, I always try to stop and soak in the mojo.”

“We all decided that the fans of this special music deserve the type of live representation that lives up to the power and glory of the self-titled record,” Fredianelli said.

Stephan Jenkins is playing under the name Third Eye Blind these days — who will be doing their own victory lap of the self-titled album, including a date at the Greek Theatre in July. Drummer Brad Hargreaves is the only member of this iteration behind Jenkins have any history with the band prior to 2010. I’ll admit to enjoying their festival sets at Outside Lands and Bonnaroo over the past year — but there’s something missing from those early-era tracks live. These other guys can’t quite capture the magic that Cadogan and Salazar brought to those songs, perhaps because Cadogan in particular had a hand in writing so many of those signature songs.

Video footage suggests that Cadogan and Salazar haven’t lost a step in their musicianship despite the two laying low professionally for quite awhile before joining forces. Fredianelli brings another interesting dynamic as the singer. If you want to hear those guitar and bass riffs the way they were meant to be played, catch XEB at the Troubadour.