'No wasted motion': An oral history of Jimmy Eat World's 'The Middle'
Even after being dropped from their label, in 1999, Jimmy Eat World seemed destined for greatness. The poor commercial response to their third album, Clarity, had forced Capitol to terminate their contract, but singer/guitarist Jim Adkins didn't see it as a reason to pack things up. The band were still opening for big names, still being included in festival lineups, and still drawing fans to shows. They had even scored a spot on the soundtrack to the Drew Barrymore-starring Never Been Kissed with "Lucky Denver Mint," which became a college-radio favorite.
But it was going to take more than a decent campus rep to move forward. Then came "The Middle." The second single off their album Bleed American — which turns 20 this month — was an undeniable hit, giving Jimmy Eat World their first No. 1 on Billboard's Alternative Airplay chart. Even more improbable, the song was written in one sitting.
"When a song comes along like that, it tricks you into thinking that it's not working as much as the idea you struggled to complete. In your head, it makes it less valuable," Adkins tells EW. "At first, I didn't have much of a high opinion of it."
Then he played the demo for his bandmates. "I listened to it and thought, 'There's not really a whole lot to change here,'" recalls drummer Zach Lind.
But the story behind the band's runaway hit is a bit more complicated than that. From raising money for studio time to finding inspiration in The Brady Bunch, Adkins, Lind, bassist Rick Burch, and more reveal the story and success behind Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle" — and why it still endures two decades later.
"We were weirdly optimistic."
By 1999, Jimmy Eat World was a college-radio favorite. The Arizona-based quartet had released Clarity, which peaked at No. 30 on Billboard's Heatseekers albums chart, sold around 50,000 copies, and featured songs like "Lucky Denver Mint," an eventual emo cornerstone.
But in the eyes of the band's major-label home, Capitol Records, that wasn't enough. Lack of sales and radio airplay led executives to drop the band. However, Capitol's decision wasn't as devastating as it sounds: Jimmy Eat World was going to make its fourth album, with or without them.
JIM ADKINS, (singer/guitarist): Being dropped happened in the background. Not much was happening at the label. It's not like we were relying on them for everything. We were making everything on our own anyway.
RICK BURCH, (bassist): We gave zero time or energy to being bummed about being dropped. It actually felt like we were able to point ourselves in the direction we thought was right.
LOREN ISRAEL (A&R): I was the dude who brought the band to Capitol Records, and I was involved in Clarity and Static Prevails. After the band got dropped, I made a call to Jim and Zach, and said, "We need to do this next record on our own."
They decided to save money made from touring to use for recording. They brought on producer Mark Trombino, who had helped shape the sound of Clarity and 1996's Static Prevails. In between tours, the band cut drums at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, then later overdubbed guitars, bass, vocals, and additional instruments at Doug Messenger's in North Hollywood. As relentless as the schedule was, they noticed crowds growing at shows. The future seemed bright.
ADKINS: We knew from touring that things were getting a little bit better. It was rising slowly. We'd notice when we'd have a better opening slot for some other, bigger band. [But] we weren't expecting anywhere close to what [the response to Bleed American] ended up being. The furthest place we thought the album would've taken us was maybe back to Europe a couple of times.
ZACH LIND (drummer) We were weirdly optimistic when I think a lot of bands wouldn't be. On one hand, we were using this shoestring budget. On the other hand, we were figuring out ways to go into nice rooms and get good sounds. It was this weird thing where we felt like we were getting away with something. A lot of that is because Mark decided, We'll figure out the money later. Let's just make the album.
MARK TROMBINO (producer): When they talked about wanting to make a record, they were like, Maybe, we'll put it out ourselves. I happily agreed to make the record as we could. They would tour a little bit, raise some money, then we could afford some studio time.
ADKINS: After we recorded drums [for Bleed American] and went on tour, we were making a decent amount of money — not like "you could go live on this"-type of money, but it was more than we had ever made before. We felt like we could finance the album with that.
LIND: Our thinking was, "Let's use this for the album." We had always been in that mode. It allowed us to take more time.
ADKINS: I remember doing bank drops of nine grand every once in awhile so we wouldn't have to fill out tax stuff. [Laughs] We were in Philly at [the bar] Tattooed Mom. Tom was holding a backpack with like $35,000 in it because we didn't want to leave it in the car, and we couldn't deposit that much money in the bank at once. The entire night, he was just sitting there [acts out clutching a bag to his chest].
LIND: We were such idiots at the time, but we planned it pretty well.
TROMBINO: [Bleed American] turned out to be one of my favorite record-making experiences because it was literally me and four guys just making a record together without any label involvement. That was the reason it turned out the way it did. We didn't have to run anything by anybody or get anybody's approval. We were doing things — what felt like to us — for all the right reasons, making all the right decisions, and not compromising on anything.
ISRAEL: Between the band being dropped and finishing [Bleed American], there was a new president at Capitol Records. And Capitol wanted to re-sign Jimmy Eat World.
TROMBINO: As we were making the record, word started getting out. There was momentum building about signing Jimmy Eat World. By the end of it, the energy became more exciting. When we started, they were a band that had been dropped from a major label. By the end of it, they were a band that was being courted by every major label. [Laughs]
"It was apparent that 'The Middle' was the one."
Jimmy Eat World eventually signed with DreamWorks Records, and they released Bleed American on July 24, 2001. Though the title track had been designated as the first single, the mere mention of blood and America after the September 11 attacks stirred up weird emotions for potential audiences and radio stations. Quickly, the band made the decision to retitle the album as Jimmy Eat World. For the second single, they went with "The Middle." After the song's November 2001 release, it reached No. 1 on the Alternative Airplay chart, and No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. By August 2002, Jimmy Eat World's renamed, self-titled fourth album was certified platinum. Pretty good for a song Adkins wrote and nearly tossed off two years prior.
ADKINS: I remember doing a rough demo of the song in my bedroom when I was living in Tempe, Ariz. I had one of Zach's first drum sets that I had bought off him. I did this rough outline of what became "The Middle." The music and lyrics came at least within an hour of each other. There were some tweaks when we came to the band editing process. I'm not sure if anyone thought that it was great or not, but we felt it was solid enough that it could be a contender to record for the album.
LIND: The demos for both "The Middle" and "Hear You Me" felt like super clean punches right in the jaw. It was like, what can we do to make it better? I immediately thought that people were going to like and connect to these songs. I didn't know to what degree.
ADKINS: This was probably 1999. No one was sending demos in those days. [Laughs] You had to come over to my house, and I'd hit play on a boombox. I don't even know if we traded cassettes. At band practice, we might show each other a riff or something or play the demo on a boombox for everyone else to hear.
ISRAEL: When I first heard it, I thought it was a hit. It's an anthemic song that's about how the ride is not without its bumps, but that's the fun of the ride when you're in a band. It's never about being there at the top. The fun is getting there. That's what I try to evangelize: Enjoy the struggle. That's where you're going to find grit and perseverance.
ADKINS: It's a completely literal song. There was a girl who wrote to the band's AOL account, saying how she was getting picked on. She wasn't being accepted by a clique of friends because she wasn't punk enough. I thought that was ridiculous. I was like, It doesn't matter what you think is a big deal now. You don't need these people's validation anyway.
TROMBINO: I'm not a hitmaker guy. I'm not a guy who understands pop music really well. It didn't really resonate with me the way that other songs did. But it was obvious to a lot of other people that it was a "hit song." It was apparent that it was the one.
LIND: When I recorded the drums for "The Middle," I wanted to mimic the feel of "You Wreck Me" by Tom Petty. That was my reference song.
ADKINS: I don't think there was a guitar solo on the original demo. It was just instrumental. The solo wasn't final until we got into the studio. There's the sort of hammer-on, pull-off elements that are like [Guided By Voices guitarist] Doug Gillard's in "I'm a Tree." For some reason, I thought of that.
ISRAEL: [The song] changes your state. You go from driving slow to driving fast; sad to happy. That's what happens when you have a hit: You get five people in a room, and they all say, "That sounds pretty good." Whether you like that kind of music or not, it's undeniable.
LIND: There was no debate about the second single. It was going to be "The Middle." It's one of those songs that showed itself. I remember playing the demo for friends, and they'd be like, "Wow, that's awesome." It was this immediate song. It makes you feel good. That's the kind of song it is, and I think that's the reason behind some of the popularity of it. It's a simple song that has no wasted motion.
"We wanted a video that would get played"
As "The Middle" climbed the rock charts, director Paul Fedor pitched a music video based on an episode of The Brady Bunch, where the band plays to teens who are partying in their underwear— all except an awkward and fully-clothed Josh Keleher. They shot the video in their home state.
PAUL FEDOR (music video director): It was 108 degrees. I was fully dressed, and I almost passed out on set. I wasn't used to the Arizona heat.
ADKINS: We thought the overarching idea and theme he had seemed like it fit with the song. That's all you can hope for in that situation. We gave a lot of control to Paul and his world. We wanted a video that would get played. [Laughs]
FEDOR: The idea came from watching The Brady Bunch. There was this episode where Marsha was having trouble public speaking, so someone told her to imagine the entire audience in their underwear, and I was like, "That's it!" [Laughs] It was one of those concepts that people borrow from all the time.
The video played on MTV's TRL, and the song rose on the charts. As the band kept touring, they noticed success here and there, but didn't let the newfound attention go to their heads.
TROMBINO: I couldn't believe that it became a hit. You could tell it was a catchy song, but given the band's history and the path that they took to get to that point, who could've guessed?
ADKINS: Our entire career as a band to that point felt like we were getting away with something. We were thinking, "This is ridiculous that we're doing this." You sort of feel like it's going to end at any second so you really don't take it too seriously.
RACHEL HADEN (touring background vocals/keyboards): I remember when we started playing "The Middle," everyone in the crowd would simultaneously start jumping up and down. On that tour, I would do a lot of running and exercising. I'd go to a gym, and all of the sudden, I'd hear "The Middle" on the radio coming through the speakers. That was so funny.
LIND: We were weirdly out of touch with the success of the album. The thing we noticed was like, oh, we're playing the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, and it's sold out. If I could go back and give myself advice, I'd be like, Man, enjoy it a little more. Take stock of what's going on and acknowledge the moment. However, I think it was cool how we plowed forward and were out of touch with what it meant.
ADKINS: I didn't notice that it became a hit because I was too busy trying to focus on what was in front of me on that day — whatever show was happening that night, whatever festival we were headed to. Everything was compartmentalized. You broke it down into what you had to do that day, and, for me, I didn't realize what a big hit it was until years later.
TROMBINO: We made Bleed American. It became what it became, and it was vindication, like, yeah, we got this. We know what we're doing. [Laughs]
"Whatever situation we're in…that song is a big reason for it."
Hot off the success of "The Middle," Jimmy Eat World continued to tour through 2003. With the release of 2004's Futures, the band solidified its status as a pop-rock powerhouse. Produced by Gil Norton, the fifth studio album featured "Pain," which became the group's second No. 1 hit on Billboard's Modern Rock charts. Futures sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first week and was later certified gold.
With each subsequent album, Jimmy Eat World hasn't relinquished its status as one of rock's most sincere and genuine bands. Nothing they've released since has reached the heights of "The Middle," but even today, the guys never shy away from the good that's come from the hit.
ISRAEL: If you have a hit song at the magnitude of "The Middle," it drives everything: a career, record sales … But the guys are kind and sincere. They put it on the line. They earned it. They never take success for granted. They're incredible people, and I don't say that for many. They took a chance to do their own record when, frankly, those types of things weren't done all that much.
TROMBINO: Nowadays, I own a donut shop. Our playlist is all the music that I recorded, produced, or listened to. It's almost like the soundtrack of my life, and "The Middle" comes on a lot. [Laughs] Every time it does, you know what? I'm not gonna lie. I'm stoked. I'm pretty proud of that thing. I f---ing did that. I feel good about it every time I hear it.
HADEN: It puts me in a good mood. If I'm in a bad mood and hear that song, it's really hard to stay in a bad mood.
BURCH: Sometimes we're asked the question, "What song do you overplay?" I think a lot of people are fishing, and maybe they want us to say "The Middle" because we've played it at every show since it became a song. It's actually quite the opposite. When the first notes go through, and you're seeing the faces in the audience light up, it's one of the funnest songs to play. I'm thinking about performing that song in small rooms and at really big festival fields, and the feeling is the same, whether it's 10 people or 10,000. It's like a light switch turns on. It's nothing but smiles.
LIND: Whatever situation we find ourselves in today — whether it's this house I'm sitting in or whatever's going on in our lives — that song is a big f---ing reason for all of it. We're super-lucky to be in a position to have a song that does that well and genuinely seems to have a positive impact on people.
ADKINS: It's been one of the most insane, huge, heartwarming compliments that so many people have something in that song that they can relate to, that they can connect with. That's the biggest compliment for any musician when someone takes the time to live with something you made and makes it theirs, too. `