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‘It’s a true co-production’: Jimmy Eat World on the making of latest album Surviving

PSNEurope’s Fiona Hope swung by Sony Music's London HQ while the band were in town to discuss the album’s sonic identity and the significance of working with the right producer

L-R: Zach Lind (drummer), Jim Adkins (lead singer/lead guitarist), Rick Burch (bassist), and Tom Linton (rhythm guitarist/vocalist)

For the past 25 years, Arizona’s Jimmy Eat World has been steadily refining and developing their brand of infectious rock, evolving with each and every record without shedding the distinct identity that has always marked them apart from their contemporaries.

On October 18, the band released their 10th album Surviving – a record that takes a different approach to previous albums, despite employing the same producer, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, that helped shape its predecessor Integrity Blues. It’s a no-nonsense, guitar-driven affair, yet still bears the hallmarks of a band exploring new creative avenues in the studio.

Mounting the stairs of the swanky Sony Music HQ in the heart of Kensington, PSNEurope is here to meet two of the band’s members, bassist Rick Burch and drummer Zach Lind, to discuss the making of Surviving and why, even after 10 albums and 25 years in the business, a great producer can still make all the difference…

What was your sonic inspiration for the album?

Rick Burch: With any of our albums, our approach is to have fun creating something that inspires us and is exciting to us in that span of time. It’s a slice of what we are into and what we like hearing in that year or year and a half. This time, we wanted to capture the energy of our live performances with raw, real guitar sounds, but not many layers of them, because when we’re on stage it’s the four of us and Rob. So, it’s five players and that’s it. We focused on individual, very crafted tones and being really specific with their character, knowing that we weren’t going to layer eight other guitars on top of it.

How did you go about projecting that in the studio?

RB: It was kinda raw. This being our 10th album, we’ve been in the studio many times and we’ve settled into things that we like as far as guitar and amp combinations go. Jim [Adkins, lead vocalist/lead guitarist], in particular, did some of the engineering and we had some help from others. He’s got a very keen awareness of his toolbox as far as how to get a tone. There were some new combinations, but a lot of it was going back to what we’re familiar with.

What is your studio set up? Where was the album recorded?

Zach Lind: We did the drums at a place called East West, in room two. It’s a studio that’s been around a long time. In the room we were in, the theme to The Beverley Hillbillies [an American comedy show] was recorded there in the ’50s. A lot of awesome rock records were made in that room as well: all of the Red Hot Chili Peppers albums, a lot of the Audioslave stuff, and Rick Rubin produced many albums there. The band all played along with me in the studio, and we actually ended up keeping Rick’s bass from when he was tracking the drums.

RB: And we’d never really done that before, that was a new approach for us.

ZL: The rest of the record – guitars, vocals, overdubs – were all done in our studio/ rehearsal spot in Tempe, Arizona. Like Rick was saying, the big thing for this album was that the guitar tones are so good. Jim, Mike Schupan – our engineer in Phoenix, and Tom [Linton, rhythm guitarist/vocalist] spent a lot of time dialling in a really basic tone for Jim and Tom and we used those pretty much on the whole record. Those were the foundations, and then they might layer it with something else, but I don’t think they did a lot of doubling. If there were other guitar parts they’d test out other combos – a small Fender combo, a Vox, etc.

RB: And this tiny little old combo amp from the ’50s. It’s just a brown tweed box, I don’t know the maker of it.

ZL: I’m pretty sure Jim used a Marshall head for most of it through a vintage Marshall cabinet, and Tom used an Orange head also through a Marshall cabinet. They had a 421 and a ribbon mic and that was it.

What are your songwriting/recording processes?

RB: There’s any number of ways that an idea can be brought to the group from any of us. One example would be Jim has an idea for a melody, whether it be a vocal or guitar, generally he’s got an idea for both working together before he’ll bring it into the band. And then it goes through a band process, where we develop it as a group. A lot of going back and forth and trying different approaches to the idea.

Another aspect I appreciated about this album was that we played the songs a lot before recording. In the past, there have been times when an idea has come about really quickly and we’re in the studio so we’re like, ‘All right let’s get this down and record it’. Then we’ll release the album and go on tour and then playing it more, I’d think, ‘Oh wow, I wish I was as familiar with this as I was when we recorded it because I might’ve had a different approach!’ It is what it is, and we’re always very happy with what we end up recording. That’s one of our goals – to satisfy ourselves. That’s kind of selfish sounding, but we want to be proud of what we present.

Have you always co-produced your albums?

RB: Not always. There’s been a couple that we’ve co-produced.

ZL: I think at this stage it’s sort of inevitable because we’ve made so many albums and I think one of the things we’ve realised, especially with the last few, is that it’s good to have a producing partner that’s involved from the beginning. Early on, we really relied a lot on Mark Trombino, who produced our first three major-label albums. We leaned on him a lot because we didn’t really know the ins and outs of the process. And as we’ve gotten more experienced, Jim in his own right is a pretty good engineer and mixer, so that bleeds into the songwriting. What was happening was we’d develop these demos and we’d bring in a producer to help us finish it. That sort of limits the producer on how they can be involved. Because when a producer comes in and realises 90 per cent of the choices have already been made, they think ‘Why am I here?’ And they would help us execute it, but they weren’t in on the beginning.

So the nice thing about Justin, who we’ve worked with on the last two albums, is he’s been involved from the beginning. He’s helping us decide, ‘These crops of ideas are cool, these crops of ideas aren’t that cool’. He’s helping us pick the material we’re going to be working on, and it has this consistency of a theme, a focal point. He helps us keep on task with that, and it’s something that these last two albums have benefited greatly from.

We’re still co-producing – but it’s a true co-production. We certainly defer to him on a lot of things, sometimes you just need that fifth opinion. It’s been really nice working with him, he’s a great communicator. And in my opinion, he’s the best we’ve ever worked with in that regard. In terms of relating, communicating and motivating in a way that’s all positive. Sometimes people can be motivating but they’re negative, and I think he’s really delicate in the sense of knowing that for that creative headspace, there needs to be encouragement.

How do you go about selecting the right producer?

ZL: For this album, it was pretty obvious for us that we would use Justin again. And what’s cool about Justin, is that he’s so diverse in his background. He has played bass for Nine Inch Nails, but he’s also played bass for Beck. And even within the scope of Beck’s catalogue – he’s been Beck’s bass player for the past 20 years, although he no longer is – if you listen to a Beck album they’re all totally different. But Justin plays amazingly on all of them because he has such a variety of perspectives and wide range.

Did you have any particular sonic influences or inspirations for the album?

ZL: ‘Dr. Feel Good’ by Mötley Crüe is our inspiration.

RB: That’s true, it’s an incredible sounding track, you can put it on now next to anything and the guitars are incredible, just massive. We don’t know how they got that. But it’s something to have in our mind, to try and make it that huge.

How would you describe your signature sound, and how do you go about refining it in the studio?

ZL: I think we have a few signature sounds. On this album, a good example is ‘Criminal Energy’, where it’s really just guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It has a lot of energy, but it’s simple. There’s not a lot of layers. And then a song like ‘The Middle’ is like that, where it’s just simple guitars, bass, drums, maybe a keyboard here and there, but it’s focused. And then I think the other kind of thing we do well is a song like ‘Delivery’, where it’s a little more layered, and it’s a combination of a lot of small, subtle things to make up an overall picture, not just a few things.

What are your individual roles in the studio when it comes to mixing and producing etc?

ZL: My primary role as a drummer is making sure I do all of the tech’ing and tuning for the drums and think about the right snare sounds, curating an overall drum picture that fits the song. In a weird way, the drums are the start – if you’re a bass or guitar player, you’re laying whatever you’re doing as a reaction to the drums.

RB: Which then informs my decision on how am I going to approach playing to the song. It sets the overall tone and vibe of what’s to follow. Then we’ll move to the other instruments and focus on each as we go along. We’re not like the Stones with one microphone in the middle of the room and capturing an amazing performance, our approach is more a stepped assembly.

ZL: As for other roles, Dave Shipman engineered the drums, Mike Schupan engineered everything else, Ken Andrews mixed it, Dave Cooley mastered it. And it sounds badass.