Awards. Immediately the idea seems positive, right? But it can be a mixed bag. What if the reward comes for a bad practice or habit? What does it reinforce then? In other ways, however, a reward can be wonderful. Hard work can pay off and that’s almost always a good thing, right?
For Jim Adkins, frontman and primary songwriter of acclaimed rock band Jimmy Eat World, the concept of rewards has been both overwhelming and sometimes overwhelming. When his group achieved immense popularity in the early 2000s with their song “The Middle”, they reaped the rewards. Heck, the song itself was even about the thought: Just do your best, try everything you can… It just takes a little time… Everything, everything will be fine. These are the lines Adkins sings, the lines that helped propel his Mesa, Arizona-born band, which began in high school with friends, to worldwide fame. Awards. But life is tough, curious and full of unknown futures. Sometimes the rewards can rain down and hit strangely. Since their debut, however, the band have been through their ups and downs (just like any band, really) and these days they released a new single, “Something Loud”, which fans are raving about.
“There is something just satisfying and gratifying in a way [with music] that I’ve never experienced in anything else,” Adkins told American Songwriter. “When you can create something that started as an idea, a feeling or a thought and it becomes this thing that goes beyond your expectations, beyond your imagination, it’s yours. It came from you. But it also comes from another place which is mystifying.
When asked about his early days learning and discovering music, Adkins talks about free throws. It’s shooting basketball where you stand on a line, do a little routine, and shoot to score a point. Some kids growing up, he says, have the ability to get lost in the act and practice it for two, four, six hours. Hard work, dedication, reward—rustling! Very early, his parents put him in piano lessons around the second year. They stuck, to some extent. He “had a sense of reward” at the time. He entered the zone, making gradual progress. Shortly after, he discovers MTV and plays the guitar. His dad played a six-string and kept one in the house and Adkins strummed it for hours.
“I haven’t stopped,” he said.
Today, he is a songwriter, a singer and an excellent guitarist. Hard work, yes, pays off. He can push things, he says, as well as get lost in practicing a given riff or strumming style, almost waking up from it and realizing that hours have passed. He came home from school to college and high school and strummed into the night. He got better. This led to the formation of the band in its early days. They formed in high school (officially in 1993), all original members of the same public school system. Although there is little to no music or entertainment infrastructure around Mesa and Phoenix where they grew up and worked. Incrementally. They didn’t mind sleeping on the floor with their heads near the toilet in a punk house with a funky nickname. You just had to understand each step, says Adkins.
“It was basically us and our friends trying to put on punk rock shows wherever we could,” he says. “I think it sort of weeds out people who are doing it for some kind of unrealistic agenda. You learn to find the reward in the work itself. And you really don’t sweat things that are out of your control.
It’s the kind of accomplishment that lays the foundation for a long career, says Adkins. It’s not about seeking approval, it’s about getting better (sometimes slowly) and bringing people along. You can’t plan a pop hit that leads to “world domination”, but you can work on a given verse today. And improvement is its own reward. One step at a time, one day at a time. Maybe everything will pay off. But otherwise, it’s about the trip, right? It’s about work. If he is honest and good, he will find his listeners and his fans. For Jimmy Eat World, of course, it led to huge success. Their biggest hit “The Middle” has since been covered by Prince and Taylor Swift. Are there higher praises?
“I still have no idea how it happened,” Adkins laughs. “We were really lucky to have the right mindset and were ready to work really hard. Lucky to be at the happy intersection where opportunity meets preparation. And young enough that we don’t we don’t care about sleeping on the floor.
The band continued their success, from “The Middle” to now releasing a total of 10 albums (their latest is Survivor in 2019). To keep the band’s momentum and career going, they “just tried to apply what we learned in the punk scene,” says Adkins. One of the keys, he adds, was to take seriously what they were doing, but not themselves. There was and is pride in the work, but not a sense of seriousness. Really, the group is not made up of divas. But one of the pitfalls of hard work in rock ‘n’ roll is the constant supply of drugs and alcohol everywhere. Awards. Adkins says it’s “no coincidence” that the industry is “riddled” with alcoholism and drug addiction. It’s also something he’s struggled with in the past.
“I guess,” he says, “it’s a very similar thing with the reward, that reward of little incremental progress. Getting better, discovering something on your own…. Or the mindset of the Alcoholism is kind of similar that way, the way the reward system is structured with your brain.
Some may be more prone to addiction than others. But in the same way that music offers lost souls a way to fit in and belong in a community, so can alcohol. In the same way, a new song you’ve written and recorded can give you chills, just like a glass of whiskey. Both can take you away, so to speak. And very quickly, both can create new worlds in an instant. Awards. It’s no wonder they are often linked so closely. The pseudo light at the end of the tunnel.
“Escape from yourself,” says Adkins.
But, as Adkins sings in “The Middle,” it just takes a little time. Learning. Improvement. New rewards. As you get older, you can change the reward system. A night out with friends seems much better at 40 than at 22. Spouses help. New ways to help build self-confidence. This is, in many ways, where Adkins and the band are at today. Their new single, “Something Loud”, was born out of a sense of contemporary fun. They wrote a song that they just wanted to play over and over again. It wasn’t necessarily for financial gain. It was for the joy of being together – and that sentiment is reflected in the brilliant gang vocals on the track’s chorus.
Today, says Adkins, the group is still thinking about gratitude. For doing it for so long. For new and old opportunities. In 2021 the band performed Lollapalooza. For the future they have a giant round coming from August to October. They’ve been a popular band for their entire adult lives, literally since they were 18. While there may be regrets or paths not taken, that is not the point. The point is the new rewards that the lives lived now illuminate.
“The brand of experience,” says Adkins. “There is nothing else in art that can do what music does by imposing itself on the experience of life. It’s something we’re proud of.
Photo by Jimi Giannatti / Courtesy of Kellee Mack PR