Sightless ? but not faceless

It’s easy to be snide about Third Eye Blind. First, there’s the mild absurdity of the heavy name (a gem of determined intellectual vagueness) juxtaposed with their decidedly bantamweight music.

And then there are the songs. Though “Semi-Charmed Life,” their biggest hit to date, is a fraction more than semi-charming, and certainly catchy enough to warrant its status as a summertime chart topper, I have to draw the line at “Jumper,” a puzzlingly inane little ditty featured in an MTV public-service announcement about teen suicide. Taking that final leap, of course, is never an easy issue to explore in song; too often, odes to the touchy topic seem heavy-handed (the Replacements did it right with “The Ledge,” but then Paul Westerberg’s voice could salvage just about any subject). However, Third Eye Blind’s bouncy take on self-annihilation suffers from an altogether different problem: It sounds, well, almost silly.

Should songs about suicide make you want to giggle?

Third Eye Blind drummer Brad Hargreaves tried to set me straight about that one, right away.

“That song can be traced back to an actual story,” he recounted during a recent phone interview, “but it’s not specifically about suicide. We like to do a more general take on our songs than that. ‘Jumper’ is more about giving people a break, cutting people some slack.”

I wondered how he felt, then, about it becoming the theme song in an ad about the senselessness of suicide — whether he viewed the tune’s use for that purpose as a misappropriation of whatever message the band was trying to convey.

“Actually, it was our idea,” he said.

Oops.

But maybe it’s time to cut the band the same slack they urge for potential ledge-leapers. After all, in a peculiarly ’90s kind of way, dismissing Third Eye Blind has become its own cliche, an occurrence as commonplace as the legions of fanatic Web sites the band generates. The so-called “faceless band theory” (or perhaps “sightless band” would be more apt, in this case) — which targets the modern phenomenon of disposable pop bands that are too-quickly cannonballed to the top by their record companies, only to plop from view shortly thereafter — has been the subject of entire articles, with Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20, et al., routinely cited as examples.

Nevertheless, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut has spent a year on the Billboard Top Albums chart. And from an inside perspective, this San Francisco group hasn’t exactly rocketed to the top of the charts. As Hargreaves notes, “It may appear that we [recently became] successful, but we’ve been together for five years. Once the record came out, it happened fast, but we see it as more of a gradual process, not an overnight success story.”

Like it or not, though, their name has become a symbol for all the shrewdly marketed, but ultimately indistinguishable, bands whose hits seem to appear out of nowhere and whose very existence sparks a definite animosity among their still-struggling peers (as Corey Parks of the Athens shock-rock band Nashville Pussy once put it, “There are too many Third Eye f•••ing whatevers out there.”). Sour grapes, anyone?

“When you’re on top, people want to knock you off,” argues Hargreaves. “They can’t let you have [your success].”

Besides, Hargreaves sees Third Eye Blind’s popularity as the result of a unique marriage of styles, not some calculated marketing ploy. “We elaborated on … a mixture of British rock and American R&B,” he explains. “The two sounds together create a different [kind of] music.”

And, far from targeting a market segment, he says, band members (lead vocalist Stephan Jenkins, guitarist Kevin Cadogan and bassist Arion Salazar complete the quartet) simply did it their way. “We didn’t have anything in mind when we started out,” remembers Hargreaves. “We didn’t try to segment our music to any particular part of the population. We just made music that was interesting and real to us. [We are] a band that did our own thing, that didn’t care what the record company wanted, a totally self-contained unit making music that makes us happy.”

Perusing their PR materials, however, one can’t help but wonder whether band members haven’t relaxed their rigid artistic control, at least in one area. Though of arguable importance in the bigger scheme of things, an assertion like “Third Eye Blind has tried to affirm that real touch, right down to the design of their stage show. It’s modeled after the kind of run-down club where … camaraderie can’t be faked,” does nothing to help establish the band’s integrity.

Having to switch from clubs to amphitheaters is a byproduct of multiplatinum success, however, and Hargreaves is prepared — on this topic, as on most others — to focus on the bright side. “Instead of 300 people inside a club, you’re seeing [thousands] of people mashed up against each other and against the stage,” he points out. “It’s a different feeling. You feel closer to the audience in a club, but then there’s a certain feeling you can only get in bigger venues. They’re just a necessary evil.”

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