Singer-songwriter John Vanderslice on the very personal reasons he hates Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”

Singer-songwriter John Vanderslice on the very personal reasons he hates Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”

In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world. 

The hater: Songwriter and producer John Vanderslice has been active in the music industry since the mid-’90s, spending five years as a member of experimental band MK Ultra before going solo, releasing a number of his own records, and expanding his role at San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone studio, which he owns. There, he’s produced records by Spoon and The Mountain Goats. Vanderslice’s ninth solo full-length, Dagger Beach, was recently released via his own Tiny Telephone label and was funded in part by fans on Kickstarter. Always an outspoken figure, Vanderslice has become an indie darling because of his sense of humor, intelligent lyrics, and tendency to say exactly what’s on his mind, no matter who might hear it.

The hated: Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life” (1997)

John Vanderslice: When I heard I was going to do this feature, I made a promise to myself. First off, kicking it off with Jon Wurster was genius because he sets a wonderful, wonderful tone. He’s just one of the most articulate and surprising thinkers out there. I think he’s a marvel on this planet.

But anyway, my first impulse was that I had to pick someone like George Harrison. You’ve got to go after someone. You’ve got to be surprising. You can’t be just, like, dynamiting fish in a lake. Then I thought it was going to be George Harrison, with maybe something off Revolver because I’m actually a huge Beatles fan. You know, you have a love-hate relationship with many bands that you’re obsessed with, and I really thought, “You know what? If it’s a hate song, it has to be more than just the experience of the song.” It’s got to be the experience of the band that really drives in the hate, and for me, it could have been a lot of Third Eye Blind songs. By the way, they’re, in some ways, garbage music, to use a [Tom] Scharpling term. I mean, they’re fine. They’re actually way better than Wheatus or a lot of other horrible bands of that era. Do you know what I mean?

The A.V. Club: Yeah, they did okay.

JV: They’re way better. It’s garbage music, clearly, but “Semi-Charmed Life” is a fine recording. It’s an Eric Valentine recording. He’s a guy you really want to be making your ’90s pop music. He’s actually a really brilliant engineer, so I have a lot of respect for the song. 

But the reason “Semi-Charmed Life” is a hate song for me is that in 2002, Third Eye Blind’s management contacted me about recording in my studio, Tiny Telephone, for six weeks. So this is where the direct, actual real-life experience with Third Eye Blind comes in. So at that time, 2002, I was way more naïve. It sounded like a great idea: booking six weeks straight of studio time to a band that was famous. They were on Elektra. So I talked with the management. I talked to another manager. I talked to their producer on the phone. Evidently, you have to talk to a lot of people before they even meet you, but I talked to their producer, Jason Carmer, on the phone, and he was an incredible asshole to me. He was probably the rudest person I’ve ever talked to in 15 years regarding booking the studio. So I should have known, right? I should have had a heads-up at that point. This guy was just yelling at me, and I think back now and wonder how many people he has yelled at since he yelled at me. But I was really naïve, and I thought maybe this would be good for the studio. So I agreed to meet with the band and Jason Carmer and then one of the managers at the studio. 

So I went to the studio, and the band showed up, the manager showed up, and Carmer showed up. And Stephan Jenkins was not there. So we were talking. Everyone was super mellow, actually. They were very respectful. They were asking normal questions. “If we do take the studio, where can we plug in a fax machine?” Just normal stuff. So we waited, like, 15, 20, 30 minutes. We heard a motorcycle pull up, and I was, like, “Okay, that’s got to be this dude who’s clearly late and clearly doesn’t care but whatever.” I wanted to ink the deal. So Stephan Jenkins walks in wearing motorcycle leather, and he’s holding his helmet. He walks in, and I’m sitting there. We’re all in the live room. And he doesn’t say a word of, like, a normal greeting. It’s not normal. You would normally say, “Hey, how is everything going?”

AVC: Or, “Sorry I’m late.”

JV: Yeah. “I’m sorry I’m late. I’m sorry I’ve just collectively wasted two hours of your time here.” So he comes in, and he takes a chair. I will never forget this. This was like one of the golden moments of Tiny Telephone recording: He takes a folding chair and then flips it around backward and then puts it uncomfortably close to me, considering we’re in a large room, and sits face-to-face with me, sitting backward in a chair. And he says, “Okay, what are we going to do about this rate? We’ve got to get this rate down.” 

Now, Tiny Telephone is known to be one of the cheapest studios in the country. We are so under market that we shouldn’t have even allowed a major-label band in there. You know what I mean? It was like a subsidy to them. I think he imagined that I would have been flustered. He was doing like 101 intimidating negotiating tactics or whatever that he Googled the night before. I don’t know what he was doing. And so I said, “Honestly, we’re sold out every day, and I really think there’s a disincentive to me to book six weeks for you because I’m going to push out my normal clients,” etc. He didn’t respond to anything. I also said, “Hey, we’re way under market,” gave him all these reasons. He didn’t respond to anything I said. He stood up with his helmet, and he started pacing the live room. All the other crew, they know just to be quiet because this is his mode of whatever douchebaggery. I don’t know. He paces the studio, and then he just blurts out, “Okay, let’s do it.” Then he walks out of the door, fires up his motorcycle, and leaves. 

Now the punchline is that I never saw him again, ever. They rented the studio, and they were there for a really long time, and I never saw him in there. Now, maybe he was there one day or one night on an off-hour, but I never saw him again, and I’m at the studio all the time.

AVC: You really think he never came to the sessions?

JV: He probably came in very, very infrequently. So when I hear “Semi-Charmed Life,” I don’t just hear a garbage, fun, white-boy rap tune. That whole experience is just jarringly brought into my field of vision, and it was such a mistake for me. It was so out of the character of this studio.

AVC: This was well past “Semi-Charmed Life,” right?

JV: Yeah. They were just about to be dropped by Elektra. So they were definitely at the end of the road. 

Years later, I was cleaning up some little dusty corner of the studio, and I found one of their 3EB guitar picks. Again, that has the same force of hearing “Jumper” or “Semi-Charmed Life,” where the whole experience just comes back, and it’s just like an internal cringe. You just have this feeling of total anguish. Like when you make a terrible decision and it echoes throughout the ages. So that’s why for me it’s a hate song, because it’s connected to a terrible six-week period in my life when Third Eye Blind was in the studio. And for the record, the rest of the band was awesome. It’s just that he was not awesome, and I’ve never really felt that awful about running a business before.

AVC: A lot of people in San Francisco have a really conflicted relationship with that band. 

JV: Yeah. They know he’s a famous jerk, but at least he’s colorful. I’ll give him that. He has some flavor. 

AVC: Yeah, but has he earned the right to be a jerk? Probably not.

JV: Oh yeah, he definitely has not. You’ve got to be Van Morrison to be a jerk, and Van Morrison is a famous asshole, a serious straight-up asshole to people that he works with. Look at, like, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Clearly, Simon has been pretty brutal to Art Garfunkel. But at least he can say, “You know what, it’s Paul Simon, man.” Content is king, right? When you’re just making garbage summer anthems that are fun and light, you’d root for the guy if he was cool. But he’s not. 

And this is a pre-Internet behavior, because post-Internet you just get clowned by people. The Internet will gang up on you if you’re mean. I’ve noticed a change in the behavior of bands that you would not believe. Because of the infinite archival nature of the Internet, we just rarely see bands get out of line. They’re usually the most polite and most respectful art-type creatures that you’re going to run into. They need each other, and forums, comment sections, and writers will just destroy them if they’re not cool to people.

AVC: It’s also a really distorted concept, this idea of what’s a big deal or blogworthy within the music community.

JV: Absolutely. It is amazing because I think of bands as being quite big in really small, littler slivers. Because it’s so fragmented now. I’ll try to talk about this band that I love, and literally no one will be on board with the band. And everybody is just like, “Oh shit, this just exists in my mind.”

AVC: “Would my mom know this band? Would my lawyer know this band?”

JV: Yeah, they’re like, “Oh yeah, Mumford & Sons? Yeah, we know that band.” Okay, there’s one big band in this country, and that’s it.

AVC: Why this Third Eye Blind song specifically? Why didn’t you pick “Jumper,” which is another pretty terrible song?

JV: Well, the thing with “Jumper” is that it’s absolutely atrocious, but “Semi-Charmed Life,” that’s the song that broke whatever social restraint Stephan Jenkins had. That tune pumped up his ego with so much helium and put the band on the map. It was their flag. It also crossed genres in a really irritating way because there’s a little bit of content in it, in that it’s supposedly about crystal meth—in quotations, “crystal meth.” 

“Jumper” clearly is this fluff tune. And even though there’s a hysterical underpinning to most of his songs, “Semi-Charmed Life” had this crossover. There’s a little bit of Fred Durst in there. There’s a little bit of this frat-boy rapping dude that… just grates on me. It brings back that story and that entitlement that I felt with him and also the confidence. Flipping the chair around and, “What are we going to do about the rate?” I don’t really get shivers when I hear “Jumper.” But “Semi-Charmed Life,” it’s their flag. It’s got to be that tune.

AVC: Supposedly “Semi-Charmed Life” was the group’s updated response to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”

JV: Yeah, and that’s even more galling. That’s on the Wiki page for this song. He said that in an interview, and it’s just like, “Dude, don’t go there.” Don’t do that because this is not. I mean, listen to the patience and the sexiness and the danger of “Walk On The Wild Side.” Talk about a drug song. That at least invokes a feeling of murkiness, danger, and unsolvable philosophical problems. If you read the lyrics of “Semi-Charmed Life,” talk about malarkey. This is total garbage. 

AVC: To be fair, most lyrics don’t really read very well.

JV: Yeah, it’s not going to be mostly a rewarding thing. 

There is one line that I’m kind of obsessed with. He says [it] in the first verse. It’s something like, “And I make her smile,” and then the next line is “It’s like a drug for you.” When he kind of rap-sings, “It’s like a drug for you,” he sounds like a really happy nice guy just in this one little snippet. This one little snippet, his voice kind of changes, and he sounds completely out of character, and it’s like the only little charming moment of this tune. 

AVC: The line right before that is “She comes around, and she goes down on me,” and then it’s like, “And I make her smile.” To paraphrase, “She went down on me, and that was great for her.”

JV: But the problem is that he might be—and I’m not sure about this, which is why it may be even a dumber song—crystal meth might be the “she.” So it might not be a girl that is going down on him. But that doesn’t make it less offensive because it’s just dumb to begin with. 

Yes, Stephan Jenkins probably is misogynistic. We probably don’t need to defend Stephan Jenkins. But is he a boorish oaf? Yeah, probably, but in this song, at least he might have a little bit of cover. 

It’s like that Kiss song Jon Wurster talked about. That is really the most vile, most misogynistic garbage that you’ve ever heard. And if it’s not crystal meth, that’s a pretty horrific thing. “She comes ’round, and she goes down on me, and I make her smile.” Yeah, because the world just wants to be on Stephan Jenkins’ cock, right? 

AVC: I’ve never done crystal meth, so I don’t know. Maybe he’s really rapping from an authentic experience.

JV: It’s not that great. I mean it’s an accelerant. It’s like cocaine but without any style. You’re just wired. I’ve done it enough where I’m just—it’s like you have to combine it with other drugs in order to get anything interesting to happen, and that’s not a good baseline experience for drug use when you have to combine it with three other drugs. Because it’s a substance-less drug, it’s perfect for Stephan Jenkins because that’s how he rolls, 100 percent. Clearly his relationship with women is really rich and really nuanced, just like his relationship to drugs.

AVC: Are you worried you’ve burned your Third Eye Blind bridges now?

JV: I’m known for being extremely polite and extremely nice to people, and I’m a very democratic person in my soul. I’m extremely nonhierarchical, but I’m also much more combative than people who don’t know me think because I’ve owned a business for 15 years. When you own a business for 15 years, it’s like you’re a writer. You become pretty tough. You have to be. So I really believe in calling out people on their shit. I’ve definitely clashed with a lot of people who I think are total jerks. And I love it. 

So, yeah, I hope I hear. I hope that Carmer gets his name in there as an asshole because he actually is a really mean person. And Stephan Jenkins has caused a lot of misery in his lifetime. He’s a net negative as a person.

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