I love that Jawbreaker is this band that gets unearthed periodically. I love that people every so often freak out and get it—and that they do so on their own terms.
- Blake Schwarzenbach
Jawbreaker were one of the best and most influential punk bands of the 1990s. Their years of existence were roughly the same as Nirvana’s, stretching from the late ’80s to the mid-’90s (and in fact, Jawbreaker opened for Nirvana in October of 1993). The bands were similar in more ways than one: they both crafted a unique sound from a mélange of different influences, they both had an enormous impact on their contemporaries (the shockwaves Jawbreaker left in the punk underground being nearly as significant as the influence of Nirvana on the mainstream, if less dramatic), and they both suffered a tortured relationship with complex notions of DIY punk authenticity. And like Nirvana, the focal point of Jawbreaker inevitably became the band’s charismatic frontman and mouthpiece, Blake Schwarzenbach.
Schwarzenbach’s lyrics frequently read like documents of psychic warfare written in a cryptic and elaborate personal code—and in this too, he is somewhat similar to Kurt Cobain. But as a poet, he stands head and shoulders above Cobain and virtually all of his contemporaries. Although English major Schwarzenbach has a deeply literate aesthetic, his words are often clipped and spare, yet still deeply evocative and affecting. They range from the celebrated gut-level realism of “Kiss the Bottle” to the abstract, mysterious agony chronicled in “Bivouac.” The alcohol-soaked regret often suggested in Schwarzenbach’s writing has earned him comparisons to Charles Bukowski, but many of his songs also take the form of brief narratives that recall the everyday trials of Raymond Carver (“Chesterfield King” being maybe the best example). Schwarzenbach once explained his lyrics by saying, "They are little stories that I create to appease my frustration with not writing fiction in a traditional sense."
The band’s sound, like many bands of the time period, has roots in the American hardcore scene of the 1980s, and bands like Hüsker Dü, the Descendents, the Replacements, Embrace, and Rites of Spring provide clear reference points (with a few that are less obvious, such as Government Issue’s You LP). Jawbreaker’s style also bears the influence of the college rock of the ‘80s, especially the personal mythology of R.E.M. and the smoky, sensual detachment of the Psychedelic Furs (both of whom were covered by Jawbreaker). Their sound straddles two of the era’s influential punk currents: one is the Bay Area pop punk sound of bands like J Church, Crimpshrine, and Samiam (and the latter two both released splits with Jawbreaker); the other is the guitar-driven, cathartic style of what was then called emo. A far cry from the word’s connotations today, at the time emo signified bands like Native Nod or Indian Summer, who crafted deeply personal, almost painfully intense music around glimmering guitar arabesques.
We've Got a New Dream
An early incarnation of Jawbreaker (playing under the name Rise) first coalesced in the mid-’80s, featuring Schwarzenbach, drummer Adam Pfahler, bass player Chris Bauermeister, and singer Jon Liu. The band was a cross-country affair, with Liu (the Pete Best of Jawbreaker) attending school at UCLA and Schwarzenbach, Pfahler, and Bauermeister across the country at NYU. In 1988, Liu left the band and the remaining three musicians changed the name to Jawbreaker, making their debut on the compilation The World’s in Shreds Vol. 2 with the song “Shield Your Eyes.” In 1989, they recorded their first EP, entitled Whack and Blite. The three song 7” suggests the heavy influence of ’80s hardcore. Most noteworthy is “Eye-5”, one of the strangest songs in the Jawbreaker canon: it seems to depict a man stuck in a traffic jam who goes on a killing spree at the urging of “angels.” The lyric sheet ends with the words “Repeat chorus / Get mental.”
Later that same year the band released one of its signature records, the Busy EP. The title track marked a quantum leap in craft: complex, instantly memorable, and impassioned, “Busy” remains a fan favorite. The B-side, “Equalized”, takes off from’80s hardcore but augments the style with a ridiculously catchy chorus featuring a baritone backing vocal almost reminiscent of Ian Curtis.
1990 saw the release of Jawbreaker’s debut LP, Unfun. The album falls into the style developed on the first two EPs, with a kind of hardcore-infused pop punk sensibility. The album’s songs, which are often bright and catchy, are tempered with a heavy amount of lyrical darkness, and many of the songs on Unfun offer a sort of uncomfortable intimacy. The album also provides an early indication of one of Jawbreaker’s great skills that is rarely commented on: their incorporation of samples and sound clips into their songs. In the 1990s, many hardcore bands took to using film samples as intros and outros, but Jawbreaker instead usually integrated them into the music itself for atmospheric effect. One of the best examples of this comes on “Incomplete” when the bridge uses a quote from Lloyd C. Douglas, where a student asks his music teacher “what’s the good news?” and the teacher responds by tapping his tuning fork and saying “that’s middle C. It was middle C yesterday; it will be middle C tomorrow; it will be middle C a thousand years from now.” This passage could be read as an indication of Jawbreaker’s persistence in the face of criticism, since the lyric on “Incomplete” blasts those who would write the band off for not being hardcore enough.
In June, the “Fuck ’90” struck out across the U.S.A., with Jawbreaker accompanied by Bay Area pals Samiam, Fuel (not to be confused with the later mainstream rock band of the same name), and Econochrist (who were actually transplants from Arkansas). After the tour the band took a brief hiatus so that the members could finish their undergraduate degrees.
You Can't Dance to Pain
Jawbreaker released their second LP, Bivouac, in 1992 (it was preceded by a five song 12” entitled Chesterfield King; the CD release of Bivouac combines the two records and includes several other songs from the same recording session). The new material was more complex and poignant than ever: “Chesterfield King” sounded like the purest pop the band had yet written, an immensely infectious chronicle of nervous, adolescent romance. It’s one of Schwarzenbach’s absolute best story-songs, ending with the narrator giving his beloved one of the eponymous cigarettes and telling her with phony bravado, “All my chicks, they smoke these things.” The Chesterfield King 12” also featured “Tour Song”, which is still one of the best in-song representations of life in a cramped van as a DIY punk band. The song provides a litany of disappointments (low turnout, no money, technical difficulties, local hostility) but illustrates how in the end, it’s worth it nonetheless. Also notable was the band's heavily altered rendition of "Pack It Up" by the Pretenders, with the lyrics changed to reflect a jaded fan telling the band not to play a litany of their most beloved songs. (The chorus ends with the line "Equalized is overrated.")
But the Bivouac LP was in many ways even more striking than the earlier 12”; their second album was the closest Jawbreaker ever came to the classic emo sound. It opens with a more fully realized version of “Shield Your Eyes”, sounding more ragged and cathartic than ever. The record also has a few of the band’s darkest songs, like the eerie “Face Down” and the downright vicious “Parabola”, which features an outro with Schwarzenbach nervously mumbling “I know who I am” as if trying to convince himself as much as the listener. But the real highlight of the record and one of the most striking songs in the Jawbreaker catalog is the title track, which was Jawbreaker’s take on the classic emo set piece: a song that gradually gains momentum, usually shifting between soft and loud parts, culminating in an apocalyptic emotional crescendo. “Bivouac” has one of Schwarzenbach’s most spare and haunted lyrics, with the chorus consisting of just seven unadorned, agonized words: “Mother / Father / I’m lonely / I’m an only.” The song climaxes with a strange clip from a nature documentary about ants leading into Schwarzenbach’s scream of “Bivouac!” as the music becomes increasingly pounding and dissonant.
In August of 1992, Jawbreaker recorded a song for a compilation called 17 Reasons: The Mission District. In a 3x7” format, the compilation perhaps unsurprisingly provided six bands from San Francisco’s Mission District singing songs about living there. The compilation features what is arguably the definitive Jawbreaker song: “Kiss the Bottle.” Over gorgeously raw, cascading guitar chords, Schwarzenbach spins the story of two drunken Bay Area lovers’ tortured relationship with laser beam precision and knockout realism. The howled chorus—“I kissed the bottle / I should’ve been kissing you / You wake up to an empty night / With tears for two”—was summed up by Andy Greenwald in his emo study Nothing Feels Good as “a wide-screen epic of failure, romance, and failed romance.” The immediacy and mournful weight of the song is heightened by the fact that it was the last Jawbreaker song recorded before Schwarzenbach underwent surgery to have throat polyps removed, and as a result his voice sounds almost unbearably raw. Listening to “Kiss the Bottle”, it’s hard to avoid a feeling of serendipity: it feels like only a very precise mix of sentiment and context could coalesce to produce such a miniature masterpiece. The song, as much as anything I’ve ever heard, perfectly captures a moment in time.
Tear the Roof Off Your Day
And it’s that theme that would dominate the band’s next album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. Released in 1994, the album was recorded (save for three songs: “The Boat Dreams From the Hill”, “Boxcar”, and “Condition Oakland”) by famed “engineer” Steve Albini. The album also marked something of a detour from the territory mapped out on Bivouac: the songs on the new LP were generally more upbeat, had sharper hooks, and were more grounded in the concrete, as opposed to the abstract, murky atmosphere that characterized the last record. To put it simply, the new songs were a lot closer to “Kiss the Bottle.” Many of the album’s songs had some kind of narrative thrust (“Outpatient” chronicles Schwarzenbach’s throat surgery), and many of them either directly reference or evoke the band's Bay Area home, a la "Kiss the Bottle." As a result (and to further the Raymond Carver comparison), 24 Hour Revenge Therapy plays almost like a suite of short stories about life in San Francisco. The LP displayed a high level of focus and a songsmith’s touch that went far beyond the band’s previous material, and as a result 24 Hour Revenge Therapy remains arguably the most favored Jawbreaker album for the majority of their fanbase.
Two songs from the recording session were cut from the final album: "First Step" and "Friends Back East." It's not hard to imagine "First Step" fitting into the record, but the specificity of "Friends Back East" does set it apart somewhat: it seems very much like a song about going away to college. It's also customarily aching, opening with the lines, "Welcome to your new home / Here's your bed, you'll sleep alone." It perfectly evokes the common undergraduate feeling that you're wasting your life in a directionless abyss, ending with the lines "My life's a running joke / What am I? What am I running from?"
Changes Make the World a Stranger
As Jawbreaker’s popularity grew, tensions regarding the always-tenuous nature of punk authenticity began to appear—tensions that had been exacerbated after the afore-mentioned series of shows opening for Nirvana in late 1993. Schwarzenbach (who was an outspoken proponent of hardcore’s DIY ethic and, like Steve Albini, a vocal enemy of punk bands signing to major labels) often found himself defending the band from accusations of selling out. Two songs on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (“Indictment” and “Boxcar”) are, like “Incomplete”, ripostes to the band’s then-growing chorus of critics. “Indictment” (abridged from the earlier title of “Scathing Indictment of the Pop Industry”) is a bitterly sarcastic imagining of the band blowing up into crossover success amidst the angry denunciations that would surely follow from the punk community, with Schwarzenbach asking “I’d like to know what’s so wrong with a stupid happy song” and closing the song by singing “If you think we changed our tune, I hope we did.”
“Boxcar”, which became one of the band’s most beloved and popular songs, is as scathing a kiss-off to the punk community as I’ve ever heard. The opening lines set the tone: “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone / Save your breath, I never was one.” (In the liner notes to the B-sides release Etc., zinester Aaron Cometbus would dispute Schwarzenbach’s claim of never being punk.) The title refers to a girl who Schwarzenbach finds more rewarding than his involvement in such a fickle community, as he sings, "I like her mind, she hates the scene." Following the release of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Jawbreaker recorded a couple more songs ("Housesitter" and "Sea Foam Green") which turned up on compilations. One of them, “Sea Foam Green”, became a fan favorite and also foreshadowed the direction the band would take on the next album. In the song, Schwarzenbach seemed to depict an ephedrine-addled cross-country drive, with his thoughts stubbornly returning to a lost love: "Now I need a guillotine / To get you off my mind."
All of the worst fears of the punk rumor mill were confirmed when it was announced near the end of the year that the band had signed with Geffen Records. Schwarzenbach justified the choice by saying that the band was facing an imminent break-up unless they moved into “new musical landscapes”—and although this might sound trite to some, the band's major label debut would bear his words out. The band demanded and apparently received total creative control (even over advertising copy, according to Schwarzenbach), and Dear You came out in September of 1995.
Survival Never Goes Out of Style
Upon release, the album was greeted with a wave of predictable condemnation from many in the punk community. And to be fair, the album did sound different: it had by far the slickest production the band had ever known, and Blake’s vocals were even more smooth than on the post-surgery 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. “Fireman” saw some success as a single, but in general the sound of the album was actually less poppy than the previous record—many of the songs recalled the downcast tone of Bivouac more than anything else. Jawbreaker delivered two of their best sad, slow songs with “Accident Prone” and “Jet Black”, but even the upbeat songs are bleak. In an Alternative Press article years later, Schwarzenbach would describe the recording of Dear You:
It seemed to me to be always late at night. I was indoors during the daytime, and I’d get out of there around midnight. It was recorded in Berkeley, so then I’d drive home to San Francisco and have to go out for a little while. It was totally insane to me that I'd be working on the record during the day, a lot of the time alone, then hanging out alone in a bar at night. It was very alienating.
The atmosphere Schwarzenbach describes comes through on record: Dear You sounds like late nights, loneliness, and depression. But it’s also more diverse than the single-minded 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, featuring everything from a fairly successful stab at an epoch-defining anthem (“Save Your Generation”) to one of the most painfully true punk songs about high school I’ve ever heard (“Chemistry”), and, in the exception to the rule, one of the band’s most defiantly upbeat and poppy songs, “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault.” The latter was, like the much drearier "West Bay Invitational", yet another narrative of a house party colored with painstaking detail (e.g. Schwarzenbach’s embarrassment at knowing every drumroll in a Led Zeppelin song playing in the background), and the song and the story both end abruptly, with the arrival of the police. "Accident Prone" exemplifies the new Jawbreaker sound: it's slow, brokenhearted, and epic, with the most destructive guitar sounds the band had yet recorded. "Million" has one of Schwarzenbach's most bitingly true lyrics about post-breakup malaise (and also possibly a sarcastic aside about moving to a major label): "They offered me a million bucks / All I want's a steady fuck." The final song, “Unlisted Track”, is a cheerful but ominous acoustic tune that features the classic line “Everybody tells me that they’re crazy / Well crazy people aren’t so fucking boring”, which is apparently a reference to Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong (Schwarzenbach, a former detractor of Green Day’s mainstream ambition, perhaps unsurprisingly came to appreciate them later).
Some of the best songs from the Dear You sessions were cut from the final record; there are enough for half of a second album. The most obvious example is the incredible “Sister”, which is Schwarzenbach’s absolutely priceless and endearing account of taking his little sister on tour. It’s easily one of the band's greatest songs, and features some terrific lyrics: “She thinks it’s stupid / That we get paid to jump around / It’s what I live for / I swear I’ll never touch the ground.” Almost equally impressive was “Friendly Fire”, another song that mixed melodic hooks with leaden guitar dirge and would’ve fit right in on Dear You. (Schwarzenbach later admitted he would’ve rather included “Sister” and cut the out-of-place “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault”). Another gem, and one which went unheard until the 2004 reissue of Dear You (being left off the B-sides collection Etc., leaving fans like myself to decide whether to buy a record full of songs they already owned for one that they didn't), was "Shirt." The song plays like a seemingly straight-forward pop song with a lot of minor key bite, in the classic Jawbreaker tradition—and it has some of Schwarzenbach's finest lyrics ever: lovesick, gender-confusing, and witty. Consider the cute-yet-razor-sharp chorus: "I want to be your shirt / So I can hug you while you work / I want to be your wife / So you can beat me every night." The band also made the dubious decision of re-recording “Boxcar”, arguably their most popular song at the time, but it too was cut from the final version (ironically enough, the re-recording is even better than the version on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy).
We're Breaking Up Every Single Night
Dear You was a great record, but what Schwarzenbach aptly called “an album about falling apart” effectively killed the band. The backlash was truly considerable: as Geffen A&R rep Mark Kates recalled, “You actually had people paying for tickets for shows, showing up at the shows and booing when they played songs from the new record.” Shortly after the record was released, the band broke up. Tensions had been running extremely high, culminating in a fistfight between Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister. The members parted ways in 1996. One of the last songs the band wrote was tenatively called "Elephant" for lack of a proper title, and its final refrain says it all: "Say good night / The night is over / Say goodbye / Goodbye forever."
As years went by, Dear You languished in used record bins in San Francisco before Geffen ultimately allowed it to go out of print. The members moved on, with Schwarzenbach starting a new band called Jets to Brazil. But as the fin de siècle neared, an interesting thing happened: Jawbreaker, who’d never been especially unsung or ignored until they attempted to reach the mainstream, found an entirely new audience. Thanks to a number of factors (number one probably being the internet, although I would argue that the Ataris recording a cover of “Boxcar” was a key development), kids who were too young to catch Jawbreaker when they were together discovered the records and made them their own, finding a little bit of themselves in songs like “Chesterfield King” and “Do You Still Hate Me?” (which was recently covered by rising pop punk/hardcore band Set Your Goals). As if to close a circle, in 2004 Blackball Records (run by Adam Pfahler) released a reissue of Dear You, with all the cut songs from the recording session intact. On the Blackball website, Pfahler has even suggested the possibility of a Jawbreaker documentary film in the future. In 2006, Jawbreaker seems more vital and significant than ever.
zachjb's characterization of the band is dead-on: Jawbreaker is the kind of band that will change your life. They definitely changed mine.
http://www.loosecharm.org/ - The Complete Jawbreaker Page. An excellent resource, which provided a good deal of the information in this writeup.
http://www.blackballrecords.com - Blackball Records, Adam Pfahler's label that's mostly dedicated to keeping Jawbreaker material in print.
http://www.cmykyle.com/clips.php?id=27 - A transcript of the Alternative Press article about Dear You.