You think it's hellion, turning money into Rebellion?
Last winter, Blake Schwarzenbach's e-mail was full of hateful messages from former fans and it was beginning to wear on him. You might have thought they'd be happy for Blake; but in the fiercely punk community of San Francisco and its suburban satellites Berkeley and' Oakland known as the "East Bay," Jawbreaker had sold out to the hated corporate enemy.
The politically correct punks did have a point. For over a decade-and half the major labels had ignored them, only turning to the underground when the mainstream ran out of marketable ideas. And the results were often miserable -for every Green Day you had a score of bands whose, edge had been blunted by overproduction and "clever" marketing ideas. Blake knew all this. He had always been in the forefront of the movement whose central tenet was "indie rules!" Over numerous occasions he'd proclaimed from the stage by way of introducing his fiercely disaffected pop that Jawbreaker would never sign to a major. They even had a song on the subject. "Indictment," which included the lines, "Moving units and tracking charts. Will they ever learn'? It isn't who you know, it's who you burn." Years earlier, controversies surrounding the proper way to make a living off music was the farthest thing from his mind. A literate sort of lad, he always figured that he would end up a teacher or a writer, but influenced by the early SST bands like Black Flag, Husker Du, and the Descendants, he was driven to make some noise in the garage.
"My best friend was a drummer," he explains. "We wanted to play these burnt rock jams. Later on I moved on to guitar so I could exploit my other friends and play leads over their bass lines." They actually even got good enough to start playing parties before heading off to college at NYU in the late '80s.
After moving to New York City, Blake and his best friend, Adam Pfahler, teamed up with bassist Chris Bauermeister and began playing local shows under the name of Ride. After several line-up changes, they decided to make a go of it as a trio with Blake fronting the band.
Then they changed their moniker to Jawbreaker, which seemed like a strange choice for a literate bunch of popsters, but one which Blake defends by saying, "Sure, it's an unlikely name, but so is our music. Besides, when we looked at the list we'd made of potential names, nobody remembered writing that name down, so we could all agree on it.
Describing their music as unlikely might surprise punk's newer fans, now that scrappy pop songs are the first order of the day. But back in 1990 when Jawbreaker's first full-length Unfun (Shredder) appeared, the scene had barely emerged from the primitive excesses of hardcore. While most bands were still in the initial throes of relearning the craft of writing songs with hooks and intelligible lyrics, Jawbreaker were pioneering the style that has today been subsumed by that oxymoronic genre called pop-punk. Always the perfectionist, Blake tends to discount his initial effort as no cohesive enough." The album did garner the band an expanded fan base, however, so some further reflection he allows that despite Unfun's flaws, "intelligent pop songs, if they are played with a lot of guitar, are always good."
He is equally critical of the band's second effort, Bivouoc (Communion), released in 1992. He describes it as a "scattered multi-personality travesty," and believes that the songs still suffer from the aftereffects of the same problem that plagued Unfun: the fact that after a year in New York, Adam had returned to California, which forced the band to limit their time far practice and touring to summers and school holidays. By the time Bivouac was recorded, they had all graduated and returned to the West Coast, and the album shows Jawbreaker progressing with tunes that crackle with alienation and burning chunks of aggressive guitar. It also marked Blake's increasing ability to evoke the mood of an exact time and place in his lyrics. The dark romance of "Chesterfield King" and the frustrated fun of fun af "Tour Song" evidence a range and power in the use of language not commonly found in most pop tunes.
Blake tries to minimize his talent by saying, "They are little stories that I create to appease my frustration with not writing fiction in a traditional sense."
The release of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. (Communion) in 1994, documents a band which had grown considerably in the past two years. Becoming a fixture on the punk-rock circuit, by the time they got to Steve Albini's studio to record, Adam explains, "We'd been playing a lot of those or a long time." Blake also seems more comfortable with the album, which he describes as "Our response to contending with the punk scene and becoming young adults." Relating to a larger audience also helped make his lyrics more direct, as they lost the literary obscurantism that marred his previous work.
Blake calls their recent offering, Dear You (DGC), Jawbreaker's "Death Album," but it's clearly tainted by his own frustrated love life as much as the untimely demise of close friends. He laughs in agreement, explaining, It's my problem that I can't differentiate between the two. I've been single for a long time and your writing tend to go into those open areas. Rage and disappointment, those are the type of love songs I want to hear. I spend a lot of time alone and don't hang out with a lot of people. I write music to score my own life." But it would be a mistake to see Dear You as merely the personal musings of a lonely and grieving man, because it's on this album that Blake has finally found the "cohesion" he's always been searching far, and ironically this means addressing his songs to a large audience.
"We didn't go in the studio with the thought, "We got to hit them hard," Adam points out. And Blake also denies that it was a conscious process, saying, "I can't think it through that far or it will fuck up my writing. 'My blind-faith assumption is that if there is quality, people will pick up on it and somehow that becomes mass market:" But the fact remains that Blake has written several conventionally defined pop masterpieces. as "Basilica," "Jet Black," and "Accident Prone" offer a sound slap in the face of punk convention because the refinement that the underground traditionally abhors is the very element that hermetically seals these songs' emotional charge and gives them their agonizing edge.
Blake is not unconcerned about how old fans will react. He admits, "I am afraid that people will think it's too drastic a change. For instance, I'm singing where l used to scream and people say: "Wow, what's up with yaur voice?" feel compelled to tell people that the voice was not treated or anything but that I wrote these songs in keys where I could sing them more and could exert more control.
The big question of course for many farmer fans is that along with a more populist approach to music comes the betrayal of his punk ideals. Looking at the progression of Blake's writing, one can't doubt that the same songs would have appeared on Dear You if it had been released on indie label, but then what they would have sounded like is anybody's guess. After all, their last album cost them $3,000 and took three days to record and this one cost more than $75,000 and took months. As for how he can justify signing to a major, Blake bluntly admits, "lt's completely indefensible. I say I just changed my mind. Most bands try to claim it's so me kind of distribution issue and I get tired of hearing that from everybody that signs. We did it for the excitement as well. To me being in a band is a kind of adventure and it was a pretty exciting proposition when we realized we could do it the way we wanted to."
Blake argues that for Jawbreaker the bottom line was "total creative control. The label even checks with us before advertising copy goes out." The band are also free to do side projects and singles on indie labels. He feels that the success of indie labels has forced the majors to deal more equitably with bands, and though he doesn't think that Jawbreaker were a special case, he does allow that DGC "really wanted them."
In the end, Blake says that the decision to break ranks and sign really comes down to the music itself: "I really liked these songs and wanted to see what would happen if they went out on a larger level and what the response would be. Are they too weird, too skewed or too smart? I guess we'll just have to see."