Jawbreaker Swallows Deal with Geffen
S.F. punk band insists it hasn't sold out
By Gina Arnold
Most bands with a major-label debut out this week have a lot of little things on their minds.
Will the video get on MTV? Will mainsream radio pick up the single?
Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach has a different kind of problem.
He's just found out that his mother -- a practicing Buddhist who lives on a farm in Nova Scotia -- thinks the lyrics to one song on "Dear You" are sexist.
"My uncle just faxed her a copy of the cover story on us in Pulse," says Schwarzenbach, who is sitting on the steps of Mission Dolores smoking a cigarette while taking a brief break from editing the Mark Kohr-directed video for "Fireman." (Kohr is responsible for Green Day's "Basketcase" and "longview" videos, among others.)
"And she called me this morning and said we have to talk. I thought the words were funny and harmless, but she thought it was sexist. I hope when she hears the whole song she'll think differently."
The line in question is one where Schwarzenbach says he'd prefer a "stead f -- " to a million bucks. Actually, for the past year, Schwarzenbach has been in a position to choose, because Geffen Records signed his 5-year-old trio to a deal reportedly worth nearly that much.
It was a transaction that surprised many longtime Jawbreaker fans. Like their colleagues Green Day, who signed a similar deal with Warner Bros. in 1993, and Rancid, who didn't, Jawbreaker emerged directly from the tight-knit independent underground that congregates at all-ages clubs such as 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley and ABC-No Rio in New York City.
It's a scene that puts independence from corporate entities at a premium, and the San Francisco-based Jawbreaker has long been one of its most popular -- and most vocally anti-corporate -- acts, thanks to three independently released recordings, "Unfun" (1989, Shredder), "Bivouac" (1991, Tupelo/Communion) and "24-Hour Revenge Therapy" (1993, Tupelo/Communion.)
In 1993, Nirvana took Jawbreaker out as an opener on one leg of its "In Utero" tour as a gesture of punk solidarity. More recently, the band turned down a chance at playing on the second stage of the Lollapalooza tour.
But things change fast in the music industry. The recent success of Green Day and the Offspring has seen major label attitudes toward punk-rock bands improve considerably -- as has Jawbreaker's attitude toward major labels.
Before they signed the deal "I really didn't know that much about (major labels)," Schwarzenbach says. "And I'd seen plenty of bad models. But once we checked it out more . . . it was like, well, we could do another indie record, or we could do this. It wasn't a hungry thing; that's where some bands shoot themselves in the foot and get into bunk deals.
"We didn't just jump into the Geffen deal, like, "This is our shot, let's go for it!' We got a good deal because we didn't need it. But it was a really big thing for us, we agonized over it, and we all got really paranoid after we did it."
So paranoid that at a gig at the Great American Music Hall right after signing the deal, Schwarzenbach wore a shirt emblazoned with "zero cred."
Degree of Trust
"But most people have been pretty supportive," he adds. "I think people are waiting. At least they extended us that much credit. Even if they didn't like the idea, I think there was some degree of trust (among our fans) that we've always been pretty thoughtful about what we do."
Nevertheless, some of those fans are bound to be disappointed by "Dear You." Produced by Rob Cavallo, who did Green Day's smash "Dookie," the album exchanges the raw and vicious sonics of previous discs for a smoother, richer and more radio-friendly sound -- a sound some people have characterized as sounding much like the Smiths. These are all things that could be interpreted by former fans as "sell-out" movies.
But Schwarzenbach vehemently denies that this was his intention. "Part of it is just that this record took a longer time to tmake -- six weeks -- and our other records took three days, literally. Also, I wrote this one differently, in a akey I could sing and not have to yell this time. As for our sound, we'd already changed it before we signed. These songs just sound like that.
"But I do worry that people will go, 'Look what happened, they sign to Geffen and change their sound,' " he adds. "I've gotten a lot of letters to that effect, like, "Rumors say that they made you do this,' or, 'on the Internet it says they made you remix it,' and it's just not at all true. In the studio, we were basically unsupervised."
Jawbreaker formed at New York University in the late '80s, when Schwarzenbach and his high school buddy Adam Pfahler, also a student at NYU, answered an ad they saw in the dorms placed by soon-to-be bassist Chris Bauermeister. The trio rented a rehearsal space in a building where all the New York hard-core bands rehearsed.
"We were like total Cali wusses amonst the burliest Lower East Side guys," recalls Schwarzenbach fondly.
Jawbreaker's first gig was a rock opera that Adam's sister was performing. "It was a total East Side art vibe and we were playing punk instrumentals," recalls Schwarzenbach, laughing. "It was so wrong, but it ended up being a blast."
For a long while school was a bigger priority for Jawbreaker's members, all of whom eventually earned their degrees.
"It was like, band-schmand," shrugs Schwarzenbach.
But in 1989, Jawbreaker's members took a year off from school to concentrate on the band. After releasing "Unfun" on Berkeley's Shredder Records, Schwarzenbach booked a two-month tour of the United States with the help of his father's phone card.
"My dad has given it to me just to call him for emergencies," recalls Schwarzenbach, "and I booked half the tour on it. Boy, did I get busted when the tour was over! But, you know, everything's an emergency when you're on tour."
Schwarzenbach recalls booking that tour by calling up all his favorite clubs and getting the response, "As if!" from puzzled club owners, but since that time, Jawbreaker's underground following has grown considerably. In 1991, the band relocated to San Francisco; by 1992, they were selling out clubs in Berkeley, Seattle and Los Angeles. Each record has sold nearly 20,000 copies with no press or radio play; and they have toured the United States three times and Europe twice.
It all sounds so easy. "But I'm leaving out all the heinous drama that's gone on," Schwarzenbach admits. "We periodically break up after each tour, just for like a week. And there's been plenty of hospitalization, surgery and broken vans. I had to have emergency throat surgery when we were on tour in Europe. That was pretty spooky.
"And when we were coming back from touring with Nirvana that last November, we hit black ice in Wyoming on Highway 80 going about 80 miles an hour, and we did a 360 down the interstate, sliding backwards facing a semi coming at us in a blizzard."
Such troubles are pretty much over, and "Dear You" looks as if it will follow other local bands' albums up the charts. Preorders for the record are going well, and KITS has been getting many requests both for "Indictment," a song off "24-Hour Revenge Therapy" (which, ironically, is about not selling out), and for "Fireman," the brand-new single.
Right now, however, Jawbreaker's biggest worry -- besides Schwarzenbach's mom's reaction -- is that former fans will turn on them as they become better known.
"I really don't want to lose the people who always really got us because they feel estranged by new people showing up at gigs," says Schwarzenbach. "I know that inevitable, but there is this core of fans that I really value, who are, like 15, and they write letters that show they intuitively really get my songs about desperation, empty bottles, ashtrays. I'm always surprised to get that, that I'm connecting that way, and I just hope that continues."