Jawbreaker unique sound continues to blow listeners away
It's really easy to get down on the music industry; it seems like so many bands are just going through the motions. Originality is at a premium these days, as it seems there are three bands that sell and everyone else is just following along. That's why it's so nice when you hear a band that you can respect for doing its own thing. Jawbreaker is a band that can floor you upon your first listen.
What began pretty much as a hobby around 1990 among three friends, guitarist and vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler, became cemented as a band after Jawbreaker's first live gig. "The first time we came up to Berkeley and played Gilman (the East Bay punk mecca), it was like pretty official," Schwartzenbach recalled in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily. "It became more formal when we moved here (San Francisco) after school and started writing songs which ended up being `Bivouac'."
Jawbreaker's influences are varied, which accounts for the variations in their style, although as Schwartzenbach described it, "Adam and I went to high school in L.A. ... during the SST renaissance, so we used to always see the Minutemen and Black Flag." Schwartzenbach recalled a concert that changed his life: "Sonic Youth was like a really big deal when I saw them ... really surreal gig, and I hated it -- the whole show I thought like, `What is this crap?!' And when they were done, I felt totally high ... it was the best show I ever hated."
Jawbreaker's debut, "Unfun," was released in 1991 on Shredder Records. It differs from other Jawbreaker discs in that it's basically a three-chord, plug'n'chug punk album. Jawbreaker refuses to play these songs live anymore, feeling they are unrepresentative of what the band is capable of now.
1992 saw the release of "Bivouac," which took Jawbreaker in a whole new direction with chunky, loud, punk songs mixed with slower-tempo masterpieces like the 10-minute long title track. "When (`Bivouac') came out, no one knew really what to do with it," Schwartzenbach said. "It's pretty heavy. I like it 'cause it's so fucked up. It's kind of a mess."
While touring after the release of "Bivouac," Schwartzenbach was taken to receive emergency throat surgery to remove a callous on his vocal chords. Jawbreaker decided to continue with the tour the next day, although Schwartzenbach was a little more careful. When asked how the surgery affected him mentally, Schwartzenbach replied, "It's something I look out for and I may be a little more reluctant to scream now, but it's kind of broken back into its normal, you know -- now I'm just going off; I don't really care. For a while, I was really freaked out, because it can be chronic."
In the summer of 1993, Jawbreaker called on recorder-extraordinaire Steve Albini to record their new album, "24 Hour Revenge Therapy." The disc only took three days to record, as it was recorded relatively live, in Albini's house. The album explored a poppier side of the band, while still keeping the fuzzy wall of guitar, strained vocals and hard edge that "Bivouac" possessed. The disc includes a song, "Outpatient," which documents Schwartzenbach's emergency surgery.
After nonstop touring, Jawbreaker decided to shop around for another label, because the ultra-indie Tupelo Records was just not doing the trick anymore. After shopping around, Jawbreaker finally decided on signing with Geffen Records, a huge, major label, something that Schwarzenbach claimed he would never do in a million years. "I was very much against it," Schwarzenbach recalled. "I think ... looking at it closer ... and seeing that we could do it kind of any way we wanted, the contractual parameters were a lot more elastic ..."
Instantly, Jawbreaker was seen as some kind of sellout by a lot of its hard-core fans. Schwarzenbach sees why they were angry, but disagrees with the sellout label. "I think (the fans) are kind of right in one regard -- there is some kind of association with a larger corporate entity ... there's really no hiding that fact," he said. "But that record (`Dear You') was going to come out regardless ... it might sound more polished ... but it's still a weird record."
"Dear You" was released in late 1995, breaking Jawbreaker's mold again. The album actually took weeks to record, and was done without haste, something new to the band. Schwarzenbach toned down his trademark smoker's yelp vocals for a more relaxed approach. "Singing to me is really awkward," Schwarzenbach laughed. "I tried to finesse it a lot. You know, to just try and really sing for the first time."
When asked about "Dear You," Schwarzenbach replied, "It's pretty much a document of a year and a half. It was a pretty strange experience -- it was really nervy. I felt a lot of weird pressure I didn't anticipate. It was kinda like a dark period ... I did a lot of writing alone." What resulted was a masterpiece of 13 tales of melancholy, sympathetic punk rock with music and incredible lyrics which blow you away more each and every time you listen to the disc. It is definitely the deepest, yet most accessible Jawbreaker album, although somehow they haven't compromised their style at all.
After their headlining tour, which seems to be lasting forever, Jawbreaker will join the Foo Fighters on the road. This tour is sure to gain them some good exposure, and their incredible live performances should gain them some respect. During the tour, Jawbreaker has been trying out some new material which could become the next record, but it's too soon to tell.
"We've never operated with any constraints, sometimes to our detriment," Schwarzenbach said. "That's why the band kinda keeps going, because every album is different." That's what makes Jawbreaker such a good band: the ability to change and constantly reinvent themselves with a fresh, new sound every album. If every band were as lucky.