Jawbreaking with Blake Schwarzenbach
By Nonogirl and Squeaky
Over the past seven years, Jawbreaker's combination of
soul-wrenching diary-entry lyrics and driving emo-pop clenched a special
place in many a young punk's heart. Credited as a band with integrity,
both critical of their listeners and indicting the record industry, their
Geffen release in 1995 took many by suprise: both their signing to a
major and fot Blake's toned down vocals and slick recording. But
Jawbreaker continues to be a band that acts independently, and hey! there
are gems in the release like "Million" and crwod hypnotizer "Accident Prone".
The Static crew caught Blake in April (prior to the band's disintegration) at a sold out Warfield show that closed their leg with the Foo Fighters. Blake met us with unflinching posture, piercging eye-contact and direct responses to our questions, yet his cigarette fidgeting revealed his pre-show anxiety. We knew we shouldn't preform the affectionate pranks we had lined up for our new friend. Instead, we left a box full of white-out, pens, glue sticks, candy and Jawbreaker letterhead we created at work and followed Blake into the venue to enjoy the show....
BLAKE- Are you ready for a prank? I'll tell you right now where it started. We were just talking baout this on tour. When I was in seventh grade, I went to a private middle school in Portland, Oregin. I was really into Blondie and AC/DC simultaneously and I made bootlegs, FAKE bootlegs of both those bands and sold them in school. I took a live Steve Martin and made a loop of the appluase after one of his big gags. Using three rape recorders, playing one of the loop of the applause and another playing "Call Me", I actually made a mix of it so it was longer than the original (Call Me) with a roar of applause going on behind it.
NONO GIRL- How much did yous ell them for?
B- I tried to get $10 for the tape with Call Me, Back in Black and two other songs on it. One person bought one and I think I gave the others away.
SQUEAKY- Did he "buy" it?
B- He paid money for it so he "bought" it.
N- You went to Crossroads, right, which is a pretty ritzy school. So did you pull anything there?
B- I stole a bass which is how I started playing guitar. I was in French class and I would sit in the back of the room. I was sorta lame at French. It wasn't really my language. I ended up studying Spanish later on. But I was in French one day and I was leaning back on my chair looking in this closet in the corner and there was a guitar case in there. Rad! I was in tenth grade and went back after class. Inside was this really awesome, old Gibson bass. Super mod, so I took it because no one knew whose it was. I feel kinda bad because it might have been someone cool's bass but it seemed minda forgotten and no one ever said anything about it being missing. So anyway, it was mine and now it's someone else's. It kind of circulated among friends.
N- Did you pull any scams when you were starting off to get gigs?
B- We started playing out in Hollywood where NO ONE can get a show unless you were totally metal. Punk was so dead in L.A. Chris and I made a bunch of fake flyers for our first show where we were playing with all these really awesome hardcore D.C. bands who didn't mean shit to these promoters anyway, but to us they were the big bands. "Marginal Man and Jawbreaker" or "Government Issue and Jawbreaker". All these bands we thought were really cool. We'd enclose them in our little press packet and send them out and say "Can we play here?" Of course, they never gave us the gig. We put those fake flyers on our first 7", hypothetical shows, dream gigs.
S- That sounds fairly common.
B- We had to pay to play the Anti-Club which is a most heinous venue.
S- What does 'pay to play' mean?
B- You buy the tickets in advance from the club and then you have to sell them to your friends or you eat it. If you bring in a lot of people, then you get a show. So we did that twice with them. We'd make our friends come and it was really ugly, like we felt really sleazy about it, or just kinda lame. We did really well on our second show, so the booker there gave us a third show with some bigger punk rock band and sai "this is your big shot. You've gotto bring a lot of people to this show." SO we told eveyone NOT to come. No one came and at the end of the night, she goes "You guys aren't playing here again. You didn't bring anyone!" We were like, "Yeah, that's cool." We figured, FUCK THEM. It was a free show, we hadn't put any money into it, so let's just rook them. And we never played there again.
S- In spite of the romanticization of indies, a lot of people use this opportunity to rip off young bands. Did that happen with Jawbreaker?
B- I wouldn't say it ever happened deliberately, but organization can be really scattered at some indies. There may be some projects that ended up selling a lot of records, comps and things like that, and we talked to bands and everyone felt gypped. Somehow they sold 30,000 copies of this record and everyone got like $100 initially and then that was it. So there were situations like that where you kinda wonder where all the money is going to.
N- How can bands protect themselves from that?
B- I don't know. There's like a code of honor with the indies in a way. You assume that if you're gonna do business with someone liek that, they are pretty genuine. I mean, if you want to draw up a contract, thaat can be really uncomfortable too. If it's a really small casual project, you might be over formalizing it. I don't think that anyone really tried to rip us off, but money just got filtered into other projects and I didn't really lose any sleep over it
S- You once said that it was scentifically proven that as a moderately good punk band, you can make more money staying on an independent label than on a major label [Gilman St. '93]. So we were wondering, because you obviously signed with Geffen, was there an attitude change amongst teh majors that allowed and accommodated more to a punk philosophy?
B- There was me getting to know more about waht we could get in our contract. Things that I didn't think were possible. And basically they agreed to terms that were the same if not better than an indpendent we were dealing with.
S- We read that you got total artistic control.
B- Yeah, I still think that you can probably make more money if you're a mediocre band. I don't know where we're at with our money right now. It remains to be seen. We;ve spent a lot of money but we haven't made that much.
N- So emphasis is placed on how cultre is created from the top-down, with the Man telling us what we like and so little attention is given to culture from the bottom-up. Subcultures force the Man at the top to change and adopt (and co-opt) the trends. But didn't punk rock ethics force major labels to rethink their contracts when punk hit big?
B- Yeah, well we were definitely operating from a really leveraged position. And a really bogus position in a way because there was all this faith in punk rock trios. There was a precedent set by other bands. So every one thought, "Oh yeah, this could be totally mint!" But that's not really the case. There can be only one or two of those bands. So at the point when we were signing, it was like, pretty much anything you want from any of the labels. And a lot of them were really bogus. They didn't know who we were or what we were about. But there was an incredible amount of stuff being offered. Do you know what I mean? They were bending over backwards basically to get their next punk rock band. That's what it felt like. There were young people looking through clubs, looking for something similar to the current big thing.
N- Are they happy with how the album is doing?
B- I think they would like it to be more popular. We're pretty low brow. I don't really want to know how well it's doing at this point. I kinda figure we just made it and then sort of stayed out of it. We tour and that's what I feel our obligation is.
N- Have you taken advantage of this mainstream access (see J Church interview in Static #1)?
B- No, not really. We got a lot of music from labels when we went to look at them. We were pretty aggressive about that in terms of box sets and collections. The Beatles box set. I have a lot of friends who are really into that and always getting dialers and doing that stuff but I'm not really into talking on the phone so that stuff doesn't appeal to me. And the place that I would snake would be Geffen, and I have a good relationship with them. So, I don't really feel the need to 'work' them.
N- What is your philosophy on scamming? When do you think it's okay?
B- Well, I think if you don't respect them, maybe. I don't know. I'm pretty timid about that kind of stuff. I believe in a lot of K\karmic things and I'm really afraid of hexing myself in a way, so I'm hesitant to steal. We used to shoplift a lot. We had a tour where we just went crazy and I ended up getting busted in New York. That was really the end of the line for me. I started getting a little more into this notion of karmic retribution.
N- I saw a show, I think it was the Noise Pop Festival, where Fluf or Chinchilla jumped on stage spraying silly string all over you guys when you played "Chesterfield King" and another time when the opening band pantsed you on stage. Is there a lot of this foolery happening on tour?
B- That was a pretty good one. Chinchilla pranked us a few times. They would come and dance on Boxcar. Not really a prank, but they would go off. I don't think we've been pranked too severely. No one fucks with us. We're kinda surly. I'm scared to preform usually, I'm barely keeping it together with my things anyway, so if someone's messed up my stuff, or played a prank on me, I think I'd lose it.
ROADIE- Cancel all your pranks you had planned [directed at us]
B- Don't prank me!
S- Oh, of course not. [Mental note not to ask him about East/West coast rap war]
N- Do you hate the 'Unfun' songs?
B- I don't hate them all. I just don't really want to play them. We haven't practiced them. There's just too much material at this point.
N- It just seemed like "Pack It Up" was sorta a prank on the audience.
B- Yeah, that was sorta of a casual reference to that because at that point we had been over those songs for so long. I know it's not fair because people may just get the record and go, "Oh, I like this osng," but well, that's tough. I mean we definitely play for oursleves when we do a set and people just have to either get with it..or not.
S- How do you plan a set list?
B- Tonight, we are doing "Accident Prone", but we mostly pick the fast stuff. It's hard on a epic if you fuck up. Liek if it starts going bad, the time goes so slow like if your in front of 2,000 kids who aren't really there to see you. It's ugly. I felt trapped in my own song feeling like, ugh we're never going to get there. It's pretty grisly.
S- What's it like to be up on stage and you know that everyone is looking at you with all this adrenaline running?
B- Sometimes we can turn inward. I know bands that do that. Some bands are genius that just never get a response, that are too quiet or staid where what they are doing is almost a record or soemthing really musical. Like..well, I won't name names, but there are bands that I think are totally amazing and you watch and they don't deal with the crowd. Theya re just their own unit. And I enjoy some shows like that; I think it's really cool. You're not dependent on your crowd. It's like "We respect our selves and we are this thing and this is what we do."
N- I've heard you be kinda adversarial, almost arrogant to the audience. You were gonna give out a t-shirt to who guessed what annoys you most at shows. When the kids started yelling things out, you responded "You're ALL right!" Are you playing with the audience or do you at times get annoyed?
B- I mean to have fun and keep things kinda informal sometimes. There are points where I will go off and try to create something because flat songs seem kinda dull if it's not happening. Sometimes I thrive on that kind of adversity. We have had some really hostile crowds and sometimes it's just horrible because we sit there, play, and take a beating basically, and get out of there. But in a more resilient state, we try to turn it around adn try to fuck with people, or just try to have fun with them.
N- You're known as a San Francisco Mission District band. It was once a predominantly Latino community but cetain areas are now full of hipsters. Some folks say that these Gen Xers are raising the rent so that the people who once lived here can no longer afford it. How do you feel about being a part of all this?
B- I feel really uncomfortable about living in that nieghborhood, more so now than I did when we first moved there four or five years ago because of that new element. We all moved from New York, and Adam moved from L.A. onto Sycamore Street, a really damaged street. Our building sucked. It was filled with junkies and we were right in the chaos. I don't want to say it was back when it was hard and it meant something, because there was plently of hipster culture flourishing on Valencia, but it seemed kinda real at that point. People were in bands seemd much more supportive and kinda artistic. Now, fashion is just so established and easy and off the rack I can't tell who's down with evertything and who just looks perfect. All those people look perfect to me and I find that kinda crippling, so I walk around and feel like a total loser. It freaks me out, like I'm not exicted about coming home a lot of times on tour. I always get out of the nieghborhood anyway, like I go to the Marina. People are normal. I mean I find them way weirder like all these normies. I don't hang out there, but I ride my bike over there for something to do, look at the water. I'll go to any other neighborhood.
N- So here is the 'out there' question. A lot of your songs are about heartbreak or damaged relationships. Are you just ajerk to women?
B- NO WAY!!
N- Then waht keeps happening?
B- I go out with crazy people. That's why. I made the mistake of getting involved with insane people because I have some of that in me, I think I'm drawn to that personality. I'm really working on getting out of that and I think I have. Almost all those songs are about one person anyway. "Dear You' was coming out of that and "24 Hour.." was very much about someone. So it's not like a lot of people. I'm not all over the place. It was a pretty powerful relationship, so it warranted a lot of different stories.
S- Wow, you're the biggest person [i.e. rockstar] we've interviewed!
B- I'm far smaller than you think my friend.
N- Yeah, like 5'10"?
B- [Adamantly] I'M SIX FEET!