The Heartbreak of Jawbreaker
by Sandi Salina Messana
Dear You: "I went to a party last night. What sick things I saw! Makeout sessions and bicycle messengers, punks and art school dropouts. I ran into this guy I knew but hadn't seen in years. We went into the neon kitchen and stole a couple beers. He said his girl had dumped him, but was there with another guy. He said that he still liked her. All I could say was, `Why is it always like this? Either you're too mean or you're too nice.' He said, `I even cooked her breakfast.' "
Yes, there is a sensitive side to punk rock, although those might seem like mighty sympathetic lyrics to come from such an outrageously explosive frontman as Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach. Most of his forcefully introspective words on the San Francisco trio's latest release, Dear You, are actually anti-love songs, but their main message is sweetly sentimental, and that's not a side of Jawbreaker fans are used to seeing.
"Well, we either had to stretch out into new musical landscapes or we were going to break up," explains Schwarzenbach in a phone interview from his home. "In the past, the frenzy of performing live drove us forward creatively. But after a while, I found it really tough to just scream all the time. I had to live the part of the brute in order to sing about it. I've always dug going to see a really cool band and watching them reach one of those shimmering plateaus onstage during a love song. Now, I want to have some pretty songs of my own to sing."
Don't worry -- Michael Bolton won't feel much shlocky-ballad competition from Jawbreaker's impressive new album. But the group does embark on a departure from their former spastic selves this time around, and that may just continue to feed the rumor that the band is quickly selling out to corporate rock pressure.
"What can I say?" retorts Schwarzenbach. "I was coming out of a bad breakup at the time and writing this record was the only sanity I could find. Once I got it out of my system and realized I was very pleased with the songs, it almost became like severance pay for me, 'cause I really had the feeling I'd been fired when my last intimate relationship ended."
So it comes as no surprise to find the album's first single is called "Fireman," and features the group's troubled lead singer fantasizing about being a tidal wave that ravishes his ex's coastline, destroying everything in sight with no survivors. "I was tinkering around in my room in Oakland when I wrote those lines," Schwarzenbach explains sheepishly, "and I wanted to see how callous I could get. I allowed myself to think really terrible thoughts, and that's just what came out. But I'm used to weird things that turn up when I use my creative side. I have this consummate Gemini behavior in me that drives me to do such strange things, like my annual trek moving between Oakland and San Francisco."
A similar intuitive impetus is what drove the singer/guitarist to form Jawbreaker in 1989. He had met drummer Adam Pfahler (whose sister Kembra is frontwoman for the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) while they were both attending a Los Angeles high school in the early '80s. Bassist Chris Bauermeister got turned on to Schwarzenbach's talents while the two were in college at NYU in 1988.
But the East Coast wouldn't be the trial grounds for this punk outfit -- it was the L.A. club circuit or nothing, recalls the band's frontman. "Once we started playing around that town, we really found out what playing for no one felt like. Most of the shows just seem like practice sessions now, because if it wasn't for the few friends and family members who showed up, we wouldn't have had any audience at all."
Relocating to the Bay Area is what finally broke the band and allowed them to play at such punk hot spots as Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street Cooperative, the all-ages venue where Green Day also made their first big splash. Three strong indie albums and several compilation efforts would soon follow for Jawbreaker, with the most successful being the 1994 Steve Albini-produced 24-Hour Revenge Therapy. Yet after that record's popularity it was difficult for the trio's small label (Tupelo/Communion) to keep up with the demands from press and fans. This was the main reason Jawbreaker decided to move up to bigger and better things, and last year they finally signed to DGC.
"Selling out to corporate rock is an easy accusation to make for those who've never had to make records on a teeny, tiny budget. But I'm not sorry we made the transition," explains Schwarzenbach. "The best thing about it is that a big company can afford to give you the money and time to stretch out creatively. This time, I was able to get all my little chops in there, just the way I wanted them. When we made those `three-day-take' records, things like that were always getting skipped over."
But the singer also admits he lost patience this year when he saw how long the promotion arm of the company planned to wait before releasing the album. "I feel like I've been waiting around all summer for this thing to come out. Used to be we'd cut the music, the record came out and we were ready to tour in little pieces, for like four to six weeks at a time. Dear You's been done since, well, let's say it seems like almost a year now, and we're just starting to get it off the ground with our first tour. And this time we'll be out for months at a time, so I'm trying to prepare everyone by having a so-called `encounter session' next week before we leave."
Does it actually take counseling to keep bands civil when they're out on the road together these days? "Yes!" he exclaims without hesitation. "If everyone airs their bitches first, then hopefully that shit won't get in the way of the music once we leave for the tour. At the end of our last one we were at each other's throats. And that won't work this time, because we're going to tour like crazy for the new record."
One of the groups Schwarzenbach says he's most excited to tour with is Chinchilla, an all-girl outfit from San Diego. He describes the group's singer as a "tough diva" somewhere between Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and PJ Harvey. Other bands set to share Jawbreaker's stage lights throughout the fall include Smoking Popes, that dog, Jawbox and Evil Stig (the new benefit project for slain Gits' singer Mia Zapata, led by Joan Jett and the remaining members of the Gits).
Europe, Japan and Australia will come next for Jawbreaker after they finish their round in the States. But it's Hong Kong that Schwarzenbach says he's most looking forward to discovering once they head toward Asia. When I point out that a 21-year-old R&B; singer from New York named Dana Dawson has the #1 single in that country during the week of our interview, he laughs, but quickly adds that it doesn't worry him. "We've got the R&B thing covered for sure with the little routine our drummer Adam has come up with. I don't know why rappers and soulmen are always clutching themselves so tightly in their videos, but you should see Adam's rendition of it. Are they really so in love or brokenhearted all the time in their lyrics that their passion literally knocks them over like they're weak? I mean, who thought up that shit?"
I don't have the answer to that one, but soon Schwarzenbach is making me laugh with his silly MTV-parody antics over the long-distance wire. And at heart, I realize, he's simply a romantic who found inspiration by screaming at the world through punk rock. Now all he's looking for is relief, and the remedy, apparently, is to sing to us, this time a little more softly, about how much it hurts inside.