Jawbreaker Days of Whine and Poses
Published Mar 26, 2010Their influence on contemporary punk, emo, and indie rock can't be overstated, nor can the value of the lesson in major label woes they typified in an "alternative" obsessed mainstream '90s culture. Emerging from the same vibrant Bay Area DIY punk community as genre contemporaries Green Day, Jawbreaker failed to make the same leap to massive commercial success when they moved from indie to major, alienating their core audience in the process and breaking up almost immediately. The resulting troubled legacy only makes their intimate songs more powerful and personal, as the band fumbled towards a heartbreaking anticlimax; together, these three highly educated punks made some of the most important punk music of the '90s.
1980 to 1984
Blake Schwarzenbach and Adam Pfahler meet at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, California, bonding over a mutual love of the area's blossoming punk rock and hardcore scene. With Schwarzenbach on guitar and Pfahler on drums, they form Red Harvest with bassist Rich Dessert. Named after the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest play "instrumental gloom rock," consisting of 20-minute instrumental jams. They never record. Across the country in Connecticut, Chris Bauermeister begins his first forays into bass playing, primarily focusing on "drug-induced instrumental garbage."
1985 to 1987
Bauermeister moves to New York City to attend NYU and gets into Washington, DC hardcore. He forms Butcher Clyde with future Versus front-man Richard Baluyut. A year later, Schwarzenbach and Pfahler enrol at NYU and live in the same dorm room. When Butcher Clyde splits, Bauermeister posts a band ad in the dorm's cafeteria, listing DC hardcore as a primary influence. Schwarzenbach and Pfahler respond, and the trio form Terminal Island, which features a rotating line-up of second guitarists and vocalists. Their first live performance is in 1986 when they are asked to score a rock opera starring Pfahler's sister Kembra, later a well-known performance artist and lead singer of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. They play a set of covers and make $30. After first year, Pfahler transfers to UCLA and Terminal Island opt to continue long distance, getting together to write during breaks. In the summer of 1987, they change names to Thump and recruit Jon Liu to sing.
Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister take a year off school and rejoin Pfahler and Liu in Los Angeles. They change their name to Rise and record their first demo, with Liu on vocals. The demo includes Schwarzenbach's first recorded attempt at singing, a very rough incarnation of "Shield Your Eyes," later found on Jawbreaker's 1992 full-length, Bivouac. Liu leaves the band, and the departure, coupled with their growing awareness of innumerable bands also named Rise, leads to an all-night brainstorming session for a new name. The next day, they find "Jawbreaker" written amongst the proposed new names. No one remembers writing it down. They immediately bombard local radio with the "Shield Your Eyes" single, calling local DJs to request it using fake names and accents. Walter Glaser, an influential character from the early days of Maximumrocknroll and scene hangout 924 Gilman St., plays the single on MRR Radio. Shredder Records' Mel Cheplowitz hears that and asks the band to contribute the song to an upcoming seven-inch compilation.
The World In Shreds Vol. 2 is released, containing "Shield Your Eyes." Their first proper demo with Schwarzenbach singing is recorded in February, and the band begin putting together press kits, including fake fliers for imaginary shows with bands like Government Issue and Marginal Man, to convince clubs to book them. On March 16, Jawbreaker make their live debut at Club 88 in Los Angeles. The band record both their first EP, Whack and Blite, and a seven-inch, Busy, over the summer. The latter, whose cover features Walter Matthau pouring liquor into a coke bottle with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, results in a cease and desist order from the actor's lawyers, along with the demand that all copies of the record be destroyed. The band begin playing at 924 Gilman St., the legendary not-for-profit all-ages (and vehemently anti-major label) punk club in Berkley. Despite growing buzz, Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister return to NYU, spending the semester writing songs in Schwarzenbach's cramped apartment.
During winter break, Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister fly out to California for a week to rehearse with Pfahler, recording Jawbreaker's full-length debut, Unfun, before returning to the East coast. Released by Shredder Records, the band supports it with their first national tour in June. Booked using Schwarzenbach's father's phone card, the Fuck 90 Tour features Jawbreaker, Samiam, Econochrist, and Fuel. It is a resounding success, hampered only by Schwarzenbach's father's fury over the massive phone bill he discovers at the end of the summer, and a brief van breakdown in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The resulting downtime gives the band an opportunity to conduct an interview with themselves for Maximumrocknroll, in which they ask the prophetic question, "If you had the opportunity to sign with a major label, would you accept?" Schwarzenbach responds, "No, because the indie scene is so fucking major right now, you don't need to. All the majors are sweating right now, trying to pick up on the alternative thing." Despite the success of the tour and Unfun, the band break up at the end of the summer, with all members planning an intense final year of university; in December, Bauermeister completes a BA in Philosophy and Literature.
At the end of the school year, Schwarzenbach earns his BA in English and Creative Writing, and Pfahler walks away from UCLA with a BA in history. Free to pursue Jawbreaker full time, the band relocate to the Mission District of San Francisco, and by October, they have an album's worth of new material, which they record with long-time friend Billy Anderson. Consistent shows on the West coast turn the band into local heroes. "We're running this town now," says Schwarzenbach in Zips and Chains 9. "If you're thinking of visiting San Francisco, you should probably clear it with us first."
Tupelo/Communion Records releases five songs from the Anderson sessions as the Chesterfield King 12", and the band begin a lengthy tour of the States and Europe, dubbing the trek the Hell Is On The Way Tour. After a show in San Diego, the band head to a friend's house to crash; neighbours see a large group of young, dishevelled punks entering the home and call the police, who arrive immediately and demand that the band to leave the premises. The cops follow the band to a nearby Denny's, where they stay for the rest of the night; no one sleeps for 26 hours, declaring themselves "prisoners of Denny's." In Europe, Schwarzenbach's shouted vocal delivery begins to catch up with him when he starts coughing up blood after a show in Ireland; the band immediately head to London where Schwarzenbach undergoes invasive throat surgery to remove polyps that have developed on his vocal cords. Two nights later, the band is back on the road, performing in Norway. Early in the show, Schwarzenbach breaks his second guitar of the tour; since he's left-handed, he assumes the show is over when an audience member somehow produces a left-handed guitar. The band finish their set. The tour continues to inflict damage on the rest of the band; back home, Pfahler requires surgery for an injured knee and a collapsed vein in his arm, while Bauermeister develops severe, debilitating shoulder pain. He also Krazy Glue's his teeth together when affixing a menagerie of plastic animals to the ceiling of the band's van; the problem is thankfully solved with an immediate, thorough flossing. During time off from touring, Pfahler briefly joins West coast punk legends J Church, and Jawbreaker record fan favourite "Kiss the Bottle" for a compilation of Mission District punk bands. Tupelo/Communion finally releases Bivouac, the band's sophomore full-length, at the end of the year, containing the remainder of the material recorded by Anderson in late 1991. The record's tone is markedly different from the bouncy pop-punk of Unfun; it is a dark, moody record that alienates some of the band's fan base while galvanizing a great deal more. An old friend send the band a note: "You can't dance to pain." They post it in their house.
In March, Jawbreaker team up with Steve Albini to record what will become their most championed full-length, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. The album is produced in three days for a total of $3,000, and includes a harrowing depiction of Schwarzenbach's throat surgery on "Outpatient," along with the heavy-handing major label indictment of "Indictment", which includes the lyrics "Moving units and tracking charts / Will they ever learn / It isn't who you know, it's who you burn." The band strike up a friendship with Screeching Weasel, a bond cemented by a particularly bizarre trip to Chicago. "We were hanging out with a couple of guys from Screeching Weasel, we went into a 7-11, and a cab pulled up with this guy passed out in the back," Bauermeister will tell Pitchfork. "Dan [Vapid, SW guitarist/bassist] knew who he was, so he pulled him out of the taxi and threw him into our van. We drove to Lake Michigan and they pulled him out of the van to throw him in the lake. Then Blake slipped on a rock and fell, fully clad, into Lake Michigan. The passed out guy promptly came to while they were carrying him to the water and he was really into it. He was like, 'Alright, let's go swimming!'" Schwarzenbach ends up contributing guest vocals for Screeching Weasel's song "A New Tomorrow" that year. Jawbreaker play several shows with a post-Nevermind Nirvana and rumours begin to swirl amongst their militant DIY fan base that the band is being courted by DGC, a division of Universal. On a subsequent tour with J Church, the band are forced to repeatedly explain that they are not receiving $500 a night for food and that they have not signed to a major. Along with negative reception from long-time fans, the tour comes close to tragedy when a snowstorm in Wyoming sends the band's van spinning 360 degrees on the highway, coming to rest just outside the path of an oncoming semi. Back home in San Francisco, the band plays an eventful show at Shoshone Shores when Bauermeister's ex-girlfriend stands front row centre for their entire set. Overcome with emotion, Bauermeister continually hides behind his amp to cry uncontrollably; an audience member from New York begins to heckle the band, when Pfahler declares, "I lived in New York for six years, I'll take you." The heckler approaches the stage and is stopped by the band's roadie, whom he punches in the face. Another audience member breaks a beer bottle over the heckler's head and a huge fight erupts. The show is shut down by the arrival of the police. "It was the best show we ever played. We were so emo," says Schwarzenbach in Rubber Band 4. "Chris was hysterically crying. Adam and I were both ready to fight and there was so much shit talking. I would have loved to have seen that show."
24 Hour Revenge Therapy is released by Tupelo/Communion, but the band's heroic status in the Bay Area punk underground ends abruptly when they announce their signing to major label DGC a few months later. At a show the day after the news goes public, Schwarzenbach wears a shirt that reads 'Zero Cred." Regularly heckled at shows with cries of "MTV!," an audience member spits directly in to Schwarzenbach's mouth at a show in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In contrast to the minimal budget afforded for previous full-length outings, Jawbreaker record Dear You with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo for $75 000 over the course of several months. For the song "Jet Black," the band plan to use a sample from the film Annie Hall; Woody Allen has to listen to the song to personally approve its use, which he does. Schwarzenbach continues to defend the band's jump to a major label in Strobe Magazine, stating that, "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. 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." The record is released in September, and like many alternative bands scooped up by majors in the mid-'90s, Jawbreaker quickly discover that, while they are exceeding their own sales expectations, Dear You is not delivering the numbers that DCG is hoping for.
Despite frustrations with their label, the band begin writing Dear You's follow-up, tentatively titled Tenth Listen. With about seven songs written, tensions between Jawbreaker and their audience, as well as the band members themselves, continue to mount. While they reach several touring milestones, performing their first shows in Australia and touring with Jawbox on the winking Monsters of Jaw Tour, interpersonal strain soon reaches a breaking point. "We had just finished a show in Eugene, Oregon on tour with the Foo Fighters," Bauermeister tells Punk Planet. "We had agreed ahead of time to drive all night so that we could get home. I just really wanted to be away from the band and retreat to the safety of my home. Adam wanted to do that too, since he had me drive him to the airport to catch a flight home that night. Anyway, when I got back from the airport, there was Blake hanging out with the Foo Fighters, and while I was gone, everyone made the unilateral decision that we were staying there. We leave the show, we're driving along, and I start explaining my case, which was that I thought we had agreed upon going home. The next thing I know Blake spits his gum into the back of my head. I freaked and thought, 'Wait a second. What just happened?' I hated Blake so much at that moment. I had had it. I threw the van in park, took off over the backseat and somehow we ended up on the sidewalk, rolling around. I was trying to squash him into the sidewalk, calling him a prima donna - all of that. The next thing I know, we're surrounded by guys screaming in drill sergeant voices because we had rolled out of the van into the front of some keg party and these guys didn't want the cops coming out to arrest us. So they chased us back inside the van." While no one in the band actively acknowledges what is happening, on May 19, Jawbreaker play their final show at the Capital Theatre in Olympia. A few weeks later, Schwarzenbach makes it official. "I called Adam and went over to his house and just told him that I couldn't do it anymore," he says in Punk Planet. "When I said it, I think he knew - or had known - this day was coming." Schwarzenbach starts playing drums in Moons, but quickly leaves for New York; oddly, Pfahler briefly takes his place in the band. Bauermeister heads to Perdue University in Indiana to begin a Master's in History; he and Schwarzenbach won't speak for years. Pfahler has his first daughter.
Schwarzenbach puts his Creative Writing degree to good use as an occasional contributor to SPIN and a video game reviewer for Game Spot (even his reviews are pretty punk: "What was perhaps most startling to earthlings last summer was not the alien menace, but rather the sad realization that it was really an invasion of corporate origin. Resistance is futile, humans: consume or be consumed."). Pfahler opens a video store in San Francisco called Lost Weekend, where generations of punks still visit to show him their Jawbreaker tattoos. Schwarzenbach settles in to his new apartment in Brooklyn and, despite vocal intentions to avoid new musical pursuits, begins to toy with synths and samplers, joining up with ex-Handsome vocalist Jeremy Chatelain to demo songs on an old Tascam four track. Bringing in ex-Texas Is The Reason drummer Chris Daly, the trio dub themselves Jets to Brazil and begin writing an album of new material.
Jets To Brazil make their live debut on April 2 at TLA in Philadelphia, with Peter Martin of Lifetime playing second guitar, and quickly find themselves on a European tour with the Promise Ring, despite having no recorded material. After some clever legal finagling to be released from a three-album contract with DGC, Schwarzenbach finds a new home with Jade Tree Records, who release Jets To Brazil's Orange Rhyming Dictionary in October; the record becomes the best-selling album in the label's history. The band tour relentlessly in support of the album, eventually acquiring a full-time second guitarist with Brian Maryansky, ex of the Van Pelt. In a throwback to Schwarzenbach's old anti-corporate views, Jets to Brazil refuse to play Clear Channel venues. Back on the West coast, Pfahler rejoins J Church, sticking around long enough to record 2000's One Mississippi for Fat Wreck Chords imprint Honest Don's.
1999 to 2000
Bauermeister joins a band for the first time since the dissolution of Jawbreaker, playing with post-emo legends Horace Pinker. Pfahler forms Blackball Records to release Live 4/30/96, a document of Jawbreaker's final hometown show, containing three previously unreleased songs. Despite the success of Jets to Brazil, Schwarzenbach pads his wallet by selling one of his Jawbreaker-era Les Paul guitars on eBay. The item description reads: "This was my main guitar in Jawbreaker and was used to record 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Dear You. It's been broken and mended so there's a scar on the neck. Plays perfectly, but it's [sic] definitely got character. It's done a lot of touring. Comes with case and strap. Why get a bogus bootleg seven-inch or pin when you can have the real deal? I'll include a promo CD of Dear You or blue vinyl - buyer's choice, plus a photo of me with the guitar for verification." It sells for $1275. Schwarzenbach begins to pursue a Masters degree at New York's Hunter College. In early 2000, Jets To Brazil release their sophomore full-length, Four Cornered Night, while Bauermeister quits Horace Pinker and receives a Masters degree in History.
2001 to 2002
Pfahler continues to enjoy his life in San Francisco, welcoming his second daughter into the world, leaving J Church, forming Whysall Lane with Bauermeister's old band-mate Richard Baluyut (ex-Versus), and releasing Etc., an essential collection of Jawbreaker b-sides, on Blackball. Jets to Brazil release their third full-length, Perfecting Loneliness, in 2002, although drummer Chris Daly departs in the process; Matt Torrey, ex-MK Ultra, begins to play with the band. Bauermeister gets out of dodge and heads for Germany to begin a PhD in Germanic History. Schwarzenbach receives his equally nerdy Masters in English Literature and begins work as an instructor at Hunter College when not on tour, beginning work on a PhD. Rumours swirl that Jawbreaker has been offered one million dollars to play a series of reunion shows. The band does not confirm or deny, but no reunion takes place.
2003 to 2006
Jets to Brazil quietly break up; Chatelain joins Helmet, and Schwarzenbach throws himself fully into the world of academia. Pfahler records his sister Kembra's band, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, and after recording a single Whysall Lane album, the band break up. Long out of print, Dear You is re-issued by Pfahler's Blackball Records, along with a selection of unreleased bonus tracks. While early fans of the band still rally against the supposedly radio-friendly production, new fans are drawn to the record's nuanced songwriting and aggressive tone; almost a decade after its initial release, Dear You becomes a cult favourite amongst a new generation of Jawbreaker fans. Bauermeister continues to read musty books in Germany.
Jawbreaker reunite. In a room, alone, with no one watching. The team behind We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen has been working on a comprehensive Jawbreaker documentary, and the reflective mood apparently gets to the band. Pfahler posts on his website, "A few months back they [the filmmakers] came to SF and we got some really great footage with all three of us and Billy Anderson. We even played together, but didn't roll footage out of both respect for the sanctity of the moment and fear that we'd suck. Anyway, I have audio of it. Maybe I'll post that some day." Bauermeister, back from Germany, forms Shorebirds with Matt Canino of underground DIY punk darlings Latterman.
Schwarzenbach quietly returns to live music with Thorns of Life, featuring Bay Area punk icon Aaron Cometbus (Crimpshrine, Pinhead Gunpowder, Cometbus zine) and Daniela Sea, a local punk (Gr'ups, Cypher in the Snow) primarily known to the rest of the world as Max Sweeny on The L Word. The band only play house shows, and numerous live bootlegs begin to surface online; Schwarzenbach geeks get stoked. On his return to music, Schwarzenbach comments to SF Weekly: "I realized there were as many blowhards and poseurs in academia as there were in indie rock." Bauermeister's Shorebirds release two seven-inches and record a full-length before they split, while Pfahler forms A Black Light with Shawn Briggs, a recording engineer whose credits include NOFX, Lagwagon, and No Use For A Name.
Thorns of Life enter the studio with J. Robbins to record their much-anticipated full-length debut, Legislators and Prophets. The band announce plans to self-release the record, then break up. Schwarzenbach assures fans that the record will never see the light of day, and, soon after, surfaces with Forgetters, a brand new band featuring ex-Against Me! drummer Kevin Mahon and relative unknown bassist Caroline Paquita. A fan with a lot of time records an album of big band Jawbreaker covers under the name Jazzbreaker. The results are really, really weird.
Forgetters embark on the Too Small To Fail Tour, continuing to perform and record at a pace that will ideally live up to the tour's name. Blackball again comes to the rescue of an out of print Jawbreaker classic, reissuing Unfun on CD and including the entire Whack and Blite EP. Kids everywhere continue to get Jawbreaker tattoos.