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Jawbreaker’s Reluctant Return, 21 Years After Their Implosion

David Anthony

The band that always said they'd never reunite took the stage in San Francisco this weekend, and got the welcome they deserved.

The first narrative that's established in Don't Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker is that the band was a failure. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong says he believes Jawbreaker was supposed to bridge the gap between his band and Nirvana. And while that's clearly intended as praise, the contrast between that expectation and Jawbreaker's actual existence can't help but highlight the gulf between those two things. While Green Day and Nirvana sold millions of albums and became household names, Jawbreaker sold a measly—by major label standards, anyway—40,000 copies of their major label debut, Dear You, and the label elected it to fall out-of-print as a result. Less than a year later, after fans literally turned their backs on the band at shows, they'd break up. Tensions were at an all-time high within the band, leading to vocalist-guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach and bassist Chris Bauermeister to get in a fist fight while on tour and, upon returning home, agreeing to put the thing to bed.

That was 1996. In the 21 years that have passed since, Jawbreaker may not have sold millions of records posthumously, but their legacy grew as if they had. As their mythical status became cemented, they were simultaneously positioned as the one band that would never get back together. The members balked at the idea, and, in Don't Break Down, which was filmed largely in 2006 and 2007, it still seemed like an impossibility. The film sees the band members going into Billy Anderson's studio to listen to old songs and reflect on what they created. Soon, Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler are found picking up their instruments playing together. But not Schwarzenbach. When the filmmakers ask him to play some of the band's classic riffs, he steadfastly declines, carrying an aura of resentment at the very concept of it. Earlier, when Bauermeister and Pfahler gently suggest they all go into the studio's live room and jam on "Bivouac," he shuts it down, too. Yet they keep pressing, getting him into the live room before he once again shoots the idea down by saying, "You wanna ruin the fucking magic."

That magic has been what's always been on the line for Jawbreaker. Aside from a few shows supporting Nirvana on the In Utero tour, this was a band that spent the bulk of their career playing clubs and dilapidated punk dives. But even as the band played out a rather routine existence, their fans built them up to be something that, in reality, they never were. Intense fandom built them up to be monoliths, and it's that status that made Schwarzenbach run from his past whenever he was presented with the option of reliving it. In a 2010 oral history of the band published by Alternative Press, he said "Something is fucking broken in me so that when it's like, 'A lot of people want to hear you,' I just think, 'Well, I don't want to do that.'"

But now, seven years later, he's doing it, and his band is headlining the final day of Riot Fest in Chicago. In Don't Break Down, when discussing their decision to jump to a major, Pfahler says something strangely prophetic: "We changed our mind. That's what people do." And that change, this time around, means that a Jawbreaker reunion is no longer the internet's favorite joke—or a band that took on the phrase to its absurd endpoint. Now, it's a real thing. For fans, they get the shot to see the band that got away, the one they've built up in their minds for the past two decades. But for Jawbreaker, there's much more at stake.

Two weeks ago, without warning, Jawbreaker took the stage for the first time in 21 years, the "secret guest" at an invite-only show at the Ivy Room. And the next morning, tickets were on sale for another show, at San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop, a 400-capacity venue that would be Jawbreaker's first headlining set in over two decades. I scored a ticket and, minutes later, had booked a flight. And from what I could tell, I wasn't the only one. Friends from around the country put life on hold to catch Jawbreaker in a club that was, by the end of the band's original run in 1996, far too small for them. Many of these people had never seen them before, and the only way I can describe the line outside the Rickshaw Stop was a mixture of giddy excitement and crushing anxiety. In a single night, the people who held this band dear were given exactly what they wanted, but forced to face the fact that they shelled out hundreds of dollars for either the most fulfilling or disappointing performance of their life.

Once inside, that nervous energy began to dissipate, due in part to how nonchalant the whole thing felt. It makes sense, given that watching an old Jawbreaker live video exposes the simple fact that they were only ever three guys up on stage, playing songs and cracking jokes. They were, in no uncertain terms, just a band. And by the time their gear was set and the band ready to start at the Rickshaw Stop, that couldn't have been more apparent. For his part, Schwarzenbach worked to defuse any tension by joking about the band's lengthy break, explaining it off as them becoming rich tech mavens, and that he'd been hiding out in Dubai. It was the kind of quirky banter he'd become known for, and it felt like even he wasn't buying into the hype this time around. But then, just as casually as he joked with the crowd, he kicked into the two-chord riff of "Boxcar," and the jittery audience exploded into a swelling, joyous mass.

As much as Schwarzenbach is often given the star treatment in the band, it was Jawbreaker's rhythm section that made them something special. Bauermeister is an inventive and nimble bassist, often countering Schwarzenbach's melodies; carving out his own space in these songs and giving them a lumbering forward movement. Pfahler, though, truly pulled off the impossible, finding ways to turn drum fills and cymbal crashes into moments as memorable as Schwarzenbach's guitar riffs. With "Boxcar" serving as the introduction, Jawbreaker showed that they don't just hit all the right notes, they all slot back into the roles they took up in the 90s. When Schwarzenbach sang, the entire crowd joined in, and when Pfahler did the anthemic drum roll into the song's closing coda, you'd be hard pressed to not find people air-drumming right along with him. By the end of "Boxcar," it was clear that this wasn't some half-baked version of the band. The magic that Schwarzenbach always worried would be lost was still there, and the crowd let him know it by screaming so loud it dwarfed his own yelps.

Jawbreaker's ten-song set pulled exclusively from the band's final two albums, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Dear You (it's often easy to deride a band for what they didn't play, but that feels a bit foolhardy given the circumstances). It's often said that Dear You songs were met with a chilly reception at live shows after its release, but that night, it was as if that fallout never happened. After a bit of banter encouraging everyone to work against the hate-fueled world we've found ourselves in, Schwarzenbach hit the riff to "Save Your Generation," and people joined him in a life-affirming sing-along of "Survival never goes out of style." It's a simple message, sure, but it's one that reminds Jawbreaker was by no means a political band. And while it could come off as preaching to the converted, they are sentiments that offer levity in the darkest moments. Something Jawbreaker has always been good at.

For the most part, the band sounded as tight as they did on record, with only small flubs here and there—Schwarzenbach forgetting a couple lines, and the band stumbling into the first verse of "Sluttering (May 4th)." But, by and large, the band was able to channel their youthful energy while putting on a show they never could have in their heyday. Schwarzenbach joked about this being his first time playing with in-ear monitors, but that high-tech investment, coupled with a two-amp setup, allowed him pull off things he couldn't have in the band's classic era. His distinctive growl may not be what it was in the early 90s, with throat surgery being at least partially to blame, but he didn't let that hold him back. He may be 50, but he's still screaming like the carefree kid in his 20s that people fell in love with. And with the ability to activate a second amp in crucial moments, songs like "Jet Black" and "Accident Prone" are given the all-consuming wash of guitar that, at close distance, both sounded and felt like a jet engine.

Closing with "Condition Oakland," the band played the Jack Kerouac sample on the record, wringing every note out of their instruments until there was nothing left to give. As the band walked off stage, Bauermeister threw handfuls of Jawbreaker stickers into the crowd, and middle-aged punks fought over them as if they were teenagers. Even as it became clear that there would be no encore, people stayed put for minutes, hoping that their stubbornness would cajole the band back out for one more song. But as soon as a stagehand got up and waved everyone away, those cheers turned into actual boos, and an entitled "fuck you" or two for good measure. It was a full-circle moment, allowing fans who weren't there the first time to get the full experience of being a Jawbreaker fan in the 90s. It was also a sign that Jawbreaker is getting the rare chance to relive its career all over again. Only this time, they get to choose the ending.

When the band takes the stage at Riot Fest in Chicago next month, it'll be completing the arc that fans—and many of the band's peers—have put upon it for two decades. In 1995, it'd be hard to imagine a world where Jawbreaker would be given equal billing with Nine Inch Nails (one of Riot Fest's other headliners), but in 2017, all those failed attempts are wiped clean. For one night, Jawbreaker will be the biggest band in the world, closing out a festival that's got plenty of its direct descendants filling up the undercard. Whether or not that set meets anyone's colossal expectations, it ultimately doesn't matter. After two decades of carrying an anchor around their necks, they get their moment up on that giant stage. As they proved at the Rickshaw Stop, they've still got the chops, and all the requisite heart, to do this thing right. With this reunion, Jawbreaker has finally done everything they said they'd never do, allowing themselves to write a new final chapter in the process.. And maybe, after all these years, Jawbreaker will no longer be measured against their past, instead remembered for the band that they actually were.

David Anthony has a Jawbreaker tattoo and co-hosts a podcast called No Plus Ones. Follow him on Twitter.