The Guide to Getting into Jawbreaker
The band that said they'd never reunite are back, for now. Here's a cram session for one of punk's most misunderstood bands.
Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou
Jawbreaker's career was built on tension. While their breakup in 1996 is the thing of punk rock lore, as it was precipitated by a failed major label release (1995's Dear You) and a fist fight between vocalist-guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach and bassist Chris Bauermeister, it wasn't the first time the band had split. Back in 1990, shortly after the release of their debut album Unfun, Jawbreaker underwent a summer-long tour with Econochrist dubbed "Fuck 90." It was so grueling that, by all accounts, with weeks left to go, Bauermeister stopped talking to Schwarzenbach and drummer Adam Pfahler entirely. When they got back home, they decided to bring Jawbreaker to a merciful end.
But that break didn't last long, and, within a year, all three members would move to San Francisco's Mission District under the auspices of giving Jawbreaker a real go. Entrenching themselves in the creatively fertile punk scene fostered by DIY clubs such as 924 Gilman Street, which played home to bands such as Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, and Green Day, the band would spend the next five years of its life writing, recording, and touring at an intense clip. Jawbreaker would turn in three more studio albums in that time—1992's Bivouac, 1994's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, and 1995's Dear You—while dashing out songs on compilations and splits at a fevered pace.
Jawbreaker's prolific nature and intense work ethic landed the band an opening slot on Nirvana's In Utero tour, which begat incredulous looks from their friends and fans. People began believing that Jawbreaker would be the next DIY punk band to jump to a major label. And while that notion sounds quaint now, given Schwarzenbach's constant championing of the band's independence, even decrying more corporate punk labels like Epitaph Records, the dividing line between major and indie labels was important then. But after 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, the band was already teetering on the edge of collapse. So, in a last-ditch effort to keep things going, they signed to Geffen Records and released Dear You in September, 1995.
The result was pure tumult. During live shows in support of the record, fans would turn their backs on the band when they played Dear You songs. Simultaneously, Bauermeister was growing increasingly alienated from his cohorts. Just months later, he and Schwarzenbach would come to blows and, after finishing off the tour, they quietly packed it in. But the ensuing two decades of silence only mythologized Jawbreaker all the more. Now, in 2017, Jawbreaker is back—at least temporarily—and it's giving everyone the chance to see the band that, in no uncertain terms, said they would never do this whole reunion thing. For the diehards, their headlining slot at Riot Fest and subsequent club shows are a shot at something that seemed impossible. And for those of you that don't know why everyone's so excited, well, here's a guide to get you up to speed.
So You Want to Get into: The "Hits"
Though Jawbreaker had their shot at the big time with Dear You, they never actually scored a hit single. But in the way so many punk bands do, they had scene-wide hits, the kind of songs that people scream out during live shows in the hopes the band would play it. While many old-heads would cite "Equalized" as the first of Jawbreaker's punk-level hits, the best starting point came a little later, with "Want" being the first song on Unfun and the perfect encapsulation of the band's early charms.
What's striking about "Want" is that, in mere seconds, the band has established the perfect hook without Schwarzenbach singing a note or even really playing his guitar. The song is carried by the rhythm section, with Bauermeister laying down a perfect pop punk bassline and Pfahler putting a slow dance beat behind it. Schwarzenbach dashes a stray notes in the background before they launch into the song's central groove but, right out of the gate, it establishes Jawbreaker as having one of the best rhythm sections in all of punk. When they return to that groove in the chorus, which comes well after the midway point, that delayed gratification pays off, and Schwarzenbach's yelps of "I want you" become endlessly fulfilling. It's a song that breaks every songwriting rule, and its cloying romanticism all but verboten in punk. This wasn't the nihilistic punk of the 70s or the hyper-politicized and aggressive hardcore of the 80s; this was something new. And from there, it'd allow the band to become more overt about its pop fascinations.
Where Jawbreaker plays coy about writing pop songs on Unfun, by 1993 they'd have a full slate of them to pull them. "Chesterfield King" would be the title track of a five-song EP and also make its way onto Bivouac, the sole pop song on an otherwise dark, dirge of an album. It's here that Scwarzenbach moves away from simple, three-word statements and becomes a storyteller, writing love songs—and songs of lost love—in the way few punk singers before him ever dared. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy would bring more of these songs into the band's canon, with "Do You Still Hate Me?," "Jinx Removing," and "Boxcar" being increasingly brazen about removing the band's jagged edges. In particular, "Boxcar" is the purest distillation of these pursuits. In just under two minutes, Jawbreaker takes a simple two-chord riff and blows it wide open, with Schwarzenbach taking aim at punk scene politics and the song's stop-start rhythms making every musical change into a thrillride.
While Dear You would smooth the band's approach all the more—had "Save Your Generation" been a single maybe Jawbreaker could have been the next Nirvana—it's one of the band's most rough hewn songs that has had the deepest resonance. Recorded between Bivouac and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, "Kiss The Bottle" is an improbably popular song given that it was released on the obscure 17 Reasons: The Mission District compliation. Famously, it's the last song recorded before Schwarzenbach underwent throat surgery to remove a polyp that had formed, and the recording shows it. Musically, the song is the kind of downtrodden waltz that Ryan Adams would build a career on, but Schwarzenbach sounds like a hungover foghorn. Yet, for as harsh as it is, it fits the song's tales of drunken stupors and missed opportunities that are downright charming. And given that it's been covered by everyone from Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms to Lucero to the goddamn Foo Fighters, it's clear there's something to be said for "Kiss The Bottle"—even if none of the covers can match the original's intrinsic grit.
Playlist: "Want" / "Chesterfield King" / "Kiss The Bottle" / "Boxcar" / "Do You Still Hate Me?" / "Jinx Removing" / "Save Your Generation" / "Unlisted Track"
So You Want to Get into: Punk as Narrative Fiction
While a few of the songs that fall into the above section certainly also classify here—and vice-versa—there's a crucial difference between the two. Where the former established the musical archetype many bands would shamelessly rip off after Jawbreaker disbanded, this section of the band's history would launch a truly embarrassing trend: The wannabe punk poet.
Make no mistake, Schwarzenbach doled out his fair share of corny lines in his day—show me a lyricist who hasn't—but what he truly excelled at was turning punk songs into short stories. In a widely distributed bootleg from May 29, 1993, Schwarzenbach intros "The Boat Dreams From The Hill" with, "This is a song that has a story, because songs should have stories and I'm trying to get better at that." And though he deemed this as a new pursuit during that show, "Shield Your Eyes" proves he'd been at it since 1988.
What the two songs lack in sonic commonality, they make up for in their ability to place you in a specific moment. These songs are dark in decidedly different ways, with "Shield Your Eyes" unfurling a tale of a man staring at the sun until he goes blind, closing with Schwarzenbach howling, "Shield your eyes from all this misery," against one of his most jagged compositions. Meanwhile, "The Boat Dreams From The Hill" is one of his sunniest pieces. It's an ebullient pop punk song, so much so that it overshadows the fact it's one of the most depressing yarns Schwarzenbach ever spun. Written about a boat that will never make it to the water, it becomes an allegory for unfulfilled potential, as the boat sits there baking in the sun, its purpose null and void from its genesis.
It's these songs that would make Schwarzenbach into a cult icon. Whether it's him telling the story of two very different parties ("West Bay Invitational," "Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault"), punk scene politicking ("Indictment"), his throat surgery ("Outpatient"), or vignettes of brokenhearted despair ("Fireman," "Chemistry"), these songs are anchored to specific moments in Schwarenbach's life yet they have endured by being unparalleled in their execution. For everyone that tried to gussy up their lyrics after hearing a Jawbreaker record, they missed the component most crucial to making these songs work: It's not about being clever with your metaphors, it's about exploring the mundane until it becomes compelling.
Playlist: "Shield Your Eyes" / "The Boat Dreams From The Hill" / "West Bay Invitational" / "Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault" / "Indictment" / "Outpatient" / "Fireman" / "Chemistry"
So You Want to Get into: Punk as Prog
While Jawbreaker's pop-focused period is surely the best introduction, it had an experimental bent that indentured it to the post-hardcore scene, too. Even in the band's gestational period there were always odd wanderings—"Shield Your Eyes" is hardly straightforward—and Bivouac, the band's most challenging and fulfilling record, plays like Jawbreaker trying to be part of the Dischord Records family.
Arguably, the band's most collaborative work, featuring a few songs that saw Bauermeister writing lyrics, Bivouac is a triumph for its ability to sound off-kilter but never directionless. In many ways, it's their In Utero, only even more abrasive. Songs like "Sleep" and "Parabola" are tracks that build slowly, baking in subtle hooks that keep the uneasiness from becoming alienating. But it's "Bivouac" that delivers on the album's promise. A ten-minute track with sparse lyrics, a midsection that collapses in on itself, a sample from a nature documentary anchoring the chaos, and an explosive, feedback-laced coda, it personifies the ambition that was always running through Jawbreaker.
Though they'd never go that long again, songs on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Dear You echo the ethos. "Condition Oakland" and "In Sadding Around" adapt the sprawl of "Bivouac" into a more digestible package, and the Dear You epics "Accident Prone" and "Jet Black" are two of the best songs Jawbreaker ever committed to tape. These are songs that audibly ache, taking the most forlorn, introspective moments in Schwarzenbach's life and turning them into a cathartic exorcism.
Playlist: "Sleep" / "Parabola" / "Condition Oakland" / "In Sadding Around" / "Accident Prone" / "Jet Black" / "Bivouac"
So You Want to Get into: The Rarities and Deep Cuts
If there was ever a punk band to inspire Deadhead-like devotion to it, Jawbreaker was certainly it. The band was known for writing new material at an impressive rate, debuting these songs at live shows and often tossing them toward whatever compilation or split seven-inch they were offered. While Etc.'s release in 2002 would collect the most notable rarities, including "Kiss The Bottle," plenty more still linger, often only found on bootlegged live sets. And while these songs could be seen as only being essential for obsessives, they play a crucial role in understanding the way the band operated.
For one, despite much of the band's subject matter skewing toward the sincere, Jawbreaker had a sense of humor that never translated to its records. They'd dash off cover songs and even mash them together—the shambolic "With Or Without U2" being a medley of U2 songs mixed with The Misfits and The Vapors. But at the same time, they'd turn a cover of "Chasing The Wild Goose," a Bad Religion song from the band's universally reviled and disowned album, Into The Unknown, into something actually worth listening to. Similarly, they'd have ten-second song like "Free Bird," which was constructed to shut down hecklers in record time.
Even in the wake of Dear You, when the band was already unraveling, they'd still be writing, often composing songs that would be some of their very best. As heard on Live 4/30/96, which was released posthumously and sees the band nearing the end of their run, there's "Gemini," a song that shows there was still plenty left in the tank. And "Elephant," a lost track from that era, feels like the missing link in Schwarzenbach's transition from Jawbreaker to his follow-up project, Jets To Brazil. If anything, it proves that Jawbreaker's B-sides and discarded bits were often as good as the songs that made it to the records and are certainly worth digging for.
Playlist: "Eye-5" / "Chasing The Wild Goose" / "Sea Foam Green" / "Friends Back East" / "Friendly Fire" / "Shirt" / "Gemini" / "Elephant"