The Story Behind L.A. Band Jawbreaker’s Return to Stage for ‘Dear You’

The punk trio is celebrating the album by playing it in its entirety this weekend at The Wiltern.
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It’s 1997, maybe 1998, maybe 1999. You’re eighteen, nineteen, you’re bored and you got one of those free AOL discs at college. You download something (whatever that means) and a few minutes later you’re chatting with people whose interests are as niche as left-handed redheads who love calico cats and the best Disneyland ride after 10 p.m. Those topics are fine, you guess, but this Internet thing is kind of boring. Until you find the punk chat rooms.
In these rooms, you realize the Internet is not as advertised. Another way of saying that is this: The Internet is as boring as real life, but, similar to the world that used to exist beyond the screen, there are a handful of cool people for every hundred congregated in any one space. How do you find these interesting weirdos, those whose definition of anarchy has more to do with the muscle between their ears and not their fists? They have a screen name that is, to you, an obvious Jawbreaker reference.
Or maybe a Jawbreaker quote on their profile page. Mine was from “Accident Prone,” a six-minute opus from the band’s 1995 Dear You: “It hasn’t been my day/for a couple years/what’s a couple more?” The track might not be that album’s best (that would be “Sluttering [May 4th]), but that lyric. If someone wants to know what Jawbreaker, and, more specifically, Dear You, is about, quote them those self-reflective, brooding, broody lines.
Dear You is what got me — and so many others like me — into Jawbreaker. We were those young people into punk, hardcore, Minor Threat and Bad Brains, fast, angry music and what was this band doing with lyrics that sounded like poetry but more relatable than what high school English teachers assigned? From “Million”: “Would that you could touch this angel in a clutch of snakes?/Oh pretty, pretty, I’m aflame/So excited, so unslept/Somewhat littered, so unswept/You have to sleep before you wake.”
Or what about “Fireman?”: “Dreamed I was a fireman/I just smoked and watched you burn/Dreamed I was an astronaut/I shot you down like a juggernaut/Dreamed we were still going out/Had that one a few times now/Woke up to find we were not/It’s good to be awake.” Those lyrics are as angry as any 90-second hardcore but more impactful because they are targeting a person. This song isn’t about Reagan, the government or the cops — this song is a direct “fuck you” to someone, a “I’m incredibly over you. So over you, in fact, I am going to write a song about you, which proves I’m actually not over you at all.”
Brilliant lyrics should have been enough to please Jawbreaker fans and earn the group a new audience. They weren’t. Instead, Dear You was not well received by some fans when it was released. Many called the trio — singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler — sell-outs for signing to a major label (DGC Records) when the threesome said they never would. That sort of thing mattered to punks during the early and mid 1990s, and some fans so disapproved that they turned their backs at shows when the group played a song from the album. If paying money to taunt a band you like sounds like a massive waste of time and effort, welcome to punk during the 1990s.
Maybe Dear You upset those who were there when Jawbreaker existed, those who felt betrayed by the major label signing, the layered guitars, Schwarzenbach’s clean, crisp, clear vocals, but those 13 songs kept the band alive for those of us who knew the band was dead, who knew we had just missed them, Jawbreaker, a band as important to our post- high school lives as Nirvana was during middle school.
At one point, Dear You was out of print, making it harder to find than 1990’s Unfun, 1992’s Bivouac and 1994’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. That makes no sense, the major label album buried in a stack of clearance racks across the world while three other records firmly planted in the J section of every punk record store. Such was Jawbreaker’s luck, its appeal and, perhaps, its downfall. The band made easily one of the best records of the 1990s and many people — not even its fans — seemed to care, which made those of us who did care passionate, devoted, maybe a bit clingy. If you were one of those people and you met a Jawbreaker fan at a show or an AOL chat room, that person became your friend because they knew something the rest of the world didn’t. That thing was Jawbreaker.
These people, the people like me, those who missed Jawbreaker the first time, we’re the ones who texted friends at 7 a.m. when the 2017 Riot Fest lineup was announced and Jawbreaker was the headliner. We’re the ones who attended all three Hollywood Palladium shows in 2018. And, presumably, we’re the ones who will be in attendance April 1-3 when Jawbreaker plays Dear You in its entirety at the Wiltern.
We spoke to Schwarzenbach and Pfahler — who attended Santa Monica’s Crossroads High School, making them according to the latter, an LA band — about Dear You, new songs and the impact Los Angeles had on them as musicians.
Los Angeles contributor Ryan Ritchie: What does L.A. mean to you?
Blake Schwarzenbach: L.A. was really formative for me because I was in high school and it’s when I first really went into seeing shows for the first time and really kind of began to identify as a follower of underground music and punk rock music. I still listen to a lot of those bands, X being one. The Dream Syndicate was a huge band for me. And Social Distortion. Seeing them as a young kid was pretty transformative. The other big thing at the time was SST. Meat Puppets and Minutemen were two of my favorite bands.

 

Adam Pfahler: I’m from Hermosa Beach. I’m a third generation Angeleno. My grandfather went to L.A. High School. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and played Pacific Coast League ball on Catalina Island. My dad was kind of this legend South Bay surfer from Hermosa Beach who was in Bruce Brown’s first movie Slippery When Wet. My mom’s clothing store was called Whispers. It was in Pacific Palisades. She owned it with her friend Sandy and Randy Newman’s wife Roswitha Newman.
 
Both of you attended Crossroads, right?
AP: Yeah. “Institutionalized” should have been the Crossroads anthem or something.
 
BS: I get the Cross Sections monthly newsletter, which asks me for money. I don’t have any money for that.
 
Is “Chemistry” about Crossroads?
BS: It is. Yeah, pretty vivid. I mean, I think I could defend most of those lyrics as accurate.
Which ones would you not defend now?
BS: I’ll stand by all of them. Anything we’re playing live, I think I can get behind, but that is a very specific song.
Adam, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you publicly not in a Dodgers hat.
AP: I wore my Dodgers hat when I got to San Francisco and I take a fair amount of heat for it. I’ve been in San Francisco now for 30 years and when you’re in a city for 30 years and you’re a baseball fan, you end up going to the ball games. I know this is going to be sacrilege to people, but I have a soft spot for both teams. The team that I grew up with was the Dodgers in the ‘70s and when I moved to San Francisco shortly after that, my old left fielder, Dusty Baker, was the manager of the Giants and I was like, this doesn’t feel like a conflict here. Why can’t I root for Dusty? I have that same Dodgers hat and it became not only emblematic of whatever my fandom for the team but it became the one constant. It’s my Jawbreaker costume and it’s threadbare. I have it with me on this tour and I’ll wear it every night because that’s the thing.
I hear rumors there might be new songs or new record.
BS: We’ve been utterly thwarted by the pandemic in our efforts because we’re all in different cities. We’ve been rendezvousing in Olympia to practice and write, but every time we kind of get a little momentum, there’s a new variant. We’ve got ideas and we’re trading ideas, but it’s really tough to get in the same room.
You were a band before the Internet and apps, so are you still of that kind of perspective that you need to sit in a room and work this out?
BS: Absolutely. Yeah. We tried a couple of the apps. It wasn’t creative. I could see if you were in kind of a different genre, you’re trading like loops and beats and tweaking on your own. Totally makes sense to me. But for our band, we have to be in the room.
Blake, in the past you mentioned that when people would ask you about a Jawbreaker reunion, you said you couldn’t sing those songs then. What changed?
BS: I think I had to get myself together physically. I was kind of a mess for a few years after, during and after forgetters. It took us going back and practicing together to see we had to first try it earnestly. That’s what it took — the offer of Riot Fest for us to be scared serious.
How did you re-enter these songs? Did you have to practice? Did they come to you?
BS: No. We had to practice a lot. I looked up tabs online. I watched other people playing our songs to see interpretations of those moves, but it didn’t come together until we were playing together. People talk about this and it’s really true — there is muscle memory, especially within bands. It’s kind of uniquely coded to those bands. Once we started playing together, the collective muscle memory began to reassert itself.
We did it very conditionally. First, we’re going to have to practice for a week and see if we can sound like the band that you’re hiring to do this. We did that and it took after a couple of days. We really started sounding like the San Francisco Jawbreaker of the ‘90s. Once we had that in place, we’re like, okay, the ability is there now. We need to commit to its execution. It was a six-month process of us getting in shape to play that festival.
Are there some songs you aren’t playing?
BS: There are some that are out of my range from earlier records that I can’t hit. Even an approximation of that scream. One that we want to play but just doesn’t sound good enough is “Do You Still Hate Me?” I know it’s a favorite of fans, but it isn’t quite landing. My voice has moved down some over time and I’d rather us be able to play a song.
How are you feeling playing the songs now? Does it feel like a high school reunion? Do you feel like somebody else wrote the songs or does it feel like you?
BS: It’s a good way to put it because at first it did. It felt like, oh, the way to approach it is we’re a cover band and covering Jawbreaker until you get into the skin of it. Now they feel like our songs. We’ve kind of established a comfort level and intimacy with the catalog that we’re touring.
Dear You is the record that got me into Jawbreaker, but the stories I’ve heard are of people turning their backs when you played those songs.
BS: It was an interesting kind of fateful wrinkle for us. It’s very Jawbreaker to me because so much of our music and lyrics are about paradox and contrary realities having to coexist and the idea that the record that broke us also kind of revived us, got us a whole legion of younger people who became interested because of that record, seems to fit in a way with the philosophical outlook of this band. That album was really difficult (but) ended up keeping us in people’s minds long after we broke up. It served us in the long run. I would say that it found its audience in a very belated way but also in a very significant way.
AP: That’s a very familiar narrative for us. I can’t tell you how many people come up and go, “Yeah, I wrote you guys off. You were sell outs” or didn’t think anything of it. (People) didn’t get to it until much later or after it was over.
Blake, when I spoke to you years ago, you said music is what you do. I know you taught literature, so why haven’t you published anything that isn’t music?
BS: I have not tried to publish anything other than songs and I don’t have a good answer for that. I would like to. I really would. People ask me a lot. Lately, because it’s kind of popular genre, people have approached me about some kind of autobiography or memoir and I do read those by musicians I like. It would have to be kind of more of in the creative realm of psychobiography or something a little bit more like my lyrics.
Does everybody have the reaction to “Kiss the Bottle” that I have? Is that the Jawbreaker song?
BS: It seems to be based on reaction. It seems to kind of epitomize or be a distilled version of the greater personality of Jawbreaker. It’s all kind of in that song. That’s where you’ve got heartache, poverty, down on your luck on the streets. Things that have become stereotypical in pop punk or whatever are in that song.
AP: I love that song too because people go apeshit when we play it. It’s really good because we had just learned the song and played it, and that was it, so it has an immediacy to it. That’s the last song that we played before Blake got his polyp, so he sounds rough. We always close with it.
What song do you think epitomizes Jawbreaker?
BS: I think that’s a good one. It’s definitely a narrative song for me. Like closer to my heart. It would probably be “Condition Oakland” or “Jet Black.” Those songs are real triumphs as a writer, both musically and lyrically, because they go to a place emotionally that seems more exalted to me. They’re more sublime in terms of the playing of them.
AP: I think “Accident Prone” is our best song of everything. Most people would be like, “They’re all of my babies and I love them equally.” No, you don’t. I’ve played certain ones that are better than other ones. That happens to be a really good song, I think. Something about when the chorus comes in. I love the breakdown. I love playing that song — that’s probably why I think it’s our best song.