Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach On ‘Dear You’ And Getting Back On The Road To Tour Again

For a solid 20 or so years, people couldn’t merely have conversations about Jawbreaker — the trio of Blake Schwarzenbach, Adam Pfahler and Chris Bauermeister broke up in 1996 following their fourth and final album Dear You, and any mention of the band had to resemble a passing down of mythological lore.

They were the West Coast Fugazi, revered as an ethical barometer to the point where it threatened to overshadow their actual music. A&Rs soon viewed them as the next Green Day, a comparison made overt when Jawbreaker linked up with Dookie producer Rob Cavallo for the major-label debut they once swore they’d never make. And as a result, Dear You was an extinction-level event in American punk; “My girlfriend at the time smashed the promotional cassette copy I gave her and walked away in disgust,” Brandon Stosuy wrote in a Pitchfork review for the 2014 reissue of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, the album that preceded Dear You. “People were shell-shocked at the glossier production: I honestly saw a man with a Jawbreaker tattoo weeping at the record store where I worked.” Jawbreaker is a centerpiece in Dan Ozzi’s recent oral history of “the major label feeding frenzy” that occurred in punk, hardcore and emo in the mid-90s and beyond. The title of said book is Sellout.

But as these things tend to turn out, the initial reception of Dear You only enhanced its myth going forward. Commercial failure was proof of its misunderstood genius; it regularly tops the Best Emo Albums and Songs lists that have been commissioned in large part because their influence has increased exponentially in the past decade. At a time when countless defunct emo or punk or indie acts from the 90s reunited to far larger and more receptive crowds than they ever saw as an active band, rumors would circulate about the astronomical guarantees that Jawbreaker turned down every single time. And then in 2017, the silence finally broke — they headlined the final night of Riot Fest in Chicago, the kind of slot typically held by the likes of Run The Jewels, Slipknot and Nine Inch Nails.

After a small run of shows throughout 2018 and assorted festival appearances, Dear You is the center of an event commensurate with its reputation — a 27-date tour where Jawbreaker will play the album in full, supported by opening acts encompassing a universe of emo, pop-punk, modern rock, and classic indie where Dear You is a central axis. If you’re at one of the four sold-out shows at New York’s Irving Plaza, Jawbreaker will be supported by rough-edged, literate punks Worriers and Shellshag, along with teenage sensations The Linda Lindas. The sold-out San Francisco dates feature Jawbox and queercore icons Team Dresch, while numerous dates feature the Lemonheads celebrating the 30th anniversary of It’s a Shame About Ray. Even then, one might be envious of the cities that get to see Samiam or Dillinger Four or Built To Spill and Smoking Popes on the same bill. And then there are the shows that opener with punk-adjacent stand-ups like Kyle Kinane and Chris Gethard.

And yet, as he’s about to embark on a tour to celebrate a two-year belated 25th anniversary of Dear You, Schwarzenbach is still bemused at the legacy of an album that was treated like a rounding error by the label accountants. “We were getting our feedback from DGC where if it sold 50,000 copies, no one’s gonna tell you that,” Schwarzenbach recalls during our Zoom conversation. “That’s not gonna make a dent in the cost of the record.” In fact, most of his memories about Dear You are lost in some kind of fog of war. He compares its creation to “being in a SEAL team or something,” the three members isolated in a dark studio in Berkeley with Cavallo and engineer Neill King. “My recollection of it is that the record went out and it felt more or less like silence for the next month,” he admits.

For obvious reasons – “say, a life-killing virus and a war in Ukraine” – the band has been experiencing a modern analog to their 1996 bunker mentality. Schwarzenbach admits that he’s been most affected by being unable to see his family and friends across the country, less so by the restriction of public socializing. “I’m pretty happy to read, exercise, paint, I have three cats who I hang out with and that’s never not entertaining,” he jokes. “But we’ve all been locked down for two years so there’s palpable excitement for going out on the road. Everyone’s really optimistic.”

2017 was like a massively coordinated reintroduction of Jawbreaker to the world — there was a 33 ⅓ book about 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, an oral history, a documentary, the Riot Fest show. Did that relieve any of the pressure of doing a more straightforward tour like this one?

Those things aren’t really a factor for me or for us anymore, I don’t think we’re battling anything…from then. Let me say we are indeed battling plenty now with COVID, and just the idea of being out on tour at the end of this part of the epidemic…and at our age doing a tour on a bus, it’s pretty big. Even by old Jawbreaker standards, this is a full U.S. tour.

Are there any amenities or interpersonal boundaries that you realized were non-negotiable for being able to tour over a sustained period of time?

I think we want to be comfortable. The best way we could do that is by using a bus, and we’ve never done that. It’s certainly better than the flying we did [in 2017-2018], which would be ridiculously expensive. It’s important to have one place to put stuff and lie down at any good point. Other than that, we have a really good crew we’ve been working with for the past four years and so it’s basically the same people we started with at Riot Fest. So we need our people and we need wheels and rehearsal and that’s about it.

Have you ever seen a band do a similar album-based show? When Jawbreaker reunited in 2017, it seemed like every festival would have something along those lines.

It’s not a genre I’m drawn to, we were lucky enough to be at Riot Fest when Dinosaur Jr. was doing You’re Living All Over Me, just by chance and that was great. I grew up with that record, so seeing it performed was a blast. We’re trying to figure out the format — we’re going to play the entire record but that doesn’t mean we’re going to play it in order. I haven’t seen enough to know this for sure, but I figure we can do what we want as long as we fulfill the obligation to play the whole record.

Were there any songs that you had to completely relearn?

I think there were at least four [songs] that we relearned again — I’m pretty sure we’ve never ever played “Oyster” live or “Unlisted,” which is kind of semi-acoustic. We had to figure those ones out.

I’ve heard bands will literally pay people to redo tablature for songs they forgot how to play — what’s your process like?

I’ll look on “tabs dot com” or whatever, just to get the outline. And as soon as I have the structure, I can piece back together the way I play it. And then we get back into a room and it all starts to gel really quickly, we all did our homework.

Especially on an album that has so many layers of guitars, is there anything from Dear You that makes you think, “I dunno if we can pull this one off?”

Technically for me, “Million” is really hard because it’s got a lot of moves in it for guitar and vocal and different levels of intensity. It’s a lot of toggle and pedal switching, that’s challenging. There’s a couple of songs where we leave some of the stereo guitars out or a third or fourth guitar we played in the studio that I didn’t bother with.

There are obvious theoretical challenges to revisiting music you wrote nearly 30 years ago — bands tend to retire songs that they can no longer relate to or haven’t been embraced by fans. Conversely, are there any songs from Dear You that tend to resonate with you more in the current day?

Since we started playing again, I think “Accident Prone” and “Jet Black” are set highlights, as both songs we’re proud of and songs that tend to soar a bit. But for the other ones, it’s about the reaction in the crowd sharing the space and the level of excitement…if there is excitement. That can bring me back to a place that’s rad, like, “people really like this song.”

While reading about Dear You within the context of Sellout, I was reminded about how certain albums that were underappreciated in their time can take on this revisionist history to inflate the legend — like with Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, the band is quick to note that their career was still on an upward arc even though they were dropped from Capitol. Or how Weezer’s Pinkerton was supposedly called “The Worst Album of 1996” in Rolling Stone even though it got a 3-star review. I’m curious about how you perceived the reception of Dear You as it actually happened.

It was pretty chilling. Like a muted acknowledgment. I didn’t experience any hatred of the music firsthand. We were in a weird place, we were a little isolated and defensively prepared for anything so we kinda put it out and hid for a bit. It just felt like a non-event. To be fair, I did hear from the people I know and were working with at the time, they surprised us by writing and saying, “Hey I got your record, it’s really deep.” If we were smart enough to listen to the people we trust, there was a lot of support in our circle.

Was there a point when you started to realize that the narrative shifted on Dear You?

I didn’t get anything explicitly for that record til more recently, but certainly when Jets to Brazil started touring, the amount of fanfare for Jawbreaker was kinda crippling. It was hard for that band in the beginning because people wanted Jawbreaker, so I was surprised at the popularity of my old band in the face of my new band. And then, from afar I kinda watched its status elevate as more younger musicians and people started to get into it and refer to that record to say “I love the guitars on that,” or whatever it was.

“Accident Prone” is probably the song that inspired the most covers. Do you have a favorite?

The one Julien Baker did, because I’ve seen the video because I loved her interpretation with the piano — a literal transcription of the dissonant guitars which I thought was really amazing and then, of course, her natural gift for interpreting songs.

The tour from 2018 had an intriguing mix of openers like Waxahatchee and Charly Bliss that contemporized Jawbreaker as an influence. There’s that element here as well with The Linda Lindas and Best Coast, but also legacy acts like Built To Spill or the Lemonheads, is there a greater concept at play as far as how you want to render Jawbreaker’s lineage?

That’s us picking the bands, it’s mostly Adam because he knows more people than Chris and I. But the Linda Lindas are family friends and most of the bands are people we know and admire – Jawbox obviously, and the Descendants. But The Lemonheads, it was just our luck to get them able to play some shows, that’s a band I love and grew up with. We just picked our favorite bands that seemed like they would fit the bill and could add a co-headlining feel.

Especially with the way “90s indie rock” can be seen as more monolithic in retrospect, it makes sense to see Jawbreaker on a show with Built To Spill or The Lemonheads, but were you in the same circles with these bands back when Dear You came out?

I didn’t know either of them back in the day, but I’d go see them play live. Jawbox and Jawbreaker are pretty closely affiliated, we shared sob stories about the major label trip. As for the rest of them, I was just a fan.

Having stand-up comedians as openers is a pretty bold choice, though I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often.

Adam used to run a comedy club underneath his video store, he had a speakeasy that was in the basement. He began to meet a lot of touring and local comics in the Bay Area and that’s how it started for us, he just asked some of his friends like they were a band — “you wanna do your act?” And it worked out well. It’s weird, I always feel really bad for [comedians] because a rock audience isn’t very attentive and it’s hard to get people to listen to you especially when there’s that whole “murmuring crowd” energy. But they’re always really game

Did playing solo shows give you a better understanding of what a stand-up comedian goes through on stage?

I had always thought it seemed like a very terrifying endeavor and I know there’s a lot of psychology around that — that comedians are masochists, and I believe that. It does seem like a certain kind of pathology drives one to that. But I have total empathy for them, the first time I played solo, it was a nightmare. It ended up being really good but preparing myself to be without voltage behind me was heavy. In terms of a show, I like having a stand-up because it’s unexpected, people kinda freak out, like what the fuck’s going on? Having some discourse begin the evening shakes up a little bit.

The last round of Jawbreaker shows were in mostly the biggest cities in America. Are there any that you’re especially looking forward to this time around?

Everything that’s “secondary market” for me — we’ve played Chicago, New York and Los Angeles a couple of times, but I find historically that the more interesting shows happen in the “ignored” towns, there’s energy and appetite there. I personally love Detroit, I find it to be a fascinating city and I have friends there, it’s not a city where bands always go. Denver, I used to live in Boulder. I’m psyched. It will be novel to be looking out at the changing landscape. I’m excited about being on the road, honestly. I love being in cars, sleeping. We’ve got books, we got each other…we got windows.