Post-hardcore heroes Jawbox: “We’ve all been through enough things”
Earlier last month, heads swiveled, eye sockets stretched and heart rates elevated when beloved ’90s post-hardcore/noise rock unit Jawbox announced their plans to reunite. The band’s weekend reunion trek, christened An Impartial Overview, begins in June at a select number of cities across America.
After cutting their teeth with two albums on the D.C.-based label Dischord, delivering another two high-velocity releases for Atlantic Records and countless road miles logged, the band—guitarists/vocalists J. Robbins and Bill Barbot, bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Zach Barocas—quietly adjourned in 1997.
They reunited in 2009 for one rehearsal to later appear on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to mark the reissue of For Your Own Special Sweetheart via Dischord. And then it was over again.
They never sold out arenas or achieved Gold-certified record status, but Jawbox’s contributions to the underground can’t be understated. With every clashing guitar chord, menacing bass line and algebraic beat, Jawbox elevated the possibilities of punk and life after hardcore, keeping the energy just as high as the melodic subtlety.
They brought more “rock” to the noise-rock equation when that genre became impenetrable (or worse, boring), while their inspired vocal melodies and lyrics cast the personal as political. For all the factions who screamed “sellouts!” when they left Dischord (their first gig was opening for Fugazi), there were just as many ardent fans who, burned out on Nirvana and Green Day, wanted to see Jawbox win.
“Punk, like hardcore, hasn’t always had to have been explicitly political. It’s had to have that energy of being fed up.” — J. Robbins
“Some people think they’re going to be rock stars,” Barocas offers. “Others just want to be good and do that for a while. I think [Jawbox] were better attuned to having this idea of finding one’s own voice. Which is something all of us took for granted in our generation. There wasn’t anything to do: You were going to work for some corporation, or you were going to find your own voice.”
“We had no idea how this would go over because it’s really unknowable,” Coletta says. “Look, I know there were some people who were going to be excited, for sure. Were they dozens of people? Hundreds? Thousands? I was freaked out by the sizes of the venues that we booked. Personally, I am so humbled that people still care after all these years. Because they don’t have to.”
Submitted for your approval: a celebration of velocity, sweat and acceleration—and the friendship that weaves through them—in the words of the members themselves.
IT DIDN’T GO WRONG—IT JUST WENT
In the late-’80s and early-’90s, the members of Jawbox weren’t particularly interested in a world of financial gain or to drive a huge flag into the terra firma of rock history. While touring, the band routinely raged through clubs like a molten sword through a flimsy paper universe teeming with faceless McAlternative bands who helped make commercial radio even more dreadfully bland between the 44 daily spins of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Having been impressed with their ability to make walls of entire buildings sweat, Atlantic Records courted the band, ending up releasing two albums, 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox in 1996. In many ways, it was business as usual. They continued touring in a van, playing a lot of the same venues they had done previously and felt like they were poised to do some things much like many of their compadres in the trenches. Atlantic’s desire to do any kind of promotion behind their second album was foreshadowing; they were dropped soon after its release.
When it looked like they had accomplished everything a band could do in the days before social media and GPS, Jawbox called it a day.
ROBBINS: The No. 1 reason why we gave up is that we were burnt. Every step until the release of the second Atlantic record felt like a step forward. We had a great run as a band, but we were at it hammer and tongs for eight years—and then it wasn’t clear what the next step should be that feels like progress for us.
We were at a point after the second Atlantic record came out, and we were thinking, “What would feel like progress now?” And Zach was like, “You know, going back to school would feel like progress. That would be awesome.” Some form of adulthood beckoned, and I thought that there’s one more thing that bands can do that we hadn’t done yet. And that’s break up.
ZACH BAROCAS: I think some of it was regular young-man hubris. I think some of it was in my latent alcoholism. I think some of it would be legitimate artistic differences. My last band, the Up On In, wasn’t anything like Jawbox at all; I wasn’t interested in playing that stuff. I wanted to lead a band [and] live in New York. The first step of that breakup was my leaving.
BILL BARBOT: I had reached the point where I wanted to be a grown-up, and I felt like our chance of grabbing the brass ring as Jawbox came and went. We did great. I had no regrets about that, but it did turn into the rock ’n’ roll career lifestyle that would have made it possible to do things like not worry about making rent or get married, have a dog, stuff like that. I didn’t necessarily feel like I was turning my back on it as much as I was looking at a new horizon.
A lot of the things that destroy bands didn’t bring us down. There was a collaborative mutual decision to stop playing as Jawbox when we quit. It wasn’t because somebody went off the deep end and pulled a gun on somebody in rehearsal. There wasn’t a lot of drama in our original breakup, so it wasn’t that hard to come back together.
KIM COLETTA: I think every year, since 1997, J. would probably have said, “If you want to play shows, let me know. I’m on board.” Sometimes he didn’t say that, but he was always enthusiastic.
I didn’t have melancholy around [the Fallon show]. I found it really fun, but it didn’t light a fire. My life was really on: My son was 8 or 9 years old, I had a full-time job teaching and it was getting close to the time Bill and I split up. There was a lot of mental energy that goes into that kind of thing in your life. There was no way the Fallon appearance was going to lead into anything. It took this long for the stars to align with all four of us to be comfortable with each other and want to do this.
CHECK YOUR CYNICISM
Smug millennials and dust-farting Gen X denizens fond of flexing their cynicism toward band reunions are as common as garbage politicians. While Jawbox did sign to a major label in a climate that defined that very gesture as an act of treason, the band really didn’t benefit from it. Not entirely, anyway: They were able to make the records they wanted to with the budget that Atlantic gave them. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything remotely commercial about “Savory,” Sweetheart’s only single.
Despite routinely filling up clubs, Jawbox’s ceiling of popularity was significantly lower than the alt-rock royalty (cf. Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins) reigning at the time. Because there’s not a lot of fertile ground for the harvesting of money, the tired argument of Jawbox doing it for the cash-grab certainly doesn’t apply here. So the only reason for the quartet to regroup was the reason they started in the first place.
BAROCAS: The question I put to my bandmates was, “Wouldn’t it be cool to play this music as adults?” I was a angry little guy back then. It’s pretty nice to play this stuff with all the attendant force. It’s fun to play that and not resent the people I’m playing it with. And I don’t think that’s the way it went when I was younger. I resented everybody when I was younger. So the idea was: What if we get back together and do what we do, where we would do it at the scale we would do it and except now, we’re nicer people. I was always pleased with us being a rather dignified band.
BARBOT: We were too weird to make any kind of consistent rotation on radio anywhere. You don’t get on Apple Music or Spotify and say, “Give me deep cuts alternative ’90s radio hits.” Jawbox aren’t even going to show up on that shit. We were way outside of that realm. Which was fine for us, but not fine for our label.
We attracted an audience of real music nerds who saw through the marketing machine and the vibe of everybody trying to find the next Nirvana. We liked being in front of people who understood us for what we were, not for who they wanted us to be. And those people shockingly—to me anyway—are still out there.
“Because music isn’t sonic wallpaper, it’s communication. Some people like guitars that fight with each other instead of shake hands.” —J. Robbins
ROBBINS: We’re a music fans band. That’s why we had a band; the energy of punk and hardcore music hit us right when we needed to be hit when we were teenagers. Once we got that energy, we wanted to be a part of it, before any of us even knew each other. We always wanted to be giving back to this dialogue, which is a big part of those indie scenes. It was not like manna from on high: “The famous and unapproachable superheroes of rock are now going to give you the scraps from their table you crave in order to give your life meaning.” We’re in this together, we’re all making culture and we’re responding to each other; it’s a community thing.
If you’re in your 20s and in a band trying to pursue some kind of countercultural life outside of the mainstream, there’s a certain element of flailing and thrashing—despite the extent to which you are self-aware and capable. Everybody is struggling to make sense of shit. The world didn’t get any simpler, but through the benefit of age, we’ve all been through enough things. And it’s cool to bring ourselves back to this enterprise and let it be fun.
BACK TOGETHER, BACK TO WORK
Barocas may have been the first domino to fall in 1997, but was the first to do the groundwork of putting it all on paper to present to the band. Working with longtime friend and booking agent Mahmood Shaikh, Barocas determined a plan for the band to go out on weekends and be able to maintain their lives and responsibilities while playing the music that thousands of fans hadn’t heard live for decades.
When everyone signed off, it was a matter of starting band practices. Beginning last August, Barocas, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, got up early in the morning before dawn Saturday to drive to Robbins’ home in Maryland so they could practice in his basement. After working up a sweat for a few hours, he’d turn around and drive back. Monthly rehearsals became twice a month. Before the shows in June, they’ll be practicing weekly.
Although the three of them had been active in music since the Fallon performance (Barocas with Bells, Robbins with Channels and Office Of Future Plans and Barbot most recently with Foxhall Stacks), Coletta’s bass stayed in its case. She practiced in her bedroom to records, plugged into her practice amp.
BAROCAS: Mahmood and I worked on [the planning]. I came back to everyone and said, “This what we came up with. What do you think?” And they would say, “Sounds great. What did so-and-so say?” In the end, everyone said yes, and we started getting to it. The four of us aren’t used to being a part-time anything together. I wouldn’t call it a hurdle, but the challenge is how do you do this when you already have a life?
BARBOT: There’s a white board in the practice space. Songs in black, songs in red. The ones in red are the ones that are giving us the most issues. There are songs that we can play: We are technically able to play them. But then there’s playing them like we mean it. It’s a bit more difficult to drop it into that groove.
“The world didn’t get any simpler, but through the benefit of age, we’ve all been through enough things. And it’s cool to bring ourselves back to this enterprise and let it be fun.” —J. Robbins
ROBBINS: It’s funny how different it felt before we announced the thing. Up to that point, we were just practicing old songs in the basement. It was very abstract, and we could pat each other and ourselves on the back for remembering old material and thinking, “Hey, we sound all right.” Then we started to play actual sets and then it was like, “Uh, we gotta drill down on this…” [Laughs.] Once it was announced, it was time for the actual action and not the contemplation.
COLETTA: There was trepidation at first, but once I committed, I was all in. I’m not going to tell you I was all aces after not playing music for a number of years. I had homework. I’m not afraid of hard work. Some songs I learned so quickly—like in 10 minutes. Others, I was like, “I have no memory of playing this in my life, even though I know I did.” Others took me two weeks to lock down. I’m writing bass tabs for these songs, because I’m not going to learn these for a third time! [Laughs.]
PICK ONE: LEGACY MANIFESTATION OR UNFINISHED BUSINESS
The music Jawbox created was fuelled by a powerful personal chemistry, an irresistible desire to create culture and the ability to divine concise rock songs through levels of chaos that were never going to massage the frontal lobes of a nation transfixed by Clear Channel-approved sounds.
In the time since then, the world is progressively worse on all fronts, political, social and cultural. There seems to be a rage deficit within modern culture, one that should be reflecting the sense of fury that people feel while evolving sonically. A song like “Chinese Fork Tie” isn’t going to trigger any warm and fuzzy nostalgia reflexes. It seems like Jawbox’s reconvening is perfectly timed to redress a lot of mediocrity inherent in underground-rock culture.
COLETTA: I’m just an observer. I find it very interesting that at this time where [society] should be raging, everything is smooth and happy.
BAROCAS: Most people are better tuned into their own generation than other generations. The key to any music was authenticity. This would’ve been true for what was popular at the time. The concept of grunge was “This is the way these people dressed and sounded all the time.”
To say the world needs us? I would never say that. But a lot of times, I’ll see a band and think, “Why are these guys so worked up? Why aren’t they working harder on playing it than working so hard trying to get across that they’re working hard?”
COLETTA: I don’t know if I would even use words like “rage” or “fury.” I think we can pick our own adjectives. There was a symbiosis about [Jawbox] that just kind of worked. In a way, I think it was perfect that we took a promo photo in a Baltimore County public library for this tour. Because honestly, we are pretty geeky people. But we’re always passionate about what we do, and I think that always came across. I always wanted it to, and I didn’t want to if it didn’t. That was always the driving factor for us.
BARBOT: I think to react against the music that is happening now and the cultural currency that is currently in favor, I would have to be more disgusted by it or be more in tune with it in order to be disgusted by it. Obviously, something big happened after Jawbox stopped being a band: The internet took over the world. As a 50-year-old dude who has a day job, [there’s] a minimal amount of time to react to a maximum amount of stuff that’s out there. It’s not like, “These young whippersnappers out there playing punk rock? I’m gonna show ’em what punk rock is.” Truth is, I don’t know: They could be playing fantastic punk rock for all I know or just fantastic music, in general.
ROBBINS: Punk, like hardcore, hasn’t always had to have been explicitly political. It’s had to have that energy of being fed up. I think this current scene is a subculture unto itself, and there’s a social dialogue, and it’s a way for people to be outside the shitty mainstream and talk about things that are important that aren’t necessarily reflected in the energy of the music. There’s something in there that has to get out.
Because music isn’t sonic wallpaper, it’s communication. Some people like guitars that fight with each other instead of shake hands.
WHERE THEY WANT TO BE
When Jawbox head out this tour, there will be countless expectations everywhere, from backstage, onstage and out in front. The chances of these current dates getting expanded are slim, as the members have a lot of living to do. (Coletta and Barbot have to get their son ready for college in August.) But for right now, they’re all up for the challenge and the celebration. Because life really is about the journey and not necessarily the destination, we’ll end on the band’s favorite moments on the way to An Impartial Overview.
BAROCAS: I’m not sure what practice, but it was during “FF=66.” But I feel that every time we start that song, we’re totally bulletproof. It’s so overwhelming to make that much noise. That’s the moment where I think, “OK, this is great.”
ROBBINS: Sometime during our second rehearsal, I looked over at Kim, and she was exactly the same Kim Coletta from the For Your Own Special Sweetheart tour. As opposed to being the person who said to me, “I’m not sure if I can do this. It’s been such a long time.” If I had to pick one moment, that’s a pretty good one.
COLETTA: I had a healthy bit of negative-self talk going on. You create any kind of art, you’re putting yourself out there. And I felt vulnerable. There was a point at a practice two or three months ago: I was playing pretty well that day, [and] it was coming together. But during that practice, I stopped overthinking everything. The logistics of the tour, how are we doing all of this, we don’t have a tour manager anymore. I just stopped, stayed in the present and enjoyed the moment. And I thought, “Wow, you can do this.” It was a great turning point moment for me.
In a way, this year makes no sense for me personally, although it makes really good sense for others in the band. And I just went with the majority. You know what? I’m gonna try this, man. I’m gonna give it my best. Peer pressure: It was peer pressure! [Laughs.] Everyone’s so excited. I’m going to get excited, too.
Jawbox’s tour kicks off this June in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can check out a full list of dates and grab tickets here.