By 1982, hardcore punk had firmly established itself as a distinct subgenre of rock music. Initially taking inspiration from the energetic but relatively traditional rock'n'roll of the original 1970s punk bands, these new outfits opted to make their music even more aggressive. Indeed, in playing their primitive three-chord songs faster, louder, and rawer than their progenitors, they often managed to obliterate any traces of melody whatsoever in their music; in some instances, screaming was substituted for singing and song lengths were pared down to less than a single minute. The term "hardcore punk," however, had two implications; not only did it describe the extreme aural qualities of the music itself, but it also served to differentiate the bands from the more commercial "new wave" outfits of the era whom corporate entities were vigorously marketing as the true heirs of punk rock. The fiercely independent ethics of the hardcore punk groups in turn inspired thousands of disaffected teenagers around the globe to pick up instruments and form their own bands. Blake Schwarzenbach, Adam Pfahler, and Chris Bauermeister were three such teenagers.
As Santa Monica residents, Schwarzenbach and Pfahler had been privy to the development of hardcore punk in the Los Angeles area, witnessing live shows by luminaries such as Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, the Descendents, and the Minutemen. They also spun records by the likes of D.O.A., Husker Du, the Big Boys, and the Meat Puppets, among many others. Schwarzenbach, a guitarist, and Pfahler, a drummer, teamed up with bassist Rich DesSert in their high school and dubbed the new group "Red Harvest," taking the name from the title of Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel. Influenced by the expansive, experimental punk typical of bands on the SST Records roster, Red Harvest deviated from the typical hardcore formula; Schwarzenbach would later describe his first band's music as "instrumental gloom rock," composed primarily of twenty-minute jam sessions replete with "feedback and leads." The project was relatively short-lived and yielded no recordings or record releases. However, it was significant in that it cemented the bond between Schwarzenbach and Pfahler, who would remain musical partners for the next decade. Additionally, Red Harvest sometimes played out with Magnolia Thunderpussy, an influential, eclectic high school band whose members included singer Jon Liu, guitarist Chris Hundley, bassist David Jones, and drummer Patrick Palma; Schwarzenbach and Pfahler would later recruit Liu for an early incarnation of Jawbreaker.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country in Connecticut, Bauermeister - hitherto a new wave and progressive rock enthusiast - discovered punk rock in his last years of high school. Initially latching onto various British Oi! bands - Bauermeister has cited Red Alert as an early favorite - he gradually began consuming records by hardcore staples such as Bad Brains, SOA, Minor Threat, the Misfits, Gang Green, Angry Samoans, Circle Jerks, and Ill Repute, to name a few. The Anthrax was the place to catch shows in Stamford, CT, and Bauermeister absorbed the music of local Tri-state area bands (such as Vatican Commandos, Lost Generation, 76% Uncertain, No Milk On Tuesday, Seizure, CIA, Adrenaline O.D., and Agnostic Front), as well as countless other touring bands who passed through the state. A bass player, Bauermeister would jam with friends, although a formal band project was never put together. Interestingly, Bauermeister has described these early music-making sessions as producing little more than "drug-induced improvisational garbage," a description not so far off from Schwarzenbach's account of Red Harvest's music.
In the fall of 1985, Bauermeister moved to New York in order to attend New York University. During his first year in college and into his second year as a sophomore, he began to discover the introspective, melodic post-hardcore of DC bands such as Government Issue, Marginal Man, Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, and Soul Side - music which he would later introduce to Schwarzenbach and Pfahler - as well as other post-punk bands such as Big Black and Butthole Surfers. Bauermeister also began playing in a band for the first time; his bandmates were Richard Baluyat, later of Flower and currently of Versus and Whysall Lane, and Ian James, later of Flower, Cell, and French. In the meantime, Schwarzenbach and Pfahler had also entered New York University, and the two of them were roommates in an NYU dorm. In the winter of 1986 at NYU, Bauermeister posted an advertisement in his dorm's cafeteria in hopes of forming a band. Intrigued by the ad, Schwarzenbach and Pfahler responded, and the three musicians who would eventually call themselves "Jawbreaker" came together for the first time. The trio rented out a practice space and began writing and rehearsing songs; according to Pfahler, their first public performance occurred when they provided the soundtrack to a "rock opera" featuring his sister Kembra Pfahler (later a member of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black), which consisted largely of punk rock cover tunes. The trio worked well together and had a natural chemistry; in fact, when Pfahler ended up transferring to UCLA at the end of the term, Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister didn't even consider looking for a new drummer. Rather, the band opted to become a bi-coastal, part-time effort except during summers and holiday breaks, when the three would come together to play and write new songs. By the summer of 1987, the band had taken on a fourth member: ex-Magnolia Thunderpussy vocalist Jon Liu, who also attended UCLA. The quartet recorded a demo which was informally distributed on cassette tape; Liu handled the vocals and lyrics on all of the songs except for "Shield Your Eyes," which was sung by Schwarzenbach.
After their junior year ended in mid-1988, Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister decided to take a year off from school in order to rejoin Pfahler and Liu in Los Angeles. The band had assumed numerous names over the years - at one point, they were tentatively dubbed "Thump" - but by the second half of 1988, they were calling themselves "Rise." By the fall of 1988, Liu had parted ways with Schwarzenbach, Bauermeister, and Pfahler - a change that would mark a turning point in the history of the band.
II. Jawbreaker (Part One)
Upon Liu's departure, Schwarzenbach took on the bulk of the vocal duties, with Bauermeister occasionally singing lead in his own songs. The trio also rechristened themselves "Jawbreaker," a name which was taken from a band-name brainstorming sheet and which none of them could attest to having written down. Meanwhile, on October 20, 1988, Jawbreaker recorded another version of "Shield Your Eyes" with Harris Doku in Santa Monica; the song was a slow DC-influenced epic replete with octave chords and tortured lyrics. Jawbreaker sent the tune to an LA radio show hosted by Walter Glazer, who played it on the air. Someone associated with the fledging Shredder Records label happened to be listening, and he liked what he heard. Jawbreaker was contacted by Shredder, and the band contributed the song to a 7" vinyl compilation on the label entitled The World's in Shreds Vol. 2. Released in February 1989, the compilation contained Jawbreaker's first officially released song.
On February 3, 1989, Jawbreaker went into a Santa Monica studio to record their first full demotape with Vinny Fazzari and Joel Badie. The demo, which was later unofficially distributed on cassette as Demo #1, was comprised of moody, mid-tempo post-punk songs. In retrospect, the songs weren't stylistically dissimilar from the earlier "Shield Your Eyes," but they did evidence a tighter and more musically interesting band; additionally, Schwarzenbach was clearly developing into a powerful, affecting vocalist, while Bauermeister, a distinctive singer in his own right, only contributed one lead vocal performance (two of Bauermeister's vocals were left on the cutting room floor).
The band played their first show proper as Jawbreaker on March 16, 1989 at Club 88 in Los Angeles, CA. In May of 1989, the band went into a studio in Venice, CA to record their first full 7", entitled Whack & Blite E.P., with Michael James; in the three months between Demo #1 and Whack & Blite, the band had adopted a faster, more aggressive sound that was firmly rooted in the sonic fury of hardcore punk, but nevertheless retained a keen sense of melodic interplay and memorable hooks. The trio returned to Michael James to record the song "Busy" for another 7" release in June of 1989. During this period, the band began to play out more regularly, driving up to the San Francisco bay area to play local venues, including the now-famous 924 Gilman Street club. On August 3 and 4, they would return to James yet again to record a group of songs that became collectively known as Demo #2. The recordings marked the last time that Bauermeister would contribute any vocals whatever, lead or backup, to the band's recorded music, although he continued singing lead vocals during live sets until the end of 1989. In any case, Schwarzenbach had by this point clearly emerged as the lead vocalist and lyricist of the band.
In the fall of 1989, Bauermeister and Schwarzenbach returned to NYU and continued writing songs in Schwarzenbach's apartment. During winter break in January 1990, the pair flew out to California, rehearsed with Pfahler for a week, and proceeded to record their first LP with Richard Andrews in Venice, CA. The album, entitled Unfun, came out later that year on Shredder Records. Musically, it continued in the melody-infused hardcore punk tradition of Whack & Blite, Busy, and Demo #2, albeit with a tighter performance, a more polished production, and surprisingly powerful, throat-shredding vocals courtesy of Schwarzenbach; lyrically, it was characterized by self-loathing, depression, a lone love tune, and a few vaguely political numbers. In order to support the release of their new LP, Jawbreaker embarked on their first national tour in June of 1990; they played multiple dates with Econochrist, Samiam, and Fuel. While the "Fuck '90" tour was a resounding success, the band broke up after its completion; the trio had decided to take time off from the band in order to finish school. In December of 1990, Bauermeister earned a BA in philosophy and literature, and in May of 1991, Schwarzenbach earned a BA in English literature and creative writing and Pfahler earned a BA in history.
III. Jawbreaker (Part Two)
After graduating, the band reformed and relocated to the Mission District in San Francisco in the summer of 1991. In lieu of new material, songs from the first two demos (which hadn't been officially pressed on vinyl) were released on various compilations and split 7" records. Pfahler even took the time to record a few songs with the band Tri-State Kill Spree for their Bathtub Meth 7" record. Meanwhile, the band began composing songs for their next album. Jawbreaker's Bivouac LP/CD was recorded in San Francisco by Billy Anderson in October of 1991. Five songs from the session were released on the Chesterfield King 12" on Tupelo/Communion Records in the first half of 1992; the LP, which was released in late 1992, included "Chesterfield King" and eight other songs from the session, while the CD compiled all thirteen songs. Compared to the first album, Bivouac was an epic; the songs were slower and gloomier, but also notably more complex in terms of structure and instrumentation. Gone were any political lyrics, having been fully replaced by those dealing with emotional despair, relationship issues, and semi-autobiographical episodes. In a sense, the album as a whole was a rejection of the fast hardcore of Unfun, and perhaps a throwback to the impassioned mid-tempo epics of the band's earliest days, albeit in a more refined form; indeed, a rerecorded version of "Shield Your Eyes" was chosen as the opening song on the album.
1992 would prove to be an eventful year for the band. They started it off by recording a song for an REM tribute compilation with Anderson in February, and Schwarzenbach contributed some backing vocals to a pair of J Church songs in March. Around this period, Unfun was pressed on CD for the first time. In August, the band returned to Anderson again to record a song for a compilation of Mission District bands; musically, the song "Kiss the Bottle" was simpler and poppier than the brooding songs of Bivouac, although no less gut-wrenching in the lyrical department. In the late summer and fall of 1992, Jawbreaker embarked on the "Hell is on the Way" tour, playing dates in the midwest and east coast before heading to Europe for the first time to play gigs in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Norway. Over the course of the long tour, Schwarzenbach's raspy singing style finally caught up with him, and he required throat surgery in the first week of October in London in order to remove polyps after a spout of coughing up blood. Bauermeister and Pfahler also suffered medical problems soon after the tour. Pfahler underwent the knife to fix his knee and a collapsed vein in his arm, and mere months after that, Bauermeister developed severe shoulder pain.
Despite these ordeals, the band trudged on into 1993. The bulk of their third album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, was recorded by noted independent producer Steve Albini in Chicago in March, and directly afterwards, the band tirelessly began their "When It Pains It Roars" tour, during which they would play shows across the entire country into July. Schwarzenbach also contributed some backing vocals for a Screeching Weasel song around this time. After recuperating from the tour, the band decided to record a few more songs for the album with Billy Anderson in August of 1993 in San Francisco. In late October, Jawbreaker made the controversial decision to play a few dates in the midwest with the popular rock group Nirvana; they were subsequently reviled by fans who despised what they perceived as the band's flirtations with corporate America, especially in light of Schwarzenbach's long-standing and outspoken opposition to major labels. After the Nirvana dates, Jawbreaker along with J Church played the one month long "Steady Mobbin' the USA" tour. The band wrapped up the year in December by recording two songs with Kevin Army in Berkeley which were later released on compilation records.
24 Hour Revenge Therapy finally came out on vinyl and CD in early 1994 on Tupelo/Communion Records; the band had opted for a more straightforward, poppier sound than that of their last album, making good on the promise of "Kiss the Bottle." A short west coast tour occurred in mid-January, and the full-scale "Come Get Some" tour filled up most of March and April. After the tour, the band members pursued a few side projects; Schwarzenbach contributed a song to the Milk Cult album Burn or Bury, while Pfahler played drums on the Strawman EP entitled Shoot Me Up. In October, Jawbreaker returned to Europe and played in the UK and Italy. Throughout 1994, backlash from the Nirvana shows continued unabated as fans heckled the band for "selling out." In interviews and during live shows, Schwarzenbach began to emphatically shoot down any rumors of major label aspirations, and became even more vocal in expressing his anti-corporate viewpoints. Yet by the last few months of the year, rumors of Jawbreaker's signing to a major label had become even more pronounced. Ironically, this time around, they would prove to be true.
After talking to a number of major labels, Jawbreaker in late 1994 decided to sign with Geffen Records. In later years, Schwarzenbach would justify the move as one that was intended to save the band, which had been on the verge of breaking up at the time. Their fourth album, Dear You, was recorded by Rob Cavallo in February and March of 1995 in Berkeley, CA and came out on vinyl and CD on Geffen Records in September of 1995. The slick, professional, radio rock production scared away many long-time fans who saw the band's signing to a major label as a callous, hypocritical betrayal of their indie ethics. Regardless, Jawbreaker's music remained potent as ever; the album showcased a new plodding, mournful song type in the forms of "Accident Prone," "Jet Black," and "Basilica," again forsaking the pop punk style of the preceding album and harkening back to the epic songwriting of Bivouac. The band shot a video for the song "Fireman," which was released as a single and received some radio play. They toured the country in October and November to support the album.
In early 1996, the band flew down to Australia for a handful of shows. Their next and final tour began in April of 1996. From mid-April to early May, they opened for the Foo Fighters, and they finished up with Tanner and Engine 88 for a week, and finally Fluf and Jr. High for the last week. However, the tour proved to be the breaking point for Jawbreaker. One night, tensions between Bauermeister and Schwarzenbach exploded in the form of an all-out physical brawl. Coupled with disappointing album sales and the alienation of their fanbase, the end of the band was all but spelled out. Jawbreaker played their last show on May 19, 1996 at the Capital Theater in Olympia, WA. After a month of inactivity, the trio officially disbanded in the summer of 1996.
In the summer of 1999, a live recording, entitled Live 4/30/96, was posthumously released on Allied Recordings as the label's one-hundredth and final release. One hundred vinyl copies were given out in a lottery-style contest. A CD of this recording, with an extra track, was released in October of 1999 on Blackball Records, Pfahler's own label. In addition to album selections, the release featured a sampling of new songs that had never been recorded in a studio on account of the band's breakup. In the summer of 2002, a long-awaited double LP and CD compilation of rare and non-LP material, entitled Etc., was released on the same label. Dear You, which went out of print soon after the band's breakup, was reissued on the Blackball label in early 2004; while ill-received at the time of its release, the album is now considered something of a lost classic - a bleak but beautiful document of a once-mighty band in the process of "falling apart," in the words of Schwarzenbach.
Jawbreaker was one of punk rock's all-time greats. They harnessed an energy essential to all great rock'n'roll - indeed, their aggression often rivaled the best hardcore and thrash of the '80s in terms of sheer power - but also possessed a brilliant melodic sense and emotional rawness which allowed them to improve on the legacies of the classic SST and Dischord bands who originally inspired them.
Jawbreaker's popularity has skyrocketed since their breakup. A new generation is discovering the band, long-time fans continue to keep the records in constant rotation, and the truly obsessed keep up the search for obscure live recordings and demos. Without a doubt, Jawbreaker's timeless music will endure for years to come.