San Francisco punk veterans Jawbreaker rewrite their history
It’s a familiar rock ‘n’ roll tale. A band gains a loyal following, raises enough money to release albums on their own, get wooed and signed to a major label for megabucks, then ride off into the sunset on a tour bus brilliant 18-wheeler.
San Francisco punk veterans Jawbreaker almost followed a similar route, but fate gave them a brutal detour.
After rising through the Bay Area punk ranks in the early 1990s, Jawbreaker signed to Geffen Records in 1995. Longtime fans rejected the follow-up album, “Dear You”, and rebelled against the band. They broke up a year later.
Except that’s not the whole story. Years later, “Dear You” has had a second wind and has been rediscovered for the punk-pop classic that it is – a well-worn diary filled with grief, despair and mortality mixed with cathartic waves of guitar, bass and drums. “Dear You” is now considered an essential ’90s alt-rock album and, though the band may not care, a model for contemporary emo.
Now, Jawbreaker plans to mark its pandemic-delayed 25th anniversary celebration of “Dear You” — which the band is set to perform in its entirety — with three sold-out shows, Thursday-Saturday, March 24-26, at The Fillmore.
“A lot of the songs read like fiction or diary entries, and because they don’t contain a lot of timely politics, that makes them a bit more timeless,” said Jawbreaker drummer and band archivist Adam Pfahler. to The Chronicle during a recent phone interview. As a result, “Dear You” has become more revered over the years, its mythology being passed down from person to person like scripture.
“Singing about heartbreak and being disappointed and trying to figure out what to do next, those are universal themes.”
As for the nearly three-decade delay in touring behind a once reviled and now famous album, Pfahler admits the band’s timing has always been lousy.
“It’s really good that it’s happening right now because we can appreciate it,” he said. “It’s crazy because we are 55-year-old men. It’s like we’re Major League Baseball’s oldest rookies.
A brief introduction to local punk: In the early 90s, Jawbreaker – the trio of Pfahler, guitarist-vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach and bassist Chris Bauermeister – were the darlings of the burgeoning scene at 924 Gilman St. in Berkeley, which spawned icons like Operation Ivy and Green Day. . Jawbreaker were billed as the heirs to the East Bay punk throne, with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong going so far as to remark in Jawbreaker’s 2017 documentary “Don’t Break Down” that the band would fill the gap. gap between Green Day and Nirvana.
This big leap almost happened. After three independent albums marked by Schwarzenbach’s vulnerable lyrics and clever puns, the band wanted to try something different. In 1995, they signed with Geffen Records for, according to legend, $1 million, and spent six weeks – the longest time they had ever had in the studio – with Rob Cavallo, the album’s producer.” Dookie” from Green Day. What emerged was “Dear You,” a polished album buzzing with guitar overdubs. Schwarzenbach’s painful roar was reduced to a melodic, ear-pleasing roar, in part due to surgery on his throat he had to remove from a polyp.
Longtime fans and punk keepers turned their backs on the radio-friendly sound and confusing “Fireman” video. The album’s intellectual and emotional depth went over the heads of the targeted alt-rock nation, which at the time was fed a steady diet of Offspring. Above all, Pfahler said, the media forced a twisted narrative: A renegade indie band betrays its followers for a chance at superstardom.
“Our story overshadowed the content of the record,” Pfahler said. “That’s all everyone was talking about. We had left our indie and went to a major – that was the narrative that everyone clung to. Not just Maximum Rocknroll, it was the tale of BAM, the SF Chronicle, Spin – that we betrayed all of our people by chasing a dollar. I don’t remember any review talking about the songs themselves or Blake’s lyrics.
What these former fans and critics missed in their rush to condemnation was that “Dear You” was a brilliant and breathtaking album. Songs like “Save Your Generation” and “Fireman” reflect empathy for a nihilistic post-Cobain era. “Jet Black” and “Basilica” are towering testimonies of pain and loss. “Million”, “I love you so much, it’s killing us both” and “Accident Prone” are incandescent journal entries set to a wall of overwhelming sound.
At the time, the band couldn’t celebrate “Dear You”.
The label stuck them on bundle shows for modern rock radio stations, doing three-song sets between Tripping Daisy and Fretblanket. During an opening tour for Foo Fighters, a fight between Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister sparked the inevitable. The trio agreed to split in 1996; Schwarzenbach traveled to New York to pursue education and play in bands including Jets to Brazil, while Bauermeister pursued a doctorate in Germanic history and worked at a food bank in Olympia, Washington.
Pfahler stayed in San Francisco to air Lost Weekend Video in the Mission and the movie rental store’s basement comedy club, the Cynic Cave. All the while, Pfahler took care of Jawbreaker’s business – running the band’s website, sending out emails, fulfilling merchandise orders, and receiving enticing reunion tour offers.
Pfahler says interest in Jawbreaker and “Dear You” never went away. People came to Lost Weekend to confess what Jawbreaker meant to them. Copies of the out-of-print version of Geffen and the band’s merchandise were commanding outrageous sums on eBay. After years of waiting and negotiating, Pfahler was able to reach a licensing agreement with Geffen to re-release “Dear You” with bonus tracks in 2004.
It sparked a full-fledged renaissance as a new generation got to hold on to “Dear You” for the first time. The band reunited in a studio for the first time in 11 years for a controversial 2007 reunion that was recorded for “Don’t Break Down.” But it wasn’t until 2017 that they would reunite on stage for their first show in 21 years – at the tiny Ivy Room in Albany for a friend’s birthday. A week later they sold the Rickshaw Stop. Both gigs were warm-ups for their triumphant headlining reunion show at Chicago’s Riot Fest.
Pfahler said the chemistry between the three never left.
“Musically, it’s exactly the same,” Pfahler said. “These are the guys I learned to play music with. Me and Chris don’t have to look at each other. It sounds cheesy, but it’s almost telepathic.
As they embark on the 25th anniversary “Dear You” tour, the environment is markedly different from the lean years touring in a smelly van. Jawbreaker is expected to play 28 dates and travel in a well-proportioned bus with 12 berths. And they’re bringing a lot of big bands with them, including Washington, DC alternative rockers Jawbox and Washington State queercore punk rockers Team Dresch, who are set to perform with them at The Fillmore. Old friends like Face to Face and Samiam, and new artists like Linda Lindas and Grumpster, are expected to fill the top spots across the country.
And perhaps the biggest difference of all: they will be celebrating the album in front of crowds who won’t turn their backs, who recognize its importance in the pantheon of pop music.
Jawbreaker’s impact is felt today by artists like Fall Out Boy, Deftones and My Chemical Romance, while emo – once considered a dirty word by many ’90s punks – is enjoying a renaissance, with nostalgic festival programming. Echoes of Jawbreaker’s intimate, confessional style can even be heard in contemporary indie and emo rap.
But while this tour sounds like a happy ending for the band, Pfahler is quick to point out that the Jawbreaker story is still unfolding. They are already working on new songs and aim to record a new album. And they still want to tour Canada, South America and Japan.
“This reunion tour came at just the right time,” Pfahler said. “As for ‘Dear You’, it’s a happy ending. But for the three of us, it’s a happy start.
Jawbreaker’s “Dear You” 25th Anniversary Tour: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 24-26. The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., SF www.livenation.com