Holy Mother of “May 4th,” if y’all didn’t believe in miracles before, then you had better start now.
After more than 20 years of silence, Jawbreaker, a band so acclaimed in the punk community they have become practically the stuff of legend, has reunited to play one show only (for now) at this year’s Riot Fest.
If you’re scratching you head while reading this and asking, “Who-breaker?” then I can only feel sympathy for you, dear reader. Yet your reaction is, sadly, not uncommon. For a group that has undoubtedly influenced just about any punk and alternative band of the last two decades, whether directly or indirectly, Jawbreaker to this day receives relatively little recondition.
Jawbreaker was a punk band formed in the mid-eighties, the cumulative result of vocalist/guitarist Blake Schwartzenbach, Adam Pfahler on drums, and bassist Chris Bauermeister. The band’s early recordings, including their 1990 debut LP Unfun, bore close resemblance to other bands rising simultaneously from the same zeitgeist such as Rites of Spring and Dag Nasty. That resemblance being a distinctly hardcore influence, albeit with a more melodic approach and more poetically-focused lyrics. These early recordings by Jawbreaker and company served as prototypes which later artists would refine and re-brand as the post-hardcore and emo-core genres not long after.
What distinguished Jawbreaker from their peers would appear in their drastically different second album Bivouac, only to be perfected in their follow up 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, namely their near-literary approach to lyricism.
Primary songwriter Schwartzenbach, a graduate of New York University with a degree in literature and creative writing, placed his love of beat poets such as Jack Kerouac at the forefront of his songwriting. There is an uncanny knack for observation throughout his verses, in such a way as to make the most mundane anecdotes seem meaningful. This is most obvious in the song “Chesterfield King” off 1994’s Revenge Therapy which chronicles the events of an otherwise uneventful night, yet somehow fills each line with both desperate urgency and childlike wonder:
I took my car and drove it down the hill by your house. I drove so fast. The wind it couldn’t cool me down, so I turned it around and came back up. You were waiting on your step, steam showing off your breath and water in your eyes. We pulled each other into one, parkas clinging on the lawn and kissed right there. Said all my chicks they smoke these things and handed you a Chesterfield King. Held your hand and watched TV and traced the little lines along your palm.
Yet even without Schwartzenbach’s modernist slant to painting with words, the band broke the mold musically as well. Often integrating elements of ambiance and noise rock, Jawbreaker’s penchant for sudden time changes and entrancing refrains set them on a very different tier than other punk bands at the time which often prized simple, repetitive compositions. This oddness often placed Jawbreaker somewhere between the burgeoning pop-punk of the time and avant-garde art rock popular on college campuses decades prior—which may have contributed to the band’s lack of mainstream success.
It was not until 1995 that the band released a record on a major label, the controversial Dear You, all prior records and demos having been independently produced. This lead to touring dates with mainstream bands, most notably Nirvana, of which Kurt Cobain was openly a fan of Jawbreaker’s music. However, Jawbreaker’s small faction of pre-mainstream fans saw Dear You as a sort of betrayal. By the time moderate mainstream success finally crossed the band’s path, internal conflicts had already sealed the its fate. Jawbreaker disbanded in 1996 not long after a poorly-received show opening for The Foo Fighters.
After calling it quits, the former members found success elsewhere, namely Schwartzenbach who gained acclaim with his next project Jets to Brazil along with a slew of others as time went on.
Yet post-breakup, the band accumulated an ever-growing fanbase, myself included. We would discover the band through various channels. Sometimes by accident, sometimes via the mainstream bands which were influenced by them, such as Nirvana, Green Day, Rise Against, and the later emo explosion which included Sunny Day Real Estate, Jimmy Eat World, and the like. I myself first heard them on an Interstate Video Magazine skateboarding VHS, which I received on my 13th birthday back in 2001, and was instantly fascinated by their sound.
Yet despite growing demand for a reunion, the trio continuously declined. Fast forward to April of 2017, and Jawbreaker’s name appeared as headliner on the last day of Chicago’s Riot Fest. To legions of fans who had given up on ever seeing the band up close and personal, the announcement came like manna from heaven: unexpected and wonderful. Though Riot Fest is no stranger to unforeseen reunions—The Misfits having suddenly played with founder Glen Danzig just last year after what felt like eons of heated legal disputes with bassist Jerry Only—Jawbreaker’s fringe status came as arguably even more of a shock.
The bad news is that only this date has been confirmed. This means that many fans who may be hard up for money or too far away will still not get their chance to see the band live. Yet if this one event could take us by complete surprise, despite the members themselves saying it would never happen, then perhaps there is hope that Jawbreaker will have even more surprises up their sleeves.
We can only wait and see. Regardless, my faith in the impossible being possible has been restored.
Jawbreaker headlines Riot Fest on Sunday, September 17th.
Check out the official Riot Fest website for event tickets and further details as they emerge.