This morning, I broke the news that Jawbox would be reuniting on a late-night TV show to be named later. It got named! This all set off a flurry of Tweets and blog posts: who knew so many people were pining for mid-’90s posthardcore? “This is all rather funny, isn’t it?” Jawbox singer-guitarist J. Robbins wrote in an e-mail today. “We’ve been kicking the reunion idea around for a while, not particularly seriously, since we decided to do the ‘Sweetheart’ reissue,” he wrote. “When the Fallon opportunity came up, I think everyone looked at it this way:
1. it can be sort of a “diet reunion” – any time we’ve discussed playing again, we all agree that we’d want to be as good a band as we were 12 years ago. But 12 years ago, we could afford total immersion: we all lived together, rehearsed 3 times a week for 4 hours at a stretch and toured 6 – 8 months out of the year. It’s much easier to imagine doing justice to one song for one day than it is to imagine pulling off a full set and tour, particularly with [drummer] Zach [Barocas] being in NY and with the family and work commitments that we have. Maybe this will adequately scratch the reunion itch for those of us who are feeling it.
2. it’s such a weird idea, such an unlikely opportunity, why wouldn’t we do it?”
As to a reunion beyond the confines of late-night television, Robbins wrote: “I don’t think that doing the Jimmy Fallon show would really be a likely catalyst for that sort of thing. Or would it? I think we are all just playing this by ear and we’ll see how much fun we have. But it’s still unlikely given our number one condition, which is not to suck if we got onto a real stage in a room with people who give a shit about seeing us play. I think we’re all a bit taken aback that anyone is paying attention.”
A few days before all this, I spoke with Robbins about the upcoming reissue of For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Jawbox’s 1994 major-label debut.
Washington City Paper: So why reissue this record now?
J. Robbins: Originally the idea was just to do a vinyl reissue of Sweetheart. We pressed it to vinyl on Desoto when it first came out—-an eternity ago—-but that was it.
When we started talking about that and then the other piece of the puzzle was that I record bands—-that’s my work now—-and Bob Weston has mastered a few records I recorded. I really love his work as an engineer, particularly because the stuff I’ve sent to him—Wino’s record, the new Clutch record—on both of those there’s a real focus on low end. Bob is really good with the low end.
In both cases everybody was super happy with the low end. That was pertinent to Sweetheart. Our one misgiving about it—-I mean, that record meant a great deal to all of us in Jawbox—-but you know, when I would listen back to it I would think “What’s up with the low end on this record?” The original version is a really interesting sounding record—-there’s this extremely abrasive agitating upper midrange—-but I always thought I’d be so psyched if it had a tougher low end, some meat to it. It kind of haunted me. If I could go back and change anything about it would be to give it some oomph. And when we decided to do that, why not just go for it [do it on CD, too]. You know, revisit the record in a way that kind of where we can address this longstanding misgiving. We just listened to the test pressings. We’ve just been listening it with headphones and comparing it to old version. Sorry, that’s a little esoteric to be fired up about. It’s not that the original mastering was anemic sounding—-the original recording, we loved it. But you put the master tapes up, the original just sounds like the mixes. Having this extra heft in the low end feels more like our band felt when we were playing. Mastering has this awesome depth and clarity. It makes me really happy.
Everybody always said you took a lot of heat for leaving Dischord, that it was a scandal. Is that really true? Or is this something that got blown out of proportion by rock critics looking for an easy lede?
Nah, I don’t think it was quite like that. Our friends were supportive of our decision. Everybody who knows us knows that we really agonized about it. We worked overtime to make sure we could make that move without feeling that we were compromising what we were about as a band.
It’s such a dead subject, though, because mainstream music industry is heaving its dying gasp. It would be really weird to make that choice in ’09. The people that would tend to make a stink about a decision like that they’re the people who tend to get wrapped up in trivia. And their opinion was not something we would lose sleep over. It was an opportunity to have greater resources and reach. It was also, really, an opportunity to continue doing our band. Without that decision Zach…he was starting to think about doing other things beyond playing drums in a band.
There were a lot of factors. Had we not gone to Atlantic our band might not have been around and make that record. Also we had never had the budget to hunker down in a studio for six weeks. It forced us to learn and to focus on things we hadn’t focused on before. There were a lot of [technical] things we didn’t realize we were glossing over. We had never had Ted Nicely sitting there, forcing us to think about how we were playing. We came out of it a much better band.
It’s sort of a philosophical argument: One argument says if we’re on MTV and we’re on the radio and we’re using corporate sponsorship to put something good forward that we can change the culture. Another philosophy says if you’re on TV and using those same conduits, you are the same as Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears and that whatever you have to say is as meaningless.
I think both those points are valid. With the benefit of hindsight…I’m automatically more interested in something that comes up from below. But there’s no doubt that we benefited tremendously, and I’m not even talking about we got a big budget.
The other funny thing was that after we signed to Atlantic, you get this contract with these huge numbers. The numbers look ridiculous, it’s easy to see why people get so passionate about it. But now that it’s all said and done I look back at the money that I personally took away from our Atlantic deal and It’s a laughably small amount of money for an adult to live on. It didn’t mean I could move out of our band group house or buy a car. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is by far the best Jawbox record. We were able to make it turn out because of all those other factors. There were other things that were a pain in the ass but it was good for our band.
What did you do in the studio that made Jawbox a better band?
Working with Ted [Nicely] was very fascinating to me. I think we were a sloppier band than we realized. Musically there was a dividing line in my life—-before and after Sweetheart. Before that I had no conception of being before the beat and behind the beat. But after a week of working on Sweetheart…I knew. Ted was a real stickler about it. It was tremendously hard work a lot of times and sometimes really discouraging. But then it was like a switch turned in my head and I could hear when Zach was playing behind the beat. I notice that there was an emotional impact to it.
Sweetheart was really us battening down the hatches. Once we figured that out, then that became a platform for all of this nuance. It opened up a lot of things about musical performance to me. But yeah, that was it. We were not sitting in there thinking about how to write a song that sells more records.
I guess that was one of the reasons we were able to get the record back so easily. By our estimation it was a huge success. By theirs, it was a flop. We sold at least three times as many as we had ever sold as many as we did on Dischord and we did pretty well on Dischord. Atlantic looks at a number like that and they’re like “Sorry, not a gold record, you’re going to have to go.”
Was there some kind of plan/goal when you went in to make that record?
I don’t think there was a plan so much that we just wanted to make the best record we could make. What was in my head was dissatisfaction with previous recording experiences. Any time that I ever went into a studio before Sweetheart it was like, “Whoa! I’m in the magic kingdom, how am I gonna get it all done?” You feel the pressure of time. I don’t think we ever spent more than a week making a record up to that point. The excitement eventually gives way to anxiety. You’re looking at the clock and thinking “Guess I didn’t really finish writing these lyrics, I’ll just sing this, but I can’t sing it, but I have to nail it by 8.”
Listening to those [early] records, they recordings are not equal to the songs. I can’t listen to old Jawbox records without thinking “This could have been so much better if we didn’t have to rush it through.” So with Sweetheart we thought “This time we’re not going to have misgivings.”
Did you have any expectations for how the record was going to be received? You know, rock stardom expectations?
We were just like, “Lets take this opportunity and see what we can get out of it.” It was a weird moment where majors were just signing everybody. After Nirvana the majors were completely confounded and thinking “Sign everything that comes from that same underground because we don’t know why it worked but it worked.” So, I think every band that got swept up in that. Every band suddenly believed that there were no rules about what would tweak people’s imaginations. My biggest memory about Nirvana was just that it sounded so fresh, you’d hear it on the radio and think “Wow, the mainstream was really mired in a world of crap. There’s something that really doesn’t suck. It’s pretty different.” We never would have admitted this to ourselves, but I’m sure that deep down we thought, Why couldn’t it be huge? But we were never like “Now’s our chance!”
How did “Savory” become the record’s single?
It’s weird to me that everybody heard “Savory” and said that was the single. I’m proud of that song, but the thought that anybody heard anything single-worthy on that record makes me chuckle. It was a good song, though, a real step forward. It was one of the first songs that we wrote with Zach. To start playing with him was a tremendous musical change for our band. He had such a strong personality as player and writer. The drums are half the story in those songs.
They really wanted us to rerecord a song that was called “Novelty,” from last Dischord record, and that song is a much more conventional boom-bam rock song. And we were just like, “Why are we going to rerecord a song?” We said no. After that I remember the other discussion that there was going to be a single and if we didn’t choose, the label would choose something.
What happened with your second Atlantic record?
The second Atlantic record came out and the only reason you would know is, like, I can show you a copy. Atlantic didn’t put any energy behind it. That coincided with us burning out. We had been a band for eight years. We were burning out on touring so much. We had figured out our thing and it was hard to know how to expand upon it.
So, would Jawbox be willing to get back together? Everybody’s doing it now. Maybe just to play some shows?
I don’t think so. We’ve entertained the notion of playing some shows. But that’s as far as its gotten. We’re all very involved in our own lives. And our lives are a lot different than they were then. For us to reunite and be a band again…I can’t see it happening. It’s conceivable, but only remotely, that we could play some shows. Part of the reason that we were a good band in the first place is that we had this maniacal dedication and total immersion in our band life. We could not have that again. It might be fun to play some shows, but I don’t think it would serve any of us to try and recreate that band. Definitely not a plan. Our lives are all very full and trying to do it means trying to do it well, which means putting in time that maybe we don’t have. And half-assing it is just not an option.