Ten years ago Jawbox were invited — much to their surprise — to perform on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The beloved D.C. post-hardcore favs had been on hiatus since the mid-Nineties, and were prepping a remastered reissue of their fan-favorite 1994 album For Your Own Special Sweetheart. They had no intention to reunite for any shows to promote the record, but then an overzealous publicity rep surreptitiously put a plan into motion.
"The publicist … contacted late night because she knew that the booker was a Jawbox fan," says guitarist-frontman J. Robbins. "She did all this without telling us and then she came back to us and said, 'Hey, Late Night wants you to play.' And we were like, What?
"So we kinda got hornswoggled into it," he continues, "But we all agreed that it couldn't go beyond that because everyone's lives were too complicated."
The gig went great, and the band went their separate ways as planned. But a seed was planted, and for the decade that followed Robbins and his bandmates would periodically speculate about teaming up for another live go-around.
"We have been talking about this in a very passive or kind of fun, speculative way," says Robbins. "If we reformed, maybe we could go here or there, places we never did. It was all kind of idle talk. But we're not getting any younger so if we wanted to do this and thought it would be fun and worthwhile, we should do it."
So, in January 2019, after nearly two decades away from the stage, the band — Robbins, bassist Kim Coletta, singer-guitarist Bill Barbot and drummer Zach Barocas — announced they would be hitting the road this summer for a batch of U.S. shows.
"We feel lucky that we … can revisit [Jawbox's music] with this sort of grown-up frame around it," says Robbins. "Because when we did it in our twenties … Well no one has their shit together in their twenties."
Formed in 1989 in Washington, D.C. from the ashes of long-running capitol-area punk staples Government Issue, Jawbox was started by Robbins, Kim Coletta and Adam Wade (the latter of which left the band to join Shudder to Think). After building a considerable following and dropping several lauded releases on the venerable Dischord Records, Jawbox and labelmates Shudder to Think were swept up in the mass signing of indie bands to majors post-Nirvana.
Soon thereafter they released what many consider to be one of the classics of the post-grunge era, the great For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Featuring thirteen tracks, the LP is filled with wall-to-wall excellence, led by the killer single "Savory," which was famously covered by post-hardcore band Far as well as the Deftones. The band toured heavily off of the release and into their follow-up, the self-titled LP, logging dates with bands like Jawbreaker, Nada Surf and even Stone Temple Pilots as part of their Purple tour with Redd Kross and Meat Puppets. But shortly after the release of the self-titled record, Jawbox called it a day. Its members splintered off into other bands and their reputation as an incendiary live band faded into distant memories.
With the U.S. reunion tour looming, we cornered Robbins for a chat about the long road to the band's return, the current state of music and the band's considerable legacy.
FOLLOWING THE APPEARANCES ON LATE NIGHT TO PROMO THE REISSUE, HOW WERE THINGS LEFT AND HOW DID THAT LEAD TO THE NEW GIGS?
J. ROBBINS The real catalyst for the reissue was that we felt like we could remaster the record and give it some things that it didn't have before, even though we were never unhappy with the original sound of it. But in the interim, over the years we listened back to the original release and thought, It could use a more robust low end. What if it felt a little more kind of physical. Because I had worked with Bob Weston [of Chicago Mastering Service] on some projects and I knew this was something that he was capable of doing, that was the big spark for the reissue. We were never going to tour around that reissue because everyone had moved on to their fairly complex grown-up lives in different places.
We had a fairly positive memory of our band, and whatever else you wanted to say about Jawbox, we always gave it 110 percent live. And we felt like if we couldn't live up to that, then we shouldn't do it. And then Bobbie Gale, the publicist who worked on that reissue, contacted Late Night because she knew that the booker was a Jawbox fan and she was like, "What if we could get Jawbox to play?" He was like, "Yeah, well that'd be great! That'd be super cool. We'd love to have them." So she did all this without telling us and then she came back to us and said, "Hey, Late Night, wants you to play," and we were like, "What?"
So we kinda got hornswoggled into it and then we thought, Well, that's good in a way because if we can't tour at least we can learn four songs and be really good, hopefully as good as we were then. But we all agreed that it couldn't go beyond that because everyone's lives were too complicated. It was nice because it put us in a positive frame around our Jawbox time.
We kinda all look back on it: "Look at this, look what we did. It was all right." And that's not bad – that's kind of a nice nostalgic thing. But over time, for me at least, you know, like I've continued to make music and I put out records ... I've done solo shows and had bands and stuff. And so more recently I've had this positive feeling about the Jawbox material ...
I think that a Jawbreaker getting back together was probably inspirational to us [reforming] because that was a band that had a really special chemistry and they seemed like they never would reform, but it also seems like if they ever did ... they could recapture that chemistry.
Another factor is we're all getting older, we have been talking about this in a very passive or kind of fun, speculative way. If we reformed, maybe we could go here or there, places we never did. It was all kind of idle talk, but we're not getting any younger, so if we wanted to do this and thought it would be fun and worthwhile, we should do it. Particularly because there may not be a country left to tour next year.
WHAT WERE THE EARLY PRACTICES LIKE WHEN JAWBOX FIRST GOT BACK TOGETHER?
Jawbox started to have some exploratory practices in end of July, beginning of August, something like that, and it was pretty fun. After the first practice we understood just how rusty we actually were, but it was basically overwhelmingly positive and fun. We feel lucky that we did it and can revisit it with this sort of grown-up frame around it, because when we did it in our twenties…. Well no one has their shit together in their twenties. Presumably we could write some new material, do other shows but this just might be it, so I think that the focus right now is revisiting this thing and doing a good job of it.
SO ALL OF YOU HAVE BEEN ACTIVE EXCEPT KIM COLETTA, CORRECT?
Kim had to literally dust off her amplifier. She forgot it was in the attic ... She moved on to a career — she's a teacher and a librarian — and she put a lot of energy into "grown-up" pursuits. She's like, "Well I'm not a musician, you know." And then was kind of trepidatious about picking up the bass – wondering whether she would be able to do it. The rest of us knew, but it was really cool to see her come back and kind of realize that she hadn't really lost a step.
THERE ARE TONS OF BANDS THAT REVISIT THE SOUNDS OF THE 90s AND CLEARLY YOUR INFLUENCE IS FELT ALL THESE YEARS LATER. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT?
Speaking personally, I don't really have much patience for the whole idea of things that become hip for a short time ... If someone proclaims that guitar music is dead, rock bands are dead and people are going to be DJs now, then six months later someone else will be rebelling against that. I tend to think of it as a continuous thing. I haven't paid attention to the ebb and flow of what people think is cool – I just think music is too personal. So I don't really know ...
Also I know where we got our stuff from – we didn't invent the things that are in our sound spontaneously for the first time in history. They're all because we were listening to Sonic Youth or Peter Gabriel or whatever it was and it's just the particular stew that we made out of all those ingredients. Nobody can claim originality, so it's ridiculous to get too hung up about that.
I will say that that 90s nostalgia as a concept freaks me out because to me the 90s are, in a way, not that long ago. In a lot of other ways, when you think about it, it seems like a very long time ago, but you could put on a Roy Orbison record and if it's relevant to you, it's relevant to you.
AS A PRODUCER AND A GUITARIST, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS REGARDING THE IDEA THAT GUITAR SALES ARE DOWN AND THE EASE OF USE OF PROGRAMS AND SEQUENCERS HAVE MADE IT MUCH SIMPLER TO BE A MUSICIAN?
Making music on a computer is amazing, and the fact that people can do it can do a whole production and create a little world while sitting at a desk is incredible. But the particular social construct of three or four people having to get together in the room at the same time, where it's kind of noisy and sweaty and a little bit annoying – the social energy of a band, even if that world is very small and self contained, it's still a connection. I don't think that energy is ever going away ... it's gonna always be there in some form.
In the same way that technology is incredible, it does kind of cheapen the value in others. I do think about that. I think about that even in terms of like ... I'll boil it down to my personal experience lately. I finished working on a solo record and hopefully it's going to come out this year. And so I've been thinking a lot and talking to people about the fact that you can go on Bandcamp and look and see how many people have even listened to your whole song, or can only get through the first chorus and then just abandon it. That's kind of a normal way of listening to music.
So what I ended up deciding with my record is that I don't give a shit. I'm not going to front load the record with the songs that I think ... I just am not going to play that game because if the music is going to connect with somebody, it's a waste of energy to do a song and dance to try and get people to look further.
CLEARLY JAWBOX WAS SWEPT UP IN THE POST-NIRVANA BOOM OF ALTERNATIVE BAND SIGNINGS BY MAJORS, WHICH IS FASCINATING. LOOKING BACK, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT TIME AND ITS EFFECT ON MUSIC AS A WHOLE? Surely the idea of signing Jawbox to a major label is like, "Do you listen to our record?" But that's what was really great about that time. I don't think that we got caught in it, but I think were really lucky – a wave came along and we were able to actually surf it fairly adeptly. We're so lucky. We were profoundly really lucky because we just got caught up in it at the exact right moment when labels really didn't know what they thought would succeed, you know.
I think to some degree we owe a lot Fugazi, because those labels really wanted to sign them and since that wasn't gonna happen, they were like, "Well, Shudder to Think and Jawbox don't sell as much but were the other best-selling bands on the label." I think it was a really positive time because people suddenly got exposed to a lot of weird music and therefore a lot of weird ideas to which they wouldn't have. They were so blindsided by the thought that they could make more money that they didn't really pay attention to what it was they were promoting. And that doesn't happen very much.
We really took pains to make sure that we kind of brought as much of our DIY ethics with us to the major label thing. And I think in general we made a pretty decent go of it.