Jawbox - Biography
Jawbox emerged on the tail end of the now legendary Washington, DC hardcore scene. Frontman J. Robbins did time in a later incarnation of Government Issue, a staple DC punk band, but Jawbox was always much more “post” than “hardcore.” Forging an angular, dense, riff-heavy sound that owes more to Chicago art-punk than DC hardcore, Jawbox would pave its own way through the DC scene. While many remember the group for being the first band to leave Dischord Records for a major label, Jawbox’s true legacy exists in the four albums of unique, passionate post-punk the band released during its eight-year lifespan.
In the summer of 1989 Robbins formed Jawbox with bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Adam Wade. The trio released its self-titled debut EP in 1990. This release also marks the debut of the band’s own imprint, Desoto Records, a label that would go on to release many other great bands and serve as Jawbox’s final home. Immediately after the release the band worked hard, playing shows and accumulating songs. Heading into the studio with Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys, Jawbox set out to record its debut full-length for Dischord that same year. Grippe was released in 1991. While the band regards this album as slightly unfocused and naïve its still a captivating listen and a promising debut full-length. These twelve songs (the CD version adds the four tracks from the debut EP) explore angular Chicago post-punk with a melancholy, Joy Division inspired darkness. Highlights include the churning “Freezerburn” and “Consolation Prize.”
After the release of Grippe Jawbox added a second guitarist to the fold. Bill Barbot had previously played in Clambake. His addition to the band brought a denser, more textured sound and allowed the group to explore more complex song structures. Early 1992 saw the band record its second full-length with producer Iain Burgess and later that year Novelty was released on Dischord. These twelve songs see a marked improvement in songwriting, melding unique structures with inventive guitar interplay and a muscular rhythm section. The guitars are the focal point, and Robbins and Barbot work extremely well together to create some mesmerizingly dense riffage that sends the band’s punk roots into near-shoegaze lushness on tracks like “Static,” “Spiral Fix” and the stunning “Tongues.”
Following a lengthy American tour in support of Novelty, Wade left Jawbox to play in DC glam-punk outfit Shudder To Think. A fan of the band and roommate of Colletta was recruited to fill the spot. Zach Barocas did more than fill in for Wade. He brought a unique style to the Jawbox sound, adding a polyrhythmic, jazz-influenced depth to the band’s churning riffs.
In the wake of Nirvana’s unexpected and unprecedented success, the early ‘90s saw major labels literally sifting through the independent underground for the next “big thing.” The members of Jawbox were very aware of this environment when Atlantic expressed interest. The band had been resolutely self-sufficient since its inception. Ultimately the band signed with the major, but only after crafting a contract that allowed it to maintain a large amount of control.
By the time the group went into the studio again, now with major money allowing for more recording time, Jawbox had been touring constantly. The band’s shows from this time are legendary, passionate and explosive showcases of precision. For Your Own Special Sweetheart, the group’s third album and debut for Atlantic, was released in 1994. Any fans worried that the band would change its sound for a major label were squashed by the intensity and genius of this record. A powerful blend of brilliant guitar playing, textural noise, off-kilter melodies and one of the best rhythm sections in alternative rock, these thirteen songs endure as some of the best post-punk of the ‘90s. The album is more dynamic than the band’s previous output, charting searing peaks with “Jackpot Plus!” and “Motorist” and hypnotic lulls with “Green Glass.” “Cooling Card” and the strong-arm groove of “Savory” scored the band minor alt-rock hits. As much as some indie purists might not want to admit, this record stands as one of post-hardcore’s finest moments and is certainly Jawbox’s best effort.
Even after a tour with labelmates Stone Temple Pilots and some video rotation on MTV, Jawbox wasn’t selling what Atlantic had hoped. The band went into the studio again to record its fourth album. Simply titled Jawbox, the band opted for a slicker sound here in hopes to gain some radio attention. While the record features some good songwriting, the sheen of the production kills the band’s intensity. Even with the minor success of singles “Mirrorful” and a cover of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl,” the move didn’t work and the album was largely ignored by mainstream rock fans.
In 1997 Jawbox decided to call it quits. After completing the tour in support of Jawbox, Barocas decided to move to New York for school. This plus the news that Atlantic was planning to drop the band spurred on the decision to quit. Robbins and Barbot formed the short-lived Burning Airlines, releasing two albums. Barbot and Coletta continue to run the Desoto label and have recently purchased the rights to Jawbox’s Atlantic output. Desoto released My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents, a compilation of Jawbox rarities and B-sides, in 1998. Robbins continues to work as a producer and plays in the bands Channels and Office of Future Plans.