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Two years ago, Blake Schwarzenbach wasn't being interviewed by writers. He was one, paying the bills by contributing reviews to PC gaming magazines such as GameSpot and writing for a couple of travel guides. After six years as the frontman for Jawbreaker--six years of constant touring and incessant bickering--he had quit the music business and traded in his guitar to pursue the writing career he had planned on having during his college days at New York University. But quitting the music business is like quitting smoking: It takes a few tries before it finally sticks. So here's Schwarzenbach a little more than two years after turning his back on the business, answering questions about his new band, Jets to Brazil, and new album, Orange Rhyming Dictionary, on the eve of its first American tour.
"I got in the band quicker than I had planned to," Schwarzenbach admits, on the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. "I just wanted to move out of San Francisco, come back to New York where I'd been in school before, and try to be normal and non-musical. I was doing freelance writing, just whatever I could get. And it was cool. I loved getting my first check for straight writing. It was so measly that I just wanted to frame it; it wasn't like I could get more than a sandwich out of it. Unfortunately, or quite fortunately, I was playing music all the time too, and that kind of took over again."
His last few years in Jawbreaker had drained him, taken all the fun out of playing music. Since it formed in 1990, the band always seemed on the verge of breaking up, and it didn't help that its debut for Geffen Records, 1995's Dear You, was written off by critics as yet another example of how major labels turn idealistic punk bands into corporate subsidiaries. When Jawbreaker finally did call it quits in the summer of 1996, Schwarzenbach took a chance. He moved to New York looking for a fresh start, an opportunity to do something else, be someone else. He had tired of life as a musician. There would be no more endless tours in a cramped van full of equipment, no more sniping from wounded fans, no more anything.
However, Schwarzenbach found that being a musician was a harder habit to break than he originally figured. He was bitten by the bug again, that nagging urge to create something, anything. He started deejaying, playing around with drum machines and samplers and synthesizers, unfamiliar instruments that were so far removed from Jawbreaker's poppy punk sound. That wasn't enough, though. It wasn't the same as standing onstage with a guitar in his hand, feeling the kick drum push the air into his back, seeing the sweat of a crowd condense on the windows of a tiny club in the middle of nowhere. There was only one thing that could recapture that feeling for him: He had to form a band again.
It wasn't hard for Schwarzenbach to fall into his old ways, like a lifelong drunk taking a sip of beer after a few years on the wagon. Jets to Brazil--"There is a source," he says of the name, "but I'm sworn to secrecy"--came together naturally, just a couple of friends hanging out, making music for only themselves to hear. A brief meeting with bassist Jeremy Chatelain--lead singer of Handsome at the time--at Jawbreaker's last show in Seattle had led to a new friendship when Schwarzenbach moved to New York; before long, the two were jamming in Schwarzenbach's makeshift home studio.
"It turned out that he was living in Brooklyn, pretty close to me," Schwarzenbach says. "We started hanging out and playing around really lightly. We weren't planning on doing a band. We would just get together and fuck around."
The pair soon realized that what they were doing wasn't just a couple of friends having fun; it was something more serious. After Handsome broke up late last year, Jets to Brazil became a full-fledged band, and Schwarzenbach and Chatelain recruited drummer Chris Daly, a friend of Chatelain's and a kindred spirit of sorts. Daly had found himself in the same position as Schwarzenbach when his band, Texas is the Reason, split up after its members realized that playing music was the only way they could be in the same room together without coming to blows. He, too, had considered dropping out of the music business at one point. Daly fell into the fold easily.
"Chris seemed the most laid-back, like definitely into hanging out and making up music," Schwarzenbach says. "I've never auditioned people for a band before, so I didn't want to do that. I don't think any of us knew how, really, to try people out. It was pretty easy to figure out who felt right. Some people, I think, expected there to be songs ready or to be told what to do, and I can't really do that."
The band set to work fleshing out Schwarzenbach's songs, melancholy tales of love lost that bore little resemblance to the songs he had written with his former band. They were a combination of the melodic sensibility he had honed over the course of four albums with Jawbreaker, and the experimental side he had discovered in himself when he began to create music again. They were more complex, more emotional, and more mature, like pages from a diary written by a man with a Liberty Bell for a heart: permanently broken. Most of them were written before there was even a band to play them, just an eight-track recorder and an empty apartment.