By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
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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.
"It was a whole different--well, much more solitary--way of writing," Schwarzenbach says. "I could go so far that way, and get a pretty strong skeleton going. And they did change a lot, just with repeated plays and finessing them. I think I did a lot of rewriting on these, more than I'd ever done in Jawbreaker. Just trying to hammer them out. Another big difference in the writing was that I was using piano on some things. I'm a really lousy pianist, but I love it. It's a totally different approach to melody, though, which is great. I'm really determined to get better."
At the beginning of this year, the budding trio played a few low-key shows around the New York area, just a test to see what it had on its hands. The response was good enough that Wilmington, Delaware-based Jade Tree Records--home to Midwest indie-rock heroes The Promise Ring and Joan of Arc--signed the band and sent them to Europe for a five-week tour, based only on that handful of shows and a five-song demo the band had recorded. Schwarzenbach was overwhelmed.
"It was really unprecedented. I mean, I'd been a few times [with Jawbreaker], but this was really different," he says. "I don't know that any band has ever gone over with [just] a demo tape out, which we owe entirely to The Promise Ring. I really liked [Europe], because it seemed like a totally objective audience. People didn't really know what bands we came from, and I don't think there were any expectations. That was kind of nice."
When Jets to Brazil returned from Europe, Jade Tree sent them into Memphis' Easley Studios with former Jawbox guitarist J. Robbins. The result is Orange Rhyming Dictionary, an astonishing album better than anything released by any of its members' former bands. It's a gorgeous mess of roller-coaster rhythms and heartbreaking vocals, a versatile piece of poptopia that shifts from bright bursts of staccato guitar ("Lemon Yellow Black") to delicate acoustic ballads ("Sweet Avenue") without sacrificing anything. "King Medicine" is a dramatic bit of box-of-Kleenex guitar pop, the downhearted lyrics and furious melody seemingly at odds and perfectly in sync at once. And "I Typed For Miles" is one of the best breakup songs written in the last decade, angry and disappointed and sad and everything else. When Schwarzenbach repeatedly screams, "You keep fucking up my life!" at the end of the song, you almost feel as though you're watching a couple splitting up right in front of you. "Sweet Avenue" is the calm after the storm, following the rage of "I Typed For Miles" with a sentimental tale of newfound love, accompanied by softly strummed guitar and a hushed rhythm section.
Even though Orange Rhyming Dictionary doesn't have much in common with Jawbreaker, Handsome, or Texas is the Reason, Schwarzenbach realizes the members of the band's various backgrounds will lead to expectations. He isn't worried, though. No, he is excited, rejuvenated by his two-year break from the business. He's ready to get back on the road and show off his new band, a band that is only around because three others aren't.
"Well, I hope it doesn't get in the way of people seeing this band as what it is, you know," he says. "I think those bands all broke up for pretty good reasons, so no one that was in them is missing those bands too much. I understand that people really like those bands. I think we're all so psyched on doing something new, and kind of doing things that we felt incapable of doing before.
"It's weird; I don't know. It's going to be interesting on this tour, because I'm sure there are going to be a lot of Texas and Jawbreaker fans that are probably expecting a continuation of those bands, or maybe some of them will, but I don't know that they're going to get that," he laughs, then continues. "I think most of the people who hear the record will agree."