Jawbox’s twisty alt-rock attack formed a vital part of the Washington DC hardcore scene in the late 80s and 90s before their split in 1997. But a brief reformation in 2022 put them back in front of those who loved them from the start, plus a new generation of music fans who have discovered them thanks to their lasting influence on the post-hardcore sound.
Here, singer/guitarist J.Robbins walks us back through the band’s history, album by album.
Grippe (Dischord, 1991)
“The first two Jawbox records were done very, very quickly in terms of the studio time. I don't even think we had $2,000 to spend. It was typical for all the Dischord bands, when you went into the studio you had to be really prepared because time was tight. You just go in, execute, and get out.
“On Grippe I think you can hear we’re a very young band. You can tell what records we were listening to at the time any given song was written. Members of my band may disagree!
“I have very happy memories of recording that first album though. We did it with Eli Janney who went on to play bass and keyboards with Girls Against Boys and became a record producer of some note. He’s just an excellent dude, he's very fun to work with.”
J’s favourite song: “Grip - its’s the only song we still play from this record.”
Novelty (Dischord, 1992)
“After Grippe I felt there was a lot more I wanted to do on guitar that I couldn’t do as the only guitarist, so Bill [Barbot] joined. That’s when our sound really started to expand.
“We also did a whole US tour with Helmet, which was profoundly influential for us. Not only was it a super fun tour, it gave us the ok to commit to a heavier, more abrasive sound.
“The producer on Novelty, Ian Burgess, was somebody who I’d admired for many years. He’d produced some of my favourite records of all time: Big Black, Naked Raygun, all those mid-western post-punk bands that weren’t really hardcore but were, like, weird rock. Those records were a big influence on all of us, we really believed in them.
“We met Ian in Chicago and asked him if he’d record our band and he said yes. So he came down to DC and slept on my couch and recorded us in five days.
“He managed to bring his aesthetic to that record without ever being a svengali about it. He had a wonderful energy and you always knew he was in your corner.”
J’s favourite song: “I’m really proud of Static, that song is very personal to me. It’s also a simple song and we don’t have a lot of those! And I have fond memories of recording Cutoff - of Ian Burgess standing at the controller and making devil horns.”
For Your Own Special Sweetheart (Atlantic, 1994)
“We were a hard-working band from the DC scene who toured a lot, so we were seen as a valuable commodity by the majors at this point. Of course, everyone wanted to sign Fugazi, but that wasn’t going to happen.
“We were approached by Mike Gitter who we known since the 80s from the Boston hardcore scene. He’d written a fanzine, he’d been in bands, he knew the same people we did and he was coming from the same place as us. He was using his job with Atlantic to sign bands he was passionate about who he wanted to help.
“There was a lot of talk about selling out at the time, and we put a lot of stock in that. After much hand-wringing, we wrote what we called our ‘list of impossible demands’: to be self-managed, to have complete creative control, to release on vinyl on our own label, and so on. Basically, that we would carry on being an indie band, but using Atlantic’s money.
“And they said yes to everything. At that point, we figured we would be stupid not to do it. We were working hard, we had reached everyone we wanted to reach, it was about taking the next step rather than being rock stars.
“There was less of reaction from the scene than you might think. One story Kim likes to tell is about the guy who wrote to tell us he hoped we died in a firey van accident, but those stories were rare. I think most people who knew us realised we weren’t suddenly going to start wearing sequinned outfits or whatever. We tried to keep our feet quite firmly on the ground.
“Around this time Zach [Barocas] joined the band on drums and it really, really changed things. He is such a powerful personality and he fed into the song-writing process in a rhythmic, idiosyncratic way. Which, funnily enough, made us much less commercial sounding.
“On the song Savory, for example, the initial idea I had in my head was much more like something on Novelty, a heavier sound. Then Zach put in this beat that was unlike anything I’d conceived. It elevated the song, it was so much better.”
“Having Atlantic behind us meant For Your Own Special Sweetheart could be a seven week record instead of a seven day record. Having that amount of time to be meticulous was great.
“We worked with Ted Niceley, who had worked with Fugazi, and he put everything under a microscope. It was like bootcamp for us. It’s the most perfect representation of those songs there could be, and I credit Ted with that. Doing For Your Own Special Sweetheart was a big step in my own journey to becoming a producer.”
J’s favourite track: "Savory. I like remembering how it all came together. And I’m proud of the melody. I’ve no idea where it came from, it felt like it wrote itself.”
Jawbox (TAG, 1996)
“We were supposed to be on Atlantic for two records, but because For Your Own Special Sweetheart was not the commercial success Atlantic were expecting they were left scratching their heads about what to do with us.
“Their solution was to move us onto a new imprint called TAG records, along with other alt-rock artists on their roster including the Lemonheads and Dinosaur Jr.
“The run-up to making Jawbox was great because we’d been able to spend a lot of time demoing the songs for it. I think we all felt pretty strongly that it was the best material we’d ever done.
“We worked with John Agnello, who had recorded bands like Chavez and Dinosaur Jr. Another case of somebody whose work we admired and who is just a stellar guy. The whole experience was great. But then when the record came out, it just disappeared into the ether. The label kind of fizzled out and the record kind of fizzled out too.
“I still think Jawbox is our best record. The songs are so much more cohesive and you can hear how collaborative it is. It just hangs together in a cool way.”
J’s favourite song: I think everybody would agree it’s Desert Sea. It came out of a jam and the thing unfolded as we were working on it, building on each other’s ideas. That’s a pretty good feeling.