Blake Schwarzenbach: Remembering to Forget

For veteran musicians like Blake Schwarzenbach — punk poet laureate of ‘90s firebrands Jawbreaker, and, now, forgetters — it’s a familiar lament: It’s hard to move forward when your fans expect you to stay 25.

Twenty years ago, the singer/songwriter/guitarist didn’t have to worry. Jawbreaker’s hyper-literate punk-pop was turning heads from New York, where it formed, to the Bay Area, where it ultimately landed.

Angsty but not depressing, sincere but not maudlin, the band’s pivotal 1992 LP Bivouac and Steve Albini-engineered 1994 follow-up 24 Hour Revenge Therapy were musical short stories blasting from speakers.

With his Big Muff pedal and gravel lilt evoking The Clash’s Joe Strummer and The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, Schwarzenbach turned awkwardness to poetry on econo-anthems like “Sleep,” “Indictment,” and the unbeatable “Chesterfield King.”

The band became icons of the East Bay scene centered at 924 Gilman, the über-punk Berkeley venue where Green Day and Rancid also developed. But unlike those groups, Jawbreaker’s eventual major-label foray didn’t go so well, and after cold-shouldered 1995 Geffen record Dear You, that was it.

“It was a sad moment,” Schwarzenbach says of Jawbreaker’s breakup. “We weren’t, like, yelling at each other… but everyone wanted something different, and that was the problem.”

Everyone except the fans, who wanted another Bivouac or 24 Hour, and let Schwarzenbach hear it.

He re-grouped with Jets To Brazil, whose 1998 debut Orange Rhyming Dictionary was loose, leisurely and subtly psychedelic. But Jawbreaker’s specter lurked.

“People were like ‘What the hell is this,’” Schwarzenbach recalls with some bitterness, “and I was pissed. I thought, ‘This is a cool record… just deal with it.’”

Later Jets LPs expanded on Dictionary’s vintage pop approach, with top-tier production and trademark lyrical eloquence. But by 2003, Schwarzenbach — tired of the write-record-tour-repeat grind, and audiences still “yelling out Jawbreaker stuff” — needed a change. He broke Jets up, got his master’s in teaching, and began a new career as professor of English composition and literature at New York’s Hunter College.

“When I got my first class assignment,” he says, “I felt like a legitimate citizen for the first time in my life. I had so much to learn, but I liked being able to tell people that I was a teacher.”

Five years later, Schwarzenbach, musician, resurfaced on his own terms with Thorns of Life, a band that revived his punk-rock, basement-show roots. It didn’t last long, but it felt good.

“I let go of a lot,” says Schwarzenbach. “Jets was pretty ambitious, but Thorns was just bass, drums, guitar and one vocal, and I found it fun to just show up and play.”

From Thorns’ ashes rose Forgetters, with friends Caroline Paquita on bass and Kevin Mahon on drums. Keeping with its predecessor’s back-to-the-source slant, Forgetters self-released its first four songs as a double 7-inch record.

Then Paquita quit. Instead of replacing her, the duo looked to find its identity in how it chose to fill — or not fill — the empty space. In time, says Schwarzenbach, “what was a handicap became a strength.”

The style they’ve settled on is an intriguing lo-fi mix of Jets’ pop orientation and Thorns’ first-take rawness, with found-sound collages and surprising Gothic overtones.

Explaining the last item, Schwarzenbach says he and Mahon both love “‘80s downer music,” considering Morrissey “the greatest standard-bearer of revolt and not giving in.” The ex-Smiths frontman, he laughs, “would put a 14-minute song first, make people swim to the pop material, and weed out the poseurs.”

On new album forgetters, Schwarzenbach inverts that formula. Opener “Strike” breaks apart in gleeful Pavement-like cacophony, while the exquisite “Turn Away” plays up the erstwhile Furs comparison. But the album soon turns darker and more paranoid.

“I’m Not Immune” is bleak. “Don’t even try to grab this microphone from my hand, I’ve got a story that demands your undivided attention… I bear good news, we’re gonna die pretty soon.”

“In America,” the record’s six-minute centerpiece, is even more pointed. Over sparse drums, mournful piano and shoegazey guitars, Schwarzenbach takes a Moz-inspired vocal turn, lamenting how “in America, everyone is miserable, and so mad at what they don’t know / In America, we’ve grown more boring than we were before these towers and wars.”

While themes of alienation, mortality and what Schwarzenbach calls “historical amnesia” run deep throughout forgetters, he hopes listeners recognize its tone as cynical, not hopeless.

“Writing in minor keys, there’s a fine line between what’s lugubrious and what is right-on. [forgetters] isn’t intended to communicate, ‘Everything sucks.’ It’s more, ‘We know everything sucks, and can actually produce work out of it.’”

For Schwarzenbach, making forgetters happen took some work of his own. He painted the album cover, hand-wrote the lyric sheet, and even recorded some vocals at his Brooklyn apartment. And like the 7-inches, the nine-song LP is being released on the band’s own label, Too Small to Fail. They may or may not tour.

Given his major-label past and academic present, this low-overhead approach suits Schwarzenbach.

“I love teaching,” he says. “It’s kind of heartbreaking, but it’s where I get my humanity. I find, though, that when I go away from music for too long I start to get really sick… so I’ll always play instruments and try to write songs.”

And he’ll no longer run from his old band’s legacy. Jawbreaker “just is,” says Schwarzenbach. “It exists in the culture. People still find it, like it, use it, and I’m proud of that.”