Jawbreaker was signed to Geffen Records in the mid-1990s to be the next Green Day. Fresh from a 1993 tour opening for Nirvana, the band was given a 10-digit advance. Coupled with lavish praise from th
Jawbreaker was signed to Geffen Records in the mid-1990s to be the next Green Day. Fresh from a 1993 tour opening for Nirvana, the band was given a 10-digit advance. Coupled with lavish praise from the underground community, Geffen was confident Jawbreaker would become punk-rock superstars.
But the label was wrong. Jawbreaker's 1995 Geffen debut, "Dear You," sputtered to sales of 40,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and then the band called it quits. With the likes of the Offspring and Blink-182 soon dominating the airwaves, Jawbreaker seemed destined to become nothing more than a footnote in the '90s punk revival.
"We didn't sign to Geffen completely naive," Jawbreaker's guitarist Adam Pfahler says today. "All the phone calls and greasy guys at our shows were simply because Green Day had hit, and after Green Day the labels were looking for a new Green Day. We knew we weren't going to be that band. We knew we couldn't pull it off, and we knew it wasn't going to happen like that. We just thought we'd make the best record we can, and we figured if it sells, great, but if not, we tried."
When the band split in 1995, Geffen tried to recruit Pfahler and Jawbreaker's singer/songwriter Blake Schwarzenbach for a new group, but the two weren't interested. Geffen, ready to cut its losses and move on, let "Dear You" go out of print, and that looked to be end of Jawbreaker's story.
Geffen was soon swallowed under the Universal Music Group (UMG) umbrella, and calls about the band's history and the album's lack of availability were met with ambivalence. "Jawbreaker? I've never even heard of them," said one high-ranking UMG executive.
Yet the underground scene that Jawbreaker was a part of continued to grow. Whereas Green Day took the bratty suburban angst of Screeching Weasel and laid on the pop hooks, and the Offspring became an arena rock act by providing skateboard anthems, Jawbreaker's sound was not something that had yet been embraced by MTV. The group leaned closer to the complex guitar dissonance of such acts as Rites Of Spring, Cap'n Jazz, and Sunny Day Real Estate, a sound eventually branded "emo" for its overly poetic and lit-savvy lyrics.
Today, emo has become big business. Labels such as Vagrant Records can sell-out clubs with package tours, while flagship acts such as the Get Up Kids flirt with mainstream acceptance (its new Vagrant album, "On a Wire," recently debuted at No. 57 on The Billboard 200). Even Jimmy Eat World, which was dropped by Capitol in the late '90s, roared back to life on DreamWorks and earned a top-10 hit with its self-esteem booster "The Middle." Beneath all the hoopla, Jawbreaker's "Dear You" has become a must-have cult item, fetching upward of $60 on Internet auction site eBay.
Fans can stop their bidding, as Pfahler has recently licensed the album's rights back from UMG for $10,000, the culmination of a five-year effort to re-release the set on his own Blackball Records. "Dear You" is now slated for an early summer release. The fact that emo has never been more popular is just a coincidence, Pfahler says.
"It wasn't like, 'Oh crap, those bands are biting our rhymes and stealing our style.' If we end up selling a couple more thousand copies because of Jimmy Eat World, hey, that's fine with me, but I want it to be known that I'm not taking responsibility for any of those bands. I don't turn on the radio and get mad because some punk kid is making millions of dollars. The odds of getting popular in mainstream music are so remote, and in our little world, we did pretty well."
While Jawbreaker had found a loyal audience by the time of its split, today Pfahler believes that Geffen mistook cult fandom as something that could easily carry over to the mainstream. "After it all went down," Pfahler says, "Blake and I were under the impression that Geffen signed us under false pretenses. They thought we sold a lot more records than we did, but we were never popular, in terms of record sales. Any Lagwagon record sells five times as much as any Jawbreaker record. We thought we did pretty good, but 40,000 to Geffen is nothing."
Even so, UMG didn't just hand over the rights to "Dear You." Pfahler, who co-owns a video store in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, started calling UMG in 1998 to inquire about the album. He wasn't having much luck, and was about to give up when he contacted former manager Elliot Cohn.
For his services, Pfahler paid Cohn in free DVDs, and a deal was worked out. Yet UMG was only willing to license "Dear You," meaning the label still owns it and Pfahler has to pay royalties to his former employer. "I'm willing to pay UMG for it because I want it back and I want our logo on it," Pfahler says. "We have it for 10 years, but that's the only way I could do it. I suppose I could have bootlegged it, and maybe I should have, but that would have come back to haunt me."
The remastered disc will come with a demo of "I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both," as well as the video for "Fireman." Pfahler is also compiling lengthy liner notes, giving each song a page. In the meantime, he'll continue to prep the first record from Whysall Lane, his project with Versus' Richard Baluyut. The band may make its debut on an upcoming tour with Jets To Brazil tour, the group fronted by Jawbreaker's Schwarzenbach.
The tour was initially slated for last fall, but Schwarzenbach, who declined to be quoted for this story, canceled at the last minute. After reconfiguring Jets To Brazil's lineup, Schwarzenbach appears ready to get on the road early next year. But when and if the Jets To Brazil/Whysall Lane pairing happens, Pfahler wants it known that neither the tour, nor the "Dear You" re-release, will be the impetus for any future collaborations with his former bandmate.
"The Jets kids should know it isn't cool to yell out Jawbreaker songs," Pfahler says. "How many times must Blake go in the audience and beat up some kid? I'm kidding, he's never done that, but I'm afraid people will want us to do 'a thing' during the encore, like it's 'The Last Waltz' or something. Should Blake and I do a cover of 'Louie Louie' at the end of the night? That'll be pretty rough."