In the wake of the overwhelming success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, major labels in the early/mid-’90s began signing any and every cool indie band they could in hopes of a similar payoff. One such outfit was Jawbox, a Washington, D.C., post-punk quartet that had issued two promising albums on the indier-than-thou Dischord label. The band—guitarist/vocalist J. Robbins, guitarist Bill Barbot, bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Zachary Barocas—signed to Atlantic and released the excellent For Your Own Special Sweetheart in 1994. (Though MAGNET named it the fifth-best album that year, Sweetheart was far from a commercial hit.) In 1996, Jawbox issued a slicker self-titled LP, which also failed to catch on beyond the indie-rock crowd, and the band broke up the following year. Dischord has just reissued For Your Own Special Sweetheart with three bonus tracks, and to celebrate, Jawbox is reuniting for a one-off performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon tomorrow night. Barbot is also guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
MAGNET: So what have you guys been up to for the past 12 years?
Bill Barbot: Shortly after the band broke up, J. and I formed Burning Airlines with the phenomenal Peter Moffett, figuring out where we would or could go next with music. It’s in J.’s blood to always be in at least one band, so he and Pete were willing to take the band on the road in a more serious way than I was interested in at the time. After we recorded and toured very lightly—relatively speaking, anyway—on (1999’s) Mission: Control!, I fired myself to focus more on my job and they ultimately brought in Mike Harbin as my bass replacement for the second record and for more thorough touring throughout the latter part of the decade and into the early part of this one. Since then, J. has gotten himself married, focused more intensely on writing, releasing, producing and recording an amazing array of bands, and raising his own family. His son Callum is now three, and his studio in Baltimore, the Magpie Cage, does a brisk business.
Post-BA, I decided to let music rest for a while and get a “real job” working in the web-design industry. I had no idea what I was doing, thinking that my resume of having been a touring musician for eight-plus years wasn’t worth a hoot in the business world, but shortly found out that in the late ’90s, no one else really knew all that much more about the interwebs than I did. After a couple years learning the ropes, I started my own company in ’99, and we celebrated our 10th anniversary as Threespot Media this past February. I co-own and manage the company with two partners and 40-odd employees, and play bass with some friends in the basement, lacking the stomach, energy and patience to play much live anymore.
Kim stopped playing pretty abruptly with the end of Jawbox, focusing on both running DeSoto and acquiring her masters in library and information science. She’s since been involved in middle-school academics as both a teacher and a librarian at a local boys’ school. She and I got married in ’97 and also have a son, Nick, who is eight and a real piece of work.
Zach has been doing music pretty constantly over the past dozen years, despite his moving from New York to Minnesota and Arizona and back. He’s currently managing web operations for Strand in Manhattan, living with his wife Kimberly in Brooklyn and playing in a new band that as far as I know doesn’t have a name yet.
Any plans to reissue the self-titled album?
No. One step at a time. We’ll see how this one goes. Baby steps.
Whose idea was it to reunite for the Fallon performance? Do you think that this will be the only time Jawbox will ever perform live again? Any plans to record again together?
When our good friends and former Atlantic publicists Bobbie Gale and Ken Weinstein at Big Hassle heard about the re-release, they offered to do publicity for the record for free. Never ones to pass up a great deal, we couldn’t say no—not quite remembering exactly how incredibly good they are at their jobs. They are experts at getting the word out in the business, so it was only a matter of time before our former fans, many of whom who have risen to “positions of power and influence” in the biz, came up with some interesting ideas to promote the record. One such fan is Jonathan Cohen, the booker for Late Night, who was a fan when he was at Billboard back in the mid-’90s. I think he asked Bobbie on a lark, she dutifully proposed it to us, and for god only knows what reason, we agreed. Sounded like fun at the time. Still hoping it will be.
As to whether we ever play again: Time will tell. At this writing, we haven’t even rehearsed for the Fallon gig yet as a whole band (Kim and I play together frequently; she and I have gotten together once so far with J., and we won’t have Zach in the room until we get together at J.’s studio). The logistics of families and jobs and distance make a more concerted effort to tour a challenge. Ditto for writing and recording. I’ll say it again: baby steps.
In hindsight, how do you view your time as major-label band on Atlantic? If you had it to do again, would you?
Totally. Being on Atlantic didn’t break us up, we broke us up. It wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows on Atlantic, but being in a band never is. It was the right decision at the time, and while it may have been nice to sell a million records and, like our contemporaries Weezer and Green Day, still be touring and putting out records, it wasn’t in the cards for us. Our band was difficult, definitely too difficult for a major, but we had to give it a shot. No regrets. We had some fantastic opportunities to tour and record in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible had we not given it a go. We met and worked with some awesome people. Hopefully made a couple of decent records.
What do you think of how the music industry has changed since Jawbox broke up?
Holy moly, where to start. The means of production in the Marxist sense is back in the hands of the workers, and I love that, at least theoretically. Technology has gotten to a place where any idiot with a couple grand can buy a laptop, an analog/digital interface and Pro Tools, and make a reasonably professional-sounding record in their bedroom. Using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, they can build a fan base, promote their music, tour and make a respectable go of it without needing a label, a publicist, radio or MTV at all. Pretty cool.
The downside is that many independent labels, upon whose judgment and curatorial filter I used to rely on heavily, are no longer viable or are struggling mightily to remain relevant and solvent. That filter served by and large to raise the quality of music, in my opinion—good indie labels supported artists in a way that helped them produce better music, period. They took great raw materials and talent and, when they did their jobs well, created a safe haven for the bands to raise their game, by funding recording and touring, providing creative support, promoting and distributing records, etc. They “added value” in a way that’s hard to quantify but made it easy to trust that a new Dischord, SST or Touch And Go band would be something worth listening to.
There is no shortage of great music being made today, but I fear that it’s in many cases going to come from artists that roar out of the gate and fall down in the long haul without a good structure around them to support continued growth. We are as a culture hyper-ADD and cursed with short attention spans, in part because we are constantly bombarded with so much that’s new and interesting, but which could be really phenomenal and durable with the right support around it. As it is now, it’s more like an endless succession of bedroom geniuses who make a splash on the blogs with a single or an EP, and burn out before they even have the chance to put together a proper full-length record, each quickly replaced by the next in a seemingly endless succession. Flavor of the month is now flavor of the day, practically. Before you even have a chance to get on the buzz bandwagon, what could be a really good band is already old news.
How is J.’s son Callum doing with his spinal muscular atrophy?
He’s doing really well, but of course, you’re talking to me, not J. and his wife, Janet, who deal with this disease all day, every day. He is a bright and curious three-year-old, learning in a completely unprejudiced way how to deal with a really hard situation. The support from the community has been incredible—both emotional, logistical and financial—and I know that has made a huge difference in managing Cal’s disability. Nevertheless, he’s a smart, funny, creative little dude, like his parents. He’s got an awesome computer-controlled wheelchair that he is learning to drive, and like any three-year-old, he just wants to figure out what the world is all about and how he fits into it. He has beaten the odds just by turning three and, despite some really scary touch-and-go moments over the years, is staying strong and growing up to be a great kid.
What does Jawbox have in common with the following artists: Nick Cave, Guided By Voices, Pavement, Sebadoh, Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Superchunk, Tom Waits, Wilco and Yo La Tengo?
I was stumped on this until I talked to Kim, who realized right away that they are probably all MAGNET covers. I guessed they were the other 11 covers of, maybe, 1994?
Close. These are the 12 artists who have been on the cover of MAGNET more than once. Anyway, what is your favorite tale to tell about the Jawbox days?
There were a ton, and each of us could rattle off more than a few. I’m on an airplane from Austin to D.C. right now and my brain is spent, so I’ll go stream-of-consciousness and pick the first one to come to mind. We were touring the south, and Kim came down with pretty much the most awful vomiting sickness you can imagine. After playing a gig in Pensacola where she—twice—took vomit breaks between songs off the side of the stage, we arrived in Gainesville with her basically unable to move, let alone strap on a bass and play a show. Faced with the prospect of canceling—meaning, no paycheck, disappointed fans and a breach of the unwritten law of show business—we decided that I would quickly learn her parts and we would play as a three-piece. Which we did. I played with as much distortion and volume as possible to cover up my smeary grasp of the material. Even though I knew the songs inside and out as a listener, there were so many nuances to her parts that I could never hope to get it all nailed in the 45 minutes I had between no-go for Kimbo and our set time. I’m just not that pro a musician to pull that off. I am fairly certain that we sucked, but our fans nevertheless showed us a genuine appreciation for giving it a shot. They laughed and cheered. Moments like those made being in the band we were in worth it. We could have gotten booed. We could have been asked for refunds. Instead we got enthusiasm and applause from a bunch of people who knew we were just doing whatever we could to keep the show going on.
—Eric T. Miller