Jawbreaker's Adam Pfahler on the legacy of the band's most divisive album
The drummer reflects on the 25th(ish) anniversary of Dear You.
Hello and welcome to REPLY ALT, the greatest newsletter about music in the world.
Today’s post is about a few of the STARS of my book SELLOUT, Jawbreaker. And if you still have yet to pick up a copy of SELLOUT (honestly what is wrong with you?), I am pleased to report that, after many months of threatening to hang myself with the supply chain, it is now back in stock at stores! You can order it at Bookshop.org to support indies.
And if you fancy yourself a real sellout, you can pick up some merch in my store. Shirts, hats, tote bags. Oh and also the photo zine which includes over 75 original photos like this one.
I am trying to get rid of some of this merch before I have it shipped across the country so I recently marked everything down. AND ON TOP OF THAT you can use the promo code DEARYOU25 at checkout to get an additional 20% off! That is ludicrously cheap!
Also, in case you’re headed to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books next month, I will be on a panel about punk books with Jim Ruland who has a book about SST Records out this year and Gina Schock of the mother effing Go Go’s. It’s taking place on Sunday, April 24 at the ungodly time of 10:30 in the morning so if you see me I will likely be sticking my head in a big oil drum of coffee.
OK, enough housekeeping, let’s get to the point…
25 Years of Dear You
Jawbreaker’s 1995 major label debut Dear You is one of punk rock’s most storied albums. For years after the beloved band’s implosion, tall tales of fans’ cold reception to the record were passed down, and seemed to grow more exaggerated as time went on. Disgruntled Jawbreaker fans were said to have folded their arms, taken seats on the floor, or spit at the band when they played material from their “sellout” album.
It’s hard to say for sure exactly how valid these stories about backlash are. A few people have valiantly tried to get to the bottom of it—Tim Irwin and Keith Schieron in their documentary Don’t Break Down, Ronen Givony in his 33 ⅓ book about the band, and me in the lengthy chapter devoted to the album in my book. Certainly, there are videos floating around of bottles being hurled at shows, write-ups in the New York Times about frontman Blake Schwarzenbach being spit on, and of course, Screeching Weasel frontman Ben Weasel, who vowed to eat his hat if Jawbreaker ever signed to a major label, munching on a fedora in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll after the band signed to Geffen.
But now, more than 25 years later, none of that matters much. That was all Phase 1 of the album’s lifespan. We are now living in Dear You A.D., the part where the story really gets interesting. Once a cautionary tale about the dangers of crossing the forbidden line and signing to a major label, Dear You is now a collection of redemption songs. Its story is one about an album so far ahead of its time that it took decades for fans to wrap their heads around it, and about the joyous victory lap its creators got to take at their legendary Riot Fest reunion. We can now separate the album from the narrative long hoisted upon it—one of a band that dared to venture in the slipstream of the success of their Bay Area counterparts Green Day and paid the ultimate price. Dear You can now be judged on its merits as one of the most sonically revolutionary rock albums of all time, a masterfully recorded piece of work that actively and subconsciously inspired the generation of musicians that followed.
Jawbreaker is soon to embark on an extensive tour to commemorate the (belated) 25-year anniversary of Dear You. Below is an interview with drummer Adam Pfahler about the wild, misunderstood, and often exaggerated history of their most divisive album.
Something I’ve noticed is that there is usually one member of every band who is their unofficial documentarian. Is it safe to say that’s you in Jawbreaker?
Adam Pfahler: Yeah, I’ve got everything sitting in boxes in my storage space.
Do you think you’ll ever do anything with it? Have any universities asked to archive it or anything?
My sister brought that up to me. She gave some of her archives to a school back east. I can’t remember if it was Columbia or NYU or something. But no, I never really had any interest in doing that. A lot of it came in very handy when they made that documentary about us a few years ago. We scanned a lot of stuff I’d kept and I had the live tapes. I can’t say that I knew all along that we were gonna make a movie about our band.
You mentioned the documentary about you, Don’t Break Down, and there’s Ronen Givony’s 33 ⅓ book about you, and my book. Do you enjoy Jawbreaker being chronicled?
I like being out there in the ether, you know? I like being part of the zeitgeist. It’s interesting when I read through stuff. There are some mistakes that pop up that I get a kick out of.
Is that part of the lore?
Maybe so. Some people get some stuff wrong. It’s interesting to see how a misquote from an old fanzine will get reprinted somewhere else and then become the story. None of us remember people actually turning their backs or sitting down while we played songs from Dear You on that tour. I remember some icy shows and I remember a lot of pushback and folded arms. But I don’t remember this massive boycott.
It was hard to gauge in my research. When I interviewed the three of you, you all downplayed it. You said, “I don’t think it was as bad as everybody made it out to be.” But then when I’d read old fanzines and write-ups, I’d find Ben Weasel eating his hat in Maximum Rocknroll, there was a New York Times article that said people were spitting at you. I don’t know if that was just normal punk show etiquette or because of the album. But to set it straight: How do you remember the reaction to Dear You?
When the record came out, I think we did a run of those kinds of promotional radio shows, Christmas shows. I think we did San Jose, San Francisco, and Seattle, and a couple other places. We’d do that thing where we’d just play five songs on a bill stacked with, like, Oasis and Radiohead and No Doubt and Everclear and Sonic Youth. We weren’t really playing to our audience. Those shows were weird out of the gate. Then we did those shows with Foo Fighters, playing first out of three, with them and Ween. So that wasn’t really our crowd, either. So by the time we got around to doing our own headlining shows, certainly that narrative of us selling out was deeply ingrained in everyone’s consciousness.
That’s really all anyone talked about. No one reviewed that record and said, “This is great writing.” They just looked at the story, which was these three guys who promised they wouldn’t leave their indie label and then betrayed everyone who’d invested in them. I remember being disappointed by that, but I don’t remember people being mean to us to our face. I can’t imagine someone paying 12 bucks to come see us and then shit on us, but then again, maybe it did happen. I’m the furthest dude back with lights in my face, so I don’t know. Talking to Blake and Chris about it later, after the stories had been passed down, we were like, “Did people really sit down?” I was just talking to a guy yesterday who said he was at a Bottom of the Hill show we played and he said the crowd was just dead. I was like, “Well, I guess I'll take your word for it, but I had a fine time at that show.”
Aside from all the major-label stuff, Dear You is a very thick, complex record that took years for people to wrap their heads around. You guys were touring it and there weren’t singles that instantly landed. Maybe it was the type of material.
It’s a really dark record, sonically and thematically. There's a lot of despair in that record. It did take a minute for people to come around on it. A couple years after we broke up, I started to hear stories where people admitted, “I really hated that fucking record when it came out but I really came around on it.” And I remember being like, “Where the fuck were you when we needed you?” I believe you talk about it in the book, but [Geffen A&R] Mark Kates and [producer] Rob Cavallo really wanted us to release the re-recorded of “Boxcar” on that record.
What was your aversion to putting it on the record?
Well, we’d done it already. Jerry Finn, who mixed and engineered the record, he listened to them both and said, “I don’t think you beat it. I think the energy on the original is better.” We entertained the idea because it was a good idea. It would’ve been smart. But we knew we were gonna get pushback about selling out in the first place, so we were like, “Fuck it, we’ll leave well enough alone.” We were confident about the 13 songs that ended up on the record. We were so confident, in fact, that we didn't care what they chose to be the single. We were like, “Take your pick.” Those songs are fucking slamming and we believed in them. We didn’t lose sleep at night over it. I said to the guys, “People are either gonna get it or they’re not.” Turns out, they didn’t get it.
But they eventually did.
They did, and it was gratifying, but it was kind of like a thorn in the side, too. Because we’d gone through this terrible breakup and every emo band in our wake made millions of dollars. [Laughs]
There’s a quote from Rob Cavallo in my book about that. He said, “When bands like Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco came along, I looked at some of their songs and there were things that were direct lifts from, and absolutely inspired by, Dear You. It wasn't anything you could make a claim on, but you could hear it: This guy listened to ‘Jet Black’ or this guy listened to ‘Accident Prone.’” Did you hear your influence in the years following your breakup?
I didn’t really listen to those bands that got real popular. But sometimes I’d listen to the radio on a drive and say, “Ooh, that sounds vaguely familiar.” It might have been some weird harmonic chord or a turn of phrase or something that was very familiar to me. I wasn’t gonna stand there and say, “Hey, we’re getting ripped off!” But I became aware in the years after, because I'd hear from those bands, and I’d read press where bands would cite us as an influence.
Was it flattering?
Yeah, it’s always flattering when someone cites you as an influence. I love that bands covered us. I thought it was cool. Because it was never coming back, there was no sense in being angry about it. It just didn’t happen for us.
I can’t imagine how overwhelming it must’ve felt to think like that for so many years—that it didn’t happen for you—and then you play the headlining slot at Riot Fest. Can you tell me about that night?
Obviously it was super validating and rad. Mike [Petryshyn, Riot Fest founder] let us book bands at that festival that year. I think we got like ten bands on those stages, not as a favor, they all deserved to be there. But it was really great to have Engine 88, and my sister’s band, and That Dog playing with us. Mike really backed up the truck for us. He gave us an advance so we could prepare for nine months and play together again. It was surreal. I came home and for two weeks I was just sort of floating around, going, “Did that really happen?” It was really cinematic, like the ending of a film.
Watching it from the crowd, I was thinking about you guys as musicians. Most bands that would headline a big festival, they put in years of incremental gains and work their way up. But Jawbreaker was a medium-sized band in the 90s, went away for two decades, and came back to headline this massive festival. I really can’t think of another band that had that trajectory. Was that weird as a musician to stand on a stage that big? Did you feel like you’d skipped steps?
No, because we played together for ten years, and we ate shit for a lot of those years. I didn’t feel like we deserved it, but I knew in my bones we weren’t gonna make fools of ourselves. We’re a good band. We were confident we were gonna blow the fucking roof off.
How do you even prepare for a show that big?
We made a conscious decision that the only production we were gonna have on our stage was our banner. We’re not a band that does pyrotechnics, we’re a three-piece band. How do we get this club band to go over in this ginormous scene outdoors? What we came up with was trying to simulate it being small, as intimate as we could. We had them lower the lights and bring them down low so there didn’t appear to be this huge void above us. We pinched our little triangulation as close to the front of the stage as possible. How do we play to 30,000 people and make it feel like 500 people? It was nerve-wracking. There were definitely butterflies. I had to lie down and take a nap before we went on stage. If I’d let it really sink in, I would’ve had a panic attack. All you can really do is prepare.
And there were so many people on the stage.
Oh yeah, I totally forgot. We invited everyone on our list and then some, to come on stage with us. That made the stage smaller. It pinched the perimeter. My kids were there, Blake’s parents were there.
How did your kids take it?
They were super stoked. They knew I played music because they’d seen me play in other bands.
How old are they?
At the time, I think 19 and 16. I think they were super stoked about the spectacle of playing to that many people. The kids were so happy for me and I was so pleased to watch their faces seeing this all happen.
There are celebrated parts about Jawbreaker’s story but of course there are also unflattering parts—you guys having personality clashes towards the end. When you did come together to rehearse for Riot Fest, did it make it easier knowing you were already successful? Was the weight of your ambition lifted? Could you enjoy each other a bit more?
Yeah for sure, but I think that had more to do with growing up and being grown-ass men who’d lived a life and then some in the years between. If we would’ve “made it,” I don’t know, maybe none of this stuff would’ve happened. It’s really easy to enjoy the good fortune being thrown our way now as dudes in our fifties. We’ve all been playing music this whole time, so it’s not alien to us. We’re back in our old group and we’re not pissed at each other. We’re not bickering. We’re not sweating it out in our Dodge Ram 2500.
On this Dear You anniversary tour, what’s the plan? Are you gonna play it start to finish?
I’ve never been to a show like this. How does it usually work?
The ones I’ve been to, the band will play that album, take a quick break, and then come back and play a couple of hits.
I’m in a text thread right now with Chris and Blake, talking about how we want to do it. Twenty-eight shows in a row, playing an album in sequence, might get a little tired. I think we’re gonna give ourselves the freedom to do what we wanna do. Everyone agreed that at the end of the day, we’re gonna do whatever we want.
I have this interview series called Rank Your Records where I ask artists to play favorites with their work. Where does Dear You fit in with your relationship to the Jawbreaker discography?
It’s a good question. I’m not gonna blame that record for breaking us up. It just happened at the same time. But I always think of that record as: we didn’t really get to live in it. We didn’t get to take it to Europe or Japan. We didn’t get to live in those songs like with our other stuff. It felt like there was unfinished business. In the lineup, that record bats cleanup.
Because the album was attached to the final months of Jawbreaker, when you think back on it, are the memories painful because the times were so tumultuous? Or has enough time passed that you can now enjoy it?
As gnarly as it looks in the documentary and whatever you’ve read, we still had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs and a lot of adventures. We still quote stuff from the presidents of these labels, you know? “Have a cigar!” That kind of stuff. I know Blake said it was a whimsical thing for us to decide to sign, and in a way it was just to have a new experience. And we got a lot of funny and weird experiences out of that. It wasn’t as grim as people might think.
I truly do not mean this as an insult, but—
[Laughs] Can I tell you how many people begin their sentences with “I don’t mean this as an insult…” when they talk about that record? It’s happened three times in 24 hours.
Well, when I was interviewing people for SELLOUT, they were in bands that had gone to major labels. And so many said the same thing: “We saw what happened to Jawbreaker, so we were worried.” How does it feel for many years to have been this looming specter of what could go wrong with a major label?
Well, fucking welcome to our band, dude! You know the story, the shit we took, Blake and his throat surgery and me getting thoracic outlet syndrome in my shoulder. It is true that it was heavy being in our band. It was rough. We had some really hard times. So of course it happened like that. I think I say it in the movie: “We all know this is gonna end horribly.” You know what happens when you embark on something like this—you’re going down.
I think Geoff Rickly from Thursday said something in the book like, “We thought we’d learned the lessons on Jawbreaker and Jawbox and the bands that had come before us, and as soon as you think that, you’re totally fucked.”
Yeah. I totally agree. It’s easy to laugh about it now because we’re enjoying this. There’s been a lot of good will extended to us. I’m seeing a lot of young faces in the crowd. My kids now have friends that like our band. Maybe that has a lot to do with waiting this long and saying no to those offers over the years for Coachella.
How’d you know it was the right time?
We all really needed it. But it wasn’t from hunger. It wasn’t being broke. We all needed it psychologically. It helped pull us out of some shit we were dealing with.
Order my book, SELLOUT, here:
Bookshop | B&N | Amazon | Books-A-Million | Goodreads