I interviewed Blake Schwarzenbach after last night’s Thorns Of Life show at Thrillhouse Records in San Francisco. I’m not very good at introductions, read the next post down to understand why this matters if you don’t already, but being that Jawbreaker tattoos outnumber any other symbolism among my social circles, an introduction really shouldn’t be necessary.
Photo credit: Ham N’ Beans
Not only has Jawbreaker had a profound impact on my life, but so have the writings of drummer Aaron Cometbus (and the music of Crimpshrine, Cleveland Bound Death Sentance, Pinhead Gunpowder, The Blank Fight, and too many of his other bands to list), and the music of The Gr’ups, the previous band of bass player Daniela Sea.
Read on for Blake’s thoughts on house shows, cocaine-addicted indie rockers ruining the English language, drunken bike riding, Barack Obama, and even some upcoming plans for his new band, Thorns Of Life.
Avi: Today’s show is at Thrillhouse Records, a very small independent record store in San Francisco. This may have not been the biggest place you could have booked this show. What kind of thought went into that?
Blake: What went into it is we didn’t want to have to play shows that were bigger than our band, which is a brand new band. I don’t believe in laurels or tenure. I mean, I am happy that people follow the work that I do, and I think we all are, each person in the band (is). But I’ve also seen it be this presumptive thing of ‘All-star everyone comes out.’ This band started playing houses so that’s how we have to do it to keep sane and not get into a big grinder.
Avi: When we spoke yesterday, you mentioned that you were taking a slightly different approach with this band than with Jets To Brazil.
Blake: What can I say about that? At the risk of sounding reactionary, each time I do a band I try to undo the things I didn’t like about the time before, and this band kind of started as a refuge for Aaron and I at first, and then Daniela, all of whom were coming out of social traumas. So in order to protect ourselves and our idea of how to make art, this seemed like the best way to do it; trying to have as much control as possible and also to allow as much chaos as we can handle. Because small shows aren’t really controlled, you’re at the whim of a crush of people.
Avi: Yea, I’ve been at three of them now and only been able to hear the vocals at one.
Avi: There is a lot of geography between the three of you, with Daniela being in LA, Aaron in NYC, and you in Pennsylvania I think?
Blake: No, I’m in Brooklyn, Aaron and I are neighbors.
Avi: Did that just kind of happen?
Blake: It did. We had just been hanging out for a couple years now. I was teaching, he was selling books. We would just rendezvous once a month and go for a walk and talk about what was happening in the classroom, in the book world, in the music world. We had been flirting with doing a band and finally it just happened, mostly due to Aaron’s perseverance.
Avi: So who writes the songs between you two?
Blake: I write them and then we arrange them together, and Aaron comes up with parts as well.
Avi: He is pretty known for (writing lyrics for) all of his bands, and Cometbus and everything, people recognize his lyrics. That is interesting that he is in this band and just playing drums.
Avi: So one thing I thought was really interesting that I can really get behind is that you have a swear jar on this tour.
Blake: A cuss jar.
Avi: But it’s not about traditionally vulgar words. Is there anything that we should share with the world about taking our language back right here?
Blake: It’s just about not taking your language for granted. The terms that I find the most grating are kind of standard colloquialisms now, which I can’t say. I had to pay a dollar today just because I wanted to say the word really badly and I decided, ‘Alright I wanted to pay for it.’
Avi: OK, I am going to say the word “Awesome” right here.
Blake: So if I were to say that word, I’d have to put a dollar into the jar.
Avi: Why should one feel ashamed, or maybe not ashamed, but I want to make sure we can articulate this.
Blake: It began for me many years ago in New York when I noticed that people from DC would say ‘Dude,’ and I took umbrage at that being from California where ‘dude’ was a very hard-won and endeared term.
Avi: A lot of Californians will start and end every sentence with ‘dude’, like “Dude, what’s up dude?” “Dude, not much, dude!”
Blake: Then it went national, and now it’s basically — I’m at war with the clerical class of New York. A&R, management, office managers. There is this whole kind of young adult working community who are — basically what indy rock is, is clerks. And the thing is they go to all these shows at night and do coke and drink and get totally wild, but they are fucking straight-up office people in the daytime, and they have salaries, and they say ‘awe-‘ The word that I can’t say, and they say ‘dude,’ and they say, ‘you rock,’ and all this language that has been rendered dead by people who are themselves dead.
Avi: To where it’s completely meaningless because of how it is just everywhere.
Blake: So I try to eschew hatred in my life, but I kind of have an undeniable hatred for those people, and I don’t want to speak like them.
Avi: That kind of was your last band’s primary audience?
Blake: I think that was the perception, and we did get some of those people, but I think we had a weirder audience than people understood. It’s just that we were written about in lots of those larger (publications).
Avi: Being part of the Jade Tree family?
Blake: Yea, it comes with a certain apparatus.
Avi: On that note, so what are the plans for Thorns Of Life right here? I heard from a 21-year-old that you had already broken up and were only playing this last set of shows.
Blake: I don’t think so. I think we’re still forming.
Avi: So do you plan on recording a record, or what does the future have in store?
Blake: Yea, we want to record a record, and probably do it ourselves. I see no need for a label. None of us know how people do music for sale anymore, so we are trying to figure that one out, but nobody is really buying music anyway. We might as well do it ourselves and lose money that way.
Avi: People are definitely still buying it, but the top-heavy world of how it used to work just doesn’t make any sense anymore, which for indie artists and labels like ours, it is really empowering. My label has been having a better month every single month even in this economic crisis. It’s made labels like mine do a lot better just because of resources and how the world is set up. Sorry I’m kind of drunk and not articulating very well.
Anyway, the Silver Sprocket Bicycle Club is first and foremost a bicycle club. Do you ride a bike yourself, or what is your bike riding history?
Blake: I was a bike messenger in New York right out of college, and since then, I’ve ridden a bike pretty much every day of my life.
Avi: What kind of a bike do you ride right now?
Blake: I have a Bianchi road bike, an old one. I don’t know what year or anything, just a heavy steel frame, black, saddle bags. Pretty dorky.
Avi: Is it heavy just so it can take a lot of abuse?
Blake: I think so, it is a really sturdy frame. I’ve dropped that thing hard.
Avi: I’ve definitely eaten a lot of shit on mine because I drink a lot. Are you a fan of drunken bike riding?
Blake: No. I mean, I’ve done it in New York, and I have scars to prove it. The next day I’ve always said “That shouldn’t happen anymore.” I understand that it happens, I’m not a hater or anything, I just value limbs and I hate cars and I think why give them the opportunity.
Avi: I fucked around with the (audio) I recorded at The Hemlock to where I could hear the (lyrics) you were (singing). There was one song where you call out Hillary Clinton. What is that about?
Blake: Well, we all survived the primary and then the election and I found the whole thing excruciating, in no way fascinating the way everybody else did. My whole interest has been reconciling western values with the Arab world. That has been the catastrophe of this decade, and Hillary Clinton has certainly done her part by siding with the Israeli lobby in the U.S., and the appointment of her as Secretary of State to me was a really sad moment in this new administration, someone who said she would never sit down with a hostile nation. She was my senator; I have the right to hate her. I think the Clintons just are as sleazy as anyone else. Democrats are so self-congratulatory and quick to sing their own praises.
Avi: All they’re doing is comparing themselves to Republicans, which doesn’t take that much effort.
Blake: And even Ronald Regan once in a while, that song is also about not forgetting Ronald Regan. The line is “In the nuclear winter of Hillary Clinton you will reborn a ruthless Methodist” and I felt that year, I just kept writing “the nuclear winter of Hillary Clinton” on my refrigerator, because it seemed likely that she would seize the nomination, and I found it kind of like we were entering into another era of irreversible disaster. I abide the Obama administration with guarded optimism, and I hope people are vigilant as hell now that he’s in that they don’t do the Democratic thing of like ‘Yay we won, racism is over and everything is going to be great,’ but the good thing about him is that he is going to be open to challenge, and because he comes from that tradition at least, when people march, maybe it will mean one iota of difference.
Avi: I was part of Sacramento For Obama when I was living there during the primaries, and I really felt like the grassroots organizations that helped get him where he went, I feel like we have some control over keeping him in line with what we really want, but I really don’t know if that’s true at all. Only time will tell, but I really hope he pays attention to the people who got him there.
Blake: Yea, I think that’s where we’re at now. I mean, you don’t want to just throw it all out and just get cynical immediately because that’s not going to help anything, but I think people have to be willing to work as hard as they did during the campaign to just see that policies of reasonable sanity prevail. Fortunately, he is literate and articulate, that’s already a huge step. He must have some idea of otherness to know that it’s, I mean, he’s not an evangelist, so that is already a step.
Blake: No, I worry that the lion’s share of the population might not know what that means, but I think our audience usually does. I think its good to just bold people over with ideas and not be pedantic. I try not to explain, but if they like me and think my art is interesting, then maybe they’ll think “Blackwater, I need to know a bit more about the civilian contracting.” That’s how I’ve always learned, by feeling guilty for not knowing on my own steam instead of someone saying ‘You suck, you should know that.’
Avi: At last night’s show you mentioned something about an article in The New Yorker?
Blake: William Finnegan is the author, it’s called The Last Tour. It’s about a marine who killed himself last year. It’s just a really helpful and beautifully-written story about one case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Avi: And that’s what the song ‘Ribbon head’ is about?
Blake: For last night it was. I mean, yea, that’s a pretty deeply allegorical number, there is a lot of– I studied trauma in literature and First World War literature, and kind of the birth of PTSD and Shellshock, so I am sensitized to that, so the song was informed by a lot of that.
Avi: You are a university professor in New York — How is that?
Blake: Working there?
Avi: Do you get students who were familiar with Jawbreaker, or does that ever get weird?
Blake: I never have that problem because my students don’t come from punk rock backgrounds, or even rock backgrounds in general. It is a majority non-white population at my school, and as I think I said last night, the tragedy of punk rock is that it tends to be such a uniformly white cultural enterprise.
Avi: Yea, I saw barely any minorities at the show tonight, it was all white people.
Blake: Yeah, that’s the history of U.S. punk.
Avi: And this is San Francisco, we’re supposed to be a little more diverse than this! Do you have any parting words or anything else you’d like to mention?
Blake: I really don’t. I could recite many number of poems for you, that’s one of the things that’s really fascinating about me that people don’t know is that I’ve began to commit long epic poems and odes to memory. I won’t do it on tape.
Avi: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me right now, and for playing all of these very difficult to find and difficult to get into shows. It made it very magical.
Blake: For us too!
I thought this might be the first Thorns Of Life interview to hit the web, but alas, Brian Moss (whose old band The Wunder Years we released records with back in 1999) beat us to it by two days for the SF Weekly. His interview is good, read it too. Then come BBQ with us Saturday in line before the Thorns Of Life show at 924 Gilman Street!