Blake Schwarzenbach's War on Sentimentality
We all have things we'd like to forget, right? The girl who broke your heart, the embarrassing song you wrote about it—any number of mistakes, humiliations, and regrets. But when we talk about the things we'd like to forget, aren't we really just holding on that much tighter, picking at the scab so it's sure to leave a scar? Think of Jim Carrey running through the dissolving rooms of his memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, desperate to keep them together. Maybe more than our proudest moments, it's the not-so-secretly-cherished hurts that make us who we are.
The rooms of Blake Schwarzenbach's memory may be a little more storied than yours: In the early to mid-1990s, he fronted much-beloved punk band Jawbreaker, recording a series of albums that injected the genre's proletarian urgency with heroic levels of lyrical and emotional depth. ("Emo" is a word that, regrettably, comes up a lot in reference to these guys.) Schwarzenbach's songs chronicled the kind of heartache and pain we're supposed to want to let go—disastrous house parties and lost loves, packs of cigarettes and nights spent outside Mission District liquor stores, all painted with a kind of enlarging romanticism. Jawbreaker lived the era's "alternative" dream: They toured with Nirvana, signed to a major label for a rumored million dollars, and got slagged for "selling out" in the pages of Maximum Rock'n'Roll. The band broke up in 1996, but as so often happens, they only loom larger, and more dear, in the rearview.
Schwarzenbach's bands since then—Jets to Brazil, the Thorns of Life, and now Forgetters—have all come freighted with Jawbreaker's legacy, and none has quite managed to shake it off. (Jets to Brazil came closest, releasing at least one classic album with 1998's Orange Rhyming Dictionary. The Thorns of Life were most notable for including eponymous zinester Aaron Cometbus and Daniela Sea, an actress from The L Word—they released no records and never toured farther up the West Coast than Berkeley.)
Talking about Forgetters, his new band with original Against Me! drummer Kevin Mahon and bassist Caroline Paquita of Bitchin', Schwarzenbach seems uneager to dredge up the past. He dispels the persistent hope for a Jawbreaker reunion. He offers "no comment" about the Thorns of Life's too-brief existence. He says he keeps "a pretty fierce vigil" against sentimentality. But he says the new band's name isn't just a general mission statement or an entreaty to his fans to let go of the past; it comes from a far more pointed and political concern.
"Forgetters is a response to the onerous mandate from sentimentalists and right-wing nationalists that we 'Never Forget,'" Schwarzenbach writes via e-mail from New York City, where he lives. "I grew tired of this order, having lived through September 11 in New York, and having friends who were affected by this event. To see it become a shitty T-shirt about revenge and US power just seemed to me to be smearing hatred on the graves of those who died."
This is a surprising, if eminently reasonable, political streak coming from an artist as typically personal and introspective as Schwarzenbach—maybe it's the Against Me! connection—but it's one that keeps coming up in question after question. Asked if there was one thing from his life he'd like to forget, Schwarzenbach talks about Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. Regarding the old taboo of "selling out," he says, "In light of the wars and the outrageous transgressions of our elected officials, maybe a band signing to a major is a little less treasonous"—but he also respects wariness of "multinational corporations (who may have affiliations with military contractors or religious-right organizations)." He adds, of Forgetters' small-scale approach, "We do it all ourselves and with friends because we want to operate in some kind of community and not have alienated labor as a part of this project."
Asked if this political-mindedness is a new development or if it's always been an undercurrent in his art, the responses stop coming.
The four songs of Forgetters' self-released debut EP contain next to none of this explicitly ideological bent. "Vampire Lessons" is a gothic ode to the pleasures and pains of the booty call, its half-goofy/half-grim lyrics surprisingly well delivered in Schwarzenbach's appealing rasp over martial drumming and power chords. The title "Too Small to Fail" flips a familiar political sound bite, but it's not commenting on bank bailouts (thank fuck, because zzzzzzzzz), it's taking cheeky stock of the band's stature (it's also the name for their DIY label). The song itself, which erupts from gently bobbing, bass-led verses into a crashing verse, lands on a simple, emotional lyric: "Someone's gonna love me someday."
Concert footage shows a deadpan Schwarzenbach introducing the tense, jerky song "Not Funny" as being "the story of an Afghan village girl torn between her love for a soldier and her father." You could find that in its lyrics if you knew to look, although its mentions of war and soldiers can just as easily be taken as metaphorical.
Perhaps the most promising of this slow-growing EP's songs is "The Night Accelerates." Mahon's ramshackle yet chugging drumming on the verses, as well as the hoarse background screaming, recall early Against Me!, while the sustained guitar chords on the chorus could be latter-era Jawbreaker, only with less gloss. The lyrics could be about the inner life of the artist, a favorite subject going back to Jawbreaker's "Indictment" ("I just wrote the dumbest song...") or Jets to Brazil's "I Typed for Miles" ("I need a word to change my life"). "In here, I try to change my life," Schwarzenbach sings on this new song. "I hit the same wall every time."
A weird thing happens as I read through Schwarzenbach's responses: I realize I don't really have any questions about Jawbreaker or any desire to talk about the past, either. The memories I've made with their music are way more meaningful than any illuminating anecdote or lyrical insight that Schwarzenbach could provide, even if he were willing to do so.
"We are all forgetters," Schwarzenbach writes in one e-mail. "We curate our minds and choose what we will remember and what we will exclude." And then, in another: "No one forgets anything, try though they might." Either way, the more I listen to Forgetters, the more I want to hear what happens next.