Jawbox was a self-proclaimed academic member of the Washington, D.C. hard core scene. Instead of over-the-top ego, in-your-face offensiveness, and unstable filth and fury lifestyles, the group from Washington, D.C. lived a more pleasant band life. They were always cooperative with their management, making most scheduled interviews, living a socially responsible life by staying out of drug and alcohol abuse, and just generally desiring to craft a good song. Lead vocalist J. Robbins proclaimed their intent to the web-zine It’s The Music, Stupid: “We don’t necessarily intend to be offensive, but we definitely intend to be challenging.” He also revealed to Jason Ferguson of Magnet the pleasure in just playing music, “There really is something that’s pretty cool about just wanting to do your band and having something to get off your chest and wanting to just rock out.”
Their style was straightforward, so much so that Rob-bins admitted to Ferguson, “We’re damned to never be rock stars because we don’t act like it and we don’t feel comfortable acting like it.” Jawbox’s live shows, full of passionate, explosive energy, certainly fit the definition of a rock star performance. Fortunately, they were able to catch their emotion and intellect on four albums and a string of compilations over their eight-year career. They rumbled from indie band all the way to major label artist. Although they thrived in the artistically free independent label scene, they went as far as putting out two albums on the major label Atlantic.
Their sound was furious, harsh, and melodic. Spin Magazine described their work as “a weird, melodic, emotional trip.” The group cranked out the tunes from the United States’s capital city, alongside groups like Shiner, Arcwelder, and The Capital City Dusters, but released several albums that reverberated the style of the Chicago punk scene of the early 1980s.
Robbins, formerly a bassist from Government Issue, switched to vocals and guitar, gathered a few buddies, and formed Jawbox in 1989. Robbins talked to It’s The Music, Stupid about playing guitar and starting his own band from scratch: “’Cuz I really wanted to try it. I hadn’t played guitar.” Joining Robbins was then-girlfriend, Kim Coletta, on the bass for the first time in a band, and Adam Wade on drums. Jawbox enticed fans immediately when they played a sold-out show with fellow Washington, D.C. groups Fugazi and Shudder To Think.
The trio went into the studio immediately, releasing their first recording, Jawbox, a four song EP, in the spring of 1990. It was carried by a collective imprint, their own DeSoto label, with aid from Dischord Records, which was run by Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye.
Jawbox’s debut album, Grippe, released in June of 1990 on Dischord Records, marked the group as a legitimate rock band. Along as engineer was Eli Jan-ney, who had worked with Girls Against Boys. According to Andre Mayer of Rock, The Rough Guide, the content of Grippe “was a cry of resistance, brimming with songcraft… and Robbins’s pithy lyrics.” A cover of Joy Division’s “Something Must Break” was included in the mix, evidence of the group’s wide musical influences.
A second guitarist joined the frenzy in the winter of 1990. Bill Barbot, who wrote for Guitar Magazine, left Clambake and contributed another instrument as well as creative direction to their second Dischord release, Novelty. It was recorded in early 1992 at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Virginia, with Lain Burgess producing. Album artwork expressed the group’s passion about their art and desire to develop intimacy with fans as it was an x-ray of Barbot’s knee after falling off stage during a Montreal, Canada performance stunt. According to critics, Jawbox’s songwriting improved along with greater variation, making it a stronger offering than Grippe. It included exceptional tracks like “Tongues,” “Cutoff,” and “Static.”
Wade left the group during the spring of 1992 to join Shudder To Think. He was replaced by Zach Barocas, a student from New York who had come to Washington, D.C. to study. He was a roommate of Colleta and had promoted one of the first shows Jawbox played out of town. His jazz-influenced drumming style shifted Jawbox’s sound and opened another door to the band’s creative spirits.
Jawbox heard a lot of criticism when they left Dischord Records and signed with Atlantic. They were the first
Members include Bill Barbot (joined group 1992), guitar; Zach Barocas (joined group 1992), drums; Kim Coletta, bass; J. Robbins, vocals, guitar; Adam Wade (left group 1992), drums.
Formed in Washington, D.C., 1989; released Grippe, 1990; released Novelty, 1992; released For Your Own Special Sweetheart, 1994; dropped from Atlantic Records, band dissolved, 1997; Robbins and Barbot formed Burning Airlines; Barbot and Coletta continued running their label, DeSoto Records.
band to depart from the independent label. A statement on the highly respected independent recording company’s website expressed disappointment about Jawbox leaving, but claimed the company did not want to be a hindrance to a band’s goals. According to Andy Kell-man from All Music Guide, the group entered into the contract with Atlantic carefully, clearly outlining their needs and wants so as to remain in control of their art. The contract excluded the band from tour support and allowed the group to focus much of their energy on the band and play in several locales for the first time. All of the advantages gained in working under a major label were not enough for orthodox indie fans. Many of their listeners and even fellow indie groups turned their noses away with an attitude of disgust, claiming Jaw-box had sold out.
Jawbox worked hard on their first release with a major label. Ted Nicely assisted during the recording of 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Their opportunity to focus on the project produced an album that defined a post-punk classic. The mix of hardcore fury with pleasant pop crafting was considered Jawbox’s best work. “Savory” was a track considered to exemplify the sound of the post-punk genre. Mayer shared the band’s feelings on the sound of the album in a revelation by Barbot, “We were a bit shy about our melodic side in the past. It shows in a lot of places, but especially on For Your Own Special Sweetheart, because it was our major-label debut, we wanted to make sure we didn’t make a record that sounded like a major-label record. We didn’t want it to sound syrupy and radio-friendly because we knew that in our heart of hearts that wasn’t what we were really all about.” The band toured extensively after the release and even opened for labelmates Stone Temple Pilots. MTV even aired some of their videos, but the independently bred act experienced a lukewarm mainstream reception.
Jawbox recorded their next album, Jawbox, with producer John Agnello (who had worked with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Chavez, Dinosaur Jr., and others) in late 1995. Songwriting was much different for the fourth album. Acquiring an eight-track recording studio allowed the band to record demos and prepare the structure of the song before having to record. They were able to move beyond a technical fixation in the studio and focus on playing the music with heart to instill that live rock band spirit into each track. Barbot revealed the group’s passion about recording to Ferguson, “For us, writing a song is a process that is all-inclusive, from the first tracks to overdubs, vocal harmonies, extra instrumentation, everything.” Barbot expressed joyful satisfaction regarding having Agnello along on the project: “John was just there to help facilitate us finishing our vision of the song, rather than bringing in something that we hadn’t counted on.” Robbins’s writing was more concise than on prior work, the result of a specific effort to artistically shape his songs. The 1996 Atlantic release contained a more produced sound, perhaps with a more mainstream product in mind. They even slipped in a cover of Tori Amos’s “Cornflake Girl” on the disc. Even though the songs were still real to some fans, consumers neglected the package amid the onslaught on punk-pop groups hitting the mainstream during the mid 1990s.
Jawbox came to a halt during 1997. Several factors contributed to the breakup, including Barocas leaving to attend film school in New York, and Atlantic releasing them from the label. The company shifted Jawbox to a new subsidiary, TAG (The Atlantic Group), designed to develop new acts. However, four months after the release of Jawbox, the enterprise closed its doors, laid off employees, and sent Jawbox back to Atlantic before abruptly dropping the band.
After the demise of Jawbox, several former members ventured into other projects. Robbins and Barbot picked up Peter Moffett from Wool and formed Burning Airlines, which released their debut, Mission: Control!, in 1999. Burning Airlines departed from its members’ punk upbringing and expressed a new wave sound, which was included in a Spin.com college radio webcast that Spring. Robbins also worked in the studio with others, producing bands such as Braid, Kerosene 454, and the Promise Ring. Barbot and Coletta ran DeSoto Records which included acts like Compound Red, Shiner, and the Dismemberment Plan. In 1998, DeSoto released a Jawbox compilation of sorts called My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. It was a career-revealing collection of unreleased material from the studio and live performances, and various covers the band had played. Barocas joined fusion instrumental rock group the Up On In.
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Grippe, Dischord, 1990.
Novelty, Dischord, 1992.
For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Atlantic, 1994.
Jawbox, TAG/Atlantic, 1996.
My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents, DeSoto, 1998.
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"Jawbox." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jawbox
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