Blake Schwarzenbach Interview

Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil, Thorns of Life, and now forgetters. Blake Schwarzenbach, after not performing publicly for several years following the disbanding of Jets to Brazil, caused a stir when Thorns of Life debuted late last year. After only a handful of performances and a recording session rumored to be troubled, it was said Thorns of Life had reached the end, as well. This was confirmed a couple weeks ago when Schwarzenbach resurfaced playing in a new band, forgetters. They play Great Scott in Allston on October, 4, and I recently had the opportunity to speak with Schwarzenbach over the phone.

We discuss the plan for forgetters, English, the nonpossibility of a Jawbreaker reunion, books, healthcare, politics, and more. Instead of breaking the interview into sections it’s all in one post below. Enjoy!

Why don’t you start off by telling me a little bit about forgetters and what you guys are about and what you want to try to do.

We’re a 3 piece band from Brooklyn and we’re still kinda getting know to each other as a musical entity. But songs have been happening very quickly for this group so we don’t have any huge plans to continue gestating. And we want to play a lot.

So you guys are done with the birth period and you’re gonna get out there.

Yeah! I mean we’re still writing a lot of songs. I’ve got a little backlog and there’s also been some spontaneous creation, which I’m always looking for. So it’s hard for us right now because we’re getting a lot of show possibilities and at the same time, we’re trying to catch up with learning songs, in order to play them. So it’s a good problem, but it is, nonetheless, something we have to negotiate.

Are you guys going to put together a tour, or just keep to weekends?

We’re starting out with weekends and we’ll be recording a couple songs in October for a 7″. I think the plan is to be incremental and modest in our aspirations. We’re trying to live in real human time.

So a 7″ in October?

That’s the recording. It will take longer to come out, obviously.

Tell me about the folks in the band.

Well, it’s Caroline who plays bass. She was in a band called Bitchn’ from Florida and is artist otherwise. Does a lot of different craft work. And Kevin who plays drums. He was in Oogle Orphanage from Brooklyn and Against Me!, long ago. And he plays soccer. Avidly.

Are you an athlete of any sort?

I’m a runner, baby! I was a varsity cross country runner in high school, and I’ve continued running my whole life. Turning periodically to fight, and then running more.

Which is always the case with anyone who does anything avidly, the turning to fight.


Are you a fulltime rocker now, or are you 9-5ing?

I’m fulltime unemployed right now. Yeah, the band costs money at this point so I can’t call that a job. It’s a labor of love. And I’m not teaching. I’m trying to do coursework for next semester. But it’s hard out there.

Did you finish your dissertation?

I finished my Masters dissertation. So I’m a master of English now.

Did you consider yourself one before?

I considered myself a kind of fetishist of language. A, kind of, pervert of language. And now I can hide that behind some credentials. Like I don’t have to alert the community that I’m a deviant with language when I move in.

A language deviant?

A language offender, I guess you’d call it.

Right, right. You’re not on any registries.

No, now I’m not. I’m now credentialed as- What would I be? An MA, a Master of Arts.

Have your studies changed your lyric writing at all?

It’s made me a little more self conscious about technical matters, you know, punctuation. I don’t know that it has. I feel like I’m writing in a pretty familiar vein in this band, as opposed to any others. I think there’s just one kind of song writing I do that develops naturally over time. But I feel like the same Blake of the last 20 years when I’m actually writing and playing guitar.

Switching gears. What was it like to play shows with Thorns of Life after not having publicized shows for a long time and to have a bunch of people in the room very excited, but not knowing any of the songs?

It was really great. And I think it’s a testament to the honest enthusiasm that’s out there and a pretty strong punk scene in Brooklyn. Because we really kind of eased into it, I think, pretty intelligently by just playing house shows. Not trying to trade on any credentials.

Yeah, I thought that was really cool. I was going to try to use this interview to tell everyone you’re not punk.

That I’m not punk anymore?

Well, ‘you’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone’?

Oh, right.

Ugh, that one went over like a lead balloon.


Are you familiar with Lucero’s Kiss the Bottle? They do a version pretty much every night, I think.

I’ve seen them do it.

What do you think?

Oh, I love it. I like the band. I think it’s nice that they’ve taken it up.

It’s been nice for people to get to see it live that maybe didn’t in the past.

Yeah, I appreciate a good cover. I’m not good at them myself, that’s the problem. We’re trying to find one for this band and I have a very hard time doing other people’s songs.

What have the contenders been?

Let’s see. I always- Well. [Laughter] We haven’t even come close, so I can’t say.

How do you feel about Boston? As a place to play? A place to visit?

It’s always been very, very good to me as a musician. Jets had really good shows there. Jawbreaker had really good shows there. I’ve not hung out in Boston much, so I don’t know. I know it more from a mercenary, hit and run perspective. I do have a number of friends in the area, so that makes me like it, too.

There was a show that you guys did at the Middle East on the ‘Dear You’ tour that I didn’t go to. I was at a Chili’s in Framingham with my German exchange group and my brother called me from the pay phone and said, ‘You gotta get down here.’ And I didn’t and I’ve regretted it ever since.

That show was great, man. I think it was our best show. [Laughter]

Ha. I was trying to figure out what year it was, and I think it was 13 years ago, which made me feel kind of old.

Yeah, it was a long time ago.

Another Jawbreaker question. In ‘Tour Song’, there’s a phone message saying you’re broken down at the top of Massachusetts.

Oh, yeah.

Can you tell the story about that?

Well, we were trying to get to Maine, actually. And it was one of our first attempts at a, kind of, 5 day tour, as I recall. And we lost the U Joint on our van. We ended up in- did we say in the message where we were?

Just the top of Massachusetts.

You know, it’s the town with all the horrible, wonderful fishing tales.

Oh, uh, Gloucester.

Yeah, I think it was Gloucester. And so we had to stay there for a few days while they ordered a part and it was cold and kind of bereft. And we alienated the state of Maine in the process. Because we did NOT make their show.

Did you ever get back to Maine?

Never did. I don’t think we did. I don’t think I’ve ever played Maine.

Maybe a place for forgetters to stop.

Yeah. It’s closer now.

I was a tour manager for a few years and we were forever going through trailers, so I can commiserate.

You’re at the whim of the road.

I saw on the forgetters’ blog that you suggested The Good Soldier as a book that delves into Europe after World War. I have a professor that suggested that as the best novel ever written, and I’ve tried 3 times and can’t get through it. For all the people out there that can’t get through The Good Soldier, can you give it a recommendation?

I would recommend it highly and it actually gets stronger as you go through the trilogy. I know that’s not encouraging to people having trouble finishing the first one, but the second 2 really fly. I think a good way to start with one’s interest in that if you want a contemporary point of entry, Pat Barker’s Regeneration is a really fun, engaging novel. That’s a recent book, but it’s about the same period and it kind of gives you some context for that. It’s like the movie version of Parade’s End, but it’s a book.

It’s a book version of the movie version of another book?

Yeah, exactly. And there is a film of Regeneration, as well. But it’s not wonderful.

Joe Wilson or Kanye West?

Joe Wilson or Kanye West, those are my choices? Kanye! ‘Do you have any idea what it feels like to be amazing’? I believe that’s what he was shouting from the stage at a recent concert. How can you argue with that?

I don’t think it’s possible, too.

Well, Kanye summed up the feeling of the nation during Katrina or for many, I think. So I will always love him for that. That offhand remark. It was the greatest thing said on live television. And! The priceless look of Mike Myers, frozen like a deer in headlights.

That’s a great video to watch every couple months.

It brings a great joy. I think he was kind of trumped by Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the shoe thrower. That was the maybe the next greatest thing to happen on live television.

But not on native soil, not sure that counts in this awards ceremony.

Well, Jesus, Iraq basically is domestic soil at this point. Wherever the president treads, that’s US soil. You could count it as a surrogate domestic incident.

Want to talk about politics for a second?


I just read an Op-Ed by Michael Pollan in the Times in which he sounds pretty optimistic that even the worst health care reform bill that passes will include blocks on insurance companies dropping people who get sick, and not allowing them to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions, and that these things will ultimately get insurance companies involved in improving food policy in the US. That was a long set up to ask, do you have any thoughts on health care reform or the debate of the last 6 weeks or so?

I think it’s a disaster. I understand Pollan’s point and he’s coming from a very specific food/diet perspective and I guess we have to be prepared to take anything we can get at this point? It is health care reform. I’m sad to say that I don’t think it’s going to be particularly life-changing for most people. I feel like one of the best points I heard made was that by beginning the conversation without universal coverage, that was removed from the outset, the argument was put at a very disadvantageous position. Not that we were necessarily going to get that, but without having that on the table to bargain to the right… I hope I’m not making this too confusing.

No, that’s something the Democrats have been accused of over the past couple years. Their initial offering is always a compromise.

Right, and this one just seemed like too great a concession was made from the start, so the only way to move was to the right of the public option, which is now where we seem to be. And, you know, I think that’s really sad.

It’s a shame to say this but it seems like only one side is negotiating in good faith.

Well, you seem to be living in kind of a model state. What’s your system like? Does it work well for you?

I had coverage through my employer until a couple weeks ago, so ask me again in a couple months. But overall, a lot of the fears that were drummed up about the issues this program would cause have not come to pass, similar to gay marriage, actually. I think it’s a testament to compromise that, while we don’t have an ideal system for those without coverage, you know, businesses aren’t being destroyed by it, and people aren’t going bankrupt for lack of coverage as often.

It will be interesting to see where we end up.

Do you have coverage now?

No, I haven’t had coverage for probably 15 years. I don’t go to the doctor. I mean, I pay per visit in a crisis and I try not to get tested if I can. There’s nothing like not having coverage to put you in touch with the price points and machinations of the whole industry. If you ever make the mistake of getting blood work done at a pay per visit hospital, it’s really rough. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve been bankrupted the few times I have. There’s been a lot of discussion of the doctors’ cronyism with labs and contracting out those tests. They’re pretty eager to assign test to patients and each of those things costs about $600. You know, basic blood work.

It’s not always a bad thing to do the tests, because we’re paying for it anyway, but I think if there was a way where the savings from not having those tests would get passed on to everyone, that would be better.

I think at least to tell patients up front, ‘I think you should have this test, and it will cost you $850’. What’s frightening about it is you start getting these bills from Quest Diagnostic and companies like that. Months later, and you’re fucked. And there’s just nothing you can do unless you can go underground.

Quest Diagnostic is right across from the Middle East in Cambridge, so you can pay them a visit when you’re in Allston in a couple weeks.

Oh, they’re everywhere. I almost got run off the road by one of their delivery guys last night. Those little Quest minivans are all over New York.

Let’s end with something about music. What are you listening to right now? What are you most excited to get back into with forgetters?

We’re playing our second show tomorrow night in New York, so that’s exciting for us. And we’re debuting some songs. I’m listening to Mission of Burma a lot. They were just here and it was the best show I’ve seen in a year, probably. Really inspiring that a band that has been together that long has managed to improve, I thought. So I’ve been listening to them and The Wipers. I know those aren’t new bands, but those are the bands that have been inspiring me lately.

Mission of Burma got back together a couple years ago. The Pixies got back together. There’s a rumor going around now that Pavement is getting back together. Any of your previous bands thinking about a reunion?


Good answer.

No. I have to do new bands so that those bands won’t get together. [Laughter]


This is the one- Ah, I won’t even attempt to make the joke. But yeah, I am really interested in doing new work while I can.

You think you have a couple more years in you?

Ha. At least, yeah! I mean, I think it takes 5 years to do a band year well. So I would like this band to have 5 years. Or more.

It sort of a cycle, and it’s an interesting way to put it.

I guess having said that, there’s bands that can be great for 1 show, too. I don’t mean to disparage those loud explosions in the night that disappear. I appreciate that, but I’m trying for a sustainable model here.


Yeah, I’m into that.

What would make you feel like forgetters had made it?

I think if we can get a recording that we’re happy with and do a tour where we like playing, I would feel that was pretty successful.

I hope for that for you.

Thank you. We do too. We’re working hard to make that happen.

I really appreciate you taking the time, I know you guys are busy getting things together for your show tomorrow and the week after next.

Yeah, I hope to see you in Allston?

Definitely. Thank you. Take care.

You, too.

Blake Schwarzenbach Interview

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