These days Jawbreaker are almost as unapproachable as they are influential. Unlike most (if not all) of the other big-name punk bands partaking of the great 21st-century reunion boom, this San Francisco trio seem to have retained some of the mystique that surrounded their original pre-Internet run.
Jawbreaker’s sophisticated, gritty pop-punk has attracted a cult of fans whose worship of the band can be off-putting to outsiders—and there are a lot of outsiders. The band’s music passed through an obscure twilight before the advent of streaming and downloading, so that it was often difficult to find. DGC let Jawbreaker’s lone major-label album, 1995’s Dear You, go out of print after it sold around 40,000 U.S. copies (a failure by industry standards at the time). For many years, if you couldn’t find used copies, the only way to buy Jawbreaker’s music was through Blackball, a one-man label run by the group’s drummer, Adam Pfahler. After their breakup in 1996, their renown continued to grow among punks, but they still felt like a secret.
It’s fair to say that most folks who’ve never scribbled the lyrics to the chorus of “Boxcar” in the margins of their school notebooks don’t know the Jawbreaker legend, or even that there is a legend. Jawbreaker certainly don’t have the same cachet as Riot Fest’s other reunited headliners—the Replacements and the “original” Misfits. Perhaps the solution is the new Jawbreaker documentary Don’t Break Down, which has its Chicago premiere on Thursday, September 14, at the Logan Theatre.
Directors Tim Irwin and Keith Schieron began working on Don’t Break Down after their first joint feature, the 2005 Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo. “I wasn’t sure if Keith would want to do another one or not,” Irwin says. “He right away expressed interest in doing one, and the band he wanted to do was Jawbreaker.” Schieron connected with Pfahler, and it turned out he’d liked We Jam Econo—no small compliment, given that the drummer co-owns San Francisco movie-rental institution Lost Weekend Video.
In 2006, Schieron and Irwin began filming interviews with each band member individually, beginning with bassist Chris Bauermeister. (Not everybody had stayed in touch after the breakup.) Schieron came up with the idea of getting Bauermeister, Pfahler, and guitarist-vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach together to listen to Jawbreaker masters in a San Francisco studio, and those 2007 sessions turned into the band hashing out their past. “We really struggled for a while about how to approach that footage in terms of the editing,” Irwin says. “Like, how would we couch that in the film?”
Sunday 8:45 PM, Riot Stage
Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker
Thu 9/14, 8:30 and 10:30 PM, Logan Theatre, 2646 N. Milwaukee, $15, early show sold out, all ages
After a series of stops and starts for the directors, in summer 2015 they began working with filmmaking collective the September Club (based in Milwaukee and Los Angeles), which helped refashion the documentary and get it finished. The September Club’s Dan Didier, best known as the drummer for the Promise Ring, coproduced the film; he says the challenge was framing the narrative of the band’s career as a gripping story. “We went back to the raw footage,” he says. “We watched every single frame and boiled it down from there, trying to focus on a three-act structure: Is there an antagonist? Can there be a resurrection?”
The September Club found two narrative threads to help a Jawbreaker neophyte understand what made them special. The band split up after Bauermeister and Schwarzenbach got in a fistfight in the tour van, and Don’t Break Down explains at least some of the reasons for it: when Jawbreaker formed at NYU in 1986, Schwarzenbach and Pfahler were already close, having been friends in high school, and Bauermeister struggled with feeling like a third wheel. Adding stress was the fierce blowback Jawbreaker got for signing with DGC: they’d previously taken a hard stance against the co-optation of underground punk by major labels (a genuine scourge in the post-Nirvana years), and after Dear You came out, some former fans went so far as to buy concert tickets just to heckle the group.
As the September Club took the reins on Don’t Break Down, Schieron’s health deteriorated, and he died from a brain tumor on December 31, 2016. “Getting the film done—it’s wrapped up in a lot more emotion than just what the premise is itself,” Irwin says. Last month, the final edit of Don’t Break Down premiered in San Francisco, the night before Jawbreaker played their first public reunion show at the Rickshaw Stop—a venue only a little bigger than the Empty Bottle. The group had already played a private gig in Oakland, but Didier says the YouTube clips he’s seen of that set can’t compare to the Rickshaw concert. “Whatever they did between the shows was amazing,” he says.
A Jawbreaker reunion set means a lot to an ordinary fan of the band, and Irwin is far from an ordinary fan. For him the Rickshaw gig represented the culmination of more than a decade of work—much of it done with a friend who was no longer alive to enjoy the payoff. “With Keith and everything, it was wrapped up in a lot more for me than just seeing Jawbreaker play,” he says. “It was magical.” v