“Creativity can't be reigned in,” Rox editor Michelle Welch once told me. Not by moral nor even legal boundaries. But never mind. I’m sitting in Bertha’s one night, and strike up conversation with the thick-haired hardfaced mug beside me. Turns out he’s in a prominent area band. He talks shop, mentioning some friends in the group Jawbox, who just signed with Atlantic. Previously, they released two albums and five singles on Dischord, but just received a generous advance from the major label. But instead of blowing it on drugs, leather and tattoos, the band, so says my newfound bar-stool buddy, is endeavoring to keep their expenses down. True creativity can’t be bound, but some times you gotta make provisions for its survival.
January 21 in Silver Spring: Jawbox members gather to practice in the basement of the home of guitarist Bill Barbot and bassist Kim Coletta. Lead singer/guitarist Jay Robbins, who used to play with D.C. hardcore pioneers Government Issue, calls it a meat locker but doesn’t say why. He also says it’s usually filled with “loud crashing sounds” due to the fact they share the space with D.C. band Pitchblend.
It’s 10 degrees outside. No big deal for drummer Zach Barocas, who lives around the comer. But it’s a bit of a haul for Jay, who lives in Mount Pleasant, downtown, and has no car. In less than three weeks they'll embark on a U.S . club tour, with Girls Against Boys the first half, Chicago’s Trenchmouth the second. For Your Own Special Sweetheart, recorded in 15 days at Oz Studios last August, will be released in early Febuary.
The band practices daily from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. You’d think they’d be nailing down their setlist. Instead, they arc writing new songs.
All four write, and when they cluster they mesh each other’s ideas into songs. “Everybody's got stuff rattling around in their heads all the time. And then when all four of us get together we try to glue everything together,” Jay says. Bill elaborates, “People are going to expect to hear the record when you go on tour. That’s always frustrating for us, because as a musician you want to play what feels the best.”
Upstairs, after practice, the group prepare for the road. Despite the fact they have a major label willing to handle all the details, the band, who’ve been together since 1990, still handle their own mundane affairs. “To us it’s important that we retain a lot of control over how we do business,” Jay says. “When record labels give you money, it’s an advance on future royalties. So past the point of what we spend making our record, we’re thinking it would be good to not take more if we don ‘t have to.
“We always do really well on tours because we’ve gone through great pains to make sure we have our shit together, so we can go out and tour the way we know how and make money on it,” Jays continues. “Then we don't need to take tour support. Something like a tour bus or those kinds of trappings seems more like vanity, a really unnecessary expense.”
Jawbox’s van has 115,000 miles on it. Consequently, they don’t trust it for five months of hard use. So first priority is renting a van. After days of getting prices, they decide on Vantastic Van Rentals in Long Island, which specializes in van rentals for groups.
“Nobody wants to give you unlimited mileage on l5 passenger vans,” Jay muses. Now someone must drive up to Long Island to pick it up. They also have to weigh all their equipment for their European tour. They’re on the phone constantly with Atlantic, confirming tour dates, okaying ad copy and doing phone interviews.
Upstairs is dominated by wooden floors, curved doors, an unused fireplace hung with hot pepper Christmas lights. On the mantelpiece is Tech War by William Shatner, Come Be With Me by Leonard Nemoy and The Poetry of Richard Millhouse Nixon.
Upstairs is also a Macintosh from which Kim and Bill run their own record label, DeSoto Records--another detail they have to handle.
"We’re training our friend Tina to take over the helm, answer the phone calls and mail and fill the mail orders. It’s chaotic because everything is on scraps of paper,” Bill laughs. “And we know where everything is, but trying to show someone else is a really bizarre task.”
Jay is reading Elvis by Greil Marcus and now is slogging through Foucault’s post-modern volume The Order of Things. “It’s a fucking uphill battle,” he groans. Bill has gotten halfway through a Samuel Beckett biography before abandoning it for Tech War. Zach is finishing his own book of poetry, These Are. But it’s trapped in the cyberspace of Bill and Kim’s Mac. This particular afternoon, Bill tried to print it, but the margins were all wrong and it came out funny. “Fuck,” exploded Zach. “Fuck.”
What does all this have to do with the group’s music? What does it have to do with a sound that is “loud, resonant, thick and rich,” (Spin)? This attempt "to transcribe broad philosophies, streams of introspection and observances of fucked upedness into anthemic, if somewhat shapeless proportions” (CMJ), this “mix-ture of raw power and lush texture” (Reflex)?
Well, um nothing actually.
But I will say that two of the main influences on the group’s heavy sound are George Michael and UB4O! No shit! Bill told me so: “I’m influenced by things I hate as much as I am by things I like. There’s so many times when I’m writing a song and I’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, that sounds like UB4O or George Michael. We can’t do that.’ So it's an influence.”
You heard it here first.