"I've only been playing for a year and a half, not the hunt-and-peck method," says Schwarzenbach, on the phone one recent morning from his Brooklyn apartment.
As the ex-singer/guitarist for S.F.-based punks Jawbreaker and the current leader of Jets to Brazil, a melodic quartet that also includes bassist/vocalist Jeremy Chatelain, drummer Chris Daly, and guitarist Brian Maryanksy, Schwarzenbach spends much of the band's new album, Four Cornered Night, on keys. The result is rich, timeless rock that's still rooted in guitars, but with nary a punk convention in sight. "I think the introduction of the piano changed a lot," says Schwarzenbach. "I think it ended up affecting the songs and making them a little more orchestral, or a little more involved."
To truly appreciate Berkeley native Schwarzenbach's entry into the ranks of keyboard converts, one must first understand that he wasn't always so amenable to the idea of tempering his rock with lighter touches. After all, Jawbreaker was one of the best and most engaging -- both lyrically and musically -- melodic punk bands to emerge from the last decade's indie-rock underground. Founded by Schwarzenbach and drummer Chris Bauermeister at New York University in the late '80s, the band eventually relocated to Oakland, then San Francisco, and released a stream of critically lauded, audience-approved records that culminated in a 1995 major label debut/swan song, Dear You. When the band split up, Schwarzenbach moved back to New York City with a writing career on his mind and not much interest in resuscitating his life in the limelight.
However, as is often the case with career artists, music had other plans for Schwarzenbach, who soon found himself in the company of ex-Handsome singer Chatelain. Before they knew it, their time together began resulting in songs. Eventually, they recruited Daly, late of beloved punks Texas Is the Reason, and set about in earnest recording a debut for Delaware label Jade Tree (Promise Ring, Pedro the Lion). The result, 1999's Orange Rhyming Dictionary, is an excellent album that is quite literally the sound of Schwarzenbach and company struggling to free themselves from the yoke of their previous bands. However, despite praise from critics, the album received a lukewarm reception from sentimental Jawbreaker fans.
After touring to support the album, the band -- augmented by guitarist Maryanksy -- remained undaunted in its desire to grow beyond punk's confinements. For Schwarzenbach, who writes the largest share of the band's material, that meant woodshedding, quite literally, with his mother's piano. "There's an upright at my mom's farm in Nova Scotia," the 33-year-old singer explains. "It's an old farm piano. It sounds like some of the piano on the record -- a bit out of tune."
Last winter, Schwarzenbach spent time traveling between his mother's house and his apartment in New York City, relying largely on the upright and his more tuneful Roland digital piano to work out ideas. Schwarzenbach was intrigued by the instrument's melodic possibilities, despite being a novice. "It's a real different way of working. I was desperately trying to learn how to use my right hand," he says.
Listening to Four Cornered Night, it sounds like the practice paid off. Songs like "Pale New Dawn," "Little Light," and "All Things Good and Nice" are classy affairs, thanks to Schwarzenbach's piano experimentation and top-shelf songwriting. Other songs are so melodically realized one gets the sense they were at least helped along by his newfound interest in the instrument.
Assisting Schwarzenbach and Jets in the studio was producer J. Robbins, himself an accomplished singer, guitarist, and songwriter -- first with Washington, D.C., post-punks Jawbox and now with his new band, Burning Airlines. Having recently worked with the Promise Ring on 1999's distinctly pop album Very Emergency, Robbins is quickly gaining a reputation as a producer adroit at helping bands explore life after punk. "What was really cool about the studio experience," says Schwarzenbach, "was that J. was not afraid of the theatricality that the album seemed headed toward. Instead of ducking that, we kind of embraced it."
The band members also embraced their pre-punk roots as never before, dusting off influential albums and throwing them into the mix. "We were kind of getting closer to the stuff we've always listened to, and maybe being able to actually play that way," says Schwarzenbach, for whom the Kinks' 1969 paean to middle-class life, Arthur, held special significance during the recording.
The band's new appreciation to time-honored rock and pop is evident on nearly every one of Four Cornered Night's 13 tracks. The opener, "You're Having the Time of My Life," fluctuates between dramatic, arpeggiated guitar and stomping chords reminiscent of early '80s new wave. The Byrds-like "Air Traffic Control" is harmony-inflected guitar pop at its finest, existing as if punk never happened. Elsewhere, "Your X-Rays Have Just Come Back From the Lab and We Think We Know What Your Problem Is" sports an epic vocal melody and driving guitar-only accompaniment, before exploding into a fierce band arrangement. "Mid-Day Anonymous" recalls vintage Pavement crossed with church organ, while the solo acoustic "*******" could be a Pete Townshend demo from 1967. In addition to Schwarzenbach's contributions, Chatelain, Daly, and Maryanksy are superb throughout the album, turning in performances that elevate the already excellent songs to even greater heights.
However, as any fan of Schwarzenbach knows, the music is only half the equation. Since his days fronting Jawbreaker, the singer has excelled at hitting the nail on the head via exceptionally poetic lyrics and a throaty, mannered delivery. "There was a person that was pretty key, and a story," he says hesitantly, when asked if any one event inspired him this time around. "It's a little awkward to address, but it seems to be an overriding, overarching theme." He adds that the relationship is now "smoldering."
The lyrics on Four Cornered Night are some of Schwarzenbach's best work. Whether addressing a failing relationship, a budding one, or even his fear of flying, they're routinely intelligent, heartfelt, and humorous. "When you say my name to me/ Like some amusing piece of food between your teeth," goes "You're Having the Time of My Life," "Then I will know that it's completely over/ Won't you say my name to me." Of the numerous breakup songs on the album, "Empty Picture Frame" is the most effective, with Schwarzenbach singing, "I know that you're gone for good/ When the dawn kicks me alive."
Perhaps the most pointed lyrics on the album are heard on "One Summer Last Fall," a song that is, by Schwarzenbach's own admission, an open letter to the legions still fixated on Jawbreaker. Beginning every verse with "kid," the song is a warm-hearted plea that finds Schwarzenbach entreating loyal fans to please just get over his old band. "Kid, you were wrong, that wasn't me in that song," it goes. "Made a prison bed from a life I never led/ Let me correct these mistakes you delight in."
While the song is gracious, these days Schwarzenbach is quickly losing patience with those who are still hung up on the band he used to be in. Though he was initially understanding of people's difficulty moving beyond Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil is now well into a career of its own; it's time, says Schwarzenbach, for people to either join the band on its mission or stay locked in the past. "At this point, with our second record and our statement of intent already out there, I'm a little less patient," he says. "I think, "Why wouldn't you just go find another band like Jawbreaker -- or a good aggressive band -- if that's what you want to hear now?' Every time we put out a record I feel there's that initial bristling toward change."
That bristle was in full effect during a recent Internet chat sponsored by Insound.com, a New York City-based company recognized as the Web's epicenter of all things indie rock. "We got ripped apart. It was really belligerent," says Schwarzenbach, with resignation. Does he agree that indie rock has become splintered over the last decade, to the detriment of what was once an inclusive, open landscape of music? "Yeah, I do," he says. "There's a very intolerant underground vibe out there that I feel particularly because we're kind of a nonclassifiable band at this point."
Despite criticisms from myopic fans, it would appear that, like innumerable rock songsmiths before him, Schwarzenbach is sold on the ivories as a creative tool. What's more, he's fronting a band that's proven itself skilled at incorporating more timeless rock forms and influences into its music. The fact is, Four Cornered Night is one of the best rock records of the year. And while Schwarzenbach is far too modest to admit it, he might grudgingly agree. "When we left the studio, everyone felt really good and really positive about it, like, "This is a record you kinda gotta like, if you're going to listen to it,'" he says. "You've gotta give this record a chance."