Web Only / Features » October 18, 2017
“General Strike, F*ck This Country”: Talking Politics and Punk With Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach
The guitarist and singer of the legendary band discusses politics, poetry, Palestine and antifascism.
I don’t think of us as having a political legacy, other than living well and responsibly—that we’re conscientious people. I’d love for that to be a takeaway later on.
After more than 20 years of silence, the legendary punk band Jawbreaker reunited this September to headline Riot Fest, where they played their gritty, melodic songs as a packed crowd shouted along. The charged atmosphere in Chicago’s Douglas Park also resounded with the band’s bold, radical political statements—pointing towards a “revolutionary spirit” as a necessary antidote to Trumpism.
“Everyone call into work tomorrow, because general strike, fuck this country,” said Blake Schwarzenbach, Jawbreaker’s singer and guitar player, addressing many thousands of fans gathered in front of the large, outdoor stage. Wearing a black T-shirt reading, “Gaza on my mind” in English and Arabic, Blake denounced the “hell scape we are all living in, in this moment of total sexism, total racism, total corporate capitalist shit.” He thanked the crowd for “supporting art and resistance.” Meanwhile, bassist Chris Bauermeister played the show wearing an orange “Antifascist Action” T-shirt.
These were no small gestures. The band, which broke up 21 years ago, has a cult following, and many of its fans had never seen them play live. Their Chicago performance, in addition to two smaller shows in California, followed years of rumors that there would be a reunion. Jawbreaker headlined after major acts, including Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age and Prophets of Rage.
I spoke with Blake about why a band not known for on-the-nose political statements decided to use this highly-anticipated show and giant platform to voice radical political messages. Rather than present himself as an expert or authority, Blake said that he did it “on the fly, like a living person.” Here is our conversation about art, punk, poetry, Palestine and the moral imperative to reject fascism.
Sarah Lazare: Thanks for being up for doing this interview.
Blake Schwarzenbach: Hey, I’ve been silent for 20 years.
Sarah: As I mentioned before, this will primarily be political, not your usual rock interview. I want to give you a chance to explain or expand on any political statements you were aiming to make at your show in Chicago.
Blake: I will do my best. I’m not really a public figure, you know, other than playing music.
Sarah: You’re more public than most of us.
Blake: You wouldn’t know that to see how I live. I’m just a citizen, you know.
Sarah: I know you recently did an interview with BrooklynVegan about how it’s been hard for you to get a job as a dog walker in this horrible economy.
Blake: I felt bad about that, because I felt it came off as disparaging to dog walkers. I wanted that job, I think that’s a great job. Taken as a pull quote, it seemed a bit dismissive.
Sarah: I just took it as a statement about how bleak and precarious the economy is.
Blake: Yeah, I think it is, if you don’t devote your life to being employable. I have a very suspect resume, I think, because of these enormous gaps in it where I try to claim I made music. That was my job, and I don’t think they really buy that in human resources.
Sarah: I’ve listened to Jawbreaker more than half my life and was excited by how many overtly political, radical statements you made during your show. I’m thinking of your “Gaza on my mind” shirt and Chris’s “Antifascist Action” shirt, as well as statements about the much-needed revolutionary spirit in the face of total sexism, racism and corporate capitalism. I’d love to give you an opportunity to explain what your aims were, if you had any, in expressing political views at your show.
Blake: I thought that wearing something would probably be the best way to do it, because everybody’s talking, and I didn’t want to waste that platform. I knew it was an opportunity to express some kind of solidarity with the rest of the world—the whole rest of the world. I’m so tired of speechifying. I’m also aware of being from a place of privilege in my own way, as a band, I didn’t think the world needed a lecture on feminism or racism from a power trio that’s white. I didn’t prepare any remarks, but I think we all wanted to do our little part to acknowledge we had a lot of space and a big microphone for a minute. So I did it on the fly, like a living person.
Sarah: Have you done any activism or organizing around Palestine solidarity or Gaza?
Blake: No. I’ve spoken at anti-war events, I’ve attended rallies. But I don’t know, I haven’t been inclined to be a full-time activist. I support what I can, and I do it through books that I look at and read. I guess it’s a kind of living activism that I admire in others, where it’s a part of your life and not such a big public expression.
Sarah: Do you think now is an important time for artists and musicians to make political statements, in light of Trumpism, climate chaos, mass deportations and the fact that organized white supremacist militias have a direct line to the White House?
Blake: I think it’s always a good time for that. I wish people were better at it. I find most lectures at shows feel like just that. It’s very rare that you find an artist that is living their revolutionary ethos. An artist who doesn’t have to tell: Those are the ones who inspire me in the long-term. Until we have another Fugazi or something, I don’t know how it’s going to happen on the stage.
As I get older, I get a little less explicit. I like sly radicalism. I always think of Leonard Cohen, because I think he’s a very sly radical. He was saying things that were philosophical and reach really deep if you take them on.
We played immediately after Prophets of Rage, an explicitly revolutionary group. They do that very effectively. They’re a giant propaganda machine, in a way, for their ideology. That politically says nothing to me. I don’t know what to do with that kind of rhetoric. I’m all for “power to the people” and everything. I love Chuck D, I grew up listening to his music. But it was a little intimidating for us, coming on right after that. This is a band firing on all cylinders, firing people up. And then it’s an interesting transition to our act, which is kind of no act. It made me think a lot of how we peddle resistance and express the wish for it. I don’t have an answer for that yet. I think good writing does it. It’s just slower—slower than we want.
Sarah: Can you explain what you mean about sly radicalism?
Blake: Well, poetry is what I studied formally, and that’s where I learned to appreciate that. It’s a form that doesn’t really help you very much. It doesn’t hold your hand through a revolutionary process with language and ideas. The poets I studied were the second-generation romantics, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was quite radical in his thinking and a totally complex, fucked up person in his own life. I grew to really appreciate work that makes you work.
Another person just off the top of my head—someone I found really galvanizing when I encountered her work—is Anne Carson, the poet. She also has this completely wild body of work that has no overt political content to it. And yet, she completely rethinks relationships and gender and cultural production just through her rigorous poetic work and performance art. I saw her perform once. She did a show called “Stacks.” It was just her and her partners building piles of things on stage while she incanted this incredible poetic litany. And it was completely about September 11 for me. That was never said in any way, it was kind of this terrifying, beautiful spectacle. And I just thought, “That’s a memory I’m going to carry with me for a long time and draw from.”
That’s another example of someone expressing herself obliquely and subtly. I’m going to carry that for longer than I’m going to carry a perfect position paper.
Sarah: As we saw at your show in Chicago, you have many adoring fans. Are you wanting to find ways to express politics that encourage people not just to follow you, but to think?
Blake: I do it selfishly too, because I want to be engaged in the process. If I’m not being intelligent about it, it’s going to get flat really quickly. I’ve known plenty of bullshit artists over the years, where their bands say all the right things but live in ways that are very out of step of their rhetoric. I am viscerally resistant to that. I don’t want to be that guy. We have that guy in office, we have that guy everywhere in America. I want to do my best to not be that person.
I don’t want to be the guy who uses that for cultural cache. It’s kind of playing at a popularity contest. That’s already going on. That’s our culture right now. I don’t see that as a creative endeavor. It seems empty and unproductive. It’s a short con.
Sarah: What do you consider Jawbreaker’s political legacy to be? Or, if it’s hard to think in terms of legacies, feel free to push back on that.
Blake: I don’t think of us as having a political legacy, other than living well and responsibly—that we’re conscientious people. I’d love for that to be a takeaway later on. There were a lot of things we didn’t do, because we didn’t feel good about it or in the right space emotionally.
Jawbreaker’s a pretty psychological band. We’re all concerned with mental health. That’s a big issue for me, personally. One of the things we’ve always been about is the way the mind works. Depression, anxiety, frustration—those are themes from the earliest songs. That doesn’t always have an overt political spin to it. But if you are unwell, if you’re mentally unstable and thrown into society in a very raw way, it is quickly political and financial.
Personally I’ve struggled with my own mental health for a long time and had to learn how to take care of myself, luckily with some really good friends and family, but unluckily in some institutions and systems that were very unhelpful. I tend to write from that space, about trying to find your place in this world, with those challenges.
Jawbreaker bassist Chris Bauermeister wars an “Antifascist Action” T-shirt. (Alison Green)
Sarah: It seems that we can’t separate personal mental health and wellness from society, at a time when communities are under attack and the front lines are everywhere.
Anyways, when you made your statements, you had a giant platform.
Blake: Yeah. I don’t go to festivals that often. I have played two now. I’m lucky to have played two that were really fun. I was just happy to see people enjoying music. It’s such a rare thing these days. Live music is now the entire industry, so that’s one weird part of it. All these bands have to make their living, not by recording or writing, but by performing. Clubs and venues have become this whole other massive industry. In New York, every show is sold out by necessity I think. So it’s always kind of a do-or-die event, and the amount of inherent capitalist shit is present at every show I see. It’s kind of a bummer. I miss shows where there are 18 people, and you’re seeing some incredible band. That’s very rare here.
Sarah: Well your show was really different from that. You were playing to a huge audience, had a huge platform, and the atmosphere was very charged.
Blake: Yeah, that was kind of a first for us after 20-some years. Everyone knows the lyrics finally. It’s the show we always dreamed of playing. Everybody was caught up. We weren’t playing a new record. That was just really nice.
Sarah: I was struck by the fact that the political shirts you wore made bold statements that you had to stick your necks out for. As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a phenomenon of “progressive except for Palestine,” and you can be demonized for supporting the Palestinian struggle against occupation and apartheid. And we are also seeing antifascists, and people who take antifascist action, being smeared—not only by Trump, but also by some who are left of center and fall into these false “both sides are responsible” arguments.
Blake: Yeah, I was very happy with our shirts. We chose our own, and they were very specific. I’m glad you recognized that. My shirt came from one of my dear friends who is a historian. Her name is Elizabeth Esch. She does a lot of work around U.S. history of racism and capitalism. She’s been a kind of mentor to me in terms of Palestine and Arab identity.
My connection to that issue goes back to September 11, 2001 when I was in New York City. I was so mad at the United States when that happened. That was a strange, off-the-cuff reaction. I didn’t feel victimized. I felt like we had fucked up. And then we did—we really fucked up. We took an opportunity for self-awareness and being checked in a really profound way, as someone infiltrating our implacable defense.
I began graduate school shortly thereafter, and the first book I was assigned was Edward Said’s Orientalism. And I just read that book cover-to-cover. I was really scared, because I was newly in grad school and was paying my way, and I felt like I can’t mess up. So I sat in a chair and read that book front to back. And I went through a really great seminar with about 10 people and talked about it. It drew me into the story of Palestine and that struggle and a lot of poetry in the region. Once you know about it, I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself, suddenly you see it everywhere. Arab identity in New York was so under threat, so under siege. If you knew anybody in that community, you saw very immediately how preposterous these charges and paranoia were. I felt aligned with it from that moment forward.
That’s the long genesis of wanting to say something about that issue. Which, as you point out, no one wants to discuss. There’s always some horrible false equivalency that gets thrown in against it.
I cannot speak for Chris, but Chris is a historian who did his graduate work in German militarism, and I know he chose that shirt for a reason.
I was happy. I think Adam felt a little left out. He was like, “I don’t have a shirt!”
Sarah: It was especially striking for me given that the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel extends to musicians.
Blake: Yeah, I’m torn on that one about musicians in Israel though. I think a band like Radiohead could do a lot of damage by playing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and being this kind of crazy band. I always think going and being yourself somewhere is a good idea. I’m a little torn that they would get flak for that. I can understand not buying SodaStream or doing specific targeted things, but not going and performing and continuing a dialogue or being present for that—I don’t know. That’s not something I’ve read a great deal about.
Sarah: The argument is that it’s not really a dialogue if Palestinians are living under conditions of occupation and apartheid. And it’s in the context of a campaign, initiated by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005.
Blake: I guess I’m saying I agree with it in every way: I’m totally for BDS and a very visible boycott and resistance to that ongoing colonization and occupation. But when it comes to people going to the aggressor and colonial power, then I get a little bit, “Hmmm.” I don’t know. Is it better just not to go? And then, there’s a resistant population in Israel. Are we excluding them as well?
Sarah: Yes, but many from the resistance within Israel are strong supporters of BDS and joining the call for Radiohead to boycott Israel.
Sarah: You talked about being politicized right after September 11, 2001. The United States has been waging constant war since. Is this something you’re paying attention to and thinking about a lot?
Blake: Yes, I do. I pay exactly as much attention as I can without being soul-destroyed by it. I do think people need to inoculate themselves a bit and not just wallow in mainstream media garbage all the time. It can contaminate you, either with cynicism, hopelessness or despair.
Art is how I’ve always found my way for a reason to live and to truth. If you’re fighting all the time, you’re forfeiting a certain degree of living that makes it all worthwhile. I choose my sources carefully, and I don’t watch a lot of big media, just because I don’t get anything from it, other than toxicity. I don’t draw any information from it, there’s very little information being disseminated. I stay off that stream as much as possible.
I feel sorry for those lonely racist uncles out there who are awash in Fox & Friends. They’re so defenseless intellectually. I know a lot of people who have lost relatives to that predatory broadcasting. Perfectly fine elderly people who sit around their house all day. Suddenly they can’t talk to them anymore—they’ve been derailed. It’s actually really sad.
That’s always a question with this stuff: When do you write someone off? I’ve seen that over the years, in the punk scene. It’s such a painful thing if you have to make that determination about someone you were formerly connected to. Are they actually such a danger or so irreparably damaged that you can’t continue to deal with them. I don’t have any wisdom on that, other than that hopefully you can make that decision with a lot of compassion and patience.
I think most people are not beyond redemption. People do get to be wayward and ignorant for a while. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like that right now. There are plenty of people I would not want to redeem.
Sarah: Do you think punk scenes have a special responsibility to address fascism in this current political moment?
Blake: Gosh, I don’t know. We were itching for that fight 20 years ago. It was more imaginary skinheads than real ones at shows, and people getting run out for fairly light transgressions. And now, you could really have a small army come into your venue. I think you have to be fierce and make sure everyone’s safe and say no to bullshit. That’s always required. The stakes feel like they’ve been elevated.
Sarah: Sadly, it’s been my experience that, in various punk scenes, there is sometimes too much room for fascism, too much tolerance. Punk has, at times, had a problem with that.
I think it’s important, as you seem to be saying, for punk scenes to refuse to give fascism an inch.
Blake: Absolutely. I think that’s a no-brainer. Punk shouldn’t have an issue with that. It should always be antifascist. That’s a great thing to say no to. You have an all-ages show. The rule is that anyone can come into the show age-wise. We’re not ageist. The other rule is that you cannot be a fascist. You cannot be a racist and come to this event. This is our event for our people. I don’t think that’s censorship or anything, or whatever that argument is. You can do all that First Amendment shit outside.
Sarah: I want to give you an opportunity to expand on any other political or other messages you’d like to include in this interview.
Blake: You know, I always say what I want in the songs that I write. I find I’m not very effective at expressing it outside of that in interviews. I can write about it. Really, what I have to say, is stuff I’m willing to sign my name to in music. Personally, the work I’ve done—Forgetters, my last band, and Jets to Brazil—those were a lot more of my thinking. Those are my formal statements. I would leave it to that legacy. Anything else I’ll put on Facebook and the book that’s been eluding me the last 50 years. Hopefully I can write some of it down someday.
Sarah: Would you be open to me sending you information on resistance movements within Israel calling for cultural boycott?
Blake: I know what’s going to happen: In These Times is going to get me thrown out of the Park Slope Food Coop for supporting BDS [laughs].
Yeah, I would love that. I would welcome information.
Sarah: Are there any examples of organizing or resistance that you find particularly inspiring?
Blake: On Friday night, I went to see the Freedom Theater, the Palestinian theatrical group that lives in Jenin, in the camps. They did a performance at NYU, surprisingly, of a play called The Siege. It’s the siege of the Church of the Nativity, which happened in 2002, I believe. It was really exciting to see this group. They live in a camp, and they have this incredible theater and brought their show to New York and performed. It was a totally inspiring moment. I know a lot of people worked really hard to help them get here and make this happen. So that was totally inspiring. It was cool.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.
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