Decoding Jawbreaker’s Monumental 24 Hour Revenge Therapy 25 Years On
On February 7, 1994, Oakland-based punks Jawbreaker released 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. Mostly recorded by Steve Albini, their third album painted a vivid picture of the three-piece and the lives they were living at the time through a series of bleak yet catchy, damaged yet undefeated, poetic yet plainspoken, hopeless yet – just – still-hopeful songs. Both the music and the lyrics flow with a romantic despair and an unflinching honesty, neither conforming to the conventions of what punk music was meant to be. And as both Boxcar and Indictment make especially clear, Jawbreaker didn’t particularly care about adhering to the guidelines of a scene and community that would later turn its back on the band in self-righteous indignation, a factor that would become a catalyst for their demise soon after the release of their 1995 major label debut, Dear You.
But while the band came to an end, their music persisted. As the years went by, long after they had broken up, Jawbreaker became one of the most influential punk bands of their generation, and today, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is widely considered a true classic of modern punk rock. It’s a gritty, literate, emotionally powerful record that tells stories of a specific time and place, but which simultaneously flow through the blood of anyone who listens to them an ocean away more than two decades later. The band – singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler – remained broken up for over two decades, but reunited, to many people’s surprise and delight, in 2017 to play Riot Fest. They’ve since played a number of U.S. shows and will return to England later this year for the first time in 25 years. That also happens to be the age of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, so in celebration of its anniversary, the trio took us through the record track by track and dove deep into the music, its meaning and the memories it stirs.
1. THE BOAT DREAMS FROM THE HILL
Blake: “Is this a subtle dig at gentrification? I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t think I knew that word when I wrote that song. I think it’s much more of a writing experiment. It’s really what they would call a conceit in literature, and I find it so helpful when I can do that with a song. For this, it’s simply the image of that boat that was never going to be a boat – it was rusting and in disuse. And it begins with the actual image. I saw that from the freeway and was struck by it and tried to inhabit or embody the boat and sing from that perspective. I wanted to flex my creativity and had felt constrained by being like, ‘Well, it has to be real, it has to be based on the mundane.’ This was much more of a flight of fancy, like the ‘fishy flutter on my rudder’ lyric – that’s my favourite space to be in, purely poetic and creative.”
Adam: “The songs on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy were sequenced in our heads when we went in to record it, so we knew that this was going to be the first song on the album, just because it kind of punches you in the face and it’s got those tight breaks before going into the choruses. So that was by design. The Albini version of this song started with a guitar lead and a pick slide into the opening verse, but after recording it with Albini and then doing a full tour afterwards, we realised that wasn’t the best way to start the song, so I came up with the drum part that starts off the song. So that’s why, when we got back to San Francisco, we ended up re-recording Boat… for the album with Billy Anderson, along with a couple other songs. But it seemed like the obvious opener to me. We were only at Albini’s place for three days and although we got along famously I’m sure a month later he’d forgotten all about us.”
Adam: “This is about what we were going through at the time, which was people coming to us from other labels and trying to swoop us away from Communion thinking that we were going to be the next big thing. The full title of this back in the day was Scathing Indictment Of The Pop Industry and it’s just about the machine of music distribution. It’s one of the only songs on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy that we haven’t put back in the set, but I think it might be time to take a crack at it. We have a few songs that became self-fulfilling prophecies. Like Tour Song – we had never lived the text of that song until after we wrote it and then, sure enough, we started breaking down in the middle of nowhere and having trouble, getting screwed by promoters and having Nazi skinheads show up at our shows or whatever. And Indictment is kind of like that. And if I’m not mistaken the Sugar album had just come out and I liked the idea of starting with a really clean snare drum fill like on Helpless, so I kind of lifted that and going into the chorus there’s a little nod to Nirvana, like a Dave Grohl thing in there, too.”
Chris: “Obviously at that point we were all so involved in the discourse on the rules of the whole major label/minor label question. I think it’s a pretty straightforward song. One thing I have to say about 24 Hour Revenge Therapy overall is I think, as far as albums go, it probably comes the closest to sounding what we sounded like live, which is what I appreciate about it. I also like the fact the bass is mixed loud enough, but that’s me being self-serving!”
Adam: “Blake jokes that there’s just a couple of songs on this record with different words sprinkled on top of them, and this is similar to Indictment. But I knew this was the ‘hit’ immediately – it’s about scene politics. A lot of this stuff thematically was about where we were at – there are a lot of names and places cited. It’s very local. Or located, as Blake says in the movie.”
Blake: “We knew the first time that we played it live that it would be popular. It’s a song you get immediately because of the joke in the first line. People know what it means, so there’s a kind of universal appeal to that. And I think it’s the absolute stupidity and simplicity of the song itself. It’s kind of a nursery rhyme type thing, but with this zen burst in terms of the way it skitters off into the idea of murder and hatred in a way that I guess you would say is punk. That’s what I like about punk – is that someone can surprise you by saying, ‘Oh, I fucking hate that person’ or a real strong feeling coming out abruptly and unexpectedly.”
Adam: “This is all about Blake’s throat surgery. It was so shocking that was happening that I’m not sure I felt the full weight of how intense it was while it was happening. It’s only in retrospect that I realised how touch-and-go that was and how crazy it was for us to be right back out on tour just a couple of weeks after he had throat surgery. I didn’t think of it at the time – I was a young man and I was probably completely freaked out, but just not allowing myself to process the information. But really, it was traumatic and I think everybody was in shock and walking around a little bit dazed and not really letting it sink in how gnarly that was. Sound wise, it feels more like a song that would fit on Bivouac. It’s definitely a downshift after Boxcar.”
Blake: “I was in a foreign country on tour with no money ,and I was completely doped up from the procedure, so the song is really a series of impressions or flashbacks to the operation. It has that kind of druggy quality. I only had about 10 memories or images to choose from because I was unconscious for a lot of it, so that narrowed it down. And the lyrics really are snapshots from someone under anaesthesia. And the surgeon was amazing. He actually forgave me what debt I had left. I wrote him a letter telling him my circumstances when I got back to Oakland and he sent a receipt saying ‘paid in full’, just for the letter, basically. It was very generous.”
Chris: “A friend recently pointed out that the first three songs are all in the same key. We don’t read music. Well, Blake probably reads music by now, but at the time none of us read music, so the question of all those songs being in the same key? I had no idea. Whatever, sure. I’m not stupid, but it’s not what we were thinking about at the time. But Outpatient is a song that’s much more interesting as far as dynamics are concerned and the different instruments play off each other at different times. It’s not like everyone’s playing all at the same time – the bass line is running under it and the guitar comes in over it and plays off of it. As a bass player, a lot of the time you’re there to hold down the fort while other people wander off in different directions because a lot of the time you just hold the main progression down. Also, if everyone’s playing crazy stuff all at once it doesn’t work, and I think one of the things about 24 in general it’s an album where I began to recognise the value of pulling back and not doing fills every chance I got, but trying to put them in useful places and places that made sense.”
5. ASHTRAY MONUMENT
Adam: “This is a really ferocious song. It was always really good to do live – it almost had the same effect that Parabola would have lived, where we’d really get to lean into it and scream and be super ferocious and I get to play like a Bun E Carlos drum fill and stuff.”
Chris: “It’s a dark song. I think Blake broke this out in a Zurich squat factory. He was like, ‘I’ve got this idea for a new song’ so we practiced it, because we were always trying to do new songs. Playing the same songs over and over gets tedious sometimes. So we learned it at that soundcheck – well, it wasn’t really a soundcheck, we just happened to be in the place we were going to play and no-one was around so we took a moment to fiddle around and I don’t know if we finished the entire arrangement. I think that was later, but the progression is interesting. It’s one where people drop in and out while the bass holds the main line.”
Blake: “This song to me is a very Mission District, adult song. That was the kind of bleak, stark reality of living alone in the Mission District. I don’t know why, but I associate it with our apartment on Sycamore Street. We lived in an adult world compared to where we played a lot, which were very happy punk events like, [punk venue 924] Gilman Street – our world looked nothing like that. It was much more people who were older dealing with addiction and divorce or whatever. We were kind of in between these two places and it was a good place to be to write from, but it was also a little difficult to locate yourself in those two worlds. So I think I was just trying it on, trying to be a writer. It was kind of a bold step for me, as someone who grew up thinking you could only write about what you knew. That was kind of the punk music around us at the time, and it felt like a big step to say, ‘Oh, I’m a character now, and I’m going to take this imaginative exercise as far as I can. And I found that really helpful over the years.”
6. CONDITION OAKLAND
Adam: “This was sort of an afterthought. It was one of the songs we did with Billy when we came home after tour, after we’d recorded with Steve Albini. We didn’t record Condition Oakland in Chicago, we did it here [San Francisco] with Billy because we thought we needed another song and we’d been playing it on the road and thought it would be cool to do it to see if we could squeeze one more on there. So whenever we do that – and I’ve heard from other bands that this is a common thing – whenever you bring a song in in the 11th hour for a record, it ends up being a really special, cool thing. And Condition Oakland is that song on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and it’s the only song, I think, we’ve ever played that’s in 3/4 time, so it’s unique in that way. It’s got that really great outro with Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen sample. Which fits perfectly. It was meant to be. We couldn’t have conceived of the way the piano part happens right in the perfect lull, so it kind of jumps through. It’s crazy how that worked because that was a sample that we dropped in from a cassette that we were playing on a boom box with an SM57 [microphone] pointed at the speaker. We just hit ‘play’ when we thought it was about where we wanted it to jump in, so all of that was just one big happy accident. There’s something very cinematic about this song in the way you just see it unfold. There’s something really melancholy about the guitars in it, too.”
Chris: “This song came at the right time. I think we were unhappy with a track or two that may have made it onto Etc., and there was some stuff we wanted to re-record because we got shorted for time because of a breakdown of the 24 track tape recorder. But it’s an interesting song and we’ve slightly modified it even to this day because you can’t really do a long fadeout live onstage. I don’t remember whether we had already determined to use the Kerouac sample, but that’s Steve Allen on the piano! It’s one of those happy accidents.”
Blake: “The songs I feel the best singing are Ache and Condition Oakland. Those two are home. I still know those lyrics and feel them intimately. And then the more up songs we play from the record are really fun. The energy is surprising, because it’s a younger person’s energy. I can do them, but I more inhabit a song like Condition Oakland. We will play this at every show we do. That’s in the permanent catalogue. We didn’t have the means to play the Kerouac sample live back in the day, but I think it makes the song sound fuller and kind of puts you in the place of the song in a really good way. It creates that eerie grandeur that we would happen upon once in a while by using tapes. On the recording, I think initially we were just hoping to get the words to come through and we assumed the piano would get kind of drowned out. We would do that just by playing a tape recorder into a mic, cue-ing it by hitting play. We did it a few times, and the take that’s on the record is the one where the key strikes line up and are rhythmically in sync with the song. Once it landed we were like, ‘Oh, that’s the one. Let’s keep that.’ But this is a very vivid snapshot of my life, of what it’s like to be just past young in Oakland at that time and the kind of yearning that was there as well as the feeling of powerlessness of not knowing what you’re doing but knowing that you want to do something.”
Adam: “We initially recorded this for Bivouac, but weren’t happy with it, so we hung on to it. And I really can’t remember the nuts and bolts of what we did, but we definitely thought the Ache we did with Steve Albini beat the other one, so it made it. That’s one we’re playing these days that goes over really well. It’s a nice little breather in the set and on the album. But it also has a weird, crazy upside-down pattern on the drums, too – there’s something about it that’s a little bit wrong and off-putting in the way the verses happen. And then in the chorus – and Blake talked about this in the documentary – that big guitar sound that you hear is coming out of the smallest amp that Albini had in the studio. When we played at the Hollywood Palladium with Waxahatchee those three nights, Katie Cutchfield sang it duet style with Blake and it was really great. It’s one of my favourite moments of that run of shows last year. It was really special.”
Chris: “One of the things that I think is interesting about our stuff is that we like to break the mood, which this does. And I think obviously Ache foreshadows the direction of Dear You. It’s one of the songs where I think the bass line is really simple, but it’s not – it does a really weird walking thing which Blake pointed out at one point almost does part of Oh, Come All Ye Faithful, the Christmas song!”
Blake: “I feel like this song was a big step for us as a band and for me as a songwriter. That’s what we call ‘walking the plank’. There’s not a lot of noise or distortion shielding you from being naked in that song. It’s very exposed.”
8. DO YOU STILL HATE ME?
Adam: “I love this song, and we just started playing it again. I love it, because I know who Blake’s talking about, I know the whole story. But also this is an album full of short fiction – you take artistic liberties and you mash people and events up. When we went looking for labels, the guy we talked to at MCA said this song made him call up a high school friend who he hadn’t spoken to in decades. I thought that was pretty cool. Needless to say, we didn’t end up going with his label, but I thought that even if it was bullshit it was a good line.”
Chris: “This is pretty straightforward. The beginning guitar is very different from the bassline, but it’s one of the more straightforward songs. There’s a little bit of a fill towards the end that’s slightly different, but otherwise it’s a pretty straightforward rollicker, but about a pretty negative subject.”
Blake: “This is the hardest of our songs for me to sing. It’s because of the structure – there are two verses and a chorus all without any separation in a row, right in the middle of that song. It’s jammed together and I completely run out of throat by the time the chorus happens, so I tend to just blow out my voice singing it. But we’ve been practicing it. We just have to feel kind of ballsy to play it live. It’s a sad song, but it was always very joyous to play it because it’s upbeat and it’s catchy. So I’d like to be playing it a lot because people respond to it and I think it’s a good song.”
9. WEST BAY INVITATIONAL
Adam: “We were living on Sycamore Street in the Mission District, me and Blake in one apartment on the top floor, and Chris and our roadie Raul and Lance Hahn from J Church were living in the other apartment. So we had this big party and opened up both doors and had a total blowout where we invited all these new people we were getting acquainted with – that older scene in San Francisco, like the Steel Pole Bathtub people and the guys that worked at [music distro] Revolver and Boner Records, as well as the East Bay people that we’d met like the Econochrist guys and Samiam people and all of those folks, and we were all mashed up into these two apartments and it was just total debauchery. It was insane. But that was maybe the only party we ever threw, because fuck throwing a party. Is there anything worse than throwing a party? It’s the worst. There’s cigarette ash everywhere and shit missing and all your records are all fucked up and all over the place and your place smells like beer for three weeks. It’s awful.”
Blake: “This song is pretty true to the letter, but the stories are organised in a way that fits three minutes and the best parts of one specific party, but also the relationships around that event. So I guess the party is the germ of the song and there’s a conceit that’s connected to this one night, this one party, and the symbolism kind of emanates out from that point.”
10. JINX REMOVING
Blake: “This is sort of a signature Jawbreaker song for people. There’s probably enough precision or specificity in the lyrics to ground it in reality for people. It came quickly and we arranged it pretty quickly and it’s very straightforward. It was kind of a staple of our set at the end of Jawbreaker the last time – we always started with that song. The root of the song was the divergence of me and my girlfriend’s lives and the reality of that was that we were living 20 blocks away from one another and yet we were miles apart at the same time. I think that’s what drove the lyrics of that song – being in something together but all of sudden having two very different trajectories and not knowing what to do with that. I believe I was still in the relationship when I wrote it, but I could have been out of it – it was a fairly fractious relationship. But I’m definitely always taking major liberties. I would never think that the other person would corroborate my version of events. It’s my take on it and I will arrange things for the sake of the song often. But I think this song – and the chorus especially – captures the contradiction and the agony of being in something that you realise may not live. What can you do with that? It’s not that you don’t love the person or completely want them or need them, but you also know that it’s not going to work. That’s a really agonising position to be in. I think the chorus captures that, but to break it down logically doesn’t work. You just either know what it is or you don’t when you hear it.”
Chris: “You can’t play this next to Boat Dreams From The Hill though, because they’re very similar, but that’s okay because they’re far apart enough on the album that it doesn’t matter.”
11. IN SADDING AROUND
Adam: “This is a song that builds throughout and gets more and more intense. It starts off with a really simple build and then it adds another component and then the measure after that it adds more, so I just think of it as one long build, with the payoff being the chorus. The song title came from Blake’s old roommate, Bob McDonald, who worked at Revolver. Blake said, ‘What are you doing today?’ and he said, ‘I’m just going to be in sadding around.’ Bob was living at the Starlight warehouse on Mission Street at the time, and that was his expression for when it’s just pissing rain outside and you’re just ‘in sadding around’. But I think underneath it all there is this hope, that even with all of this devastation around, your narrator is still saying things like, ‘I swore this life was worth the wait’ – that even with all this shit falling around you at least you’re there and you’re alive and you’re doing the thing and you’re feeling it the way you should.”
Chris: “This is an interesting one. It’s a much more interesting building song as far as the dynamics go and the shifts from one part to another. I like it because there’s a bit where the bass and the guitar separate from one another and start playing different things. I have a tendency to hear things in my head, where I think the bassline should go and I try to follow that instinct, and I think this song is a good example of that.”
Blake: “This was a very unique song in that cycle. I wrote it on acoustic guitar and I carried it around with me forever and I would play it to anybody who would listen. I would get drunk and play it on the phone to people. I was just sure that it was a cool song and I think I scared my friends with it. They were like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?!’ So it’s a very personal song in that sense. I feel like I had it first and then we converted it into a band song, pretty much as it was, but it’s still one of my favourite songs to play live, and one we play pretty regularly. Like Jinx Removing, there’s superstitious imagery here too. I think that’s just where my mind was at that time – knowing the folly of superstition, but also clinging to it desperately. That’s kind of the personality of 24 Hour, I think – the person who knows better, but still will use any lucky charm they can to hazard their way through it.”
Words: Mischa Pearlman
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