How I Wrote Savory, By Jawbox’s J. Robbins
Jawbox had been broken up for more than two decades when they announced a long-awaited reunion in January 2019. Well, technically that’s not quite true. They got back together for one day, on December 8, 2009, to perform the song Savory on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Taken from 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, the Washington DC post-hardcore band’s third record (and first major label album), Savory is Jawbox’s best-known and most successful song.
More than a quarter-century on, its cryptic lyrics and hypnotic, chugging melody remain as captivating and original as they were then. Here, Jawbox frontman (and now super-producer) J. Robbins explains why he thinks Savory is the most enduring song the band ever recorded.
“This was one of the first songs we wrote with Zach Barocas, who was then our new drummer. I had the riff – if you can even call it a riff – and in my mind it was almost like a Helmet song. That’s how I heard it in my head, and when we started jamming on it with Zach, he immediately put this other kind of swing behind it that was completely different to what I had heard, but we immediately knew it was cooler than what we’d imagined. And I remember that distinctly, because it set the tone for what it would be like working with Zach. It wasn’t ever a dictatorial process – it was always a collaborative process. Even if one of us had what we thought was a finished song, we would always have to break it down and reassemble it in a form that suited everybody, and Savory especially suited Zach’s rhythmic predilections.
“The chorus of the song was a little more of a jammed-out thing, and that might have even started with his beat and then changes developed around it. But that was a pretty dramatic departure from the way that we had written, which was much more like somebody brings in a song and tells everybody else how it goes, or two people work on it. The drums were never an afterthought; but the drumming and the rhythms were not so central to the way the song developed. But once we started playing with Zach it definitely was that way.”
“The process of recording that whole record was really difficult. We thought we were really well-rehearsed and we would just bust it all out live, then when we got into the studio with Ted Niceley, he was the first person who had ever really put a microscope on our performances and our tones and the way that we played. That was really inspiring – it was like going to school. I think this was the only song we couldn’t put to a click track, because it was a little too slippery and kind of groovy, so it took some work to get a take that we were happy with.
“Typically with Jawbox, the lyrics would come way after the music, but once we had that first part together, I remember thinking that it was – and forgive me for saying this – a much sexier sound than we had ever had before. I thought that that was something that should be reflected in the lyrics, because I wanted it to be sort of sexual. So there are aspects of that both in the lyrics and the music, but unfortunately the lyric ended up coming out of personal experience of a highly dysfunctional relationship I was in.
“By that point in my life I was forever trying to couch my personal struggles in these kind of grand, analytical terms, and the characters in the song are people that allow themselves to be exploited and objectified. I’m sort of midway through decrying that, and being upset about it when I also realise that I’m just as guilty of it, and I’m as guilty of objectifying this person as they are of allowing themselves to be objectified. At the time, I thought that was a pretty intellectual way of dealing with an unfortunate situation, and now 25 or so years later, I have a bit of a more informed perspective about that. So I certainly don’t think I’d write those lyrics the same way today. But I was pretty happy with ‘One hand will wash the other’ as a chorus line. Because there’s a lot of truth in it. It’s also a pain in the ass to sing because the melody’s so broad. I was not up to the task of singing that song, but I did the best I could do as a singer at the time.
“I don’t really know why it has special resonance for people. When we were on Atlantic Records, we were doing our best to not comply with the strictures of what we thought of as the major label template. So we weren’t trying to write ‘the single’ from the record – we were just trying to write the good songs that came out when we went down to the basement to hash things out. But my theory as to why this song works is because there’s very little second guessing going on. It just kind of came out and suddenly, before you know it, the song is written, and I think maybe that’s why it worked.
“But we did the whole album, and then there was some discussion about what the single would be, and we kind of let our A&R pick the single. And I sort of think that part of the reason people know this song the best is because that song was put in front of the most people. It’s that simple. But if it sticks in people’s heads or gets under their skin, I think it’s because it wasn’t a song that got worked to death. It was a song where some sort of truth and directness managed to slip through all the filers and just hit a little bit harder.”
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