Thorns of Life Q&A with Blake Schwarzenbach
Interview by Brian Moss, Photo by "Shanty" Cheryl Groff
Blake Schwarzenbach has become a subculture luminary over the past two decades. Distinguished by his lyrical capacity to expose the human condition, Schwarzenbach has been the subject of admiration, praise, idolization, backlash, and rumor. From 1988 to 1996 he fronted San Francisco's Jawbreaker, a band that redefined and revitalized American punk. Following a move to New York after Jawbreaker's breakup, he formed Jets to Brazil, where his talents continued to flourish. In 2003 Jets broke up, and while talk of varying reunions and hermitages spread across the Internet, Schwarzenbach dropped out of the limelight to focus on teaching and furthering his own studies. Now, joined by Aaron Elliot (Crimpshrine, Pinhead Gunpowder, Cometbus zine) and Daniela Sea (Cypher in the Snow, The Gr'ups, and Showtime's The L Word), he's back with Thorns of Life.
During the week preceding Thorns of Life's highly anticipated performance at Gilman on Saturday, Jan. 31 (read the review of Monday's Hemlock show here), Schwarzenbach answered a handful of questions about his new band, his creative process, and the correlations between education and music.
It's been roughly six years since you've played music in the public sphere. What factors, personally or professionally, motivated your initial departure and your decision to return to playing out?
I didn't feel there was any connection between music and the real world, so I left. I wanted to cram all my sloppy ideology into some historical framework. Thus, grad school. It was a welcome respite and a great way to survive the wars the U.S. was waging against the Arab world. Then I realized there were as many blowhards and poseurs in academia as there were in indie rock.
Did you, Aaron, and Daniela kindle friendships when you were all living in the Bay Area years ago or have they come about recently, in New York?
We knew each other from the East Bay. Aaron and I have been flirting with a play date for years and we finally found ourselves in Brooklyn at a moment when I was feeling brave and had a little trove of new songs. Daniela was this kind of serendipitous lightning that shot out of the Left Coast and galvanized the seven foot tall glowing cadaver.
Your fans and peers seem to find something incredibly touching in your words. When you write your lyrics do you intentionally aim to create pieces for people to relate to? With Jawbreaker and Jets to Brazil were you writing from an autobiographical perspective or were you incorporating fictional elements as well?
I'm always writing the truest fiction I can summon. That kind of emotional truth is often limited by meddling facts but is served by pointed details (even if they're smeared or transposed.) I try to come up with a lyric that moves me -- makes me wince, makes me laugh, makes me calm and happy/sad, same difference. If I can do that, I'm confident a few other people will have the same feeling. The human family, it turns out, is really not that big.
Given Aaron's penchant for writing, are the two of you collaborating lyrically at all?
We confer, but I take care of the word parts for these songs. I might go to him with a lyric I'm on the fence with and he'll usually surprise me by liking what I'm doubting and wondering about my hubristic shoo-in. It's a prickly, friendly, always surprising exchange.
Are there any recurring themes or universal focal points in what you've been writing for Thorns of Life?
The totality of life feelings in an indifferent universe. Past moral condemnation, past Manichean polarities, into the realm of free floating fairy being. It's sexually ambiguous, hyper-sensual, politically sharp, human. "Piety and tenderness" I think are good working criteria, if those words are applied without dogma and with no limits.
So far most of the Thorns of Life shows have been booked in houses, D.I.Y. show spaces, or collective spaces (Gilman for example). Clearly, with the interest that's circulating you could be playing larger, well-known, and profit-oriented bars and clubs. Is this indicative of a mutually agreed upon ethos within the band?
I hate sound checks and club people who talk to me. I think that's a shared sentiment in the band. I'd rather not climb up stairs to play songs that began in a bedroom and were hammered out in a basement -- it's better without a PA and with some stinky malt liquor splashed across your pedals.
And now for the cliché question: What authors, bands, artists, etc. have inspired you, provided you with a sense of solace, or generally weighed heavily in your life?
Jean Genet, John Keats, Anne Carson, Randy Newman, Exene Cervenka, Mike Ness, Fredric Jameson, Dick Hebdige.
You work as a writing instructor at Hunter College in New York. Have you found any parallels between being an educator, writing, and playing music? More specifically, do you think there's a connection between teaching young people and playing in a music community that seems to thrive on youth?
It's all learning, for teachers and students and punks and tramps. We find our teachers where we can -- books, street wizards, lovers, nemesii, whatever. I don't see any difference between a show and a university classroom -- they can both be illuminating and expansive or narrow and stupid.
In the case of your own work, what is the primary purpose of the creative process?
The act of making anything is an affirmation of living in real time. You are alive and you are making something. The purpose is to put ideas and love into the world and hope that they come back from all the other lovely, isolated or crowded minds out there.