by David Jarnstrom
Virtually no stone has been left unturned in regard to cult-favorite ’90s bands reuniting for festival appearances, reunion tours, and comeback records (see: Jawbreaker’s long-awaited 2017 Riot Fest revival). For the longest time, it appeared Jawbox—they of the exceptional Washington D.C. post-hardcore scene and Dischord Records roster that produced the likes of Fugazi, Shudder to Think, and so many more—would remain one of the few stubborn exceptions to this trend. But fans are rejoicing as it was recently announced that the classic four-piece lineup will finally resurface for a run of club dates this summer, Jawbox’s first public performances in over twenty-two years, notwithstanding their fleeting reunion for an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2009.
Perhaps no other band of its era so successfully merged captivating melodies with abrasive noise and idiosyncratic rhythms—the latter being courtesy of one Zach Barocas, an inimitable talent and an intrepid force of nature who assumed the drum throne on Jawbox’s 1994 major-label debut, For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Scoring a minor hit with the unlikely single “Savory,” and solidifying their reputation as a blistering live act, Jawbox followed up with an even more exciting and eclectic collection of drum-forward tunes on their self-titled 1996 LP. The group disbanded a year later, but Barocas continued to push his musical boundaries by fronting (from behind the kit) the excellent instrumental post-rock bands the Up On In and BELLS≥, while also contributing to side projects like Camorra and Bright Christ.
Barocas and For Your Own Special Sweetheart are featured in the Encore section of this month’s issue of Modern Drummer. We sat down with him near his home in Brooklyn for a deeper dive into how he arrived at his singular style, what drives him to evolve and explore as a drummer and musician, and the past, present, and potential future of Jawbox.
MD: When last we spoke a few years ago, you claimed a Jawbox reunion wasn’t likely ever going to happen. What changed?
Zach: Well, we got our annual invitation to play at certain festivals. But the barrier we’ve always encountered with that is, we were never a festival band. Our sound and our presence isn’t really geared towards something of that size. But for once, everyone was interested in the idea of playing again. So I contacted a booking agent about the possibility of doing some club shows instead and brought that back to the band. Everyone thought it was a good idea. The whole thing hinged on being able to go to 1,500-capacity venues. That appeal was noted among us. We don’t have to do anything different from what we’ve always done.
MD: I’m sure you’ve gotten some pretty enticing festival offers.
Zach: We’re not ruling anything out, but we also haven’t confirmed anything else. I suspect we’re more open to those opportunities overseas, because we can’t be gone for very long, so we do have to calculate some bang for our buck in terms of getting to certain places.
MD: Have you already started rehearsing?
Zach: We started practicing last August. We’ve been in the woodshed relearning these tunes, and it’s going well. I think it’s been fun for those of us who weren’t playing much. And for those of us who were playing…you know, I wasn’t playing anything like this stuff. It’s a different set of callouses, but it’s been a pleasure.
MD: It’s very challenging material, both mentally and physically.
Zach: For sure. It’s not going to be the same show that you watch on YouTube from CBGB’s in ’95. You’re not going to be able to play the way you did when you were twenty. On the other hand, there’s all kinds of better ways to play than the way you played when you were twenty. I think we’re all finding a little bit of that in this experience. When we’re younger I think we assume that everything has to be a highlight. There’s no patience for anything, let alone ourselves. One of the great lessons I learned being in BELLS≥ over the last decade was—to riff on the Minutemen—when you’re young, a band can be your whole life. Everybody lives in the same house and adopts the band name as their last name. Now instead of having the band itself encompass everything you do, everything you do ends up in the band. Which is sort of a different proposal, right? And I don’t think you can do that as a kid. Now we’re all showing up as a recording engineer, or a stationary salesperson, or high school teacher. It’s just not the same racket.
MD: Speaking of being a kid, when did you start on drums?
Zach: I took trumpet when I was nine and skipped all my lessons, so my punishment was to pick another instrument the following year. I picked drums because it didn’t have any scales. I grew up in Rochester, New York, and took lessons at Hochstein, which was affiliated with the Eastman School of Music. I marched, I was in the concert band, I learned to read charts. In sixth grade, I played in a Who cover band. Then I moved to Fairfax, Virginia, and met Kevin McKendree, who is the finest blues piano player you’ll ever hear. He’s gone on to play with people like Brian Setzer and John Oates. That changed everything. Kids stopped beating me up, because I played with Kevin. Music became my social life.
MD: Is that when you discovered punk, living so close to D.C.?
Zach: No, I actually moved back to Rochester in ’87 and met the punk kids there. My background then was Traffic and the Allman Brothers and Little Feat. I loved Keith Moon and Stewart Copeland. I’d never played punk music—but you could play a show and people actually came. [laughs] Rochester’s punk scene wasn’t very big, but it was very important to everyone involved. And that was new to me. I started booking shows, and that was how I met Jawbox.
MD: So you were drawn to the community aspect of the scene?
Zach: Yeah. Frankly, most of the music terrified me. I was eighteen or nineteen. Relative to my friends, I came pretty late to it. But I was hip to the D.C. stuff. These were clearly talented musicians. Government Issue, Bad Brains—Fugazi changed everything. Soulside, Scream, Swiz. A lot of those bands stayed at my house. Ian [MacKaye, founder of Dischord Records and singer/guitarist with Fugazi] introduced me to Jawbox. And that was the way that all went. No one just talked about themselves. There was always another band or show or club or town that you were pulling for. I was visiting J. [Robbins, vocals/guitar] and Kim [Coletta, bass] and Bill [Barbot, guitar/vocals] from Jawbox once a month. They were my mentors. Every time I went down to D.C. I was sure I should live there. Then a room opened up in the Jawbox house, so I moved down in July of ’91 and worked at bookstore and went to school part time. Adam [Wade, original Jawbox drummer] left to join Shudder to Think in March of ’92, and I was in the band by April.
MD: Were you angling to be in the band by moving down there?
Zach: No, I was reading. I wasn’t planning on playing music at all. And to be fair, I think Adam made the absolute right move at the time. He did much better work in Shudder.
MD: Jawbox’s sound underwent a remarkable transformation once you joined. The music became more ambitious, much broader in scope.
Zach: Jawbox didn’t feel like much, other than J.’s vocals, before I joined the band. And that was all-consuming to me at that time. Like, I came out of this background of a lot of jamming. And they really didn’t. Before Sweetheart, J. wrote everything. And Adam was a piston, you know? I couldn’t really play that way, which meant that Jawbox simply had to become something other than what it had been. So, we’re talking about this stuff at lunch and it’s like, why are we not working on this? Why aren’t we seeing what each of us is going to bring to the table? In the end, we arrived at a style of music that not a lot of people were making. We were able to develop an event; something for ourselves and anybody who wanted to listen.
MD: Your playing stood out from the start. It was very creative, drum-forward stuff, but with the energy and power of punk rock. Each song had a unique rhythm.
Zach: I wanted the beats to sweat a bit, have a deeper pocket, to groove the way most people think of that term, you know? I had ideas about dynamics and power and time signatures. I wanted to take traditional feels and play them loud, get them up on the ceiling. At that time, from the standpoint of doing something new, it was relatively uncharted waters. I was also thinking, How can I make the most impact in the shortest period of time? With Jawbox, a lot of that came down to hitting very hard. That was something that I could accomplish immediately. Like, how hard can you hit a samba beat and still have it have that feel?
MD: When does Atlantic come into the picture?
Zach: In 1993. Steve Albini had that famous article about majors breaking up bands. The opposite was true for us. I think for better or for worse, we wouldn’t have continued. In fact, I’d already quit and applied to the University of Maryland. Then Epic, Mercury, and Atlantic called, and I said that if we were going to do that then I’d stick around. It seems silly now, but at the time it was very important to me that our music be measured not only against other D.C. music or Dischord bands. A lot of people who heard Sweetheart heard that record because it came out on a major. They didn’t hear it because it was great. They heard it because it was on MTV and college radio. We certainly had more time to record, and Ted [Nicely, producer] was not in our budget when we were on Dischord.
MD: How did Ian MacKaye take the news that you were leaving Dischord?
Zach: Ian liked the band, and he was interested in whatever it was that would allow bands to continue making their music. His advice was, “If you’re going to do this, be prepared to do it all the way.” And we weren’t. His advice was well-worded, but not well understood. What he meant was, “This is where rock stars get made—is that something you’re interested in? Because if you just want to make music, you can do that over here.” We signed to a major thinking we could use some of the stuff that the music business had to offer but not take part fully and still come out okay. And I think we did. I don’t regret it, but I don’t know if I’d make that choice again. In the end, we didn’t owe anybody money. We were able to buy our master tapes back for next to nothing. We got to do some really special things and meet some wonderful people and make some good music. In ’94 we played squats and we played Red Rocks. We played the Elks Lodge in Green Bay, and we played the Gorge in Washington. There was nowhere we didn’t play.
MD: What drums did you use to record Sweetheart?
Zach: It was the kit I bought with my bar mitzvah money. Black oyster pearl Ludwigs with a 14×22 kick, a 9×13 rack, and a 16×16 floor. Later on, J. needed a house kit for his studio [the Magpie Cage in Baltimore] so he grabbed them, and they’ve been there ever since.
MD: Were they vintage?
Zach: Well, back then they were just old. [laughs] I think they’re from the late ’60s. I’ve been using them again for Jawbox rehearsals, which is fun. To this day I’ve only ever played Ludwigs.
Zach: Likewise, I’ve always played Zildjian. Back then I had 19″ and 20″ A crashes, 14″ New Beat hats, and the 22″ Earth Ride I bought for my first Jawbox tour. I’ve never not used it. It’s stamped and dipped and done. It’s never thrown on the lathe. It’s not hammered. It’s just a giant piece of bronze. It makes its bell sound and its body sound and that’s it. It can’t be washed at all. But unlike cymbals that are that dry, it can be incredibly loud. I break more sticks on that than anything else I own. It’s like hitting a trash can lid, but a really well tuned one. It sounds exactly like “Whitney Walks.”
MD: Your drum sound was pretty idiosyncratic compared to most ’90s rock music.
Zach: Yeah, it was a strange sound. I always kept everything tuned pretty high. I tightened the snare until I couldn’t tighten it anymore. On Sweetheart it was one of those free-floating numbers Pearl made, very “dingy.” The ring was very dependent on the stroke. After Sweetheart, I bought Adam Wade’s Ludwigs. He’d gotten a new Yamaha setup to do [Shudder to Think’s] Pony Express Record. Then I went to a 12″ rack tom and a 14″ floor tom. By the end of ’94, I went to a 10″ rack and 12″ floor, with a 20×20 kick. I just dumped the whole bottom of the kit. I was thinking about jazz guys—John McEntire [Tortoise, Sea and Cake] in particular. He played tiny drums in Gastr Del Sol. There was just more attack, and they were easier to tune.
MD: A 20×20 kick?
Zach: Yeah, it’s like a little cannon. The response is quicker, punchier, which is what I needed for Jawbox. Also, I’m left-handed. I can’t lead right, so the smaller kick allowed me to get my rack tom lower, which enabled me to get my left hand around the kit. My right hand is useless. [laughs] I can keep time with it, but I can’t put it anywhere. I kept my hats high enough that I could pretty much move my entire left arm under my right.
MD: Interesting. Doesn’t that put you at a disadvantage? Did you ever try to play open-handed?
Zach: That’s just how I was taught. To be honest, I’m not sure if it ever even came up. We toured with Shiner, and Tim Dow [original Shiner drummer] could play my beats better than me. He can ride or lead with either hand, interchangeably. But by the time I could’ve learned to do that, I could also just play what I was playing, you know? And as soon as you stop worrying about playing straight 2 and 4 patterns, a lot of the expectations of what leading right or left would do are out the window.
MD: What was it like tracking drums for Sweetheart?
Zach: I don’t sound like I didn’t know what I was doing, but at times I was overwhelmed. I’d never recorded more than three songs in a single session. A couple songs I couldn’t play with the band, so I cut them alone—just me and the click. Other times I had the click up so loud that the overheads were picking it up, and I was still asking them to turn it up. It was madness. I was trying to make that record at stage volume, through headphones. I just didn’t know enough about the studio. I threw my snare across the room at one point.
MD: What happened?
Zach: Going into the bridge of “Reel,” I come out of the main beat and go into a regular straight four, and I kept dragging it. Somebody said, “Just lose the click for that part and we’ll bring it back, don’t worry about it.” And I was like, “No, I can do this.” And of course, I couldn’t. I hadn’t conceived of the change with a click. The part I was trying to play with the click was just a slower part. But I couldn’t help but view it as a failure, and I couldn’t accept it. I was so frustrated, so angry. And J. came over, just to be cool. “Hey, man, let’s just take a break.” And I just pulled my snare off the stand and threw it. Not at anyone. I just had to launch it, you know? That was my answer. I went home early that day.
MD: Doing a major-label record for the first time is so tough. The pressure on the drummer especially is immense.
Zach: Yes. Also, I knew some really good drummers. It was very important to me that Alexis Fleisig [Soulside] and Brendan Canty [Fugazi] liked that record. It was very important that Fred Armisen liked that record. Trenchmouth was colossal to me. Adam Wade—Shudder to Think was my favorite band. I didn’t want to be the new guy anymore. I’d been in the band for a couple years by then but hadn’t done an LP. Having something to prove didn’t exactly ease the technical situation.
MD: How did that main 16th-note pattern on “Reel” come about?
Zach: That’s a Manu Katché beat. “Cooling Card,” “Savory,” “Reel;” these songs all feature variations on the “In Your Eyes” beat. Jawbox gave me a vehicle to explore my Manu Katché fascination. To date, I have yet to make a recording that isn’t directly influenced by his playing on [Peter Gabriel’s] So. That record is in everything I play. I’ve probably listened to it 10,000 times.
MD: How about “Cruel Swing?” You don’t hear a lot of shuffles in post-hardcore.
Zach: The issue of the day was authenticity. What could be more authentic than playing straight blues? Again, we were coming from a place where people weren’t playing that. But that’s the kind of thing I grew up playing all the time. I was much less interested in being punk in and of itself, compared to the independence that comes from being absolutely certain of what you’re doing. That’s kind of where Jawbox was at. If one of them was a shuffle, then it was a shuffle. If one of them was something I was trying to yank out of a Peter Gabriel tune, then it would be that.
MD: “LS/MFT” is a train beat.
Zach: Yeah, and it’s in three. That was one of my first efforts at not playing a ride. With no ride, you leave that whole top open. At that time, I started to listen for what was already covered. There’s plenty of guitars up in that register. To reduce a beat to just its attack—it started there and still interests me.
MD: Sweetheart was your breakthrough record, but many think the self-titled follow-up [Jawbox] was the creative apex of the band.
Zach: Absolutely. What you hear on Jawbox is everything that each of us had to bring to a record. Kim and I in particular had a lot more to do with the last one than we did with Sweetheart.
MD: Your drum sound is even more unusual, due to the smaller sizes you mentioned, and how direct and dry the tones are.
Zach: I wanted to have it sound like the opposite of Sweetheart. I wanted no room mics. I wanted all of that to be apparent with no loss of impact. And John [Agnello, producer] was like, okay, and he just did it. He thought the small drums were weird but he just rolled with all of it.
MD: So many of these songs start with a distinctive Zach Barocas drum pattern—the jerky, push/pull syncopation on “Chinese Fork Tie,” for example—and then the band plays around that. Did a lot of the tracks on Jawbox start from the ground up with you?
Zach: Yeah, that was true on Sweetheart too. But by the time we got to the self-titled record, I was trying to put stuff together that we almost couldn’t play. Like, if we could play it on first try, it didn’t really interest me that much. At that time, nobody played beats like that. “Forktie” is much more of a Meters beat than a Rush beat. Except that it’s in 6/8 in instead of 4. Most of Ziggy Modeliste’s beats stay in exactly the same pocket. But it’s endless. It’s like falling into a well. You could play that stuff forever.
MD: Several of your rhythms on Jawbox walk this thin line between frenetic and hypnotic. It’s a rare combination.
Zach: Right. Something about my playing that people don’t always notice is that I don’t keep time well. [laughs] Most of my beats break up the bar as soon after the 1 as possible. Like, there’s some accent or some other stroke somewhere as close to the 1 as I can get, because the longer I wait the worse my time is going to be. If I can physically get into the bar sooner, I have better control over what’s happening in it. So, if I’m playing in five, it’s a bit of a smokescreen because most people are going to be distracted by that. For the first few bars they’ll be wondering where the 1 is. Playing in five gives me more time to work back to it. If I’m trying to play straight I always feel rushed, like I’m falling down. Whereas if I’m playing in other time signatures, I feel like there’s more wiggle room. The kind of grooves I’m interested in might be in four, but they don’t happen unless I bring them back from somewhere else. Like once you’re out into seven, everything takes longer. And you find these little odd grace notes and 16ths and strange pockets that you don’t see back in four. It’s like walking on the moon—it’s a different feel.
MD: Do you start off with the express intent of writing something in odd time, or is that just the way you hear rhythm and/or melodic lines?
Zach: With Jawbox, most of the tunes are still in four, at least partly. So it’s funny that some people gave us guff for becoming too “mathy.” To me it’s all the same. It’s music. Is “Desert Sea” not gratifying because it’s in five? Is “Absenter” a drag because it’s in five? I don’t think so. I don’t think “Capillary Life” sounds stupid because it’s in seven. I’m really proud of those tunes, as far as Jawbox evolving as a songwriting team. I mean, J. would have these really long melodies—he very rarely wraps up a melody in one bar—and we reacted by giving him not only longer verses, but longer bars. In BELLS≥ our intuition is five. I think fives are perfect. You come up a little short in the end, but you don’t feel like a rug’s being pulled out from underneath you.
MD: What did Atlantic think of Jawbox?
Zach: They just wanted a hit. To the people we knew, “Savory” was a hit. But it was nothing compared to what Atlantic thought they were going to get. There’s no hit on that last record. That “Savory” was a hit at all is a testament to the fact that it didn’t sound like anything else at that time, and people found that interesting. They’d moved us to TAG [Atlantic’s “alt rock” imprint] for the last record, then they pulled the plug.
MD: And that broke up the band?
Zach: I quit. We could have put out our own records, or maybe found another label, but we didn’t get that far. We were planning to go to Japan and Australia. We hadn’t been to either place. Pete Moffett [Government Issue, Wool] joined the band to do Japan. But he didn’t enjoy doing the Jawbox tunes, and Kim didn’t enjoy playing with Pete, so that was that. J. and Pete started Burning Airlines and went to Japan. At the time, I just wanted to move to New York and go to film school, put the music thing down. I was tired of touring. Having said all of that, my last show with Jawbox was Valentine’s Day 1997 and my first practice with the Up On In was February 1998. I didn’t quit for very long. There was more material in the works, some of which ended up being Burning Airlines tunes. Others come out on [posthumous Jawbox release] My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents.
MD: People who followed J. Robbins know that Pete Moffett is also a monster player. You’re both so good at the angular thing; he’s a bit smoother while you were always so violent, so visceral. Do you feel physicality can be just as important as technique?
Zach: It all starts with Elvin Jones. Nothing happens without his body. Delightful brutal drummer. My other heavies are Max Roach and Art Blakey. With Roach, you can hear him thinking it through, which is a different kind of gift and one I’ve tried to stay close to when I can. Blakey is so raw and unrefined—he’s like the Ian MacKaye of jazz drums. But with Elvin, you can feel his sweat. You get the feeling that the whole thing is unwinding and he could pull the plug at any moment and you don’t even want to imagine what might happen were he to stop. That’s a feeling I try to get. It’s a kind of inspiration that a lot of drummers don’t necessarily look for.
MD: After Jawbox, you’ve played almost exclusively in instrumental bands. Does this stem from your love of jazz?
Zach: The instrumental thing probably would have happened a lot sooner if it wasn’t for J. It’s always about exploration. J.’s constantly trying to get more harmony between what he’s playing and singing. When you separate his guitar parts from his vocal lines it’s like, how far out can you get while still writing something that can be conventionally understood as popular music? And the answer is, quite far. He’s still getting out there, and I try to do that with my beats.
The Up On In was my first time leading a band. There was a lot of instrumental music being played by punk rock types at the time, but most of the groups were still being led by guitar players. And I think that’s not too far removed from singers, you know? But my projects are unlike jazz in the sense of pure improvisation. I enjoy permutations. I like to say BELLS≥ is a post-rock instrumental band that doesn’t improvise and loves melodies. But for all of us who write tunes, we actually do spend a lot of time improvising. We just call it practice. How long do you sit on a beat before it becomes part of a song? It could be years. I have beats on BELLS≥ records that are aborted Jawbox beats. Nobody could quite get their head around it, or it didn’t feel right at the time, or whatever. So you just keep chugging along at it. With BELLS≥ we try to write music that’s just past what we can do. And we’re good enough to where we wouldn’t have to do that. We could get on with it with much less effort, confound a few folks by playing in five, but then what’s the point, you know?
MD: What’s the status of BELLS≥ currently?
Zach: We’re on a bit of a hiatus. Chris [Ernst, guitar] lives in Baltimore, and Steve [Shodin, guitar] is moving to Portland, Oregon. I’m the only one left in New York. So I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I mean, for the next seven or eight months I know what I’m going to do. I’m a bit surprised at how much time and energy has been given over to the Jawbox set. It’s required a certain level of training—just getting back in shape to do it—that I hadn’t anticipated. And I also wanted to get it right. I don’t want people coming out to see us and think that we didn’t try to make this right. That’s part of the inspiration.
MD: There’s some strong personalities and complex relationships in Jawbox. Is everyone in a good headspace and getting along?
Zach: Yeah. Interestingly, it didn’t take very long for us to assume our previous roles. But they’re much less prickly than they used to be. There’s not much adversity or disagreement. We’re not hashing anything out really. And now I think a lot of the stuff I felt I had to prove in terms of not playing regular songs or whatever—I mean, I’ve done that for the last several years. I’ve kind of scratched that itch in a lot of ways.
MD: Are you sticking to the classic material for the shows? Any talk of writing new songs?
Zach: It’s another thing we’re open to, but it’s proven to take up enough time just getting our old act together. It’s really been a matter of putting together a set that we feel kind of adequately represents what the band tried to do. So there’s some stuff from the Adam Wade era, but most of it is Sweetheart and Jawbox. If we have time or we keep going we might write something, but it seems premature to say anything other than that might be fun too. Again, we’re not ruling anything out.
For more on Zach Barocas and Jawbox, including tour dates, go to jawbox.bandcamp.com.