After emerging from Washington D.C.’s legendary late-’80s post-hardcore scene, Jawbox came of age on their 1994 major-label debut—thanks to the addition of powerhouse drummer Zach Barocas.
Jawbox was under a great deal of scrutiny when For Your Own Special Sweetheart dropped in early 1994. Following a pair of well-received releases and a half decade of nonstop touring, the Beltway-based foursome had just become the first band to leave Dischord Records—a hallowed Washington D.C. indie label with a universally respected and entirely homegrown roster—in favor of a major-label deal. Moreover, the group’s original drummer and founding member, Adam Wade, had recently jumped ship to join scene-mates (and fellow Dischord act) Shudder to Think.
Despite chatter of sacrilege emanating from a fiercely protective underground, Jawbox delivered an instant post-hardcore classic in Sweetheart—one that boldly pushed the band’s stylistic boundaries while maintaining their abrasive yet undeniably melodic identity. Ironically, signing to Atlantic Records is what gave the blue-collar outfit the means to pony up for Ted Niceley, longtime producer for Dischord’s flagship band, Fugazi. But the most critical personnel addition at this time was undoubtedly Zach Barocas—an idiosyncratic juggernaut of a drummer who inspired a body of work that transcended Jawbox’s noise-rock roots.
Armed with a trove of unorthodox grooves—magnified by the fact that Barocas is left-handed, but plays a right-handed kit—Jawbox’s new timekeeper quickly established himself as a driving creative force. “I wanted to have an explicit presence in what was happening,” recalls Barocas, a Rochester, New York, native who’d relocated to Maryland and was living with members of Jawbox when they were seeking a new drummer. “I had ideas about dynamics and power and time signatures. I wanted the beats to sweat a bit, have a deeper pocket. I wanted to take traditional feels and play them loud, get them up on the ceiling.”
Look no further than Sweetheart’s aptly titled “Cruel Swing” for proof of these concepts. Barocas executes one of the most punishing shuffles you’ll ever hear, and punctuates it with jarring triplet fills that abruptly terminate in cymbal chokes and hi-hat barks. Similarly, the piston-pumping “LS/MFT” is fueled by a scorching 3/4 train-style pattern. “It was supposed to have some swagger,” Barocas explains. “Playing these figures, often in an odd time, isn’t particularly unusual now, but it wasn’t what people in our orbit were doing back then. Drum-forward, sing-a-long music wasn’t really a genre.”
Contrary to the bombastic drum sounds of most ’90s rock records, Barocas’s tones on Sweetheart are crisp and airy, leaving ample room for Jawbox’s road-grading bassist, Kim Coletta, to occupy the low end and drive the band with her hard-nosed, economic approach. The snare is set to maximum torque, giving rimshots a satisfying “ping” and allowing even the subtlest of grace notes to cut through the din. Barocas’s toms are also tuned up quite high, a proclivity he would pursue even further by switching to a 10″ rack and a 12″ floor in the ensuing months.
A masterwork of tension and release, Sweetheart’s vocals alternate between bittersweet melodies and outright barks. Throughout, Jawbox frontman J. Robbins employs his signature brand of oblique wordplay, while his exchanges with fellow guitarist (and occasional vocalist) Bill Barbot range from dissonant drones to jagged stabs to mountain-sized seesaw riffs. “It was a pretty aggressive situation,” says Barocas of the duo’s oft-combative aesthetic, “which opened up possibilities to make a much larger, more flexible set of sounds.”
“68.” This fan favorite “Savory” B-side was included as a Sweetheart re-master bonus track. The title refers to the song’s alternating bars of six and eight, which Barocas deftly negotiates by deploying a pair of slick, breakbeat-style hi-hat barks.
“Whitney Walks.” As Barocas hypnotically swings on his trusty 22″ Zildjian Earth ride, a spare, syncopated beat emerges alongside sleepy guitars before giving way to a sludgy groove that incorporates nifty tom/kick triplet combos beneath swishy hats.
While Jawbox’s “new guy” more than proves his punk-rock mettle on straight-ahead barnburners like “Jackpot Plus!” and “Breathe,” he truly shines when playing around—or against—his bandmates’ ever-changing textural menagerie. Cases in point: Barocas sets the tone on “Cooling Card,” swimming upstream with a persistent, ascending tom motif, then unleashes a kit-spanning, 16th-note buzzsaw of a groove that slices through the wall of sound on “Reel.” On Sweetheart standout “Savory,” Barocas’s kick bounces between monolithic verse chords, with an emphatic snare/crash accenting the 3 of each bar. He finally arrives at a straight backbeat for the song’s fleeting chorus, but not before weaving a cleverly displaced, tom-sprinkled cadence through Robbins and Barbot’s chiming guitars.
“These songs all feature variations on the ‘In Your Eyes’ beat,” Barocas reveals. “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.”
Barocas’s impact on Jawbox wouldn’t be fully realized until Sweetheart’s self-titled follow-up—the band’s last, and arguably best, album—which features a bevy of songs purpose-built around his increasingly distinctive rhythmic phrasing. After Jawbox’s dissolution in 1997, Barocas relocated to Brooklyn and brought his singular voice even further to the forefront with instrumental post-rock projects The Up On In, and most recently, BELLS≥.
Jawbox reunited momentarily to promote the 2009 vinyl re-issue of Sweetheart with a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. But while countless bands have mined the lucrative ’90s nostalgia market with festival appearances, tours, and comeback albums, Barocas says Jawbox isn’t likely to follow suit. “We had a very good run, and we got out well. I’m pleased to have created music that made people sweat when they were in their twenties, but musically, the four of us [are] all kind of tied up elsewhere. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the past.”