Thurday, May 8, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to interview Blake Schwarzenbach (Jets To Brazil, Jawbreaker). Prior to the interview, I stayed up all night trying to find a way to calm my nerves before I was to speak to one of the few musicians that has changed my life in a positive way through music. I contemplated not calling at all for the fear that I may throw up, start crying, or just freeze and forget what I was supposed to say. After a few deep breaths and some reassuring advice from my friends, I mustered up the courage to dial his number.
Roze: (dials number) Oh Jesus.
Roze: Hi is this Blake?
Roze: Hi this is Roze from AbsolutePunk.
Roze: Hi, how are you doing?
Blake: I’m good.
Roze: So can we do this interview?
Blake: Yeah that’s fine.
Roze: So you guys found a new drummer, will he be a permanent replacement?
Roze: He will be?
Roze: Did Chris part on good terms?
Blake: I dunno. I’m still trying to figure that out.
Roze: Are you guys planning anything different on the upcoming tour than on past tours?
Blake: Well we have two different people, being Matt the drummer and Jason Gnewikow from The Promise Ring is playing with us…. keyboard, like playing laptop basically. We have different songs.
Roze: Oh yeah, you’re going to be playing 6 new songs, right?
Blake: Uhh… no? I don’t think so.
Roze: Oh that’s what I heard.
Blake: They lie.
Roze: I guess so.
Blake: We’re just playing different songs than we usually play, of our album songs. We have a couple new songs… a cover.
Roze: A cover?
Roze: What cover is it?
Blake: I can’t give that out.
Roze: Aww, ok.
Roze: What can we expect on the next Jets To Brazil album?
Blake: I don’t know.
Roze: So you don’t have any recording plans right now?
Blake: No, I gotta write an album first.
Roze: Oh ok. So have you been working on new songs at all?
Roze: What do you think have been your main influences for new songs?
Blake: Just getting through this year more than anything else. Inspired mostly by prison and revenge, it seems. I mean those seem to be the recurring issues. I’m thinking about doing kind of like a “rock opera” about John Gay. I mean if that’s possible with being respectful to his memory. But I think like Gay in prison. That’s just where I’m at.
Roze: Okay. A lot of people identify with Jets To Brazil on a personal level that helps them get through rough times. Does your music have the same effect on you?
Blake: It does in the writing of it, you know when it’s being created.
Roze: So that’s sort of like a therapy, is writing music?
Blake: Yeah, I find that really helpful.
Roze: But you can’t like pop in your album and get anything from it?
Blake: No, that’s a little loaded for me. I use other people’s records for that.
Roze: Is there a common underlying theme to Orange Rhyming Dictionary? Or is that just fans reading into it?
Blake: To the album?
Roze: Yeah. I heard the songs were based loosely on novels.
Blake: That’s a generous theory. They’re really just songs. I mean I think that each of our records has somewhat of a continuity, but I can only see that when it’s done. So I can’t really claim to have written it with that intention.
Roze: How would you describe the progression from Orange Rhyming Dictionary to Perfecting Loneliness?
Blake: It’s been a lonely path. I think it’s there in the music for the listener to discerne. I’d say they’re pretty different. I’ve heard people say that Orange Rhyming Dictionary and then Four Cornered Night, and Perfecting Loneliness is the synthesis of those two records.
Roze: Yeah I agree completely.
Blake: I like that reading of it.
Roze: How do your songs come together?
Blake: They’re all kind of different. You know, it will either be in pieces. The really good ones come right away, like all at once pretty much. So we’ll just stick with it and it will be a day of writing and it will be lots of revising. I’d say they come together in the editing really. I mean after the initial inspiration, most of the work that I do is actually making the words work and kind of cutting them.
Roze: Which album are you most proud of?
Blake: I think the last one.
Roze: Which song has the most meaning to you?
Blake: Rocket Boy
Roze: The vocals from Jawbreaker to Jets To Brazil are very different. Have you had any vocal coaching in the past?
Blake: I did briefly in San Francisco when I was in Jawbreaker. And it was so difficult because it meant either totally forgetting everything I knew about singing and starting again, and I didn’t want to go back to nothing. So I just kept doing it in the way I do it… which is still different. I guess it sounds different now. Now I’m an untrained singer doing “singer songs.”
Roze: You’ve done some writing for magazines in the past, is that something that still interests you?
Blake: Yeah, I like to do political writing when I can.
Roze: Would you ever consider writing a book?
Blake: I think I’ve thought about it. I don’t really have the material for it.
Roze: What books have you been reading lately?
Blake: I’m reading Anna Karenina and some poetry books.
Roze: You gave a very moving speech at NYU in March in opposition to the war in Iraq. How did that go?
Blake: It went very well.
Roze: Did people take it well? Was it a really successful event?
Blake: I think it was a great event for the students, for the people who put it together. There was about a thousand people there. And they kind of interrupted traffic for the march in progress. I thought that was good. The other speakers were really really great. And people seemed to react to it pretty strongly.
Roze: What goes through your mind before you take the stage?
Blake: In a music performance?
Blake: I don’t know but it’s a very strange place to be in. I usually go and warm up in the van, just sit in the van and sing along to Lemonheads records. And try and get my voice warmed up enough and that’s a good kind of zen practice, I think. I don’t have to think about playing so much and I just drink a lot of tea and that kind of helps me out.
Roze: You’ve influenced so many musicians. Does it scare you when people say that, or does it flatter you?
Blake: I appreciate it. It’s a little scary to be influential I guess, if you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, which I do. Every time I write a song I feel like I have to learn how to write songs. I don’t have this great feeling of authority. That’s also what I like about writing, it’s always beginning. But you know, it’s difficult but it’s kinda cool because the beginning means there’s discovery. I like that part of it.
Roze: Who influences you?
Blake: I’m influenced by poets mostly. William Carlos Williams, Alan Ginsburg, Wallace Stevens. And films, a lot movies from my childhood. Those are pretty important. And a lot of music. It’s something between the three of those. I’d often be more moved to write something down from reading a book or seeing a movie than I would by listening to a record.
Roze: I don’t want this next question to come off “cheesy” or anything, but the song “Cat Heaven” has really changed my life. And I want to know what the song means to you.
Blake: Well, it was an actual dream I had up in Nova Scotia. My cat had died the year before, so it was kind of a medley of melancholy… dreams that incorporate the cat but also a lost love. And the idea of this reward in heaven, that in my waking life doesn’t seem to be there. It was just kind of like a really sad utopian dream where you have everything you want and then you wake up and it’s not there.
Roze: What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Blake: That I’m a jock.
Roze: Oh really?
Blake: Yeah, I run 3 miles a day. And I do push-ups.
Roze: How do you deal with criticism?
Blake: Pretty poorly. But I feel like, you know, I get bad criticism. I believe there’s constructive criticism. And I think in music often, or in “rock”, you’re at the mercy of a kind of dim class of writer. So I think it’s dismissive a lot.
Roze: What does success mean to you?
Blake: I would think you would be loving your work.
Roze: What lessons have you learned in your career as a musician?
Blake: I think instinct is just about everything. Everything. And you really have to trust in it, because there’s so much doubt and there are few rewards as you’re trying to kind grow as an artist or become an artist or trying to get people to listen to you that it’s easy to forget why you started and that you had an idea that maybe you wanted to do something. I don’t want this to be a scientology rant or anything like “hold onto your dreams” but you definitely have to really hang onto yourself.
Roze: Do you have any last comments?
Blake: I don’t.
Roze: Thank you so much for doing the interview. It was really really a pleasure talking to you.
Blake: Absolutely. Where are you?
Roze: I’m in Oregon.
Blake: Oh ok.
Roze: Are you in NY?
Blake: Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn. Are you a Portlander?
Roze: I go to Portland about three times a week, but I live about an hour south.
Blake: Uh Huh.
Roze: Do you like Portland?
Blake: I do like Portland. I used to live in Forest Grove, Oregon.
Roze: No way! Did you grow up there or did you live there a short time?
Blake: Just like middle school, 7th and 8th grade.
Roze: Oh wow, that’s incredible. Do you like the bookstores in Portland?
Blake: I do. Powell’s. When we’re there we’re usually just there for one day though, so it’s quick. But I have a lot of memories. I actually lived in Portland too.
Roze: When did you live there?
Blake: Actually the same time. I lived in Forest Grove for about 6 months then my dad and I moved in Portland.
Roze: That’s interesting, I’m glad I know that now.
Blake: Yeah I have a lot of old family and friends up there.
Roze: So do you get to reunite with them when you come here?
Blake: Yeah they often come to the shows.
Roze: What’s your favorite place to play here?
Blake: I think the best shows we had were in the old La Luna I guess, but it was called something else.
Roze: The Pine Street Theater?
Blake: Maybe that… yeah. It seems like it’s always changing there, the venues.
Roze: I was bummed because the last tour that you had scheduled here you were supposed to play Berbati’s Pan and it’s 21+ and I’m only 20. So hopefully this tour you’ll play a different place.
Blake: Yeah I don’t think any show on this tour is 21+, I think they’re atleast 17. It’s weird cause you think it’s either all ages or it’s 21. But some clubs have really weird rules about like 17 or 18. But you’ll get in.
Roze: I hope so. Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It was nice talking to you.
Blake: You too.
This interview was done by Roze Harding