Ever since 2009, when D.C. post-hardcore band Jawbox came together for a one-off performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, the members have discussed the idea of launching a more full-scale reunion. Now, they’re finally making it official, as the band will reunite for a series of club dates this summer — their first live shows in more than 20 years.
“In the last five years, every year we’ve been like, should we play shows?” bassist Kim Coletta tells Rolling Stone. “And every year, it’s easy to put up some impediments to playing shows. … It was kind of like, this year made sense finally. And the hardest thing was just saying, ‘Yes, let’s try this.’ I’m really excited and nervous at the same time.”
The shows will bring together the group’s best-known lineup of Coletta, singer-guitarists J. Robbins and Bill Barbot, and drummer Zach Barocas. Titled “An Impartial Overview” — after a line from the track “Chinese Fork Tie” off 1996’s Jawbox, their final studio album to date — the run will see the quartet play 12 gigs spanning major U.S. cities. Set lists will draw mainly on that self-titled LP and For Your Own Special Sweetheart, the band’s superb 1994 major-label debut, following two albums on legendary D.C. indie label Dischord. The tour kicks off on June 14th at Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and hits various cities in the Northeast, West Coast and Midwest before wrapping at Chicago’s Metro on July 27th.
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The four musicians have all remained in contact since the band’s 1997 split, even collaborating on various projects over the years. According to Robbins, they reached the point where a proper reunion needed to happen now or never. “If we’re gonna do it, we should do it when we’re still physically capable of doing it justice, of the endurance and physical commitment that it takes to play the kind of music we played in Jawbox,” Robbins says of the mindset that led up to the decision. “If we’re gonna do it, let’s just fuckin’ do it.”
The last time Jawbox played in public was the Late Night appearance, timed to a then-new reissue of Sweetheart, co-released by Dischord and Coletta’s DeSoto imprint. On the show, they played one of that album’s standouts “Savory,” a Nineties classic that exemplifies the band’s signature blend of burly rhythmic drive and tender melodic hooks. No public shows followed, though, and aside from a 2015 Dischord/DeSoto reissue of Jawbox, the band has been mostly quiet since then.
Rehearsals have gotten underway in recent months at Robbins’ home in Baltimore, with Coletta and Barbot driving in from the D.C. area and Barocas from Brooklyn. The band says that after all this time off, they’re able to enjoy the project more than ever. “We seem to all be doing it now for the same reasons, which is that there’s a pleasure in doing this [when] the entire world isn’t riding on this,” Barocas explains. “We can worry about playing well and enjoying each other, and if we’re still not at all a group of relaxed people, we can at least gather around this thing we do together.”
“Every band falls into patterns of behavior with each other,” Coletta says. “And some of them are great and some of them are not great, and with some maturity under our belt, we actually had conversations, ’cause we would practice and then have coffee together or lunch … just talking about some of the patterns of behavior, getting them out into the open, like, ‘Let’s not fall back into these.’ And we haven’t; everyone’s like, ‘Let’s not do that again,’ whatever ‘that’ is, whether it’s not listening well to each other at practice, or whatever.”
Robbins and Coletta formed Jawbox in Washington, D.C. in 1989 with original drummer Adam Wade. They released their debut, Grippe, in 1991. Barbot joined in 1992 and appeared on the band’s second album, Novelty. Barocas stepped in for Wade, and the band signed with Atlantic in 1993 — as the first band on the roster of the staunchly indie Dischord to move to a major, they received flak from some in their community — and released Sweetheart the following year. The album brought new focus and flair to the staccato crunch of the Novelty era, with Barocas’ versatile attack adding both jazzy looseness and muscular precision. Barbot’s role grew more prominent, as he and Robbins worked out supple harmonies, intricate dual-vocal arrangements and, on guitar, skillful blends of sharp riffing and ear-catching texture. Coletta’s unmistakable bass sound, massive yet crisply articulate and impressively nimble, held the songs together.
The band toured heavily, opening for fellow Nineties road dogs like Stone Temple Pilots. Jawbox, which featured a more streamlined yet still fierce sound and a brilliant hidden-track cover of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl,” followed in 1996 via Atlantic subsidiary TAG, but the band broke up the following year. “We had the chance to grab the brass ring,” Barbot told NPR in 2018, “and we missed.”
Robbins says that this time around, he’s happy not to have to worry about the scene politics that weighed on him in the old days. “In the Nineties, there was all the drama about who’s indie and who’s selling out and who’s for real and we sort of lived through that because it was really important to us to be true to a kind of DIY ethos that inspired us in the first place,” he explains. “But we did cross over to a major label and we did try to straddle both worlds and personally I had a lot of tension about that and was always worried about whether what we were doing was OK. And now I just go back and say, ‘Man, basically it was OK.’
“How about we have this band and it’s just fun ’cause it’s fun, you know?” he adds with a laugh.
Since Jawbox’s breakup, the classic lineup has spawned a slew of related projects. The same year the band split, Robbins and Barbot teamed up in Burning Airlines with drummer Peter Moffett, who had played in Government Issue with Robbins. Around the same time, Barocas co-founded instrumental outfit the Up On In, while Coletta turned her attention to a career in education. After Burning Airlines’ breakup, Robbins co-founded a series of other bands, including Channels, with his wife Janet Morgan, and Office of Future Plans; he has also steadily played solo shows, often including versions of Jawbox songs. In 2017, Robbins and Barocas issued an EP by Camorra, their collaboration with Far vocalist Jonah Matranga, while Barbot has recently reunited with Peter Moffett in Foxhall Stacks. (Barbot also made headlines in 2018, when he spoke to the national press about former classmate Brett Kavanaugh and refuted statements the Supreme Court nominee had made; he co-signed a petition calling for others from the school to speak out.)
Of all the ex-members, Coletta was the only one who hadn’t actually played in a band since Jawbox ended. “I had to just get the bass back on and see what that felt like,” she says, speaking from the library of the private school where she works as a media specialist. “But it’s funny, that muscle memory is incredible. Once I got the physical skills back and the calluses, it was like, oh, I remember this better than I thought. I’ve got 20 songs under my belt right now. It’s been a lot of work. … I get home from work and I’m exhausted from the kids and stuff, and I have my own kid but I make sure I play every day day, and more on the weekends.”
“Personally it’s really rewarding for me to watch her warm back up,” Robbins says of Coletta. “This is something that she put aside for a long time, but it’s never actually left her so you could see over the first couple practices the confidence coming back to her. It was really great to actually see it in real time.”
While nothing’s confirmed beyond this initial run of dates, the group says they’re open to playing more shows, schedules and busy lives permitting. The question of new material is also still up in the air, though the group has kicked around some song ideas. “There’s lots of new bits and pieces in a folder online,” Coletta says, adding that for her, writing would be essential if the reunion were to really have a life beyond this initial wave of activity. “I don’t know personally if I could carry on with it without new material,” she says. “‘Cause I want it to be relevant and not just feel reunion-y.”
Barocas agrees. “We don’t want to end up being a revival act,” he says. “We were a pretty dignified band. And we don’t want to take it so far that we’re somehow compromising that.”
For now, the band is just focusing on the task at hand, relearning a chunk of songs from Sweetheart and Jawbox, with some older tracks mixed in — Robbins seems particularly excited about reviving the anthemic Jawbox tune “Desert Sea” and a fresh arrangement of the Novelty standout “Static” — for the upcoming gigs. “We can work on the set and we can work on some shows and if we want to work on new tunes, we can, and all of those things are really just up to us,” Barocas says. “We’re not beholden to any other process.”
In the drummer’s mind, based on the encouraging progress they’ve made at rehearsals so far, the Jawbox reunion is already a success. “Playing with Bill at first was a little strange, until suddenly it wasn’t,” he says. “I think the strange thing is that he has a beard now; looking at him took me a minute. Similarly with Kim, once we played a song, it was fine. I think the hard part was getting to that, in that none of us wanted to screw it up and none of us wanted to suck. It turns out that none of that happened.”
Jawbox Tour Dates
June 14 – Cambridge, MA @ Sinclair
June 21 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
June 22 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
June 28 – Washington, D.C. @ 9:30 Club
July 9 – Seattle, WA @ Showbox at the Market
July 10 – Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
July 12 – San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
July 13 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Regent Theater
July 19 – Dallas, TX @ Trees
July 20 – Austin, TX @ Mohawk
July 26 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
July 27 – Chicago, IL @ Metro