By Abdullah "T Kid" Saeed
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Kim Coletta, radiant bassist for shockingly (to them) beloved D.C. post-punk quartet Jawbox, in the midst of a painfully (to their fans) short reunion tour, recently found herself assuring Late Night With Jimmy Fallon's music booker that the song "FF=66" had no particular sinister, profane, censorship-requiring hidden message. "I'm like, 'You know, F is the sixth letter of the alphabet, twice,' " she recalls explaining, giggling at the memory. "That's all there is to it." Three Fs, that's a bigger deal.
Fallon's show was, in fact, the only stop on the Jawbox reunion tour. It initially consisted of one song: "Savory," the pleasantly abrasive, abstractly menacing, sinisterly jangling single from For Your Own Special Sweetheart, the band's 1994 major-label debut for Atlantic after a fertile stint with Dischord Records, the anti-major, back when that distinction still mattered (theoretically, maybe). They put out one more record (1996's Jawbox, their best) and broke up. A dozen dormant years later, they bought the rights to those two albums back ($5,000 apiece), remastered and re-released Sweetheart this fall to surprisingly raucous fanfare ("Everyone's been so nice!" Coletta raves. "Especially Pitchfork. 'Cause we got a 9.3!"), and announced plans to reconvene on Fallon in early December. And why the hell not.
No full-blown reunion concert, though, despite the clamor of fans and promoters. Nope. Only one song. For TV. Except demand for tickets to the taping gets so out of hand that Jawbox make the unprecedented decision to open that day's soundcheck to a handful of old friends, officially quadrupling their reunion-tour output to four songs. Performed at noon, on a December Tuesday, in an ice-cold NBC studio, for about 50 people. It is really bizarre, and really wonderful.
The chatter as those 50 teeth chatterers wait—publicists, journalists, fellow rockers (I see five separate guys who could conceivably be Walter Schreifels), a couple dudes from Fallon house band the Roots—is of the awestruck ("People are flying in for this") or overly optimistic ("This is definitely gonna kick off a tour") variety. The band's arrival, nonchalantly taking up their instruments as TV cameras swarm (a few clips will go up on the show's website later that night), is met with strident applause but also a touch of comic disbelief, the unreality of this situation sinking in, or not. But Jawbox nicely cut through that fog, as they always did, with a thrilling blast of candy-coated noise.
And so guitarists J. Robbins and Bill Barbot (Coletta's husband) stare down their amps and conjure a shrieking, grinding, wailing wall that collapses into, yes, "FF=66," Coletta's earthquake bass jauntily jolting awake anyone for whom noon is still a little early while Robbins barks various gnomic profundities ("Just want a way to not be what gets sold to me"). "68," a Sweetheart outtake with a simple, mournful guitar melody perched atop a churning grunge-punk maelstrom, follows. And then a bit of light banter, courtesy Barbot: "We'd like to thank all of you for caring after all this time. We took a break after this last record. [Crowd guffaws.] But now we feel—older."
No one guffaws at that.
"Savory," our star attraction, is next, its slow-burn impact only slightly lessened when drummer Zach Barocas drops a beat and forces a restart. (Apparently he'd caught a glimpse of ?uestlove lurking out in the audience and was distracted.) Afterward, the band starts sauntering offstage, just as nonchalantly, but Robbins thinks better of it. "I haven't practiced every night after 12:30 to not play another song," he announces. "I guess this isn't broadcast television, so I can just say, 'Fuck it.' " And so we are treated to a thunderous version of Jawbox's sexy, moody quasi-ballad "Desert Sea." It's not a real show, per se, but we get an encore anyway.
Backstage, settling in for the five-hour wait to play "Savory" again, for real this time, Jawbox are thoroughly amped and freshly reconsidering the whole actual-reunion-tour thing. "None of us have shut the door on that idea," Coletta says. Maybe this summer. They've got jobs, after all. And kids. She and Barbot have an eight-year-old boy; Robbins's own son, Callum, suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a debilitative and often fatal genetic disorder—most kids diagnosed don't make it to their second birthday. He turns four in January, and recently mastered his power wheelchair; his proud father now has the chance to wear a "Fight SMA" T-shirt on national television.
"To do this in our 40s," Robbins says of this semi-reunion, "at least for me, when we were doing this and I was in my 20s, I was fraught about everything."
"You were," Coletta agrees. "Oh, my God."
"Like a scathing review," Robbins continues. "I could say that it didn't bug me, and intellectually, I would understand that it didn't matter, but everything, everything was a big deal to me. And now, in my life, the things that are a big deal are actually a big deal. And this is really fun."
With the Fallon date confirmed, they'd practiced separately (Barbot and Coletta are in D.C., Robbins is in Baltimore, and Barocas is in Brooklyn) but convened for only one full-band rehearsal. Four songs, four hours. They didn't have time to do more, and are pleasantly surprised that so many people find that disappointing. "We've yet to figure out whether this response is just our friends who were the kids with us, and they're the ones excited, or whether there's younger people excited, too," Coletta says. "I'm not quite clear yet, who's on board with this new iteration of Jawbox." One possible factor: The Sweetheart remaster, overseen by Bob Weston, is stupendous, imbuing the band's dense, harsh, labyrinthine pop songs with a bass-heavy fullness that makes headphone listening a thousand times more enjoyable. Critics (9.3!) clearly took note.