Here in the glow of emo's finest hour, Blake Schwarzenbach, one of the movement's founding fathers, sits comfortably below the radar with his current band, Jets to Brazil. A third album, "Perfecting Loneliness," is due out on Jade Tree in October, but the band is already on tour, all business as usual, playing primarily to its corps of converted followers. Characteristically, Schwarzenbach subscribes to no movement.
"I'm not selling anything," he says with certainty, on the phone from New York.
Jets to Brazil shocked the indie world when the band released its second record, "Four Cornered Night," two years ago. Gone was the bright, stop-and-start staccato introduced on its debut, "Orange Rhyming Dictionary," in favor of an inspired foray into string arrangements and still-night sorrow. Will "Perfecting Loneliness" bring similar surprises?
"Yeah," he says. "But I think that happens every time I do a record. So I'm learning to expect that. It's change in general that freaks people out."
Perhaps with some difficulty, Schwarzenbach maintains a sort of indie-separation attitude in nearly everything he does. Clearly, he's not comfortable with expectations, neither is he satisfied with temporary categorizations: emo, indie, hardcore.
"I'm not a hamburger maker," he says. "It's not like the Big Mac. I wonder about the perfection of that idea, the creation of the Big Mac -- Plato's cave paintings, or something. I don't know what I'm talking about, but you know what I mean. It's gotta be different every time. Hopefully they see that there are these people in there that are the same, a personality that is continuous."
That personality came to light in 1998, when Schwarzenbach retreated from emo-godfathers Jawbreaker (which releases a rarities collection titled "Etc." on July 23.), and by chance met up with fellow punk survivors Chris Daly (Texas Is the Reason), Jeremy Chatelain (Handsome) and Bryan Maryansky (Van Pelt). They soon recorded the surprise hit debut, "Orange Rhyming Dictionary." That record's playful take on power-pop, as filtered through new-wave production, sealed them into college-rock rotation. It also provided Jade Tree with its biggest seller to date.
"It was such a fun record to write," recalls Schwarzenbach, "because we were so new to each other as a band, and I think everybody was playing outside of themselves for the first time in years. It's kind of continued that way, which is cool."
But the fun rescinded for the second album, in which Schwarzenbach and company set out to craft an album rooted in the tradition of country songwriting. "Four Cornered Night" drew sighs of disappointment from punch-hungry emo circles. The introduction of a piano to the center of the fire was sacrilege, an unwelcome intrusion, but just the same produced brilliant streams of miserable consciousness, as on the album track "Pale New Dawn."
"Sickly surrender to cola remember machines/ Shaky somnambulist shivering out all of your screams/ Go to the room with the chair and wait for your life/ Scared that the voices I hear may never be mine," it seethes.
Throughout the album, there remained the sort of desperation characteristic of all of Schwarzenbach's outpourings, dating back to his late '80s output with Jawbreaker. But "Four Cornered Night" was, in many ways, a warmer grounding of said emotional purges.
Writing is "an urgent activity for me, and sometimes that becomes physical," Schwarzenbach says. "I'm always surprised when it's happening, when a song starts appearing. Then to be recording it, I think we bring a lot of tension into the studio. `Laughs.` And that often gets to tape in the best way, I think."
But what of the come-too-late emo climate of now, even including a Time magazine spread a few weeks ago, heralding the rise of Jimmy Eat World into the pop stratosphere?
"I'm not surprised," he says. "But I guess I'm surprised that it took as long as it did for what are basically pop, guitar bands to come back into the mainstream. People want to feel good right now, I guess. We're not going to do that for them, though. I'm afraid it's gonna be a bummer as always."
But the emo scene, where Jets to Brazil still finds much of its draw, consists primarily of younger outcasts with impressionable minds. Schwarzenbach, however, finds his role there to be miniscule. "I don't go out of my way to appease certain demographics," he says. "I mean our band is pretty insular, as I imagine most bands are. I think we're hyper insular, even. We really work alone for long periods of time, just drafting our songs, and then we go public with them."
Still, the recent global political climate has Schwarzenbach angry about mass simplistic thinking. In an open letter on the band's website, he recently expressed his concern about the relative lack of media coverage of "Israeli terror against Palestinians." His message unleashed a storm of online criticism.
"I wrote that because I did feel some obligation to the people that follow us to at least go on record myself for what I thought was happening," he says. "I don't often do that. My official policy is that I do music, and that's kind of the whole explanation there."
"I mean, I certainly don't think I'm a leader. I'm really a confused person."