INTERVIEW: J Robbins on his music, what a producer does, & the Kool-Aid Man!

For the last thirty years, J Robbins has been an almost non-stop force in indie and punk music. Robbins has played in a host of amazing bands in the DC area including Government Issue, Scream, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Channels, and several more. Since the early 90’s, Robbins has run The Magpie Cage, a recording studio between Baltimore, MA and Washington DC that has recorded a host of bands, including Louisville’s own Coliseum. You can listen to his latest solo effort below and catch him this Thursday at The New Vintage with the mighty Black God, The Ritchie White Orchestra, Skull Practitioners, and Shell Shag. The first 75 people through the door will be entered into a raffle to snag one of his albums, so don’t be late! We caught up to Robbins to ask him about his music, his recording studio, and his relationship with snow mobiles!

Never Nervous: What initially got you into music? What was the first instrument you played and why?

J Robbins: Movie soundtracks, when I was really young. Especially sci-fi and thrillers … anything by Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, or John Williams. I could listen to that music for hours. That got me into 20th century concert music like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass … not much rock and roll really. Maybe The Beatles, a little Black Sabbath. Piano was my first instrument. I was self-taught. I used to try to transcribe stuff from movies, especially anything with weird harmonizations. I’m sure it was really good for my ear training actually. The only problem was that I was kind of a shut-in, not very social, and I had no idea what to do with music outside of playing the piano at home … no way to make it connect with anyone. Exposure to punk rock in my high school art class probably saved my life, because it led me to a scene where people were making their own culture and there wasn’t necessarily a “right way” to go about it.

“Exposure to punk rock in my high school art class probably saved my life, because it led me to a scene where people were making their own culture and there wasn’t necessarily a ‘right way’ to go about it.”

NN: Tell us in brief your musical resume. What was your first band? What projects do you reflect on the most?

JR: My first real band was Government Issue. I played bass before that in a thrash band with some friends of friends but we only ever had one show. I tried out for GI almost as a joke – I was home from my second semester of college and they were one of my favorite bands at the time, and I saw a flyer that they were looking for someone, so I called the number, pretty sure it wouldn’t lead to anything. I remember laughing about it because at that point they had had something like 9 bass players, and it was a kind of an in-joke in DC: “have you played bass in GI yet?”

But I got in, and I was in GI for 3 of the band’s most active years, 1986-89. We toured all over the place, went to Europe twice (before the EU – all heavy border security and different currencies everywhere – the Berlin wall was even still standing), made two albums and some EPs … it was a total life changer. I have been thinking about GI a lot because John Stabb, the singer, was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer and he’s been having a very hard time. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t got into GI. I owe him, and Tom the guitarist, a lot.

I played bass in Scream for a couple of months after GI split, when Dave Grohl was the drummer, but at that point I was sure I wanted to start my own band from scratch with my friends, and that band was Jawbox, which had a very good 8-year run … a lot to reflect on in that time as well. I’ve been in a lot of bands! After Jawbox came Burning Airlines, which made 2 albums; then Channels, which remains my favorite band I’ve ever done … I played bass in a project called Report Suspicious Activity with Vic Bondi of Articles of Faith, who was kind of a hero of mine who ended up becoming a good friend. And most recently I had a band called Office of Future Plans, which has sort of morphed into this current solo project which just goes by my name.

NN: What can you tell us about the start and finish of Jawbox? What brought the band together? Why did it end? How did the reunion come about?

JR: The start of the band was totally classic in that I just wanted to do what all my favorite bands had done: start from scratch with a kind-of grass-roots “figuring it out in our own way” energy. I had already been a young guy who joined older, established bands, and that was cool, but I wanted to write songs and feel more responsible for the music I made. This was what all my heroes had done.

We had a few membership changes over time, but the core of the band was always me and Kim Coletta. We were actually a couple at the start of it, though we broke up kind of in the middle of Jawbox’s lifespan. We remained great friends and we are to this day. She had (and has) amazing energy to make things happen, and was always super organized and together. That person is so essential for a band to actually accomplish anything.

Anyway we worked our asses off for 8 years, we started out on our favorite label (Dischord Records, we made two records with them), then rode the post-grunge major label signing wave to Atlantic Records, we made two more records for them, we learned a lot … when our Atlantic Records contract was up, our drummer Zach (who had become an essential musical component to the band’s identity) decided to go back to school and the rest of us thought it seemed like a good time to stop, that the arc of the band’s development had come to a natural end.

The reunion was really just a one-time thing that happened as a result of us reissuing our last Atlantic record independently – we got an opportunity to play on Jimmy Fallon’s old TV show, and we were so shocked about that that we said yes before any of us had the chance to get rational. But it was a one-night reunion – something like 4 songs. I doubt we could have pulled off a full set to our satisfaction, and that is one of the big reasons we have really shied away from doing a “proper” reunion.

“I had already been a young guy who joined older, established bands, and that was cool, but I wanted to write songs and feel more responsible for the music I made. This was what all my heroes had done.”

NN: How did Jawbox end up on that Slamdek compilation from back in the day? Was there a connection between the band and Louisville?

JR: Scott Ritcher was someone who used to write to Dischord, and we got to know him, and we loved his aesthetic and what he was doing with Slamdek, and he really became a great friend. Slamdek was just something we thought would be cool to be a part of.

NN: Relative to that, what is the scene like in DC or Baltimore (I understand that you’re in between the two)? How do you think that those scenes do or did differ from other places that you’ve visited?

JR: At this point I think it’s impossible to generalize about scenes. It’s always seemed a bit silly to try to boil down all that energy and activity to one sort of catch-phrase (what really is the “Dischord sound?”). Baltimore is a great example of a city with a million micro-scenes that only occasionally overlap. Though I do think Baltimore generally sees the oddball or outsider’s perspective as something to be cherished. And I think in all those outsider-type scenes there’s a lot of support and grassroots culture/familial feeling driving it – rather than being a sort of talent pool of people who are desperately trying to “make it.”

NN: How did Burning Airlines start? Coming off the heels of a critically successful band, was there any pressure there to produce anything in particular, or did you feel free to follow your muse?

JR: I was just still driven by the urge to make songs, and I was not ready to “settle down” – I wanted to go on making music and traveling around the world. I also thought it would be cool to collaborate more with Bill Barbot, who had been the other guitarist in Jawbox, but specifically with him on bass, because a lot of our writing when we both played guitar was like a musical fight for dominance over the same part of the frequency spectrum – it didn’t always serve the songs very well in my opinion. There was a lot of ego. But he’s a hugely talented guy and I figured if we each had our own musical territory we could actually collaborate and come up with something I’d be excited about rather than frustrated by. And I think we did. Burning Airlines was a huge growth spurt for me creatively.

NN: Bands, especially collaborative projects, are a special relationship. How do you deal with the dissolution of a project? I don’t mean that to seem insensitive either, because I’ve been there plenty of times myself, but I’m curious how a veteran of several bands handles moving on to new projects.

JR: Every circumstance is different, and it’s pretty much always frustrating, though I am still on good terms with everyone I’ve played with. I think having faced that situation repeatedly in different contexts is part of why I’ve arrived at the “solo band/solo record” thing. Collaborators always have their own goals and priorities, and I always go back to the central driving urge to create and play. But I used to be really hung up on the idea that the band is defined equally by the contribution of every member, and if someone leaves they are not necessarily replaceable. I still pretty much believe that. And in fact just about every time I’ve started a new band it’s the energy of the particular collaborators that’s pulled me into it.

But for a long time that feeling extended to me denying or downplaying my role as the songwriter and main musical driver of my bands. I kind of hid behind the group identity. When in fact there are a lot of Jawbox songs, or BA or whatever band, that I can point to and say “actually I wrote that song, it’s as much or more my song as it is a Jawbox song.” Of course there are some songs that come out of everyone jamming together and I wouldn’t claim to have written those songs, in those cases I was more like the traffic cop of the arrangements.

NN: How did your solo project start? Is it a collaborative project, or do you write all the music alone and employ help? How would you describe it in comparison to your previous efforts?

JR: The solo idea is really just me realizing that for my own sanity I need to go on writing songs. And I’m compelled by the idea that the essence of a good song is in the words and the melody – I have been writing with just chords and melodies and lyrics as the main framework rather than riffs or weird guitar intervals or noises. It just seems more personal … which is what I want. When I hear old songs where I know I was more just “the guitarist who needed to sing something on top of the music we all  jammed out,” I think some of those songs are really spectacularly bad. It needs to have an actual point of view. I think of it as “keep on trying to write a good song, gradually you will get closer to it if you just keep trying.” By the time I show something to the band now the form is pretty well worked out and I am just hoping for constructive criticism, feedback, arrangement touches, maybe some seasoning I wasn’t anticipating – but the essence of the thing is already in place.

“Also as I get older it has become harder to make that 3-or-4-way band synergy happen in the way that songs can come out of nowhere. So I have to rely on myself more, which I think is ultimately a good thing.”

Also as I get older it has become harder to make that 3-or-4-way band synergy happen in the way that songs can come out of nowhere. So I have to rely on myself more, which I think is ultimately a good thing. The synergistic full-band energy is still possible – for example my old band Channels has started jamming again, and that is a band that can go into the basement with nothing and come out with a couple of new song ideas we’re all stoked about. But for a lot of reasons it’s not a band that could just drop everything and go out on tour even for a week. And it’s also a band I don’t want to “write songs for” per se – I want to see what happens among the three of us; it’s full of pleasant surprises. And it’s a band that might put out a single next month but might also not get around to recording anything for a year.

NN: How did you get into recording? What were some of your earliest attempts and how have you evolved since then?

JR: I have always loved to listen to recordings for production value – the way a song can become like a little world. Even on classical records, hearing the way the orchestra is spread out over the stereo spectrum and how the parts are orchestrated for different instruments. I have just always been obsessed, so the first time I went into a recording studio I knew this was someplace I wanted to go back to over and over again. The first stuff I recorded was 4-track demos for Jawbox, and I “produced” (meaning I made sure everybody tune up, playing together, and psyched, and maybe suggested arrangement things, backing vocals, overdubs, whatever) a few records in the mid-90s that were engineered by actual engineers who knew what they were doing technically, so I tried to learn as much as I could from them and then apply it.

“I have always had much more respect for the idea of the ‘engineer’ rather than the ‘producer’ – I mean sometimes in the history of pop music the producer is literally just the guy who brought the drugs – that’s not really my thing.”

I have always had much more respect for the idea of the “engineer” rather than the “producer” – I mean sometimes in the history of pop music the producer is literally just the guy who brought the drugs – that’s not really my thing. Anyway I learned and I go on learning by listening to a lot of records, reading about how people made the sounds that inspired me … thinking about space, about the qualities imparted by different microphones and placement etc … no different from most people who do this stuff I’m sure.

I have gone through the arc of trying to fix every mistake and make performances seem “perfect” and thankfully out the other side of that to where I am at now, which is wanting to try to capture some energy that’s really ephemeral and not about some weird fascistic concept of perfection. My favorite music – especially rock music – feels like some living creature coming at you and that is what I dream of attaining. This probably applies to the next 2 questions as well …

NN: Are there any types of bands that you prefer to work with over another? What kind of challenges do you enjoy the most as an engineer/producer?

JR: Mainly it’s about the people and the kind of energy they bring to it. Much more important than genres. I guess do have a particular love for trios though – everyone really has their own space to work in and everything that everyone does can make a big difference. Easier communication among 3 people than among 4 too. The most fun challenge is setting up a session in the way that people really feel like they can do anything and it will be awesome. That is what I want most in the world and when it happens then I feel like I’m doing something right.

NN: What is your relationship like to snow mobiles and why?

JR: I have literally no relationship to snowmobiles. Plows, yes – an uneasy one. A dissatisfied one. But mobiles, no.

NN: Why does the Kool-Aid Man want you to drink kool-aid? I mean, he carries a pitcher of it around. Isn’t that like offering someone your blood to drink?

JR: This is the most Louisvillian question you could have asked and I thank you for it. And yes I agree, it is like offering someone your blood to drink. But you know, if you believe in transmutation then this is not necessarily a weird idea. I’m saying there’s precedent.

NN: What non-musical things have you enjoyed lately? Have you read, watched, drank, or eaten anything that’s gotten you riled up recently?

JR: I love helping my son with his homework, so I’ve read a few 4th grade novels recently that really knocked my socks off. I loved that Ben Wheatley version of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise that just came out – actually any Ben Wheatley movie.

NN: Last but never least, what are your top three desert island albums and why?

JR: If I had only 3 records with me on a desert island, I probably would not listen to music.