Getting to talk with J. Robbins was a huge thrill for me: I’d been a big fan of his work as the singer and guitarist in Jawbox, who emerged from the Washington, DC punk scene and combined a solid knowledge of the loud/quiet/loud dynamic with a stealth talent for beautiful musical moments. Around the time of this interview, Robbins’s post-Jawbox band Burning Airlines had just released their first album, Mission: Control!.
I was excited to talk with Robbins both in terms of his work as a musician and because of his work as a recording engineer and producer; the interview focused on each. These days, he’s making music solo and with Office of Future Plans, who are making some of my favorite music from any of Robbins’s projects. (I interviewed Robbins about OFP in 2012.) And he’s still recording tremendous albums.
This interview was done over the phone in the summer of 1999, and appeared in Eventide‘s sixth issue.
When did you start producing and recording other bands?
Hold on. I can tell you, because I have the record up here someplace. The first band that I went in the studio with that wasn’t my own band was Kerosene 454. Which was in…I guess that was probably in 1994. End of ’94. They had just moved to DC, and I knew their singer already, who was from DC originally. They were going to record, and they didn’t really know where they were going to do it. Jawbox had just done For Your Own Special Sweetheart up at this awesome studio up in Baltimore called Oz, and we got along great with the people that ran it. So I suggested to the Kerosene guys that they should go record there, and I told them that I would help them try and get a good rate. So that worked out, and then they asked me to go in with them, just because I knew their songs and I knew that studio. Also, I think [they asked me] from my having had a lot of experience recording with Jawbox. So that was the first time that anyone asked me to go into the studio with them that I felt like I made a contribution to their work. Really, that’s it; there’s a couple of other bands that I went in with that were friends of mine, and it was always because I knew their songs really well and was a really big fan of what they would do.
Do you do that full-time now?
Yeah. I do it quite a bit, and it’s been my only job for a little over a year, which is really cool.
What record, in terms of bands that you weren’t in, would you say that you’re the proudest of that you’ve worked on?
Well, I’m in a really lucky position, because I haven’t worked on anything that I’m not proud of. There are things that I listen to now from when I started engineering that I kind of cringe at – “Ooh, the guitars are out of phase” or “The cymbals sound funny” or whatever. There are things that I’m less proud of as the result of learning over time. I had an 8-track at my house, and the stuff that I would record on there, sometimes… But content-wise, I’m really, really psyched; I’m lucky, because I keep getting to work with bands that I really, really like. It’s hard to say that I have particular favorites, you know? A lot of times, the most rewarding stuff for me has been working with bands that have a sensibility about production, that they want to exploit the studio as another instrument to help get the point of the songs across. The Most Secret Method record was a lot of fun, because those guys had an agenda for the production of that record. They were like, “Let’s take this one thing and make it sound kind of fucked-up, and use it for whatever dramatic purpose in this song in a certain way”. They were really interested in production, and they had really brilliant ideas, so there was a good kind of synergy where we were all… Any time that I have been working with a band and they can bring in a record and go “Listen to this insane drum sound!”…that kind of synergy is always really fun. What’s cool is that I think there are a lot of bands that I’ve recorded that listen in similar ways to what I do, or they listen to things in creative ways. Being able to compare notes with people is always really cool. The Most Secret Method record was that way, the Bluetip record was that way, the Promise Ring…I think those guys have a good production mind. All the Promise Ring stuff…. I love working with the Promise Ring.
You just worked with them, right? (This interview was done in early June ’99 –ed.)
Yeah, we just did a record. We just mastered it last weekend; when you called, I was on the phone with Jason, because he’d just heard the mastering for the first time.
What’s it like going in with a band that you’ve worked with before? Are there things that you didn’t get a chance to try before that you’d like to try now, or things that you’d like to do differently?
One of the cool things about working on records is that once you’re versed technically and there’s a certain plateau that you reach in that regard, beyond that – to me, anyway – if it’s a good experience, it’s always a little bit of a journey of discovery. The Promise Ring is a good example, or Kerosene 454; after their first record, I ended up working on all their records, and really had an incredible time working with that band. I felt like we were all growing together. What’s cool is if you can work with people more than once, the second time when you go back and work with them again, there’s a comfort zone that’s already established, and you have a rapport. And in the time between the projects, maybe they’ve started thinking about whole different areas of their songwriting or textures that they want to use and approaches that they want to take. And because you already have a rapport with them, maybe you can say, “Hey, I really wanted to try this wacky stereo micing thing” or “I want to use these weird mics” or whatever. They are more likely to understand that you’re not just gambling, that that’s part of what can make it fun. Every experience is different. The thing is, if you have to make a record in five days, you have to stick to the tried-and-true a little bit.
Are there any bands out there that you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Do you know Action Slacks, from San Francisco? We’ve been talking about me recording them. I’m hoping that that will work out in the fall. There are plenty of bands that I’d love to record that I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to. I dream of recording Chavez. I dream of recording my favorite bands, you know?
What do you think you bring to the table, as far as someone who does recordings and produces records goes?
In a way, I hate talking about this stuff because I feel like a salesman. I know, when I think of the recording experiences that other people have had that I hear about, I think that by contrast to a lot of other people… I feel like the main thing is that I have a lot of energy for thinking about songs and arrangements, and paying attention to performances. And thinking about what the content of a song is, and the fact that when you’re making a song or a record, you’re trying to communicate something. I love the idea of the studio tools as additional instruments for communicating content. And the idea that, when you’re making a record or you’re making a song, I almost see it as an abstract space, like a little world that you’re building. If you can help someone make a song into an actual little world, something that takes you on a journey, I’ve got all the time in the world and all the energy in the world for thinking about that. I think that’s a really wonderful thing. That’s something that I’m sure I bring to the process of making a record. I genuinely believe it’s one of the coolest things you can do. And I even think that there’s a really serious aspect to it, the fact that you’re communicating with people on this really elemental level. That, and I can tune drums. (laughs) That’s something I definitely bring to it.
Two: Burning Airlines
When I was looking through the liner notes for the CD, I noticed that there were a few songs where you credit different people from different bands for different elements of the album. Would you say that Burning Airlines is more than just the three of you, that there are other people who are bringing things to it?
I would sort of say that, but it’s kind of weird, because Burning Airlines, at this point… I regard this as a good thing, but Burning Airlines is a pretty loosely defined entity. When we made the record, it was me and Bill and Pete; one of the most fun things about the record is that my friend Peter came in and helped engineer it for a couple of days, and he had some pretty cool ideas. We were trading ideas back and forth. And then Chad Clark helped for a day, and we were trading ideas back and forth, and it felt very much like a scene, this temporal scene that existed around the making of that record, and it was really, really fun. Since we made the record, Bill is not the bass player in the band anymore. We are playing now with our friend Mike Harbin; he was a great friend of Jawbox’s, and he used to travel with us. He’s awesome, and he’s a really great bass player; he played bass for us on tour. Bill just started this multimedia company, so he’s entered a phase of adulthood that precludes sweating his ass off in a van for five weeks at a time. But Bill’s also got a permanent open invitation to contribute anything he wants to to Burning Airlines. So we have to see how that’s going to pan out. That’s fine, if Bill at some point enters the picture and wants to play guitar or keyboard or just work on stuff in the studio. Or be like Martin Swope, the guy that did all the live sound and tape manipulation for Mission to Burma. It’s open-ended, which is kind of cool as opposed to the model that I used to have of bands. I was hung up on bands being rigidly defined, about who was in them and what they were going to do, this very straitjacketed identity of being in a band. The whole idea of Burning Airlines, to us, was that it could be anything that we wanted it to be. But at the same time, at the end of the day the band is the three people that are in it.
The one time I saw you play, it was very tight, and I got the same sense from hearing the record. Do you think it’s helped that you’re in the band with people who you have a fairly long history with?
Yeah, totally. Absolutely.
Did you guys gel from very early on?
Any time that you play with Pete…anybody that plays with Pete, the experience always makes them feel like they kick ass. Pete is such an amazing drummer that he’s very easy to play with. He’s very easy to play with and feel like you’re doing a good job; he bolsters the musicians around him in a really amazing, undefinable way. It’s really easy to just walk in and start playing with Pete and feel like you’re syncing up; it’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about playing with him. Creatively, definitely. I couldn’t imagine the prospect of looking around for somebody to write with; it was horrifying. Knowing that Bill and I write really well together, and we had fun writing together, especially when we’re playing two different instruments and not filling the same space. I totally love writing with Bill. So in that regard, yeah; I think it’s important. I couldn’t imagine starting a band with people that weren’t my friends foremost; it’s not even in my paradigm at all. That’s why it was a crisis when Bill decided that he didn’t want to tour; I was like, “Shit, what are we going to do? Look for somebody? Yech.” It was really horrible; luckily, it happened that the only person that I thought of asking was Mike, because he’s an old, old friend and a really good bass player. We have really compatible tastes; he’s one of the few people that I would have thought about trying to start a band with in the first place. He was the only person that I thought to ask, and luckily he wanted to do it.
It seems like there was a long period of time from when I heard of you guys forming to when the seven inch came out, and another long period from then until the full-length came out. Was that because you wanted to develop as your own band, as opposed to just being thought of as having ex-members of other bands? Or were you waiting for the right combination of songs to release?
It’s not as calculated as all that. The truth is, it just takes us a long time to write songs; it takes us forever to finish them. The songs that are on the record, those are all the songs we know. (laughs) Usually any time that we’ve started writing other stuff, we can tell if we’re not going to end up thinking that it’s good, and we don’t finish it. So it’s really because it takes us a long time to write and arrange and finish stuff. The other thing is, since I’ve been working on other people’s records, the structure of that kind of work doesn’t permit a regular band practice schedule. We’d get into a schedule and then we’d interrupt it, because I’d have to take ten days to work on something, and they’d have to be ten uninterrupted days. About the ex-members of thing, it doesn’t matter to me one way or another. If I start thinking about that, it’s a blind alley, because you start worrying about what other people think. I just figure that we put out this record because we had these songs that we were psyched on, and we liked how the recordings turned out. Basically, we’re happy with our band. If someone comes and sees it because they liked Jawbox, that’s fine with me. At a certain point, either they’re perceptive enough to realize that it’s a different band and they’ll enjoy it for its own merits – in which case I’m happy – or they are just sort of behaving out of habit or not paying attention, in which case I can’t do anything about it. You can’t worry too much about why people respond to something; you just have to be glad that they do and give them the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, they’re smart enough to relate to it on its own terms. If they enjoy it and see it as a continuity from Jawbox and they liked Jawbox too, then that’s great too.
What made you want to use the particular piece of dialogue from Orson Welles’ adaptation of The Trial that you sample on “(my pornograph)”? That song as a whole is different from anything else on the album, and really changes things up.
Well, that’s one of my favorite movies ever, for one thing. That little piece of music is in there because Pete was warming up on the beat from “Flood of Foreign Capital”, and we started recording it because it sounded really cool. Then we thought, “How can we flesh it out and make it into this little setpiece?” I love that little section from the movie – are you familiar with the movie?
I’ve seen bits and pieces of it.
It’s the scene where he’s put under arrest, at the beginning of the movie. It’s all of Welles’s dialogue. That’s one of the best things about that movie to me, what Orson Welles added to it by way of interpretation. The fact that, when they come in, he’s trying to be all haughty to them, saying “I hate to disappoint you, but you won’t find any subversive literature or pornography” as they’re rummaging through his stuff. And then immediately, when they’re going through his records, he goes, “Don’t touch those record albums!” As if – but wait a minute – the record albums contain these subversive ideas, you know? That, I really love, and the fact that he says, “You won’t find any pornography”, and then they go “What’s this?” – they’re pointing at his record player – and he goes, “That’s my pornograph”. That’s all Orson Welles; it’s certainly not Kafka. It’s in the spirit of the indefinably guilty spirit that pervades that whole story, but the Welles dialogue is so cool. That’s something that I always wanted to play around with more – referencing things – the whole time that we were in Jawbox. That’s something that intrigues me, taking little pieces from history, especially when it’s your own personal history of things that have inspired you or made you think, and pulling from them, referencing them, the way that Public Enemy would do. I’m not saying that we do this successfully at all, but to make the idea that music and music culture can be a kind of dialogue with the past or a dialogue with the things that have inspired you…I think that that’s cool. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, but as it happens, that just worked out with that little scene… The fact that he says “my pornograph” is just so cool.
There’s also a reference to pornography on the first song on the album; was that a coincidence?
Well, no. Pornography is pretty fascinating. You could make the argument that we live in a little bit of a pornographic culture, so… They’re two very different things, though, the two references. In “Carnival”, it’s pretty specific to what that song is about. It’s really hard to explain without sounding like a raving lunatic…but I’ll try, because if I sound like a raving lunatic, maybe that’s entertaining, too. That song was about the breakup of a relationship, a really great relationship. One of the great things about the relationship was that this woman and myself, together, were able to look at the absurdity of this culture that we live in, and together we were able to laugh at it and find it absurd. Whereas now that that relationship is over…it provided a context to not despair about a culture that cheapens things of value. Alone, it’s a lot harder to laugh about it, and it’s a lot easier to despair about it. Does that make sense?
So, the carnival in the song stands for the culture that we’re in. It has a lot of subtexts that suggest that surfaces are as important as what might be between them; that the way that this culture talks about itself via mass media – television and so on – and how we depict ourselves now, it suggests that we shouldn’t bother looking beyond surfaces. That line about “the gap between love and pornography”, it’s basically the idea that in the eyes of money-driven culture, those things are not all that qualitatively different. If you’re the least bit of a moral person, or you have a brain, you know that they’re not the same thing. That’s about as far as I can get into that song. I could rant about this shit for hours, but then I would be a raving lunatic. Does all that make any sense at all?
Definitely. The upcoming tour that you’re doing; what are your feelings on that?
I’m psyched. We had a great tour last time, apart from feeling a little bit old occasionally, and not having any days off. Actually, we had three days off; one of them was because of a cancellation and the other two were drive days, where we were driving for like ten hours. But in that whole time, I was thinking, “We’re trying to tour the whole country and we’re playing every day for five weeks, and we could make this massive list of all the places that we didn’t get to”. What was supposed to be happening right now is that we were going to go to Europe with Jets to Brazil. But very early in our tour, we found out that they bailed on the Europe tour because they were burnt out, because they had been touring the US nonstop for months. We were really bummed out, because we were looking forward to that tour, but it turns out to have a silver lining, ‘cause I was sad that we didn’t get to play in St. Louis or Kansas City or Buffalo or anywhere in Pennsylvania or Ohio, or even Memphis. I’m really psyched.
What changes have you seen in the scene over the years, being in bands that have toured for quite a while? Do you think it’s changed that much since you were starting out?
Maybe. I think things are always ebbing and flowing, so I’m always leery about generalizing too much about “changes in the scene”. Because if you pick that apart, you’re like, “What scene? Whose scene is it?” People are interested in these kinds of music, and hopefully they’re interested in the idea of an underground or whatever it is, and they sort of get into it and drift out of it. Changes are always happening, but the only big qualitative change that I see… I look back at the last several years; I remember before the post-Nirvana major label boom, and I’ve noticed that there was a change after the point that Nirvana brought punk rock in front of everybody’s face in this big mass media way. The music business was more than an obvious factor in the way that people perceived these kinds of bands, and even if you came from this side of the tracks and you were a guy that had a fanzine, you were more likely to talk to somebody about signing to a major label or publicity or all this stuff that, to me, is tangential to the main issue of doing a band and making music, which is communicating and participating in something with people. That’s an interesting thing; even now, people that I know and bands that I’ve met are more ready to admit show biz as a factor in what they do on this level. I’m not decrying it or making a value judgment too much; I’m just noticing that that’s the case. It’s even not so much fans, because the truth is, if you have a band and it’s all you’re pouring your energy into and you’re obsessing about it night and day, it’s only natural that at a certain point you would think, “Maybe there’s a way that I could at least make a living off this, some kind of a subsistence”. It’s natural that, if major labels were an option, people would be admitting that into their worldview. It’s more like noticing that people who do fanzines, and kids that you meet at shows and stuff, they talk PR talk more now than they used to. Ever. This is a really perfect illustration; it was one of the shows that we did with the Dismemberment Plan. This kid came backstage, and the first thing he said was, “So, what’s your guarantee? What’ve you guys got on your rider?” We were like, “Why do you care?” The thing is, he was kind of bro’ing down with us: “Let’s talk about your guarantee, man!” As if that’s the substance of what this is about. And I think people talk about that more: “So, you getting’ good press?” All this other fuckin’ crap. That is interesting to me, but I’d hesitate to say that I’m drawing some conclusion about “the scene”. Fundamentally, it’s just exciting and encouraging to me that there are still people that do bands that do music where their primary thing is not that they think that they’re going to have a “career”, it’s just that they’re doing it out of love, out of first principles. That there are still people who do that, and would want to do that.