an interview with J. Robbins of Jawbox
“In the course of talking about the reissue I brought up the idea of playing some shows because I was like well look, if we were ever going to do this, if we were ever going to play again, you know, now would be the time to do it.” – J Robbins
Jawbox was one of a few who defined the sound of the 90’s underground. After releasing records on respected uber-indie Dischord, the band dropped their masterpiece For Your Own Special Sweetheart as their major label debut for Atlantic. Razor sharp post-hardcore riffage collided with tense emotional songwriting to create one of the greatest, yet most unsung LPs of the era. The band followed up Sweetheart with a self-titled LP before calling it quits in 1997.
Recently Jawbox celebrated reissued Sweetheart and celebrated with a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. We cornered vocalist/guitarist J Robbins before that performance to talk about the band, their future, his production work, and the Baltimore/DC music scene…
BrooklynVegan: So let’s start with the reissue. How did the whole thing come about?
J Robbins: Doing the vinyl was the beginning of the whole reissue idea… the first domino. Michael at Dischord sort of brought up the idea that we should do the vinyl because we hadn’t pressed vinyl as a record since it originally came out. Dischord actually has done the lion’s share of practical work as far as arranging the pressing and manufacturing and everything, so.
For Your Own Special Sweetheart 2009
BV: How did the Jimmy Fallon thing come about? Was it a specific choice or did it just kind of come up?
J Robbins: Well it’s totally bizarre, right? So I guess the whole timeline of everything is…I mean the whole reissue and everything that’s happening now, it’s all happened sort of in a way that is really unfathomable, in a way that’s totally weird for Jawbox because in the olden days when we were together, we tended to plan things and then execute our plans very well, which is not my style of doing things but it’s definitely Kim’s style of doing things. And whatever else you want to say about Jawbox, we were very good at making plans and executing them.
So in this case it all unfolded backwards and much more in the style that I’m comfortable with. Michael sort of came up with the idea of reissuing the vinyl and Bob Weston was the person who was doing the cutting and in some cases the mastering for all of these Dischord vinyl reissues. I love Bob Weston, I think he’s awesome but I think he’s a great mastering engineer and he’s mastered a couple of things that I’ve recorded where the low-end was really important and the bands involved were super attentive to the low-end. He just nailed it. He does this great monster low-end mastering.
That was like my big misgiving about “Sweetheart,” you know, sort of looking back with 20/20 hindsight, whenever I’ve heard that record I’m like, “wow it sounds really interesting” but the low-end is really weird. It’s really scooped out and I always would think “what would this record be like if it just had a really good like really robust low-end?”.
So when we started talking about doing the vinyl again I was like “shit, well if Bob’s going to remaster it anyway, why don’t we just make it a proper reissue and then we can turn him loose on the low-end and see what he can do to give it more. So that was the whole point.
In the course of talking about the reissue I brought up the idea of playing some shows because I was like well look, if we were ever going to do this, if we were ever going to play again, you know, now would be the time to do it. We could just do it, it would be fun, and there’s a lot of reasons why it was an appealing thing to me but nobody was really going for it because we all have super busy lives, a lot of other commitments and we don’t even all live in the same city anymore, you know?
So that seemed like it was going to be the end of us playing but then our publicist called the guy who books the music at the Fallon Show and he, unbeknownst to me, has a history with Jawbox and used to work at Alternative Press in the 90s. So when she pitched the idea to him, then he got really enthusiastic about it and then she came back to us and we thought it was so weird that we were like “yeah, okay”. We can’t really get our heads around running a whole set and trying to be as good of a band as we were then, playing a whole set in front of people who paid to get in and really give a shit, but I think that we can get together and learn one song and execute it well. It’s such a strange opportunity that we have to do it. It’s just luck.
BV: So obviously you guys have no kind of future date ideas. Like even festival dates or anything like that?
J Robbins: I just don’t know. I mean we sort of said definitely no and then I mean we hadn’t even rehearsed yet. We had a drummer-less rehearsal with Kim and Bill and me it was super fun. And then we just went over three songs.
I mean it’s really, it seems highly unlikely that we’re gonna do more than just the Fallon Show but at the same time, you know, the biggest hurdle was… I think before we actually got in a room and played together, was very easy for Kim to just say “no, there’s no way, my life is too busy”. Kim hasn’t even picked up her bass in 12 years… she literally was blowing the dust off the bass. Bill has played and I’ve certainly played. Zach’s played. But I think Kim was the most skeptical about doing this and then when we rehearsed It was just super fun and it all just flowed. But basically no, there’s no plan (laughs). I’m highly doubtful that we’ll do anything else.
[editor’s note: this interview was conducted before the Fallon taping. We hear they thought the reunion ended up going better than they’d imagined.]
BV: So as far as the band, obviously you’re doing lots of production work, but what’s the rest of the band been up to?
J Robbins: Well, let’s see. Well Kim is a school librarian now. She finished library school and now is a school librarian. Bill does a lot of stuff. He started a company with two of his friends that does branding and web design and sort of an all-around design – brand identity. I mean it’s not like an ad agency but that’s, sometimes they do that kind of work. So anyway, he has this company that’s basically he’s turned himself in to. That’s actually done really well is a super full time commitment.
And then Zach was back in school. He’s sort of all over the place. He’s married and he and his wife have had business doing like paper-related stuff; some design and they had a paper shop when they lived in Minneapolis for a while. It was the kind of place where you could go and do wedding invitations, that sort of thing. He’s also got his Cultural Society thing that is… well now, it’s mostly a web site but he’s also published books of people’s poetry and stuff. Zach always has a million irons in the fire and he’s played music on and off for people. Within the last few months has moved back to Brooklyn which is where he really wants to, where they both really want to live, so.
J. Robbins in the lab
BV: What are some of your favorite productions that you’ve done this year? You work with a wide variety of artists, what are some of your proudest moments from this year as far as working on records?
J Robbins: Oh, God. Pretty much every time I’ve worked with Clutch in any capacity, because I’ve done two records with them including the one that just came out. They also have this instrumental project called Bakerton Group, and I’ve done two Bakerton Group records and I just fucking love those records and really love that band.
[editor’s note: catch Clutch at Starland Ballroom on New Years Eve]
BV: Yeah, one of the Opeth guys played with them on that right?
J Robbins: On their last Bakerton Group record, the first, Clutch had a full time keyboard player and the second one happened after he had left the group and they’re friends with Per from Opeth, so he came and played on it. It’s mind blowing because he rehearsed with them once and he’s one of those people who’s so fully musical… so fully immersed in it that their musicality is such a part of their personality. It’s that kind of a focus that you could just come in, having only rehearsed once with a band and still contribute something that’s not only appropriate but actually put some twists and turns in that everybody kind of goes “ah, cool”.
So that was great. I also recorded a Japanese instrumental band called Lite. It was just a three-song EP that they did at the studio but totally, totally amazing experience. And who else? I just mixed True Womanhood, which they recorded themselves although they ended up redoing all the vocals and a couple of other things at my place. I just finished mixing an EP with them yesterday and totally love that band.
Deleted Scenes is a band I really wish I could’ve mixed their record because I love their band so much but I recorded it which was cool. I love, love Deleted Scenes.
I mean, if I keep thinking I’ll just keep talking. I mean I’ve been really, very very lucky because I mostly have worked on stuff that I’ve really enjoyed working on. If I’m on the spot, that’s a pretty good short list. Caverns, a band from D.C., I worked with them this year, that’s always really fun, I really, really liked them.
BV: Yeah, I know Caverns.
J Robbins: They’re one of those bands where the “what the fuck” factor is really, really high. So it’s just something that I really cherish, you know? You see them and you’re like, how is this happening, you know (laughs). But they are also awesome. They’re so outside of any genre that it sort of forces you to confront why you’re interested in the music underground. You have to be interested in listening to music when you listen to them… you know what I mean? It can’t be like so much about any of the other like social sort of wallpaper type reasons that people have for affiliating themselves with underground. Not to sound cynical, you know what I mean? I feel like that about Stinking Lizaveta you know that band?
BV: Of Course, from Philly.
J Robbins: From Philadelphia, yeah. You just go and see them and you’re like, what? What planet am I on? It’s just so awesome. I mean just to have that feeling. I apprise that feeling very highly.
BV: Yeah, they’re pretty incredible.
J Robbins: The guitarist is like, he’s prone to like hand the guitar into the audience and yet somehow, no matter what happens to this guitar as it travels around the room, it still sounds awesome.
BV: So…. Office of Future Plans. That’s kind of a solo thing, is that correct?
J Robbins: Yeah. It’s very loosely organized because it’s another thing that was sort of born backwards, born feet-fist because I have this sort of makings of what I guess is a solo record that I’ve been working on for about a year. Just trying to be consistent about sitting down and writing things because it’s been a while since I did that. Last year I had a forced opportunity to start doing it, because right around this time last year my son was in the hospital for about five weeks and my wife and I were trading shifts. Basically one of us would always be there. I tended to do the overnight shift and would come home to sleep and not be able to, so I would just go to the studio and just start doing stuff.
So that was the beginning and then when I did, not only was it highly therapeutic, but I was like shit, I haven’t really been like applying myself to my own music for a couple of years and I really miss it a lot. So I tried to like make it a habit.
Then I got invited to play a solo set, opening for The Bomb in Baltimore on 27th of October, which is not something I’ve ever done. When I sat down to try and do it I thought to myself “no, that’s a terrible idea” (laughs). So I called up Darren who was the drummer in Channels… Darren’s kind of my musical soul mate – and then I called my friend Brooks to play bass and my other friend Gordon who’s a really great cellist and also very good guitarist. I thought it would be a fun one-off thing.
We started rehearsing old songs, but then I had all these new things and we started playing those and it was way more fun and felt more forward looking. So it’s a band but I think it will essentially be my solo record and these guys will mostly be the band if I ever record it, it’s pretty much all over the place. It may be, you know, there’s some strictly electronic things and sample bass things and you know?
This was just within the last month… all of a sudden I have a band. I definitely would rather think of it in functioning terms; it feels better to think of it as a band because to me, having three other people playing whether I wrote all the music or not, they contributed a lot just by their sheer personality as players. It’s a little bit weird in my mind just going “hey, it’s J Robbins”, and then have these other guys who are actually working as hard and who are certainly as gifted or far more gifted than me, sort of doing what they do.
BV: So Gordon Withers is the guy who did your Jawbox covers record, right?
J Robbins: Yeah. He first did it as a student and sent it years ago. I guess when he found out about the situation with my son, revisited the idea as a benefit, and did the record. That’s how I know him, you know, but seriously one of the straight-up nicest guys I’ve ever met in my life and insanely talented.
Because once I got to know him, occasionally I would get projects at my studio where people wanted to have cello on their record, so I would call Gordon and he would come up. He’s just incredibly easy to work with and has great command of whatever idiom that everybody wants or asks from him.
It even got to the point where like I would… I mean Gordon is so awesome that I started like pitching cello to people that have no business having cello on their records (laughs). Like, “hey, maybe you’ll like cello”, you know? Like I think I suggested it to Clutch and they kind of gave me this weird stare and I was like, “okay, no, it’s cool”. You know? They really don’t need cello on a Clutch record, I get it, it’s cool.
BV: Why not? Throw it through an Orange Amp, it might work (laughs). So how is your son doing?
J Robbins: He’s doing very well, thank you. He’s had his power wheelchair now since May and then in like the last month something has really clicked for him. I mean he’s going to be four in January, and one of his physical therapists who works with him with the power chair was just saying that he’s kind of blown away, some eight year olds that she works with as far as his understanding the chair, how to make it work and getting around in it.
I feel like maybe I’m tempting fate by saying it, but this time last year he was in the hospital for five weeks. And so far with the infamous flu season that we’re supposedly having, he’s stayed healthy. Hasn’t been sick yet this year, so he’s doing really good.
J.Robbins with Callum
BV: So is Channels over with?
J Robbins: The big problem with Channels is that because my wife and I are both in the band, it’s been impossible for us to put our energy into it because
BV: Of your son?
J Robbins: I mean basically the last show that we played was the day before we got Cal’s diagnosis. And once we got the diagnosis, it’s just completely reordered our priorities, as you might expect.
Basically, there’s really nobody in the picture but us… I don’t have family, my parents are both deceased and my wife’s family lives in England. So really, it’s on us as far as taking care of him, so it’s just logistically been a nightmare to try and do anything. It’s not like we’re saying the band is broken up but there’s just no practical way for us to engage in it and get any kind of creative momentum going, you know?
So if we’re not trying to do the same thing together we can both actually get involved in some music. So she’s been collaborating with this friend of ours in Australia, this guy Greg Atkinson who used to be in a band called Big Heavy Stuff – a band that I really, really love. They’ve been trading files back and forth and you know, and I’ve started doing this thing it’s easier to make time to do that stuff if we’re doing it independently. It’s a drag. So Channels is my favorite band I ever have been in by a long, long way. I really love that band but it just doesn’t seem practical to do it, so.
BV: You’re doing a lot of stuff with independent music, and live in Baltimore. Are there any Baltimore independent bands that you identify with? There seems to be thriving scene there, it seems, as an outsider anyway.
J Robbins: Yeah, it’s funny because I think there always has been but it’s just been so unto itself. It’s only recently, because of people like Dan Deacon and now Ponytail, that people are now more aware of it. But I think that you’ve probably heard of just about anybody that I could name. I mean there’s Thank You, I really, really love Thank You. I love Ponytail. I had never heard Double Dagger until recently but I think they’re awesome.
BV: I love that band. They’re amazing.
J Robbins: Yeah, there’s a ton of stuff going on. And it’s another case of like I could start naming and never stop. There’s a guy that I worked with here a couple times, this guy Jason Dove who I just think is completely awesome. His aesthetic is… he doesn’t like any music that was made after 1972 so his big touchstones are like the Beach Boys and the Kinks. It’s just great, his records are great. The first record I did with him loads and loads of really beautiful vocal harmonies and vibraphone.
Baltimore has always been a great city because it’s one of the cheapest cities on the East Coast. I feel like where it’s cheap to live, that’s where you can afford to follow your muse, you know, and let your free freak-flag fly.
The other consequence of that is it’s fostered a lot of really great creativity but people don’t have a lot of ambition about getting out of Baltimore and sort of putting it in everyone’s face. Which I also have a lot of respect for, you know, the idea that you just sort of follow your thing and create what you’re called to create and then if people need it in their lives they’ll find it. So I mean I love Baltimore.
BV: I [BBG] am originally from Alexandria, VA, so I’m more familiar with the D.C. hardcore scene from when I was growing up. Baltimore always seemed like a foreign place even though obviously it’s only a short drive on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
J Robbins: No, but it is like a totally different planet to D.C., it’s close but it’s very, very far.
BV: Like you guys, Clutch, The Obsessed, Fugazi, even bands like Worlds Collide, Battery… I remember going to original 9:30 Club and seeing you guys there when I was much younger.
J Robbins: Terrible, terrible nostalgia for the originals, the old 9:30 Club. D.C. Space, that the corner where D.C. Space used to be, is now a Starbucks… which is just so crazy. My wife and son and I went down to that National Portrait Gallery to see this Man Ray show and it’s right around the corner from there and we went into the Starbucks where D.C. Space was I just got this feeling of vertigo. It’s still the same-shaped room, you know, but where the stage used to be is now like the barista station.
BV: That’s hilarious.
J Robbins: It couldn’t be funnier, could it?
BV: Definitely. There’s been so many D.C. bands that I’ve been a fan of over the years, but who do you think is one of the most underrated bands in the area?
J Robbins: I feel like the single band that left the greatest impression on my psyche from like when I started going to shows in 1984, the band that is all but forgotten is 9353. I mean they were not in the D.C. hardcore scene but they used to, they would play at the old 9:30 Club and it would just be packed to the gills and they almost never played outside of D.C. Just such a weird band! I think their nearest influences would be The Stranglers, and maybe put a little Buzzcocks in the mix and then throw in maybe some Frank Zappa. It may be a band that you had to be there for, you know? If I play 9353 for somebody today, there is a chance that they will just give me a blank stare.
But when I went down to the old 9:30 Club and saw 9353 for the first time, I felt like I was on another planet. I was like “I don’t know what is happening here but this is where I want to be”, you know? It was so new and strange and great. And I feel like everybody that I know that saw that band then feels the same way. So I mean I think that band is criminally underrated and largely forgotten but really, really great band.
BV: That’s amazing. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of them before. That’s interesting. They put out records?
J Robbins: Yeah. They did. They had two full-lengths that they put out and Jeff Nelson actually put out two CD’s that were retrospective CD’s of 9353 that are now also out of print.
They have sort of resurfaced a couple times but just in D.C. and they’re the kind of band that people in D.C. that were around then that still give a shit will always come out and see them if they play. They were just like one of those wonderful, weird, obscure bands.
I mean there were loads of bands like that. Like there was another band called the Grand Mall that was around then that was just awesome but completely obscure and nobody’s ever put out a Grand Mall CD.
Otherwise I feel like there was an era when people were really interested in Dischord records and so a lot of the bands that were really great actually had an audience.
BV: Dischord’s definitely repped a lot of great bands over the years. Fugazi, Shudder… that Void split is another killer.
J Robbins: That’s another like “what the fuck” record. It’s a great, great record.
BV: Obviously you come from the school of punk rock and hardcore. What do you think about the current state of it and who do you think is kind of repping it at this point, if anyone?
J Robbins: You know, I don’t really know. I don’t think that I could make a generalization about it. I know, because I tend to look at, I tend try not to pay much attention to genre. And so I mean there are people that I know who, I mean the people that I know who I believe are making really great hardcore records are people that I’ve known for a long time. You know, like Dan Yemin, like I think Dan cares about making something that is really genuine and great. I believe Paint It Black is a great hardcore band, a great band, period. They have the right spirit. I think anything that Ryan Patterson (Coliseum) does, or Evan Patterson (Young Widows) does… I mean I know those guys well enough to know where their heart is and they’re absolutely coming from a great place. They always make really cool music.