An interview with J. Robbins
by Tim Den
Role model, musical visionary, down-to-earth bro… A lot of descriptions come to mind when thinking about J. Robbins. Some might know him best as the former leader of Jawbox/Burning Airlines, or as an engineer/producer extraordinaire, but to me, the past doesn’t hold a candle to Channels, his new band and possibly best work to date.
In this exclusive chat, J. reveals – for the first time – the ending of Burning Airlines, his present life as a married man, his thoughts on the current state of music, with, of course, the sort of steadfast integrity and honesty that we’ve come to expect from him.
First things first: Burning Airlines had been broken up for a while before any formal announcements were made. Could you take us through a timeline?
Well, we didn’t so much break up as take a break from which we never returned. We went on the break around November of 2001, at the end of a short tour on the East Coast. We’d invited our friends in Naht from Japan to come to the U.S. to tour with us – a way of trying to return the favor they’d extended to us (and many other DC-area bands) in Japan. We did a bunch of shows with them and New End Original, and the shows really did poorly. This was a blow to us because we really wanted to make it a big tour for them…
Everyone was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and the turnouts SUCKED, especially in NYC (a band named Burning Airlines was bound to suffer around then, I guess). Naht stayed with us for the first half (the Northeast), then we went down to Florida, which had always been a stronghold for us, and it sucked worse! 20 people at shows where we used to sell out. We were getting really demoralized because we also felt that we were at our very best as a live band.
And then, the internal difficulties started to really come to the foreground. The four of us had different ideas about where we were headed. The rest of the guys really wanted to do the “road warrior” thing and were striving to make the band bigger and more successful, whereas my experience in Jawbox led me to think of that kind of thinking as a trap. My favorite bands, and the music that has had the biggest impact on me, all come from obscurity, from people making art on their own terms. There were – and are – way too many 20-something post-whatever rock bands out there consciously striving to “make it,” and for us to think we should be competing with them for attention, that’s like The Mekons thinking they have to outsell New Found Glory.
I would rather grow my own garden, so to speak, and if people find it and it’s useful to them, then the right kind of connection has been made, rather than turning it into more of a product and cramming it in everyone’s faces. And that, of course, causes a conflict, because anyone would be right to say “cramming it in people’s faces is the only way to get anyone to pay attention.” But at this point, for me, that’s a zero-sum game.
So at the end of the Florida tour, on the second-to-last show, we had a big blow-up – my first ever full-on band fight – about directions to the venue (with all this underlying stuff in the mix, obviously). Once we cooled down, we decided that a break was in order. We never came back from the break. A few months later, (Mike) Harbin (bassist/backup vocalist) and I were talking and were like “Uh, I guess the band’s pretty much broken up, eh?”
While in Burning Airlines, there was a conflict of schedules between writing/practicing with the band and your own recording/producing jobs. Was that a big problem?
How will Channels handle the balance?
It’s a different dynamic in Channels. There isn’t the remotest interest in “making it” the way there was (unadmitted, at the time) in BA. My wife, Janet (Morgan), is the bass player, and she has a full-time job. Our drummer, Darren (Zentek), has a full-time job and a mortgage to pay, and he went through the touring mill with Kerosene 454. This band is all about how much fun it is to make music, not about meeting any real or imagined schedule or quota.
It makes it enough fun that I want to do it all the time, and therefore there’s STILL a conflict with my work, but what a great complaint to have.
How much touring did Jawbox do?
TONS. For a while, it was like eight-to-10 months out of the year.
How were you able to afford that?
Barely. We all lived together, and Kim was an extraordinary manager of time and money, so we never actually lost money on a tour. Not even on our first. But even when we signed to Atlantic, which was sort of supposed to be like the proverbial ship coming in, it was poverty-line all the way for me. It paid for its own continuance, and it was all I wanted to do. Touring and making music was THE gateway to experience, to going out and meeting the world and growing. I know it sounds corny, but it’s totally true. Things have certainly changed in that regard: I feel like I’m learning as much or more by staying home and paying attention to different things.
Would you recommend heavy touring to younger bands?
Absolutely. I think people know if they’ve got it in them. But it obviously doesn’t appeal to everyone. I didn’t have any reason to want to stay home, I wanted to go out and see the world. Sounds like I’m talking about the fuckin’ Navy.
Do you think that today’s musical climate would be as kind to smart bands like Jawbox as the early ’90s were? Back then, there was still some sort of a loyal “underground” movement. It’s all about hype, fashion, and catering to prepubescents now, even in the “underground.”
It’s a very different world, and I’m not so attuned to it, just by virtue of my age. I’m more tuned into my friends and what they’re doing. Touring seems like more of an industry to me now that I’m not doing it all the time: A lot of givens, not so much a sense of discovery. But I think if I were in my 20s, and Jawbox was just starting, I’d still sort of go out there and give it everything I had, just for the experience. I don’t think we expected any degree of “success” when we did it then, and that’s not how I’d want to think about it now. It’s always a Quixotic venture.
Andy Partridge had a great line in this old XTC song: “There’s no Youth Culture, only masks they let you rent.” How bad ass is that?