City Paper is not for tourists
In his eight years performing with the band Jawbox, J. Robbins was never a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. The charismatic rocker had earned his punk pedigree as one in a long line of bassists for the semi-legendary local band Government Issue, and Jawbox’s debut at a 1989 gig with Fugazi and Shudder to Think had poised the band at the center of a punk scene that was quickly gaining national attention.
By late 1993, after two albums on Dischord Records and more than 260 live shows, that attention was focused squarely on Jawbox. Robbins and his bandmatesever-sanguine and eager to make a living off their musicwere happy to oblige when Atlantic Records offered them a contract for two albums. Jawbox’s 1994 Atlantic debut, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, was good enough to quiet fans who had bemoaned its move to a major label, but few people were surprised that the band never materialized as “the next Nirvana.” Executives at Atlantic were nonplused, releasing Jawbox, the band’s 1996 follow-up, only out of contractual obligation on TAG, a doomed boutique label.
It’s been two years almost to the day since Jawbox called it quits, and Robbins, whose brief stint in the spotlight didn’t suit him, has found a new calling as a producer and studio engineer. If the influence of Jawbox seems ubiquitous on recent records by local and regional bands, it’s because Robbins has been at the dials: His studio credits appear on roughly 25 of the most highly regarded indie releases of the past two years.
Robbins’ new band, Burning Airlines, has a new record, Mission: Control!, out this month and embarks on a U.S. tour in April, but lately his studio work has been attracting the most attention. The emerging “new D.C. sound” has Robbins’ touch all over it: Kerosene 454, Bluetip, the Most Secret Method, the Stigmatics, Monorchid, the Dismemberment Plan, Sweetbelly Freakdown, Sleepytime Trio, and other local rockers all have availed themselves of his services.
“It’s been a really good case of getting along personally and aesthetically with some really good bands, as well as word-of-mouth advertising and a little bit of luck,” says Robbins. “It’s kind of snowballed from there.”
Word of Robbins’ mastery has spread quickly, attracting national acts like the Promise Ring, Braid, Compound Red, Squatweiler, Four Hundred Years, and Jets to Brazil to Shirlington’s Inner Ear Studios, his workbench of choice. Robbins had always wanted to make a living making music. One year ago, with studio projects piling up, he quit his day job and finally settled on a way to make a go of it.
“There’s a reason why he’s getting so much production work lately,” says Travis Morrison, singer and guitarist for the Dismemberment Plan. “He’s a fun guy to have aroundwhich is essential, because being in the studio is pretty much like being in a submarine. He brought performances out of us that I didn’t think we had in us, pulling us out of our butts without us knowing. He’s great about indulging bands and their neuroses about how everything should be.”
Robbins, though, has his own neuroses to tend. The pop-culture industry depresses him, even as he creates, engineers, and fine-tunes the music that will become part of its soundtrack. In the studio, behind soundproof acoustic paneling, he tries not to think about anything outside of his craft.
“What intrigues me about the studio process is the idea of songs and records as little worlds that are constructed by artists,” says Robbins. “A lot of times, I think the most wonderful production is stuff that’s incredibly subtle, doing things that heighten the drama of a song that may even be imperceptible to somebody who’s listening.”
A producer can either enrich a band’s material or ruin it. The Dust Brothers, for example, have been credited for the success of records by Beck and the Beastie Boys; yet the Rolling Stones fingered them for botching tracks on Bridges to Babylon. Recording engineer and analog purist Steve Albini has publicly suggested that most producers don’t have a clue. Big-name guys, Albini among them, can cost a fortuneupward of $50,000, by Albini’s estimate in his Baffler essay “The Problem With Music.” But Robbins isn’t getting rich off the business just yet.
“Beyond any of the technical stuff, what we were looking for was somebody to help us get the sounds that would make the band go, ‘That’s it,’” says John Wall, bassist of the now-defunct Kerosene 454, whose 1995 debut, Situation at Hand, was the first record Robbins had a hand in producing. His sole qualifications at the time: He had been in Jawbox, and he was cheap. “He allowed us to work with him, touch the knobs, and pull things around until it got there. We weren’t looking to pay somebody to tell us how everything should be,” says Wall.
So far Robbins has worked only with bands on independent labels, and he says he learned everything he knows about audio technology and production by watching over the shoulders of the people who worked with JawboxDon Zientara (“Around here he’s like the patron saint of recording”), John Agnello, Geoff Turner. He dismisses the notion that the bands he’s worked with constitute any kind of unified aggregate sound, but acknowledges that his role in the studio is clearly reflected in the records he’s produced.
“A record is like a photograph,” Robbins
says, referring to the idea that photographs represent objective truth. “But a photograph isn’t at all the truth. It’s absolutely subjective. Recording and production are the same waysomebody’s always making choices about how the songs are presented.”
“Suitland High School Theme Song,” the first song of the Most Secret Method album Get Lovely, begins in degraded, low-fi mono, and then the band comes crashing in spectacularly in full 16-track stereo sound. On an album full of inventive production tricks, this set piece is signature Robbins.
“We make a lot of tapes in our basement with this crappy boom box that sits in the middle of the room. From time to time that box is so crappy that the songs actually sound great on it, and we wanted to try to capture that on the record,” says Most Secret Method guitarist Marc Nelson. “As we’re explaining all of this to J. in the studio, he pulls out this busted mic that was just completely smashed up. It did the trick.”
Robbins calls such moments “happy accidents.”
“The most important thing is your ears, and how you imagine things to sound, and how you react to the way things do sound when they’re actually in the room or captured on tape,” he says. “Serendipity…can be a wonderful thing in the studio.”
Mission: Control!produced by Burning Airlines, recorded by J. Robbinssounds a lot like Jawbox at its best. Dissonant guitars, hammering drums, and the lyrical style evoke the later Jawbox material, and the band features two of Robbins’ most frequent conspirators: Jawbox’s Bill Barbot on bass and Government Issue’s Peter Moffett on drums. Robbins’ songwriting, like his production technique, pervades the record.
Though the U.S. tour in April will be sandwiched between scheduled studio dates with Qui Vicino and the Promise Ring, Robbins says he’s ready to “do the whole rock-band thing” again. And despite all the trouble Jawbox went through, Burning Airlines might still be a choice target for major labels.
But Robbins says he’s not particularly interested: “All the things you have to think about in conjunction with being on a major label just don’t even appear in Burning Airlines’ landscape at all,” he says. Burning Airlines is now on DeSoto Records, a local label operated by Barbot and Jawbox bassist Kim Coletta. With Robbins’ new stature and tech savvy, the band was able to take all the studio time it needed to get the record just right. “I just don’t see what a major label would have to offer that would be worth trading that in,” he says. “But you never knowthe world is never black-and-white.” For the moment, he’s content to be the man behind the curtain.CP