I recently had a chance to speak with the legendary J. Robbins about his new band Channels. Robbins is a veteran producer responsible for records from Against Me! and Dismemberment Plan, as well as a member of beloved acts like Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Government Issue, and many others.
We spoke about his new project, but also touched on his experiences in Jawbox and Burning Airlines, his work with Against Me! and Dismemberment Plan and more.
You've had quite a few bands in your career; from Government Issue and Jawbox to Rollkicker Laydown, Burning Airlines and now Channels. How do you feel this one fits in to all that you've done? Each has been pretty distinctive…
I love playing with musicians whose personalities come through in their playing and their choices. Then even if I am the songwriter, the songs end up sounding like the band to me, rather than just sounding like "my" song, and thatâs way way better than some kind of dictatorial situation. This band has some obvious differences because itâs the first one Iâve been in with a female vocalist, and I like that the feminine side of the music is more overt in that way. And Darren has a very distinct sound as a drummer. Iâm also in another band with Darren, Erik Denno, and Vic Bondi, called Report Suspicious Activity, which is straight-up heavy political hardcore, and that is a very "male"-sounding band by comparison. Itâs also a lot of fun, but itâs a different energy.
We made our best records for Atlantic and we learned a lot. But once was enough for that particular experience.
When I joined G.I. I was 18, that was my first experience in a band, and then Jawbox was my first experience playing guitar, and since then to some extent Iâve been on one long growth mission … definitely since the last Jawbox record, through BA to Channels, which is lyric-wise, to get things off my chest in a more direct way, and guitar-wise, to find ways to twist and subvert melodicism without losing a feeling of tonality and emotion - to have a harmonic and emotional center to the music, but to deal with it from unexpected angles … itâs hard to really talk in concrete terms about music - if you could, you wouldnât need to be making the actual music, right? The lyrics now are mostly a lot more overtly political, but I canât help that, itâs just what comes out.
Anyway, this band is also an opportunity to make music with my wife Janet, whose taste and voice and overall musicality I really admire, and with Darren, who is one of my favorite drummers of all time, and itâs great that we all share similar tastes and similar expectations for the band.
What are you aiming for with Channels?
The main project for the band to just make music because we love to do it, and as a side note, hopefully the band will also bring opportunities to do some cool stuff we wouldnât be able to otherwise. Experience shows me that I need to get stuff off my chest with music, so I would carry on making songs regardless of whether I had a band or not, but this situation is just beautiful to me, itâs the ultimate.
We three have more similar tastes than in any other band Iâve been in, but I think we are also in a position to challenge and surprise each other creatively, and I also think we all know when weâre on to something good and we enjoy it equally, so itâs a good foundation for a band. And weâre all older, we have all seen enough of the music business, indie or otherwise, and weâre over it - the band is really just for its own sake, and thatâs the best. Itâs my favorite band Iâve ever done by far.
Darren and I have toured to death for years, but Janet was only in her band Shonben in London for maybe a year, so the fact that the band thing is relatively new to her is kind of a shot in the arm as well.
Over the past few years, you've produced a lot of pretty high profile records… Against Me!, Jets to Brazil, Dismemberment Plan, etc. What led you to production and what do you look for in a band that you produce?
Curiosity about why my favorite records sound the way they do, how a song goes from someone jamming in a basement to becoming a little world that happens inside your headphones, thatâs what led me to endlessly hassling my favorite engineers for information, and then starting to record people myself. Thinking about how production choices heighten the impact of a song, things you might never notice overtly when youâre first listening, subtle stuff like reverbs or delays, or why the snare drum sounds a certain way or where a backing vocal comes in, where it is in the stereo image or why it might certain words … basically Iâm an unrepentant geek.
But lately Iâm also really into performances, how people work together in a band. A lot of a bandâs personality might come from these idiosyncracies that can get glossed over in the studio. The prevalence of ProTools might be responsible for this but there is an expectation from a lot of musicians now that itâs necessary to construct a record from audio files, that the "right way" to make a record is this super-laborious piecemeal process, putting the drums on a grid, replacing every snare hit with some ultimate "great" sample, etc, rather than just record people playing together, so even though I can do all that ProTools stuff perfectly well, I have been going toward the "people playing together" end of the spectrum because itâs more fun and most of my favorite records were made that way.
But the one thing I love the most in any band I work with is commitment to imagination.
Burning Airlines survived the 9/11 controversy over the name, but in the breakup announcement that Kim sent out, she mentioned that your production work was the main reason; what made you decide to start another band since producing is still a big part of your time?
Well, BA was also pretty burned out because we all wanted different things for the band. Most of the other guys felt we should be pushing harder, touring more, trying to get "bigger," and that just seemed exhausting to me - I already did all that shit and I find it to actually be a distraction from music, a distraction from things that are really important. Even though I love touring, America was just starting to look like one big truckstop. Plus we were on tour when 9/11 happened, and I had quite recently gotten married, so at the time it was like, "if this was the end of the world, would I want to be here in a motel in El Paso Texas while my wife is sitting at home alone just outside of supposed terror target number one?"
But Channels started up because I had a bunch of songs, Janet and I had been talking about playing together forever, and then the thing that clinched it was Darren asking me if I wanted to jam. If Darren Zentek ever says to you "we should play together," and you say "no," at that point you should just walk away from music altogether.
Channels has been very minimal in terms of what you've said/put out… even your website is pretty spartan. Was this a concious thing?
Sure - part of it is that there have been long stretches when we couldnât play together much, mostly because I was lucky enough to be working on other peopleâs records, so we have only been able to write so many songs with limited time. But otherwise the minimalism is just because, what we have to express as a band, we cover pretty well in the actual music. Having a fancy website is pretty extraneous.
While the band is definitely more "indie rock" focused than some of your previous work, it still has your melodic sense throughout. How does songwriting work in the band?
The EP songs all came out of demos that I did, but now we are writing much more as a band, so itâs all over the place - some songs start with beats, some with basslines, some just kind of come unexpectedly out of jams, and some are based on structures I bring in, and at the end the vocal line usually dictates the final shape of things. I am curious to know what you mean when you say it sounds "indie rock" though.
You're working with Dischord again where you've spent much of your career (except Burning Airlines) why did you return to the label?
We put out our first EP on DeSoto Records, but Kim has really changed her focus for DeSoto, the label works around her other commitments, and itâs more one-off, project-oriented. She has lots of other stuff going on in her life. And even though that might seem like a good fit for a band like ours, at the same time Ian had come out to see pretty much every DC show we played and he is an actual fan of our band, and for all its idiosyncracies, Dischord is very focused on being a label and carrying on putting out new bands, which makes us feel like we have a home team, so to speak, of people who are also all getting older with us, but who are still 100% invested in making their own culture and documenting it.
Also, I am particularly over the "selling your band" thing, and they are the furthest thing there is from any sort of music business orthodoxy. They were the only other label we really wanted to work with, because we felt like they would respect our vision of what our band should be - we can tour or not tour, we could draw stick figures for our promo shot if we want, and they understand that we take the band very seriously regardless of those things. Weâre really lucky.
Jawbox is often considered a "major label" casualty; do you feel that way? For that matter, you guys were one of the rare bands that signed to a major from Dischord… was that awkward?
Well, itâs all water under the bridge now. But there was never bad blood between us and Dischord. Ian gave us some cautionary advice at the time, on the order of "just make sure you know what you're getting into, and what you want to get out of it," which all turned out to be more or less worthwhile … but Jawbox had a good enough run on Atlantic, better than most Iâd say. In some ways the change of venue was a shot in the arm for a band that might have broken up earlier without it - we made our best records for Atlantic and we learned a lot. But once was enough for that particular experience.
You've been involved with punk and independent music for a long time now, how do you feel things have changed over the years? Have they really?
Hugely, and not much … itâs just awesome that there are still weird little pockets of unexpected creativity out there that canât be categorized. Weâd have every right to expect otherwise by now. I mean, I saw Stinking Lizaveta play a couple weeks ago, and the only words I have are "what the FUCK was that?" - which is a feeling I cherish highly. My friends in Low Moda played to a full Ottobar the other night, and they are an uncategorizable band that is putting out their own record, so the things that I find inspiring are still alive and kicking.
I noticed you guys are contributing to the compilation Desoto is putting together for kids, and you've recently had a baby (Congratulations!) I'm wondering how becoming a father has influenced your writing and the way you work.
Iâm still figuring that out, and I expect to be for the rest of my life. So far itâs tempered my workaholism … at least somewhat. In a way it's comparable to the kind of journey of discovery that touring was for me 15 years ago, only much deeper, and I don't have to sleep on the floor. Being a father is fantastic.