J. Robbins: ‘The Studio Is A Place Where Your Dreams Become Manifest’

By Catherine P. Lewis


Anyone who’s paid attention to D.C. punk and indie-rock since the 1980s has probably heard of J. Robbins, the vocalist, bassist and guitarist known for his bands Government Issue, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Channels and Office of Future Plans, to name a few.

These days, Robbins dedicates most of his time to recording other people’s bands at Magpie Cage, the studio he opened in 2004. There he’s worked with numerous D.C.- and Baltimore-area bands–recently Lemuria, Roomrunner and Dope Body—and also used the space to churn out some of his own music, like the solo acoustic EP he posted to Bandcamp in June. That EP consisted mostly of songs he’d made with his previous bands, but also featured a new tune, title track “Abandoned Mansions.” Robbins aims to put out a second six-song EP this fall.

In other Robbins release news, Arctic Rodeo Recordings still plans to re-release the Jawbox collection My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents on vinyl, and he expects Dischord to drop a remastered vinyl version of the band’s final album this year.

Meanwhile, Robbins’ bands seem to be dormant rather than broken up: Channels played a few shows this spring to celebrate the vinyl reissue of Waiting for the Next End of the World, and Jawbox played a sole show on Jimmy Fallon in 2009 to mark the reissue of For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Monday night, he plays Arlington’s Galaxy Hut with Office of Future Plans cellist Gordon Withers.

In advance of the show, Bandwidth emailed with Robbins about doing music as a job, how he views his role in the recording studio and D.C. and Baltimore’s music scenes.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Bandwidth: What can we expect from a J. Robbins solo show?

J. Robbins: The set consists of any song from any band I’ve played in that will translate intelligibly to the format of acoustic guitar and voice, and for which I can comfortably take credit as the “songwriter.” I’m very lucky that every band I’ve been in has been able to write collaboratively, where each member contributes something valuable, and in all of those bands there are a lot of songs that can only work in a rock band format, where the interplay of the specific parts is what gives the song its identity.

I never used to like to think of myself as “the songwriter,” more as just a band member, in a totally non-hierarchical way. Jawbox in particular was very socialistic in that way; we liked to think of ourselves as a collective. But in every band I’ve been in, there are also a lot of songs that I can finally admit to myself I just plain wrote, and I actually quite like them and find myself wanting to play them again and take some responsibility for their existence. I think they can still have a life beyond the lifespan of the band they were written for, and I am a better singer now than I was when I wrote most of them, and I have a better idea of what I want to communicate, so it’s really enjoyable for me to sing and play these versions now.

You’ve been playing in bands since the early ’80s. At what point did you decide to do music full-time?

I didn’t really decide, it’s more like I just let my obsession take over. I’ve had a few day jobs back in the olden times: I pretended to be a graphic designer for a while, I have worked in a few bookstores, that kind of thing. All just subsistence stuff so I could be playing music or making recordings with people. The recording studio has been my “job” since the mid-’90’s, but that is also not really a job, rather an obsession that’s somewhat complementary to the first one, and now it’s my primary obsession.

When did you start recording bands?

The first time I set foot in a recording studio with Government Issue, I had this visceral feeling that the studio is a place where your dreams become manifest, and of course why would you want to ever leave a place like that? I had that feeling before then without realizing it, listening to records with headphones, in the way that the soundscape of a record is like a little world that exists between your ears. If you really get into that, then eventually you start to want to pull back the curtain and figure out the how and why of the sounds that affect you deeply, so you can make that happen too.

As far as training, I never went to school for it; whenever my bands would record, I just bothered the engineer about what he was doing and why, I read a lot, and I started recording people for free in my basement on a portastudio. I was also very lucky because early on a few very good bands who liked Jawbox (Texas is the Reason, Kerosene 454) asked me to “produce” their records, which mostly meant reminding them to tune up and maybe coming up with some harmony parts or overdubs … and that was incredibly fun and I learned a lot from that—and the records turned out pretty well, because truthfully if you let a good band that already sounds good just be themselves in the studio and you don’t meddle with their inherent strengths, then you will end up with a good record.

“The first time I set foot in a recording studio with Government Issue, I had this visceral feeling that the studio is a place where your dreams become manifest.”

When did you move from D.C. to Baltimore? Why Baltimore?

My wife Janet and I moved in 2002. We were living in Silver Spring and we couldn’t remotely afford to buy a house anywhere around there. I have always loved Baltimore, I had gone to MICA for a couple years way back when and a had a lot of friends here, loved the art and music scene here, and always thought of it as a really livable city. So we found a place here and moved, with no regrets.

I think people are quick to talk about how different Baltimore’s music scene is from D.C.’s. What’s your perspective?

I don’t think you can generalize any more, if you ever could. In the ’90s it seemed it was not hard to catalog the differences—but then for everyone you asked, you might get a different reply. I guess that’s still true. It might come down to Baltimore feeling more relaxed or freewheeling than D.C. … but you can’t just boil a city down that way. And now there are so many little microscenes everywhere. There are a hundred scenes in D.C. and a hundred in Baltimore. Things are very fluid. People are so mobile and we’re not so tied down to geography any more.

And also, I am no longer at an age where I get caught up in the social drama of scenes, so what I mostly get excited about is just knowing that there is a lot going on, and that people are motivated to create, especially when it’s on a DIY level, on their own terms for their own reasons … and I would say on that score Baltimore is an amazing place to be. I also worry that it has to be harder and harder for weirdos and mavericks to flourish in D.C. because it’s just too expensive to live there.

I’ve heard that you’ve got both a luthier and an amp guy working at Magpie Cage. Is that typical for recording studios? How did you start those partnerships?

I don’t know how typical it is, but it makes a lot of sense. They don’t work “for ” me, we share the space. It’s extra-great when bands show up and you find out their guitars haven’t been set up since 1996, or someone’s amp explodes in the middle of a session … Brooks Harlan (Big Crunch Amp and Guitar Repair) is the “amp guy”—he is also the tech guy for the studio, he’s got some great amps and recording gear that stay here, and if things run smoothly here he can take a lot of credit for it. We worked together to improve this space, and he is an incredibly smart guy with a lot of practical skills and imagination. And we are good friends with a lot of common interests. James Healy, the luthier, has just come into the picture. He’s great.

I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times about Jawbox’s time on a major label. Sorry to pile on with that subject, but: what did you learn from being on a major label that you use now that you’re recording bands and presumably working with their labels?

Nothing that I would directly credit to Atlantic Records! Except maybe to urge bands to employ a lawyer if they are dealing with a label that uses contracts … but I learned a lot about recording and production from Ted Niceley and John Agnello, who each produced one of the two Jawbox Atlantic records. Ted especially taught me a lot about listening closely to the technical details of a performance; John about remembering to enjoy the experience and to trust yourself.

“If you let a good band that already sounds good just be themselves in the studio and you don’t meddle with their inherent strengths, then you will end up with a good record.”

How do you view your role as the recording engineer/producer? To what extent do you get involved in a band’s sound?

My role is determined by what a client is looking for. So often it boils down to “engineering with advice” (not just deciding how to best capture the sound, but nuts and bolts stuff like “When’s the last time you tuned up? Changed your strings?” “You could do a tighter version of the bridge,” “What if this was two BPM faster?” “Let’s try a different snare drum”). Sometimes its more collaborative, where I might suggest arrangement changes, add harmonies or textures or alter a melody; more rarely, as in the records I have done with Peter Maybarduk, it’s very collaborative to the extent of commissioning musicians and sometimes arranging almost to the point of being a co-writer, which makes sense to me with a solo artist, but I tend to not do this to any great extent with bands because hopefully a band has its own internal mechanisms and that’s part of what you should be trying to capture, rather than replacing something that works and is idiosyncratic.

Anyone you’re particularly excited to work with in the coming months?

I’m mixing War On Women’s album in a couple of weeks, which Brooks and I recorded. Coliseum is coming in October; this will be the second full-length I’ve done with them at Magpie Cage but it’s part of a long-standing working relationship I’ve had with their singer/guitarist Ryan Patterson. I love that band. Also very excited to finish up album sessions with [D.C. bands] TONE and King Giant. And I’ve got ongoing sessions with the fantastic Baltimore band Boister, which will hopefully add up to the second full-length record we’ve done together. I did an EP with the awesome Baltimore band Roomrunner a few months ago that’s about to come out …

How do you balance writing/recording/practicing with your musical projects (both your bands and your solo project) with Magpie Cage? Is it hard to make time/energy for your own music when you spend much of your time recording other bands?

I am a full-time studio owner/operator/producer/whatever you call it, and a very part-time musician. That’s just how the time breaks down, and it’s fine, because both things are fulfilling.

Jawbox played just one reunion show, for Jimmy Fallon in 2009, coinciding with the reissue of For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Looking back on it now, do you have any regrets about not playing any full reunion shows? Any possibility of or plans for future shows?

No, I don’t think any of us has regrets. The Fallon thing was really special. I can’t see us doing any Jawbox reunion shows in the future. Although, never say never, I suppose.

“I can’t see us doing any Jawbox reunion shows in the future. Although, never say never, I suppose.”

You’ve been public about your son Cal and his diagnosis of Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 1, and there have been numerous benefit shows for him over the years. How is Cal doing nowadays? Most of the recent posts on Cal’s blog deal with his health, medical procedures, etc.—and I don’t want to belittle the impact that has on his and your life, but can you walk me through what a “normal” day is like? What’s school like for him?

Thanks for asking. Callum is doing great. This is a big question; I think it’s too big to get into in a way, because almost every aspect of our lives has had to adapt in some way to his situation, but since this is our “normal,” we just get on with it, and even things that are actually a big deal—like his annual spinal surgeries for example—though we take these things seriously, we really have learned to take them in stride because they are a necessity rather than an option, and we can’t afford to freak out about everything that comes along, precisely because so much of it is really quite heavy, we’d be freaking out nonstop. So we have got pretty good at rolling with it.

Anyone who is reading this can google Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 1 to find out more about what it is Callum is up against. And though every time I say this I feel I am tempting fate, so far he is bucking the trend for kids with his diagnosis.

One really mundane example of what Cal’s condition means to our daily lives is that I have been writing most of this interview late at night; during the day it’s hard to concentrate, because if I’m at home I’m constantly on call as a caregiver. Every few minutes Janet or I will need to either massage Cal’s neck, or move his limbs around to stop his muscles from getting stiff, or help him with his food or drink, or do Cal-friendly versions of the stuff that any child and parent would do together, but which also mostly require some sort of creative thinking or workaround. We play games together on the computer, or read together, you know, stuff that is enjoyable for us both.

But it is a real challenge to carve out time or reserve energy for anything else, whether it’s working on songs or Janet and I going on a date. It helps a lot that Cal is an incredible kid, a really wonderful person to be around. He spends too much time with screens, but adaptive technology means that he is able to use a computer and he can really accomplish quite a lot. He’s really really smart, perceptive, sensitive and articulate. Truthfully, a little precocious. He is doing great in school—he’s at a public magnet school part-time, with a home tutor to fill in the gaps in the curriculum, and he has a helper who is always with him in class, and at times that helper has ended up being me, which can be great … and in some ways, not so great.

It’s fantastic for him to be around other kids finally, because most of his life he’s been around adults more … but it’s also nerve-wracking because if he gets at all sick, he tends to develop pneumonia, which is so often fatal for SMA kids, and of course getting sick is just about half of what kids do in elementary school … but there’s a quality of life issue here too … anyway, a capable and trustworthy adult always needs to be with him, because he’s totally dependent, and that someone needs to be one of us or someone we really really trust, who really gets it.

You can probably see, this is an enormous subject. … I want to try to keep the blog updated a bit more frequently. He is certainly up to a lot more than just recovering from surgeries. The support we’ve received from the music community, from people all around the world, has really blown us away and I think that energy and feeling of care has really helped Janet and me to be strong and do our best for him. We are very very lucky to have had that.

J. Robbins plays Monday night at Galaxy Hut with Ghosts of Sailors at Sea.