Rockin' Robbins


September 21, 2001



'One of my greatest sources of enjoyment as a fan is to deconstruct the process of other people's music,'' says veteran rocker J. Robbins. ''I love to think about where certain phrases came from in my favorite lyrics, or how the pieces of a certain song got put together in the way that they did.''

Not surprisingly, the Washington, D.C., native is flattered when fans do the same to his music, and many do--though unraveling the melodic mysteries of his new band is always a challenging prospect. Take the song ''Morrico ne Dancehall.''

The source of the title is fairly obvious in some of the song's melodic elements. Robbins is infatuated with dancehall reggae, and bassist Mike Harbin wrote a part in that style. Robbins added a guitar line and chord changes that he thought were ''sort of spaghetti western,'' hence the nod to soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. But then there are the lyrics.

''Damned! Is this the body you were last found living in? What you bury has a way of blossoming,'' Robbins sings. After mulling over these and the rest of the lyrics for a while, I concluded that the tune was a film-noir riff a la ''Blood Simple.'' But the real source was even more complicated.

According to Robbins, the tune was inspired by ''The Singing Detective,'' an English miniseries from the late '80s written by Dennis Potter. The hero, Philip Marlow, is a brilliant but miserable writer who's hospitalized with a rare disease that's eating away at his skin. This gruesome exterior mirrors his inner torments, and the only respite he finds is when he lapses into hallucinations in which he fantasizes that he's one of his own characters, a musical sleuth.

''It all started because I was thinking about the phenomenon of repressing things and having that manifest itself physically, like stress causing an illness, or nerves making you break out in hives,'' Robbins says. ''In my own experience, I had psoriasis; I'd get it on my hands, my skin would crack and my fingertips would bleed, and it would be impossible to play guitar. This was kind of toward the end of Jawbox, and everybody had the feeling it was time to move on from that band. I didn't even think about it at the time, but I look back at it and it was physically painful to play guitar--like, how obvious of a sign do you want?''

Not exactly a ''Moon in June'' love song, is it? ''I would love to be able to write lyrics like Andy Partridge [of XTC], where you know what the theme is of the song and the lyrics are fleshed out in these very clever ways," Robbins says with a sigh. But his work has always been marked by a more oblique approach--from his earliest days as a member of the influential hardcore punk group, Government Issue; through the hugely respected Jawbox, which recorded four strong albums during the '90s, up to his current combo, Burning Airlines.

(The group chose the band name four years ago because it was inspired by Brian Eno's 1974 song, ''Burning Airlines Give You So Much More.'' In typical Eno fashion, the tune's title and lyrics were surreal and not meant to be taken literally, and neither Eno nor Robbins intended to evoke a connection to terrorism. Robbins had no further comment on the moniker beyond that.)

Ever since he formed his new trio, Robbins has seen it linked to his old band whenever it is mentioned in print, but the guitarist doesn't mind. ''The majority of people that I know who do music are really toiling in obscurity, so to me, I'm still pretty psyched when somebody has a kind word to say about Jawbox,'' he says. ''I'm like, 'Oh my god, they heard us!' I thought we were a pretty good band, so it doesn't really bother me.''

His new group continues to move in a more ambitious direction. Refusing to limit themselves in any way during the making of their sophomore effort "Identikit,'' the musicians have had to add a fourth member since the recording, keyboardist Ben Pape, in order to realize the new material onstage. (The band is completed by former Wool drummer Peter Moffet, who first played with Robbins in Government Issue. New bassist Harbin replaced Bill Barbot after 1999's impressive debut, ''Mission: Control!'')

"I get freaked out when I try to do things over and over again, even though you can look back at the Jawbox records and the two Burning Airlines records and say there's not this huge change that's taken place,'' Robbins says. ''But I think that for me, there's been this huge growth in ways that might not be immediately apparent. It's not like every record changed, and one record was a space-rock opera and one record was a hip-hop record or something. It's more in the ways that the songs are constructed and the experience of putting the songs together--the sense of where to go in a structure and all the little, subtle things that constitute the arrangement.''

Given Robbins' roots in D.C. and the production work he's done for bands like Braid and the Promise Ring, it's not surprising that his band is sometimes lumped in with those groups as part of the ''emo'' genre of ultra-emotional punk bands. Jawbox has even been described as ''proto-emo,'' though it always had more in common with Chicago bands like Naked Raygun and the Effigies than emo godfathers Fugazi.

It isn't a tag that Robbins is eager to embrace--"There's a tremendous amount of really terrible bands that have no problem calling themselves emo,'' he says--and the truth is, his new band defies easy categorization of any kind.

''I love the idea that no one can say exactly why our stuff is quote/unquote 'good,''' he says. ''I love the idea that someone can say, 'Why is it good? Because I like it! It works.' That's all I really want: to be effective and affecting.

''What kind of music was Pere Ubu in 1978? What kind of music was Public Image when it first came out? Why is 'Black Sea' my favorite XTC record--because it's so twisted and really aggressive and strange and alien sounding while it's also a really classic pop record. I'm stuck, because that is my favorite music--music that you can't quite put your finger on. I hope that our band is that special--that's what I really, really want. To me, that's the prize.''