J. Robbins has the kind of “rock lifer” resume that can make other industry vets look like slackers by comparison. His career began when he was still a teenager, playing bass in the final iteration of Government Issue. In 1989 he put together his own band, Jawbox, which neatly split the difference between the thick guitar D.C. post-hardcore that Government Issue helped invent with Midwestern noise pummel. They cut their masterpiece, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, for Atlantic—a label which, swept up in the early ‘90s sign-everything-punk frenzy, seemed to have no idea what to do with them—and toured extensively. Reviews of their music used the word “angular” a lot. They fell apart in 1997. In the intervening years, Robbins became an in-demand rock producer for the third-wave emo that started to get big in the ‘00s, racking up production credits on records by mewithoutYou, Against Me!, and around 150 more. He continued making rock albums of his own, with Burning Airlines, Channels, and Office of Future Plans.
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He shows no signs of slowing down. Ahead of Jawbox’s summer reunion tour (a veritable dream trek for 40-something indie nerds), he’s releasing his first solo album, Un-Becoming. The record—recorded in fits and starts between 2015 and 2018—pairs Robbins with frequent collaborator Peter Moffett on drums, as well as Brooks Harlan on bass, and Gordon Withers on cello and guitar. It also contains some of the most direct songs Robbins has ever written, not to mention a few of the catchiest.
We caught up with the eternally busy Robbins for his recommendations on some of his favorite records on Bandcamp. In typical Robbins fashion, he had a hard time limiting himself to just a few records.
L.A.N.E. (Love and Noise Experiment)
A Shiny Day
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
L.A.N.E. is a band I would love to work with. I’m friends with their drummer and guitar player—Camille and Étienne Belin, who are brothers—because I worked with their old band. Camille, the drummer, taught himself to play drums in order to be in this band. Four years ago, he couldn’t play the drums. Now, these two are in this band, L.A.N.E., with some guys from [French punk berserkers] Les Thugs—who are an incredible band that I’ve loved since the ‘90s. For Camille and Étienne, Les Thugs is a band that they looked up to. I’ve been in that position where I was lucky enough to play with people who I looked up to, so I know how stoked they must be.
TFS (aka Tropical Fuck Storm)
A Laughing Death in Meatspace
I loved the Drones, so I was very psyched when I saw that this band, which contains members of the Drones, was doing stuff. I feel like they’re sort of willfully giving the middle finger to the idea of mainstream success. Drones records kind of got sleeker as they went on—they seemed like a band that was ‘getting bigger.’ Tropical Fuck Storm just sound like they were in the garage making hideous noise, in a way that I really appreciate. There’s just so much ‘fuck you’ in the mix—but there’s also a real literate, kind of deep despair and disillusionment. The best of their songwriting has a ‘Wasn’t it all supposed to be better than this?’ feeling about it. But they’re still going to have a good time, in sort of a desperate way.
I know this song because [Jawbox drummer] Zach [Boracas] played drums on it. It’s a perfect song. It’s the exact kind of song that I would love to be able to write. It’s Songwriting 101, in the best possible way. The chorus is so fucking great, and the turn around in the middle where he says, ‘You’re not better than me,’ and it goes to this minor chord… I just love this song so much. It just gets me.
My whole project now is to try and write a song that just says what it means in a way that the listener can understand. That’s proven very difficult for me in the past. My experience has been hiding out in the lyrics—getting something off my chest, but then being fearful that it would be misunderstood by the person I’m trying to exorcise my feelings about. So I couch it in sort of weird, left-field language until it’s unintelligible to anyone but me. So I get the benefit of catharsis when I’m singing it, and anybody else can just interpret it however they want. At a certain point, that’s quite cowardly.
Sometimes There’s Blood
My wife Janet introduced me to this. She will just go on these internet dives, and she brought Gwenifer to my attention. It’s so evocative, but there’s a sense of humor in the way she plays guitar that I can’t quite put my finger on. But I know it’s there.
The Lives of Bernard Herrmann
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been a massive Bernard Herrmann fan. Before I liked rock ‘n’ roll, I was a soundtrack collector. Herrmann was one of the main guiding lights of my musical life. When I was a reclusive teenager, I would transcribe Herrmann soundtracks and play bits on the piano. The thing with Herrmann is that he’s so minimal. It’s just about these really simple minimal themes, and these kind of notes hanging in the air. This guy, Stephan Oliva, gets that.
Chin of Britain
The Weasel is at The Bridge
This is a guy who was in Quickspace, whom my wife loved. Chin of Britain is in this Stereolab kind of place, where they’re ‘60s pop and kind of rock. He plays everything in that record. It sounds very alive. Super fun.
Cast a Net
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
I started working with Boister [as a producer] because I know their drummer from when he played in [Baltimore post-hardcore weirdos] Candy Machine. They’re really beautifully Baltimorian, in that they’re pretty idiosyncratic. It’s a seven-piece band, with a singer who plays piano when they record. Every time that they’ve recorded, they’ve brought a grand piano into my studio. So already I’m really stoked because I get to record a grand piano in that room, but it’s a huge challenge to record, because they kind of need to play all together: grand piano, bass, drums, guitar, and then a whole second complement of percussion, trombone, and bass clarinet. But it’s the kind of challenge I really love, and the standard of musicianship is super high, and the warmth of the relationships in the band is really special.
I’ve worked with Andy a lot. He’s a Baltimore singer/songwriter guy, maybe just a little older than me. He kind of went through the ‘90s alternative rock signing boom-and-bust with his band Love Nut. His power-pop stuff is on par with bands like Posies or Superdrag. As obscure as he is, anybody who hears his stuff always seems to connect with it.
He’s a direct influence on me, in that the thing that I wanted to do right over the last several years was to not write songs that were dependent on band arrangements. If you take the song away from the band and play it with an acoustic guitar, it’s still the song. His production is always amazing, but I saw some videos of him singing outside to groups of five or 10 people, and his songs are every bit as great in that context. I just thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’
Damon Locks – Black Monument Ensemble
Where Future Unfolds
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
I saw this piece of music live last year when right around Damon’s birthday. I feel weird invoking the name of Wagner because people hate that name for good reason, but you know that Wagnerian thing about opera being the ‘total art work’? That’s what I was thinking when I was watching it—there were dancers, he was very engaged with the audience; it cast this beautiful spell. Everything is here, everybody is using their energy in a way that draws us in. We’re standing there watching it, but we’re also part of it—we’re involved in it. I had no idea if that could be translated to a recording, but when I listened to this, I was amazed, because they did some really deep things with the mix. It works.