A Conversation with J. Robbins

I first became aware of J. Robbins through his seminal post hardcore outfit, Jawbox sometime in the early 90’s when I stumbled upon their debut, LP Grippe. A bit of a eureka moment that led me to follow along very closely to that bands initial run as well as the projects that J. embarked on after Jawbox disbanded in 1997. Robbins continued creating vital and inspiring work with both Channels and The Office of Future Plans. In 2014 Robbins released the Abandoned Mansions EP, the first release to use his name and hint of what would arrive 5 years later with his flat out excellent debut solo full length, Un-Becoming. J. is currently out on a short tour supporting Bob Mould that will bring him to the Provincetown Town Hall on Friday.

However, before that J. will be performing a special one-off headlining date tonight at The Haymarket Lounge at The City Winery along with support from Chris Colourn (Bufflao Tom) and Hilken Mancini (Fuzzy) tonight. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with J. about being back on the road, his writing and recording process, and the upcoming Jawbox tour.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: Can tell me a little about your songwriting process and specifically how the songs the occupy 2019’s Un-Becoming were crafted?

J. Robbins: Well, I’m forever trying to get myself into the mode of most of my favorite songwriters, which is to dedicate a little bit of time every day to the work. Unfortunately, that rarely happens, it’s more normal for a fragment of melody or harmony to pop into my head and then I’ll kind of steal time here and there to refine it. Where “Un-Becoming” is concerned, the biggest change in my process is that I wrote a lot of it on acoustic guitar, in an open tuning that is both forgiving (in that it just sounds  great even when you strum the open strings) and takes away many of my guitar-playing fallbacks and habits. I was conscious of wanting to write songs (with an emphasis on what’s sung and on structure) as opposed to getting hung up trying to out-write and impress myself with clever guitar ideas. I was conscious of wanting to be more direct than I ever had before, both musically and lyrically.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: When writing do you know right off the bat that it will be a J. Robbins solo recording or are there times where you find songs come through that a better suited for the full band treatment?

J. Robbins: Well, the record is almost entirely in the format of a 4-piece rock band, and for better or worse most of the time that’s what I hear in my head. I can see it moving further away from that. I’ve been incorporating electronics more and more, for one thing, and this tour is also reminding me how much I love this acoustic solo/duo configuration with my friend Gordon Withers on cello. But one of the other main points of “going solo” rather than creating a new band entity is to feel unconstrained. I want to just make whatever feels good/right to make, period.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: That album saw you partnering once again with famed D.C. institution, Dischord Records. Would  you mind revisiting how you first came to work with them and how they came to release your last album?

J. Robbins: Well, Dischord initially worked with Jawbox because we were friends with Ian MacKaye (Jaxbox bassist Kim Coletta and I both worked at Dischord in the late 80s), we were a highly active band in the DC scene and the association made sense. We are all still friends and basically, when I had finished working on Un-Becoming, I asked and Ian said yes. There is no other label I want to work with. There is real trust there and that is so, so important.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: Can you tell me a littel bit about the work that’s being put into your  next solo album?

J. Robbins: I’ve been working on it, right now there are 15 recorded songs in various stages of completion. I hope to have it all wrapped up, mixed and mastered etc. by Fall or by the end of the year if it comes to it, and hopefully release it as early as feasible next year. Lyrics are the main sticking point, I hear melodies right away as I’m writing the music but, the lyrics take me forever because I just don’t want to feel like I’m slacking or faking it or just throwing any old thing out into the world. Writing lyrics, in its way, is a bit scary. So, about 1/3 of the tunes are missing vocals.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: Can you tell us the pairing and the current tour with Bob Mould came about?

J. Robbins: Well, Bob asked! I’ve been a huge fan of his work forever. I’d say Husker Du was a ground-zero formative influence on me. So, I’ve met Bob over the years a few times, and we know so many people in common, and over theyears I’ve played a couple of shows (Jawbox supporting Sugar, my band supporting Bob Mould Band). It turned out that Bob was actually a big fan of Un-Becoming, and he literally just wrote and asked.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: On this current two week tour you are being accompanied by Gordon Withers. Can you tell us what it’s been like for you to be performing to audience again and being able revisit your catalog?

J. Robbins: Well, my old band Jawbox reformed in 2019 for a reunion tour and are planning to play more shows this year. So, if you sort of factor out the world hitting pause for 2 years while everyone agreed there was a global pandemic we had to stay home for, I’ve actually been playing a lot. But all the songs Jawbox is playing at this point are quite old, and that material was all put together to some degree collectively when we were all a lot younger. So, this tour with Bob is really enjoyable for me because it’s actually not about revisiting stuff, it’s focused on more recent music of mine and on things I’m creating now. My sense of what I’m trying to express is a lot clearer, and feels somehow more pure or true, than it was in the initial incarnation of Jawbox. It feels great to play these songs to people. It’s been amazing to meet people after these shows who had never heard of me before but who were only there to see Bob, but who ended up feeling a connection with my songs in real time in that room on that evening. It’s fantastic to play with Gordon, he’s one of the most creative, astute and enjoyablemusical collaborators I’ve ever had, he’s an easy dude to be around as well. His contributions to Un-Becoming and to our previous band Office of Future Plans are just fundamental to the sound of those projects. He elevates everything he contributes to.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: Is there any material in the current set that you hadn’t played Live before, due to the pandemic or any songs that you’re enjoying performing again? 

J. Robbins: We’ve been playing some brand-new songs that are part of the work-in-progress second J. Robbins album, and we’ve been playing “Dead-Eyed God” which will be on the album but which I released on Bandcamp in 2021. 

The Ash Gray Proclamation: In addition to the current solo tour you are about to get busy with this summer with Jawbox. Can you tell me about the idea to play a New York residency where you will play the bands catalog over 3 nights?

J Robbins: It was an invitation from the venue. They offered us a 3-night residency, and we decided to make it a more complete overview than we could just do in one set. But it’s not exactly the full record in sequence thing that some bands do, there will be some overlap and some songs that we just don’t do. The general form is to go from our earliest stuff on night one to our most recent stuff on night three. We are re-learning a lot of material we didn’t get to on the 2019 reunion tour.

The Ash Gray Proclamation: I’m sure at this point you almost expect the will we get another Jawbox record question, but I’d remiss if I don’t ask if that’s something the band would or has considered recently?

J. Robbins: Initially we agreed we wouldn’t even entertain the idea of writing new material, but we’ve all become much more open to it recently. We had a member change when Bill Barbot decided he didn’t want to participate in our 2022 plans. Brooks Harlan is playing guitar with us now and having new blood in the band does feel reinvigorating. I can’t say we have any specific plans, but Jawbox does feel unexpectedly like a living breathing band in the present tense, rather than some sort of victory lap, nostalgia thing, so we’ll see.

Tonight: J. Robbins with Hilken Mancini and Chris Colbourn at Haymarket Lounge

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