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

The AGP’s Top Albums of 2019 [Belated Editors Edition]


When I started to compile this list and reflect on the releases and events that shaped my 2019 the year was coming to an end and I for one couldn’t have been happier about that. In full disclosure in the early stages of working on this piece I put a playlist together and named it 2019 – Go Fuck Yourself. A bit low brow but a title that accurately surmises my sentiment for those 365 days that occupied 2019. In addition to some personal challenges I was faced with last year the world continued to deliver heartbreaking blows with the deaths of two of my all time favorite artists, David Berman and Daniel Johnston, respectively. But, as I was often reminded in 2019 there is power and catharsis in music and sometimes a great song can change your day and perspective in under 3 minutes, or less in some cases. 2019 was an exceptionally strong year for music and brought both new releases from long standing favorites, indie legends and exciting new acts that captured my attention and provided the soundtrack to a year that is gladly in the rearview. This list could have easily been expanded to 40 albums if not more, however these 20 records are the ones that I turned to the most, connected with, played loudly in the car, on long runs in the woods, and forced upon my friends and loved ones. Let’s try to see past the fact that It’s already February, better late than never I suppose.

Sample picture

20. Gruff RhysPang! (Rough Trade)
Former Super Furry Animals leader, Gruff Rhys follows 2018’s Bablesberg with a magnificent album of pastoral chamber pop about the decaying state of the world sung entirely in Welsh with production assistance from South African electronic artist Muzi.

Bandcamp | Stream | Rough Trade Records

Sample picture
19 . The Black WatchMagic Johnson (Atom Records)
The long running Los Angeles dream pop concern, The Black Watch issued yet another gem in a string of engaging, literate and infectious LP’s with Magic Johnson. Not even my east coast pro Celtics bias could deny the strength of this album and shimmering pop sounds within.

Bandcamp|Stream |Atom Records

Sample picture

18. SneezeFin (Midnight Warewolf / Tor Johnson Records)
Boston grunge punks, Sneeze first popped onto my radar in 2011 and I’ve followed along closely over the past 9 years as they’ve released a remarkably consistent string of releases. Fin follows 2016’s excellent Rot EP and finds the trio delivering there most varied and anthemic album to date.

Bandcamp | Stream | Tor Johnson Records | Midnight Warewolf Records

Sample picture

17. Peyton Pinkerton Ex Tomorrow (Darla)
The former New Radiant Storm King, Pernice Brother, and Silver Jew, Peyton Pinkerton returned this year with what has turned out to be my favorite of his solo offerings. Ex-Tomorrow is filled with intelligent and exquisite guitar driven pop songs. What more could you possibly need?

Bandcamp | Stream | Darla

Sample picture

16. FCKR JR I’m Sorry Mom and Dad (Born Yesterday Records)
Late last summer Ben Grigg (Geronimo!, Whelpwisher, Future Biff) unveiled the full length debut from his latest project, the fantastically named FCKR JR. A staggering blend of shoegaze, ethereal guitar lines, and considerable pop hooks. Slippercore is real!

Bandcamp | Stream | Born Yesterday Records

Sample picture

15. Versus – Ex Voto (Ernest Jennings)
A very welcome return from a band I’ve admired since the early 90’s. Versus deliver this new set with finesse and refinement of a band that’s been at it for 3 decades but one that’s not satisfied to rely on their past accomplishments. Ex Voto is an infections and arresting LP that finds it’s creators sounding recharged and as vital as ever.

Bandcamp | Stream | Ernest Jenning Record Co.

Sample picture

14. Horse Jumper of LoveSo Divine (Run For Cover)
Boston’s slowcore concern HJOL made the move to Run For Cover Records for their 2nd LP and found the band pushing their sound into exciting new directions with a blissful marriage of beauty, sadness, and noise.

Bandcamp | Stream | Run For Cover

Sample picture

13. DiivDeceiver (Captured Tracks)
On Deciever Zachary Cole Smith leads Diiv through their most accomplished song cycle to date, while adding a new density and a fresh coat of grime to the shoegazers sonic pallet, providing new vibrant texture to dark tales of addiction and recovery.

Bandcamp | Stream | Captured Tracks

Sample picture

12. Christian FitnessYou Are The Ambulance (Self-Released) Cardiff’s Andrew “Falco” Falkous delivered his sixth LP, under the moniker of Christian Fitness with You Are The Ambulance and further solidified himself as formidable songwriter and grade A noisemaker. Flippant post-punk anthems filled with razor sharp wit from the Mclusky/Future Of The Left fronter.


Sample picture

11. The Astounds Ancient Flying Ghosts (1262936 Records DK) A new record from Dean Wells (Capstan Shafts) is cause for celebration especially when said album is as good as Ancient Flying Ghosts. 10 songs in under 20 minutes for an euphoric lo-fi blast and oh so many hooks!

Bandcamp | Stream

Sample picture

10. Possible HumansEverybody Split (Trouble In Mind)
It took Melbourne’s Possible Humans 7 years to release their debut full length, Everybody Split. After self -releasing the album in Australia Everybody Split saw wider release this summer courtesy of Trouble In Mind Records. Recalling the blissful jangle of early REM, The Clean, and The Feelies while distilling those influences into a unique and engaging debut LP.

Bandcamp | Stream | Trouble In Mind Records

Sample picture

9. J. RobbinsUn-Becoming (Dischord)
30 years deep into a remarkable career with bands like Jawbox, Goverment Issue, and Burning Airlines J. Robbins issued his first solo LP ripe with thoughtful and honest post-hardcore anthems.

Bandcamp | Stream | Dischord

Sample picture

8. Brat Curse Brat Curse (Anyway Records)
Columbus OH’ Brat Curse specialize in fuzzed drenched power pop and on their 2nd LP they deliver 12 infectious ear worms that seem to stick with me for days. This superb collection of concise and exhilarating mid-fi indie rock unveils a new favorite each and every visit.

Bandcamp | Stream |Anyway Records | Just Because Records

Sample picture

7. Smug BrothersServe A Thirsty Moon(Self Released)
Smug Brothers’ creative force, Kyle Melton set up a home studio earlier this year and proceeded to record three new albums. Attic Harvest arrived in February then All Blur Spark was delivered in July, both of which are absolute gems and worthy of your attention. However, the material on Serve A Thirsty Moon seems like a step forward. A bit more anthemic, focused and affecting. This album has been in constant rotations since it’s November release.

Bandcamp | Stream

Sample picture

6. Honey RadarRuby Puff of Dust (What’s Your Rapture?)
Philadelphia’s Jason Henn and friends delivered yet another satisfying and timeless album of hook heavy lo-fi pop with Ruby Puff of Dust. The latest offering sounds like it could’ve been easily released at any point in the last 30 years but as luck would have it came to us this year with quantum sized hooks and sweet melodies under a thick layer of tape hiss and buzzing guitars.

Bandcamp | What’s Your Rapture?

Sample picture

5. Pernice BrothersSpread The Feeling (Ashmont Records)
September brought the 1st new album from Pernice Brothers in nearly a decade with the 11-track, Spread The Feeling. The album features appearances from past Pernice Brothers alum as well as a stunning collaboration with Neko Case, but what keep me reaching for this album over and over is an exceptional song cycle from Joe Pernice, chock full of beautiful lyricism and striking melodies.

Bandcamp | Ashmont Records

Sample picture

4. PileGreen and Gray (Exploding In Sound)
For the past 12 years Boston’s Pile have delivered 7 LP’s of arresting post-punk while somehow upping the anti with each release. Green and Gray follows 2017 excellent A Hairshirt of Purpose and takes yet another step forward in the evolution of the band’s sonic capabilities. Rick Maguire delivers a stunning song cycle throughout Green and Grey while leading Pile through a well-balanced album filled with jagged noise and striking melodies.

Bandcamp | Stream Exploding In Sound

Sample picture

3. Hallelujah The HillsI Am You (Self-Released)
The three years it took for Hallelujah The Hills to follow up 2016’s A Band Is Something To Figure Out was in fact well worth the wait. Who knew while Ryan Walsh was promoting his exemplary first novel, Astral Weeks: A Secret History Of 1968 he was also hard at work along with his band mates crafting Hallelujah The Hill’s flawless new LP. I Am You contains quantum sized hooks, accomplished and varied instrumentation, as well as Walsh’s greatest lyrical contributions to date. A masterful LP from start to finish.

Bandcamp | Stream

Sample picture

2. Guided By VoicesZeppelin Over China / Warp and Woof / Sweating The Plague (GBV Inc.)
2019 was the year a perennial favorite delivered 3 exquisite LP’s in a 12 month span and provided the arduous task of picking a favorite. Zeppelin Over China is a 32 song monster and arguably the crowing achievement from Robert Pollard’s most recent and technically proficient line up Guided By Voices. May I refer you to Your Lights Are Out? A personal favorite from an album choc full of life affirming rock songs.


Sample picture

Guided By VoicesWarp and Woof (GBV Inc.)
Compiling tracks released on 4 EP released between 2018-2019, Acid Rock, Umlaut Over The Ozone, 100 Doug’s, and Wine Cork Stonhenge. If you think it’s just another in the long line of Robert Pollard releases or an odds and sods collection you’d be dead wrong. Warp and Woof is a superb LP and one of Guided By Voices most varied and infectious albums in recent memory.


Sample picture

Guided By Voices Sweating The Plague (GBV Inc.)
As I mentioned in a recent review Sweating The Plague contains some instant ear worms, but the tracks that really satisfy are the songs that reveal their greatness and subtle complexities over repeated listens. All three of the albums Guided By Voices released this year offered an overabundance of riches and each further proves Bob and this exemplary line up of musicians continue their hot streak but on Sweating The Plague, GBV goes all in on a menacing and gargantuan rock record that gets better with every visit.

Bandcamp |GBV.Inc ~ Rockathon Records |Stream

Sample picture

1. Purple MountainsPurple Mountains (Drag City)
The fist time I heard this album it struck me to my core. Delivered in mid-July, Purple Mountains marked the return of David Berman after walking away from Silver Jews and music entirely in 2011. After David’s tragic suicide in August it took me a lot of time to return to this devastating and beautiful record. These 10 songs are his final artistic statement and in the aftermath of his death they hold even more weight and insight into David’s struggles. It’s remarkable that he was able to pull this off while in the grasps of such debilitating demons. Purple Mountains is outright masterpiece and I don’t throw that M word carelessly or often. In this case it’s completely warranted, but I like many others would give it back in second to change the course of his tragic end. DCB Forever and ever.

Bandcamp |Drag City Records |Stream

Honorable Mention: Pavlov’s Puss – Comfort Food | Halfsour – Sticky | Titus Andronicus – An Obelisk | The Gotobeds – Debt Begins at 30 | Kal Marks – Let The Shit House Burn Down Starflyer 59 – Young In My Head |Pedro The Lion – Phoenix | Mike Krol – Power Chords | Lud – Yellow House Trigger Cut – Buster | David Kilgour & The Heavy Eights – Bobbie’s a Girl | Uranium Club – The Cosmo Cleaners