Lurching spasmodically and buoyed by a scabrous guitar sound, Jawbox came at the listener with a contrapuntal attack that recalled Gang of Four by way of Mission of Burma, forging a tapestry that was complex and punchy--not nearly so much hardcore as bruising--recalling the percussive power of Chicago's heyday of Tar, Big Black and Breaking Circus. Sometimes noted (often derisively) as the first band to leave Dischord for a major label (Atlantic), Jawbox broke up in '97, with two of its members, guitarists J Robbins and Bill Barbot, eventually reforming into Burning Airlines. Writing songs that are more openly melodic than Jawbox, lead singer-guitarist Robbins has also made a conscious decision to open up his sometimes oblique lyricism, resulting in a pair of albums every bit the equal of his best work with his previous band. Just back from a month in Europe and 10 days in Japan, Robbins spoke with The Independent about the influence of the '80s on his music and politics, as well as about the recording of Burning Airline's newest album, Identikit.
As an New York University film school exile, Robbins says he was influenced by listening to film scores, which led to an interest in early 20th-century composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. However, like many who came of age in the '80s, Robbins was greatly influenced by the strong underground music scene of that period.
"That's a great memory I have ... of being a teenager, finding a record by The Effigies, and then The Effigies suddenly became my band because I found their record, and nobody had any other records by them," Robbins says. "You had to go searching through every Mom and Pop record store you could find to dig up the records; you had to dig for the culture," he says, reflecting on the nature of the underground. "I think that's part of the magic of all those bands--you never heard it on the radio to begin with. It would be a wonderful world if they played good music on the radio, but part of the reason that music came into flower in the first place was because the culture was so awful--people were so bored with it and so straitjacketed by it--that they were dying to make something new."
Robbins says this question of identity--what constitutes who you are and where it fits in--has been a recurring theme for him since he began to write lyrics. "I've always been sort of hung up on that question and I think it keeps showing up in one way or another in pretty much everything that I have ever written," he says, "especially the idea of how much of your identity is culturally received or that you choose--as opposed to what is the essence of who you are--and how much of it is your experience."
"What's happening in the overarching culture [now] is this feeling that culture is something that happens to you or that you buy, instead of culture being something that everybody participates in and creates," says Robbins, acknowledging it as the difference between going to the thrift shop and shopping at The Gap. "The thing that I think moved us into wanting to have a band in the first place is more that feeling of community that goes back to the '80s."
This abandonment of the popular culture for what might be referred to as "outsider art" in many ways epitomized punk, with all its eclectic styles. It wasn't just The Ramones, but everything from the hardcore of Bad Brains to the funk/jazz of The Minutemen to the country of The Mekons to the garage rock of The Replacements, along with a multiplicity of styles in between. What these artists shared was more an ethos than a political stance, the idea of self-expression being more important than mass acceptance. Robbins suggests that the DIY spirit is itself inseparable from politics.
"There is always a political level to making culture on a grassroots level," he says. "If what you're doing is simply answering your own personal need for expression and it's not careerist, there's a political dimension to it ... and you're sharing it in a community, though I think there is a danger in saying that that's political--it can be a diversion from genuine politics. I think it's good to play benefits, and in some ways I think that's a better way to be a 'political band' than just shouting your opinions. Songs can be a great way to direct people's attention to a problem, but they aren't necessarily a very good way of solving anything politically.
"Then there's a whole other side to it that is irritatingly complicated, too, which is just that a lot of times 'political songs' are just terrible," Robbins says. "I think when you hear a punk band singing about socialism there's a large reflex to just want to shut it out immediately."
For Robbins, a self-described "dork," his need to connect has evolved his stage persona to the point where he feels an impetus "to grab people and look right in their eyes to kind of get their attention ... beyond just kind of standing there and not looking at them." These moments, he says, can backfire more often than not, going on to relate a story about a Jawbox show where he bounced his guitar off the floor in a pique of "punk rock angst."
"It hit me in the head and cut my head open," remembers Robbins. "I was like, 'Why is my sweat like syrup?'" Then looking at these people who were in right front of the stage and they'd gone pale, 'cause, you know, head wounds bleed an awful lot, so it looked more dramatic than it actually was ... . I'm just not really very good at creating a seamless spectacle."
These days, Robbins has been spending as much time in front of the knobs as on the fret board, something that made getting together to record the latest album more difficult, but which definitely influenced the sound.
"Just the fact of having recorded the Jets to Brazil or Promise Ring or Dismemberment Plan--which are all bands that just do whatever the fuck they want to--that's always an inspiring kind of thing," Robbins says. "Those kinds of experiences were a definite impetus to take the songs on this record and do whatever we wanted to do with them." One of the results is a great deal more use of keyboards on Identikit. "At first I was thinking, 'Maybe I can use a sampling delay for some of the guitar and then I'll have a keyboard over on the side,'" he says. "I have no idea what I was thinking because it would have just been an impossible balancing act. It would've been another opportunity for more great 'punk rock' moments--'I'll split my head open with the keyboards.'"
Realizing they needed a fourth member, Robbins has been teaching Ben Pape (a good friend of drummer Pete Moffett) all the songs. "We really haven't been able to write too much new stuff yet, just a little bit of jamming," Robbins admits. "But I have a dream of recording a record live to two-track, because we got kind of fancy on the last one, but I don't know. It will be interesting for us to see what we can do ... maybe trying to do some things that are less like a rock band and more abstract," Robbins says, musing aloud.