By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun
8:31 AM EDT, June 4, 2014
Producers and artists are quick to mythologize their roles in history.
J. Robbins would rather work.
As the frontman of the '90s post-punk band Jawbox, J. Robbins was a self-described “gung-ho touring maniac.” To the Silver Spring native, signing to the major label Atlantic Records and having the group's video for “Savory” played on MTV were accomplishments, but none were as rewarding as seeing the world.
“I just loved to tour because I'd be like, ‘Look where the band took me — we made it to the West Coast! We made it to Japan!'” Robbins said recently. “It was amazing. The band is an engine that takes you to new experiences.”
But all new experiences eventually grow stale. One night, not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, Robbins — on tour with his other band, Burning Airlines — was stuck at a truckstop in Ohio. Robbins, thinking about his wife in Washington, D.C., realized he was ready for a change.
“There was not really any difference between me and a long-distance truck driver, and I didn't really want to be a long-distance truck driver,” he said. “I was like, ‘Maybe I have an adventure waiting for me at home that I need to find out about.' I've really been in that mode since then, because that turned out to be really true.”
Now 46, Robbins looks content sitting in the main control room of the Magpie Cage, his recording studio in Johnston Square that seems more like his second home. (When he's not recording and producing singers and bands — both local and international — Robbins lives in Pikesville with his wife, Janet Morgan, and their 8-year-old son, Callum.)
With a resume like Robbins', the peaceful composure is understandable. Although he is unwaveringly modest throughout our conversation, Robbins is a venerable figure in many rock-related circles — more specifically the amorphous worlds of punk, hardcore, alternative rock and emo (even if the last word causes Robbins to roll his eyes, but more on that later). As an artist, he broadened ideas of what could be considered punk, and as a producer, Robbins had a hand in recording many seminal albums that have brought esteem to a number of subgenres.
Although his career is long and storied — first as a lead singer, and then as a producer and engineer — Robbins is most interested in crafting strong records at Magpie and raising the studio's profile.
“I feel really lucky to be in here. I really, really love this space,” Robbins said. “I just want to keep doing it, and not be stagnant. I want it to grow.”
From Stravinsky to punk
Restlessness is nothing new to Robbins. Growing up, James Robbins was drawn to rule-breaking 20th-century classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich. Although he did not like mainstream rock (“When I was little, rock 'n' roll was the music of kids who chased me home,” he said), Robbins fell in love with punk rock, and its defiance of establishment, in high school. He was particularly drawn to punk's sense of urgency and lack of gatekeepers.
“They were just making something happen out of thin air because it's in them and it's got to come out,” he said. “I was like, ‘I need to be around that.'”
Robbins missed the formative years of Washington's defining punk era, but he became a force in the scene by playing bass in the band Government Issue. After that band ended, Robbins founded Jawbox before also starting Burning Airlines. Both acts saw degrees of success, but could not avoid their eventual ends.
Jawbox remains Robbins' most successful band. Although Jawbox reunited for a “super fun” one-time TV performance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon“ in 2009, Robbins said, the band will never reunite again because certain “personal factors ... make it really impossible.”
Jawbox may be over, but its influence remains strong, according to Chicago Reader music writer Leor Galil.
“Jawbox travels within different worlds. You can call them post-punk or emo and it works out,” Galil said. “A track like ‘Savory,' which is still so great, kind of broadens the approach. That's one of the many, many songs that broadens the idea of what emo is and what it can be.”
‘That's a special skill'
Ah, yes, “emo” — the divisive label for what began as an offshoot of mid-'80s hardcore punk. It is a word Robbins is often associated with — producing beloved albums by Texas Is the Reason, Jets to Brazil, Braid, Mewithoutyou and others will do that — but not one he identifies with. He repeatedly called the term “meaningless.”
“Nobody can tell you what it even means! One person's emo is another person's power-pop and another person's screamo,” Robbins said.
He remembers the true origin of “emo,” which was coined in 1985 by punk traditionalists who were denigrating a new wave of bands more interested in writing about personal experience than anti-authoritarian ideals. What began as an insult has evolved into a catchall term that can describe a form of guitar-driven music, fashion and even demeanor. Even Robbins admits he uses its facetiously.
“It's a funny shorthand. I use the word ‘emo' all the time at home,” Robbins said laughingly. “I'm always like, ‘Oh my God, you're making me emo!'”
Robbins and “emo” have been linked for a long time, so it is not surprising he keeps a sense of humor about it. But there is no doubt how seriously Robbins takes the record-making process. While Galil said there is no unifying “J. Robbins sound” running through his discography, his unobtrusive production style gives bands just enough of an audible boost.
“I feel like he might just inch [acts] a little bit to make it really pop and really dazzle. That's a special skill,” Galil said. “You have producers you obviously go to for a specific sound, but he definitely let's a band conform to its own identity.”
Ultimately, Robbins is proud of the work, even if he had no idea at the time many albums he worked on — such as Against Me!'s “Searching for a Former Clarity” and The Promise Ring's “Very Emergency” — would go on to resonate and influence years later.
“I'm extremely grateful that I ever made or participated in anything that had a really meaningful connection with anyone,” Robbins said.
The link between all of these albums, Robbins said, is they were all made with the common goal of capturing something from the heart.
“So what's really important is keeping all of that energy flowing,” he said.
Future of Magpie
In October, Robbins will celebrate two years since he moved from his old Waverly studio to the Magpie Cage, which was formerly known as Oz. He first fell in love with the space when Jawbox recorded its major-label debut, 1994's “For Your Own Special Sweetheart,” there.
“Of all the studios I've ever been to — and I have been to a lot of them now — I've always mentally been measuring them up to this space,” Robbins said. “This is a very special situation for me. This is my dream studio.”
As the owner of the Magpie Cage, his main goal, Robbins said, is to be a “trusted facilitator for other people's creativity.” Although he works with artists from all over (Kentucky post-hardcore act Coliseum, for example, is scheduled to record this fall), Robbins also works extensively with Baltimore acts. He mentioned recent sessions with Roomrunner and Boister as particularly rewarding, and Robbins is looking forward to working with War On Women, Andy Bopp and Small Apartments in the near future.
Scott Siskind, lead singer of the Baltimore band Vinny Vegas, recorded his band's album, “The Big White Whale,” at Magpie with Robbins last year. He appreciated the producer's encouraging attitude, especially during vocal takes. He also loved Robbins' enthusiasm.
“When you meet some people who have been doing music for a long time, they can be — I don't want to use the word ‘jaded' but they've seen it all,” Siskind said. “He was definitely super excited. You'd show him a part and he'd be really excited about it. ... It makes you encouraged to put your best foot forward.”
Robbins, who has never had a problem staying busy, seems to finally want to slow down, at least a bit.
His son, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is “a really fantastic kid” who Robbins would like to spend more time with. As a solo performer and member of his on-again, off-again band, Channels (along with his wife), Robbins is also interested in writing more original music. To achieve all of this, he plans to start renting out time at Magpie to other engineers soon.
Not one to invite the spotlight, Robbins briefly pauses after realizing he is talking his own desires. He smiles, seemingly reflecting on just how good he has it right now.
“Basically, every problem I have is a pretty great problem to have,” Robbins said. “It doesn't merit complaint.”
The Magpie Cage recording studio is at 310 E. Biddle St., Johnston Square. For more information, go to jrobbins.net.
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