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.