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.