J. Robbins Goes Direct on Jawbox and Un-Becoming

The legendary Dischord band’s frontman talks their reunion and his new solo record.

I was trying pretty hard to be fairly straightforward on the album — I think that I know what every song is about. In Jawbox, there are some songs that are word salad. Two-thirds of the way through the writing process, I let the process indicate to me a direction of what I think I’m singing about. But a lot of it is just put together in the service of a catharsis for myself, and it is not specifically about a particular thing in a way that it helps me. Not in a way that has any clarity or linearity or, if I want to be unkind, in a way that even adds up particularly well. 

I’m definitely still guilty of that to some degree, but the areas where things are weird on this record, where maybe they might not jibe, I’m at peace with them. 

I’m thinking specifically of the last song on the record, “Stella Vista.” That lyric got kickstarted from reading this J.G. Ballard story about psychotropic houses — houses that reflect the emotions of their inhabitants. They reconfigure themselves to reflect their inhabitants’ state of mind, but they also induce certain states of mind in the inhabitants. 

But content wise, “Stella Vista” is inspired by the idea of epigenetics, the baggage that you’re dealing with as an adult that’s actually the result of forces that shaped your parents and their behavioral modes. They’re two parallel things that go along side each other in that song. The Ballard story, that’s more like my old way of writing — like, I read something really cool and it was a springboard for this other thing. Maybe I lifted some imagery from it to try and get a jumpstart on writing a lyric, but I definitely knew what I was thinking about in that song. 

The thing that I was actually trying to have a catharsis about was the epigenetic thing. What part of your unwanted behaviors did you inherit, and how did you inherit it? Is it behavioral? Is it genetic? That whole stew of things that you’re trying to live down — unwanted behaviors that you recognize from your parents — where did they get it from? I don’t know if anybody will get that from hearing the song, but I hope they will, because I know that’s what I was focused on, so it’s not just word salad. I think it is pretty direct. 

Something that is really different on in a new record is the song “Soldier On.” That’s a song that I would never, ever have been able to write in the past, where it’s incredibly direct, it’s a really simple chorus, and it’s 100% sincere. It’s a self-consoling song that says, “Wow, you’re really in the weeds. Things are looking bad, but just keep going.” I feel like it was born of necessity because of the era that we’re in right now. I would never have written a chorus as simple as that, ever, in the past. It’s hard, because I’ve tended in the past to think of that kind of directness as being lazy or something, but I’m not really in that frame of mind anymore.

When we were practicing for the Jawbox tour, we reworked some song arrangements in ways that probably don’t register with a lot of people, but which were really satisfying to us, just on a musical level.

“Static” is the one song that’s hugely rearranged, and that one I felt a little more proprietary about as a Jawbox song because it was about a personal event in my life. When we wrote it, I was very scared to be understood clearly, so I didn’t really finish that song. I let the band finish it for me. Not lyrically — I finished the lyrics, but I was trying to be obscure. The musical arrangement was really finished by the band. Over time I’ve always thought, Wow, that song was a wasted opportunity, because it really is about my sister and an event in my life and her relationship with my parents and how I saw that. Also, it’s a simple, direct song, and we needlessly complicated it with the weird bass intro and shouting through a speaker in the background and all this ’90s detritus. I’m like, Wouldn’t it be nice if I just if it had a lyric that was easier to understand? Where I know what I’m singing about? I’m singing this to my sister, right? Just fucking do it! I had a very strong feeling about that song, and I was really happy that other people in Jawbox understood that, and that was a version that we played in live.

There were little, weird, dynamic things that nobody would notice that we did change, or we focused on in a way that we didn’t when we were actually a band. But now that we’re older and have done other stuff and have a little broader breadth of musical experience, it was cool. It’s just weird to go revisit something that you did 25 years ago anyway, but it’s cool to do it without being judgmental, which is really how I have been at times when I look back on Jawbox. I’ve just been like, Wow, you were an emotional wreck with no self-respect. What a weirdo. Now I can be like, You know what? You were all right, kid. You had some good ideas. Some of this stuff holds up.

As told to Kyle Ryan.

(Photo Credit: left, Janet Morgan)

J. Robbins is a musician and producer, best known for founding iconic post-hardcore band Jawbox, which disbanded in 1997 but reunited for a tour this summer. Since Jawbox, Robbins has led several bands — Burning Airlines, Channels, and Office of Future Plans among them — but has never released a full-length under his own name. That changed with the May release of Un-Becoming.

(Photo Credit: Janet Morgan)