LAPÊCHE and J. Robbins on Being the Guy Who Annoys the Engineer

The Jawbox frontman chats with the Brooklyn band about recording their new album and finding his own path to engineering.

LAPÊCHE is Krista Diem, Dave Diem, and Drew DeMaio; J. Robbins is the frontman of the legendary DC band Jawbox, among many others, as well as a producer and engineer. Robbins co-produced and played on LAPÊCHE’s new album Blood In The Water, and to celebrate its release the Friday, they all say down to talk recording it, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief of Talkhouse Music

Drew DeMaio: How long have you been recording music professionally? And was there like a defining moment where you said, “Hey, I think I could really do something with this”? You know, we all kind of start tracking our music in some way — recording on a tape deck or on a 4-track or something like that — but was there like an a-ha moment, or was there a first band outside of your own that you had recorded that led to the opening of your studio?

J. Robbins: I think it’s been very much like one thing led to another. Even before I joined Government Issue, I remember when I was a teenager first getting into punk rock and listening to records. As long as I can remember, the sound world of a recording just was always really fascinating to me. Especially when you put headphones on and you kind of listen into the space of a record — where things are happening, where the energy is coming from. I always remember watching a movie and getting carried away, and then having this part of my mind that’s like, What’s helping me get carried away? Oh, there’s this music in the background. There’s the way they cut at this certain time. There’s the lighting and the way the shot is framed. Like, getting into that structural part of it in addition to the actual content. 

So I was the guy in the band, any time Jawbox would record I’d be like, “Oh, what is that, a condenser mic? How many mics are you gonna use? What if you put a mic across the room? Why would you compress this?” Like, the guy who just annoys the engineer. [Laughs.] I just loved it.

There was a point where [Jawbox] all lived together in a group house, and we had our practice space in the basement and we bought some recording equipment — just like a cassette 8-track and some mics. And so we started recording our own demos. I remember, actually, part of us doing that was that Nation of Ulysses did it — and like, we barely knew them, really. We just knew them from the DC scene. But I remember being at Dischord house and talking to Ian [Svenonius], and he was listening to some Ulysses demo and he took it absolutely as seriously as any record that somebody made in a studio. A light bulb went. I was like, Why don’t we do that? We should be doing that. Because it’s like otherwise, you just you have an idea and you’re playing it and it’s all noisy in the basement, but you can’t really examine your ideas. It’s also like a self-starting thing — it’s just like, “Well, we don’t have a lot of money, but if we have enough money to buy some equipment, then we can at least record it in that way, and we sort of have a thing.” It’s like getting your hands on the means of production. 

From that point, as we started developing our pretty limited basement studio, we kind of figured out how to make things sound good. So I just started having people down there to do demos or do whatever recording, and I learned that way. A couple of bands like Kerosene 454 [would ask me], “We want to go to the studio, where should we go?” And I recommended that they come to Oz where Jawbox had just recorded For Your Own Special Sweetheart, and he was like, “Would you want to come along with us and just kind of be the outside ear that we trust?” And I was like, “Hell yeah, I would.” Texas Is The Reason sort of did the same thing. I just really loved doing it, so I was like, I’m going to do that any time I have a chance to do it. And that’s pretty much been the way that it’s worked ever since then.

I mean, it would be hard for me to just jump on anything and record literally anybody — which now that now that this is my livelihood, there’s a certain amount of doing that, and it’s a cool exercise usually. I think I have that temperament anyway, of being able to enjoy something that’s unfamiliar and figure out the musicality of it and figure out a way to be empathic with it. Having a studio has broadened my horizons in that way, musically. 

Drew, I know you do a lot of demos at home. You’re like sort of constantly composing stuff

Drew: Only by necessity, I suppose. I don’t think it’s necessarily my thing. [Laughs.] But it’s been good. I think the more familiar you get with that kind of stuff, the easier it becomes, the less daunting.

J. Robbins: Right, all the process-y things get out of the way. That’s the whole goal.

Drew: Yeah, for sure. And now I’m sort of like, Oh, maybe I can program drums — which I can tell you right now, it already seems like too much to deal with. I mean, I can understand if you’re just layering these simple beats, but, you know, you can listen to drums that are programmed that sound completely real, and that blows my mind that people have the patience to get to that level of realism. But who knows, maybe I’ll get there. 

Dave Diem: Being familiar with your with your music definitely has made us feel more comfortable. Like, “Oh, yeah, he knows what he’s talking about,” because you have the experience on both sides, behind the the controls and also creating as well. It seems to me like that lends to the empathy and the connection whenever you are trying to tend to the folks that come into your studio.

J. Robbins: Yeah, I hope. I feel like for you guys and for me, we have sort of similar wells of inspiration that we go to drink from. But then also, I feel like people can always learn something from each other on any side of a relationship, so that’s why it’s endlessly rewarding to me. If it’s all working properly, then I have the satisfaction of helping somebody get somewhere they’re trying to go, and kind of giving them this kind of back up. And then also, I get enriched — I’ve learned something from almost every time somebody is in here. 

Krista Diem: I feel like you’ve learned a lot from me.

Dave: [Laughs.] That was our next question: What have you learned from Krista over the years?

J. Robbins: Well, I for sure have felt inspired by you!

Krista: Aw, I’m not fishing, it was just a joke. But I do have a question for you: Being a musician and being a a songwriter, what is your process? How do you write?

J. Robbins: Usually if I start thinking of a song, or parts or ideas for things, I sort of hear an idea of how every part should go. When Jawbox started, we wrote a fair few songs like that, but I lacked the confidence to really dictate from start to finish. So a lot of times, I’d sort of have two-thirds of a song and suggest things to people to play, and then we’d work it out and sort of finish it all together. That was in the J., Kim [Coletta, bassist], and Adam [Wade, drummer] stage; sometimes Kim would bring parts and then we jam, and sort of work things out that way. Then as Bill [Barbot, guitarist] joined and then Adam left and Zach [Barocas, drummer] came in, it became a much more collaborative process — so it was much more about one person has a thing, we started playing and everybody responds. That could be a very contentious process sometimes, and sometimes not.

Occasionally it would be frustrating for me, because if I had a song that I brought, I still would hear the whole thing in my head, but not everybody, obviously, wants to be told what to play. Sometimes just by sheer luck, songs would work out the way I imagined it. And a lot of other times, it would be a total left turn, and by the time we settled on a thing that worked for everybody, it was a pleasant surprise because it was much richer than anything any individual person came up with. Since then, every band I’ve been in has had a degree of a collaborative thing like that. 

Krista, for you, when you write is it a lyrical thing? Like, are you journaling a lot, and kind of have an idea about the content of the lyrics and then build musically around that? Or is it the musical [part] that’s happening faster? 

Krista: It really depends. If there’s a subject matter that I really wanna write a song about, then that’s how I start it — just coming up with lyrics, or a little bit of a storyline of what I want the song to be about. But usually a melody is there first, and it usually comes from me picking one or two notes on the guitar, just like back-and-forth and coming up with a melody in that. And then it usually turns into one verse and one chorus, and then that’s what I bring to the band. And then we kind of develop it into like, “OK, well, we’ll do that twice over here and then let’s add a bridge.” 

Just recently I had pretty much a whole song, and I let Drew hear it and he just rewrote the entire thing. [Laughs.] Not vocally, just on his guitar. 

Drew: “Is this what you’re thinking?” [Laughs.]

Krista: And then he gave it back to me, and I love it. I love it. It wasn’t initially what I had in mind, but I love it the same, if not more.

That’s kind of been a cool thing with the band, too, because the melody almost always comes first for me, and writing with Dave and Drew, it comes last, because usually it’s something that they come up with and then I’m the last one to hear it. And then it’s pretty much a basic song structure that will probably change a little bit. Which is a total challenge, but it’s also kind of a fun exercise, because I can run in my mind through the scales, like, What notes sound good there? That’s a different way of writing that I’ve never really done before. Like, Let me just try this note there. It’s cool, I’m evolving.

J. Robbins: Keeping your brain limber

Drew: We’ve reached a comfort level — like, three or four years ago, I never would have done that. I would have just let it happen as it’s happening. But I just felt like I heard something she was doing, and it would have never hurt me if [she was like], “No, that’s terrible.” 

Dave: That does still happen.

Drew: It does still happen, I get thumbs downed quite a bit, J. [Laughs.]

Dave: We just have to reel you in sometimes. 

Drew: They have to reel me in. It’s like a lot of expansion and contraction, but we’re at a level of comfort where it’s like, “What do you think of this? Yes, no, maybe?” I happens all around and nobody’s vision is squashed. I think we’ve learned how to do it in such a way where we can translate or transpose or communicate musically where there’s no ego involved. I think that took a long time to get there.

Krista: That was a big adjustment for me, because that’s not how we started. It started with me, my songs, and the way that I want them. And then they’re like, “OK, what do you think about if I did this here?” And I’m like—

Drew: “I just need a band for that behind me.”

Krista: “Get behind me, please!” [Laughs.] So to kind of let go of some of the control of what the song could be, because it ends up being something bigger and better than what I could have done on my own, which is cool. You just have to let go of the reins a little.

J. Robbins: Lyrics — it’s a nightmare. I’m working on trying to make it easier, but they’re the hardest thing for me to do. In Jawbox’s time, they were definitely the last thing, so I could never bring a whole song even though I heard how the pieces should fit. If I would hear how the pieces should fit in my head, I was dependent on the band finishing it. But that worked, it had varying degrees of success. But sometimes trying to write collaboratively, I think when you’re younger — at least for me, like 20-something J., I was just crazy. So it’s like all of this ego and insecurity and stuff is all in the mix, and there’s four people. I just think it’s easier the older you get. You’ve lost some of that youthful compulsion to, like, get snagged in things that don’t really matter. You know, crazy about, like, “Whose song is it?”, or whatever. [Laughs.]

Dave: We still have that 20-something operating beneath the surface, not totally aware. Like, “My song, my part, that lyric is a non-negotiable.” But we’re better about that now.

J. Robbins: Well you should, it has to have a point of view.

Drew: This makes me think of something Dave and I talk a lot — we certainly come from the school of lyrics last, and you sing absolute gibberish until you kind of have an idea of the basic vocal melody. Is that typically how you would write?

J. Robbins: Totally. I mean, it’s great when you’re in a practice space with the kind of crappy PA — nobody can really hear what you’re saying, but they can kind of hear the notes you’re singing and everybody thinks that you know what you’re doing and they think the song’s written. [Laughs.]

I think that’s backfired on me a couple of times, actually. I remember a long, long, long time ago, there was this Chicago punk band called The Effigies, who I really loved in the ‘80s. Tom Lyle from Government Issue used to collect live tapes, so we had a live tape of Effigies playing at Wilson Center in DC. And it was really good quality live tape because it wasn’t just the board tape, they also had mics at the soundboard to get the ambient sound. I was so thrilled. And then it made me laugh so much, because when I listen to it, they played almost all of this record — I think it’s For Ever Grounded, that at the time of the show, it hadn’t come out yet. The vocals are nice and loud in this board tape, and he is mush mouthing every word. His lyrics are really smart, they’re very literate — that’s one of the reasons I love them. They were a smart band lyrically, but I loved hearing this tape and just being like, He hasn’t written the lyrics for half these songs

Drew: “It’s not just me!”

J.Robbins: Yeah, right, totally. 

Drew: Do you have banks of lyrics written for another time? Maybe I’m totally embarrassing myself here, but I’ve written lyrics and just had them on deck for when I need them most. So do you ever write lyrics ahead of time and just pull them out

J. Robbins: I never used to do that, but I have started doing it a lot. I take note of phrases; if I read something that resonates with me, I’ll jot it down, or if I think of a line or something. I’ve been trying to do that a lot more, just journaling and writing every day, which I haven’t been doing. I’ve been trying to get into that habit, because I feel like that’s how you eventually get to good stuff. I used to just be terrified of like, What if my idea’s bad? So I used to have all these journals that if you open them up, they’re just full of like things that are crossed out. 

Did we ever talk about the Song Exploder podcast?

Drew: Yes!

J. Robbins: They have an episode with Rivers Cuomo, who is not someone I really look up to at all, except I do look up to the fact that he’s dedicated to his craft. Like, that’s a dude that just works. He talked about just basically writing all the time and journaling all the time. He recommended this book called The Artist’s Way, where it’s basically like, you do morning page — you just write pages of anything, you don’t censor yourself. You don’t think about what you’re writing, you just keep it going, and that gets the muscles working. So I’ve been trying to do that stuff more, and I think that it’s helpful.

Drew: I’ve read The Artist’s Way, and I do have about a stack of old school composition books filled with these journals. But what’s starting to happen is, not only did my handwriting get so bad, but my hand started cramping. We just don’t write enough, we don’t use the pen enough anymore. So I started doing it on the computer. It is a great method.

J. Robbins: Sometimes the best lyric things, I think for me, come when I’m not trying to write lyrics. Like,if I’m writing a message to somebody, or I’m jotting something down, or — I mean, fairly embarrassing, but even like a social media post, I think of a way to say something that’s on my mind. And then I sort of go back and look at it, and I’m like, Wow, what a waste if I just put that in a Facebook post. But I would never have gotten it if I was thinking, like, Must write lyrics. A lot of times, that’s just, like, clenching my teeth and feeling frustrated.

Krista: I have a whole list of just words. If I hear a word and I’m like, Oh, I like that word, I just write it down. I have pages and pages of just words that I like. And sometimes when I’m writing, it’s kind of like a thesaurus because I’m like, Oh, what’s a good word? Like, how do I express it? And then I just look through some of the words that I like and then like, Oh, that word would work. I like to write down phrases too.

Dave: I write down things that people say that I misunderstand, and I think are just so beautiful.

J. Robbins: Like someone else’s lyrics from a song you like, and you heard it wrong?

Dave: Yes! [Laughs.]

J. Robbins: In “Dead Eyed God,” there was a line where the word that came to my mind first was “grift,” and then I was just like, I can’t use that word. That is just a word that is overused in 2020, for the entire Trump presidency. It’s a great fucking word. It’s such a good word.

Drew: He took that from us too.

J. Robbins: I was like, I can’t. “Grift” cannot be in my song, so I used the word “swiz” instead, which means swindle. It’s also the name of a beloved hardcore band. I thought, I will use this word and I’ll even have to email Jason Farrell and let him know.

Dave: You’ve been doing scores for film and stuff like that, right?

J. Robbins: No, I’ve been pretending to. I’ve been doing scores for pretend films. [Laughs.]

Dave: Is [the process of scoring] different? I would think it’s very isolating, right? Because it’s just you making this thing for this film. I’ve heard you talk about it a little bit before, but it just seems really cool to me that you’ve started pursuing a different type of writing.

J. Robbins: Well, film music was the first music that I loved, the first music that I really listened to. So when I was a kid, I was just like, Oh, I’d love to be a film composer, but I was not an actual trained musician. Everything I did, I learned myself. I’m still not good at sight-reading, but I learned a lot from trying to listen into film scores and classical music. I learned a lot about harmony and stuff, because I would just be trying to figure out, Why does this melody evoke this certain emotion when it’s played this way, but then when things around it change, it suddenly changes the emotional [tone]? It’s all about how the harmony changes the feeling of a melody. So, I mean, that’s always been an obsession with me.

But what happened was, Spitfire Audio did this contest that was [to] score a scene from Westworld, and the winner would get all of Spitfire audio libraries — like, thousands of dollars worth of software. And it was cool because you just don’t get a lot of opportunities like that. Even if you go on YouTube, people will throw up trailers with no music and you can do sketch scores to that, just to kind of get your chops going or whatever. But you don’t get a scene from a movie or a show with dialogue and the sound effects, and everything’s edited and all the music is stripped out. So thousands of people entered, and I got super into it. It was very inward, because it’s just the dialogue between you and the rhythm of the action that’s happening, and trying to interpret the action on the screen. 

So anyway, I did my entry and it was, like, one of 8,000, but it was a super, super fun exercise. I was kind of jonesing after that, like, What can I do next? I’ve tried to put out my pathetic cries to score a movie. I mean, Gordon [Withers] and Zach and I improvised the score for one of Chris Ernst’s films a few years ago, which was really fun. But I don’t feel like a collaboration like that is necessarily… I think for that film, it was perfect and it worked out really great and I think Chris was happy with it. But for the most part, I feel like music in a movie is supposed to reflect the inner life of the characters and be this window to this kind of interior world of the action. And I think you’d have to find the right people to collaborate with to be able to all be on the same page — to go like, “Here’s how we want to draw the audience into the feelings of this character,” or whatever. It’s already between the person who’s directing the movie and the writers and whoever else is involved… I mean, I know I’m just speaking abstractly, just like a fanboy.

Dave: [Laughs.] Now I wanna make a movie.

Drew: How cool that you’ve come full circle to doing something like that. Like, it’s relatively recent where you’ve done it.

J. Robbins: Right. But also, the technology has never been here before. Like, when I was a kid, I would have died to have a computer with a software library and be able to score a picture. 

All I did since that Spitfire Audio thing was I just went and pulled Nosferatu — it’s public domain — and I wrote some pieces for scenes in Nosferatu, and I put them up on my SoundCloud and I was done. It was so fun, but that’s an hour and a half movie. At a certain point, I was like, I cannot score an hour and a half long silent movie.

Dave: We were listening to your new tunes today. I was listening also the cover songs that you just put out last week I believe. One of the things that I’ve always loved in following you was your connection to your social consciousness, and the scene that you came from — that was a big influence on me. I was wondering if you could speak real quickly to the connection to the cause with the covers. And also, follow up question: Do I hear any Depeche Mode influence in one of the new songs?

J. Robbins: Depeche Mode is probably an influence for sure. Not a specific one, but — like, Automaticity is definitely influenced by listening to a lot of Sparks, and I think that “Dead-Eyed God” is definitely influenced by listening to a lot of Peter Gabriel and Massive Attack. 

Dave: I can hear that. 

J. Robbins: But I think Depeche Mode was one of those bands that’s just like, you study Depeche Mode to learn how to write a good song. Even though they’re kind of corny sometimes they’re in that sweet spot of corniness for me that I’m absolutely there for, and I aspire to. 

Drew: We talked about this when we were in the studio the last time — I asked you about Depeche Mode and their last record, and one of their songs is really funny, corny, but also you just love it because of the content.

J. Robbins: Right. But as far as social conscience, or whatever — I mean, when I was a kid going to shows in DC, Positive Force, all of their shows were benefit shows. The effort of doing the show, part of it was to get people to pay attention to the world. If the one of the main focuses of punk was to be like, ‘No, what happens is not out of your hands. In fact, it’s totally in your hands.” It’s not totally in your hands, but…  For me as a 17 year old, punk literally comes along and says, “No, you have agency, you are not just in the in the slipstream of these larger forces.” I think Positive Force did a really good job of trying to not let the world just be run by gross self-interest. That always was hugely inspirational to me because the world is largely run by gross self-interest, and it’s not sustainable. So if we could change the paradigm from an exploitative one to a cooperative one, then that’s what we should be trying to do. 

It’s such a deep subject, right? Because I feel like, everything in the world as it stands, in America certainly, you’re set up with this paradigm of a business. I feel like we’ve come a long way. Maybe it’s just in my perception of the world, and that I’ve been fortunate, but I remember growing up — I know in my parents’ world, and their peers’, it [was all about] what you can get. You were grabbing the brass ring, trying to attain some concept of material success. And you better get it, because there’s scarcity. You need to go for the thing and get the thing, because otherwise somebody else will get it and then you can’t have it. It’s just poison.

Drew: It’s just business. Nothing personal,

J. Robbins: Right? Yeah, exactly. So, we have to live within a world that was made in that image, unfortunately, but we gotta be trying to dismantle it and remake it. I’m not trying to proselytize or anything, but I’m so lucky that I have supported myself and my family by some version of musical engagement, and doing a studio and making records with people in like. I have never, ever thought of it as a business. Money has to be in the picture by necessity, but that is not what it’s about. It’s about this energy of creativity and bringing some form of beauty, and that synergy of people collaborating. 

As far as doing the benefit thing — when I put out those cover songs before, it was to benefit legal aid for detained immigrants. I contacted Andy Gill from Gang of Four and Clint Conley from Mission of Burma, because I didn’t want to just be doing covers. I wanted to do it because I love those songs particularly. I’m not super prolific with new material, but I was like, If I record these covers, I can do it as a benefit, but I need to make sure it’s cool with them. And I was like, “If I do it on a limited basis, is that cool with you guys?” That was what Andy Gill agreed to, they thought it was cool — it’s just going to be a limited release and then all the money’s going to go to this thing. And then because of what happened in Texas most recently with the storm and the total failure of everything down there, I wanted to be able to help somehow. So I was like, Well, I’m sitting on this thing, I’ll just put it out again, and that’s where the money will go this time. I still don’t know what I’m going to do about keeping it up or pulling it down, but it’s nice because people seem to respond to it. So I’ll be able to donate to something.

Dave: I think it’s really cool that anyone who’s put on our record has really grabbed on to [that it was] produced by J. Robbins. And we’ve embraced that, too, because we’re proud of the fact that we have been recorded by you. This is our fourth [we’ve recorded with you], and I feel like the collaboration has increased every single time we’ve come to your studio, and I feel a greater level of comfort every single time. You’ve helped us with even some compositional stuff at times, or some vocal arrangements, and you’ve sang on some songs. It feels like that relationship has grown — I don’t know if that feels the same way for you. 

Krista: If it doesn’t, just lie.

Dave: If it doesn’t, we’ll cut this part out. [Laughs.] But for us, it feels like you’ve become the fifth member of the band, almost, when we’re in the studio, honestly. That to us, I think, feels really cool.

J. Robbins: I love that. That’s wonderful because, I mean, I love you guys. I think you’re a great band. It’s a wonderful thing to hear. I feel like it’s just a deepening friendship. I also feel like, the collaborative aspect of things — it’s funny, because in my mind, anything that I bring to you guys in the last ditch, I’ll just sort of throw it out there and see if you like it. You know, it’s not my record, it’s your guys’ record. Like, I just want to facilitate. And then I love the material so much that I feel trusted by you guys that I’m not trying to, like, steer you in some direction and suddenly turn it into my record. I feel immensely happy that you guys are willing to entertain ideas of mine, but if I look back at all of our times in the studio, I feel like it’s just watching you guys broaden the scope of what you’re doing, and your songwriting evolving and arrangements evolving. I just feel like I was there having a great time, and feeling like I’m helping hopefully.

Drew: It’s not the fact that the collaboration is happening — what’s important to us, and what means so much to us, is that if you want it to happen.

J. Robbins: That’s super sweet. For an engineer-producer, I think a big piece of the puzzle is to understand that it’s not your record.

With you guys, I get psyched because I’m like, It’s going to be awesome, they’re going to show up and rule. So that’s already taken care of, and then anything else is, like, between friends in this spirit of, you know, music is part of the currency of our relationship.

I feel very fortunate to have that kind of connection with you guys, and to have those kind of relationships with people in a creative sense — of what’s actually pretty much a service job, recording and being an engineer. So it makes it extra special, that level of trust and connection.

Drew: Yeah, well, we’re thankful for it. We love you, man!

LAPÊCHE’s Blood In The Water is out this Friday via New Grenada Records; J.Robbins’s Automaticity is out now. 

(Photo Credit: left, Kate Hoos; right, Janet Morgan)

LAPÊCHE is a Brooklyn-based band led by singer/guitarist Krista Holly Diem, whose dark, melodic songs offer a refreshing twist on post-punk inspired indie rock. With bassist Dave Diem (Twelve Hour Turn), guitarist Drew DeMaio (Asshole Parade, Floor, Strikeforce Diablo) and drummer Jeff Gensterblum (Small Brown Bike, Able Baker Fox), the close friends compose together, drawing inspiration from both past and present, light and dark, guiding Krista Holly’s provocative melodies and lyrics.

(Photo Credit: Kate Hoos)