In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Although J. Robbins has done a lot in the 18 years since the band broke up—become a noted producer, played in numerous projects—it’s safe to presume that he will forever be mostly known for Jawbox. That speaks to the impact Jawbox had during a run that spanned eight years and four full-lengths, one that still lingers years later. It will get a boost from the new reissue of Jawbox’s self-titled album, originally released on Atlantic subsidiary TAG in 1996, but being rereleased by the band’s original home, Dischord Records. As Jawbox’s final studio album—the group called it quits in early 1997—it was the last one awaiting the reissue treatment, bringing Jawbox’s story to a close, again. Before the album came out, Robbins took The A.V. Club on a track-by-track tour.
The A.V. Club: Before we start, was there anything going into Jawbox that you wanted to do differently than on previous Jawbox albums?
J. Robbins: I don’t think we had a big mission statement about it, but I think the experience of getting ready to make it was completely different for us, because it was informed by the experience of having made [1994’s For Your Own Special] Sweetheart. We didn’t have all the songs written, because I always am a procrastinator with lyrics, but we had all the music written, and we thought we were really well rehearsed. This is when we were going to make For Your Own Special Sweetheart. We had seven weeks to make that record. It was the first time we had that much time in the studio, and we were like, “What are we going to do with all this time?” We thought we were going to go in and play it live, and just bust it out, and I don’t know what we thought we were going to do with the rest of the time, but we were like, “Seven weeks?! Ridiculous!”
Then we got there and [Sweetheart producer] Ted Niceley, in a very supportive way, really took us apart, and we had a real reckoning with all the things that we couldn’t see about how we were performing and presenting our songs. It was a huge education in the mechanics of our playing and in the mechanics of putting a record together. But that record is really dry, as far as the production aspect—it’s just like, “Here’s the band playing the songs the very best you’ll ever hear them played.” It took a lot of mechanical work to get it to that point, so that’s what we ended up spending all seven weeks on.
When we were done with that record, we could really hear when we were pushing the tempos, what it meant to maintain a solid tempo, and all this stuff about timing and pocket, and especially for me playing and singing in tune. We could just hear that stuff in a way we couldn’t before, and we really took it to heart. Before Sweetheart, we were just a punk rock band bashing in the basement. After Sweetheart, we never really bashed in the basement too much again without consulting a click track and making demos of everything we did and thinking about the vocal phrasing and all this craft stuff that we didn’t really have a handle on before.
Most of the writing process of this self-titled record was much more conscious of arrangement and ideal tempo and all this subtler, but more inherently musical [stuff]. When we went in to do Sweetheart, the whole process was about the mechanics, and when we went to do the Jawbox record, it was a much more musical process because we’d been so obsessed with the mechanics before we even got in the studio. [Jawbox producer] John Agnello is sort of the opposite of Ted in the way that Ted was extremely meticulous about our performances, and with John we would do a take all together. When we recorded with Ted, we couldn’t keep the whole band taped on anything. All the guitars were redone, the bass got kept a fair amount of the time, but some of the songs were just tracked in sections—it was very intense. With John, we would go to do a whole band take, and we’d come in from doing a couple takes, and he’d go, “Yeah, that was really great!” Then we’d go, “Oh, John, didn’t you hear where I was pushing in the second bar? Can’t you hear where I bent that note out of tune? Uh, that snare hit’s a bit light.” You know, we were like über-focused about all that stuff.
What was cool is we were able to spend most of the time in the studio actually on real musical content as opposed to the mechanics. We were able to think about dynamics more and how to flesh the songs out in a more fun, more enjoyable, musical way. That’s probably the biggest difference: It was a more conscious process getting to the record, and making the record was definitely a more conscious process than Sweetheart, where it was just like, “Oh, we’ve got 12 songs. Let’s go book studio time.”
Oh, and the other thing about Jawbox is we had a history now with the label. We would do demos, and we would send them to our A&R guy, and we hear the famous, “Oh, it all sounds really good, you guys, but I think you should keep writing!” As in, how A&R people say “I don’t hear a single” without saying “I don’t hear a single.” We keep writing and writing and writing; we have way more material. Eventually we were like, “Look, we need to make a fucking record. You said you owe us a record. We’ve got all the songs we’re going to write—time to make a record.” It’s good, because we could’ve been one of those bands where the process dragged on into infinity, and then we just got stuck in major-label limbo. Instead, for whatever reason, we were able to push our point a little bit and actually get the record made.
AVC: The record still has 14 songs and a hidden cover track on it. It feels like a long record in 2015.
JR: Yeah, that’s a real ’90s thing, though, too. That was the era when everybody was like, “Well a CD can hold 72 minutes of music—let’s have more songs!” I kind of wish it wasn’t so long, but we’re talking about 20 years and longer ago, so you can imagine, there was a bunch of stuff that, if I could go back in time, I would do a lot differently. [Laughs.]
JR: I remember that I had the main, like the verse guitar line that starts the song, and I had the chorus part that I was super proud of, and I feel like that song came together pretty quickly. I remember John Agnello suggesting that we take it down in the verse, because it was just like a straight-up basher all the way through. He was like, “You could get a lot more out of this material if you pull back when the singing comes in.” I remember that was huge. We were like, “What, dynamics?” So that was a pretty exciting development.
I feel like a lot of times in Jawbox when I would try and show a more straightforward song like that, it just didn’t fly because it didn’t challenge Zach’s [Barocas, drummer] imagination enough or whatever the reason was. But I think it was a nice case of getting a good idea, knowing it was a good idea, and being able to just execute it. I’m really proud of that song. Not that we thought we were trying to write any singles, because I think even if we had ever had that conceit, I think we were pretty well disabused of that notion by the time we made this record, if we ever had that notion to begin with.
The other thing is for me, lyrically, a lot of what Jawbox did was sort of word salad, and this record has more attempts to write coherently about specific topics, even though it might not seem like it. “Mirrorful” was basically trying to talk about my memory of my education, about history, and about how it’s slanted, how it’s propaganda—the history that you’re taught in school. But trying not to do it in this real badgering, obvious way. Some songs, I would just like be desperate to sing something and just bash words together until I could wrap a meaning around them, but this one, it actually was supposed to mean something. I mean that’s pretty straight up: “I don’t believe, I don’t believe.”
AVC: How did you end up settling on “Mirrorful” to open the record or be the single?
JR: We figured “Mirrorful” or “Livid” or “Spoiler,” because we knew that those were all the most accessible songs, and the most formally correct for a single—the catchiest choruses or whatever.
AVC: This has a moody opening and busy beat, so it surprises me this was in contention for a single.
JR: Well, I think just because the chorus is so big and catchy—big, wide open, major melody. We thought of it as a big hook. We don’t know what we’re doing. [Laughs.] We didn’t know what we were talking about.
AVC: After Sweetheart, did you have a stronger sense of what could hit more?
JR: No, I don’t think so. It really wasn’t in our frame of vision. It really was not something that we aspired to do. If we had been calculating, maybe we would’ve listened to our A&R guy and re-recorded “Static” [from 1992’s Novelty], over the objections of our cantankerous drummer. It’s more a matter of first principles. I do remember, in the case of “Spoiler,” going into the basement with Bill [Barbot, guitarist], and I remember saying, let’s try and work on this song with the formal economy of an old Beatles song. That’s the kind of economy that we should have, where it’s trying to be as clear and as concise and present as it can be, and really write around the vocal melody, which was not something that we did a lot of in the past. But it wasn’t ever like, “Because that’s going to be a hit.” I feel sorry for anybody who’s thinking in those terms when they sit down to write a song.
It was more just like having a sense of, not to use a pretentious word, but what constitutes songcraft, as opposed to just four people bashing something out in a basement and trying to listen to each other and then saying, “Oh, we’ll do that eight times, and then we’ll do this other part.” Instead of that, saying, “Well no, this is a song that we’re conceiving of,” so there’s a form that it adheres to and then we fill in the blanks around this spine that’s already constructed, which is the melody and the changes. “Spoiler” is probably the song that we wrote like that. Maybe the chorus of “Livid.” And “Iodine” is a little bit like that too.
It definitely wasn’t a sense of what will be more successful, because this record was just trying a bunch of different things stylistically. Jawbox was always a record-collection band, like we were inspired by whatever we were listening to. There’s certain things that are cornerstones of where we were coming from, but at this time, I know Bill and I especially were listening to Moonshake a lot. No one else will hear that in this record, but if you know that we were listening to Moonshake, there are certain songs where it’s like, “Oh, wow, yeah.” Any time I yell, I’m thinking of Chris Thompson. Or a certain part of my phrasing has always been inspired by Damon Locks, like if I’m trying to do, not melodious things particularly, but kind of staccato phrasing stuff. Then Touch And Go bands and stuff. It’s all kind of in the hopper.
I wanted to mention, too, about “Livid,” the other thing I remember most about recording that song is that we borrowed John Agnello’s daughter’s toy drum kit for the intro in the middle of the song, and that’s the first time we’d ever done anything like that, just parsing out the sections of the song with really different sounds to try and make a different feeling with the recording. At least it’s the first time we ever did anything like that with drums.
JR: That’s one I had the changes and vocal melody, and showed it to the band, and I was like, “Wow, I really hope that we can finish this together,” because it just was a circle, a progression, and it didn’t feel finished to me. Then we played it and everybody was like, “Yep, that’s the song, sounds great!” It was hard because it’s not a song where you play a part four times, and then you go to the next part; it’s just like a long arc of a progression that repeats. The lyrics of that song are a total word salad, which is a shame, but the arrangement—when I think about it, I’m really proud of it, because it’s a different sort of a thing than we ever did. That was one that the Atlantic people really liked. We had a joke for a little while about how hit songs in 1996, maybe they don’t have a chorus. There were good examples—Tori Amos might be an example of one, like she had hits that didn’t have a proper chorus. I can’t remember any other ones, but anyway, “Iodine” was one of the songs that the label people liked, and maybe because it’s just real straightforward, melodically, but lyrically it’s inscrutable. Lyrically it’s just like trying to obliquely address a shit-ton of adolescent guilt that just carried over into my adulthood. It’s not really specifically about anything—it’s just about, like, feeling guilty for being alive. [Laughs.] But you can’t say that, you know?
AVC: How much were other people weighing in with lyrics? In “Chinese Fork Tie” and “Empire of One,” you trade vocals with Bill.
JR: Well, “Mirrorful” is pretty much all mine; “Livid” is a lot of Zach’s lyrics; “Iodine” is pretty much all mine. “His Only Trade,” Bill and I traded off, like he wrote what he sang, and I wrote what I sang. That was pretty fun. That was a method that we didn’t use till this record: sitting around the table, co-writing lyrics. I literally wrote that first line, and then Bill responded to it with the second line. I seem to remember it almost being written in the order in which the lines are there, like actually answering each other with lines like exquisite corpse. Well, not like exquisite corpse, because we could see what we were saying to each other. But it was writing alternate lines in response to each other, and that was pretty fun.
AVC: There was a shirt for “Chinese Fork Tie” around this time, which explained what it meant.
JR: It was just something that Zach made up, this ridiculous thing that he would do. That was so long ago, I don’t remember, but anyway it was the dumb shit that you make up when you’re driving in a van for too long. He was always really good at fleshing out those things to the nth detail, so that’s what it was. The song came from his beat. That’s one that’s wholly collaborative—I think everybody wrote their parts, and it wasn’t really dictated by anybody except maybe the form. Usually I was like the traffic cop for the form of things, but I think that was a pretty thoroughly collaborative. You can hear it. If Zach played that beat, and you knew the song, you’d go, “Oh, ‘Chinese Fork Tie.’” But if I played my part, you’d just go, “‘Stop, please. What is that unholy caterwauling?’” So it’s virtually unplayable in any form besides by a band of four people. With bad judgment.
AVC: Did Jawbox tend to write too many parts for songs?
JR: Like, in order? Or too many things going on at once?
AVC: No, like different sections of the song. Young bands, in particular, will tend to go long with songs or go into weird tangents that don’t fit into the whole.
JR: I don’t think we ever did that too much. That was something that I had drilled into me, even when I was in [Government Issue]: [Guitarist] Tom Lyle really had a thing about economy—keeping it simple, keeping the form really clear, not being too digressive. Maybe the first Jawbox record we did a little bit, but especially by the time we were playing with Zach… Oh, like “Livid” didn’t even have a bridge. We thought we were ready to record it, and it didn’t have a bridge—that was John Agnello’s idea. He was like, “Don’t you think you could do something else before you go back to the last chorus?” But he didn’t even call it a bridge. He was like, “Couldn’t you just go one more place?” And then we wrote the bridge in like a minute, and we were like, “Holy shit, this song sounds so much better!” So usually things would be too compact, rather than the other way around.
But I do think there’s lots of stuff that we wrote that has too many notes in it, like it’s too tone-clustery. Bill and I used to sort of purposely get in each other’s way when we would write, just make these kind of tone cluster guitar parts, or things that we would kind of fight each other rhythmically for the same space. Sometimes I think it’s cool because it’s part of what gives the songs their tension, and sometimes I’m a little bit like, “Maybe we could’ve just chilled out on that and made more of an effort to go in the same direction.” But it’s part of what we did, so for better or worse, all the notes are in there.
AVC: Do you remember how much energy you expended on the album’s sequencing?
JR: We were pretty intense about it. I can’t really recall, but knowing us, I’m sure that we went through a real torturous process to get things in a good sequence.
AVC: The lyrics here are almost more rhythmic than narrative—like they’re less telling a story and more complementing the sound of the music.
JR: Well, it was supposed to be a love song. It was supposed to be this vaguely sexual, sex-positive love song of the Jawbox oeuvre. That was what it was intended to be. Then I remember I had demoed it on a drum machine, and then Zach kind of changed the beat to a more Zach-like beat. I wrote a lot of the verse lines, and Zach wrote a lot of the rest of it—like the “the shaking style” is Zach’s thing, “I’m good, gone, down on the hip” is Zach’s thing, it’s mostly Zach’s stuff, apart from the verses.
JR: It’s a song that we shouldn’t have bothered to try to finish, because we worked on that song for months and months. All the bits are cool, but all of the parts are too long, like to put it into a conventional song structure is too long. It seems boring to talk about, but that song just drives me insane, because I’m like, “Somewhere in there we should’ve been able to get a better song out of that material.” It’s kind of a low point on the record. I mean, first of all, “Excandescent”? What kind of song title is that?
AVC: It’s such a Jawbox song title, though.
JR: Oh, I know. It totally is. It’s the benefit of hindsight. It’s like anything you do when you’re in your 20s, you look back from your 40s and you’re like, “Those crazy kids. What were they thinking?” Then there’s a lot of stuff that I’m still quite proud of, so I guess it’s pretty good. It sort of works out in the end.
AVC: This was another candidate to be the single.
JR: We weren’t trying to write hit songs, but insofar as writing a song in a classic pop-song form, that was really what it was trying to be—as opposed to whatever we thought of our Fugazi-inspired, collective method of putting songs together. This was really more like Lennon-McCartney-inspired as opposed to like Picciotto-MacKaye-inspired. Sometimes when you write a song, you’ll have some real-life thing in mind that it’s really about, and this was not like that. This was just, like, an idea for a song, like, “Here’s somebody who purposely fucks stuff up.” I knew lots of people like that, but it wasn’t about anybody in particular. It was just about the idea of somebody who comes along to really fuck up the party.
JR: The lyrics are about the Salton Sea, which is a place that I’ve never ever been to, but I’ve been obsessed with for like 25 years. I have books of photographs of the Salton Sea, and I’ve always read a lot about it, and I feel like it has this huge metaphorical value. It’s compelling to me, the fact that this was a lake that was made accidentally because somebody was building the Hoover Dam. [Salton Sea actually formed 30 years before the Hoover Dam, after the Colorado River flooded into the area. —ed.] This lake just showed up, and then the developers pounced on it and said, “Oh, we’re going to have an inland resort, the Riviera of the Southwest desert,” and they did all this building around it. It was a huge, successful resort community, and then the lake just rose and wiped everything out, and it became progressively saltier and more poisoned by agricultural runoff, and now it’s just like a disaster area. I would see pictures of this place, and it just really spoke to me. So that’s where the lyric came from. It’s another collaborative song. Bill had the opening riff, and everybody else just built on top of that. It was an easy song to write, I remember, because he had a good riff, and I was able to play something on top of it that complemented it.
AVC: This is one where Kim Coletta’s bass plays a big part, too, especially at the beginning. When I interviewed her a long time ago, she mentioned that Jawbox was the first album where the bass sounded exactly the way she wanted.
JR: That’s interesting. Yeah, I mean I think the bass sound on Sweetheart is pretty good! I remember we kept telling John to turn it up when we were mixing, because his aesthetic was much more like an old-school rock thing, where the bass plays a supporting role and just kind of anchors the low end. We just kept hassling him to turn it up, and he was like, “Really?“ But John’s excellent, and he’s interested in the record turning out the way the band wants it. So he was highly cooperative but initially perplexed.
AVC: Is the reissue remixed and remastered, or only remastered?
JR: It’s remastered. I mean, we thought about maybe remixing it, but it’s such a huge project. I think the one thing that’s weird about the sound of this record is that we had done Sweetheart, which was this very airy, roomy-sounding record, especially the drum sound. I really loved how the drums turned out on that, and I just assumed that was what we were all thinking. When I called John, because he had done some records that were huge that I loved, like the Dinosaur Jr. Where You Been and the Chavez stuff that he had done, but he also produced this band Cell that was on Thurston Moore’s label. He produced that record Living Room, and I loved that record, and I loved how it sounded, and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s how our record should sound.” I pursued John especially because of that record, but what I did not know was that Zach had this thing in his mind where Sweetheart was the “roomy” record, and what he was thinking without telling anybody else was, we did the big, roomy drum sound, so the next record, it needs to be very focused and all about the individual drums in this real tight sound. But he never said anything about that until it was time to mix, so we had this drum sound that was really great, in which the room mics played a fairly significant part, and then at the mix, he was adamant about keeping the room mics out of it. The drum sound really changed, and maybe if we had known that that was the project to begin with, we would have a different sound. But the drums are pretty idiosyncratic on this record, and it’s because a large part of the initial capture is just missing.
Basically at the end of the day I was just like, “You know, the record is how it is.” It’s good. Why would I put myself through the agony of remixing it, because it would be an agonizing process, when basically everything is there. It has this weird idiosyncrasy—that’s what happened at the time. Let’s honor it. Why open a can of worms? It’s not going to be a better record because we remixed it, so leave it. Whereas I think when we remastered Sweetheart and asked Bob Weston to beef up the low end, it was a significant improvement that everybody was really happy with. But we still didn’t have to remix it, thank God.
JR: That’s one Kim and Bill and I wrote the lyrics around a table, and it was about somebody that we knew who likes to hold court. You’d go over to their house so they could hold court. That’s one where, if you know that we were listening to Moonshake, you’d go, “Oh they were totally listening to Moonshake.” I mean, not lyrically, not vocally, but musically it was really in trying to partake of that thing.
AVC: Did you procrastinate less on this record as far as lyrics go?
JR: No, there’s a few—like “Capillary Life” did not get written until it was being sung, and it’s really unfortunate.
JR: I can’t remember if Bill wrote the music for “Mule/Stall” or not. I’m going to say maybe he did or maybe he and I wrote it, but really I don’t remember much about it. The lyric from it came from that blues line about, “There’s another mule kicking in your stall.”
AVC: This has one of the better kickers on the record: “Time to get those Xs off your eyes / Better wipe those Xs off your eyes.”
JR: I think I wrote that! [Laughs.]
JR: In a way, maybe. We were not a band that just wrote the same song over and over again, and maybe to our detriment, we tried to do a few too many stylistically different things. We were really into our odd meters and things, and we never thought of ourselves as a prog-rock band, or a math-rock band, but listening to them again—I mean this isn’t gonna get anybody to buy the record [Laughs.]—they smack a little bit of trying too hard. Like cramming so much stuff in, just to make every square centimeter of the song exciting in a way that is just like, we could’ve taken a deep breath. That’s sometimes how I feel about some of those tunes. But I think “Stall” is a pretty fun song. It’s a stylistic step and it was fun to do, and that’s kind of the extent of it.
JR: Kim wrote some of it, Zach wrote a couple lines, and I wrote the rest of it and changed some people’s lyrics. That’s a song that’s mathy, but I love “Nickel Nickel Millionaire.” I’m super into it. It’s one of my favorite Jawbox songs, for sure. I feel like Zach’s beat is amazing—that’s where the song started, from that beat. It’s another one, like “Desert Sea,” that feels like it developed really naturally. It wasn’t so much like fighting to figure out how to put parts together. In my memory, it came together pretty easily, that song. Then “Nickel Nickel Millionaire” is something that Kim used to say, I think apropos of people making money playing music, like the idea that other people have is that you’re going to become a rock star and be rich. Her thing was like, “Yeah, royalty checks: nickel, nickel, millionaire!” Because that’s the reality of it: It’s just like, nickel, nickel.
JR: That’s another song that was highly Moonshake-influenced, I feel, musically. There’s a little instrumental guitar solo part that’s actually played on a mini-cassette Dictaphone, which was an idea that I stole from Candy Machine. The whole back half of the record has that thing that Zach would do, where he would play an impossible beat but get it to groove. He’d play in some bizarre meter with really weird accents that, if anybody else played it, it would just sound like furniture falling down the stairs, but Zach was able to imbue it with a real flow and a feeling of a groove. That’s his great genius, I feel.
AVC: His accents on this record, in particular, are so pronounced. It’s a style that you could call busy, but that sounds derogatory. It’s not. Nobody else sounds like him.
JR: No, it’s really true. I mean he’s amazing. It’s funny, because I’ve heard people say that they think he’s overplaying or whatever, but I never, ever thought that. It’s like when people say, “Oh, 5/8, that’s a weird meter.” It’s not a weird meter. It’s a meter. Maybe you haven’t heard it a lot, but it’s music. It’s normal. It’s not bizarre, and it’s not wilfully bizarre. I don’t know. Part of it is that’s what naturally speaks to him; that’s just where he naturally wants to go, and part of it is wanting to say something a little bit new, or say something in a way that’s not so trite. I’m just really happy that we got to play with Zach, that he joined our band. It really changed a lot of the way that I think about music. And I think he’s awesome on this whole record. I’m the sort of person that listens to records just to listen to the drums, so that’s maybe sad, but whatever anybody thinks about this record, if they’re into listening to drummers, they could do a lot worse than this record, because he just kicks ass all over it, and not in an obvious way anywhere. It’s not like Dave Grohl, where it’s just like power, power, power. It’s beautiful and subtle, and also powerful, but not in a warmed-over way—in a really fresh way.
JR: I think it was the first song that we wrote after Sweetheart.
AVC: It closes out Jawbox, at least before the hidden Tori Amos cover. Is it because, by the point that this record was done, it was an old song?
JR: No, it seemed like a good closer, I think. I mean, I’m sure we shuffled things around to every place it could possibly be, and I never think it’s a good idea to just go from what you think is your best to your worst—like to end on you worst is horrible. So I think we felt like it was a strong anchor for the end of the record.
JR: I’m very much not a Tori Amos fan, and I don’t know if any of us was, at all. I don’t remember why we felt we wanted to do this cover, but it was definitely Bill’s idea. It might’ve been a little laugh, secretly, at the expense of Atlantic Records, because we were labelmates with her, and she was from Maryland also. That was the big thing—we had our Maryland roots in common. That part of the genesis of doing it was Bill kind of snarkily saying, “Oh, we should cover Tori Amos. She’s a Marylander with hit records.” It was very snarky. But then, deconstructing the actual song musically, it’s pretty awesome, and it felt really great to play when we worked out the parts. I can’t sing, so the vocals are pretty sad—I mean the vocals are terrible—and it’s also hard to sing when you have no idea what on Earth the song is about. I sort of know what I think it might be about.
AVC: Speaking of inscrutable lyrics.
JR: Yeah, I mean maybe that’s the beginning of me starting to do an about-face on the lyric thing. It’s just weird that we played it. It’s weird that we covered it. But I’m quite proud of our version. I think it turned out really well—about as well as it could be.