J Robbins on Jawbox’s Essentials
It felt like a late Christmas gift. In January 2019, a few months removed from the triumphant Jawbreaker reunion gigs, old tourmates Jawbox announced their reunion after more than 20 years off the road. The U.S. dates would mark the first time that the band had played together in a decade. Record nerds rejoiced and tickets flew.
The return of Jawbox to the live stage initially started as a borderline prank in 2009, with the band’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart readying for reissue and an overzealous publicist offering up the long dormant band for an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The booker at the show, a long-time fan, agreed to the appearance and the band reformed for a one-time appearance.
“We kind of got hoodwinked into playing again, but it was great and then we all went our separate ways afterword,” says frontman/guitarist J.Robbins. But the seed had been planted, and would only grow larger as Jawbreaker’s reunion landed to uproarious applause.
In the ‘90s, Jawbox was a bit of an enigma. They were initially signed to the legendary Dischord Records (Fugazi, etc.), then joined the post-Nirvana major label gold rush to find a world of underground success and influence — only to disappear less than five years after their major label emergence. Their sound straddled indie and post-hardcore — unafraid of discordant riffs and melody — and allowed the band to fit soundly with then-contemporaries like Stone Temple Pilots, Superchunk, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr, Deftones, Sonic Youth and others.
It was hardcore, emotive without being sappy, urgent, dynamic, and, most importantly, memorable. Their 1994 major label debut, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, is considered a modern classic of indie/post-hardcore, influencing legions and spawning even more copycats.
In the time since the band’s late ‘90s split, founding member Kim Coletta opted for the simple life, retiring from the public eye. Meanwhile, the remainder of the band kept busy with projects like BELLS, Burning Airlines, Office of Future Plans and many more. They all showcased the band’s individual songwriting genius, but none reached the apex of Jawbox’s former highs. In addition to performing, Robbins has left his indelible mark on the music world in other ways — recording and producing bands ranging from Clutch to Paint it Black to The Promise Ring and on and on.
TIDAL spoke with J Robbins about the early days, forming the band, touring with Dave Grohl in Scream, hearing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time and much more. Read on below.
You and Kim Coletta formed Jawbox following your departure from Government Issue. What was the initial idea behind creating this band?
I had been playing in Government Issue as the bass player for the last three years [in the late ‘80s]. We made a couple of records and toured the world; that was the hardest working era of Government Issue. I was a fan first, and because I was home from college and I didn’t think I was going to go back, [I joined GI when I saw they needed a bass player]. I lucked my way into this band that completely opened up my world.
GI broke up eventually, and I subbed on bass for Scream for a couple of months, which was another favorite band of mine. And, at that point, Kim and I were dating and she really wanted to start a band. She was a music fan who had never played with anybody before. I was a young guy and wanted to start my own band, too — not just keep walking into established situations.
That was something that Kim and I really had in common: this desire to start from scratch and see what we could accomplish starting from zero. We both loved Steve Albini’s bands, all the Touch and Go, Homestead, Dischord Records, a lot of the Boston bands — T’aang Records, Mission of Burma, Volcano Suns and more. Basically what people have disparagingly called ‘college rock,’ because hardcore wasn’t really the thing for either of us by that point.
Did you cross paths with Dave Grohl during your short-lived time in Scream?
It’s a bit of a digression, but when GI broke up, [bassist] Skeeter [Thompson] had just left Scream and I was one of two people who tried out. I kind of blew my audition and then the guy who they really wanted left the band halfway through a tour.
They called me up and I quit my job and I flew out to L.A. and then for two months I played with them. But I really felt like a substitute bass player. I was kind of helping them out and it didn’t seem like it was going to go anywhere, even though it was really fun. It wasn’t a good fit.
I did sit in the van with Dave Grohl for two months and it was super fun and he was a fucking awesome drummer to play with. I don’t know Dave at all anymore, but I know him enough to wave and say hi.
I have a good anecdote, though. I was working at Dischord house when Nirvana recorded Nevermind. Dave came back and he had a cassette of it and he was playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for Ian [MacKaye]; I heard it from the other room. The first time I heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ I thought, ‘Well this new band is pretty good.’ Nobody fucking knew what was coming. That’s a pretty insane to even peripherally hear for the first time, you know.
Soon thereafter came the giant major label run after alternative music. Did you like being on Atlantic, or did you feel any constraints being an indie band on a major?
I think it’s worth describing our perspective. The scene that we came out of was essentially a suburban scene. There are people who started in indie music thinking that it would be a launch pad for rock stardom, but I know way more people who were literally just trying to create something, trying to make a connection and be a part of a community.
That said, you can’t pretend that if you see [bands] becoming kind of famous that it doesn’t have an impact on you. To get to the heart of it, though, we signed to a major label because we wanted to see how far we could take it. We were a self-managed band who were about as DIY as we could possibly be. And Atlantic Records came to us via a guy that we knew well from the Boston hardcore scene. So we decided to see how much could we push it: ‘Can we go to Atlantic Records, take your major label money and decide for ourselves how we want to spend it? Basically call all the shots and run our band the way that we want?’
So we called up with our list of impossible demands and we were like, ‘Nobody’s going to meet this list.’ And Atlantic met the requirement. They basically just said ‘yes’ to everything. I think it’s because they were in a moment of confusion: trying to make money off the music underground that they didn’t understand. So, we just lucked out.
And the people we were working with weren’t the stereotypical creeps that you might imagine would work at a major label; they were actually real flesh and blood people and music fans. They were cool. So the move to a major could not have gone better for us.
You did a lot of gigs and a lot of touring — like with Stone Temple Pilots on their first big tour with Meat Puppets for the Core LP. What was that like?
The Pilots tour was really surreal in how huge it was, but also really a pleasant surprise because we weren’t surrounded by ‘the evil creatures of the music business.’ It was actually really cool.
That tour was run was very much like, ‘We’re all in this together for six weeks and we could treat the opening bands like shit, but why would we do that? Let’s be cool and we’ll get along and have a good time.’
That brings us to another band that you toured with extensively, Jawbreaker, who is sort of on their second victory lap at this point. Any interesting anecdotes from being on tour with those guys?
We always got along really great with them. They’re just great people and we really clicked. They are partially responsible for us getting back out there again.
Have you kept in touch with those guys and talked about their reemergence?
I’ve been in touch with Blake [Schwarzenbach] and Adam [Pfahler]. I’ve worked with Blake on a bunch of records. I’m in touch with them and I would say those guys are good friends. No one is comparing notes necessarily, but those guys have been really helpful as far as tour logistics and stuff like that.
You have these dates that are coming up, the first in more than two decades. Going into these shows, what can we expect to hear?
Considering this is the lineup that made the major label records, it’s bound to be heavier on those. The beginning of Jawbox was basically a bunch of kids trying to find their sound and figure out how to make a song.
So the material that we’re going to play is material that the four of us wrote together. There are some songs from earlier that make the cut, because we all concur they are actually pretty good songs.
Take us through a few songs in your discography. What do you think is a key track from each LP?
‘Grip’ from Grippe is an easy one, because to me, the LP sort of shows our youthfulness. I hear us just sort of trying to figure out how to fit the pieces together to make a decent song. Some of the LP sounds kind of young and a little bit awkward, whereas ‘Grip’ is just a good song. I hear it and I’m like, ‘This song is a complete thought.’ It feels like a genuine voice instead of the sound of a bunch of kids trying to imitate their heroes.
‘Savory’ from For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Here’s a great example of a collaborative effort that doesn’t sound like a bunch of spare parts whacked together with duct tape. Bill Barbot wrote the riff and then Zach Barocas put that beat to it.
In Jawbox, very rarely did one person come in and just show everybody what to play. It was very collaborative. Even if I did write a whole song in my head, I couldn’t dictate to anybody how to do it; they would have to do naturally what came to them and then it would either work or it wouldn’t.
‘Desert Sea’ from Jawbox. Much like ‘Savory,’ ‘Desert Sea’ is also a pretty good example of a strong collaborative effort. All of the pieces dovetail together in a coherent way, instead of seeing the bits sticking out that don’t quite fit. It’s a complete thought.
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