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(from the zine Stop Breathing)

Best Sounding Boys

(an article about producer J. Robbins that mentions producing Frame and Canvas)

In the summer of 1996, when Jason Gnewikow, one fourth of the genre evading outfit The Promise Ring, walked out of the studio with his groupís first recorded full length, itís safe to say that things didnít necessarily go as planned. "The first record was kind of a nightmare," Gnewikow admits, via telephone from his Milwaukee apartment. "We just had no idea. For an independent band, when you go into record your album and you have a shoe-string budget, itís hard to find someone good. Independent bands canít have people that are qoute-un-qoute Ďproducing.í So, you kind of have to test it," he sighs. "And if you find someone bad, itís just awful."

While awful may be a tad harsh, the quartetís debut certainly failed to meet the expectations their potential laid before them. Recorded with Casey Rice at Idful Studios in Chicago (Joan of Arc, Sunny Day Real Estate, Tortoise), 30ļ Everywhere saw as many problems, as itís lyrics had geographical references. The album was characterized by itís abysmal production values; the strength of the quartetís songs fluctuated and, for one reason or another, singer Davey von Bohlenís vocals were mixed so low that he could have been confused for someone bellowing in a separate room. Shrouded in faults, the tarnished gems that arose from the record were simply dying for an environment more suiting. So for their second go around, the band looked even further south to Easley Studios in Memphis, and on a recommendation from tourmates and friends, the now defunct Texas is the Reason, they found an aspiring candidate to turn the knobs. A few phone calls down the line and the group was set to record their sophomore disc with a budding J. Robbins to produce. That was only the fourth record J. had produced in his lifetime, and heís been engulfed by projects ever since. Over the last year, Robbins has collaborated on Kerosene 454ís swan song, the last offering by Compound Red, Jets to Brazilís debut and numerous others. Many will speculate that interest in him has grown due to the good fortune yielded by his work on Nothing Feels Good (the bandís video for "Why Did Ever We Meet" did turn up on both MTV affiliates and, to the shock of fans and the artists alike, they were proclaimed as one to watch by Playboy and Teen People), and itís an idea that Gnewikow surely wonít argue with. "I think thatís probably true," he admits. "From the things we saw, thatís why we worked with him." But for Jason, it far surpasses his ability to deliver a polished album. Itís his ability, as Gnewikow can attest, to bring forward a better band. "The way we write stuff is sort of a filtration process. (In the studio) we work on cutting stuff out... hopefully, most of the bad stuff. And having him there is just the same," he admits. "If someone else canít think of something, he always brings more to it. I think thatís probably the appeal that he has for the bands that he works with," Gnewikow decides. "He works with a lot more bands than I know about, but just from the bands I do know - like Braid - thatís the feeling I get."

Likewise, itís no shock that Bob Nanna, the energetic frontman for the Urbana, IL bred quartet, is in agreement. "Heís got so much experience. He knew exactly how to help certain problems, or things we werenít really too experienced with," Nanna says of Robbins, who produced Braidís Frame and Canvas at Arlingtonís Inner Ear studio. "He really brought out a lot in us." Indeed. Along with the recognition of an indie fueled nation, Canvas garnered the group plenty of sales and certainly a fair share of touring (clocking in nearly half a dozen jaunts in the last year - with two trips to Europe, one to Japan and an opening stint for skate-rock innovators Seaweed included). They even landed themselves in a bidding war of sorts with a handful of larger Indies vying for the group to leave their pseudo-home at Polyvinyl. Though their most substantial change came by way of Canvasí songs: a perfect blend of the abrasive melodies and angular rock that was occasionally found throughout the groupís two full lengths and head swelling amount of singles. But, after recording those potential laced tracks everywhere from peopleís basements to the Steve Albini owned Electric Audio, it was with Robbins that Nanna had secured the first record heís "truly happy" with.

Yet, despite all the success they had garnered, Braid was anything but happy in the days following Canvas. After a six year existence, that saw them rise from the basements of middle America to the height of post-hardcoreís explosion, the group ended their extensive relationship, citing indie band natural causes: fatigue, outside interests and the need to keep their friendships in tact. While at least one member returned to his often neglected education (though a solo project may await us, guitarist Christopher Broach has gone back to school) and another to his family (proud papa Damon Atkinson should enjoy dedicating more time to his son than his snare), the group hasnít left music entirely. Preceding the release of the groupís three song send off, a career ending blowout is to conclude in Champaign this August, and after that...well, the groupís notorious frontman is already looking towards the future. A future that should include at least one carnation of City on Film - Bobís exile into solo / acoustic songwriting - and a possible collaboration with new found neighbor and former Robbins pupil, Norm Arenas. While the project seems uncertain at best, Arenas has suggested that he wouldn't consider doing any sort of record without Robbins. Which, if and when such an occurrence comes to be, should be music to Nannaís ears, who vowed, even pre-break up, that Robbins should be producing his records for some time. "Recording (Frame and Canvas) was great," says Nanna, still savoring the ex-Jawboxers tutelage. "He gave us all such confidence. Plus, he held it all together and kept us sane and excited for the five, long, grueling days we were there. At the time, it really helped our band," he concludes. "(Iím) definitely excited about working with him again."

Gnewikow, who has since relocated to Milwaukee from Chicago in order to write Nothingís successor, also has visions of Robbins in his future. "I see him with us indefinitely," says Gnewikow, who - as we spoke - was a few days away from stepping back into the studio with Robbins to record for an upcoming Pixies tribute. "(With J.) itís like having a fifth member in the band. Heís a great musician and has great ideas," Jason remarks. "Itís as simple as him having good ideas." And for Nanna, itís those good ideas that still stick with him. "I think the people that are making the music realize what an asset J. is," says Nanna, who - along with Gnewikow - referred to Robbins as a "mentor" throughout our discussions. "Heís got a lot of wisdom. He was a great help by encouraging us and being positive about the songs. He really went out of his way to make me feel comfortable."

Though, their studio relationship appeared to be strictly business, Nanna does recall one awestruck moment that continues to strike a chord. "We were listening back to some takes, and he was sitting at the board and we were all sitting behind him," Nanna recollects. "We were listening to the song and he was just bouncing up and down in his chair singing along. And we all just looked at each other and were like, ĎThatís J. Robbins, right there, loving the song!í" he says, still seeming a bit bewildered. "Coming in, we didnít know him that well. He was just kind of a legend. So we just couldnít believe that he got so into it!" Similarly, Gnewikow divulges some moments of relapsed idolizing. "Iíve never said this to J., because I am afraid it might freak him out," he says, with a bit of hesitation. "But, for so long, I worshipped him," Jason admits, later citing his harassment of a local record store clerk for an advance copy of For Your Own Special Sweetheart, while still in his teens. "But heís not like that. Heís the most down-to-earth and humble person you could ever know." Gnewikow says, and then pauses, searching for the perfect summary. "He not like the producer," he jokes. "Heís just the fucking dude."

SB


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