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I recently had the honor to interview the amazing J Robbins about producing Hey Mercedes' first full length, Everynight Fire Works, Burning Airlines, producing bands, writing, etc.
Interview by Nick Daly

Nick:  How did producing Hey Mercedes' first full length come about? How did the band approach you to produce?
J. Robbins:  Well, I've known them for a long time, since I recorded the last Braid full-length. I think in this case it was as simple as Damon emailing me and asking if I wanted to work with them again in this new band. Which, of course, I did. Sort of a no-brainer there.

 The band sent you a demo of all the songs ahead of time, and you even saw them live prior to producing the album. Did anything in particular impress you about their songs, if so, what? What ideas and feelings did you have going into producing the record?
J. Robbins:  Well, they're obviously a really tight, powerful-sounding band; I was impressed that the newband was more huge-sounding and "rock" than Braid was, especially since I think Bob's approach to the lyrics and melodies has gotten deeper and more expressive, made room for more subtleties, etc . So it's an interesting combination of very driving, almost monolithic, huge guitar rock, with really developed melodies (I told Bob some of the melodies reminded me of Burt Bacharach, no joke - that's an extreme compliment) and a kind of vulnerable-sounding, expressive voice. Initially I thought they might want to make a more "pop" record than their e.p. - you know, maybe trade in some of the Marshall hugeness for some mellower textures and stuff. But it soon became apparent to me that they wanted to make a record that was like a hi-fi snapshot of their live sound (wiith a few embellishments) - and I think that was definitely a better way to go in the end.

 This is going to be a tough one, but how would you describe Hey Mercedes? I mean, what does their music mean to you, what feelings or impressions do you get? How are they "special," or different in relation to other indie rock punk whatever bands?
J. Robbins:  Well, I love this band. I think they are amazing players and every time I've seen them play (including in the studio) I get psyched because they are obviously100% into it. I love good drumming, and Damon is an amazing drummer. Mark's guitar sound is to die for ... there are tons of appealing pieces in the puzzle. But I also think that there's a real depth of content and beauty in a lot of what Bob does with the lyrics and melodies, which makes them a lot more compelling to me than 90% of the other bands in the same supposed genre. I'm sure they'll cringe when they read this but it's true.

 The first day in the studio you and the band went over the whole album song by song. What was discussed? What ideas and feelings did the band want accomplished with this album, and what did you bring to that? Did the band know exactly what they wanted to do beforehand, or was it open and loose and more defined as the recording process progressed?
J. Robbins:  I would have loved to spend more time doing preproduction, but the distance made it impossible. So we had to just limit it to that day-one meeting. We made a chart of all the songs, and compared notes about how to present them in a recording. That's when it became clear to me that they wanted to do a more stripped-down record than I had initially thought present the songs simply and let them speak for themselves rather than do too much embellishment. But it was great because they also had very clear ideas about the supplemental stuff too, like starting the record with that sort of "plugging in the guitar while you're already playing" sound. I think we were focused but there was enough time that we had a little room to play too.

"It's a nightmare writing lyrics, because I feel like I have to say something I really really mean."

 How was the album recorded? How did you work with the band on each song, what suggestions or ideas did you have during the recording process?
J. Robbins:  Well, we had a lot of time. The band played a LOT, did a lot of takes and sorted through them in between breaks from playing (rather than doing it once and coming in to listen - I think it kept them warmed up to do it that way, definitely good for Damon). There wasn't anything else too unusual about the process - except that we ended up re-doing almost all of Bob's guitars later through Mark's amp, because that amp just sounds like God. Probably the most creative input I had was in the vocals, coming up with harmonies & so on... and maybe in figuring out how to break down the guitars a little bit, when a different tone might suit one part or another in a song. But I was mostly just an engineer and sort of performance watchdog/umpire.

 In interviews I've done with Hey Mercedes, they have said that in the studio they were "overzealous" and "drove their engineers crazy." Did they ever really drive you crazy? Are they total perfectionists in the studio?
J. Robbins:  I wouldn't say they're overzealous; I think they just know what they like, and that's a good thing.

 I know you and the band were most likely dead serious most of the time working on this album, what did you or the band do to loosen things up? Was there any craziness during recording or afterwards, any funny stories?
J. Robbins:  We were in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota. Of course there was craziness. We had some really good pool parties (how great is it to record somewhere with a pool?).

 Bob, Mark, Todd, and Damon: How would you describe each of the members of Hey Mercedes individually from your experience with them, and how they
each worked in the studio recording? What strengths (and weaknesses) did you see? And how would you then describe the four of them as a whole, together?

J. Robbins:  Well, all I know is, Bob is like TOTALLY a Gemini. And Damon is more like an Aries, or something? But I don't really know because I never really asked him his sign or anything? And like if I was going to compare Todd to an animal it would be, like, a kangaroo, only like please don't ask me to explain that because it's just like something I totally feel or whatever. This band does have a really good hang factor, which is saying a lot for 4 people who are around each other so much and have been for so long.

 How would you compare working with Hey Mercedes on this album to working with three of those guys on Braid's last album? How do Hey Mercedes compare
with other bands you have produced, and even other bands in the "genre"? When I say compare, I don't necessarily mean to straight compare them, I mean what sets them apart?

J. Robbins:  I think they're a lot more focused than they were then, they know what they want and they have a pretty good idea how to go about getting it - but the experiences were so different from each other. We had to do the last Braid record, top-to-bottom, in 5 days, and we didn't really know each other.  Since then, our bands have toured together, and we've all gotten older and, theoretically, wiser.

 In that same vein, what do you think sets Burning Airlines apart from other bands?
J. Robbins:  There's really nothing else like Burning Airlines out there, or Hey Mercedes. I think we never got over the punk idea that you can invent your own culture, and we're locked into a misguided belief that something fresh can still be done with electric guitars and aggressive drumming. Though it doesn't get easier.

 What were some of your favorite moments recording this album?
J. Robbins:  The eBay auction of Damon's bad drum fill (a 2-foot long piece of 2" tape that I cut out of the master) was totally brilliant. I had a blast recording Damon in general, working on drum sounds with him ... there was a great moment when they were recording "Let's Go Blue," and as that twinkly guitar bridge began, it started snowing outside. There are these giant windows in the live room at Pachyderm, which look out into the woods, and you could see the snow falling down as they played that part - it was pretty emo. I really enjoyed getting drunk with Mark too.

 Listening back to the finished album, what feelings do you get? Do you think you and the band accomplished what was set out to do? What are your favorite moments on the album, or favorite songs?
J. Robbins:  I think the ultimate criterion is if the band is happy with it. I think it's a really strong record all the way around. if I had to pick favorites, I'd probably go with "Que Shiraz," "Quit," and "Every Turn."

 How would you overall describe your experience working with Hey Mercedes?
J. Robbins:  Of course it was a blast. Nothing is more fulfilling to me than working on something this good, with friends.

 The band is obviously eager to work with you again, would you like to produce them in the future?
J. Robbins:  Maybe reading this will change their minds! Of course, I would work with them again in a heartbeat.

 I want to ask you a little about producing..... How much in general do you cost as a producer/engineer? How would a band go about contacting you to produce and  what could they expect?
J. Robbins:  The money thing is a pain in the ass, since most bands who excite me musically are also totally broke. So I just try to work with people's budgets. I start out asking one rate for my time (that's on top of whatever the day rate is for the studio a figure that usually can't be negotiated), and then whittle down as necessary. I'd rather not think about money at all if I didn't have to eat & pay rent & so on ... it's much more important to me to work on exciting projects. So, you know, I wheel & deal all the time. As far as contacting me, people can just email me c/o DeSoto Records, or Burning Airlines, or at I usually like to hear a tape or something beforehand, just to know what I might be getting myself into. But most of the time I've been really lucky and the people who contact me are doing stuff I can really get into ... I also think, as an engineer, I'm happy to record anything, as long as the people are nice and they're not just fucking around. Production is a tricky thing to define a lot of what I've done is more like "engineering with advice." If I'm going to really get into a creative relationship with people (aka "producing"), I'm pickier about what projects I take on.

 Have you ever had any really bad producing experiences, like maybe a band just doesn't have their shit together? What are some really good or amazing
experiences you've had?

J. Robbins:  I've been lucky to have had mostly great experiences. I have a selective memory and I sort of delete the bad stuff pretty quick.

 What Schecter guitars do you use? Why do you use them exclusively?
J. Robbins:  They gave my old band Jawbox a few free guitars, and since I really like playing those, I haven't had a reason to go looking for anything else. my favorite is a Spitfire, which is now called a Hellcat I believe. Sort of a fake surf guitar, maybe a little like a jazzmaster - but mine has a very hot Duncan humbucker in the bridge position.

 What pedals do you use? You seem to use many more pedals and maybe experimentation in Burning Airlines that in former bands.
J. Robbins:  Ernie Ball volume pedal, Vox wah, Arion stage tuner, Boss pitch shifter/delay, Electro-Harmonix Memory Man (the best), Boss tremolo, MXR phase 90. Pedals are a slippery slope; start using them and before you know it you've got a million and you are dependent on them.

 How would you describe your guitar playing? When you write on guitar, what do you find yourself going back to- chords changes, structures, scales,
anything? Do you find yourself staying away from certain things?
J. Robbins:  I just stab at the thing until I hear something appealing. I've been into trying to write around chords/changes and vocal melodies, and then going back once the band has started roughing in their parts, and rewriting my guitar parts so they are a little more special and independently melodic. Less chords, more lines and sound effects. usually the bass ends up carrying the initial changes and my part kind of harmonizes off in its own way.

"I never consciously avoid any subjects - there's just some types of songs I don't feel like I'd ever want to write."

 Do you ever set out to accomplish anything specific or do songs just sort of write themselves? Are there any Burning Airlines songs where you set out
to create something specific, and did you accomplish it or did it turn into something totally different?

J. Robbins:  Sometimes we write with a goal in mind - usually it's a rhythm-based thing, like trying to use a 21st-century R&B slo-jam groove in a rock song, or stealing drum&bass rhythms, or dancehall beats. Or making an effort to write in a particular feel. But that's about as calculated as it gets. it always ends up being just whatever comes out.

 I think I read somewhere that you have a hard time writing lyrics, which I thought was amazing because your lyrics are so amazing, and other songwriters seem to just have notebooks full of shitty lyrics. Why do you think it is so hard for you? In Burning Airlines, does the music come first, or do you write lyric ideas and try to set music to them?
J. Robbins:  It's a nightmare writing lyrics, because I feel like I have to say something I really really mean. And I feel like I have to say it in a way which surprises my own expectations, so I am always beating myself up for not being direct enough or true enough on one hand, but not being clever enough or fresh enough on the other hand. until at the end of all the self-flagellation, the lyrics are finished.

 When you write lyrics, are there any lyrical themes you find yourself coming back to? Are there any subjects that you consciously try to stay away
J. Robbins:  I think I keep gong back to very personal family stuff a lot, and I've been trying to crack the love song code for a long time with only limited success... and I am so obsessed with the transformation of culture into this sort of mechanistic consumer process that I have to let off steam about that. Paranoia! I never consciously avoid any subjects - there's just some types of songs I don't feel like I'd ever want to write.

 I have a much easier time figuring out (or thinking I've figured out) Burning Airlines lyrical meanings that I did in your previous band. Are you trying to make your lyrics more understood, maybe less obtuse? Do you ever write about something too personal and shroud it in mysterious lyrics?
J. Robbins:  I used to hide out like that in Jawbox lyrics all the time. but I am trying to be more clear ... the day I can un-self-consciously sing "I love you" with a good melody, I'll be a happy man.

 I know you got married not too long ago- Is it harder now for you to go tour and be away a lot? This is something I am very interested in because I can't imagine being married and going away for weeks or months at a time. Isn't it really hard for you to be away? Will this affect any future touring you do?
J. Robbins:  Yeah, I'm very happily married, and it's responsible for my first-ever feelings of homesickness. In fact, I don't anticipate touring much at all in the future, certainly not 8 weeks at a time for 8 months a year.

 Do you think we will hear any "relationship" songs now, maybe some love songs? How much does being married and (I assume) in love, in such an important relationship influence your writing? Do you try to avoid such things in your songwriting?
J. Robbins:  That's what "A Song w/ No Words" on Identikit was supposed to be - but it's really more about how difficult it is to go out on a limb for these sort of things, how hard it is to really give yourself to a relationship, and even finding the words to talk about it.

 I read somewhere that a band was writing an album (I won't mention who) and then they scrapped it and started all over because it was wimpy or not tough enough. That seems to happen quite a lot with some bands. What do you think about this? Have you ever written a song and thought "that sounds too soft," or even "that's too heavy or tough?"
J. Robbins:  I only veto something if I think I'm going to be bored by it later ... but you've got to do whatever you do. There's no right or wrong process. I think you're better off letting your muse lead you rather than trying to anticipate what people will think of what you do, but who am I to say ...

 Something I am interested in is how personality impacts music. When you listen to music, do you care what the musicians personalities or beliefs are?
Like if you liked a band and they turned out to be assholes, or even "hypocrites" for that matter, would it matter to you?
J. Robbins:  To me, it matters a lot. Even like the fact that a band like Burning Airlines, or Hey Mercedes, the fact that the members are so super nice and genuine makes the music that much more enjoyable. That's nice of you to say. I think if I meet a band, my contemporaries, whose music I like, and they turn out to be jerks, I'm going to lose a lot of my investment in their music for sure. But I'm also sure that if I met Hank Williams Sr., or the members of the Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, or Killing Joke, I might not love their personalities. But I'll always love that music. I don't have much patience for music that advances any kind of concrete political agenda, particularly one that I know I'm not down with (I never got into O or anything like that), so I don't know about the hypocrisy angle.

 How much of Burning Airlines is J Robbins' personality (as in reflecting your personality, which I would assume is quite a lot since you write the lyrics)? How do the four personalities in the band all fit together?
J. Robbins:  Well, I don't know if we know the answer to that. We have all known each other in various ways for EVER, so we just sort of get on with it.

 How is a Burning Airlines song written? Is it mostly you writing something on guitar and bringing it to practice, or everyone just getting together and jamming?
J. Robbins:  We never write totally by jamming, but everyone contributes bits & pieces. A lot of the newer stuff started with Mike's basslines or with a rhythmic idea, although I bring a lot of whole-song sketches to the group too.

 I wanted to ask you about the song "Morricone Dancehall." Is this song at all influenced by that weird BBC mini-series "The Singing Detective" with Michael Gambon?
J. Robbins:  I'm a fan of British shows, and I remember this one, it actually frightened me a little bit. I think the lines "the detective sings" and "doctors all dance at your bedside now" especially made me think of that show.

 What about that show inspired you to write a song about it?
J. Robbins:  Well the song is really sort of about how mental and emotional traumas can manifest themselves physically. I think the Singing Detective character is a perfect example of someone whose illness is partially a result of his bitterness and his fears (which are things you sort of learn about through his hallucinations). I love that show because it's so surreal, and so sort of painfully true at the same time ... there's a history of autoimmune problems in my family - I myself have suffered from cripplingly painful psoriasis in my hands , which always came up in times of stress. Like when Jawbox was sort of in its death-throes but we hadn't broken up yet, my hands were such a mess that it was totally agonizingly painful to play guitar - my fingers were bleeding all over the place! Then we split, and it healed up for the most part. So what do you think my body was trying to tell me? That's a fascinating subject to me, and the Singing Detective was sort of an immediate touchstone for talking about it. So call me lazy for stealing some images from that one ...

 Have you been writing any new material lately? Can we expect to hear any new Burning Airlines soon?
J. Robbins:  I've been writing a bit, but we're in a pretty deep hiatus at the moment - we got really burned out on touring last year, and I've been lucky enough to get a bunch of good recording opportunities, so I don't really know when we'll be doing something new.