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 email@example.com. 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.
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.
SPECIAL THANKS TO J ROBBINS