J Robbins of Burning Airlines - Interview.03.00
short while ago I was ejected from the local multiplex movie-theatre for
assaulting the guy sitting in front of me with regular Sprite and spicy
chilli Nachos as he bellowed into his mobile phone during American Beauty.
I really should forgive such minor irritations though, as for all the anti-social
habits that the inexorable, onward march of modern technology precipitates,
the once rigid barriers of global communication have been firmly eradicated
by the modern miracle of mankind that is the Internet. And this is indeed
a beautiful thing, as it is now possible for small-fry schoolboy journalist
music-lovers like me on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean to communicate
with genuine bona fide music legends like J.Robbins via the simple click
of a mouse button. Fantastic!
What can be said about J which hasnít been said before?
You know the pedigree. Bass player for seminal D.C outfit Government Issue,
lead guitarist/vocalist for the glorious Jawbox and currently chief pilot
of Burning Airlines whose debut album ĎMission Controlí has taken up permanent
residence in my stereo for the past eight months! Incredibly inventive
guitarist for sure, Uber producer for the likes of The promise ring, Bluetip
and the dismemberment plan in his spare time-no doubt! but what mostly
gets overlooked amongst the adjectives is that J Robbins pens some of the
most imaginative, emotive and poignant lyrics to have ever accompanied
an ambiguous barre chord. Iíd love to ask him about the taste of bitter
fictions, or the gap between love and pornography but alas, its the unwritten
code of etiquette for interviewers to avoid pestering musicians about what
the songs really mean, man. So instead here we have here an interview that
reveals perhaps more trivial, but no less important aspects of the Robbins
psyche including: his love of Indian cuisine; admiration for Orson Welles,
and ambivalence towards the English Institution that is the chip buttie!
SH: 'Mission control' was undoubtedly one of the best records to
come out last year. You must have been very happy with it?
JR: Thanks a lot - I think we are all happy with it, as a document
and as an experience. We got to work with a lot of good friends, who contributed
to it in small and large ways, and we let ourselves take some time to work
out aspects of the songs, so we feel like it's a fairly fully- realized
version of our songs and our band. A contrast to a lot of other recording
experiences I've had, where I'm still cringing about stuff that could be
different. It was great to work so hard on it and have other people respond
SH: Bill Barbot sounds extremely comfortable switching from six
to four strings, laying down some driving and intricate bass lines.
JR: Bill is great - he thinks as a musician far beyond the physical
aspects of one particular instrument.
SH: Your own distinctive style of guitar playing has always left
me lost for words; melodic and atonal are perhaps the ones which crop up
most regularly. Would that be a suitable explanation for the way you express
yourself through the instrument?
JR: "Melodic" and "atonal" are two words that virtually contradict
each other, and I think I'm always trying to balance opposites, to hear
harmonies that aren't rote. And I'm also trying to think beyond the physical
aspects of the particular instrument and listen mostly to notes and the
way they tense and resolve (or almost resolve).
SH: How did you get on translating songs from the studio to the
Burning Airlines live experience?
JR: They were written to be played, so the studio is where most
of the translation took place (although a couple of them - "Flood of Foreign
Capital" in particular - I knew would be most complete-feeling as recorded
versions). Anyway, it didn't seem too difficult. One of the fun things
about the studio for me is to break down the known thing into its constituent
parts and then try to reassemble it in a way that intensifies the qualities
inherent in those parts. Took a lot of time though.
SH: Charlie Bennett was brought in to play bass on your 98 Europe
tour, if you need anyone for tambourine or empty water-coller bottle duty
when you next hit the UK, don't hesitate to give me a shout.
JR: What should we shout?
SH: Just put on ya best Dick Van Dyke pseudo- cockney accent and
holler "cor ber-limey Mary Poppins me Chimnee needs a sweepin!" and Iíll
be there man!
SH: Any particular memories from the UK leg of your European tour
which you can share with us?
JR: I think we were very pleasantly surprised that so many people
came out for those shows, and that they were so enthusiastic. The Germans,
for example, were a lot less enthusiastic.
SH: Is English cuisine really as bad as our foreign friends keep
JR: The Indian food was killer, that's all I remember. I mean, I
could do without Chip-butties...
SH: The track '(my pornograph)' has an excerpt of dialogue from
Orson Welles' film 'The trial'. Are you a big fan of his work?
JR: Oh yeah, am I ever. He's a hero.
SH: By his own admission, it's not one of his greatest movies. The
Third man gets my vote, if only for the Killer Anton Karas soundtrack.
JR: I don't really think of the Third Man as a Welles film - he's
great in it but he didn't write or direct it (I guess he did write that
great scene where he talks about the cuckoo clock)... The Trial, Touch
of Evil, and Lady From Shanghai, those are the big three for me.
SH: I read somewhere on the Internet (so it's probably not true!)
that after the break-up of Jawbox, you did some freelance writing for a
well known guitar magazine, how did that go?
JR: Bill did that. I think he enjoyed it, but it didn't last long
after the band split up.
SH: How important has the growth of the Internet been for the success
of independent record labels like your own Desoto records?
JR: I think it's becoming critically important - the evidence in
our case is that since Kim started to work on the on-line stuff more aggressively,
the label had seemed to grow noticeably.
SH: When looking back on your experience with Jawbox, what advice
can you offer up and coming musicians?
JR: Making mistakes can be very instructive, and it can be a lot
of fun if you have the right mindset.
SH: How critical are you of your own work?
SH: What is your idea of happiness?
JR: I'm working on it.
SH: What is your idea of misery?
JR: Giving up working on it.
SH: What have been your favorite albums of the last decade?
JR: A list that tried to be complete would be way way too long but
here are a few: Big Heavy Stuff: Maximum Sincere
Candy Machine: Tune International
Failure: Fantastic Planet
Chavez: Gone Glimmering
American Music Club: Mercury
The Promise Ring: Very Emergency
XTC: The Apple Venus vol. 1
P.J. Harvey: Rid of Me
Komeda: the Genius of Komeda
Nick Cave: Henry's Dream
I mean, the more I think, this is going to be a long, long list.
SH: I'll finish with the perennial question, what can we expect
in the near future from Burning Airlines?
JR: We're touring Europe in May and June with the Promise Ring;
then when we get back we'll do some recording - but I think there won't
be another full-length BA record out until January 2001. We have a lot
more writing to do before a whole record's worth of stuff is done. Quality
before quantity, that's our corporate pledge.
Big Respect due to Jeff Nelson + airline J for their Kind
co-operation in making this interview possible.
Written By: Steven H.