Saturday, March 17, 2012
"Static" by Jawbox/J. Robbins
ARTIST: J. Robbins of Jawbox
WRITERS: Jawbox: J. Robbins, Bill Barbot, Kim Coletta, Adam Wade
ALBUM: Novelty on Dischord Records
SITES: J. Robbins, Dischord Records, DeSoto Records
BUY: Novelty - Jawbox
So far, I'm two-for-two in the Interviews With Awesome People category. J. Robbins is known for many things. The names Government Issue, Burning Airlines, Channels and Office of Future Plans will all lead you back to him, and his name can be found in the liner notes of countless albums, as producer and/or engineer. He currently holds court at his own studio, The Magpie Cage in Baltimore, Maryland. One might safely say that he's been busy for thirty years or so.
Today, we get to focus in on a chapter of his musical story that influenced an entire generation of rock: Jawbox. "Static," from the band's second album, is a personal favorite of mine and I'm thrilled to share J.'s words about it with you all.
BA: J.! It’s been a long time since you and I have had a proper chat about music. Glad to have the opportunity to do so. Thanks for agreeing to this.
JR: Thank YOU.
BA: How does it feel to have written a song that all parts are sung along to – including the guitar riffs?
JR: If that is really true of "Static," or of anything else I’ve written, then it feels great!
BA: Thinking about this song within the context of the Jawbox catalog, it’s on Novelty, the first album that you guys made as a four-piece. Did the addition of Bill Barbot (on second guitar and vocals) change your sense of freedom when it came to writing and/or performing? Did it inform the way this song took shape?
JR: Becoming a 2-guitar band was a great opportunity to stretch out musically, especially since I always hear harmonies and counterpoint in my head when I write. Ultimately it also gave me a chance to play less and sing more, because Bill tended to always write really foreground-type guitar parts and with two people doing that all the time, things got claustrophobic pretty quick. After Zach Barocas joined the band, we started to really focus on dynamics, and I tended to be the first to scale back my guitar parts to make breathing room . . . but when we wrote "Static," we tended to just all be bashing away full-bore all the time. When it was written, "Static" was probably the most dynamic song we had. But it’s so straightforward, it’s one of the few Jawbox songs that doesn’t rely on the quirks of the individual players for its core identity. Unlike a lot of other Jawbox stuff, I can comfortably say, “I wrote that song.”
BA: Lyrically, the song has a message that seems personal in nature. Would you mind talking about what the jump-off feelings or ideas were? I’d also like to know if you arrived at the chorus through the writing of the verse, etc, or if you started with that and built around it.
JR: The song was written just after my half-sister “divorced” my family, for reasons that were not 100% clear at the time. I had always been very close to her, in fact I would say she raised me, as much as or more than my parents did. But in the wake of this decision, at her insistence, we didn’t speak again for about 10 years. It was a very strange moment, incredibly sad, but I also trusted her to be doing the right thing for the right reasons. It really put me at odds with my parents because I was really on her side of it. I didn’t know what else to do with the feelings around this event, so they went into a song. The song also references TV sort of obliquely, because it was such a force in my childhood, as a kid I was really shaped by TV, and funnily enough my sister went on to work in TV throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. So that’s the part about her teaching me how to see it.
BA: I know I’m not alone in my curiosity about the (vocal?) noise behind the first verse. What/who is that? If it is a voice, what’s it saying?
JR: That’s Bill, shouting into a megaphone. I think he’s saying, “I’m sunk . . . In static!” over and over again. We felt like the intro seemed flat when it was just bass and vocals, and maybe some random noise would make it more engaging.
BA: What did Iain Burgess bring to this song that it might not have had before? Was his production instrumental in rendering the version we have all come to know and love, or was the song more or less complete by the time you went into the studio?
JR: The song was totally written at that point, except for the megaphone bit, which came up in the studio. Although I know I left a lot of specifics, especially about the vocal, to the last minute. Iain was really just a great engineer and a great, funny guy to be around. His influence was enormous, but it had more to do with the fact that we couldn’t believe the same guy who recorded Naked Raygun and Big Black was here in DC recording our band. That was hugely energizing. We were now just one degree of separation from music that literally changed our lives! And Iain seemed to be a genuine fan.
BA: Who were you listening to around the time that you wrote "Static"?
JR: Naked Raygun, Buzzcocks, Helmet, Moving Targets and Bullet La Volta, lots of Chicago bands, Fugazi of course . . . all the usual suspects, exactly who you might guess from listening! But the song was directly inspired by the first Lemonheads single, "Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners." Up to this time I just couldn’t bring myself to write a simple song with simple changes, driven by a vocal melody. I always wrote around guitar parts, trying quite consciously to outsmart myself at every turn. But I heard that single and I thought it was incredible: “Wait a minute, I don’t have to torture myself to write something good, I just have to get in there and DO IT.” Of course I loved loads of simple songs before this - can’t get simpler than "Pink Flag" by Wire, right? But Wire has this cool factor, this je ne sais quoi . . . whereas there was nothing even remotely cool about that Lemonheads 7”! But those songs reached out and grabbed me before I could put my thinking cap on. Which is now, to me, the ultimate. That’s what I think you should always be going for.
BA: Having lived with the album’s recording of the song for this many years, is there anything you would have done differently? For instance, I’ve noticed that in live performances, the phrasing of the chorus is less drawn out. Is that merely a product of on-stage spontaneity, or do you prefer that way of singing it and possibly wish that you had sung it that way on the record?
JR: I think "Static" got to be a way better song after we played it out, and that’s one of the results. That was a sort of ass-backward thing about Jawbox (as it is with a lot of bands). We tended to record songs before they were ever played live, and then they got a lot better once they’d been out in the world. All our records have a lot of half-assed ideas on them (I am only speaking for my contributions of course).
BA: I know that you’ve recently played some solo shows where you performed "Static." How does it feel to sing it today without the band? Does it become a different song for you?
JR: Yes, I think it’s a better song now than it was then. It sounds better with a cello for one thing. And with some actual dynamics, not that I can execute them too well . . . I have been thinking of doing an acoustic record, and when I think of re-recording "Static," I am tempted to rewrite the lyrics too. I have a much better understanding of where I am coming from these days, and a lot of those old lyrics seem really awful to me. At least I know "Static" was actually about something! So it might become an even better song sometime. : ) But on the other hand, I haven’t really got into it, because tweaking and revising a 20-year old song . . . you know, that’s just weird.
BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?
JR: "Paris 1919" by John Cale. Almost anything by John Cale, really. Or Randy Newman. Or the Cheap Trick version of "I’m Losing You," by John Lennon. Or maybe "Total Eclipse of the Sun," by Einsturzende Neubauten.
BA: My long time friend and collaborator, Levi Fuller, sends this along (in the spirit of Chris Farley): “You know that one part, where after the big instrumental bridge, it drops down to a quiet reprise of the first verse with bass, guitar feedback and drums? And then it goes back into the flailing instrumental guitar rock-out to the end? That’s awesome.”
JR: Thanks Levi!
BA: Thanks for taking the time for this, friend. It’s always a pleasure.
JR: Thanks Buick!