by chuck bell
When a band relies on equal artistic contribution from each of its members, its death often results in a multitude of new groups, offering up tangential attempts at their previous work. In most cases, the resulting music falls considerably short of that of the original band. However, when one person is the brainchild for a dead band, there is a much stronger possibility of its reincarnation reaching the heights of the original. J. Robbins was such a mastermind for not one, but two landmark indie bands.
Robbins got his start playing bass with the final lineup of Government Issue, who were one of the most influential bands in the 80s D.C. punk scene. When the band dissolved in 1989, Robbins formed Jawbox with bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Adam Wade. They released their first album, Grippe, on Dischord Records, the most legendary indie label this side of Sub Pop. Bill Barbot joined the group as second guitarist and second singer just before the release of their sophomore record, Novelty. Zach Barocas also joined the band around this time, filling in for Wade. Both of these albums led to their creation of DeSoto Records, which went on to become a fairly successful indie label in its own right.
From the outset, Jawbox’s music was intense yet melodic, much like their post-hardcore peers, Shudder to Think. Both bands developed legions of die hard fans that felt as though the bands were their own little secrets. However, both bands left Dischord Records for major labels in 1994, causing a massive outcry from their fans. Jawbox signed to Atlantic Records, and rather than conforming their sound to that of modern rock, they managed to create their unique masterpiece, For Your Own Special Sweetheart. This album yielded two singles, “Savory” and “Cooling Card,” both of which received limited play from radio and MTV. After releasing a final self-titled album in 1997, Jawbox were dropped from Atlantic.
While Jawbox was still in its final stages, Robbins and Barbot had been playing on the side with former Government Issue drummer Peter Moffett. They briefly considered including him in Jawbox after Barocas left the band, but this lineup never quite worked out. Jawbox officially broke up, and Robbins, Barbot and Moffett created Burning Airlines, taking their name from a Brian Eno song. Over the last few years of Jawbox’s existence, Robbins started working as a producer for many bands, including Braid, The Promise Ring, and Jawbreaker, to name a few. With Burning Airlines, he worked on both sides of the studio, as the artist and producer. This allowed him to fully develop his songs, playing with different textures and effects as needed.
Burning Airlines recorded two albums on DeSoto Records: 1999′s Mission:Control!, and 2001′s Identikit. Though they never quite broke into the mainstream, both albums were extremely well received in the indie rock community, and remain highly influential. After the events of September 11, 2001, many venues refused to display the band’s name on their marquees, and they considered changing their name. Despite their decision to keep the name, the band broke up within several months.
These days, Bill Barbot and Kim Coletta still run DeSoto Records, now home to such bands as Maritime and The Life and Times. The label has recently purchased the entire Jawbox catalog from Dischord and Atlantic, and released them on iTunes. J. Robbins has become an in-demand producer for indie and punk bands, having most recently worked with Clutch, Against Me!, and Yeasayer. He is also currently playing with two bands: Report Suspicious Activity, a political hardcore band in which he plays bass, and Channels, in which he trades off vocal duties with his wife, Janet Morgan. Even though his bands may dissolve and reform with different combinations of collaborators, J. Robbins will always push the bar higher for indie rock in one way or another.