By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The last thing former Jawbox singer-guitarist J. Robbins wanted to do after the group broke up in April 1997 was form another band that sounded exactly like Jawbox. He wanted to do something completely different, write songs in a different way. It wasn't that Robbins was ashamed of anything he or Jawbox had done in their eight years together or that he was ready to give up the rock just yet. He was just ready for change, eager for his songs to sound new to him for the first time in almost a decade. After years of wearing a noose around his neck that seemed to tighten with each album, Robbins didn't want to feel as if he couldn't deviate from the, well, formula.
With that in mind, Robbins came to a decision: His next band would be allowed to sound however it wanted to, no matter what that happened to be. As he says, "If we wanted to make a record of klezmer music or something, we should not feel any hesitation to do so. Whatever materials are at hand to put together a song, we should feel like we can use them." It was going to be a new band, and that's exactly what people would hear.
"And after we made that declaration, we went right ahead and started a rock power trio," Robbins says, laughing at how he broke the only rule he set for himself as soon as he made it.
Yet Burning Airlines, Robbins' new band, isn't quite Jawbox II, although comparisons are inevitable, if only for the fact that his voice and distinctive guitar are so central to both bands. And the band looks much like Jawbox did at the end: Robbins is joined by Jawbox guitarist Bill Barbot, now playing bass, and drummer Pete Moffett, who joined shortly before the group called it quits. The only member missing is bassist Kim Coletta, and she runs DeSoto Records, which released Burning Airlines' debut, Mission: Control!, in February. Robbins acknowledges that, on the surface at least, not much has changed.
"Nobody takes what they do and then just completely turns it upside down," Robbins admits. "I mean, there's plenty of people who try and do music in a bunch of different idioms, but it still sounds like them. I've heard Jawbox comparisons from plenty of people, and it's cool in a way, because it's like finding out that people were really interested in Jawbox after all. So it's cool that it keeps coming up. I know that this band is considerably different from Jawbox, but it certainly has plenty in common with Jawbox too."
Looking back, Robbins hasn't had much of a chance to escape Jawbox. The release of Mission: Control! came only a few months after DeSoto released My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents, a 22-song disc of rarities and live tracks, the band's "way of saying thanks to friends and supporters," as the liner notes read. And many of the songs on Mission: Control! were born as Jawbox songs, written as the band limped to the finish line.
Jawbox broke up slowly over a period of a few months, dragging it out because no one wanted to let go, though they all knew in their hearts it was time. After eight years together, they didn't want to go out with a whimper, but it seemed inevitable. Atlantic Records had dropped the band after two albums (1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart and 1996's Jawbox), drummer Zach Barocas left the group to attend film school in New York, and the group had become almost totally inactive.
Though the rest of the band was living together and their rehearsal space was in the basement, they weren't playing much or writing together, even after Robbins brought in Moffett to fill in for Barocas behind the drum kit. It was a frustrating situation for Robbins. He was still writing music, coming up with riffs and melodies that felt as if they wanted to be songs, but he didn't know exactly what they would be until he could try them out with a band and see if they worked or not.
It wasn't that Robbins didn't have a creative outlet. Somewhere along the way, he had stumbled onto a second career after helping his friends in the band Kerosene 454 in the studio on their first album. He found that he loved recording bands almost as much as he loved being in one, and his work on that album helped him become a much-sought-after producer. Since then, he has produced records for bands such as Jets to Brazil, Braid, Compound Red, and The Promise Ring.
"The process of translating a song into a record, and what you can do to make that song live in somebody's mind, it's so fun," Robbins says. "It's probably my favorite thing in the world creatively."
But as he recorded more and more bands and kept stockpiling songs, he knew he had to start playing again. So, in the early part of 1997, Robbins began getting together with Moffett, whom he had previously played with in Government Issue before Moffett moved to California and Robbins formed Jawbox in 1989. In the intervening years, they had played together occasionally, once to finish recording some of the old Government Issue songs they had never gotten around to.