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.
They recruited a bass player and began working on the backlog of material Robbins had accumulated during Jawbox's hiatus. Robbins always assumed the songs they were working on would eventually become Jawbox songs, though they sounded a bit different from any of the songs he had written before. And then Jawbox officially called it quits, and Robbins found himself in a new band he hadn't even meant to start.
It wasn't really a band even after Barbot joined on bass after, as Robbins says, he and Moffett "hijacked" him when the bass player they had been working with bailed out. The trio began practicing more and more, yet they insisted it was nothing serious, just a few friends doing what they loved. Barbot and Robbins had been through too much drama together in Jawbox to jump into another band together right away. But that's exactly what they were doing.
"The three of us played for maybe four months before we were ready to even call it a band," Robbins says, on the phone from DeSoto's offices in suburban Washington, D.C. "Bill and I couldn't look each other in the eye and say, 'It's a band.' We'd have to be like, 'We're just gonna go play with Pete.'" He laughs. "It was really weird. I think we were just shy to get back into it after the various ups and downs of doing Jawbox and spending eight years on that, and then having it grind to a halt that way, you know? But eventually, we had to admit to ourselves that what we were doing was starting a new band."
On first listen, however, Mission: Control! doesn't sound as though Robbins and Barbot started a new band at all; it's as though they were merely picking up where Jawbox drifted off. The album seems more like a companion to My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents than the work of a new band; it's familiar in almost every way. But the differences are there, revealing themselves slowly, not coming in the notes or melodies but in the spaces around them, the uncomfortable silences. It may be basically the same formula, yet by subtracting instead of adding, Robbins and the band have come up with a new answer.
And it really is a different answer, mainly because Mission: Control! lacks Jawbox's claustrophobic two-guitar tango, which made the band's recordings sound so on top of you, you couldn't stand up and listen at the same time. The new disc is less oppressive, letting songs like "Wheaton Calling" hit with a pop instead of a bang. The tension is still there, but it's not confined to two guitars. Instead, it is created by all three instruments, as on "Pacific 231" when the guitar, bass, and drums work against each other until converging in the song's final minute. In a way, listening to Mission: Control! is like running into a friend you haven't seen since high school: You recognize him, but you don't really know him anymore. Of course, as Robbins says, that's the point.
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"One of the things I love about power trios is that each person in the band, each player, has a really distinct voice, and so there's already a built-in drama or dynamic, just by the fact of whether somebody chooses to play at all," Robbins says. "It's hard for two-guitar bands to not be sort of strumming away all the time or at least fill up a lot of space without even intending to. I knew I wanted whatever band I was going to be in to be a trio, or at least not a two-guitar band. Something where all the instruments really are distinct from each other, just because it's so cool to see what you can do with the most limited resources, how far you can push things."
One place Robbins won't be pushing Burning Airlines is onto a major label, even if the interest is there. Robbins is content being on a label run by his friend and former bandmate Coletta. He's seen every side of the music business, from his years on Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye's high-minded independent Dischord Records to Jawbox's status as a low priority at Atlantic Records. All he wants to do is make music and help others record theirs. Everything else is irrelevant.
"I don't think that major labels are coming around knocking on the doors of indie bands anymore at all the way they used to," he says. "I'm really psyched that we're on DeSoto, and I'm really happy with the way things seem to be working within this band. To even contemplate anything further, it's kind of, 'Why bother?' I think it would take some kind of virtually impossible fantasy scenario to make me feel like I wanted to expend the energy thinking about whether it would be cool to sign to a major label. Like, Jesus would have to descend from heaven, and just be like, 'I want you on my label. We'll offer you all the tour support you want.' Or something like that."
Burning Airlines performs April 10 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios. Faraquet opens.