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.
"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.