Interview: Office of Future Plans & the Jawbox Reunion (w/ J Robbins)


Photo credit: Greg Szeto

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MP3: Report Suspicious Activity – The Night of 1000 Lies from Report Suspicious Activity (2005)

Office of Future Plans plays Oct 27th at the Sidebar with The Bomb, and a Halloween show on Oct 30th at Rock and Roll Hotel with Caverns and Imperial China.

On an anonymous street, nestled tightly amidst random warehouse facades in the neighborhood known as Better Waverly (funnily enough, south of Waverly proper), sits the Magpie Cage. From the outside, it appears to be no more than a steel-gated, two-car-width garage. But when you walk through the doors, it’s like entering a different world. A veritable oasis for anyone music-oriented, lined with warm wood tones, and contrasts of deep red while absolutely bursting with vintage and high-tech recording gear that strikes any artist like Pavlov’s Bell. Unlike many studios, this one is remarkably free of clutter, and blessed streamlined interior design (perhaps a bit of insight into the mind of its proprietor).

This is the studio of one J Robbins, one of the bonafide icons of local music, earning his stripes as final bassist in DC hardcore band Government Issue, vocalist and guitarist in post-hardcore follow-up Jawbox, and more recently with duties in Report Suspicious Activity, Channels, and Burning Airlines. He also happens to be one of the most earnest, hard-working, and genuine people you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting.

I got the chance to gab with J in the studio before a day of mixing locals …soihadto…, who counts the infamous Duff from Ace of Cakes among its members. Our conversation veered all over: from the forging fires of his new project Office of Future Plans, to the driving forces behind the bizarre Jawbox reunion set on Jimmy Fallon, and tons more in Robbins’ very busy life.

Aural States: So…your new project, the Office of Future Plans.  You were saying before we started that it was the guy from the Bombs that sparked it?

J Robbins: Jeff Dean, the guitarist for The Bomb, kept hammering away at me to play with them when they come through at the end of the month (Ed: Oct 27th @ the Sidebar).

AS: What about Channels?

JR: Well Channels became dormant when my son was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy.  You know…things get prioritized very quickly and playing music went straight to the bottom of the list…

AS: Wow, I don’t think I ever really paralleled the timelines for those two events…

JR: We literally played our last show the day before the diagnosis.  We played at Galaxy Hut for a friend’s birthday party.  We already had scheduled an appointment with his pediatrician because we were concerned about his mobility and development…

I can’t remember if we’ve rehearsed since then or not…we’ve worked on some stuff, one song.  And we have no desire to break up the band, but the reality is that it’s next to impossible for us to gain any momentum doing anything.  We might be able to schedule a rehearsal, but we can’t get a rehearsal schedule together since my wife and I are both in the band.

We’d love to do it again, but on the other side of it, she’s starting to do some different music.  I can’t seem to get away from rock–from playing loud rock music.  There’s loads of other kinds of music I’d love to do too and I’m endeavoring to get into as much of that as I can, but the satisfaction of playing loud guitar, or bass, with Darren particularly playing drums.  I can’t escape it.

Janet has been collaborating with this Australian singer-songwriter Greg Atkinson, who used to be in a band called Big Heavy Stuff.  And before that a band in the 80′s called the Ups and Downs.  Slightly famous, they rode a bit of the REM wave in the 80s.  She’s been sending files back and forth with him.  And she’s more interested nowadays into acoustic singer-songwriter, or really alien electronica, like she really loves Burial.  So both of those kinds of things are easier for her to make at home.

AS: So both artistically and logistically Channels just wasn’t possible?

JR: Well mostly logistically with Channels.  What I’m doing now was supposed to be…uhm…Like some people make plans and then they fulfill them.  And that generally is not my M.O.  My M.O. is I just start doing something and let it lead me along.  The next thing you know, it’s turned into something else, because I just kept digging away.  But I wasn’t really writing any music.

I was writing a little bit for this band Darren and I had called Report Suspicious Activity.  That’s like the most hardcore band I have ever been in, with this guy Vic Bondi who was a teenage hero of mine.  He used to be in Articles of Faith, a Chicago hardcore band.  Very political.  So the whole thing with RSA was just getting out our accumulated frustrations of 8 years of George Bush.  A lot of the songs mention Bush by name, it’s all political.  It’s all, to a greater or lesser extent, remedial pummeling hardcore punk.  It was super fun and wasn’t a huge time commitment.  Vic lived in Seattle, every once in a while we’d get together to rehearse a bunch.  We did two records on Alternative Tentatcles and probably played a total of 8 shows in four years.  So, it wasn’t a huge commitment and it was really fun.  Like letting off steam.  I wrote like a couple songs for RSA, but I wasn’t hunkering down and writing things.

Last October, my son Callum was hospitalized for 5 weeks with pneumonia.  It was a super tense and terrible time; he was in ICU for 5 weeks.  Janet and I were doing shifts.  It’s easier for me to be up all night because I’ve always been that way, so Janet would do the day shift at the hospital, and then I would go there at night.  I’d be there all night and get out at like 8 or 9 in the morning.  I would stick around a little, but you can’t be in the ICU 24/7.  You would go insane.  And I could never sleep during the day, so I would have this dead time.  So I would just come here, sit and play guitar into the computer and ideas just started coming out.  I was playing and writing on the piano a lot too.  I ended up with all this material, and I was not concerned about what I was going to call it, or whether it was for a band or anything.  It was sort of therapeutic on the one hand, and on the other it was sort of like “Oh yeah, I remember this, this was great.  I really loved doing this, it was important and I miss it.”

Over the next few months as I was getting this material together, more I vowed to myself to always make time to record something every week.  Even if I didn’t have songs, I’d record a cover.  I recorded a bunch of John Cale covers no one needs to hear…that kind of stuff.  At some point, I said “I guess I’m making a solo record.”  I’m on the fence about that idea.  But that’s basically what it is.  All this ass backwards progression to doing this project.  The reason this line-up happened and this band, Office of Future Plans, happened was that Jeff Dean invited me to play with the Bomb.  And I was like “I can not play a solo show.  I can not sit on a stool at the Sidebar and try to croon Jawbox songs with an acoustic”–you know?  Most of the music I’ve written just doesn’t translate to that kind of delivery period.  So I called Darren, asked Brooks (Harlan) to play bass, called Gordon Withers who’s phenomenally talented and plays cello.  I’ve called Gordon in to play on a bunch of people’s records, and recorded his record most recently.  So we just started playing stuff.

_MG_8675.jpgAS: All the material is from that progressively accumulating solo output then?

JR: Yeah.  We’re playing one song that I wrote for RSA, because RSA barely played.  And I don’t think anyone really ever heard those records.  I’m finally giving myself permission to play songs on which I was the principal songwriter in bands that I’ve been in before.  Because they’re good songs and I miss playing them.  There are some I wouldn’t do, but there are some where I can basically say I wrote that song.  We dabbled with that when we first started playing, but it’s been great because everyone’s so good and there’s such a good vibe that we’re just moving forward.  And I’d rather do the new stuff.

The reason it’s called Office of Future Plans is just because the notion of a solo band…I’m still wrestling with it.  I think it’s great, for example, that Bob Mould can go and play whatever from his backcatalog of songs, and when he wants to play rock it’s billed as Bob Mould.  But there was a time when I thought that was a load of horseshit, and I wouldn’t be interested in hearing him play–I would feel like it was a sell-out for him to play a Hüsker Dü song with a new band.  I don’t feel that way now, because those are his songs, they’re great songs, and I would very much like to hear him play them.

But I don’t like to see my name *laughs*  I think it’s always cooler, the idea of a band is kinda cooler–this construct.

AS: And bigger than just one person.

JR: Yes, and also–I remember there’s this band the Forms.  A while ago they sent me a package of their releases, and there was very little information about the band.  Very little real-world, people-type information.  The way that it was couched, it was almost like the Forms were this other entity that is responsible for the music on the disc.  It just made you take it on its own terms.  And there’s this very imaginative other world associated with a band name.  I think that’s awesome.  I can’t help preferring it slightly to just seeing someone’s name and going “oh that’s that guy.”

AS: So being billed in a concert flier by name next to a new project kinda hurts you, in a sense?

JR: Well, it’s inevitable I suppose.  I’m also pragmatic: if someone’s interested because of the connection to Jawbox, and that brings someone to see this band, then that’s great.  Whatever.

AS: You were saying that the sound of Office is trending more towards the heavy rock realm?

JR: The recorded stuff is just all over the place.  I’ve done some pieces that are all drum machine and keyboards and samples.  But when it’s time to actually present something live, the most comfortable, easiest and quickest route to hearing something and having it cohere.  Drums, bass, guitar–the cello is sort of the interesting, textural thing.  I’m hoping that it’ll get weirder, but just right now it sounds like a rock band.  We’re not on any kind of schedule to finish up.  We’re going to re-record some of the material because it sounds way better as a band than me solo.

I have demos of stuff up until we started rehearsing, I was pretty sure it was just basic tracks, not demos.  But I was building on these things over a period of months.  Some of them will remain, but some of the songs just instantly sounded better when there are people in the room playing together.  And that’s much closer to my heart as a working method anyway.

Halloween_eastAS: This project has longer legs than just these two shows?

JR: Yeah, definitely.  Now whether it goes back to being quote-unquote my solo record, we’ll work that out.  It’s nice though since we’re all grown-ups, and we’re all pretty mellow about it.  It’s fun for everybody, and that’s the whole point.  I have no idea when it’s gonna be done, or how long it’s gonna take.  There’s enough material for an album, but it’d be cool to have way more, and way more of it a range of things.

AS: Is Office going to be put on significant hold when you get together with the rest of Jawbox for the Fallon performance?

JR: Not really.  That’s a total of two rehearsals.  This project, we’re probably going to record in the first week of November.  After that, I don’t think we’re gonna do too much before the first of the year with the holidays coming, and I’ve been fortunate to book a fair bit of work.

AS: Wow, I didn’t think the recording process was so near for you guys.

JR: Yeah, well we’ve actually been rehearsing for a couple months now, once a week.  I feel like we’ve been really good with maintaining a regular practice schedule, and it sounds better every time we play.  We’re gonna play two shows now.  Everybody’s heads are just way in it, so it makes sense to take advantage of all that rehearsal.  It’ll be great because I think the recording will put a nice period at the end of the whole sentence.

AS: OK, shifting gears if you’re not tired of it already: can we visit this whole Fallon reunion situation?  It seems like he’s been scoring artists that people wouldn’t really expect…

JR: People were raving about the Sunny Day thing…but I haven’t really seen it.

AS: Did he approach you guys then?

JR: Well, I think the reason the music is getting good there is that the music booker on the show (Jonathan Cohen who co-founded Nude as the News)…used to work for Alternative Press. What happened with Jawbox specifically was connected to the reissue (Sweetheart).  Kim (Coletta) hired Big Hassle publicity in New York to do PR for the reissue.  Ken Weinstein and Bobbie Gale at Big Hassle were people we knew while we were at Atlantic.  Both did publicity there.  Then Bobbie was the label manager for the subsidiary that released our second Atlantic record.  And we loved them.

AS: Yeah they’re great.  They ran PR for Bonnaroo when I went a few years ago and it was like clockwork.

JR: They’re fucking awesome.  So Kim hired them for the reissue, and Bobbie was just relentless.  I’ve talked about doing reunion shows for a while.  After all this time, I was like you know, fuck it it would be fun. Let’s revisit this insanely hectic time from our lives.  I’m 42, and my memory of my 20s now is that I was insane.  The energy I put into things…sometimes I’m in awe of it.  The band was like this 24/7 devotion.  But I also wasted a lot of energy, and it was a really emotionally fraught time for all kinds of things.  It was just a really crazy, neurotic, psycho time.  In addition to having been a great time.  I kind of thought, now that we’re all older, and we have different priorities, we can look back at that time and just take the good stuff from it.  Wouldn’t it be nice to get everybody together and go play, and say: “You know what?  I’m really proud of this band.”  I proposed the idea of doing shows, we all talked about it, but it seemed logistically next to impossible.

But Bobbie was relentless.  And all of a sudden we got this call from the Jimmy Fallon Show.  I think Bobbie just called the music booker, and knew that he’d be interested.  And she also probably knew if we got an opportunity like that, it would be so weird and come so far from left field for us that it would be hard to resist.

AS: Too funny.

JR: Yeah, it’s a total set up.  It was supposed to be one song, but now Bobbie’s saying: “They said you can do 3 songs.  One for broadcast and two for download!”  Now we’re getting all these emails asking if we want to play a show at Mercury Lounge warming up for it.  I think Bobbie’s doing some serious machinations, like “you can just do 5 songs,” or “maybe do a 6 song set.”  But that’s how it happened, I’ll lay blame squarely at Bobbie’s doorstep.

It’s weird to me on a lot of levels, but it’s so weird that I’m quite excited.  I’m not that excited to be on television.  I don’t give a shit about television.  I actually think it’s evil, I’ve always thought it was evil.  But I’m excited about it from the standpoint that it’s almost like it’s so wrong it’s right.  For us, it’s almost like a practical concern.  It would be very hard for us to get together and learn enough material to play a set, mix it up, and execute it all to a standard that does justice to our memory.  The best occasions of Jawbox live are something we’re all really proud of, and want to live up to them.

I think it’s easier for us to conceive of doing 1, 3, even 5 songs, as opposed to trying to do 16 songs well and having a heart attack or have us just fail miserably.

AS: So is “Savory” going to be the broadcast?

JR: Yeah.

AS: Have you decided on the other 2?

JR: We’re working on it.

AS: Are they all gonna be from Sweetheart?

JR: Yeah, yeah.  We’ve been having some negotiations on what to do.

AS: This coincides nicely with the re-release of For Your Own Sweetheart, and it’s pretty clear how the reunion show arose from that.  But how did the reissue come about?

JR: It’s funny because Jawbox, when we were together, we were a band that planned a lot.  Kim, the bass player who was like the manager of the band, was an excellent planner.  Apart from a few things, like for example we never planned to sign to a major label, but when the opportunity arose, Kim was excellent at creating a structure in which to make decisions.  For the most part, we were a band that came up with plans, then executed them.  Crossed all the “t’s” and dotted all the “i’s.”

The reissue has happened more like my style.  Dischord has been re-doing all their vinyl, and all the cutting as far as I know has been done at Chicago Mastering Service by Bob Weston (also of Shellac) and Jason Ward.  Michael at Dischord mentioned to Kim there was a lot of demand from people, presumably asking about Sweetheart.  The only vinyl pressing of Sweetheart was the one we did ourselves when it first came out.  So it’s been long out of print on vinyl.  When Kim was mentioning it to me, the words For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Bob Weston flipped a switch in my head.

Bob’s mastered a couple of records for me recently, where the low end turned out really spectacular.  They were records where the bands cared about the low end.  One of them was Wino, who was raving about the low end.  And Wino is always like “What happened to the low end?”  Every record he wishes there was more low end, you know?  He was super particular about it, and Bob killed it.  And the Clutch record I just did, same thing.

And with For Your Own Special Sweetheart, I would say my biggest reservation sonically about that record is the low end.  I kinda love the sound of it, I’ve always been proud of the sound of it because it’s very abrasive, and it really suits the songs.  But, the low end kind of recedes.  I don’t know if it’s a 90s thing or what.  As far as I understood, Bob was going to remaster it for vinyl so I thought, why don’t we make some low end happen?  And then I thought, as long as that’s going to happen, it’s not that more expensive to make a CD, so why don’t we do a full-on reissue and let Bob loose on the low end?  See if we can’t get it to really have that oomph, kick more ass.


AS: Over the past decade, you’ve risen to prominence more as a producer than a performer.  How does it feel to be thrown into the spotlight more as a performer again, seemingly as part of this nascent wave of 90s indie rock interest?  Big bill reunion shows of groups like Dinosaur Jr, Pavement seem to abound, and now you’re getting the chance to revisit Jawbox as well as take part in more high profile performances like the NPR collaboration with Chris Walla…

JR: Chris Walla actually called me.  It was weird.  I’d met him once for like 5 minutes, but we have a lot of mutual friends.  Bob Boilen of NPR invited Chris to do the project song thing, and suggested that he have a collaborator.  And Chris called me, for some reason that I still do not know.  But I’m really glad that he did, because that experience is one of the all-time highlights of my musical life.  There’s nothing I would change about that experience; it was completely magical.  It was great because it was super pressure cooker, like if you fail you were failing in a spectacularly public way.  Though I guess they wouldn’t broadcast it if it was a total debacle.

It seems like there’s a wave of 90s nostalgia right now.  It’s weird for me because, in my life, I look at it as a continuum.  I don’t look at it from decade to decade.  I’m only interested in working.  I just want to be either making stuff or assisting other people to make stuff, and I just want to dig in and keep going.  There are definitely times when I look back and go: “Yeah, 1994.  Fuck, it’s been 15 years.  15 years is a long fucking time.”  Sometimes I feel the passage of time tremendously, and sometimes it’s just all part of the same stream.

It’s weird when you go back and talk about decades too.  I remember I found it insufferable in the 80s, when I knew teenagers who were really hung up on the 60s, hung up on the Rolling Stones or whatever.  And I’m just like “PAH-THETIC.”  They were living a nostalgia that was weird because it wasn’t a part of their lives, but it’s the same amount of time we’re talking about here.  15 years or whatever.  So, it’s bizarre just all the way around.  I feel really weird because the things I wanna say about it are totally loaded when they come out of my mouth.  I sound like that guy, it’s not cool.

I mean…But I think that…maybe the cool thing about the 90s and what happened in the wake of Nirvana.  *pause* Let’s discuss. *laughs*

It was before the prevalence of the internet, email.  Now things are so much more instant, and you’re so much more barraged, and things get old so much faster, and people are so much more jaded because they are just inundated, buried under information.  Even though it seemed that way in the 90s, but now it makes the 90s seem almost idyllic.  Quiet, by comparison.

And all those bands that were toiling in the underground, who maybe privately had dreams of rock stardom, but never realistically expected to have them be fulfilled, suddenly got swept up in a wave that actually made it possible for some.  Everybody, the public at large, had their minds blown.  A coming to public consciousness of something that was hidden, and here we are now where almost nothing is hidden.  And nothing will ever be hidden again, everything will be instant from now on.  From my personal experience, seeing people coming into the studio, I know there’s depth and impulses behind whatever kind of music they’re making, however beholden they are to their influences.  Whatever they’re doing, when someone comes to make music, there is something genuine and real behind it still.  And I think there always will be.  But in the public consciousness, pop music kind of way, the early 90s was the last time that people had their minds blown by the fact that this kind of underground existed.

More to come this week…

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6 Responses to “Interview: Office of Future Plans & the Jawbox Reunion (w/ J Robbins)”

  1. Undetectable Genius says:

    J. Robbins = God among men

  2. Roni says:

    Great, great interview. I *love* J. and all of his bands. I’m so happy to hear that he has plans to make another album soon.

  3. Alex Mudge says:

    What’s he doing with a Roland JX-3P in the top pic?

  4. burning airlines says:

    “while she took the orange from the autumn sky, so sublime”…. still some of the most memorable lyrics I’ve heard

  5. Derek Fricano says:

    Cannot wait to hear the Office of Future Plans — J. and Darren Zentek are one of my favorite musical pairings of all time.

    And can we officially get the demand rolling for a Dischord vinyl reissue of the self-titled Jawbox record? That thing is off the chain…

  6. dave rebus says:

    his comments on the info glut only underscore the value of the live show over recordings… anyone can hack something out in Logic, but only real nutters have the guts to bring that stuff out live and make people take notice.

    The day I heard ‘Twister’ was the day my like changed forever. However, there are plenty of other songs done by lots of other people, which bring me just as much energy and have brought me to the same state… x-ray mirror, postmortem, bridge over troubled water, ‘Hey Jude’, section V of MF18M by Steve Reich, Anything original off the STT records, anything by Miles with Tony, Sabbath’s V4, etc…

    I guess the lesson touring and composition have taught me, is that beneath it all is the willingness to bring male aggression and female receptiveness together for one’s self, and let the posers pass whatever judgement they may… you will never want for lovers again… peace

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