BURNING AIRLINES' working man stage presence is the antithesis of Britney Spears undulating to canned beats in a thong, but there is a measure of S&M to the way J. Robbins plays guitar. He tugs the neck with the brawn of a serial killer, strangling out shards of distortion, but the six-string playfully squeals like it's being tickled. Combine that with a crisp, literate snarl and a wealth of sharp transitions, and watching this man perform is a goddamn gift.
Robbins assesses his persona just a tad differently.
"I'm starting to reach a point where I feel like flailing around in front of people seems a bit childish," he confides. "I mean, it's fun—it's really fun—but it's starting to seem like kind of a shallow enjoyment."
"The studio stuff is something that I feel is a little bit richer because it's trying to cooperate with other people and understand their vision. Any process that only takes up 45 minutes to an hour of your time, it's not gonna be as full of possibilities as something that takes 10 days of intensive work."
That sounds like Cal Ripken Jr. talk, the words of a tired great preparing to disappear into upper management. Robbins is too modest about his efforts to fortify the "r" in indie rock. By "studio stuff," he means his impressive catalog of production credits, a Who's Who of today's most beloved post-punk, including Promise Ring, Dismemberment Plan, and Jets To Brazil.
Sure, the guy hasn't hung it up yet, but it's never too early to reminisce on Robbins' often unsung career, which has produced seven killer LPs (five fronting Jawbox, two in Burning Airlines) and some immensely challenging lyricism.
On "A Song With No Words" (from new LP Identikit) Robbins confronts his influential polysyllabic approach. The first verse, "Here are some words. Will you take them away? Some better ways for what they have to say: puzzles and rhymes, geography and time," is a stellar visual for the complexities of self-expression.
"I spent a lot of time in Jawbox being obscure because I was venting my feelings about things I wasn't sure I wanted to be clearly understood about," he adds. "Toward the end of the band I started realizing that I didn't like that approach. All the songs I love by other people are direct in one way or another."
What Robbins does best is wed the direct and indirect. It would be criminal to abort those experiments. It would be greater heresy for me to suggest as much; Robbins is a self-aware, motivated individual. Yet he frequently spouts disarmingly funny takes on rock's conventions.
Take the fans: Burning Airlines' audience is a polite bunch, but dangerously unstable in their grounded Doc Martens. Watch out for thin young men in black denim and dark, nebbish frames, because your Wednesday beer night is their revival and a scorcher like "Outside the Aviary" or "Pacific 231" might release the devil.
"When Jawbox was together, I was generally terrified of playing," Robbins aw-shucks, pleased by the image. "A lot of times I would get up on stage and just shut my eyes. When I managed to force them open, I would invariably find the guy who was picking his nose or the guy who was grabbing his girlfriend and they were walking out the door. And I would just be like 'Oh, Jesus, why did I open my eyes?'"
"It's not so bad now. I really enjoy singing and playing, but I still seem to have that knack for finding the guy who's stifling a yawn."