Interview by Tobias Carroll
J. Robbins has been making compelling music for a very long time, and the list of bands he’s played in provides a fine overview of punk and post-punk: Government Issue, Jawbox, and Burning Airlines all come to mind. Office of Future Plans, in which he plays alongside bassist Brooks Harlan, cellist/guitarist Gordon Withers, and drummer Darren Zentek, is both a reminder of his talents as a songwriter and a smart expansion of them.
Over how long a period of time were the songs on Office of Future Plans written?
2 and a half – 3 years? Some of them (“Your Several Selves,” “Dumb It Down,” “Ambitious Wrists,” “You’re Not Alone,” “Harden Your Heart”) began as solo songs that I put together in ProTools in late 2008, and got Darren in to play drums on. The other songs came together once the 4 of us started playing together as a proper band.
How much was the songwriting (and arrangements) affected by the members of the band? Listening to the album, I can hear some interesting things done with harmonies (to say nothing of the use of cello)…
That sort of thing is always hard to quantify. I can point to certain things that are quite clear: obviously the cello, and especially the sound-effecty, noisy texturey stuff that Gordon does, that’s all pure Gordon. In the pre-band demo versions of the songs there was a lot of Rhodes; “You’re Not Alone” had no guitar or cello, it was Rhodes, bass, and drums. So the melodies didn’t change, but things changed in character a lot just by moving them over to cello from guitar or keys.
A lot of the vocal harmonies come from me – on the record I’d say I sing about half the harmony parts – but when Brooks gets ahold of them he’s always able to refine and improve on them.
And of course in Darren’s case, anyone would be a fool to try to tell Darren what to play – whatever idea I have about the drums in a given song, Darren’s version is always cooler, and often once he’s got something going, we all sort of shift things to fall in line with him.
But that’s why it’s a band rather than calling it my solo project or whatever – I am comfortable calling myself the songwriter in this band, but I am the first to say that’s only about half the story of how the songs ultimately sound, and that’s why I have always found it’s more fun to have a band.
Is the “Ulrike M.” referenced in the dedication to “Salamander” who I’d think it is? And if so, to what extent does the notion of political radicalism hang over this song?
Ulrike M. is Ulrike Meinhof (which is probably who you think it is). The song is directly inspired by a reading of The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust. For a while I was almost obsessed by the German 1970’s; the fact that a generation of Germans coming to adulthood had to figure out how to live in the shadow of their parents’ complicity in one of the defining atrocities of the 20th Century. Wouldn’t you feel an almost physical need to reject everything you had grown up with? And wouldn’t that produce some extreme consequences, socially and psychologically? This is the sort of rhetoric punk rockers are given to in their teens, rejecting the assumptions handed to them by their parents … but in the case of young adults in Germany in the 70’s, there was a horrifying reality to it.
It’s one of the great things about Krautrock – that it was a conscious attempt to break with established musical traditions. In the case of The Baader-Meinhof group, what’s compelling to me is that they saw no legal way to influence an unjust system; they saw only corruption and whitewash, collusion between powerful, moneyed interests and a contemporary German government that was in many cases staffed by people who had held the same positions during WWII -but it was supposed to be okay because these people had somehow been “de-Nazified?” – and in their eyes the only way to break out of that box was through violent revolution. It’s the idealistic motivation that fascinates me, and that they actually acted on it (though through violent means) – and more than that, when you read the book, in light of all this, it seems like what the Baader-Meinhof people mostly did was try to stay hidden. They were always on the run, always in hiding, and it seems most of the money they stole went to keeping them alive and hidden. So really they couldn’t win. But then you also read about how much popular support they had in the country, something like 30% of people supported them according to some polls. And there were other groups in their orbit – the Weather Underground in the US, though they were pointedly non-violent inasmuch as they made sure nobody was in the buildings when they bombed them! But my favorite is the Socialist Patients Collective, a group of German mental patients who organized under the principle that capitalism was the root cause of mental illness, and whose slogan was “Tuen Illness Into A Weapon.”
What’s not compelling about that?
To what extent does artwork in other disciplines affect your music? (I’m thinking back to Burning Airlines’ “My Pornograph,” and its reference to Orson Welles’s adaptation of The Trial here…)
Everything goes into the grinder!
What have you been reading lately?
Not a lot, I’m afraid. News mostly. I started Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven recently, but it kind of depressed me, so the going is slow.
What are some of the books that have stayed with you over the years?
Anything you can name by J.G. Ballard or Martin Amis … probably The Joy of Music, by Leonard Bernstein. You can bury me with a copy of that.
Photo by Pete Duvall