I first became aware of Jeff Robbins’ work through his late ’90s band, Orbit. Orbit was like what you get if one took the guitar noise of Sonic Youth, combined it with the thump of grunge, and added a post-punk polish. Orbit had a modern rock hit with “Medicine,” which was all over WBRU and MTV for a while and then kind of vanished as another victim of record label mergers. Robbins is back with a new band called 123 Astronaut that, while only four shows into their career, is turning into a juggernaut of guitar-driven indie rock. I caught up with Robbins to pose a couple of questions as a preview for 123 Astronaut’s show this Saturday, June 30, at Dusk. 123 Astronaut’s debut EP, The Friction, is available now on multiple streaming services.
Marc Clarkin: How did 123 Astronaut come together?
Jeff Robbins: In 2006, I started a web development company and it really took off. This meant that I had less and less time to play music. Also, since my previous band (Orbit) was from Boston, I didn’t really get to know many musicians down here in Providence. So when I left my company in 2017, I placed an ad on Craigslist looking for musicians to start a band with. I was really impressed with the caliber of musicians who responded. Both Eric Hastings (drums) and Keith Benjamin (bass) stood out as really talented, creative musicians who were also great collaborators to work with.
Most of the songs from The Friction EP came together within the first month of playing together. It immediately felt like we’d been playing together for a long time.
MC: To talk about a song from The Friction EP, what’s the song “Invincible” about?
JR: A lot of the lyrical content of the EP is me struggling between the more traditional protest concept of “together we can beat them” (as in The Friction) and “fuck it, let’s just try to find some Zen.”
Invincible is on the “fuck it” side. The song hypothesizes that we’ll be invincible if we ignore everything and if everyone tries to recapture innocence. I was just tired of being angry and feeling division and opposition. Maybe if we don’t get angry – if we just focus on ourselves and shut off emotion and compassion – if we belie our inner fear, anger and sadness – we can find that Zen. In the end, I don’t think it really works. We can’t shut off emotion. We can’t keep ourselves hidden away. The song is a bit tongue-in-cheek in that way.
MC: You’ve always had a rich guitar tone with the effects you utilize. Who are your three favorite guitarists?
JR: In my early years, I was playing with tons of effects — choruses, delays, harmonizers and all sorts of stuff piled onto the guitar. But when I started Orbit, I wanted a more immediate, more utilitarian sound. Plugging the guitar directly into a cranked amp was a revelation.
- Billy Bragg changed my life. His first few albums were just him and an electric guitar. Punk meets folk. I took a lot of my utilitarian philosophy from him It’s not about being a great guitarist or a great vocalist, but it’s about having good songs played with great energy.
- Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo inspired me with dissonance and drones, letting open strings ring out, and allowing the guitar itself to have a say in the voicing of chords.
- Josh Homme helped me to rediscover the beauty and energy of a great guitar riff. Queens Of The Stone Age’s self-titled first album created that droney wall of guitars like Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine, but it was just a couple of dry fuzz-pedal guitars rather than tons of overdubs and tons of guitar effects.
Over the years, I’ve added more gain-based pedals: fuzzes, distortions and even an octaver that I kick in every now and then when I want to blow some speakers. But I still stay away from time-based stuff like reverbs, delays and choruses. In my mind, those things take away from the honesty of the guitar.
MC: Do you think in the long run being on a major label hurt or helped Orbit more? Didn’t you guys kind of land in major label purgatory where they refused to release your second album?
JR: At the time, being on a major label was great. It definitely helped. It really amplified what we were already doing. We got played on the radio and we got to tour all over the US and Canada playing everything from small clubs to giant festivals. It was a lot of work. But I learned a lot, and it was both rewarding and fun.
However, when A&M merged with Interscope and Geffen, an accountant came through and we hadn’t sold enough records to make the cut. We got dropped as part of a purge along with 150 other bands. Unfortunately, we’d just finished recording our second full-length album, and because the label had paid for it, they wouldn’t just give it to us to shop around to another label. I understand the business side of it, but it was really difficult to lose the creative efforts of a year of our lives. We did get the label to release it digitally 10 years later, but by then the band had split up.
123 Astronaut along with Gumption & Glory, Jets Can’t Land, and The Lincoln Tunnel will rock Dusk in Providence on June 30.
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