Robin Jax, the force behind Robin Plays Chords (or in some circles of the internet depending on where you are listening, by naming convention “RobinPlaysChords“) is also one-half of the “transatlantic” (Warwickshire and Seattle) duo called The Companions, as well as guitarist, backing vocalist, and member of The Shining Tongues. He is also the founder of Tiergarten Records, a record label that encompasses an eclectic catalogue of independent artists. And perhaps one of the most significant elements of his overall artistic expression is his advocacy for autistic people. Jax himself does not shy away from sharing his self-realizations or struggles with it, nor his ethos behind supporting artists who are neurodivergent. In fact, as he mentioned in an article with The Guardian, representing and supporting neurodivergent artists is the basis for him starting the record label. RobinPlaysChords’ catalogue releases go back as far as 2016 with the debut “Teardrop Girl-Star” and most recently 2019’s “Miroslava.” Running a record label, collaborating across oceans, and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities have all been part of the repertoire since then, exciting news comes about as RobinPlaysChords returns with a new 5-track album (not an EP despite having 5 tracks, due to a run time of nearly 40 minutes) titled, “Unmasking.” Slated for release on Feburary 10th, it is a manic, noise-rock-opera experience. Calling all Bandcampers! The work is available for pre-order on Bandcamp.
I had a chance to hear the advanced copy of the album and what you will find is an experimental journey of sound. It begins with the ominous instrumental “Archipelago” that intensifies in resonation until about the five-minute mark before resolving into a somber piano piece and fading out, setting a tone for the EP that this was going to be an emotional roller coaster of sorts. Foreshadowed a bit by Jax’s recent personal reflections in which he stated that he’s spent recent years pondering the person he was, could have been, and the person he wished to become. “The Dream,” the second song on the album demonstrates a lot of these personal ups and downs, starting out melancholy and quietly draws you in before a blistering disruption of blast beat sampling that sounds like it was taken right out of a Black Metal band’s garage demo at the 2:30 mark. Indeed, I think this is my favorite track on the album and the most interesting. “Miroslava” is featured on the album as well and was previously released as a single in 2019. And as with “The Dream” you hear Jax experiment between soft and loud dynamics intertwined with ambience and heavily distorted guitar. “Able Archer” is possibly my second favorite, a brooding tune with a juggernaut, marching rhythm throughout. “A Tall White Fountain Played” closes out the album very much in a crescendo type of manner, clocking in at 13:19 and with no shortage of sonic dissonance taking you from movement to movement within the piece. This album is one of those ones that you want to put on and let your mind wander. Whether that be in the form of reading a book, painting, sketching, or my personal favorite: lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, and partaking in activities that are completely legal in my state so stop judging.
All songs written, performed, and recorded by Robin Jax in rooms in Long Itchington, Warwickshire, and Moseley, Birmingham (2020-2022) with drums by Max Doohan (The Dream/Able Archer/A Tall White Fountain Played) performed and recorded at The Crypt in Sydenham, London (2022)
Mixed by Daniel Knowler at The Banks of the River Effra in Brixton, London (2022)
Mastered by Peter Junge at Castle Studios in Röhrsdorf, Saxony (2022)
All artwork by Robin Jax, except for elements of “The Flying Dutchman” by Susan Jack and photography by Simon Kallas
- The Dream
- Able Archer
- A Tall White Fountain Played
I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up a bit with Jax, ask him some questions about the EP, things to come, and more about the ethos and spirit behind his work:
LT1KF: You mentioned that you’ve played performances in the past with a mask on, conceptually in part to the naming of this new album “Unmasking.” I too, as an artist have done things many times to cover my face to include masking at times, for my own personal reasons. But I am curious, what were your reasons for masking up, and what has changed about now?
Discomfort and dysphoria, mostly. I have a very low objective opinion about my own body that’s still very difficult to shake.
I started performing solo in my teens, playing songs that were not suited to being completely stripped back, and then I basically stopped playing live for years. I put out demos from home on SoundCloud and embraced butterflies as a visual theme. There was a butterfly mask in cheap gold and silver that looked great in photos, so I wore that for everything RobinPlaysChords-related, including when I returned to playing live in 2013.
Once you put a mask on, it can become a bit of a crutch, or a cover to hide behind. I went through three of the same design, trying to keep my “face” on, even though it ruined my on-stage depth perception, making performing infinitely harder as a result, and mostly confused audiences. Slava (my beloved) was instrumental in breaking through my barriers and getting me to take it off. I do feel like a different person compared to how I was back then – not that I’ve completely overcome all of those issues, but there are things about myself that I’m better equipped to tackle, and it’s easier when you’re not hiding yourself behind something.
Unmasking, in an autistic context, is a little bit different. I think there’s a bit of a move to reframe the term at the moment, or even ease it out of parlance, but generally, it’s about blending into and slipping through the gates of so-called neurotypical society. Wearing a mask didn’t let me do that, and it didn’t give me any better insight of being myself. Unmasking now, and understanding who I really am, affords me a slightly better existence in my own skin.
Keep up with RobinPlaysChords’ live performances on Songkick HERE
LT1KF: I am particularly fascinated by your advocacy work. I admire it. I myself suffer from some debilitating conditions. Mine are more so in the realm of ADHD and Anxiety disorder, however, I think that what might possibly resonate amongst both of us are the stigmas that come with them, or perhaps the lack of perspective of others in understanding that we can do the same things, we just have to work harder at some, and sometimes it has to be done in ways not understood by others. So, in that respect, my question is open ended in the sense that I’d like you to educate me, and with hopes of educating the readers, what is the spectrum of autism? What kind of challenges are unique to a person struggling with neurodivergence? For instance, I read a lot about lighting in venues, why is that a thing and what kind of impact does that have?
The main thing I take away from the neurodivergent experience is the feeling of playing a never-ending game where the rules are unwritten, but sacrosanct, but also you can break them whenever you please, except on days that end in the letter ‘y’. I hate this game with a passion.
My previous advocacy has meant translating the game of the music industry to people who are early in their professional development and may be afraid to ask probing questions. I had a moment during a talk at Independent Label Market in Manchester where I asked about the lines of communication between an artist and venue/promoter when trying to organise an access rider for a gig, and someone referred to the hypothetical venue/promoter as “the people who might say ‘No’”, which was a brilliant response because of its honesty. Fear of rejection and not being accommodated turn so many people away from others who might be more willing to give them the space they need, and in turn leads others to assume there are no problems to confront. Good advocacy means getting these people to talk to each other as much as blowing my own trumpet and listening to the sound of my own voice. My friend Zygmund de Somogyi wrote a beautiful article for I Care If You Listen (Autistic Experience Navigating Contemporay Music Industry (Casting Light 8) ) about the pressures of being in the wider music industry, it should be read more widely.
I saw an article recently about experiencing a Public Service Broadcasting gig with a cue sheet for lighting prompts or dynamic shifts in volume. In-depth sensory perception and understanding is still fairly basic across an industry that’s pushed itself towards maximalist spectacle, so that’s something that needs to be considered for audiences.
LT1KF: Tell me about the record label business, do you scout artists for it, and do you intend on growing the catalogue more? Or does it happen to work out more like you get submissions to it based on the unique and niche spirit and ethos behind it?
I think I had a few delusions of grandeur when starting Tiergarten, and have been wrestling it down to more realistic expectations ever since. It helps to have an umbrella of sorts to organise the boring bits, but there’s a reason I always say to people “If you like making music and going to gigs, start a band. If you like printing something, signing it and scanning it, start a label”.
So far, I’ve been lucky to have artists onboard that know that this is an incredibly niche operation, with a ethos and outlook that is shared amongst us, and a love of their craft that allows them to deliver something special. Other than having to veto certain things (ie. where there might be an expensive sample clearance, or simply too many projects in one go), I’m a relatively hands-off label head, for better or worse. In any case, I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do this. I listen to Savan DePaul’s Acid Rain II and marvel that I’m involved in its public existence in any capacity. I genuinely think it’s one of the best records of the 21st century.
There is an open submission form, tucked away in the contact section of the label’s site. It will stay open for now.
LT1KF: My favorite track on the album was “The Dream.” In particular, and I anticipate that you might receive a lot of questions or feedback about this one specifically, the industrial-esque, almost “Black Metal” type of drumming and distortion that happens at 2:30. What inspired that? What are your range of influences? I recollect reading that your music is “FFO” Placebo, totally agree with that. I’m a fan there too.
Placebo are my favourite band of all time – they have a lot of detractors, and most of the things they would cite against them would be legitimate criticisms (always be open to acknowledging when your favourite band fucks up, musically or otherwise), but they completely miss what’s so brilliant about them. They have incredible hooks delivered in unconventional ways that other artists could not manage. They are a band for those who are in the margins, whether they know they’re there or not, and they will be of immense importance to those people. “Without You I’m Nothing” is an all-time great album.
“The Dream” came from trying to write for another project. A lot of the new record was written by playing over looped riffs for hours and building on the good bits, and this track is a prime example of that. Once I had the line “fireworks are exploding”, the part you picked up on had to happen in the song. I told Max [Doohan, of Another Sky and Night Tapes] to swing at everything when recording drums on that song and he didn’t miss!
The RobinPlaysChords ultimate FFO would obviously include Placebo, but also acts such as Swans, YOB, Planning for Burial. Dan [Knowler, bandmate in The Shining Tongues and mixer of Unmasking] described it as having “the intimacy of Red House Painters and the ecstatic grandeur of Jesu”, which was a nice description. I took a fair bit of inspiration from a little known band from Leeds called Trumpets of Death – I hope their album Teeth + Teeth = Teeths gets more widely discovered one day; they were so far ahead of their time, it’s ridiculous. Generally, the noisier parts of my record collection had a stronger influence on this record than the last one (Teardrop Girl-Star LP).
LT1KF: Alight! Time for the cliched question. What’s in store for the future? We got the album dropping on February 10th, what else is in the works? Is any more stuff on the horizon for The Companions as well?
Living one day at a time, in order to see a fully liberated Ukraine.
Musically, I’ll be part of a new record by The Shining Tongues and playing shows with them. The Companions has music in reserve, but no hard deadlines. There was a lockdown project that was meant to be a test in “one and done” recording that sounds like avant-garde hardcore, but that dragged on as well. I might be able to finish it one day.
On behalf of LT1KF, I would like to thank RobinPlaysChords very much for taking the time out to chat with us!
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