Magpie Cage has been J. Robbins’ base of operations for over a decade, but he still remembers the first time he recorded at the Baltimore studio.

It was way back in the early ‘90s. His band Jawbox was based in Washington, D.C., but Merkin Records founder Joe Goldsborough invited the band to record in the space he’d built here, then known as Oz Studio. “They were justifiably proud of having this beautiful big space,” the 57-year-old Robbins said. “So we came up and fell in love with it instantly.”

Robbins’ time with Jawbox made him an icon of D.C.’s fertile punk scene, but Magpie Cage Recording Studio, where he is a prolific producer, has cemented its place as a cornerstone of Baltimore’s indie rock scene.

Ending up in Maryland made sense. Jawbox recorded alongside bands like Fugazi, Scream and Nation of Ulysses for Dischord Records, Washington’s most revered label, but Robbins, who grew up in Silver Spring, spent plenty of time in Baltimore as well. He attended Maryland Institute College of Art on and off but never graduated as his focus shifted to music, joining the band Government Issue and then forming Jawbox.

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Jawbox became one of the few Dischord bands to jump to a major label in 1994, and their Atlantic Records debut, “For Your Own Special Sweetheart,” was recorded at Oz Studio, as were key albums by other D.C. bands like Shudder To Think and Girls Against Boys. That year, Jawbox played on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and opened for Stone Temple Pilots in arenas. But the band remained a cult favorite and never severed ties with their hometown music scene, eventually reissuing their Atlantic albums on Dischord.

After Jawbox’s breakup, Robbins fronted several other bands, including Burning Airlines, and began producing and engineering influential albums by indie and emo bands including The Promise Ring, Against Me! and the Dismemberment Plan. He founded the first iteration of Magpie Cage in Waverly after moving with his wife, Janet Morgan, to Baltimore in 2002, finding it more affordable to buy a house here than in Washington.

“I always loved being here,” Robbins said. “If you wanna be creative, for me, it’s better to live somewhere you can actually afford to live. And I just felt like Baltimore was always so cool because it was a livable city in a way that allowed people to let their freak flags fly.”

When Robbins found out the Oz space was available in 2011, he jumped at the opportunity, and the Johnston Square studio has been Magpie Cage’s permanent home ever since.

“I was traveling all over the place, y’know, to make records in Spain and on the West Coast and in the Midwest,” Robbins said. “And every studio I’d walk into, this was the live room that I was dreaming of. This was like the benchmark for me of ‘What should a drum room sound like?’ and ‘How should it feel?’ There’s a lot of great places, but this was just the one that stuck in my head.”

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Robbins began writing songs on his own at home more often in his early years in Baltimore, but he’d still form new bands, Channels and Office of Future Plans, to perform and record those songs. “I didn’t have the gumption to imagine I would release a quote-unquote ‘solo record,’” he said. “It just seemed very alien to me, but a band I understood.”

Eventually, though, he got comfortable with the idea of making albums under his own name, and the second J. Robbins solo album, “Basilisk,” was released on Dischord this year. Robbins and his band will play a Maryland tour this summer with shows throughout the state in support of the album, including headlining Panoply at the Frederick Arts Center on June 9.

“Basilisk” features a bold mix of sounds, including strobing synthesizers on the opening track “Automaticity” and pedal steel guitar on “Not the End.” Even “Last War,” a guitar-driven track that might hold the most immediate appeal for fans of Jawbox’s ’90s albums, was initially composed in a very different form.

“‘Last War’ was entirely a synth song, and I was really happy with how it sounded. But I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never be able to play this in front of anybody with any kind of feeling of that same impact of a band.’ So I just learned the right-hand keyboard part on guitar, which was cool because it made me play guitar in a way that I’m not used to playing,” Robbins said. “And then there was latitude for [Robbins’ former bandmate] Darren [Zentek] to come up with a drum part that was super cool.”

J. Robbins views the chalk-drawn artwork by the bands that worked with him within the halls of his recording studio, Magpie Cage, on May 29, 2024, in Baltimore. (Eric Thompson for The Baltimore Banner)

Robbins may have the best of both worlds, continuing his own music while helping others realize their creative visions. In his work as a producer, artists come from all over the country to record with him at Magpie Cage, but a dazzling variety of notable Baltimore artists have made albums there, including Roomrunner, Thank You, Low Moda, Dope Body, Andy Bopp, June Star, Liars Academy and Natural Velvet.

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One of the most acclaimed albums Robbins produced for a Baltimore band was Ponytail’s 2008 breakthrough, “Ice Cream Spiritual,” which Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson wrote had “a sense of joy that’s nothing short of infectious.” Ponytail guitarist Dustin Wong said Robbins put in preproduction time to understand the band’s unique sound before capturing it on their definitive album.

“J. came to the practice space, which was the size of a small bedroom, and basically squeezed next to the drum kit, with earplugs on of course, to understand our sound and energy in a very direct way,” Wong said. “There was a certain specific fidelity that came between high and low, that a lot of musicians were striving for at the time, and it was a kind of redefined realism that diverted from the super hi-fi to something more relatable. The final mix represented the room we are in, a reproduction of the room we wrote and practiced in. This type of realism is one aspect of J.’s production.”

Shawna Potter and Brooks Harlan have recorded several albums with J. Robbins over the last two decades, both with their feminist hardcore band War On Women and their previous band Avec. And Harlan has even played bass on Robbins’ solo albums. That working relationship has extended to Potter and Harlan’s business, Big Crunch Amplifier Service & Design, which set up shop in the same building as Magpie Cage.

“It’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship we have with Magpie Cage. We’re right there if something breaks down in the middle of a session, or if an out-of-town band will be there for a good bit of time, they can bring an amp they’re not using and we can fix it up,” Potter says. “I really love J.’s bedside manner, so to speak. He stays calm and kind when he’s asking me to ‘just do one more take’ when he knows I’m getting frustrated or worried about my voice giving out, but also knows I can do better. It’s a fine line to know when to push for more and when to call it, and he’s good at figuring that out.”

Brooks Harlan, owner of amplifier repair company Big Crunch, works out of his shop located in Magpie Cage Recording Studio on May 29, 2024 in Baltimore. (Eric Thompson for The Baltimore Banner)

The Baltimore trio Manners Manners draws heavily on the sound of ’90s indie rock, and the music they’ve recorded at Magpie Cage — including their 2018 “First In Line” EP and next month’s album “I Held Their Eyes I Kissed Them All” — has benefited from the input of a veteran of that era.

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“The history of that room and J.’s long list of credits both drew Manners Manners to it, and it was definitely intimidating to make that initial call, and then to load in our gear for the first time. But being at Magpie and working with J., I was able to transform my starstruck jitters into something that felt more like being blessed by all that experience and history,” said singer/guitarist Jack Pinder. “With the studio, you’re both a guest and utilizing the room as a tool. How does someone even begin to cultivate a space that does all of that and hold all those roles simultaneously? I have no clue, but J. does it expertly and generously.”

The studio’s enigmatic name was inspired by a book Robbins read, which collected letters mailed a century ago to the California facility that housed the historic Hooker telescope.

Two that captured Robbins’s imagination were written by a woman living in a lighthouse in New Zealand, who wrote that she’d met aliens from another planet who came to Earth in machines called “magpie cages.” He wrote a Channels song, “To Mt. Wilson from the Magpie Cage,” inspired by the works. “These letters are so poignant because the woman was so alone, you know?” Robbins said. Soon after, a friend suggested he use Magpie Cage as the name of his home studio, and it stuck as the name of his subsequent studio spaces.

Having a creative outlet is a vital part of Robbins’ life, even in the darkest of times. At one point in our conversation, Robbins took a long pause, collecting his thoughts and speaking slowly as he brought up a sensitive topic.

“My son Callum was born in 2006; he passed away in 2020,” he said. “He was diagnosed with a very severe disability at six months of age, at which point, I thought, ‘Well, now is really time for me to be present, as a father, as a husband, you know, to deal with this challenge that we didn’t see coming, and I shouldn’t do music.’ So I really tried to live up to that, and I found that if I thought it was necessary to kind of cut my creativity out of my life, what ended up happening was, I was not very happy.”

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The Robbins family had lovingly rallied their community in Baltimore and beyond around their son, throwing benefit concerts and putting together the 2007 compilation album “For Callum,” which raised funds for the medical expenses associated with his rare neurological disorder, spinal muscular atrophy.

Eventually, Robbins was able to fit songwriting back into his life, resulting in an Office of Future Plans album in 2011 and his first solo album in 2019. Producing other people’s albums has been his job for a long time now, but making records of his own is a calling that Robbins is newly rededicated to.

“I know I always wanna be involved with music, I love recording bands, I love every aspect of studio life,” he said. “But I also want to write songs, and I’m gonna write songs until I keel over and die, and I’m gonna want to sing them in front of people.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the title of Manners Manners' 2018 EP.

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