Now/It's: An Interview with Robbie Jackson (Keeps, Liza Anne)

What is it like to spend life away from home and on the road for weeks at a time? If you're like the majority of folks, you're fairly unfamiliar with such a concept. If you're a musician, you're likely all too familiar with the cramped confines of a fifteen passenger van, fighting boredom through the Badlands between gigs. Now imagine multiplying that feeling by two, and you have the annual schedule of Robbie Jackson. One half of the creative brain behind Nashville's shoegazers extraordinaire, Keeps, as well as the self-proclaimed "niche" guitar man for melancholic maestro Liza Anne, Jackson is one of Nashville's most in-demand touring guitarists. On top of a such a fact, Jackson is also one of the sharpest and most clever people in town, to boot. Now/It's caught up with Robbie during a brief time off the road in early September. As you may have guessed, he's back on the road with Liza Anne as they tour in support of the folk-pop phenomenon Joseph.

Now/It's met with Robbie Jackson at Portland Brew, in the 12 South Neighborhood of Nashville. 

Robbie - Is this like You Made It Weird [Comedian Pete Holmes’ Podcast]? Is it already going?

N/I - [Laughs] Yeah. Good call. There have been a couple times when I thought leaving a phone precariously placed in the middle of a table would make it apparent that there’s recording happening, but sometimes it works out pretty nicely.

Robbie - [Laughs] You’re the next Pete Holmes.

N/I - Hey, I’ll take it. So how long have you been back in town?

Robbie - Sunday, I think? We got back in the afternoon on Sunday, it was good.

N/I - And that run was all with Liza Anne?

Robbie - Right. We were opening up for Margaret [Glaspy] and SUSTO in Charleston.

N/I - How was Margaret?

Robbie - She was incredible.

N/I - Did you interact with them a lot?

Robbie - Yeah! We hung out with them a lot, they’re the sweetest people; really rad.

N/I - So what have you been up to since you’ve been back in town?

Robbie - I’ve been sleeping a lot [laughs]. Kicking it with my girlfriend, hanging art. I don’t have to work until Friday, so things are relaxed. Just a lot of hanging out. Is this going? Like really?

N/I - [Laughs] It is.

Robbie - [Laughs] I’ve never been able to tell with interviews.

N/I - I kind of make things purposefully hard to tell. Sometimes it’s effective, sometimes it’s not.

Robbie - Well it got me [laughs].

N/I - I’ll take that, too, I guess. So how long are you back in town for before your next run out on the road?

Robbie - I’m back in town until, I think September 25th, and then we head out with Joseph, and do three weeks with them? We’ll probably have some more tour stuff pop up at the end of the year, so I’m just hanging out until then. Working, working on Keeps stuff.

N/I - Right, so how has Keeps fallen into place with all this Liza Anne touring?

Robbie - Yeah. It’s a lot of finding out how to make both things work, but since Liza’s album is coming out soon, I’m focusing a lot of attention towards that. I just want to be around for it since I was able to be a part of the album process.

N/I - Sure. But Keeps is not on hold or anything?

Robbie - Oh yeah. Keeps is still for sure the “thing.” We’re just working on new tunes, demoing out and all that.

N/I - Nice. What’s Gusti [Escalante, other member of Keeps] been up during your time on the road?

Robbie - He’s working at NATIVE and also helping with Musicians’ Corner, he’s playing with our buds Summer Palace and a few other people, so he’s just doing that. But we’re finding ways to make things work. It’s fun, but sometimes it can create a little more stress than you would anticipate. There’s a lot of give and take, and then you’re trying to make money in the midst of it.

N/I - Was there any conflict at all? As far as the initial foray into touring with Liza Anne?

Robbie - Not really. I think when I was playing with The Lonely Biscuits, that was an obvious adjustment - having to talk through all that - because it was something that I really wanted to be a part of. But at the same time, ensuring that Keeps got ample attention, I had to work around my schedule with [The Lonely Biscuits]. So I think it’s been an easier process with the Liza stuff, especially with me being more creatively involved with Liza’s process, it makes more sense that I would want to be more of a part of it. It also worked out that when I kind of hit a natural lull in my touring, Liza started to pick up hers. So I guess it worked out, because I’ve always had solid communication with every one of those projects.

N/I - It sounds like it was pretty seamless, then.

Robbie - Yeah. Gusti and I both have our own stuff going on, so it’s cool to do all that.

N/I - Is it a different dynamic? As someone who doesn’t really play music, the dynamics of being - would you consider yourself a session player or touring member for Liza’s tour? How would you define your involvement?

Robbie - I’m definitely a part of her band.

N/I - Okay. Because I’m never able to soundly determine where the point of delineation is with regard to those types of roles.

Robbie - Sure. I’m definitely not a session dude, because I don’t think I’m a “player,” but at the same time, I think I’ve done an okay job of carving out a niche guitar guy role. Luckily, friends want me to be a part of stuff, as well. Sometimes I think I just fooled everyone into thinking I was good at guitar, mostly because I freak out on stage [laughs].

N/I - So what you’re saying is histrionics can go a long way if done right?

Robbie - [Laughs] Sure. Maybe people look at me on stage and might think “Oh, he must be really good,” because I move around the way I do when I play.

N/I - So who was the first non-Keeps band that you went on the road with? Was it The Lonely Biscuits?

Robbie - Yeah. It was the Biscuits. So we did that Biscuits/Keeps tour two years ago, at this point. It was the summer. That was when John [Paterini] was leaving, so I did that for a year and a half, and that was super fun. It was a good time. It’s interesting going out with three different groups and touring pretty extensively.


N/I - Is it three totally separate worlds? Or is there a lot of crossover?

Robbie - I think a little different. I find that I have the most responsibility when I’m on the road with Keeps. It’s still fun, but I’m also doing tour management and everything that comes with that. Then with The Biscuits, it’s just kicking it with three of your best buds for a while and playing fun rock show after fun rock show. Then with Liza, it’s been similar to that - still hanging out and having fun. It’s interesting to work through those dynamics and getting used to sleeping in the same hotel room every night, and figuring out how to make that work is always a goofy part of it all.

N/I - So you do the tour management for Keeps when you’re on the road for them?

Robbie - Yeah. It’s a very light version of tour management.

N/I - Well it’s keeping up with what, four, five guys?

Robbie - It’s five guys, now. Just like that burger spot….

N/I - And it’s you, Gusti, Patrick [Sewalk], and who else?

Robbie - Yeah. Zach and Ben, but it changes around a lot, because we can’t always play shows together at the same time. It’s fun.

N/I - But at its core, it’s still you and Gusti?

Robbie - For sure. We still write all the tunes.

N/I - What’s that like? Is it you handle composition stuff and then he handles lyrics?

Robbie - It kind of goes both ways. We’ll both come to each other with ideas. A lot of times I’ll have a song fleshed out fully in the musical sense, and then he’ll throw lyrics and vocal melodies. Sometimes he comes at me and I’ll throw some “licks” on it. But it’s kind of a different process each song. There’s no real formula to it all. It’s just writing tunes with your bud and trying to make them sound decent.

N/I - So when you write a Keeps song, is it only when you’re back in town? Or are you always thinking about it?

Robbie - I think it’s easiest when I’m back in town - I’ve tried doing writing on the road, but it’s just hard to separate trying to focusing on performing and trying to make it sound good while also working on new stuff. But when I’m home, I’m chipping away.

N/I - Well on the road, do you even have time?

Robbie - This tour with Liza Anne, we for sure didn’t. It’s just so much driving. I wanted to try and demo out some ideas, but the thought just started to become unrealistic. It’d be cool to reach a point where I’m able to write during it. But it was weird being on the road for five weeks and not being able to flex that muscle very much.

N/I - So what would you do otherwise?

Robbie - Did a lot of reading. A lot of driving.

N/I - What did you read?

Robbie - I read Blue Beard by Kurt Vonnegut. I started Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. I went on a big Kurt Vonnegut run [laughs].

N/I - Was that under your own desires? Or was it suggested?

Robbie - Well, I hipped Grady [Wenrich] to Vonnegut when we were on the road, and then he went full blown Vonnegut fanatic. So then I was like “Oh, I guess I really haven’t given a lot of his stuff a shot.” And then Zach Dyke [of COIN] suggested Blue Beard, so then I did it. I spent something ridiculous like $100 at Powell’s Books in Portland, just going for it.

N/I - What did you think of Blue Beard?

Robbie - It was really awesome. Just the way that Kurt Vonnegut writes stories is really incredible. I bought books of his commencement speeches and other writing, too, because he was a really insightful dude. He had a lot of really cool things to say.

N/I - He’s very beatnick-y. That seems to connect more so with people our age now than it has in recent generations.

Robbie - Yeah. Some of the stuff he’s said seem to turn out to be more true with time.

N/I - Well there’s a lot of narrative asides that I think sort of resemble movies, so that might be - not to devalue anyone’s intelligence while reading Vonnegut - but he manages to make understanding things a little easier. Like if you read Vladimir Nabokov, it’s really well written, but he goes on these dense tangents for two or three pages to describe exactly why Lolita, this eleven year old, is attractive to a grown man, Humbert Humbert. Which is just weird, and ultimately, probably not the best example, but Vonnegut’s style is certainly more pithy.

Robbie - Which is something I appreciate a lot. I also bought Infinite Jest, thinking “Maybe I’ll take that with me,” but then I was like “God no.”

N/I - Have you tried reading it at all yet?

Robbie - God no. I know it’s going to be a journey if I even make it twenty pages.

N/I - I read it once, in high school, but it was the classic high school novel approach, skim the pages and then pray that there’s a Cliff Notes version….

Robbie - So you can actually figure out what’s going on.

N/I - And I tried starting it up again last year, and I think I made 130 pages. It’s just a slog.

Robbie - That’s what I’ve heard. I want to understand the greatness of it, because I think David Foster Wallace is so brilliant, and to think that he wrote that as his greatest work and I haven’t read it yet is rough.

N/I - Have you read any of his other works?

Robbie - No. I almost picked up Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, because my brother read that a little while back and said it was really great. That might be a better place to start instead of diving into the magnum opus [laughs].

N/I - Right. Magnum opuses…. Opi? Anyway, they’re always a tenuous endeavor. Did you ever see the David Foster Wallace movie? With Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg?

Robbie - Oh yeah. I think that’s kind of what made me want to explore David Foster Wallace further. Because they did such a good job. You can’t go wrong with Jesse Eisenberg.

N/I - Well he’s a mediocre….

Robbie - Lex Luthor [laughs].

N/I - He had a creative take, that’s for sure.

Robbie - I’m always down with a creative take. I learned very quickly in school that I did not want to deal with the business side music and creativity in general. I’m not a businessman, I’m just about creativity.