Jeff Rosenstock is a regular guy. That’s the best part about him, and the part that makes him so relatable to the people who listen to his band, Bomb the Music Industry!. As I caught up with him outside Sneaky Dee’s on Saturday, where the band was to play later that night, he was decked out in jean shorts and a band t-shirt, nonchalantly munching down a street hot dog. Most importantly, he’s extremely nice; he gave me a longer interview than I’ve done with anyone else thus far, and though I had already paid for my ticket, told me he’d put me on the guestlist for the show – and I didn’t even ask. Just by looking at him, you wouldn’t be able to tell that this is the man who’s been pushing punk music forward for the past few years.
Giving a new meaning to the term DIY, Rosenstock has released all of Bomb the Music Industry’s six full-lengths, one EP, and two split EPs for free, legally, through his self-run, entirely donation-based record label, Quote Unquote Records. To date, the label has now put out fifty-one albums since its inception in 2005, including stuff by Laura Stevenson and the Cans, The Wild, O Pioneers!!, and a whole bunch of other fantastic, unique bands. And he just started a physical record label with Dave Garwacke of online punk 'zine If You Make It. They also do a lot of unorthodox things in regards to their live show. When they started out, it was mostly Jeff playing by himself, with an iPod filling in the backing tracks, and fans were encouraged to bring there own instruments and come up to play the songs that they knew, a practice that they still, though rarely, uphold - at the Toronto show, a fan was brought on-stage to play guitar for "Stuff That I Like" (NOTE: the namesake of this blog, what whaattt?) after much heckling. While they do full band tours, Rosenstock occasionally finds time to go on tour by himself, using the old iPod for support again. At shows, the BtMI! guys will gladly burn their albums for any fans who bring empty CDs with them, even though they’ve started selling them physically, as well as spray-paint t-shirts for anyone who brings them a blank shirt, even though they’ve started selling shirts of their own.
Of course, all this would mean nothing if the music was bad. Luckily, BtMI! are an extremely unique band, creating cacophonous, frenzied, occasionally beautiful, and most importantly, intelligent punk music that examines the existential frustrations of life that any twenty-something has or soon will experience with a whiplash combination of depth and dry, often self-deprecating wit.
As Rosenstock is one of my musical heroes, this interview has been the crux of my career as a journalist thus
far, and I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it!
Let’s talk about the tour you’re currently on first. Who are you touring with, where have you been, and where are you going?
We’re touring with The Sidekicks from Ohio. This is our fourth day of the tour. We’ve done a little bit of Canada before, but this is our first time here in like three years. And we were in New Hampshire the day before we came to Canada, because…it’s in between New York and Canada [laughs].
Is this your first Canadian stop?
This is our third day. So we were in Ottawa yesterday and Montreal the first day.
And where are you going afterwards?
London [Ontario], and then Michigan.
On the Bomb the Music Industry! Tumblr, you posted that the tour was going to be a fundraiser of sorts for 1-800-SUICIDE, an emergency suicide helpline. What’s going on with that?
Well, I don’t have a phone; I think they might be meeting up with us when we get back over to America,
because I don’t know if 1-800-SUICIDE is something over here.
Yeah, we’ve got Kids Help Phone here.
Yeah, so I guess it wouldn’t really make sense in Canada. I don’t know, I really like the charity. We had thought about, instead of releasing a single or song or whatever before the record came out…instead of releasing it through some bullshit music blog that’s just an aggregate of fucking press releases, we thought “well, we’re going to make people go to a website to hear a song, why not make them go to something that’s good.” Something that’s helpful. From that, Reese [Butler, founder of 1-800-SUICIDE] had the idea that we’d make this the 1-800-SUICIDE tour, and get those people to come out. But that hasn’t happened yet; I’m not exactly sure when that’s going to happen.
Your newest record, Vacation, has a lot of extended instrumentation; strings, wind instruments, that sort of the thing. With that being said, what’s the band setup like for this tour?
We still have the same five of us who can barely play the guitars and basses and drums that we’re equipped with, not to mention all the bells and whistles, which we also cannot play very well [laughs].
Is this your first Canadian headlining tour? Because the last time you guys were here, in 2008, you were opening for Mustard Plug.
The first time we were here, we did a headlining Canadian tour, which was 2007, right when Get Warmer came out. That was mostly houses and weird spaces, and stuff like that. So it wasn’t like “it’s the headlining tour!” I don’t really think this is either, it’s just kind of like…we’re on tour by ourselves! But we’re on tour with The Sidekicks, I guess this is a headlining tour. Weird. I guess that’s what we’re doing! [Laughs]
Let’s talk about Vacation a little bit. What were your intentions going into recording the album, in regards to where you wanted to go with your sound and the lyrics?
When I started writing it…or I guess I can’t say when I started writing it, but I just started writing one or two things that didn’t have such huge fucking bummer lyrics. I wanted to try and have a record that isn’t completely a bummer record, because I feel like all the records – maybe not Get Warmer – but most of them are just like really intense bum-outs. And it’s not like it’s all “waaah waah waaah”, but when you talk about the stuff that’s frustrating you over and over again, at least for me, I didn’t want to feel like the kind of person who’s only talking about that stuff forever. I mean, there’s a fair share of songs on Vacation that are kind of…well, not complain-y, but…yeah, I guess I really just didn’t want it to be complain-y. I wanted it to be like “this is bad, and this is good, and that’s fine. Everything’s going to be fine.” I just didn’t want to whine about shit. So that ended up making it a more positive record, because I started writing stuff that was like “this is cool!” and then I was writing other stuff that was like “mmm, I dunno”. I didn’t want to fall back into the old traps; I didn’t want to become a caricature of the last bunch of Bomb the Music Industry! records, so it made sense for us to have a record that sounded a little bit different, and lyrically was a bit different. I like it; I think it’s our best one! But I think anybody who puts out any piece of art a month ago is going to hopefully think it’s their best one. They’re not going to be like “well, this one sucks!” Maybe next time [laughs].
It’s funny, because I saw NOFX a little while ago and they were like “we’re going to play a song from our newest album Coaster! We know it’s not that great, but it’s better than some of our other stuff right!?”
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean, NOFX is NOFX; there’s no equivalent to how they do things. They pull off shit that nobody else can pull off [laughs].
On this record, you branch out a little bit, using a lot of never-before-used instruments; you’ve taken on the role of something of an arranger. You’ve also grown away from ska – was that a conscious effort? Did you say to yourself “I’m going to write some music that isn’t ska”?
Well for the first thing, there’ve always been really intricate arrangements. It was even over-arranged, and it was what I liked doing. But on this one, I tried to give the parts a little bit more room to breathe, so you could actually hear the stuff, instead of just a complete wall of 8-bit strings, horns, keyboards, organs, pianos, guitars – everything all at once. I’ve done that a bunch on a bunch of records, and I just wanted to do something different. I think with the ska stuff, especially after [their 2010 EP] Adults!!!, which was a really genuine…I don’t want to say “attempt”, but we were genuinely aiming to recapture a lot of the spirit of the music that we were listening to when we were growing up, because I think the general tone of the record is a lot about childhood and shit like that, and also about the idea that the older you get, you’re supposed to be fucking bored of everything. So that was a conscious decision to do that. But then I couldn’t really think of any interesting ways to approach making ska music, and a lot of the ska music I like now is not the stuff that I’m particularly good at doing. I’m not good at making Toots and the Maytals or Jimmy Cliff kind of shit; I don’t have that kind of voice, and it’s not Jamaica in the 70s, and we don’t have those kinds of amps, and I’m just not good at writing those songs; I’m kind of good at writing – or I’m comfortable with writing – busy stuff. So it was just a matter of I didn’t want to put stuff on there that I wasn’t 100 percent behind. I just really was not feeling that when writing this record. At the point that I realized it was like that, I was like “okay, I’m purposely not gonna fall into the trap and just put a ska part here because people who listen to our band are expecting that”. I didn’t do that when I was worried about it particularly being not well received. It was just like “Well fuck it, if people aren’t going to like this record, than they would have not liked the record three records from now”. So it wasn’t like a “we hate ska” thing or anything; it’s just not really where our heads are at, right now.
I noticed on the liner notes to Vacation, it actually says “Bomb the Music Industry! is:” and has a list of five guys. Does this mean you’ve reached a point where Bomb the Music Industry! is more of a band now, as opposed to the collective it used to be?
The thing is, when we were here three years ago with Mustard Plug, it was the same five people; I don’t think our drummer made it.
Nah, he didn’t; I really wanted to play at that show!
Ah, you should have done it!
Oh, did you not have a drum set?
Yeah, there was no kit! The Mustard Plug guy wouldn’t let you use his kit.
Fuckin’ Nate [Cohn, drummer of Mustard Plug][laughs]! But yeah, this five has been in the band for the past three years; since I moved back to New York it’s been basically these five people. Laura [Stevenson, current frontwoman of Laura Stevenson and the Cans], Neil [Callaghan], Christine [Mackie], and Sean [McCabe] used to float a lot, but now Neil lives in Georgia, Christine’s working all the time, Sean’s working all the time, and Laura is obviously really going full steam with her thing, so it’s kind of just these five people in the band. I like the collective thing, but there comes a point where you have like eighty fucking songs; it’s hard to keep up. Even when Laura, Neil, Christine or Sean jumps on-stage with us, they really can’t play anything off the new record because they don’t know anything! It’s like, Neil knows a song because he played on one song, and Sean knows like, the mandolin part only for the song [laughs]. So on this record it sort of felt more like it was us five working together. And on Adults!!! it said “Bomb the Music Industry is:” with those eight people, on Quote Unquote; we had Christine, Laura and Neil on there too, because it really did feel like the eight of us working together on that.
When you started up Bomb the Music Industry!, after your previous band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches broke up, what was the point where you decided not to go to a record label, and do your own thing, releasing all of your material for free?
I think that point was immediate. That was the first thing that happened; I think that happened before even the idea of calling it something. I wasn’t even sure – it was just going to be like “Jeff Rosenstock puts a song on the internet” for the first couple of songs that came out. And then I wanted to start a hardcore band called Bomb the Music Industry! and I was like “well, I like that name, it’s pretty appropriate for this thing I’m doing.” So it was really just right off the bat - I wanted to be a band that, if someone wants to hear the songs, they can hear the songs and they don’t have to be worried about downloading them illegally on like Kazaa or…what else was around? Limewire was around, Acquisition was around, but you’d get viruses and shit, and I just didn’t want that to fuckin’ be a thing! Everybody’s record is free on the internet anyway, and I just wanted people to get the right version of it, instead of some fucking virus-laden, cracked-out, shitty bitrate version of it. Which is funny because now the leaked versions are better than the ones I put up on Quote Unquote, apparently.
Really? I waited until release date so I wouldn’t know.
There was a leak website that I used to be part of the community of called What.cd – well, not part of the community; I used to get stuff from there – and my internet connection isn’t that great, and it’s really hard to torrent stuff there, so after a certain amount of time I got kicked off. And then Vacation leaked there [laughs]. And then I wrote them and I was like “Hey! So I got kicked off your site for not sharing enough music, but like…all the shit I’ve just been working on for months is up there now before it comes out, so I think I should be allowed back on your site,” and they were like “Well, you should leak your own records here, man”. I fucking do leak my own records, when it’s fucking time appropriate! So, I don’t know, it’s weird how that comes full circle.
When you started BtMI!, it was just you releasing some of your own songs for free; in just six years, it’s now grown to a full band, you’re touring constantly, and at least in the more underground scene, you’re sort of known as the punk band now. Did you ever expect it to explode like it has?
[Laughs] It’s weird. I didn’t expect anybody to ever listen to anything. At the same time, we work really hard and we want people to listen to it – I just can’t believe anybody did! I can’t believe we’re able to go on tour, and we’re able to bring our friends The Sidekicks out, who we think are a fantastic band – it’s cool that we can do that, and have a little bit of success doing it! That’s always a neat thing; we took Laura Stevenson and the Cans out really early on, we took Cheap Girls out a little while ago…It’s really fun for us to be able to take our friends out who we think are fantastic, and for us to be able to get them heard. It’s cool that anybody comes to see us, and it’s neat that we can have them hear these other bands we think are good because of that.
As someone who used to do everything yourself, including programming drums and stuff, when you guys are songwriting now, how much of a collaborative effort is it?
Every record, there is an Album Minus Band [their 2005 debut] version; of Get Warmer, Scrambles, Vacation, and Adults!!!. On Adults!!! there was a little bit less because we did it so quick and I was like “I know what the vocals are guys, you don’t need me to do that to be able to play these songs”. For Vacation there’s definitely a no-band version that exists, where the arrangements are pretty much the same – it’s me playing all this stuff and programming drums. I think that when we bring it to everybody little stuff changes, and there’s stuff on the band-free version of Vacation that I didn’t like, and I knew I didn’t like it while I was doing it. I was just like “I’m gonna put this here now because I know something has to go here, but I want to change it.” Especially “Everybody That Loves You” and “Felt Just Like Vacation” – the back half of those songs are completely different than they were on the demo, just because the demo ones were like “well, here’s some other bullshit”, and I just didn’t think it was very interesting. And that took talks with everybody to get it to be good.
I think that worked out, because the ending of “Everybody That Loves You” is awesome – one of my favourite songs on the album.
Thanks, man! [Laughs]
Is there any chance of those no-band versions seeing the light of day?
Not really. I mean, never say never, but I don’t know. I put out some of the demos for Get Warmer beforehand and it was always just the “oh, the demos were better, the demos are so much better!” and I just hate that shit so much. So I don’t bother putting out the demos anymore. I don’t know; maybe if I’m strapped for cash and people are buying CDs again, we’ll put out the deluxe edition, with the Pavement style 48-page booklet inside and really nice printing for 25 bucks. But for now, that shit’s just going to be kept to us.
Now you actually re-recorded one of the songs, “Everybody That You Love”.
Yeah, we just re-recorded it because the 7” was recorded a little while ago on different mics and different amps, and we wanted to have a sense of continuity to it. It wasn’t like “We really evolved so much by playing this song live for a year!” We actually literally changed nothing [laughs]. We took out the drum hits at the beginning because we were like “well, we should make it different somehow, so you know how it’s different”. [the interview pauses for a second as an ambulance drives by with horns blaring] Oh, I gotta go, that’s my ride [laughs].
[Laughs] Alright, so you just started an actual, physical record label, Really Records, along with Dave Garwacke from If You Make It [a DIY punk website]. Can you talk about that a bit? So far you’ve only released Vacation; can you tell us anything about any future releases?
We have people who we’re talking to, but we can’t confirm anything. I can’t tell anyone else about it because it’s not all recorded and shit like that – we’re just trying to work stuff out. But yeah, there are a bunch of bands that we think are really, really, really good and we really want other people to hear. I’m lucky enough that people pay attention to what Bomb the Music Industry! does and Quote Unquote, and Dave’s lucky enough to have people who pay attention to If You Make It, so we figured “let’s combine forces and start a real thing and build something nice that can be a little community for all of our little weirdo pop bands that we’re both into”.
Are there any plans to re-release any Quote Unquote stuff physically on Really Records?
No; I think Adults!!! is eventually going to be on Really Records, but that’s it. We definitely went into it with the intention of putting out new records; we don’t want to re-release records. We want to put them out right, where people know about them. We’re begrudgingly traversing the gauntlet of press people and all of that stuff. We lucked out – the people we used for press and radio on Vacation were so super nice and they don’t act like publicists at all, they’re just regular cool folks. The people who have been dealing with us are like “You guys have a great PR guy, he’s the nicest guy in the world!”, which is cool. We just want to care about the records we put out, and we want other people to care about them too – that’s the main crux of the record label.
So what does this mean for Quote Unquote? Are you going to be releasing the records simultaneously on that and Really Records, or will they be completely different records on each label?
If you’re on Really Records, you don’t have to do stuff on Quote Unquote; that wouldn’t be fair to Dave because he puts out records for free too, so I think if they’re my buddies who have already put out records on Quote Unquote, we’ll do it there, if it’s his buddies he’ll put it out on If You Make It, and if no one wants to put it anywhere, they don’t have to. If they want to put on their Bandcamp, they can. I’m still running Quote Unquote Records, so I’m still going to try to put out bands that I like on it, but that’s going to be as separate from Really as it can.
This is a purely selfish question: has there been any talk about any new [Quote Unquote Records bands] Cold Electrics or Roar releases?
Both of them are working on something! I’ve heard a little bit of the Cold Electrics stuff, and it’s awesome. I don’t what Roar is doing; I think his drummer just moved, which is a bummer, but it’s just Owen [Evans] who does all the stuff on the records, pretty much. Owen and a couple of buddies. But I imagine it’s going to amazing! That’s the best thing on Quote Unquote, that Roar EP. That’s my favourite thing. I like everything on Quote Unquote, but that Roar thing blew me away.
After six years, you now have a physical record label, and (gasp!) have started selling t-shirts. Is there a reason that you’re recently shifting into these somewhat more conventional ideas of what bands do? Have you always wanted to do this stuff, but have never been able to?
I never wanted to [laughs]. Straight up, it’s just a matter of us being like “if we want to tour as much as people want us to tour, we have to do this.” The original intention was just like “alright, be in a band, fuckin’ don’t sell anything, and do whatever we want”, but it’s pretty exciting and we’re pretty fortunate to have people who want us to be out there, so we just tried to figure out a way to make it work. We’re all in our late 20s; we’re not coming home to our parent’s houses or not paying rent. If we’re going to be on tour, we need to figure out how we’re going to pay rent, so that’s kind of why the t-shirts and stuff came in. In terms of the record label, I just want to put out my friends’ records because I think my friends put out incredible music, and I want to try to help other people here.
How did your other project Kudrow start, and is there any talk of new material?
Yeah, in like three years we’ll have another song [laughs]. Mike [Campbell] and Dave [Garwacke] are both on tour now [with Laura Stevenson and the Cans]. We’re all doing our thing. At the time, we weren’t doing anything and I had a practice space where I was recording Scrambles. I was still paying money for it – not much, like 30 bucks a month to go in when nobody else had the room. I’m friends with Dave and Mike, and they used to live together, then stopped living together, and I didn’t like that I couldn’t hang out with both of them at the same time , so I was like “let’s start a band, where it’s just the three of us!” I had written a few songs, and Mike came up with some stuff, and that was it! Kudrow actually started with me playing drums, Mike playing bass, Laura Stevenson playing lead guitar, and Matt Keegan [current member of BtMI!] singing and playing guitar, and then after one practice we were like “Yeah….cool….that’s that” [laughs].
Just a few more questions to finish up here; what future plans are there for BtMI! after this tour?
I think we’re gonna tour the South in November. I’m doing some iPod stuff in Brazil and Australia, which is pretty fucking awesome.
Cool! Is that the first time you’re going down there?
Yeah! It was just somebody being like “I want you to play here” and I’d be like “alright, give me a plane ticket”, and they were like “okay!” And it was like, really, that’s all I had to do? So that’s pretty exciting. But yeah, we really like this record a lot, so we’re going to try and get some people to hear it, and hopefully some people will like it; I think that’s just our plan right now.
What’s the one question that you wish a journalist would ask you that you’ve never been asked before?
Uh…. “Can I give you fifty bucks?” and the answer would be yes [laughs].
Is there anything else you want to say before we’re done?
Nah; just thanks for talking to me, and thanks anybody who’s reading this for reading it, and for caring that five fucking idiots are doing anything. I’m amazed that I’m in another country right now eating hot dogs, drinking beer and hanging out with my buddies, because I was sad and in my old bedroom in my parents’ house, and it’s cool that that got me here.