Photo: Andy Johnson
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
As a prolific songwriter and performer on the other side of 30, Jeff Rosenstock has a lot of past to contend with in his present. He has spent the last decade self-engineering and releasing albums on the cheap, spray painting fans’ BYO t-shirts on tour, and giving away his entire catalog of brutally honest and heart-on-his-sleeve frenetic punk, ska, broken GameBoy, panic attack of a band Bomb the Music Industry! for absolutely free. And somehow, defying all logic, he has found great success at it.
Jeff’s forthcoming solo full-length debut, We Cool?, has a pervasive theme of fear and self-consciousness that his best days are behind him. The related anxiety of what’s on the horizon is also omnipresent in the album’s 12 songs. “I got so tired of discussing my future that I started avoiding the people I love,” he sings on the new single “Nausea.” Stuck between the past and future; sometimes, the present is a shitty sandwich.
Almost ten years to the day since the release of Bomb’s debut Album Minus Band, and only a few days prior to the release of We Cool? on SideOneDummy Records, I asked Jeff to take a look into the past and rank the BTMI! catalog in order of his personal preference, before his present catches up to his future and maybe we find out what the hell is actually gonna happen to this guy anyway?
[Full disclosure: I’ve been in a band with Jeff, been on tour with him, I co-wrote a song on the BtMI! album Vacation (for which Jeff forgot to give me credit for in the liner notes), and contributed backing vocals to a song on We Cool? (for which he probably also forgot to give me credit for in the liner notes…).]
7. To Leave or Die in Long Island (2005)
Noisey: The songs on To Leave Or Die… are almost all of the tracks were staples of your live set even up until the end. Why does this end up as your least favorite LP?
Jeff Rosenstock: I don’t know. It’s hard to rank these because I think all the records have at least some redeemable qualities, but I feel like the songs on this one got to be a little too much. Like “Beard Of Defiance” and “Showerbeers!”: I don’t hate either of those songs, but they kind of led to the next two or three years of people coming up to me at house shows and being like “WHATS UP, BRO?! LET’S GET FUCKIN’ TRASHED! YEAH! THAT SHIT’S GAY! THIS SHIT’S DOPE!” And I’m like, “Ughhh.”
Creatively, this one was less collaborative. On Album Minus Band, Laura (Stevenson) wrote a song on it, (Arrogant Sons Of Bitches member) Sean Qualls wrote a song on it. On To Leave Or Die…, it was all 100 percent me. Maybe I feel like it was a step back. Maybe this one should have been a band record. We were playing shows as a full band during this period, but I was still recording everything on my own. That could be why I feel the weirdest about this one. Even though that’s not that weird.
6. Goodbye Cool World! (2006)
Next, you’ve got Goodbye Cool World.
This was definitely, for me, taking drum machines and home programming as far as I could take it. I like it. I think it has a lot of really weird stuff on it. But there are also songs on there that we have never played live, that maybe would have been better as b-sides. But I don’t feel negatively about it.
Did the fact that you moved to a remote area of Queens, isolated from your friends and family, during the period of writing and recording this record kind of influence your decision to turn further inward and rely only on yourself for the production?
It was a combination of moving to Queens and never having people come visit me, and also the fact that when this record came out, people in the band sort of started saying, “Whoa I can’t tour and play in this band. This is too crazy” and I started doing iPod solo touring for the first time. I realized it was working somehow, and it led to being able to experiment more wildly. I didn’t have to figure out how to play the songs live with other people, it was more “I may not ever play live with other people again.” So that led to the production of this record being the way that it was. This was also the first Quote Unquote Records release.
So this record was kind of a watershed moment for BTMI. Lots of changes seemed to be happening that would dictate the arc of the band’s narrative. Do you look back on it differently because of that?
Every record I made was a turning point to some extent. But as far as starting Quote Unquote, and going on the iPod tour and not selling anything in the way of merch or records, and somehow coming home with money to pay rent… it was kind of working. This may have been the biggest turning point, yeah. And it’s a fucking crazy record.
5. Get Warmer (2007)
Why is Get Warmer in the lower half of this list?
I like Get Warmer better than the previous two records that were both just me by myself because it was the first time recording Bomb with a band, and it sounded cool with actual people playing. I put it in a different world than the previous two because of that. It was the most fun I had making a record. But because it was the first live band record, I think maybe some of the songs weren’t ready or hadn’t fully been developed. Like “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” when we played it live later, it sounded right. On the album it sounds like it wasn’t quite there yet. Like maybe we hadn’t figured out how to make a band record yet. But I think “493 Ruth” turned out fucking awesome. I think “Get Warmer” turned out fucking awesome. I wish we played more off it. I wish we played the ska songs that were on it. But nobody wanted to. [Laughs]
4. Adults!!!: Smart!!! Shithammered!!! And Excited By Nothing!!! (2010)
This record always seemed like the logical bridging of the gap between Scrambles and Vacation. Stylistically, the songs could have fit on either record. Why did you decide to put out this mini-album/longish EP thing instead of including the best of these tracks on the next LP?
I was planning on putting out a series of seven-inch singles after Scrambles, but that became overly complicated and I never did anything. So I had all these songs just fucking sitting there and I couldn’t get past them. One night, I went out to see Laura play and a bunch of the BTMI and ASOB guys were there. I told them I had a bunch of songs and was just going to make another bedroom EP, and they were all like, “Why would you do that? Why don’t we just do it?” and I was like, “But then you’ll have to learn all these songs, and we’ll have to record it.” And they were still saying, “Fuck yeah! Let’s just do it.” Which was the opposite reaction I had received in the past, and it felt great. This more so than any other record, we all contributed, we did it all ourselves, we’re all on every song doing things.
I wanted to make a good ska punk record again. A lot of the lyrics are about childhood and I thought it would be a fun thing to focus on those points lyrically, about how a lot of the shit in your childhood fucks up your ability to later be an adult. I thought having the music of my childhood in there would be a good way of doing that. Also, I had written a few songs for Vacation at this time, and I had a feeling that album was going to not have a lot to do with ska. I felt a lot more comfortable knowing that when we put out Vacation, the record before it was a ska punk record so it wasn’t totally becoming “hipster douchebag talking shit about all the stuff that was important to me growing up.” I never wanted to be that band that was like, “No! We don’t play ska!” so if anyone tried to call us on that shit with Vacation, I could say, “Hey, a year ago we put out this ska punk record. Leave me alone!”
3. Album Minus Band (2005)
Next you’ve got your first record, Album Minus Band.
This record was kind of terrifying to make, but it was also really honest. It’s a really fucked up sounding, pure record from someone who doesn’t know how to use a thing, recording-wise. It got me out of whatever shitty path I was on had I not done this. This could have been the number one record for me on this list.
Why isn’t it?
I think the songs are better on the other two (Scrambles and Vacation). I was at a different place as a songwriter ten years ago than I am now. And I’m closer now in personal taste to the two later records than I was with this one.
How does production quality affect your view of the album in hindsight? For instance, the constant anti-theft hissing noise throughout the record to prevent you from using the trial versions of plug-ins, and stolen recording software that made up this record.
Is hearing that stuff at all like nails on a chalkboard to you at this point? Or are you psyched that’s the way the album came together and that you were able to overcome the circumstance and just do it?
I think this record is the spirit of the whole Bomb the Music Industry! thing. If you can’t afford something, or there’s a bunch of shit in your way, fuck it! Just make a record anyway. Just write songs and do your thing. There’s not a record that encapsulates that more than this one.
2. Scrambles (2009)
What makes Scrambles deserving of the silver medal?
For the longest time at shows, if we had Get Warmer or Scrambles LPs to sell and people would ask which one to get, I’d tell them Get Warmer. It had this deliberate theme of picking up and moving to Georgia, whereas Scrambles sort of became unintentionally about moving back to New York and, in retrospect, I think did a better job of embodying the period of bouncing around and being all over the place with Scrambles. Looking back, I can say “Oh, OK. I did alright there!” Then there are the two weird songs in the third quarter of the record that jump out and just don’t fit, but maybe that’s good.
The hardcore song (“Gang Of Four Meets The Stooges, But Boring”), and the math-rock song (“9-11 Fever”). They just step out of the theme, but maybe that’s OK because then it’s not beating you over the head with it.
1. Vacation (2011)
Do you think most fans would agree that Vacation is the best Bomb record?
I don’t think so. But you know, it’s all perspective. All of my favorite records by bands I like are usually the first or second record I heard by them, and I don’t think Vacation is the first record that people heard from Bomb the Music Industry! It sounds different to me than the other records. It’s a shift.
You were pulling from a lot of different influences on this record than previous records, and those influences are a bit more on your sleeve.
All those influences have always been in there, but maybe this was the first time my approach wasn’t “Alright, how am I going to fuck this up and make it INSANE?” You know? Those influences came out more here. Like, we’re not the kind of band that people who like Dillinger Four and Hot Water Music are necessarily going to like. That was always the world that I thought we were a part of. Once I realized that we were orbiting punk in our own weird way, along with bands like Andrew Jackson Jihad and Good Luck and Laura Stevenson and the Cans and The Sidekicks, where we just kind of made records and weren’t thinking about if they were punk or indie or whatever, we were just making records. That made this record have a bit of a different tone. I got the courage to say, “Fuck it, I’m going to make the record that I want to make and I know some people are going to not like it no matter what.” No matter what, there’s going to be reviews that say my voice is shitty. No matter what, the punk kids are going to say, “This is too slow, this used to be better, blah blah blah.” So I was just going to keep on keeping on.
It’s pretty cool that your personal favorite of your band’s albums is also its swansong. But does it leave you feeling at all that maybe you called it quits when things with the band were on an upward trajectory and could have continued going that way, rather than having reached its peak with this album and the period of time in which it came out?
We got a song on the TV shows Weeds and The Office, and I think that gave the perception that things were blowing up for us, but it wasn’t, really. Those were just two lucky things that we got. We weren’t on this crazy upward swing. I was still emailing places to book shows and not getting emails back, and having a hard time booking tours. It was like that up until the fucking last show that we played. That was kind of always the story with Bomb the Music Industry! So, unfortunately, being the person dealing with all that stuff, I never got to appreciate or really even notice any upward trajectory.
But writing this record, and especially the last songs on it, was definitely a feeling of “if these are going to be the last songs, I want them to be good last songs.” “Felt Just Like Vacation,” I still get goose bumps lyrically. I don’t know why. I’m really proud of the way the end of that record came together. The band ending was going to happen no matter what, but I’m happy we ended with my favorite record. Vacation felt like what the band had always been building towards. Even if a bunch of people think that I’m a giant indie rock wuss because of it.
Mike Campbell has played in the bands Latterman and Kudrow, and currently performs with Laura Stevenson. He is on Twitter @mikedcampbell