Bomb the Music Industry!’s Jeff Rosenstock: Poster boy for manic depression in DIY rock’n’roll

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Get in the pit.
PHOTO BY DAN HALLIGAN.

To get a feel for why Jeff Rosenstock plays the way he does, you have to go back almost a decade to the sweaty, now-defunct scene in New Jersey and Long Island that caught the tail-end of the big ska-punk boom and the beginning of the emo explosion.

In the late ‘90s-early 2000s, word-of-mouth was still king in that local music scene. Many bands, like Rosenstock’s pre-Bomb the Music Industry! group, the Arrogant Sons of Bitches, entertained consistently at all-age, low-budget shows. It got to a point where kids in nearly every skank pit in the area knew the band’s songs by heart. They had no real radio play, and were seen mostly on shaky handheld video camera footage from Bloomfield Ave Cafe or the like, but still were on tour forever, had discernable sing-along singles, and (almost) released a split in Japan.

Personally, I remember coming home from their shows realizing I knew all the words to a song that wasn’t on any of the albums I owned. They had a frenetic, punkish wall-of-sound that required so many members that climbing on stage for a dive almost guaranteed you a chance to snag a microphone. Hell, they encouraged it.

As Rosenstock recalls, the end of Arrogant Sons of Bitches was not easy. “We all just really wanted different things from life but were really steadfast on keeping this band together. It all ended in a big band fight. I just shouted ‘I don’t even want to press records! I’m sick of t-shirts and shit, I hate this!’ and [other band members] were like ‘but that’s what we should do because we’re a band!’”

So when ASOB did finally break up in 2005, Jeff immediately formed Bomb the Music Industry! Instead of pressing merch, he’d bring a printer to shows and encourage fans to attend with blank shirts. And he opened up Quote Unquote records to release his music for free online and host the music of his friends on a donation-based Paypal system.

The uncertainty surrounding his own abilities to breakthrough with this new collective -- after 10 years in ASOB -- enveloped the first few bedroom EPs that Rosenstock released as BTMI! These were snotty songs about losing a band and trying to self-righteously save one’s foothold in a music scene while battling depression. Many of the tracks had to do with still drunkenly chasing the dream of rock stardom over day jobs while his friends were either succeeding at their musical ends or working their own dead-end jobs.

Rosenstock took the manic, convoluted ska-punk sound of ASOB and flipped it new wave with intricately synthesized backing tracks layered thick over his guitar, horns, and vocals. Check out “It Ceases To Be ‘Whining’ If You Stop ‘Shitting Blood’” on 2006’s Album Without Band. According to the diary-like song explanations, which used to accompany Rosenstock’s releases, this one was “about all the pressures of being in a band that is about to break and feeling like if you DON'T break, you're personally responsible for all of it. It's also about the machine that a band creates when it decided to buy a van, sell merch, put out records, et cetera.”

The year 2005 also saw the beginning of BTMI! as a live band.

“I called up a few friends to see if they wanted to play [shows],” Rosenstock says. “ASOB, at some point, had 12 to 15 people in it --  we all grew up playing music together. It would have been pretty hard [not to play with] anybody from that band. Then everybody couldn’t go on tour for a while, that’s when I had those one-man tours. Anyone who showed up would go ‘oh, it’s just you and an iPod.’ I didn’t want to bum anyone out.”

But bumming people out, especially through verbose confessions of desolation and broken friendships, is a core tenant of Rosenstock’s music.

The album Scrambles (2009) found Rosenstock in New York City, up to his eyeballs in debt and living in a van after grabbing an assortment of musicians and moving to Athens, Ga. to write a concept album chronicling the experience. The resulting album, Get Warmer, was the first BTMI! album recorded with a live band -- not just Rosenstock on his computer.

Scrambles hits a high note with the piano-driven, almost Andrew WK-esque rocker “Fresh Attitude, Young Body.” With his voice cracking amid what sounds too resigned to be a full-on panic attack, Rosenstock shouts “You’re alone and you’re wet in a hospital bed and your family and friends will inherit your debt as you breathe from machines/Yeah, I know it sounds mean but you’re probably gonna die alone.”

BTMI!’s music is the nagging voice in the back of your head that just won’t allow you to forget your hangups and have a good time. People relate to Rosenstock and there is a slew of YouTube fan videos from around the world to prove it.

“I’m just like ‘holy shit, I can return the favor!’” Rosenstock tells me. “Because growing up, if I didn’t have Operation Ivy records, I would have gone completely insane. At the same time, it’s interesting because the songs I write go into a lot of stuff in my life but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m good at talking about it. When people come up to me at shows I’m just like ‘okay, uh, cool!’”

His albums are like an ongoing journal, which chronicles his journey from teenage singer in a regionally successful ska-punk band to doing dishes in a car during New York winters, and taunting slumlords. “I ain't giving you shit, I ain't paying my rent til I got hot water and my toilet's fixed. I don't care. Try to kick me out if you want to” he says in a track off 2010’s Adults!!!: Smart!!! Shithammered!!! and Excited By Nothing!!!!!!!

“Maybe I’m just not that good at writing about other people. Maybe I’m just too self-centered to figure that out, I don’t know” he says. “I get stressed out about just about everything, [writing songs] is a way to help me vent about all the little minutiae that gets to you in your day.”

He adds, “I end up writing songs about really specific stuff. [But right now] I have my home situation on lock. It took a while. I wouldn’t happily go back to living out of a van with my girlfriend and staying at people’s houses every night, getting dressed in a van and trying to somehow work up the courage to go into a job interview when you look like shit, feel like shit, and smell terrible.”

When I ask about the recent breakup of Bomb the Music Industry!, Jeff says that what started as a collective gained enough momentum and support that members became irreplaceable. “Bomb has always taken up all my energy and all my focus. So to have that be a once a year kind of thing [to accommodate irreplaceable members moving out-of-country] didn’t really feel right.”

Jeff Rosenstock
With Sean Bonnette (Andrew Jackson Jihad), Dog Party, Hard Girls
Aug. 13, 9pm, $10
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th Street SF
www.bottomofthehill.com