Punk Rock’s Pet Sounds: An Interview with Bomb the Music Industry!

As easy as it is to do, railing against “Big Music” is something of an outdated trend. Yes, the stuff that tops the Billboard charts does give the impression that popular music has gone the way of the buffalo, but in reality the independent and underground scenes have it better than ever before. When events like Record Store Day, a goldmine of independently released music, can be a nation-wide celebration, it’s clear not all their musicians are trying to find their way into record executive’s bank accounts. And while bands like Radiohead may be comfortable enough in their fame to release a record for free (2007’s “pay-what-you-will” release In Rainbows), many bands with a DIY attitude have found comfort in a lifestyle outside of the mainstream music stream. Bomb the Music Industry! are one such band.

The musicians that compromise Bomb the Music Industry! are many, but at the band’s core is Jeff Rosenstock, who initially began the underground punk collective. The group are an excellent demonstration of collaborative songwriting; while Rosenstock does much in that department, all of the music in the band’s discography sounds strongly like, in Rosenstock’s own words, “a bunch of friends getting together and playing music.” The punk and ska heavy sonic no doubt comes from Rosenstock’s tenure as a member of The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, but Bomb the Music Industry! are an outfit all their own.

I could write extensively about the several releases prior to Vacation, the group’s sixth LP, as each is a document of the wholly unique, DIY approach to punk they’ve taken. But what a stunner Vacation is: it’s probably the summer punk album. Alternative Press thought as much, calling it an “absolutely brilliant piece of modern musical art” in a five-star review. My review shared the sentiment; Vacation was my first encounter with the band, and even after the first listen I could tell they were doing something really special, even in a time where underground and DIY bands are flourishing. Upon listening to the rest of the band’s discography and reading various articles about their approach to music, I found myself impressed. If the universe we occupied made any sense, all bands would make music the way these folks do. For a long time, they didn’t sell anything. They asked for donations, sure, but their entire discography was available for free download through Quote Unquote Records, a donation-only label created by Rosenstock himself. The band does sell stuff now, notably vinyl pressings of all of their releases, but it’s pretty impossible to call these musicians anything close to “corporate shill.” The atmosphere of everything the group has done has been inclusive, challenging, and really, really fun (especially the last part).

So while Bomb the Music Industry’s name may sound like an outdated cry, in reality they’re so much more than their name suggests. Overproduced, manufactured music may still be around, but there are more than a few artists who have realized what music should be about is, well, the music. Bomb the Music Industry! just live out that fact better than most anyone else.

As the band embarks on their second tour for the album, PopMatters discussed Vacation, bombing the music industry, how Radiohead trolled everything, and punk rock with Jeff Rosenstock. As it turns out, Rosenstock, while forward-thinking in his music, is a little behind the times in terms of film; our conversation began after his first viewing of Star Wars. (Sadly, there will not be any complex analysis of Star Wars by Bomb the Music Industry! here. Perhaps they’ll devote an album to it.)

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Is the band’s name meant to sound as incendiary as it is?

Yeah. I mean, it’s weird because it’s kind of anachronistic in a sense; there’s not too much of a music industry for us to say, “Yeah, fuck this!” But when Bomb the Music Industry! first came out, that was right around the time when all of those lawsuits started happening. They were suing college kids; I even remember reading a newspaper article about a grandma who was getting sued because her grandson was downloading Metallica records onto her computer. There was a lot of shit like that. Now, I had been a musician for a really long time before that. I bought music, but I also downloaded stuff online for free. I just thought that shit was so, so crazy. Then also a lot of bands we played with back then were really merchandise-heavy, and not focused as much on the music. So when I started this thing, I thought it would be a good thing to say, “Fuck it, man, everything is free. We are going to do our thing. I hope all of those assholes who have millions and millions of dollars meet their end.” This was also around the time when manufactured pop really killed a lot of music, which was really frustrating. It’s just supposed to be about music.

So there’s never been a thought of joining a record label at all?

Well, we do have a deal with Asian Man Records, which is a small label. But as for the big labels, no, not really. I mean, if someone offered us ten million bucks, that’d be pretty hard to say no to. But being offered ten million dollars isn’t anything we’re really worried about. We’ve never been seeking to do that kind of thing. Asian Man Records happened because we were recording with a full band for the first time, and it wasn’t just me making music in my bedroom. I liked Asian Man a lot, and we had a lot of mutual friends involved, and we thought we’d see if they wanted to put it out. If they had said no, I would have sent it to No Idea [Records], and if they didn’t want it I would have just put it out myself. We’ve never been the kind of band trying to do the “next level” kind of shit. We’ve never thought, “What could a record label do for us?” We’re the kind of band that thinks, “What can we do for ourselves?”

Have you ever interacted with bands that have big record deals and, if so, what do they think about what you do?

It’s gone back and forth. When this started, a lot of our old friends who were in bands were pretty pissed of at me. They said stuff like, “What the fuck, man? You’re not taking being a musician seriously.” Which, first of all, whose business is it if I’m “taking my music seriously?” I don’t give a shit. But I thought that was funny, because somehow, I’m the one not taking music seriously because I’m only concerning myself with the music part?

Then when Radiohead did the free record thing, no one ever bothered me about it again. Before Radiohead did it the whole idea seemed foreign to a lot of people. They said stuff like, “Radiohead stole your idea!” But no one was ever clearly offended about what we did. We were kind of saying, “Fuck you!” to friends of ours, which we didn’t mean to do. We were making people look like jokes because they complained about record labels not giving them buckets of money, and we’re giving away our music for free. We’d go on tour with no merchandise. At the early show we’d have stacks of CD-Rs and we’d say, “Bring a blank CD and we’ll give you all of our music,” or “Bring a shirt and we’ll spray-paint a shirt for you,” which we still do. That seemed to be a real headache for other musicians, but our tours were great. We didn’t worry about anything. Before making a new record we were often bringing in two to three hundred bucks in donations per show.

Because of how overrated I tend to find Radiohead, I felt vindicated when I found out that you all had done the “pay-what-you-will” model before they did. What did it feel like when you saw them go as big as they did with that idea?

There were two weird things about that. One was that in my early music we did some Radiohead covers. So when they did that we thought, “Whoa, that’s creepy.” Secondly, Quote Unquote Records, which is our donation label, were the first group I’ve heard of to do the “pay-what you will” model. Defiance, Ohio and The Max Levine Ensemble had also put out records for free. It’s not like we were the first people to ever do that. So when the Radiohead thing happened, I couldn’t exactly be mad because it wasn’t my idea. Playing music for people isn’t our idea.

It was stressful at the time, however. We were in the middle of a particularly bad tour. We were freezing in our van, which had one mattress in the back, and I had the flu. I had fever sweats and fever dreams, shit like that. I had to be quarantined to the back of the van. Then a buddy of mine called me and told me what happened. We got out at a rest stop and they asked me, “How are you feeling, Jeff?” Then I said, “Well, we’re pretty much a completely irrelevant band now. This whole ‘pay-what-you-want’ thing is going to become popular and then it’ll be like we never existed.” That’s how I felt then.

But now, I think it’s kind of a blessing in disguise. Hopefully now people like us for our music rather than our interesting business model.

How has it been making music and staying profitable since that all happened?

We’ve changed a lot of how we do things since then. That tour when the Radiohead thing happened was our first two with an album on a record label (Get Warmer on Asian Man). Since then, we’ve made sure to do things like that. We make money fine; it’s a strange thing since we had never intended to do that. We honestly never wanted to sell anything. Things started to change when someone at Asbestos Records offered to press our music on vinyl records. I thought, “Wow, that’s awesome, I’d love to have vinyl of our music.” But then that kind of started a slippery slope. The more popular we got, the more people wanted us to tour.

We didn’t plan on being a band that goes on tour. Our initial idea was a bunch of friends getting together and playing music every now and then. But a lot of people really wanted us to go on tour, especially in the last year or two, which is why we’ve started doing stuff like printing shirts. It’s helped us be able to live and focus on our music, even though it’s never been our intention to be making a business out of our music.

As far as the label goes with the donations and everything, nothing changed at all since the Radiohead thing. It didn’t get any weaker or any stronger; it’s just kept doing the same thing it’s been doing.

I don’t think anyone can honestly accuse you of being a sellout …

Yeah, I’ll never, ever, ever worry about that. I just want to make sure what we’re thinking about is music and not the business aspect of it all. I’m definitely our harshest critic when it comes to stuff like that. But no one was like, “Fuck you!” when we printed shirts. Not one person was mad that we did that, even though I had held off doing it for a long time.

Let’s talk about your newest record for a bit. Did you intend Vacation to be a summer record?

Yeah, I definitely intended a “summer” vibe. I came up with a lot of ideas for the record when I was in a really summery place. A handful of the songs were written on a beach in California, some on a beach in Brooklyn, some while I was seeing my friends get married in Miami, and some of it was written when I had gotten this free trip to Belize. Also, I really like summer records.

Many, myself included, noticed a Beach Boys influence on the record. Did you aim at that?

Yeah. Pet Sounds was one of those records that when I first heard it 10 or 15 years ago, it completely changed my life. But I’ve always been afraid to give anything like that a shot in the context of punk rock. Then with this record, we thought, “Fuck it, let’s try what we’re going to try, let’s see how this works and see what it sounds like. It would be cool to do something like that, because I’ve never heard any band try it.” A lot of that material has been in my brain for a really long time, but this is the first time we went all out and tried it.

You bring up punk. It’s always interesting to ask a band how they categorize themselves, since many don’t think of themselves in terms of genre. And with a lot of the different material on Vacation, the classification definitely isn’t straightforward. Would you be comfortable calling yourselves a punk band?

Yeah, absolutely. I think we’re a punk band for sure, but it’s more along the lines of how London Calling is a punk record. “Lost in a Supermarket” and “Spanish Bombs” are not traditional punk songs at all. If you heard them on the radio, you wouldn’t think they were punk songs, but they’re on one of the most heralded punk rock records ever. I don’t think punk rock has to be a sort of three-chord thing; in fact I don’t really think that’s punk rock. That’s playing a formula that’s been set out before you. I think punk rock is doing something that you like, and not giving a shit if anybody else doesn’t like it. Having all Ramones-sounding songs isn’t it.

And a lot of the times when you hear people on the street talk about punk, they tend to assume a Green Day-type punk. The songs are simple, all power chords, things like that. Would you ever do punk that way, or does it defeat the whole purpose?

I just can’t. I have too much of a scatterbrain; I get bored easily and I like really cinematic arrangements. If I try to write a straightforward song, it almost always doesn’t end up like that. I love a lot of bands that write songs that way, but it’s just not really my thing.

Speaking of cinematic arrangements, after reading the press kit for Vacation I found myself stunned by how much like Coldplay the opening track “Campaign for a Better Next Weekend” sounds. What was going on in your mind when you wrote that track?

Well, when I wrote that I wasn’t thinking it was going to be on the record. I demoed it and played it for everybody, and I thought they’d say, “Well, Jeff wrote another weird song.” But when I got responses everybody said how much they loved the song. They don’t usually do that; a lot of the time I have to ask them later if they even got the song. But almost everybody wrote me back saying how much they loved the song. Then I asked, “Well … what if it was on the record?” They said, “Fuck yeah, let’s put it on the record.” Then I asked, “Well … what if it were the first song on the record?” They said, “Yeah, it should totally be the first song on the record!” So it all worked out pretty well.

I wrote it while I was on tour. It was based on this one riff played over and over again, kind of like a Liz Phair-y sort of thing. We had never done a song like it before; I’ve never heard a song that begins with just a piano and then ends up in a blastbeat. The song was also run through the gamut more than most of the things we write.

Do you have any idea beyond the tour for your music?

Nah, we’re the kind of band that live from tour to tour. Once a tour is done then we figure out what we’re going to do. I’m writing stuff right now, but nothing is really set in place yet. I like writing records that feel like a record, and I don’t have anything in my head that would sound like a cohesive work.

It’s cool that people liked this record, because we really liked this record and also because I’m still excited to play all these songs long after the record has been out. Usually we put out a record, then a year later we’ll put out another one, then another six months after that; we put out records really quickly. It’ll be really nice to chill on this one for awhile. For us it’d be easy to say, “Well, this record did really well, let’s try to make another one like it,” but I don’t think we’ll do that. So, I don’t know; it’s either going to be a set of really slow country songs or a hardcore seven-inch that’ll blow out your speakers. It’ll probably be somewhere in between that.