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Q&A: The Arrogant Sons of Bitches' Jeff Rosenstock On The Joys And Stigmas Of Ska, CBGB Misery And Pranky Vibes

Q&A: The Arrogant Sons of Bitches' Jeff Rosenstock On The Joys And Stigmas Of Ska, CBGB Misery And Pranky Vibes
Samuel Gursky

During my high school years in the early 2000s, I wanted to be in a ska-punk band. This fantasy could have been sparked by an Operation Ivy record, Save Ferris's prom-night concert in 10 Things I Hate About You, the genre's sartorial trappings, or the sound of trumpets. But one thing's for sure: Anything I would have hypothetically done would have probably ended up sounding like the Arrogant Sons of Bitches.

ASOB, as they're called by de facto leader Jeff Rosenstock, trace their origins to October 1995—the same month No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom, and one year after the Mighty Mighty Bosstones issued Question the Answers. They made a bunch of records that are still exhilarating in their energy and self-aware smart-ass-itude. They toured a bunch without much success, playing wherever they can. Anxiety, rising debt, and shifting ambitions created tension, though, and they broke up in 2004, with Rosenstock moving onto the equally seditious and fun Bomb the Music Industry! (Rosenstock has penned a lengthier account of the band's existence.) This weekend, they're playing a pair of reunion shows in New York City.

Sound of the City recently chatted on the phone with the good-natured Rosenstock, who was listening to Electric Light Orchestra before he picked up.

I have to ask probably the most boring question you can ask of a band: Where did you guys get your name from?

I remember there was this kid who I used to take swim lessons with or my brother used to take swim lessons with, and when I got into high school, he was friends with some of my friends that were kind of punk people, but the punk rock kids in my high school really didn't like me all that much because I was a weirdo. I was really socially awkward and I wasn't like a tough guy, and there was a lot of tough punks in my high school. That's all blown over and I was probably imagining all that shit. But this kid who my brother used to take swim class with, we had lunch together, so me and his other friend were eating Chinese food and I think I was trying to be a cool guy. I was like, "I'm going to have a band. It's going to be called the Arrogant Sons of Bitches. We're going to have a curse in the name of our band. It's going to be fuckin' awesome!" He's like, "All right, whatever, dude." That was then and that was it. It was around the time that me and Joe [Werfleman] were playing together and we needed a name for a band, and I was like, "Well, this is a band name," and he was like, "All right, this is our band name."

That kid's name, by the way, is Shaun Cooper. He actually plays in Taking Back Sunday now, so there's something.

Arrogant Sons of Bitches started in 1995, which is a huge year for ska. I'm not sure that was at the height of third-wave ska, but it was right near the height. What do you remember thinking about ska back then and how popular do you remember it being?

I was like 13 or 14, so it must have been pretty popular if it's something that a 13- or 14-year-old could hear. I had a neighbor whose older brother in college had a record collection. I went down there and I think I grabbed a few records and took "em. It was the Violent Femmes and Mr. Bungle and Fishbone, and I remember getting those and thinking with Mr. Bungle and Fishbone—Mr. Bungle especially—"Oh, this is cool. It's like metal, but there's horns in there. This is awesome," because I really, really liked metal when I was a kid. And then I heard that record Question the Answers by Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I saw it getting advertised in Rolling Stone and Spin and stuff like that. There was a thing where you could call a phone number and they would play a track from that record, and I called it up and it was this guy screaming with these horns and stuff. I'm like, "Whoa, this is like metal but again with horns. This is great!" because I played a sax and it's always fun to hear somebody playing what you play that [wasn't] your dad's music if you're a kid. I got into that, and I showed other friends, and we were all like, "Fuck yeah." I remember that stuff got really, really popular. I remember Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish were on MTV and stuff like that, and I remember thinking that it was awesome because I got to see music that I liked on TV, and then that Mighty Mighty Bosstones record came out—Let's Face It. That record was fucking huge.

I remember not 1995 so much but like '98, '99 in Long Island, every weekend, there was a million ska and punk shows. I didn't drink with my friends on the weekend, and my friends didn't drink, and I didn't play sports, and I wasn't really too much of a reading person or [into] studying. I would go to shows and I would play music, and all of our friends would do the same thing. You would have these shows where Long Island is set up so there's a tiny town by the tiny town, and they're all smack up against each other, so you have 15, 20, 25 people in each high school who don't really have stuff besides music and they all go to the same shows and you get a community developed. It was a really good time. I don't remember any show I ever went to as a kid being bad. I don't remember any show that ASOB ever played in Long Island being bad at all. Even when we would go to New Jersey or upstate New York, those shows were fucking awesome, too. Not that we were particularly good at those shows, but there were a lot of people there and everybody there was really nice, so that's what I remember about ska getting big when I was a kid. It had a profound effect on my life and this sense of community and people you can hang out with that aren't everybody else out there in the world who you kind of hate and don't relate to at all. And then when ska got unpopular, people stopped going to shows and it got a little bit harder to be in a band like that.

 

Arrogant Sons Of Bitches, "So Let's Go! Nowhere"

That's the next thing I wanted to ask about. After ska had this sudden burst of popularity in the late '90s, you had bands like the Aquabats, No Doubt, and Goldfinger really tone down the ska elements or ditch them entirely. They became very different bands after that period. As someone who grew up loving ska, how did you feel seeing so many bands associated with this genre when it was so popular abandon it?

Well, it didn't really bum me out too much because as that was happening, that was kind of when Asian Man was putting out the best stuff they put out. That's when Slow Gherkin and the Blue Meanies and the Chinkees and stuff like that [were] coming across my radar. And MU330, too.

And Slapstick.

Oh yeah, and Slapstick. I got into Slapstick a little late, but Slapstick's awesome.

But it was a bummer that this thing that brought everybody together started being the thing that the world can pick on you and call you a nerd again [for]. Not only do you not drink, not only do you not play sports, not only do you not have a girlfriend, but you also listen to fuckin' ska music. Fuck you!

At the same time, I think that's [what] gave us a lot of our edge where we were like, "Fine. You think this sucks? We're going to do it times one million, and fuck you, and we're not going to change up anything. We're going to make it more ska, we're going to make it weirder, we're going to do stuff that people don't really do, and we're not going to fit into this thing." So it was a bummer because it wasn't as easy to just write a ska-punk record, and all of a sudden it was great because it was a ska-punk record. But it was great because at the end of the day, I probably wouldn't have ventured too far beyond ska music if it was always like that, and I love all the music that I love now that isn't ska as much I like the music that I liked when I was a kid. I bet if we were just making a ska-punk record over and over again, I probably would have just stopped making music at a certain point because there's only so much that you can do.

I still don't understand why playing a style of music that's influenced by what was going in Jamaica in the "60s makes you fucking unlistenable. I'll never, never, never understand that. I don't see any kind of music other than ska where it's like, "Oh shit, there's ska in here? Nah, fuck you, dude. I'm not listening to this.'

When Arrogant Sons of Bitches decided to be a ska band, what were your parameters in terms of things you wanted to do and things you didn't want to do?

There were no parameters. We didn't start out saying that we wanted to be a ska band. It was just me and Joe. We were just hanging out with each other and writing songs and playing with other drummers who would quit every three weeks. We really wanted to hang out with each other and play some music. I know I talked about the Mighty Mighty Bosstones a lot, but Everclear was as important to both of us when we were starting this band. There wasn't a "Let's be a ska band" kind of thing until when we were writing songs, it was like, "Oh, all of our songs sound like this." The really early stuff, which will hopefully never see the light of day—there's not a whole lot of ska going on there.

Chris Valentino, the sax player, was also a good buddy when we were kids. We would hang out and we'd talk about music. "Oh, you should play in this band." If you're trying to put horns in every song, you're probably going to have a bunch of ska songs.

Having spent so much time being in a ska band and listening to other ska bands, have your opinions on the genre changed over time?

I don't really think my opinions on that style of music have changed necessarily. I think I've found other music that I like. There's no answer I could give you that won't make it sound like I'm talking shit about ska, and I don't want to do that, so that's a hard question to answer, but it does seem like it's been the same few bands doing the same things. I'm a little bummed out that there's not more bands out there.

No matter how great the band is, say that the only indie rock bands out there were Superchunk and the Arcade Fire, and Regina Spektor played some shows, and Titus Andronicus played some shows, and Fucked Up played some shows. Those were the only five bands out there. They all played together, all the time. It starts getting like, "Shit. Well, I'm wondering where the younger bands are and where the other bands are," because there's really only five or 10 ska bands that can tour nationally and make a career off of it. If you listen to the same thing over and over and over without new stuff getting in there, it starts to become too much of the same and you want to look into other stuff, but that doesn't make any of those bands bad. It's just kind of like, "Where's the other bands?"

 

Arrogant Sons Of Bitches, "That's What Friends Are For"

How much of your love for ska is informed by playing it and spending more time with it versus nostalgia for when you were young and enjoyed it for the first time?

Unfortunately, I think a lot of it is nostalgia just "cause I haven't heard any new stuff. Chewing on Tinfoil is a really good ska-punk band from Ireland. When I listen to their records, I don't feel nostalgic at all, I just feel like, "Fuck, this is awesome. I'm so glad a band is making music like this and doing it well." I discovered Jimmy Cliff recently. I've been putting it off for a while and gotten into it, and that's like finding new ska records. I don't like it "cause it's nostalgic, I like it "cause I like the music.

But y'know, if you're listening to records that you listened to 10 years ago, a lot of the times it's nostalgia that does it for you. I don't know what the balance really is there. I think if I heard that first Catch 22 record or Why Do They Rock So Hard? or Question the Answers or Shed Some Skin or Crab Rangoon or any of those records today, I'd be like, "Fuck yeah."

I feel a sense of joy when I hear your music or see videos of you playing, and then I look at your bio and see that the first line is "Jeff Rosenstock's friend dies playing chicken on his bike against a truck." That seems to really contrast with the band's music. Why would you consider that to be the starting point versus you and Joe playing Green Day songs?

That was literally the starting point. My friend had a funeral. I didn't go to it because I felt weird about the whole situation. Instead, me and my friend Joe went to hang out with these girls a few towns over, and they had a guitar and we were goofing off. "Now, we have a band," and then that was it. Then, [Joe and I] were in a band together for many years after that.

There's also a part in your story when you talk about how you guys were hoping to play a church and put a little tape together. You put a Crimpshrine song on the tape's end because you guys were going to cover it but hadn't recorded it at that point. What was the song?

"Wake Up."

Did you think that it would work or people would get what you were trying to say by putting that song on the tape when it wasn't your actual song?

We thought that they'd think it was us because in my mind, I was coming from listening to, y'know, Pantera and Live and Green Day and Everclear. Then, I heard that Crimpshrine record and was like, "Whoa, this sounds like shit. It's probably going to sound the same way that our tape recording sounds. You're not going to be able to tell the difference. They'll just think this is us." The guy said, "The four songs you guys did are terrible and also you just threw a professional band's song on the end of it." I was like, "Naw, man, that was us!" He was like, "No, because it's a professional recording." I was like, "Okay. You're right. It's not us.'

Jumping all the way to 2004, you write, "We spend New Year's Eve in Florida, New Year's Day in the ocean and New Year's afternoon in the tattoo shop. This is my happiest memory of ASOB." What were you talking about in particular there?

That night, I did so much cocaine. No, it was just a really good day, y'know. All of us in ASOB are incredibly anxious people. We deal with that all the time and that made touring really hard a lot of the time. Touring could be a drag for us in ASOB, and we all love each other, but we're just kind of hard people to deal with, especially when you get six crazies all together and throw them in a fuckin' van. It's like, "Ugh," especially not only six crazy people but six crazy people who have no idea what they're doing with their lives and haven't figured their shit out at all yet. That was probably the best stretch of touring we ever did. I remember being in the ocean and calling my friends in New York on New Year's Day, being like, "Happy new year. Hey, what are you doing? I'm in the ocean in Florida. It's fuckin' 80 degrees here. Fuck you." And they'll all just be like, "Aww."

 

Arrogant Sons Of Bitches, "Nowhere"

Soon after that, you write, "If you saw ASOB in 2005 then you were definitely in for a treat. We were getting paid between 300 and 1,000 dollars for these shows, didn't really like each other all much and drank WAAAAAY too much." That's a pretty big juxtaposition between a couple of years.

Yeah, that seems crazy to me, too. I think that tour in 2004, which was really 2003 when it started—that tour started badly with some stuff happening, and then at the end, other stuff happened that was really bad and kind of started a weird downward spiral for all of us. We broke up in 2004 while we were on tour, towards the end of the tour. We booked this tour and all these people who we booked shows with on MySpace just flaked out on us so we were literally living in our van on the side of the road for five days in Los Angeles with nowhere to sleep, nothing to do. We would just hang out at In-N-Out Burger and drink free soda, and I had amassed like three grand in credit card debt, and yeah, it was really bad. Also, when we were living in that van, I had opened up my big mouth and told everybody that I didn't really wanna sell records anymore and sell merch anymore and that I thought it was kind of ruining the music for me, and we had a big fight. Then, we broke up and still had the rest of the tour to do. I guess it was a lot going on.

But like I said, that thing that you're talking about in Florida in the ocean, I think that was my happiest memory just because we're all really good friends and we all love each other and all this other shit really got in the way of that a lot of the time. We managed to put aside our anxieties for a while and it culminated in that awesome day. We played a show on New Year's Eve where we were drinking champagne in the parking lot, listening to Britney Spears and OutKast. It was really awesome and I think that normal people would be like, "Yeah man, everything you guys were doing is awesome," but for us, sometimes there was other stresses in there.

What was it that ultimately broke ASOB up: the stress of touring, the in-fighting, some combination of those elements or something else entirely?

We would play shows. Nobody would come to "em. We would go to another show, play it, and nobody would come to it. We would make no money. We'd have all these shirts that we couldn't sell and I'd started putting things on my credit card. Dave [Renz] hadn't gone to school, I had just graduated school and didn't know what I was going to do. We didn't know what we were going to do and we were in this band that was just ruining our credit and causing us to get into stupid arguments about shit. Just like anybody who spent time with the same group of people for years and years and years, they're your brothers, so we started fightin'. Nobody really cared that we were a band. I don't think a lot of people understand that. Also, we were really shitty to each other, especially on those last tours.

So we got back for that [2005] tour and I was just like, "Hey, we're not going to do the band for six months and let's just act like we're never going to do the band again and see what happens." I remember I saw Dave at a bar and I was talking about trying to talk to Streetlight Manifesto [to] get us some more support stuff, and he was like, "I don't wanna do that. I'm going to school." I was like, "That's great. You should go to school. Let's stop this. This is good. We should all do the next thing that we're going to do with our lives." Now, we were also in $11,000 worth of debt to our merch person. We would play these shows right after we broke up in the Northeast area, and this is when the most people were coming to our shows, but we were druuunk drunk drunk. But that's what we were: messes falling apart. It was crazy. It was a really crazy time to have been in that band.

 

Arrogant Sons Of Bitches, "The Guy From Subway"

What would you consider to be the definitive breakup point that happened around the 2004/05-ish period?

I think that tour I was just mentioning is definitely when we were all done with the band, but we worked on this record [Three Cheers For Disappointment] that we worked really, really hard on. It was 95 percent down, so we weren't going to not finish the other five percent, and we got to pay off that debt, so whatever, we did that. We didn't play shows for a while and then the CD was ready to come out. We played three release shows, and at the end of the last release show, it was really, really stressful. The company that was printing our pre-order had a thing [where] you'd get an autographed poster with your record, so instead of going out to the bar and drinking with all my buddies whom I had finally accomplished this major thing with, we just sat at a table in CBGB's, signing posters for an hour, and it wasn't particularly fun. We weren't talking to each other and people were taking pictures of us doing it, and it was just weird. That was just kind of it. I moved to Georgia, and obviously, Bomb the Music Industry! was going. I had my thing, everybody else had their thing they were doing. This wasn't really something we were interested in. I think that in 2003, if that had happened to us where we were autographing posters after a fuckin' sold-out show at CBGB's, we would have been like, "This is awesome! We're rock stars. This is great. Yeah!"

In 2006, you played one of your last shows at the Space in Hamden, Connecticut.

That was one of our CD release shows.

Somebody uploaded that performance to YouTube and all you guys look like you're in a good mood. You're wearing a shirt that says, "ASOB broke up." What was the vibe like at that specific show? How tongue-in-cheek was the shirt versus being a "Fuck you" to the other guys in the band?

Oh no, that was not a "Fuck you" to the other guys in the band at all. We were selling that shirt. I had a really great time at that show. I think there was a three-show thing and I had a blast at all three of "em. I really liked hanging out with my friends at "em. Then, that shit happened at the end of that last show and it was just kind of like, "Eh, y'know, if we keep doing this, maybe this is what this is going to be like, and—nah, fuck that," so we just stopped doing it.

Do you have any guidelines for your reunion? Some bands start with a few shows and then that turns into a national tour and a new album.

I think we're all cool with what we're doing in our lives right now for the most part. We're happy to be playing music with each other at these reunions. There is no plan for us to be a band again. There's really no plan for us to play any more shows. It all just kind of made sense to do it right now. We're all friends. We're all hanging out every now and then. Everybody's busy with stuff that they're doing.

Sean [Qualls] runs or at least has a significant part of Mercenary Audio in Boston, JT was the manager of a bar, Dave is blasting his way through school right now to become a guidance counselor, I'm obviously doing the Bomb stuff, [Joe] Bove is in South Carolina, and Mike [Costa] is doing the Bomb stuff with me.

There's no impetus for us to write music or anything like that. We just kind of thought it'd be fun to play some music together that we already wrote.

How do you feel about your stuff in ASOB? Do you ever go back to listen to it, and what have you thought about it?

I don't know. I've listened to it like once or twice since then. I've listened to some really old stuff. I think the lyrics are very bad a lot of the time. I really am embarrassed by a lot of the lyrics, but other than that, I'm pretty proud of the music.

 

Arrogant Sons Of Bitches, "Creep"

In one interview, you talked about hating some of your lyrics in ASOB. Can you remember any lines or parts of songs that you're particularly "Ugh!" about?

On Pornocracy, I'm just saying the word "bitch" and "slut" so much on that record. I'm saying gross stuff on that record. I was an angry kid. I wouldn't say those words now and it will be weird when I have to say those words at the shows, and it just kind of is what it is. It's like, "Alright, I guess that's what that's going to be." I don't feel too bad about writing bad rhymes or anything like that, but calling shit "gay" or "What's up, bitch?" or "That girl's a slut"—that's the kind of shit I got over in high school, but lucky for me, all of my adolescent feelings are recorded and played back to me later. I was a kid at some point so some of those words sound like a kid saying 'em.

It's so weird when you get older and feel that way about something. I have a Facebook friend, and I distinctly remember when I was a kid, saying, "Oh, you're gay" and making fun of him for that. Looking back, I feel so fucking terrible about it. I can't even look at his Facebook page without cringing and wanting to close it.

Yeah, that catches up with you. We were never, ever, ever anti-gay. Never, never, never.

Oh no, I wasn't insinuating that you guys were. I'm just saying about myself.

Okay. And that was the thing, we were doing stuff. We were playing benefit shows for all kinds of things and very left-wing things, like suicide prevention and gay rights and women's rights and things like that, but we would do that and we'd still have songs that had these things. I don't know. I guess I didn't make the connection until later on in life that those are two things that don't really go together.

Two last things. How did you feel about Radiohead? You've done cover sets before; Bomb the Music Industry! performed Weezer's blue album and ASOB put out the Radiohead cover album This Is What You Get. What was the purpose of that release?

This venue we played at a bunch had Halloween shows every year where a lot of the punk bands would play Halloween cover sets. I don't even know if it was the venue necessarily, but there was always a show called "Skalloween." We would always play Skalloween. The year before, we did Taking Back Sunday because they were popular and we were kind of goofin' on it. We all liked Radiohead a lot. I was getting into it a bunch, and Sean had just joined the band, and he was into Radiohead a lot. We also figured it would be like covering the Beatles. You're not going to do as good of a job as Radiohead and people don't want to fuckin' hear you do a Radiohead song. They want to hear Radiohead do Radiohead songs. They're this untouchable thing, so [we thought], "Let's touch it. Fuck that. Let's do the thing we should not do," and that's where the idea came from. We all worked together on the arrangements, and I was really happy with it. We only had two practices and then we recorded that thing, and I think it turned out pretty good. I was really, really proud of that.

Whenever I listen to your music, I think about you guys pranking each other. I get this pranky kind of vibe from you guys. I'm not even sure pranky is a word. Were you guys ever pranksters?

We're actually called Jeff and the Pranky Vibes.

[Laughs] I want a cut of that merch money.

[Laughs] Alright, fair enough. We played a show with I Voted for Kodos where because we were poor, we were just eating crushed up ramen dry in the van. We would break the packet up and then open the top and then pour in the seasoning and shake it up and eat that for lunch. That was ramen chips. We played a show with I Voted for Kodos where we filled a huge bag up with ramen chips that were covered in seasoning. It was our last show on tour and we just threw it all at them, and they had all this gross ramen seasoning all over them for days. I guess that's as pranky as we got. Mostly food pranks. [Laughs]

The Arrogant Sons Of Bitches play Webster Hall on Saturday and Warsaw on Sunday.

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