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

Categories: Interviews

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.

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