An excerpt on Jeff Rosenstock’s band ASOB from new ska book + Q&A with author Aaron Carnes
Aaron Carnes knows that ska needs defending, and he's highly equipped to defend it. He's been playing in notable ska bands since forming Flat Planet (who had a song on one of Asian Man Records' beloved Misfits of Ska compilations) in 1991, and he's remained active, forming the ska-adjacent Gnarboots with Link 80's Adam Davis in the early 2010s and playing on the fantastic debut album by Adam's new band Omnigone in 2019. He's also a music journalist, a huge music fan, and an avid show-goer, and he's watched ska evolve from the early days of the third wave, to the mainstream boom in the mid/late '90s, to the lull in the late '00s, to the resurgence it's been experiencing today.
"Every jab depicting ska bands as suburban white dorks comes from a place of ignorance," Aaron tells us, "with almost no concept of its history, culture, and the diversity of bands that fall under the ska banner." Aaron wanted to set out to change the public's perception of this unfairly-maligned genre, so for the past eight years he's been working on In Defense of Ska, a book with "interviews, essays, personal stories, historical snapshots, obscure anecdotes, and think pieces" that's due
in April 2021 May 4 via Clash Books (pre-order). The book traces ska's history from its origins in Jamaica in the late 1950s to the 2 Tone era to the '90s boom to today, with all kinds of interesting detours and anecdotes along the way.
One of the chapters, Ska Is Dead, focuses on Jeff Rosenstock's former ska band Arrogant Sons of Bitches, and how they persevered in the early/mid 2000s, an era in which many were ready to declare ska dead. "No one was embracing ska as aggressively as ASOB [in that era]," Aaron writes in the book. "They were on a mission to pummel anyone’s ska shame into oblivion and take a stand for the music they loved."
UPDATE (5/5/21): Also listen to Jeff Rosenstock on the In Defense of Ska podcast.
Ahead of the book's release, we're debuting the Ska Is Dead chapter, and we also caught up with Aaron to ask him some questions about the book, the genre, and more. You can read the chapter, followed by our Q&A, right here:
SKA IS DEAD CHAPTER FROM AARON CARNES' IN DEFENSE OF SKA
The guitars and drums barrel into a barely stitched-together blast of punk rock, tripping right into jerky ska. The horns kick in immediately with a staccato, robotic pep-band horn line. Lead singer Jeff Rosenstock spits out incomprehensible gibberish at auctioneer’s pace over the hyper ska verse and double-time hardcore bridge. It all crashes together into an unexpected, straight-forward, and supremely catchy pop-punk, gang-vocal chorus: “Everything is always falling apart!”
Long Island’s Arrogant Sons of Bitches' small but loyal fanbase went crazy for this depression anthem, “So Let’s Go! Nowhere,” released in 2003. “It’s the ultimate embracing negative song,” says Rosenstock. “When we were playing shows, people were all singing it together. It made people feel better.” He wrote the song after watching the twin towers come down from his dorm room on 9/11. It was a bleak moment for most Americans. It left Rosenstock speechless. He later processed the black hole of darkness of that moment with “So Let’s Go! Nowhere.” (“Fuck the world/Everything is breaking and changing/And everything inside of me is breaking and changing/Why can't I ever let it go/I concentrate real hard, and I might not ever even know”)
Earlier ASOB songs were more juvenile. Songs like “I Just Want to Have Sex With You,” “American Penis,” and “I Pissed In Your Mountain Dew.” Post 9/11, he wrote several new songs that stemmed from the tragedy, which would end up on the band’s 2003 EP, All The Little Ones Are Rotting, though none of them explicitly referenced the towers. Rosenstock never intended people to picture 9/11 when they listened to these songs.
Many of the tracks ended up more optimistic than the pissed-off insanity of early ASOB. “So Let’s Go! Nowhere” was dark, but it had a glimmer of hope. At the time, Rosenstock was getting treatment for depression and anxiety. “I wanted whoever to hear it [to] connect to the feeling that death is imminent and shit’s hopeless. What are you going to do to make your situation better right now?”
Since the band formed in 1995, “So Let’s Go! Nowhere” was the first song fans connected to on such a passionate level. It melted inhibitions and created an anti-kumbaya effect. People related to the dreariness and felt like they weren’t alone. “It’s an amazing feeling to hear that many people singing your song at the top of their lungs—scream it until they lose their voice,” says ASOB keyboardist J.T. Turret. “Things in your life are shitty. Raise your fists and say, ‘Everything is always falling apart’ in the happiest, catchiest, most melodic way possible.”
It’s that sense of dread that gave Rosenstock a new perspective on life. Music had been important to him and yet his prior attempts to pursue it were wishy-washy. He vowed to give ASOB a real shot. They started hitting the greater region hard and by 2003, were booking full US tours and trying to get labels to release their music. But as emo-punk gained traction in the mid-2000s, there was little chance for “So Let’s Go! Nowhere.” Ska was dead.
In the 2000s, ska, and the people who loved ska were banished to dimly lit clubs and spaces far away from popular culture. Mustard Plug singer David Kirchgessner created the Ska Is Dead tour package in 2003 to ironically embrace this depreciative tone and surprise some folks of its continued underground popularity even as everyone else was actively hating it. “We wanted to prove to promoters and media people that it was still really strong,” says Kirchgessner. The shows did well, but people outside of the ska scene were blissfully unaware.
David Hillyard from The Slackers, another group that continued playing ska into the post-'90s years, saw a lot of people running from the music. He says there was a particularly insecure way ska musicians distanced themselves from the music. “I'm not saying that people can’t play other music. If you want to go play other music, go play other music,” he says. “It's just sad that you have to diss ska to do that. People in ska have this musical inferiority complex. It's not real music. It’s kiddy music. I don't really got time for that.”
Several bands broke up or tweaked their sound to try to wash the ska stink from themselves. One of the most popular ska bands in the 2000s, Streetlight Manifesto, actively downplayed their association with ska. “We’re not really that influenced by ska music. We’re not even necessarily huge fans of ska,” lead singer Tomas Kalnoky said in a 2008 AP radio interview. “We try to do a mixture of different genres. One of the main ingredients happens to be ska.”
The big crowds at Kirchgessner’s Ska Is Dead tour blew some minds, and the success of The Slackers' 2001 Wasted Days album also surprised a few folks. But no one was embracing ska as aggressively as ASOB. They were on a mission to pummel anyone’s ska shame into oblivion and take a stand for the music they loved. “I saw bands that were adamantly like ‘We’re not ska. We’re rock with horns,’” Rosenstock says. “I never want to say that to somebody. I can't think of any other genre where people have come up to me and said, ‘I like you guys, but I don't like ska, so I don't listen to your band.’ That's like your uncle saying, ‘I like all music but country and hip-hop.’ That's fucking insane.”
The Arrogant Sons of Bitches broke up in 2004 but played scattered shows until 2006, their official end. Rosenstock became an indie legend in subsequent years. His schizophrenic cult punk band Bomb The Music Industry! (2004-2014) gave away music online over a year before Radiohead was praised for revolutionizing the music industry with their “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows. By 2018, Rosenstock became a Pitchfork darling, thanks to a handful of phenomenal indie-punk records capturing the anxiety, fury, and sorrow of the Trump era. In spite of all his success, he’s never written a single song that shot so clearly above the rest the way “So Let’s Go! Nowhere” did for ASOB. “That’s the quintessential song,” says John DeDomenici, bassist for Bomb, Jeff solo albums, and various instruments with ASOB. “I think Bomb has records. Never the one standout song.”
It was the hit single that never was, in a time when ska wasn’t allowed to have a hit single. Even if they knew on some level that they didn’t stand a chance, ASOB gave it their all. If ska was dead, fine; they’d be the fucking zombies prepared to eat humanity alive.
Built To Fail
Arrogant Sons of Bitches formed in 1995 by Rosenstock and his friend Joe Werfelman, both 13 years old. Ska popularity was on the rise, and Long Island had an incredible scene with local bands galore. “There was a good 20 to 30 ska bands in Long Island alone,” says ASOB drummer Mike Costa, who joined in 1998. “There was this one venue in Long Island, Deja One, that would have a show every Friday. You would just go. You didn't give a fuck who was playing. Spring-heeled Jack used to play there; The Pilfers played there.” The Long Island ska scene continued to stay active through the ’90s and even into the very early part of the 2000s.
There was an ever-rotating cast of players in ASOB, and a live show like a train wreck you couldn’t tear your eyes from. The first time Costa saw the band, he recalls bassist Chris Baltrus smashing his instrument against a pillar in the venue mid-set for no reason. “It was a wild live show. I was like ‘Fuck it, I’m in,’” Costa says. “We were definitely not good. When we first started, we had no idea what we are doing.” The first two records Built to Fail (1998) and Pornocracy (2000) were sloppy, lo-fi, and full of teen-angst. The band broke up in the summer of 2000 on what was supposed to be their first 3-day tour. One of the band members’ dads rented them a Winnebago to tour in. He had them sign a contract making them financially responsible for it if they wrecked it. Some of the people in the band were so upset by this, they quit. There wasn’t enough of a band to tour with. “We just sat in the Winnebago in front of my parents’ house for a few days,” says Rosenstock.
Then the towers came down. The band was asked to play a show with World/Inferno Friendship Society, a band they loved. It seemed like a good reason as any to play together again. By that point, they missed hanging out, they’d all become better players, and Rosenstock was writing more personal, emotionally piercing songs. The band was now connecting on a new level; still with train-wreck energy, but much more in sync. “We knew what the next song was without a setlist,” Costa says. “Jeff would turn around and look at you, and I was like, ‘that song.’ We vibed off each other.”
They ventured outside of Long Island in the early 2000s and weren’t always greeted well. They were a ska-punk band playing shows primarily with punk, emo, and indie bands. The smell of anti-ska was in the air.
“When it started being a thing that people were talking shit about, and seemed to be embarrassed about, it bummed me out, because that was everything to me,” Rosenstock says. “Music is supposed to make people feel happy. If it's a good ska band, there will be some fun shit going on.” But the more ska was dissed, the harder ASOB dug in their heels.
Their stubbornness about ska created a bombastic live show even more intense than the angsty early ASOB years. As they got better, it created a platform to deal with their personal issues rather than screaming about juvenile stuff. “People would see us and wonder if someone was going to be seriously fucking hurt at the end of the show,” Rosenstock says. “Dave, our trombone player, he's smoking cigarettes, turning bright red while playing the glockenspiel as hard as he can. I’d have Christmas lights wrapped around my guitar cables, just running around everywhere and buying $100 guitars and just smashing them all over the place. People were like ‘What the fuck is this?’ I would just go into the audience and drink people's beers while we were playing because I thought it was funny. I was in a dark place in my life. I wanted somebody to fucking kick my ass. I pushed it further and further and further.”
Live And Uninvited
The group headed out to the west coast in 2003, ready to show the world the best ska show they’d ever seen. But their record label forgot to book tour dates to get home, leaving ASOB stranded on the opposite end of the country with almost no cash and a nearly maxed out credit card. Desperate to make money to get back home, they meandered over to Boise, Idaho where the Warped Tour was stationed for the day. Rosenstock contacted Arielle Bilelak from 1-800-SUICIDE “The Hopeline” and asked if they could work as volunteers. He and Turret took turns passing out suicide prevention pamphlets. When Turret wasn’t working, he looked up Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, who he’d met a few years earlier when his other band Sprout played the festival. He asked Lyman if ASOB could play in the parking lot and sell a couple CDs. ASOB even had a generator and speakers ready to go for a parking lot show. Lyman told him to knock themselves out, but that they “didn’t hear it from him.” The band printed out flyers that read “Performing Live and Uninvited On the 2003 Vans Warped Tour” and prepared for their first Warped Tour show.
In the early evening, Dropkick Murphys, or it might have been AFI, were on the main stage and pulled off mid-set due to a tornado warning. The audience was told to go home and find somewhere safe. In the parking lot, ASOB blasted through “So Let’s Go! Nowhere” as people streamed from the event and ran for their cars.
“We were jumping off of shit, stealing people's hats, running around and being a really intense punk band in a tornado. We had a really good time,” Rosenstock says. The next day they received offers to play at multiple tents inside the festival, including the Subway tent and the Backseat Conception Tent (friends of Turret’s, who were making a movie called Punk Rock Holocaust…Rosenstock and Turret both had a small part in the movie). They continued to play Warped Tour for a few weeks as official uninvited guests, even getting to play on a real stage a few times to fill in for bands that dropped off.
Eventually ASOB needed to stop back home to return the trailer they’d been borrowing from Big D and The Kids Table. When they returned, they discovered they’d been disinvited. Other bands had been reading ASOB’s blog, which detailed how they snuck into the Warped Tour, and now were trying to do the same. Their Warped Tour stint was over.
In the heavy touring years of 2003 and 2004, a division formed in the band related to how they should deal with money. It grew more divided, the more they toured. Trombonist Dave Renz and Turret focused on keeping the band financially sustainable by investing a lot of money into merchandise. They even purchased a new trailer because they had so many shirts.
The whole thing got on Rosenstock’s nerves. “The reason I started going to punk shows was because I didn’t want to go to the fucking mall,” Rosenstock said in Bomb The Music Industry! documentary Never Get Tired. The problem might’ve been solved if they’d had label support, but no one was interested in signing a ska band. “People didn’t want a band with an obscene name that played ska with horns,” says Turret. So, Renz and Turret pushed hard to sustain tours through heavy merch sales. Since the shows were so small, they were going into debt rather than making their money back.
While the band was in Stockton, California, disagreements boiled over and a fight ensued. Rosenstock said he didn’t want to dump the $1,000 they’d made from tour into buying more merch. He wanted to use it to record music. They hadn’t released a new album in ages. But other members didn’t see how it was possible to continue touring without getting more merch. The two sides were firm in their position. They had a long, uncomfortable drive home.
Once home, they played two shows at Mr. Beery’s and advertised it as “Last show?” They couldn’t totally break up because they were in so much debt. They owed $2,000 to Turret’s Home Depot credit card for the trailer, and over $2,000 to screen printer Tommy Rockstar, who fronted them merch, as well as $3,500 they’d ran up on Rosenstock’s credit card. ASOB played roughly ten shows over the next year to pay off their debts, and three more shows in 2006 to celebrate the release of their final album.
During this time, creative energy was slowly diverted elsewhere. In 2004, just after the final tour, Rosenstock began working on his new project, Bomb The Music Industry!, a band that went so far in the other direction, they gave all their music away for free. If anybody wanted a Bomb The Music Industry! shirt, the members would spray-paint the band’s name on their shirt free of charge. Turret started to play solo under his name. Other members joined Bomb with Rosenstock. Renz left music and went back to school. “I was thankful that we weren't doomed to self-destruct and burn our lives out on this band,” Rosenstock says.
Album Minus Band
Bomb the Music Industry! incorporated a broader range of musical influences than the primarily ska-core sound of Arrogant Sons of Bitches. In the early 2000s, as Rosenstock’s songwriting improved, he was recording better demos. He’d always heard songs in their complete form and demoed them on Cakewalk using MIDI. In college he used a computer compatible with real instruments to record demos that sounded even closer to the songs as he imagined them.
Rosenstock began recording full Bomb the Music Industry! albums on his own. Since he wasn’t writing for a band, he could create non-stop, unrelated changes in the songs, and layer them with ridiculous amounts of instruments and vocals if he so desired (And often did!) Songs were mixed with synth-pop, ska, drum machines, and sad piano noodling, then abruptly into noisy, distorted acoustic guitars with gang vocals galore. Styles that didn’t belong together were mashed into one song. “I didn't have to worry about how we are going to do this live because I thought we were never going to do it live. I think that let it expand naturally,” Rosenstock says. He released his first record, Album Minus Band in 2005.
Bomb did eventually become a live band, initially with people coming and going as a “collective,” and then a solid lineup. Ska always remained a component, even as Rosenstock broadened his influences. On the group’s brilliant Scrambles record from 2009, occasional ska parts wedged in nicely between scatterbrain synth sections and carousal punk breakdowns; entirely spontaneous and done when no one was playing ska on their albums. “It's like putting the section of music that isn't popular, no one wants, and you're not good at because you don't do it, but here it is,” DeDomenici explains.
Some amount of ska appeared on every Bomb The Music Industry! record, except for 2011’s Vacation, the group’s final album, a much more straight-forward indie-punk release. Regardless, Rosenstock never forgot his headstrong commitment from those ASOB days to proudly represent ska. If anyone wanted to call Bomb a ska band, he encouraged it, even when it wasn’t true. “The last Bomb record [Vacation], it’s ska. There’s no ska on that record. That's fine. You can call it that if you want to,” Rosenstock says. “You can't shake it no matter what. I don't think it's something you should shake.”
In 2011, Bomb the Music Industry! went on tour with The Slackers. The Bomb members felt like big awkward losers compared to how cool and laid back The Slackers seemed. Bomb decided to prepare a ska song for all The Slackers’ fans, but it had to be a Pavement song the audience no doubt would hate. “What's the most annoying thing we can do? Let's cover a song that these people probably don't want to hear because they think Pavement is Pitchfork bullshit and let's make it a traditional ska song so that anybody that does like Pavement is like, this is ska bullshit,” Rosenstock says. The song they chose was “Gold Soundz.” They got ready for the animosity to roll in. Instead, everyone loved it, because, duh, ska sounds good even when it’s Pavement. The Slackers and Bomb became good friends, because The Slackers are not as cool as they let on. They’re punk weirdos, too.
Three Cheers For Disappointment
Back in Arrogant Sons of Bitches' earlier years, they wrote two songs about ska. The first one, “Go Ska,” mocked all the bands hopping on the ska bandwagon in ’97. (“Shaved off my Mohawk. I got a bald head and a tattoo that says ‘I'll skank till I'm dead’”) In the early 2000s, they released its spiritual sequel, “Abandon Ship,” about everyone running for the hills to distance themselves from ska. (“Trade in this uncool punk/ska, make it rock with horns. The kids don't like it, it’s not Limp Bizkit.”)
“Go Ska” became popular in the Napster years. Kids who knew nothing about ska dipped their feet in the waters by searching the word “Ska.” As guilty as ska bands were with over-using ska-puns in their band names, there weren’t many ska songs with the word “Ska” in the title. ASOB had “Go Ska.” I Voted For Kodos had “She Hates Ska.” There wasn’t a whole lot besides that.
It’s a shame it wasn’t “Abandon Ship” that everyone found and downloaded, because if there’s a single song that summarized how the band stuck up for ska, this was it. “I was frustrated seeing people in our vibrant ska/punk scene in Long Island—which got me through my teenage years and helped me feel less alone in my depression—start turning their backs on ska/punk. As if it was a blemish on their reputation to play upstrokes,” says Rosenstock. They weren’t necessarily saying they alone were the ones holding the ska flag. It was more of a fuck you to the bands playing watered down punk, and switching their horns for synths, just to look cool.
Three Cheers for Disappointment was released in 2006. It was ASOB’s third and best full-length. It took several years and multiple attempts to get right. The band broke up before they could enjoy its success. It stands as one of the best ska-punk albums from the 2000s. At the first of three release shows, Rosenstock wore a shirt that said “ASOB Broke Up.” For most of ASOB’s life, they struggled to find a fanbase. They were finally able to pack local venues, but now it was a drag to be in the band. Signing posters after the final release show, when they just wanted to hang out, curbed any urge to keep things going.
A few months later, booked at the Knoxville Ska Weekend but uninterested in performing, Bomb The Music Industry! took to the stage instead, with Turret joining the band for 3 final ASOB songs at the end. They passed out notes saying, “The role of The Arrogant Sons Of Bitches Will Be Played By Bomb The Music Industry!”
ASOB booked two reunion shows in September 2007, which sold out. They closed with an extra-long version of “That’s What Friends Are For,” while the sound guy yelled at them and DeDomenici drunkenly fell off the stage. “Yeah, that seems about right,” Rosenstock wrote on a Punknews post wrap-up of the show.
In 2012, the group decided to play another reunion show, one they’d take more seriously. The show they booked at New York’s Warsaw (1,000 capacity) sold out in less than 24 hours. In shock, they added two more shows. One at Webster Hall in Manhattan and another at Heirloom Arts in Connecticut. This crazy out-of-time, out-of-place ska band meant a lot to so many people. The band members didn’t know how to wrap their minds around any of this, other than to try to soak in how many people they affected by waving the ska flag so proudly.
Those final shows in 2012 were incredible, but a far cry from the scrappy, desperate shows of the old days. “A real ASOB show is a tiny room with about 100 kids, screaming their lungs out, and sweating on each other while skanking,” says Turret. “I love it, and I’ll always remember it.”
Q&A WITH AARON CARNES
BV: You have a long history playing in ska bands like Gnarboots and Flat Planet, and you contributed to the new Omnigone album (and forgive me if I'm missing anything). For those unfamiliar with your work, could you talk about how you first got into ska, and give a little background on how you went from fan to the writer and musician you are today?
Aaron: I started Flat Planet in 1991 when I was a sophomore in high school. We were really into The Police, Rush, and Pink Floyd. Our singer sounded exactly like Geddy Lee and wrote really dramatic songs about being lost at sea or about being trapped inside a prison cell. We had a song called “Intwidamayla.” I don’t even know what that means! A year later, I saw Skankin’ Pickle. The music was fun, chaotic, weird, but also anti-racist. They had props, costumes, and were stage-diving into the crowd every five minutes. It was game over for me. I was a ska fanatic. When our singer quit in 1993, we reassembled and went full-on ska. During the next few years, we released one tape (La Venganza Del Muerte), got a song on Misfits Of Ska II, got a couple of others on Bay Area Ska, and went on three DIY tours. We recorded a full length but imploded before it could be released. Then in 2010, I started writing for Metro, San Jose’s weekly newspaper. From there, I built up a career as a freelance music journalist. I was struck by how little my industry gave a shit about ska. At the same time, I noticed that every sub-sub-genre of alternative music was getting large nostalgic books written. In 2013, I decided I wanted to write about Skankin’ Pickle and these other ska bands I loved. It was a difficult task because a complete oral history of ska is literally impossible. In 2018, after interviewing several bands, I decided that the best way to assemble a ska book was to address the elephant in the room: Everyone makes fun of ska, but most people don’t know much about it apart from their fuzzy memories of the couple of zany bands that landed on MTV. This concept gave me the freedom to cherry-pick the bands I wanted to cover, write opinion pieces and theme-oriented chapters, highlight all the ways the genre is misunderstood, and to squeeze in a few Flat Planet stories.
Your book's called 'In Defense of Ska.' In your opinion, why does ska need defending?
There was a time when science fiction was treated as nothing but trashy, mindless pulp. Meanwhile, writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Harlan Ellison were writing some of the most thought-provoking literature of their time. The problem was that everyone pointed to the worst examples of sci-fi as indicative of the genre. Ska has gotten a similar rap. Every jab depicting ska bands as suburban white dorks comes from a place of ignorance, with almost no concept of its history, culture, and the diversity of bands that fall under the ska banner. Leftover Crack wrote some of the most vicious anti-cop songs ever. The 2 Tone ska bands told nazis to fuck off while defiantly showcasing multi-culturalism on British stages as the country’s growing far-right movement pushed to make Britain a white nation. Even Reel Big Fish who are often held up as the quintessential example of meaningless ska wrote incredibly depressing songs buried under upbeat melodies. Now, every single TV show has a ska joke, but it’s always that some character has a secret, humiliating ska past. This joke only works if you barely understand ska. The truth is it was an awesome scene. It’s still a great scene. No one should be embarrassed by their ska past.
What do you most hope people gain from reading your book?
I hope that regardless of what people think of ska, they’ll learn to appreciate it, and understand that it deserves more than just jokes about awkward dudes in fedoras. At the very least, I hope people learn enough about ska to mock it more accurately. I interviewed Hard Times editor Eric Navarro, a fellow ska fanatic. He told me that he gets lots of pitches for ska articles, but says no to most because they play on surface tropes, like the music all sounds the same or that ska bands have a million members in their group. It’s annoying that people want to make the same three bad jokes about ska but are only aware of like four ska bands. I’d love to see fans, critics, and media publications allow ska to stand alongside other genres like alt-rock, indie-folk, hip-hop, doom-metal, and neo-soul. Even back when ska was “mainstream” in the ’90s, it was still dismissed by serious music people. But a lot of people loved ska. I don’t see why everyone has to pretend it’s a guilty pleasure. There’s so much more room for it to evolve, especially if more musicians see it as a worthy genre to experiment with. It would be rad if weirdo chiptune electro-kids follow 100 gecs’ lead with “Stupid Horse” and stretch ska’s boundaries even further.
Obviously, you went into the book with a ton of knowledge, but what's something surprising you learned about ska during this process?
I always knew there were ska bands everywhere, but just to see how vibrant the music is globally was pretty shocking. I flew down to Oaxaca, Mexico in 2019 to see one of their ska festivals. 8,000 people showed up to see bands from Mexico, Columbia, Spain, and Puerto Rico. And I was told this was a small gathering. The big ones attract 25,000 people. What’s strange is that even in Mexico, where ska tends to be political and speak for the poor and underprivileged, the music still gets made fun of. Many of the rock, hip-hop, and pop acts look down at ska as uncultured “ghetto” music. The lesson is, wherever you go, ska is both popular and mocked. It’s because ska is earnest music, which is an easy target for cynical people.
We're debuting part of your chapter on Jeff Rosenstock's old band Arrogant Sons of Bitches, in which you also praise Jeff's band Bomb the Music Industry! as well as his more recent solo career. What is it about Jeff's songwriting that you most love?
Jeff is one of the best working songwriters right now. I’ve listened to “***BNB” a thousand times, and I still can’t get enough. I’m amazed that on every record, he seems to capture the anxiety of the moment. No Dream sounds to me like Jeff contending with the uncomfortable reality that our entire system and institutions are collapsing, but he’s still trying to find joy and grace in the moment. I can relate. I first heard Jeff’s music when my friend Bob played Bomb The Music Industry!’s Scrambles in my car. I was cracking up when he showed me “Stuff That I like.” There was this ska section awkwardly wedged into the verse. This is 2009. Non-ska bands weren’t playing ska verses alongside punk, electronic, folk, etc. Just Jeff. That got me fascinated with him. I later went backward and fell in love with Arrogant Sons of Bitches’ Three Cheers For Disappointment record, particularly the song “So Let’s Go! Nowhere.” What a catchy song of unfiltered misery. How can you not sing-along to “Everything is always falling apart!”
Ska seems to be having a resurgence right now. As someone who's followed the genre for a long time, have you felt an increased amount of excitement for it lately?
When I started interviewing people for my book in 2013, there was very little interest in ska aside from the hardcore fans, which is still a significant group. A few years ago, I noticed a huge uptick in ’90s ska nostalgia, due to fans connecting online. Taylor Morden then came out with the excellent documentary Pick It Up! Ska in the ’90s, which perfectly captured the era, and got people even more excited. At the same time, over the past decade, there’s been a new wave of young ska artists that have reclaimed the music for their generation. Jeremy Hunter is an important voice in this movement. Their Skatune Network YouTube channel has been a huge beacon for people to either give ska another chance or to hear it for the first time. I can’t imagine anyone watching their videos and not immediately falling in love with ska. And now, they’re releasing original music and it’s killer! These new bands are creating excitement among kids that aren’t aware of how much people made fun of ska back in the day. They don’t even care if it’s popular or not. To them, it’s DIY music. And they’re right. That’s where ska belongs.
What are some new (past ten years or so) ska bands you've been digging?
Is it a conflict of interest to say that the Omnigone record is amazing? Also, Mike Park has released some of his best music in the past decade as Bruce Lee Band and The Chinkees. “Where’s The Call” is such a good song. I have to mention Jeremy’s project, JER, again. I can’t wait for the full-length next year. We Are The Union, Kill Lincoln, Delirians, Steady 45s, Catbite, Los Skagaleros, The Talks, Night Gaunts, Popes of Chillitown. Fake News is a great anarcho-punk ska band out of Portland. My friend Mike keeps texting me videos of this Austrian ska band Russkaja, who is incredible.
Omnigone song that Aaron plays drums on (and pretends to play trombone on in the video):
Top three favorite ska bands of all time?
You got to have The Skatalites and Desmond Dekker in there. The Specials and The Selecter are two of the greatest bands of all time. Fishbone and Operation Ivy are unparalleled American bands, regardless of genre. If we're talking strictly ’90s ska bands, I would go with Skankin’ Pickle, MU330, and Hepcat.
Anything else you'd like to add about the book or ska in general?
One main point I was trying to make was that ska was never just a ’90s trend, as many people think it is. It had a huge cult audience before MTV took an interest, and it continued to have one after it supposedly died in 2000. There’s still a big audience for the music. If everyone stopped thinking of ska in terms of “waves” and just saw it as a hugely popular form of music that exists outside of popular culture, then everyone would have a much more accurate view of ska. People love it, no matter how much other people make fun of it. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Pre-order Aaron's book In Defense of Ska from Clash Books. Here's the full front cover (photo taken at 924 Gilman):