Bomb the Music Industry!’s ‘Vacation’ turns 10 – a milestone for Jeff Rosenstock and DIY indie-punk
For Jeff Rosenstock, "Bomb the Music Industry!" was more than just a clever name. After his excellent ska-punk band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches had burnt out in the mid 2000s, Jeff was left with boundless creativity but no interest in the business aspect that was commonplace in music, especially at a time when a major label feeding frenzy was still sweeping punk. So he started BTMI!, which was originally a bedroom solo project (hence the name of his 2005 debut album, Album Minus Band), but which blossomed into a collective of musicians who could co-exist without the same pressures of band life that caused ASOB to implode. The fiercely DIY collective gave away their music for free, and spray-painted their band name on shirts free of charge for anyone who wanted a BTMI tee. For vinyl releases, they eventually linked up with the likeminded Mike Park and his label Asian Man Records (whose Twitter bio is "I hate the music biz but love music").
BTMI! retained elements of ASOB's ska-punk, but they also introduced synthpop, power pop, folk music, indie rock, hardcore, and whatever else they felt like doing into their truly chaotic (and virtually unparalleled) sound. They did everything on their own terms, and existed in opposition to both the Alternative Press punk world and the Pitchfork indie rock world, but not in a way that was overly bitter or combative. Punk and indie rock might've theoretically been places for the misfits and the outsiders and the freaks, but Bomb the Music Industry! shows were a haven for the people that liked this music but felt out of place even in those worlds. BTMI! seemed to exist entirely outside of the punk and indie rock "mainstreams," but their uncompromising DIY ethos and positive/accepting attitude earned them a truly diehard fanbase. A lot of those diehard fans eventually started bands of their own, and many of those bands became part of the DIY scene that blossomed in the 2010s. "DIY" as we know it in 2021 isn't following in the footsteps of Ian MacKaye so much as it's following in the footsteps of Jeff Rosenstock. BTMI!'s approach to home recording, internet accessibility, and genre fluidity, as well as the judgement-free vibe of their shows, can be seen all throughout today's DIY scene. And it would be impossible to talk about Jeff's own ethos without talking about the impact of ska, a historically anti-racist form of music and one that Jeff and his bandmates took seriously when almost no one would. It makes sense that the DIY scene that Jeff inspired is finally starting to embrace ska, and in a real full-circle moment, now that Jeff has become one of the most critically acclaimed rock musicians in the world, he's gotten back in touch with ska too.
Every BTMI! album had some amount of ska on it, except Vacation, which turns 10 today, but the aura of ska music and the ska scene still informed that album. "The last Bomb record [Vacation], it’s ska," Jeff told Aaron Carnes for his new book In Defense of Ska, before adding, "There’s no ska on that record." He elaborates, "You can't shake it no matter what. I don't think it's something you should shake."
Vacation was Bomb's last album, but in many ways, it marked a new beginning for Jeff's career. Jeff became an acclaimed musician in the indie rock world once he started releasing music under his own name, but his indie-punk era didn't begin with his solo albums, it began on Vacation. The album featured contributions from members of Fake Problems, AJJ, The Sidekicks, and Good Luck, all of whom also left their mark on the DIY scene of the past decade, and as Jeff told Noisey in 2015, Vacation marked the moment where Jeff fully embraced the indie-punk world that he's now at the forefront of, rather than trying to fit in with the Dillinger Four/Hot Water Music scene that he initially saw BTMI! as part of. "Once I realized that we were orbiting punk in our own weird way, along with bands like Andrew Jackson Jihad and Good Luck and Laura Stevenson and the Cans and The Sidekicks, where we just kind of made records and weren’t thinking about if they were punk or indie or whatever, we were just making records. That made this record have a bit of a different tone. I got the courage to say, 'Fuck it, I’m going to make the record that I want to make.'"
Making the record he wanted to make paid off. Vacation may not be the definitive Bomb record for longtime fans, but it's the one whose influence looms largest over the last decade of DIY, punk, and indie rock. Its production is humble and scrappy, but it's as ambitious as any rock opera. And it starts out kind of sounding like one. The climactic opener "Campaign For A Better Weekend" begins with just Jeff quietly sighing his words over a piano, like a scene from a musical, and it eventually explodes into a gang vocal punk coda. It segues seamlessly into "Vocal Coach," a revved-up take on Blue Album-era Weezer that's peppered with all kinds of bells and synths and tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation. From the one-two punch alone, the album feels like a kindred spirit of the previous year's The Monitor by Titus Andronicus, who actually opened one of BTMI!'s Vacation shows, but for whatever reason, Vacation was largely ignored by the same publications that showered The Monitor with praise. It wasn't really until Jeff released his sophomore solo album WORRY., whose side B song cycle was modeled after The Clash's London Calling and The Beach Boys' Smile, that critics outside of punk-specific publications began to take notice on a wider scale. And the ever-changing, multi-genre approach of WORRY. was not at all unlike the one Jeff had taken on Vacation.
Throughout Vacation, Bomb the Music Industry! usually fall somewhere between indie rock and punk, never fully committing to either one, and they also flirt with Beach Boys-y ballads, campfire folk singalongs, arena rock, chiptune, and more, all in the way that only Jeff Rosenstock could. As he's done since the ASOB days, Jeff often seems like he's trying to squeeze as many words into each line as possible, but he also knows when to balance out all the chaos with a bare-bones interlude, and when to give in to his pop instincts and burst into a super catchy chorus. The album -- which was made by a total of 23 musicians -- is fleshed out with strings, horns, keyboards, glockenspiel, harmonica, pedal steel, with arrangements that owe more to Jeff's love of Neutral Milk Hotel than to his punk and ska background. And as he's done all throughout his career, Jeff put just as much thought into his lyrics as he did into the complex arrangements, coming out with songs that are genuinely purposeful. For an album as communal and upbeat as Vacation often is, the words are frequently personal, lonely, and depressed. Still, Vacation always feels like it's bursting with hope and optimism, like it's saying, no matter how bad things seem, there's still reason to feel joy.
As Bomb the Music Industry!'s final album, Vacation was one hell of a note to go out on, but it's opened so many doors for both Jeff and the DIY scene overall that it's hard to see it as the "end" of anything. Its influence has grown each year, and it still feels like we're only just beginning to see how large this album's impact is. It also hasn't aged a bit. Vacation could come out today as Jeff's latest album, and the uninitiated would probably never suspect it was written a decade ago.