Never Get Tired: the BTMI Story
Memory is a fallible thing. We often forget our innocuous first encounters with people or things which don’t immediately appear significant to our lives. I’ll admit I’m particularly terrible on this front – I don’t remember when I met some of my best friends, although I’d put money on “over a beer, somewhere” – but I’m fairly confident that I first heard Bomb The Music Industry! in 2007, around the time that their fourth/fifth album Get Warmer was released. I liked the album a lot; it oozed inventiveness and personality.
Over the subsequent years Bomb! grew to mean a lot to me. The man at the core of this unique musical project, Jeff Rosenstock, even came to feel like a familiar figure; someone I felt understand me, or would if we met, in the manner that many young people, heavily invested in music, sometimes feel. I was never the most cheerful teenager or 20-something but I had a penchant for lively punk music which I often describe as “articulating how shit modern life is, then saying fuck it, let’s party anyway”.
So it came to be that in 2010 I threw a few dollars into a Kickstarter project to create a documentary based on the band. The funds were required to follow the band on tour, adding live and road footage to the already-captured interviews of various present and past Bomb! members.
(A little later that year I saw a full-band version of Bomb! on tour, met Sara Crow, the director/producer behind the documentary, and put Bomb! up at my flat one night when it turned out they had nowhere to stay. Since it was December in Brighton, everyone got drenched walking there and we ran the dryer all night, and since I was drunk, I went out and bought a few crates of beer to party with my favourite band, rather than organising some food for them. I am the worst. Don’t be like me: feed your favourite bands.)
Very little news on the documentary came through for some time, but after the band’s dissolution was officially announced in 2012 a second Kickstarter was launched. This time, funds were required for post-production, in order to complete the film.
Since I’m writing this in 2017 you may be thinking I had doubts that the film would ever be finished. You’d be correct: I’d honestly kinda given up. Six and a bit years is a long time to wait. It’s difficult to be mean-spirited about a passion project, though, given that the first Kickstarter essentially funded buying one camera and travel for one tour, and subsequent to that tour Sara spent over a year and a half shooting more footage. But passion projects fall through all the time, and I thought Never Get Tired was to be one of them. Happily I was proven wrong, as the film was released online in December 2016, just after Christmas.
That’s a lengthy pre-amble to talking about a documentary. If you’ve stuck with me this far, I hope you appreciate two things: that Bomb the Music Industry! was one of those bands that made an indelible impression on and was very important for a lot of people, myself included, and that it feels to me like this documentary exists against the odds, which you can think of as a metaphor for Bomb the Music Industry! itself.
Never Get Tired impresses partly because it is able to articulate a narrative and present footage in support of it. To an extent this is a byproduct of how trivial it is to document modern life in film thanks to smartphones and mass production. Still, most credit lies with director/producer Sara Crow. The film was originally envisioned as a diary of Bomb!’s 2010 European tour, but subsequently the decision was made to produce a more expansive documentary. This occurred again when Bomb The Music Industry! began talking about playing their final show in 2014. And this is what we see, beginning with the band that brought Jeff together with various long-term musical collaborators, ska-punkers The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, running through to Jeff’s post-Bomb! work as a solo artist.
An inescapably vital part of the Bomb The Music Industry! story lies in its ethics. These are substantially inspired by Fugazi and Ian Mackaye’s uncompromising efforts to create music and play for audiences in a framework detached from the exploitative commercial practices of the music industry, and the World/Inferno Friendship Society’s comparable ethics and laissez-faire approach to the band’s line-up (apocryphally, it tends to be whoever is resident in the band’s anarcho household at the time). Bomb The Music Industry! began with a simple promise: they would not play shows that cost more than $10, and they would not play shows that were not all ages. “I don’t know when music means more to you than when you’re a fucking teenager,” says Jeff, “and for me it was the only thing I had to comfort me, and the only thing I had to look forward to.”
This position was further reflected in the decision to release the band’s music for free via the internet, and to eschew the merchandising which had proven divisive enough to lead the Arrogant Sons of Bitches to split some years earlier. Bomb! shows did not have traditional merch stalls: they had Jeff and friends burning CDs and spray-painting tshirts fans had brought to shows.
In parallel to Bomb The Music Industry!’s assertive stance, Jeff founded independent record label Quote Unquote Records in 2006. Billed as “The First Ever Donation Based Record Label” it didn’t invent the concept of pay what you want but it was demonstrably ahead of the trend, preceding the albums which made the model famous: Radiohead’s In Rainbows (2007) and Nine Inch Nails Ghosts (2008). Neither Radiohead nor Nine Inch Nails continued to experiment with this model, but Quote Unquote Records is still going strong over ten years later. “The donations that come in are not huge, but since we don’t spend that much money they pile up” Jeff explains.
It’s always problematic to celebrate the DIY ethic, particularly in the heavily politicised subcultures of punk rock. Younger bands with younger members may be happy enough to lose money on tours or barely break even, but time inevitably takes its toll and eventually people who want to continue making music realise they need to work out how to pay the bills and feed themselves. This is even assuming a band is able to self-fund their tours, recording and other sundry costs in the first place. Rosenstock appears sanguine about such contradictions and Bomb The Music Industry!’s collective personality is made fairly clear in “a brief yet detailed history of cashing in”.
Never Get Tired accurately captures Jeff Rosenstock the musician, warts and all. Footage of Rosenstock recording vocal lines for Scrambles represents this well. I should note that Bomb the Music Industry! is a band a lot of my friends struggle with because they aren’t keen on rough singers, or less generously are simply accustomed to the modern trend of autotuning everything. That’s fine: these are aesthetic choices. But where these Scrambles vocals are being recorded, when Jeff is belting out lines into the mic, they don’t necessarily sound good. Then it’s played back alongside the composite track that’s being assembled, and bam: it sounds great. Jeff himself references something like this in the song ‘Vocal Coach’ on final album Vacation: “Oh, I get so embarrassed when my voice pops out and it’s not like in my head.”
Jeff’s vocal style ties in with what I think he enjoys about playing live, which is the excitement and the abandon of enjoying the moment. He bounces around stages, shifts his attention continually, drops the end of lines as he drops his chin to focus on his guitar, thrusts the mic into the audience, constantly driving a feedback loop between performer and audience. The speed of his playing and singing is often breakneck, particularly live, and sometimes feels intentionally designed to be that little bit faster than is comfortable. This energy and this desire to push himself infuses Bomb the Music Industry!’s music, and it’s evident in a great deal of this film’s footage – including the latter segment of the film, which focuses on Jeff stepping out into a solo career.
Rosenstock is also a brilliant musician. This is brought home in a fantastic interview segment where J. T. Turret, the Arrogant Sons of Bitches’ keyboardist, is discussing songwriting. “I asked Jeff one time, ‘how come we don’t write songs all as a band’, and he said to me ‘when you think of a song, what do you think of? A lyric, a melody?’ I said, ‘yeah usually it starts like that.’ He said ‘I think of everything. When I start writing a song I’m already hearing drum parts, horn parts, keyboard parts, arrangements, vocal phrasing in my head.” This holistic genius is evident throughout Bomb the Music Industry!’s back catalogue.
Memory is a fallible thing. Whatever it is that we hold in our heads and hearts twists and is reformed, through the passage of time, producing a distorted reflection of the original experience. Film and documentary don’t change this – they too are distorted reflections of their subjects – and reviews can only be still further corrupted. What you are reading cannot be a review; I am far too close to film and subject.
Still, as someone who holds this band dear in their heart, and probably will do forever, Never Get Tired is a superb film that manages to encapsulate much of what made Bomb the Music Industry! so unique, so affecting, and so memorable.
[Never Get Tired: The Bomb The Music Industry Story by No Future Films can be watched online at VHX. See also Quote Unquote Records. The header image was nicked from the Vice website; they did a nice article on Bomb! when the band announced it was splitting up, if you want to read more.]