Author, Survivor, Activist, Musician... Rob Rufus, drummer for Blacklist Royals and The Bad Signs, opens up to us about his new book, how punk rock helped save his life, and the punk rock chicks he digs.
My favorite punk rockers are the ones with a good story. We all have shit in our lives we've had to deal with, and frankly, I appreciate people who have a little baggage. But not everyone is able tell their story in a way that is both relatable and inspiring. In Rob's new book, Die Young With Me, he does just that and more. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to throw up; this book is not for the faint of heart. It's a punk rock story that grabs your soul and doesn't let go.
I was so touched after reading the book that I reached out to Rob to let him know how much the book meant to me. Then, it hit me. I wanted to interview Rob about his book and encourage all Mable Syndrome followers to read it too. (To read the full interview, click here) I'd been feeling a little jaded on punkers lately, but after spending an hour talking to one of the most humble and down-to-earth punk rockers on the planet, my world feels like its been turned back on its proper axis, and my faith in punk is restored.
Die Young With Me
Rob’s book, Die Young With Me, is 50% love story, 50% cancer survival, and 100% punk. (I know that doesn’t add up) It's about a punk kid growing up in "Shitsville, USA," starting a band with his brother and friends and pining for the hot cheerleader. Pretty much every one of us can relate to that. But, just as Rob lands the cute girl and his band is offered dates to perform on the Warped Tour, Rob is diagnosed with cancer at 17 years old and his life is thrown into a tailspin.
Die Young With Me sheds humor on the darkest of days. It's a page-turner that will leave you begging for more. I highly recommend that everyone read this book, and then pass it along to another friend who will enjoy it.
I was nervous and excited to talk with Rob, so while I was waiting for our call, I decided to kill some time on Facebook. Serendipitously, the first thing that popped up was a post in a punk group I follow. A dude posted a picture of himself decked out in a NOFX tank and pajama pants with a goofy grin and thumbs up in a hospital room. “When you go to the hospital and unexpectedly get diagnosed with cancer, at least you have your nofx tank and pajama pants on,” the post read. I called Rob and had to immediately tell him about what I just saw. The timing was too weird. “Wow, man. That’s horrible,” he said.
And he should know. Rob’s been to hell and back and lives to tell the story... thankfully. Despite a couple brutal go-rounds with cancer, he beat that shit into the ground, and he is cancer free today. It took throwing up on his drum kit, coughing repeatedly in the face of a pretty girl, and being minimized by doctors before finally getting the diagnosis that would forever change his world. He lost a lung, parts of some organs and he’ll have to deal with life-long pain, but he’s alive, and that is more than many people expected.
When talking with Rob, I ended up forgetting to ask most of my "cancer" questions. It wasn't intentional, but the dude is just so damn up-beat and nice, I was having too much fun talking about other stuff (like punk rock, obviously!) to have to switch gears and talk about something so awful. I can't imagine how hard it must be for him now to have to relive that cancer nightmare over and over, first when writing the book, and now when doing press for its release. So, our conversation didn't dwell on his past when he was sick, and the hell he endured. I read about it. I feel like I went through it along side him. Now I am more interested to learn about where the book leaves off and where he's at these days.
"It wasn’t fair to me either, motherfucker, that’s life"
Rob and his editors had a bit of a disagreement about how his new book, Die Young With Me, should end. Should he wrap it all up in a pretty little bow and leave the reader feeling happy about life and its struggles? Like, shucks, life is hard, but if you wait it out, it all turns out okay in the end. No. It doesn’t, actually. And, Rob does an amazing job in this book of keeping things real. From the grim, and often disgusting, go-rounds with cancer, to a love story with no tidy ending. People aren’t one-dimensional, and neither is this book. But humans are always hoping for a happy ending, and while you won’t get one with Rob’s book, perhaps the fact that he lives to write his story is a happy ending in and of itself.
One of the things left open-ended in the book is his relationship with Ali, his high school girlfriend. I wanted to know more about where that relationship is at these days and how she feels about being a major part of his book. "Ali, I don’t know, it was a mixed response," he says. "It’s a weird feeling because I’m writing about real people...(and) it directly affects their lives. I’m good at not giving a shit, but with someone like her it's different." I don't know Ali, but I think Rob probably portrays her fairly in the book. Their teenage love story is typical in some ways (feeling tongue-tied around a pretty girl with freckles) and atypical in others (dancing in a hospital room rather than at the prom). And Rob explains one of the reasons why the relationship ended, "most teenage relationships end up that way. In retrospect, any stressful situation like that, most adult relationships can’t survive, let alone two fucked up kids."
Still, I'm curious about how much of Rob's heart is still taken up by Ali. Everyone holds a special place for our first love, but the recent song released by Rob's band, Blacklist Royals, Righteous Child, is obviously about her, and he mentions, both in the book and in the song, about a picture of Ali tacked up on the wall above his bed. So I push him and ask him if his relationship with her affects his current dating life. "Nobody has said anything to me about it. But, I definitely think that if I had been in a relationship when the book came out, there may have been some animosity. I keep that picture up, as more of a reminder of how fragile my existence is and to not take anything for granted, and anybody that’s upset about someone who helped me through a tough time has their priorities misconstrued." True. And, I'm sure Rob doesn't have any trouble with the ladies. He's seriously adorable and sweet.
More like...Blacklist Loyals
Throughout the book, Rob certainly provides credit where credit is due. His mom slept, ate and showered at the hospital for weeks at a time to stay by his side during the grueling cancer surgeries and treatments. His dad provides some comic relief in the form of taking Rob to his first strip club. His twin brother, Nat, is so fucking loyal to Rob that their current band should be called Blacklist Loyals. He doesn’t give himself nearly enough credit, though his own strength and determination are prevalent throughout the book.
When Rob and Nat first created their current band, Blacklist Royals, it was Vinnie Fiorello of Less Than Jake who signed them to his label, Paper and Plastick. And it was Vinnie who suggested that Rob and Nat start writing songs about their own lives. "If he hadn't encouraged that, I wouldn’t have gotten a book deal. I hold him in the highest regard." I ask Rob if Vinnie knows about this. "I think so; I sent him a copy of the book. I think he knows. He’s a cool guy. I’m getting all weepy eyed. I could wax poetic all day about that kind of shit. If I have the chance to tell somebody how much I appreciate what they do and the impact they made on me, I’ll do it."
Punk rock memories
Everyone remembers the first time they heard punk music. For me, it was Green Day in 1993. Eventually, I had a collection of punk tapes, and I also had an identity. I was different, but it was okay. I was angry, but that too was okay. I had an outlet. I was punk.
Rob tells a similar story in Die Young With Me about hearing Pennywise in his cousin's basement and feeling that spark we can all relate to. I literally remember the first time I heard Unknown Road in my friend's car, and reading about another fan's journey with punk made me feel like we are in a weird sort of family who just gets it. Punk weaves its way through the book, and all the stories feel like they are being told by your best friend.
As I’ve been meeting punk rock musicians who have been around for a while , I’ve been getting the feeling lately that they are just dialing it in. It’s like they’ve “grown up” and don’t really dig punk music any more, but hey, it pays the bills. (And, I certainly can’t blame them for that!). So I was stoked when I asked Rob about all the “old” bands he mentions in his book and he says he still digs them. He just went to Chicago for the Misfits reunion, and he took a day off his last tour to check out Rancid and H2O. Refreshing.
Rad Punk Chicks
I ask Rob who his favorite punk rock girl is and he has several answers (always a plus!). He and Nat recently started another band, called The Bad Signs, in which an awesome lady named Samantha shares singing duties with Nat. Even though she isn't "punk rock", she's rad, and Rob appreciates working with a female. Additionally, he cites Poison Ivy from The Cramps, Dancehall Crashers and No More.
Die Young With Me leaves the door open for a second book but a continuation of the first book is not in the plans. Rob is currently writing a semi-fictional account of his grandmother's days as a go-go dancer and groupie, which sounds amazing. It seems Rob has caught the writing bug and we can't wait to see what's next. Blacklist Royals are playing at The Fest this year, and we hope they tour some more in 2017. The Bad Signs have a gig on Halloween eve that, if we were in Nashville, we would definitely attend.
Pay it Forward
I’ve read Rob's book twice now and typically I would get rid of it. I like to pass the good ones along to other people. I’m at a purging stage of my life; get rid of the excess. So, I decided to send Die Young With Me to the guy in the NOFX group who was recently diagnosed with cancer. He will love it. So I track down his address and am about to ship my book, but I can’t do it. This book means too much to me. It’s not a ‘read and enjoy’ kind of book; it’s a life-changer kind of book. So, I actually want to hold on to it. I logged on to Amazon and bought the book for the dude. It will arrive to his hospital room tomorrow. I hope it makes him laugh and cry at the same time. He may not feel well enough to read it, and I totally get that. But I do hope that he does someday.
K- Have you done an interview with anyone who’s read your book yet? Is that weird? I know you, you don’t know me.
R Yeah, finally, first most the interviews I did, no one had read it, which was weird. Now, they at least know what its about and
I prefer that though. I guess because then I can talk to somebody and not just do a book synopsis of my own life. I was excited to do the interview for your site. I thought the site is really cool. I was surprised the book didn’t get much coverage on punk sites because I always like to do stuff with punk sites.
K- Thanks! You’ve written music, but writing a book seems like a big leap.
R. Yeah, as with most first-time writers, it took me like 5 years. No one really took me seriously so I never really talked about it and that might be because I’m a song-writer, because I’d never go, 'guys, I’m writing a song and it’s going to be bad ass.' They’d be like “we don’t care,” so I kind of focused on getting it done and had to teach myself to write in the process. I’ve always been a big reader, an avid fucking reader. That made me realize that what I was doing sucked until it wasn’t so bad and then it was actually okay. So, yeah, it is a leap, but it’s a very isolating thing I just kind of did it and no one knew until I got a book deal.
K- Did you write songs when you were younger?
R- Not really, I don’t think I started writing songs until I was in my early 20’s and now it’s about 50-50 and we (Nat and I) kind of co-write them together. But before I didn’t have any interest in writing songs. I learned how to play guitar, like three chords, which is enough for anyone who likes the kind of music we like to learn a song and then I was like, okay, I like writing songs.
K- Did you write poetry or journal?
R- No, I never wrote poetry and I hate journaling. Like, when I started writing, I read books about writing process like by Stephen King, and everyone says to journal. But that was when we were touring a lot and I tried journaling and to document it, but it felt like homework, you know, so I’m better at nostalgia than the now. It’s more fun to write when you’re looking at it through rose tinted glasses.
K- I read somewhere that the book was initially more Blacklist Royals and then switched to your earlier days?
R- Yeah, initially I envisioned the book to be in two halves, and I thought what became the book to be the first part of it and for it to jump 5 years later and it being about my life on the road, but I’m sort of long winded, and the first manuscript was 900 pages, just what became the book, without the second part. It was fucking insane. This has to be its own thing, and maybe I will decide to write a “road” book, later, if anyone cares. So I just focused on that. And, when I started it too, I hadn’t thought about any of those experiences in such a long time, I kind of made it a point not to, so once I started revisiting it it kind of took on a life of its own and I realized it was a much more powerful story to tell. My editor, was like, this can’t be the end of the book. And, I was like, yeah, that’s the end.
K- Life’s not always a happy ending
R- Yeah, the only big change they tried to make was…originally it didn’t have an after-part, it just fucking ended and they were like, 'Rob, this isn’t fair to the reader,' and I was like, 'It wasn’t fair to me either, motherfucker, that’s life.' But the Afterword was our compromise.
K- I can see you wanting to end it where you wanted to end it, but as a reader I really appreciated knowing that stuff (the Afterword).
R- Yeah, I’m glad that they made me write that, and I like it now, actually. I had originally written a forward and the last line of the forward ended up being the last line of the afterward because they took the forward out. I’m glad to hear that because as a reader, its good to get some closure.
K- Yeah, but you do leave the door open for a second book and I think you mentioned that you’re working on another book.
R- Yeah, but it’s actually not about Blacklist Royals or anything like that, but I’m still playing around with how to do it. I have so many road tour stories, but, at the same time, I kind of set a tone with Die Young With Me, that I've gotten positive feedback from people who are going through similar things and that need that, and part of me is tentative to do a tour book about sex drugs and rock and roll.
K- How do you do that without giving away everyone’s secrets?
R- (laugh) Yeah, names will be changed. The great thing about that is that anything I did I can just change the name too, so I can be the ultimate innocent forever (laugh). I’m kind of trying to figure out; I’m waiting for the dust to settle from DYWM, because it would be such a different tone, different side of my life, because when we started touring all the time it was a really good way for me to not think about who I was when DYWM came out because I was in a different town every day with different people and I never had to tell anyone I had cancer, and never had to talk about any of that, so it was very escapist for me. Finally writing about it, I got back in touch with who I was before; writing is a much less self-destructive outlet.
The book I’m working on right now is about my grandmother. It’s partly fictional, but my grandmother was a go-go dancer and renowned groupie, she fucking still brags about all the musicians she fucked. She knows Boots Randolph… the local sports blooper reel.. she fucked that guy. So the book I’m writing now is about her. She told me all this stuff. She wouldn’t care. She would say, “that must be why you guys are musicians,” because she fucked a random guy in 1960.
K- Maybe your grandfather is Mick Jagger?
R- You know what’s scary, I never met my granddad. I’m going to get this record now and show you, we were joking about Boots Randolph guy, my cousin Anthony and I were joking, saying, what if Boots Randolph is our real granddad, and I was looking at pictures, hold on. (goes to find album) …so, tell me this doesn’t look exactly like my brother? (both laugh) So, I show it to my dad, and he’s like 'oh my fucking god.' Now, she swears he’s not my granddad, but I could have some royalty money coming in from sports bloopers reels.
K- So, were there parts of the book you took out?
R- Yeah, there were parts I had to take out because the publishers were like , there’s a part about a doctor and they said 'you can’t put this guys name in here,' so I sent the next edit in with a pseudoname, which was Adolph Fuckface.
K- That’s in the book!
R- I thought they took it out!
K- No, it’s in there!
R- Oh, that’s cool! I didn’t take a lot out, but when I got the first galley copy after the last edit, it was 6 months to a year later, so there were parts I softened a little bit.
K- Did you let your mom, dad, or Nat read it first?
R- No, I didn’t let anyone read it until I had copies of it.
R- Yeah. I got my galley copy about 6 months ago, and I gave a copy to Nat, my parents and Ali, and for the most part they were all stoked. I’m way too insecure. Constructive criticism... I hate those words, there’s no such thing. I'm the same way with music, I need validation. Once I had a publisher and a copy of the book I finally gave it to them. The worst conversation I had to have with anyone in my book was my friend who’s in it, Tyson. He called me and after he read it he said 'I book-marked certain parts that are so lame, there’s no way you wrote this, because you sound like such a pussy.' I was like, 'I’m not doing this.' He would read me a line and be like, 'that’s so cheesy, that’s so lame, did you seriously write that?' And the sad thing is, when he was reading it back to me, I was like,' that is cheesy'. Man, it was brutal. That’s what friends are for.
K- So, you had good responses from your parents, and Nat and Ali?
R- Nat and my parents, yeah. Ali, I don’t know, it was a mixed response. That whole thing is weird. So many of my friends still live in Huntington, WV and she just moved back there, just very recently, and it’s a weird feeling because I’m writing about real people, so what do I owe them? What ownership do they have over what I do because it directly affects their lives. I’m good at not giving a shit, but with someone like her its different.
K- I couldn’t tell through the whole thing if I was rooting for you guys, or never wanted you to talk to her again.
R- Yeah, (laugh) most teenage relationships end up that way. In retrospect, any stressful situation like that, most adult relationships can’t survive, let alone two fucked up kids. You know what I mean? So I tried to humanize everyone. I’m not going to white-wash the situation; I don’t see any value in that.
K- Is that picture still up on your wall, above your bed (referenced in the book, and in the song, Righteous Child)?
R- Yeah! Wait, I’ll show it to you. (shows me) It’s not only for dramatic effect.
K- If you don’t want to talk about it that's fine, but I'm curious, you basically wrote this love novel to this girl, how is that going to impact your dating life now? (laugh) Are you dating anyone now?
R- No, not really.
K- That’s going to be a hard conversation.
R- If I date really immature girls, maybe, but I would hope that they can kind of vibe to who I really am through reading that, good or bad. If they are jealous of someone I dated in high school they probably have different issues. But, saying that, I'm not a jealous person, but I am retroactively jealous. I’m more jealous about something that happened 10 years ago than if you are out with a guy right now. I’ve been seeing a girl, but nobody has said anything to me about it. But, I definitely think that if I had been in a relationship when the book came out, there may have been some animosity. I think that would be crazy.
K- I guess it’s just more the timing, like the album, the song, Righteous Child, and the book, and the picture on the wall, it’s like, woah.
R- Yeah, I keep that picture up, as more of a reminder… it has nothing to do with her at all, it’s a reminder of how fragile my existence is and to not take anything for granted, and anybody that’s upset about someone who helped me through a tough time they have their priorities misconstrued. It is what it is, it’s not something I plan on thinking about. It’s more of an artistic thing. I don’t know…. if you were in a relationship with someone who saved your life.
K- It’s like being jealous of your mom because she was helping you through that tough time. Speaking of your mom, she seems pretty bad ass.
R- She’s funny, she’s cool. She’ll be happy to hear that you said that. A few years ago she went to a Bruce Springsteen concert and he pulled her onstage and danced with her and kissed her on the lips and it was like a life-changing thing; it was like his essence went from his lips to her body and it was like she got it instantly. She was down with us being musicians. She goes to shows, dresses in skinny jeans with band t-shirts and a hat. She’s a trip.
K- Trever (from Face to Face) put our a single for you guys.
R- Yeah, Nat does a lot of art work, graphic design for him still. Trever moved to Nashville for a while, and we met, and I used to do screenprinting and he was trying to get some shirts made and they just happen to be one of my favorite bands. They are so fucking rad. Trever is cool as fuck, but yeah, he sees Nat as more of an apprentice relationship, but with me, my jokes always bomb with him. He’s really adult, he’s like a fucking grown-up. He uses words like inundated in songs. Who does that? (laughs) I would never in a million years.
K- Their protection album is really good.
R- Yeah, it is! Nat got a copy when he was doing the album work, and he was like, 'dude, its really good.'
K- Do you still listen to all that stuff? Rancid, Pennywise...
R- Yeah, my musical tastes have definitely broadened, but we just flew up to see the Misfits reunion, and we’re playing the Fest in FL and we’re going to go down a day early to see Pennywise, and we just took a day off tour to see Rancid and H2O. Those bands have a special place in my heart. Nat just went to DC to see Descendents. We are the old dudes at the show. At the Misfits show I was like 'we’re getting up front, I don’t give a fuck,' but it was one of the scariest moment of my life. I thought I was going to die. I was two seconds away from jumping on Nat’s back. It was as if the mutant from every small town came to this one fucking show, and this chick broke her ankle and we were trying to get her out but everyone was like 'fuck you bitch,' and threw her down. It was stressful. It almost ruined the whole show. I’m too old for that shit, and I have one lung.
K- So your part in the book about Pennywise, I got goosebumps…
R- Yeah, it was amazing….. (pause) but... this is kind of a bummer, but my editor edited Jim's book, Punk Rock Dad, so he sent him a copy of the book, but he got three pages in and I’m talking about hearing Unknown Road as a kid and it’s bad in the best way, and he was like, “Why would you send me this shit? This kid thinks I can’t sing?” And he was like, “You have to read it in context, it’s not saying that at all.” But we got no response. Isn’t that a bummer?
K- Yeah, I get it. I just wrote this blog about meeting your idols, and it’s hard because it can either go good or very bad. A good memory can be changed in an instant.
R- When I was sick it was really Fletcher who had such a big impact on me and I’ve talked to him a few times since. I just saw Fletcher at the Misfits reunion and I wasn’t going to go up to this dude when he’s drunk and tell him about the book and have him be an ass. It would bum me out. Even though Nat just did that to Nada Surf, but they were nice.
K- I struggle with that all the time, because you want to tell them how much they mean to you, and punk got you through hard times and it got me through some really hard times too, and I just want to tell them that. In fact, I’m a big LTJ fan and Vinnie is rad. You mentioned that he was one of the first people who said you should write a book.
R- Yeah, it wasn’t that I should write a book so much, as BLR first album came out on his label, Paper and Plastick and I remember having conversations with him where he was like 'why don’t you guys write songs about your own life? Your lives are more interesting than the generic rock n roll songs we were writing.' But, once we started doing that it was a game changer. If he wouldn’t have encouraged that, I wouldn’t have gotten a book deal. I hold him in the highest regard.
K- Have you told him that?
R- I think so. I sent him a copy of the book. I think he knows. He’s a cool guy. I’m getting all weepy eyed. I could wax poetic all day about that kind of shit. If I have the chance to tell somebody how much I appreciate what they do and the impact they made on me, I’ll do it. I feel like it makes someone uncomfortable sometimes. It’s like giving someone a compliment in day to day life and they act all weird. These people are up on stage, you do this for a reason, and one compliment you start acting like a mental case.
K- Even though I’ve had some weird experiences with it, I’m still going to do it. I’m not going to be crazy about it, but I’m just going to do it. And, in life too, you need to tell people how much you care about them and what they mean to you.
R- I really try to do that. I, like, you, I regret not having the guts to tell people what impact they have on me, even if they are weird about it.
K- Tell me about The Bad Signs, your new band.
R-Bad Signs is kind of like The Cramps meets the oldies; it's a band that Nat and I started about a year and half ago. We kind of always wanted to. I grew up listening to oldies, it’s like one step away from punk music, it’s real simple and hook driven, and I love female singers, I always wanted to have a band with a female singer. Samantha, I met her, she works at a honkeytonk on downtown Broadway. And I remember going to a show and there was a girl before her, basically wearing lingerie and everyone was crowded around her to the stage, and then Samantha went on wearing a full body denim suit and the crowd dispersed and I was like 'this girl is fucking amazing.' She’s so different from Nat and I . She’s so talented. She’s never been in a band with rock n roll people. But for better or worse, I see the differences to her fronting a band and how people react to her day to day. And that sucks, but it’s cool for her because she’s kind of alter-ego, wearing black. She’s a lot of fun, and she can act crazy but Nat and I are such sticks in the mud; I’m too shy. It’s been a cool thing for us to do, we just had a single come out a week ago, we’re going to start touring soon.
Blacklist isn’t touring right now for various reasons, once I got my book deal everybody who didn’t take us seriously but worked for the band came out of the woodwork and demanded a cut of the book money so just on general principal I’d rather not do anything with Blacklist. Our manager, who didn’t care that I was writing a book, called Nat and said, 'I feel like I’m entitled to a percentage of this book advance…' That’s the thing about the publishing industry is that everyone is so fucking nice. (More than music?) Oh god, yeah. The contracts are a page long; they're not trying to fuck you over, they respect you as an artist. I use the term victim-blaming for the music industry because managers and record labels, any success you have with your art is from the help of everyone else, but any failure is always your fault. And, it’s fucked. Managing relationships are like bad romantic relationships that when you get out you’re like, 'why did it take me so long?'
K- Sounds like you need a new manager for BLR
R- Oh yeah, our manager is long gone. Once people started saying that kind of stuff. I’ve done more on my own, more than any of them have done for me. I feel more like a teenager now than I have for the past 10 years, reconnecting with who I used to be made me go, I’m not taking shit from anyone about anything, especially someone like that, a scumbag leaching off what you’re doing. I’m happy doing my own thing, We have a Bad Signs full length almost done. And a new Blacklist album half written, but we’re just waiting. I don’t know what we’re going to do with it. I don't want to do a disservice to the book or myself. The book kind of capped off. We’re trying to figure it out. But I'm looking forward to the Fest.
K- Who is your favorite punk rock chick?
Dancehall Crashers, and Poison Ivy from The Cramps, she’s a badass. I love Poison Ivy more and more as I grow up. The guts. I always hated that there weren’t more females in bands. Being in a band with a female is so much better; it’s so much fun. As an adult, seeing a band like The Cramps, it’s the ultimate 'fuck you', if she’s going to be sexualized, she’s going to over-sexualize herself to the point of making other people uncomfortable. I wear a Cramps shirt, 'the smell of female', but people look at it, like, 'oh my god.' Women playing music, it must be such a weird thing. It’s like you’re at a plus and a deficit at the same time. If you’re good looking you’re at an advantage, but they may take you less serious as an artists. They may think you’re cheapening your art. Actually, my favorite punk chick is Jen, from No More, a Gainesville band. Jen sings and is a songwriter. Heather from Teen Idols is the most punk rock girl; she’s so talented, the best songwriter. Teen Idols was a band when Blacklist started to get traction, and I didn’t understand why people didn’t take their band more seriously. Maybe because she wasn’t the right kind of girl to market? But she plays in No More now with Jen. You'd like her.