Rocks Off Interview Series: Jake Szufnarowski

bill bodkin gets his rocks off …

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The most interesting man alive is not that dude in the Dos Equis commercials. Sure, he has an awesome beard, but seriously he only drinks Dos Equis? That’s pretty lame.

No, the most interesting man alive, in this writer’s opinion, is a rock ‘n’ roll concert promoter with a multisyllabic last name.

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Jake Szufnarowski (pronounced Zuff-ner-ow-skee) isn’t just the purveyor of sweet concerts throughout New York City, he’s also been the frontman of an international touring heavy metal Bee Gees tribute band, he’s an ordained rock ‘n’ roll reverend, a certified New York City tour guide, the host of a popular podcast, a man who’s hung in hot tubs in Cannes with Kid Rock, a dude you can see zipping around the city on his hot pink Ducati motorcycle, a guy who wore glitter and daisy dukes to The Gathering of the Juggalos, and the owner of one of the most unique back tattoos — a full blown recreation of himself as a half-man, half-motorcycle amidst the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic New York City skyline.

But this is just the type of the iceberg when it comes to Jake Szufnarowski. Follow him on Facebook or on his blog and you’ll see he’s constantly on the go, living life to the fullest, experiencing things most would dare dream of and as he says, “probably always having more fun than you.”

Yet, this isn’t a selfish, bucket list kind of lifestyle that Jake lives — he takes this spirit of adventure, of only living once, of what’s the worst that could happen and he applies it to his business — the concert promotion company Rocks Off.

For Jake, Rocks Off isn’t simply a concert promotion company — it’s an experience-oriented company. The idea of making a concert not just a simple ‘pay your ticket, see the band’ process came from his seven years of working at the famed concert venue The Wetlands from 1994-2001.

Alabama Shakes on a Rocks Off Concert Cruise, Feb. 2013. Photo by Deneka Peniston. [depeniston.phanfare.com]
Alabama Shakes on a Rocks Off Concert Cruise, Feb. 2013. Photo by Deneka Peniston. [depeniston.phanfare.com]

“People are paying to see a band but it’s the venue that sets the tone for the evening. It’s the bartenders, the security guards, it’s the music you’re playing, it’s the lighting throughout the room. What people know they’re paying for is to see the band but what they don’t know they’re paying for is to come into an environment that’s welcoming and [for us to] make sure they have a good time.

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I think there are a lot of people that still don’t understand that. A lot of the rooms I go into I make sure the tone is set. [At one venue] I would argue with them all the time about this and I’d have to come to the shows with an iPod with a pre-made playlist because the sound guys would just play what they liked. So you’d have a punk band getting ready to play and the [sound] guy would be playing hip-hop or folk music or indie rock just because that’s what he felt like listening to. Then you’re like ‘Wait a minute, that’s not how you make money and sell drinks and set people at ease.’ People are going to drink more if you’re playing better [or genre appropriate] music … they might not notice it. People will notice if something’s wrong, like say if there’s a bright bulb in the corner, someone’s going to ask why there’s a bright bulb in the corner. But if the lighting is right, no one’s going to say ‘Oh they paid attention to the light’ but they’ll say, ‘Oh man this room feels awesome, I’m feeling cool and relaxing and am having a good time.’

And when you think about Rocks Off’s most popular concert series — The Rocks Off Concert Cruises, experience is the first thing that comes to mind. Think about it — imagine catching The Bouncing Souls, M.I.A, Dick Dale or The Alabama Shakes in an intimate setting? Sounds cool right? Well make that intimate setting a boat that’s cruising the Hudson or East River … a boat that has a full bar. Sign us up for that.

Jake and David Allen Coe
Jake and David Allen Coe

“[In regards to the show] It’s automatically special because it’s on a boat but people didn’t think it was at first. I encountered a lot of adversity from people and a lot of booking agents and managers told me people don’t want to see a band on a boat and I still get that today. There’s a lot of agents and managers that don’t take us seriously but we have a lot more that do, I mean we put on over 100 shows a year. There’s certain agencies that won’t talk to us — they don’t want to consider anything outside of the ordinary. It’s pretty easy to make the boat special…but I still make sure we have the right music playing, the lights are set right, I’ve trained the bartenders on how to interact with our fans.

I also had to train the boat owners too. I had to convince them not rake people over the price of drinks. Sure, you could charge them whatever because you’re on the water and they’ve got no place to go but they’re not going to be happy about it and maybe they won’t come back. If someone comes to the boat with $30 — you can sell four drinks for $30 or five drinks for $30. It’s not costing you anything to do that. But for them they’re going to buy that extra beer, they’re going to leave and have a much better time. They might not even realize it but they’re going to get off the boat and be a little drunker and might’ve had the courage to hit on a girl and perhaps she gives them her number because they had a little more to spend and they all got a little more drunk. The feeling they’ll have the next morning will be ‘I had a great fucking time last night I wanna do it again!’ and not ‘It was alright but the drinks were expensive and I didn’t get a good buzz with the money I spent.'”

We weren't joking about Kid Rock
We weren’t joking about Kid Rock

And it’s going outside of the box and providing awesome fan experiences that’s allowed for 13 years of boat cruises and shows through Rocks Off. The Alabama Shakes want to do a small show between the Grammys and their SNL performance? They call Rocks Off for an impromptu (and sold-out) Valentine’s Day boat show this year. Outlaw country singer David Allen Coe doesn’t want to step foot in NYC to perform and has refused to do so for decades? Why not have him perform in NYC on a boat so he never has to set foot in the city itself. Insane Clown Posse wants a cool venue to do a meet and greet with their juggalos? Put ’em on the boat!

From these wild and crazy shows to concerts featuring tribute bands, cover bands, punk, country, indie, ska, reggae, hardcore, metal and classic rock artists, Rocks Off armada of awesomeness provides

But as you can imagine, when it comes to the mind of Jake Szufnarowski, Rocks Off just doesn’t simply stop with boat concerts or concerts promoted at venues ranging from Terminal 5 (they’re promoting the upcoming Rancid shows) to The Brooklyn Bowl, they do so much more.

For example, there’s the Rocks Off Concert Express which came out of frustration that Jake and company experienced while trying to see The Scorpions in New Jersey a few summers ago.

“I went to see The Scorpions at PNC [Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J.] with three friends and we had to rent a zip car because there’s no public transport to get from Manhattan to there. With the mileage and time and the toll it was almost $200. We payed $50 a person for transport and that’s not terrible but we couldn’t drink in the car, one of us had to say sober the whole night. I thought to myself, ‘Man I’d go to a lot more concerts if there was some sort of service.’

So bus services were called and after the promise of multiple rentals — The Rocks Off Concert Express was born.

“You can’t take a train directly to Jones Beach or PNC and if there was not everyone on that train is going to the concert you’re going to. With us, the moment you get on the bus it’s party time till the moment you get off. You have a place to leave your shit now, you can bring your cooler, leave your purse, whatever you wanna bring, because the bus drivers are watching them for you.”

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The same can be said about the development of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Walking Tours he and John Joseph of the legendary Cro Mags give throughout the year.

“I’ve always been a New York City history buff. I wanted to start doing these tours myself and then I read the end of John Joseph’s autobiography Evolution of a Cro-Magnon. He said how much the East Village has changed and he sees people walking down the street with Starbucks cups and he wants to grab them and say ‘Let me tell you what this city used to be like’ and he wanted to start these punk rock tours. So I freaked out and called him and we decided to launch it together and they’ve become really successful. We don’t do them as much as we could or should, but when I first started doing it I got burnt out and I just started making stuff up to amuse myself. So now we do it less and we keep it fresh for ourselves.”

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Then there’s the first ever Rocks Off Film Festival being held this summer.

“The Rocks Off Film Festival came about as a result of me being bored. We have been dabbling in showing films for the past few years, always music centric ones, and found we had success doing that. We found this gloriously dumpy theater in the East Village, which is mostly used for off-off-off broadway shows, and I just thought, maybe we should do a weekend of films by and about musicians. Have we ever done a film festival before? Nope. But how hard can it be? What’s the worst that could happen?”

And somehow, someway despite all these business ventures Jake maintains a healthy lifestyle of traveling the world from a weekend in Germany to running a marathon in Fargo, North Dakota to getting brand new ink (including his new ‘hash-tat’) to racing bike through the city and through the scenic landscapes of New York.

Jake Szufnarowski is a walking adventure novel, a true renaissance man wrapped in a CM Punk t-shirt and garnished with a tattoo dolphin having sex with a unicorn in front of a rainbow. Simply put, he’s the most interesting man in the world and he doesn’t need a beer to help him prove it … although he probably wouldn’t mind having one or two with you to regale you with his latest fantastical story.

Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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