Jeff Rosenstock is punk rock’s golden boy
by Luke Ottenhof
November 30, 2016
The man who Bombed the Music Industry is coming to terms with his place within it.
Photo Credit: Andy Johnson
Jeff Rosenstock is punk rock’s golden boy. He cut his teeth and rose to popularity in DIY bands like Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb The Music Industry!, both of which enjoyed status as cult favourites. BTMI eventually grew to operate essentially as a collective; Rosenstock wanted to make playing in the band accessible to anyone who had the desire to be a part of it. He affectionately dubbed the group, “ska music for smart people or indie rock for dumbasses.”
Still, they captured hearts across America, so naturally when Rosenstock announced he’d be putting out solo material with Los Angeles indie-punk darling SideOneDummy Records, his fans went nuts. The presale for his first release with the label, last year’s LP We Cool?, crashed SideOneDummy’s website. The entire fucking website.
“People like different shit. Trust me, I’ve been in bands that most people have not liked for a very long time”
Rosenstock is back at home in Brooklyn after a draining tour cycle (objectively as well as contextually, given the election’s climax mid-way through the tour), and he doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of dude whose rabid fans crashed a record label’s website:
“I wanna fuckin’ run down the street with no shirt on screaming at the top of my lungs throwing water balloons everywhere,” is how he summarized his attitude on recording his new record, Worry. Tell me the world doesn’t need more Jeff Rosenstock.
“I don’t wanna walk out there nicely dressed with a new haircut and a suit. I think we all wanted to let our freak flags fly on this one.”
Rosenstock’s sincerity and enthusiasm are matchless, almost childlike in how unfiltered and vivid they are. He doesn’t moderate according to standards of coolness; he is sensibility and restraint unbuttoned. He is the flabs of fun and kindness and honesty hanging over a tensed leather belt, winking at you as if to say, “you could be having this much fun too, motherfucker.” And yet, he sidesteps any attempt to essentialize or label what he’s doing.
“The word authenticity is so strange because it’s like branding,” he explains, asserting the importance of honesty over some ideal of ‘authenticity.’ “If there’s honesty, and it’s not doing something because someone told [you] to do something, I think that’s the music I’m generally attracted to.
“People like different shit. Trust me, I’ve been in bands that most people have not liked for a very long time. There are things that [I’ve made where] I’m like, ‘This is fucking sick,’ and then the record comes out, and people are like, ‘Your voice is garbage!’”
“I feel like some of that’s still good. BREAKING NEWS: people like different things.”
He discusses what makes music good or bad like it’s an ethical dilemma (and arguably, it is), and for now, he’s trying a new, more benevolent approach. “That’s something that I’ve tried to realize the past few years. Maybe nothing is really bad. Maybe it’s just not for you. Like, even some 14-year old’s shitty demo, you might not want to listen to that because it doesn’t sound good to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. For that 14-year old it’s fucking awesome.”
Rosenstock is so empathetic that he will consider liking music simply because someone else likes it. It is staggeringly warm and inspiring, and an attitude to learn from.
But don’t mistake that for a lowering of the threshold on what he puts out. Worry. is chock-full of the kind of indictments of consumerism, police brutality, and gentrification that stifle the everyday lives of most North Americans. On “Festival Song,” he scraps with the oppressive onslaught of advertising and commercialism in modern festival culture, enraged with “department store crust-punk-chic” churned out for “an easy demographic in sweatshop denim jackets.”
Turns out, he wrote most of the song at a festival: “[I was] surrounded by ads for this clothing company Century 21, they sell…” he trails off, grasping for how to describe how milquetoast the store is, before finding the right anecdote, “I bought the collared shirt for my wedding at Century 21,” he laughs. “But they have these crust punk-y kind of things, but like fashion crust punk, with all these big billboards around a lot of bands that I really like, and there were drones filming the whole thing, it’s like, ‘fuck man, I feel conflicted right now! I’m gonna write a song!’”
The song is as much a rip on this culture as it is on himself; it’s an acknowledgment of his participation in that scene, a confession of sorts. “I think that what’s important is to remember that you’re part of it. Even if you’re thinking that you’re not part of it, you are part of it. In most situations, there is some ad somewhere that’s trying to sell you something. If you leave your fucking house that is going to happen.”
He pauses for a breather, then, half-chuckling: “Man, modern times are fucked up. Whenever I talk about it, I feel like a weirdo with a tinfoil hat on but it’s true. This is shit that is really happening.”
He’s still trying to suss out his relationship with it; after all, he is on a record label. He’s not an exclusively independent artist anymore. “It’s just a matter of trying to not be complicit in that system,” he asserts. The issue of SLC Punk comes up, and that ever-arguable quote: “We can do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than outside of it.”
“I grapple with that a bunch,” he remarks. “I’m always like, ‘Nah, do that damage from the outside,’ but I don’t know what’s true.”
“I read a quote from Joe Strummer once, and he said, ‘Every dollar that you spend is a vote,’ and the way things are, that’s true,” he continues. “You get to decide who gets to stay on top by every dollar you spend. It’s a bummer, but the thing is, if you’re in the system you can try and divert your participation in the system towards positive things.”
That’s exactly what Rosenstock is doing. When he signed with SideOneDummy, he made sure he could still release his records for free online via his own donation-based label, Quote Unquote Records. The good folks at SideOneDummy were happy to oblige. After all, it’s a principle Rosenstock’s been practicing since the first Bomb The Music Industry! record. Rosenstock was just hoping people would “learn the lyrics, listen to the songs, and then [they] might come see us play.”
“It was honestly just as simple as, I just wanted to let anybody who did not have the money to buy our record be able to hear my music.” Years ago, he was worried about people being slapped with fines for downloading his music via filesharing sites like LimeWire or Kazaa; now, he doesn’t want people to have to deal with “pop up ads on top of pop up ads on top of pop up ads.”
“I just want people to be able to listen to music if they don’t have money. That’s what music is for, that’s what art is for. Art is for everybody. It’s to comfort people who can’t afford to go and buy a fuckin’ big TV. Once it worked out nicely doing it that way [and] didn’t fuck up my entire life to do it, it was like, ‘Okay, I’m always gonna do this.’”
Putting your work out for free is a pretty fucking radical thing for a musician to do. Being a musician is a notoriously ruthless career path, and one typically fraught with financial distress; imagine a painter giving away their art for free. But it’s part of Rosenstock’s advocacy as an artist and human being, and it doesn’t end there. He’s long been an outspoken supporter of safety and inclusive spaces, particularly at his shows. Just a few weeks ago, he posted a note across his social media that aimed to curb instances of assault and harassment at his shows. For him, it’s second-nature to use his platform to speak loud and speak often.
“I feel moved to do that stuff, I kind of can’t not do that stuff,” he explains. “I would not be able to just sit there and not talk about that, cause it breaks my heart when it happens, and I wanna try to make it not happen.”
“It happens at every fucking show. I feel like it’s important to say it so that everybody as shows knows that it’s happening. I feel like if more bands spoke about it, it would happen less, and I hope more bands do speak about it as time goes on.”
Politics aren’t at the top of his agenda; basic human decency is. “We’re not fucking Propaghandi,” he asserts. “It’s not like I was like, ‘I should write a political record.’ I was trying to not write specifically about, ‘I’m a depressed guy, here’s 12 more songs about how I’m a depressed guy.’”
Meanwhile, all these sentiments are packed into glorious power-pop tracks with runtimes that rarely push three minutes. Their brevity only further accentuates how intricate and monumental they are; that Rosenstock can punch speaker-breaking fuzz, chiming glockenspiel, pulsing synths, and raw gang vocals onto a two-minute dance-punk ripper. It’s pretty fairly summed up by the man himself: “lush and orchestral, but also really nasty.”
“I was trying to make songs that were crazy poppy, and then like the poppier they were, I wanted them to sound weird and fucked up, and then the more weird and fucked up, I wanted them to sound kind of lush and orchestral, and then the more they were doing that, I wanted them to sound like they were on fire and the tape was breaking.”
That’s what everyone wants in their record, right?
“It was kind of like, ‘alright man, we can either try and make this polished thing, or we can make a record that’s punk as fuck and crazy loud and try everything we possibly can, and with lyrics [that] are super anti-corporate and anti-consumer culture,’” he articulates.
It’s obvious which way they went, and we’re all the better for it, with the most important, prescient and exciting punk record of the year from one of the most kind and sincere voices in music.
In the same breath as the punk-rock jack-of-all-trades talks about how mangled he wanted his new record to sound, he talks about adoring how rundown and weird Hollywood is. He speaks about how much he loves his label mates Smith Street Band, AJJ and Allison Weiss before explaining the toll the murder of Eric Garner took on him. It’s bliss with no ignorance. He’s jubilant and miserable in the same stroke, and that dual existence is what he brings to light.
“Every song on that record, you wanted there to be one point where you’re just like, ‘wait, is something fucked up with my record?’” He’s explaining the approach that Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss took when Sleater-Kinney went into the studio with Dave Fridmann to record The Woods.
“I just think that’s such a cool idea, to try and encourage those ideas that take the listener out of whatever they usually get when they listen to a record. It’s cool to fuck with the form a little bit.”